East London in a Cup

Originally posted on January 12, 2012


Before I left home, I pried my Oyster Card (for the tube) from my study abroad scrapbook. Despite the bits of dried glue and construction paper it was good as new when I headed to top up just off my train in London. Resurrecting the card from a dusty three-year hibernation felt like some kind of homecoming—an injection of delight back in London. Strangers defined my last five days of travel anchored in East London. Via my stay with Deepa and Trenton and my coffee-journo connection with Derek, I met East London. And apart from them, I was very alone. I researched most nights and set out with some ever-changing scribbled itinerary early every morning: to cafes, neighborhoods, markets, and side streets. So come with me. Smell the simmering curries on Brick Lane at 10 a.m., hop busses to Hackney, seek out kitschy markets, and ask baristas where to head next…

Cup | Americano at Exmouth Coffee, Yirgacheffe at 46b espresso hut, Kenya at Prufrock, Americano atWorkshop Coffee, Vietnamese iced from Ca Phe Vn at Broadway Market, Cortado at Prufrock pop-up (Shoreditch High St.), et al.

Ridiculous lineup, I know. If I met East London through strangers, I really got to know her by cup. There’s no coffee culture like the one taking over this city. Pop-ups are just as common as the mainstays, and each cafe has genuine personality and experimental coffee endeavors in the works. I met Derek at his office in Shoreditch and we crawled to some of his neighborhood favorites—from a Prufrock outpost to Protein—and all washed down with Budvar (original Budweiser) at his next-door pub. He left me with a list (and a map) of some other must-see shops. 46b was the farthest out but a sure favorite, finally found on the verge of tears after aimless wandering and wrong turns. And I finally did hit a wall at Workshop in Clerkenwell. I’d robotically ordered espresso, found a table, and realized two minutes too late that I couldn’t possibly drink another drop.

 

Plate | Lily Vanilli Bakery, Columbia Road Flower Market

The entire morning was delicious. Deepa pointed me toward the Columbia Road Flower Market on Sunday morning, and it was a true Sabbath. The city was quiet, quiet, quiet my whole way there, and all of a sudden I turn the corner onto Columbia Road. A colorful tunnel of flower vendors, families brunching, and shops with open doors painted a beautiful scene. After touring through some shops, I walked down an alley courtyard into Lily Vanilli and branched from my usual sweet tooth going for a savory, cheesy hot-from-the-oven sourdough toast (affectionately called “Stuff on Toast!”). I sat in a cobblestone roundabout to watch a haggard group of guys, The Badlands Orchestra, play familiar songs like “Wagon Wheel.” and journaled and sketched and hummed and licked my fingers. Again, bliss.

 

Table | Trenton + Deepa’s living room table

One night over biscuits and green tea, another over take-out Indian food, conversation with my two hosts was irresistible. I’ve never met anyone like Deepa or Trenton, and I don’t think I ever will. Their Whitechapel flat was odd and endearing, lots of clean white with artwork hung just a few inches too high and walls of books (some their own). Their passion for social justice and local community oozed and they were quick to give in to cultural curiosities and ask questions about me. We were all dancing between questioning and listening and getting to the heart of what we really believed. I’m indebted to them.

 

Sight | Hampstead Heath

The only time I left East London was for Hampstead Heath, a park on the outskirts of town with wooden paths, women-only swimming holes, and shirtless kiddies flying kites on the hill tops. I had torn a vague map from a free travel book at National Geographic, so I had a guide. Hampstead Heath was a dream, and I needed to process two weeks mostly spent alone in these places. So I just walked and watched and finally laid down in a knoll of tall grass, put on Ascend the Hill hymns, and balled my eyes out. It was worship, the really messy, lonely, raw kind.