We have had quite a social time of it since we came back from our Christmas break. In January we went to a photography exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery and lunch in Chinatown with Amy and Don. Later in the month we went out for drinks with Stewart, our upstairs neighbour. Then there was Stewart's birthday party and a Waitangi Day celebration with Amy and Don. All good times.
The photography exhibit displayed winners of the annual photographic portraiture prize. Some of the photographs were standard modern art-y pictures of serious-looking drag queens and circus performers, but the ones I liked were actually real people, not what artists seem to think are real people. There were pictures of children running around at birthday parties, shopkeepers at work, and friends enjoying meals together. They were really nice. We had a great time in Chinatown, too. We consulted our London Cheap Eats guide to find a good, reasonably priced restaurant, and we were not disappointed by the food, although the service continued what is apparently a London tradition of grumpy Chinese servers. We just laughed, though, and enjoyed our dumplings.
Stewart is our new neighbour, and we introduced ourselves to him one day on the stairs. Apparently this was a very forward, American thing to do, but it's so nice to know who is living near you, and besides, the world could always use a little more friendliness. He was very friendly in turn and invited us out for a drink with him. He grew up in London and knows all sorts of out of the way places that we would never find on our own. One drink at a pub near Oxford Circus turned into a very long night out, as he took us on a tour of Soho, a really cool wine bar in Covent Garden that specialises in Port, and a theater in Highbury & Islington that turns into a bar on Saturday nights. At about 2:00 in the morning, we made our way to a kebab shop with a nice little dining room hidden behind a secret door, where we feasted on spicy lamb and cool, refreshing yogurty salad. Then we caught the night bus home and fell into bed at 4:00! We're such sophisticated urbanites these days :-)
Last weekend was Stewart's birthday, and we made an impromptu tropical feast for him on Friday, with coconut shrimp, mango salsa, black bean salad, and mojitos. On Saturday night, Andrew had to go to a Barclays dinner, but I went down to Knightsbridge with Stewart and met up with 20 of his friends for a delicious Indian meal. His friends were fantastic. They all had really interesting jobs -- lots of teachers, like Stewart himself, a television editor and her husband, a producer, people who had taken time off to travel around South America and Africa -- and they were very welcoming and interested in my opinions. I had a great time meeting them, and it didn't take much talk on their parts to convince me to go out with them after dinner. There was a vague plan to find a night club, and after walking past several with long lines -- sorry, queues -- around the block, we found one and situated ourselves upstairs. This was my first night club experience, and I must say, it was a lot of fun! There was even a minor celebrity there, some B-list soap opera actress or something. I didn't know who she was, but everyone else did. It was pretty funny to watch her; she obviously considered herself to be a big deal. It was a pretty low-key place, but they were playing a really good mix of music, and I eventually got up the courage to do a bit of dancing, which was another first. I had such a good time dancing at my cousin Amber's wedding in December that I figured, why not give it a shot in London? It started out with my usual apologising that I'm not a very good dancer, that I only know how to do ballet and Scottish highland dancing and other stuff with choreography, but then they wanted to see that, so I busted out some highland steps when The Pretenders came on. It went down a treat, and I had so much fun that I just sort of kept on dancing. I think I surprised everyone because I'm still a pretty quiet person, but hey, I surprised myself, too. It was another absurdly late night, and Stewart and I took the night bus all the way from Trafalgar Square. Phew!
Last night we went over to Amy and Don's place for dinner. Waitangi Day, which was on Wednesday, is a big national holiday in New Zealand, and they invited us over to celebrate. On Friday, Amy and I went to a couple of New Zealand import stores to find New Zealand snacks and candies and stuff that reminded her of home. We had New Zealand chips and dip, which is just like our French Onion dip, but made with reduced cream instead of sour cream. I must say, I prefer the tang of sour cream, or soured cream as it's labeled here, but chips and dried soup mix are always a welcome combo :-) For dinner we had roast lamb with cabbage and mashed kumara, a New Zealand variety of sweet potato. Then there was dessert: a beautiful pavlova, a New Zealand favourite. It's a huge, flat baked meringue covered with whipped cream, strawberries, and kiwi fruit. Everything was delicious! We really, really like those two, and we had a great time hanging out with them. We managed to catch the last train to get home with no major transport hassles, which was a relief after the difficulty we faced trying to get to their flat in the first place.
They live in West Hampstead, and we got on the train to get to the tube to get to another train to get there, but after waiting on the train in Enfield Town for about twenty minutes and being told several times that there was a technical problem, the doors suddenly shut and locked. We all thought this was weird, but then someone said, nervously, "there are a bunch of armed policemen walking through the train." Sure enough, there were four policemen with machine guns walking slowly through the train car, looking from side to side. There were no more announcements about technical problems at this point. The police moved up into the next car and everyone pressed up against the windows trying to see what was going on. By this point, about a dozen more heavily armed cops were walking up and down the platforms on both sides of us, looking down at the tracks underneath the train. I had a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, wondering if there was a bomb or something. Then Andrew saw the cops pull a couple of teenagers off the front car and search and question them on the platform. No one ever told us what had happened, but Andrew, who could hear some of what was going on, thinks there was a stabbing nearby and these two kids ran away and got on the train. The cops were looking for a weapon. It was really scary, though, because we didn't know what was going on, and it's really shocking to see guns in England. Most cops don't even have pistols, much less machine guns. Eventually they opened the doors and we went back up to the street, where everything was covered in police tape. We had to wait for the all-clear before we could leave. We were pretty shaken up, but we were perfectly safe, so off we went on a bus to a tube to another tube to a train to West Hampstead. Quite enough excitement for one evening!