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Tips for Acquaintances26 October 2011 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Arnold Jansen op de Haar
This week I’m off to London again. As you read this, I’m probably already there. I’m regularly asked for tips on great places in London. ‘The Polish barmaid at The Mitre,’ is, of course, not the right answer.
Although it is correct: the lovely Polish barmaid attracts quite a bit of flirting. What’s so nice about her is that she acts as if she hasn’t noticed. Not that I have ever chatted up the Polish barmaid; I’m far too shy. I’m not even sure if she is Polish. It’s just a guess.
But every time yet another person flirts with her and gets dealt with in the same friendly, though reserved, manner with which she treats everyone, it still feels a bit like a victory.
I’m likely to disappoint people who fish for special places in London: most of the time I stay in just one neighbourhood, next to Hyde Park. My favourite spot to read the paper is on one of the back benches near the fountains in the Italian Gardens. You may know that these fountains feature in a scene from Bridget Jones 2, when Mark Darcy and Daniel Cleaver get into a fight.
This will prompt some of my acquaintances to remark, ‘You’re joking, don’t tell me you’ve been to see that film. We always thought you were an intellectual.’
Yes, I did go, and I’ve also seen the film on TV. I adore romantic comedies. Actually, my own life is quite like a romantic comedy, though the lives of some of my acquaintances are closer to a tragedy.
In fact, around ten in the morning is the best time to spot jogging American heiresses or Russian heiresses with tiny dogs in the park.
Some of my acquaintances expect tales about fabulous restaurants. One of those restaurants that is a ‘real hidden gem’.
I simply have breakfast at Raffles. This isn’t a branch of the famous hotel in Singapore but a greasy spoon near Paddington station. Without any misgivings I order a Big Ben, the full English breakfast.
Its punters are an eclectic mix of builders, businessmen and tourists. Your food appears within five minutes of ordering and the tables are covered in somewhat greasy plastic tablecloths. It’s impossible to miss; there is a man standing outside, busy cajoling people to go in.
By now my acquaintances are perplexed – ‘Among tourists!’ ‘A Big Ben!’ ‘A man cajoling people to come in!’
‘Well, and in the evenings I dine at The Mitre, a pub in Lancaster Gate. I recommend their West County 8oz Beef Burger, a classic, and the Polish waitress may take your order.’
‘But you must go to a museum from time to time?’ I get asked.
‘Yes, that too,’ I answer, but don’t add that I often just go and visit one particular painting I long to see. Some of my acquaintances insist on checking every painting. You know them, families with exhausted children and a father who keeps explaining. No, I do one painting and then quickly make my way to the bar.
‘And we regularly sell our books on the market.’
‘On the market?!’ By now, my acquaintances almost require artificial respiration.
‘Portobello Market,’ I reply. ‘Highly recommended, the best pitch is among the antiques traders. Besides, you get a good feel for who reads a book from time to time. They think: ah, books, whereas people who don’t read won’t even notice any books.’
After this announcement, a few acquaintances rush home to read a book. They’d rather not be among the people who never read a book, and quite right too.
What I love most is smoking a cigar on my publisher’s balcony. It provides an excellent opportunity to study the lives of the neighbours opposite. You can simply look into the rooms, and this beats any film.
I hope for just one mercy: that you don’t visit the greatest places in London en masse. Up to now I’ve been coming home feeling rested. I haven’t run into a single acquaintance – well, apart from the Polish lady at the bar.
© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press
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