I returned to London for a weekend after not having visited in six years. I deliberately use the term “returned” because there are places that can embody the idea of home, even from a remove of decades and thousands of kilometers.
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London is my cultural cradle, and I miss it. It left a permanent flutter in my heart. I accumulated countless memories there that became cornerstones of my life. Not very original, I know. I could have yearned for some more exotic locale. Kamchatka, say. But London is where I have danced at some incredible underground parties, bought rare books and records, seen shows, strolled the streets and fancied myself a Londoner.
I was sure I fit right in. I toyed with the thought of one day immigrating to London. I wanted to hang a “Home Sweet Home” sign on the city. But it didn’t happen. And, honestly, it wasn’t ever going to happen. I don’t have a foreign passport, and I do have a thick Israeli accent. I grew up. I had a son. I remained here and London remained there.
Big cities around the Western world do not remain frozen in time. They are fluid. Six years is a very long time.
The streets of London are deceptive. You think everything has stayed the same, because the sidewalks are the same sidewalks, the streets are the same streets and the overcast skies are filled with the same clouds. The urban topography hasn’t changed, apart from one important difference: Suddenly, there are places to eat.
In the old days, when we were young and would come for long visits, we would eat at the Pizza Hut on Oxford Street. There was an all-you-can-eat buffet for 15 pounds, and we gorged on pizza and salads comprised of near-tasteless cherry tomatoes and wilted lettuce. Other options were fish-’n-chips with lots of vinegar, greasy Peking duck in Chinatown or Sunday roast at a pub in Camden Town. That about sums up the culinary offerings in the city at the time.
But today? Today there are restaurants everywhere you look. There are more restaurants than record stores. More restaurants than movie theaters or neighborhood pubs. More restaurants than universities or bookstores. Long known for their repulsive Marmite spread, Brits are now foodies. This is excellent news for hungry tourists, and very bad news for those for whom London was once a safe haven and paradise for young folks’ modest desires. Don’t forget, London is the birthplace of punk. Not of foie gras and black caviar.
All the proliferating eateries are the horsemen of the capitalist apocalypse. If a restaurant has just opened up near where you live in the city, it’s all over. Before you know it, your rent will be soaring and you’ll be out of there. Restaurants are a sure sign of ruthless capitalism taking over the public space. They aren’t concerned with the needs of ordinary folks. They’re aimed at the upper classes.
A restaurant is a culinary ghetto. In 2011, during the London riots, protesters looted luxury stores and broke into upscale restaurants. Today, there are many more upscale restaurants in the capital than there were at the time of the social protest. The protest is dead. The restaurants are flourishing.
London is a city of money. It always has been. As soon as you find yourself counting Michelin stars, you know that money has won out. But I’m not so young anymore and I no longer feel like sampling the Pizza Hut buffet. I arrive in London and my legs don’t carry me to the nearest record store, but to a place where I can sit down with nice dishes and cutlery.
It’s the natural order of things: In your twenties, you’re defined by your music. In your thirties, what matters is that the risotto is al dente, that everything is al dente. You travel abroad to eat in restaurants, you do meticulous research based on Instagram, so as to avoid making random choices or – heaven forfend – eating a dish that is not sublime. Everything has to be delicious. And if it’s not? Why, it’s a total catastrophe! A good reason to contemplate suicide!
So we reserved a table at The Ledbury (two Michelin stars, no. 27 on a list of the world’s top 50 restaurants). The meal was expensive and uninspiring. Devoid of passion and eros. Official food served in an official manner. The insistence on European table manners is off-putting and echoes the colonial traditions of masters and servants. It’s so anachronistic, it makes you lose your appetite.
At celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant Dinner by Heston (two Michelin stars, No. 36 on the top 50 list), we ate a marvelous and juicy roast pigeon. In Israel, it’s illegal to serve pigeon in restaurants. They’re looked upon as something akin to flying rats. Maybe because the Hebrew word for pigeon is the same as for “dove” and reminds people of the peace process.
All in all, the pursuit of Michelin-starred restaurants is a foolish, competitive and macho pastime. A child’s game for bored rich people with too much time on their hands. I’ve been guilty of it myself plenty of times, and have been tempted into spending money I don’t have. But no more. This was the last time, I mean it. On my next trip, I’m packing cans of tuna instead.
Still, we insisted on going to a nightclub, as a reminder of our earlier life. There was a party with two DJ who weren’t all that exciting. On line to get tickets, we noticed the CCTV cameras hovering above our heads. London is carpeted with cameras that watch everything. Brawny security guards with earpieces pat you down at the entrance, leaving no part of the body unchecked.
In the early 2000s, they sold you Ecstasy pills for a pound each while you waited in line to get into a club. There weren’t cameras everywhere and no security guards with earpieces. Today there are no drugs, because drugs are all about liberty and rebellion against the status quo, and London isn’t too keen on chaos and disorder. After all, there are a lot of Michelin restaurants around, and their business mustn’t be disrupted.
A girl turns to me and asks for a cigarette. I tell her I don’t have one. She says, well, anyway, you’re not allowed to smoke here. She asks me my age. “Thirty seven,” I answer. She gives me a pitying look. As if I’m an aging dog that really ought to be euthanized. She’s 22, from Bristol, studied literature and moved to the big city. I tell her I’m sick of all the CCTV cameras.
“It’s a police state,” she says. “But I was born into this. It’s all I know.” A police state is all she knows. Poor girl. And her poor generation.
In the morning, we pass by a branch of Primark, the big department store known for its low prices. On the benches by the entrance sit veiled women and their bored husbands, and kippah-clad men next to their wives in long skirts. Arabic mixes with Hebrew. More and more Arabs and Israelis enter and depart Primark, as if they’re the only customers in this giant store. They clutch brown shopping bags bursting with their purchases. They’re happy and smile at one another.
If there’s any chance for peace, it’s at Primark.