Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Deal

It was a long two months.  Waking up every morning to Skype with my girlfriend, Huilan, at 5 in the morning.  It was early, but it was always worth it for her to be the first thing that I saw in the morning.  However, I became increasingly eager for the day to come when we would meet in Paris.  It became our light at the end of the tunnel as the time dragged on. 

The day finally arrived…her flight landing several hours before mine, I made my way to our AirBnB and found her as cheerful as ever with a huge smile across her face.  It was the moment that we both had been waiting for. 

I had come to the UK intent on discovering the true identity of English ales, but in so doing, I was putting Huilan through some less than ideal circumstances.  She handled it better than I could have ever hoped for, and I was thrilled that we could spend the time together in Europe.

We spent four days in Paris, sharing our time together with several of her friends and a friend from Chicago…simply enjoying the amazing city in uncharacteristic peace and quiet.

In front of Sacre Couer in Montmartre.
The requisite Eiffel Tower pic.
We then made our way to London…the first opportunity I had to share the object of my desire with Huilan…the thing that she had been contending with for my affection for so long – cask beer.  I had spent the past two months traveling the island in search of some of the best real ales and with Huilan now by my side I was eager for her to share in my joy.  Her eagerness, however, did not seem to be as great as mine.  That being said, she endured the numerous pub visits and pints, and seemed to show interest in the art of cask beer…if not from a genuine interest, a genuine and considerate attempt to appease my obvious desire to share this with her.  One situation stood out that I feel is worthy of recounting for the purpose of this blog. 

It was an unseasonably warm evening in London.  We had spent our day at the Tower of London, wandered around a bit, then popped into the British Museum to catch the “must sees”.  As we left the museum, we were struggling for ideas of what to do next.  Piccadilly Circus came to my mind…not for any reason in particular, rather, because I remembered having heard something good about it at one point in time.  So we headed in that direction, being bombarded with the endlessly intriguing sights and sounds of London from all directions.  We walked through Soho and Seven Dials, we meandered through Chinatown, we stood like dumbfounded tourists at the beaming lights of Piccadilly Circus, we window shopped the numerous high end arcades, and we played around the in the 7-story Christmas paradise that is Fortnum & Mason. 

Chinatown in London
Christmas extravanganza at Fortnum &Mason.
Piccadilly Circus.
After our adventures, naturally, we had developed an appetite.  Ever since our second day in Paris, hot pot had been on Huilan’s mind.  Having just come across a rather impressive Chinatown, it seemed like we might have a good chance of finding of good place for hot pot…so, you know what they say…when in London, do as the Chinese do (I may have misremembered that saying).  But I could not let Huilan get off that easy.  Before agreeing to hot pot (because I am all too aware of what hot pot turns into with my girlfriend…a drawn out session in the art of gluttony), I had to strike a deal with her before we fell into a paralyzing food coma.  It had been a long day and if we weren’t careful we would have dinner and then be too tired to do anything else…so it was necessary to set the expectations for the remainder of the evening – I would agree to hot pot, if she agreed to visit two pubs afterward.  A fair deal in my opinion…I could have suggested four pubs, but I knew that would have not gone over well, and after hot pot I don’t think I could have handled that many pubs.
She agreed, so hot pot commenced.  We were treated to some seats in a private alcove in the basement.  We ordered the unlimited hotpot for two and our first round quickly appeared on our table.  Two broths, one spicy and one mild, quickly began to bubble away in the pot.  Thinly sliced lamb, thinly sliced beef, Chinese mushrooms, some green vegetable somewhat resembling small branches, thin rice cakes, fish balls, and a bowl of rice rounded out our first round with a pot of tea to top it off.

Huilan was in heaven and to be honest, I quite enjoyed it myself…it was delicious, but I couldn’t show my complete pleasure in the meal so as to keep our deal intact.   After one more round we were both sufficiently stuffed.  We had consumed enough food for four people…we were both feeling the displeasure of overeating and the exhaustion which reminds you of the work you demand of your body digesting food…but there was no way I was going to concede my end of the deal.  After some subtle hints from my girlfriend of being completely stuffed and tired and unable to consume anymore…I all too obviously reminded her of our next destination…the pub.

At this point, I should make it clear that I do have the most amazing girlfriend.  As I have suggested before, she is incredibly understanding and accepting of me, and she would have happily joined me at a pub even with no deal in place…as she did numerous times throughout our trip.  But, on this night, it was more fun to hold this deal over her head as if I had some control of the situation.  When in reality, it was out of her kindness and generosity that she endured the pubs and the pints after our enormous hot pot meal. 

Coach and Horses - West End London.
So we ventured back through the west end to a pub called Coach and Horses.  It was a small place filled to the brim with people gathered around a piano being played by a man with a dark mustache.  The overall atmosphere of the place was jubilant…people singing their hearts out to some traditional English drinking songs, everyone laughing, drinking, and singing.  From the outside, it seemed like a very traditional pub claiming to be London’s favorite west end pub, and I never would have guessed the atmosphere inside.  I struggled to order a Pale for myself and a cider for my girlfriend, working around the tight knit crowd trying not to interfere in the joyous occasion of a random Wednesday night.  We grabbed our pint and a half (I could not convince my girlfriend of the virtues of a pint) and headed outside since there was no room on the inside, and we proceeded to revel in what we had just experienced.  It would be the pinnacle of success of Present Tense to recreate the scene in Coach and Horses that night.  Even though we had only invested a short time in the pub, we both felt like we had experienced something incredible…such energy and joy exuding from everyone in the pub…maybe something that can only happen in London.

Entrance into The Lamb and Flag.
Having experienced quite a lively pub, we then made our way to a more relaxed pub, close to where we would get on the train to return to our AirBnB in Camden Town.  The pub was The Lamb and Flag, a most historical pub once frequented by Charles Dickens himself.  The atmosphere in this pub was the dramatic opposite of Coach and Horses.  There was no crowd to work around, we walked directly up to the bar and ordered.  I had been put on strict order from Huilan to order a third for her, since she absolutely could not drink any more than that.  However, the idea of ordering a third at a pub in London seemed a bit outrageous to me…sure, a half is acceptable; there are times in life when a pint is just a little too much, but a third is just like giving up on life.  So I ordered a pint and a half…one pint of Fullers ESB and a half of a Fullers Pale, and my girlfriend immediately slapped me on the arm…oh well, at least I still had my dignity with the bartender.  We made our way up to the second floor and nestled into our seats and shared in the general contented feeling of this pub.  Quotes from Dickens scrolling across the wooden beams, historical pictures all over the walls, old wooden paneling surrounding the dwellers of the pub…it all came together to make it obvious that you were joining an institution that had welcomed millions of men before you and was no longer searching for an identity…it was simply and contentedly existing as it always has – providing London with a masterful place to enjoy a pint.
The oldest tavern in Covent Garden.
The night drew to an end.  We enjoyed some peaceful conversation…the random type that leaves time behind when you are sitting next to the person that means the world to you.  My pint empty, her half pint with almost exactly 1/3 left – point taken…she did really only want a third.  So I picked up her glass finished off the beer and took her hand to make our way out of the pub.

A pint and a half in The Lamb and Flag.
As we walked away from the pub toward the subway, we both looked back and admired the exquisite façade of the historical pub – the deal was fulfilled and we were both satisfied with a very memorable night in London.
The front of The Lamb and Flag.

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