London, Day 3: Another year older, in the p.m.

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I emerged from Hyde Park near Knightsbridge, on my way to Harrod’s. I don’t actually care much for Harrod’s itself, but some souvenir (and food) shopping was in order. I later learned that the al Fayed family sold the store to the Quatari royal family, which may explain the disproportionate amount of Arab visitors. I wandered through the food stalls, past exquisite pastries and tins of biscuits and jam. It’s very touristy, and was very crowded. On my way out, I caught the shoes that were part of a contest Kate Middleton judged earlier this year (or last?). Neat.

Little meat pies, or “pasties.”

Commemorative Jubilee tins.

Figs and dates.

The winning shoe.

Eric had also told me the night before that Fortnum & Mason has the best tea blends, so I made my way to Piccadilly. On the way, I walked by Mahiki, the famous nightclub favored by the young royals.

At Fortnum & Mason, which is also the Queen’s grocer, I found a tin of “birthday biscuits” — a triple selection of flavored shortbread with a wind-up music box in the bottom that plays “Happy Birthday.” How appropriate! A little bday gift to myself.

Besides tea and chocolates and tiny pastries, Fortnum & Mason displays tins of all sorts of delicacies — biscuits, tea, coffee, fudge, cakes, sardines and fois gras. It even sells a line of all-natural and organic foods produced by Highgrove, Prince Charles’s estate. On one shelf I noticed jars of “Dixie Pecans.” Ha.

As if I wasn’t feeling badly enough about my birthday number, my body also decided to remind me that I’m old — and my back pain was terrible the entire trip. I never pulled anything, thank goodness, but I did plenty of awkward stretching and leaning on street corners. Between that, keeping a hectic schedule and the lack of sleep, I was convinced I could fall apart at any moment. So I headed back to my hotel for afternoon tea.

The restaurant was just recently renovated and reopened, so the staff was very attentive and interested in how I found their offering. I actually thought the tea was very good — maybe not as special as Claridge’s or The Ritz, but also not with that price tag. (My plane seatmate Mona had actually recommended Brown’s Hotel for afternoon tea, which I didn’t know about but subsequently saw listed in guidebooks. That may be on the list for next time.)

My tea selection included the requisite egg, cucumber, salmon and ham sandwiches. One of the pastries was a “Battenberg cake,” which I had never heard of. It’s a sponge cake wrapped in marzipan — which didn’t initially excite me, since I haven’t had great impressions of marzipan in the past. But it was spectacular! It was by far my favorite — and the server brought me another piece when I complimented them on it. The marzipan was soft and not overly almondy, probably fresh, and just delicious.

Tea selection — Battenberg cake at 5 o’ clock.

After tea, I browsed through Selfridge’s department store and found a bookstore to pick up a book Eric had recommended. Called “I Never Knew That About London,” it highlights all the off the beaten path sights and stories about London. I told him I’d probably go home so loaded with London facts as to be obnoxious to all my fellow Americans — but I’m trying to hold that in check.

That evening I met Eric, his wife Jenmon, and their friends Claire and Adam, at their flat in Parsons Green for dinner and the Jubilee concert. After days of perfect, efficient Tube experiences, I did finally learn on that journey why everyone says the Tube is so unreliable. I was delayed on both of my exchanges by about 30 minutes, though I still think the Tube runs better than New York’s subway. At least they tell you when you can expect the train to come.

Eric, ever the gourmet, made us a proper English dinner of roasted lamb, yorkshire pudding, green beans and potatoes. It was quite amazing, and worlds above our Sunday roast dinner the night before. Jenmon presented an incredible chocolate pavlova, topped with whipped cream and strawberries, to finish our meal. English strawberries really do have so much more flavor than their American cousins (or wherever they’re shipped from).

It was fun to catch up with Eric and Jenmon, and to watch the concert with a crowd — thank goodness for Adam, our only native Brit, who filled us in on all the random British celebrities. Like Rolf Harris, seemingly Britain’s version Mister Rogers. He started singing one of his famous children’s songs, and all the crowd joined in. It went on and on, for like five minutes, and when the other host tried to cut him off, the crowd booed. Don’t mess with their nostalgia!

Towards the end of the concert, Stevie Wonder and congratulated the Queen on her “happy birthday!” Oops. Did you all see that in the U.S.? I’m surprised it didn’t become a media story the next day — I mean, her official “birthday” is in June, but that’s not why they were performing. Prince Charles spoke, the Queen ignited the beacon with the Jubilee jewel from the Tower, and Buckingham Palace was lit with some spectacular LED effects … well, except the one red, white and blue number that looked suspiciously like the French flag. All of my companions seemed relieved by such an impressive display, that maybe London could actually pull off the Olympics.

We waxed philosophical about the looming U.S. election, the state of the educational system and conflicts between the generations over a very important bottle of wine until the wee hours of the morning. Since the Tube wasn’t an option, Eric and Jenmon “hailed” taxis for us on one of their iPhone apps. What a cool service.

It was a fantastic birthday, one of my best yet. I got back to the hotel about 3 a.m. to grab just a few hours of sleep before the very important Jubilee day to come.


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