I live in the middle of the countryside. Well, not exactly. Technically, I live in a giant suburban sprawl, except there's a good 30 miles of countryside between MK and London. The "New City," as MK Radio likes to proclaim. Everything was built within the last 20 years, except of course for the villages that the new build consumed...those still have thatched roof cottages and sheep grazing. But really, if I drive 10 minutes, I can be on a twisty country lane watching hedgerows roll by.
So it's easy to forget that I'm really close to London. So close, in fact, that in 45 minutes, 35 on a fast train, I can be in the heart of things. Or, if I'm fool-hardy enough to take a car, I can sit on the M1 with thousands of other folks stupid enough to drive to London.
In the last three days, I've done both.
My first trip was via auto to Slough, industrial hellhole made popular with middle-managers everywhere as the home of The Office, the BBC's incredibly funny sitcom. If you're a fan, you'll know that Slough is dismal at best (and if you're NOT a fan, this must be because you haven't seen it yet, and you should immediately run to Blockbuster or get to Netflix and order the DVDs for home study.) Our appointment was at 2, so we left about 12:15 to allow time on the motorway. The M1 was appalling. It took us an hour and 15 minutes to go 30 miles. Once we got on the M25, we made it at a fast clip, and by the time we hit the M4 we were right on schedule. As we approached Slough, the otherwise sunny day turned kind of grey/brown and foggy. "Weird weather," says I. "It's not weather, it's Slough," says my colleague. I hate to say it, but he was right. As I've mentioned, it's spring in MK...but in Slough you'd be lucky to find a tree, let alone a crocus. It's all pavement and ugly, dirty glass and metal, and unfriendly crosswalks, and stagnant water, and restaurants called things like "EuroChicken." (We decided they must make them wear berets.) Once inside my client's offices, things were normal again. Very nice, smart people...no David Brents in sight. I will say, though, that when we left our meeting we didn't linger (unlike our stop in Bracknell a few weeks ago, where we hung out in a pub while traffic cleared.) No, we just got back in the car. 2 hours sitting on the motorway is a whole lot better than anything we could find in Slough. On our way out of town, we saw a balcony with a line of clothes drying in the air. Almost simultaneously, my colleague and I speculated on why you'd waste a good washing by putting it in the Slough air....talk about dingy whites.
My next trip was by train, this time to central London. For those of you who don't know a lot about my job, one of the things our industry does well is wine and dine you. Hotels and tourist boards and tour planners want you to know about their product, so they invite you to cocktails and canapes so they can corner you with your mouth full and tell you about their remodel or their new spa or how George Bush just stayed there. (Not a selling point for me, but I suppose somebody likes the idea of it.) I used to go to these in Minneapolis, and now I go to them in London. Last night's was at a Thai restaurant in Fulham. My colleague Mel and I left on a 5pm train to make our way into the city. It was a pretty easy ride, though the tube was rush-hour crowded, and we got there right on time. The suppliers last night were all 5star hotels, the kind that have linen sheets and where celebrities and royalty stay. We worked the room, making small talk and eating fishcakes, and picked up some interesting flowers and foul smelling soap from India before we beat our retreat. I will admit these get a little tiring, what with all the smiling and the hand-shaking and the ooing and ahing. I know it's my job, but there's a point at which I don't care that you hand pour me a milk bath and scent my pillows with lavender. Just give a brochure and let me pass. But the nice thing was that our train tickets required us to travel off-peak, which meant killing an hour before we could go home. So Mel and I stopped in nice Italian deli/restaurant in Kensington and had a great meal before we left. If you're looking for a simple salad, try bitter greens like dandelion and arugula (called rocket here), toss a bit of balsamic and olive oil and salt and pepper and a squirt of lemon, and then add some shaved parmesan. Yum Yum. Our pastas were to die for...soft, pillowy ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta, and thin little fresh noodles tossed with garlic, evoo, and lots of weird mushrooms. Perfectly filling, as it was a bit cold, and made the train home quite comfortable...we were too full to be antsy.
It's kind of fun to be close enough to London to head in for dinner and be home by 11. And it makes it easier to deal with the strange MK vibe and the rural spread surrounding me. If I really need a break, one of the best cities in the world is just down the road, and it could be much much worse...I could be in Slough.