Monday, December 7, 2009


Ah, London. The world's market. Fruit, vegetables, clothing, antiques, toiletries, meat, paintings, books, etc. If there's value in something, London has a market for it.

Lauren and I wanted to see London. We wanted to hear London. We wanted to breathe London. Eat London. Drink London. Smell London. And that's why we did this. Six London markets in six hours on a Saturday afternoon. We had less than a month left in the city and didn't want it to go to waste. What better way to experience this place than to roam the streets and markets?

There were difficulties: tube closures, cold weather, market merchants who didn't want us taking photos. But we dealt with these problems in various ways, mainly by amending the day's itinerary.

When we left Kensington at 9:30 AM, we intended to visit the following six markets:

Church Street
South Bank Book Market

By 3:30 PM, as we rounded together outside the Brixton tube station, tired, damp, but victorious, we had visited the following:

Notting Hill Gate Farmers' Market
Church Street
South Bank Christmas Market
South Bank Book Market

So, technically speaking, Lauren and I visited seven in six hours. Having simply walked through the Christmas Market, we'll mention it briefly. But the rest will be examined at some length. We'll try to focus on the market experience, but it is our wont to digress from time to time.

Before we begin our account of this wonderful journey, I feel we must introduce ourselves. I am Kevin. I will be your narrator. This whole shebang was the wine squeezed from my mind-grapes, so to speak. Lauren's a close friend, and a hell of a photographer and navigator. She's also good at keeping my emotions in check when I get a bit ornery, so I enlisted her as my partner. And even though I'm writing this myself, I'll stick to the so-called 'we' form, as this was a team effort start to finish.

So there. Let us begin.

Notting Hill Gate Farmers' Market

As was mentioned in the introduction, we didn't plan on attending this market. But upon realizing that the various tube closures that weekend would complicate our journey to Camden and put the "six in six" goal in doubt, we decided to hit this market en route to Portobello. Christmas carolers greeted us as we strode toward the Notting Hill Gate Farmers' Market (brevity isn't really their thing, I suppose). Feeling a tad under the weather, the sight of fruit and vegetables in the morning was refreshing. A sip of apple pomegranate juice (with a hint of beet root) kick-started my morning.

This was, without question, a neighborhood market. The attendees seemed local and knowledgeable, going about their business in brief fashion. We felt out of place browsing, as most went to a certain vendor and left. But having been in London for some time, I felt comfortable enough to wander from fruit vendor to meat vendor to vegetable vendor to Christmas caroler to florist to juice vendor without feeling the shameful, foreign guilt one feels in this city. So what if they found us out? Our small-town sensibilities may only be concealed for so long.

Given the size (or lack thereof) of this market, we devoted little time to it. Its impact was minimal, to be honest. But it was a nice first step on this journey.

As I waited for Lauren to snap a few more photos, I stood contemplating the market's ethnography. A French man behind me spoke to his son -- coaxing the young child into saying "bonjour" to the juice vendor. I smiled. Fifteen minutes and one market into this journey and we had already encountered another group of foreigners. London encapsulated.

Portobello Road Market

The one. The famous Portobello Road Market. When I first came to London, feeling morose and alone, missing my family, my American confidence, my Panera Bread and my valuable dollar, I set out for Portobello Road. I'd heard it was a wonderful introduction to the city, and while overwhelming at times, would help me through the confusion and sadness of the first week. And it did.

For that reason I will always have a sentimental attachment to this market. Perhaps this obscures my objectivity. I don't really care, to be quite honest. In my mind, Portobello Road is the best market. Nothing comes close. You can take Borough and its kangaroo cheeseburgers, Brick Lane and its overpriced vintage wear, or Camden and its array of international food; I'll take Portobello.

As we reached the start of Portobello, we noticed a French camera crew filming a dapper young man on the sidewalk. Being a student of German, I could understand nary a word this man spoke, but the scene gave me an idea of this market's significance. Portobello is a culturally identifiable aspect of this city's culture. And while the market often makes me feel as though I'm a part of this city rather than a visitor, I feel tiny as well. Oh, the contradiction.

Feeling kick-started but not quite energized, I came to Portobello with one thing in mind: breakfast. Unfortunately, I was a little too ambitious. Lauren and I usually split a donut at Portobello, but we opted for one each. While it'd be safe to say each of us regretted it, I did more so. The combination of lethal doses of sugar and my beetroot juice from Notting Hill was not what I'd hoped for (this has all been documented pictorially, as you will find below).

But we pressed on, stomach ache and all. I eventually bought an apple to allay some of this pain, but it was still an adventure. We walked the length of the road and called it a day, knowing that our day was only just beginning. And while we both left a little fatter and (in my case) fairly dissatisfied, we were aware of our place in the world; Portobello Road Market with nausea is nothing to sneeze at. In fact, it trumps anywhere else for me.

Pictures below, as always.

Church Street Market

The turnaround from Portobello Road Market to Church Street is something out of the ordinary. I guess the only comparison I could make is to what I experienced today; having spent the weekend in Krakow, I ventured back to London early this morning. Waking up in Krakow and some six hours later being back on the High Street in Kensington is a sound comparison.

Portobello is lily white, populated with foreigners from the more acceptable European states: France, Germany, Belgium, etc. But Church Street is nothing like this. We felt closer to Marrakesh than Marylebone when navigating the streets (printed in Arabic as well). While Portobello featured rare antiques that have no actual utility, we got the sense that the folks at Church Street sustained themselves off of the market. Toiletries, cheap food, clothing, and shoes were for sale. Some tents resembled aisles in Boots or Tesco. To put it bluntly, people go to Portobello for the sake of vanity; people go to Church Street to survive. It's not exactly Cairo, but it's as close to it as you'll come in London.

That's alright. I still love Portobello, despite its faults. But I love Church Street as well. It's no secret that London is a diverse, cosmopolitan city. One could argue that it isn't just the capital of the United Kingdom, but the world. Church Street displays this in a way that Portobello never could. But the juxtaposition of the two in this journey -- Portobello before Church Street -- made this market impact us more than it ever could on its own. We almost felt guilty watching women barter with vendors over something as menial as dish soap. It broke our hearts, to be quite honest.

While I'd love to wrap here, I just wanted to emphasize the beauty of a particular photo on this page. Third from the bottom, the cardboard boxes next to the hair salon sign. So much conveyed in that photo: diversity, poverty, etc. That Lauren, hell of a photographer.

South Bank Christmas Market

Ah, a surprise! As we made the lengthy trek from the Church Street Market to the obscure and somewhat hidden Book Market at Gabriel's Wharf, we happened upon a pleasant surprise: a Christmas market. While it was nothing special, it made for an intriguing detour. The smell of roasted chestnuts filled the air. The drop in temperature from the Thames was apparent. Christmas was in the air.

I even stopped to feel some fake snow. Yes, Christmas was in the air.

South Bank Book Market

I remember hearing about this market some time ago. It's probably my fault, for a multitude of reasons, but it's never lived up to its promise. I wouldn't call myself a bookworm by any stretch, but I love old books. Old and used. And random. I've probably bought a dozen since I came to London, and I've been on a mission of sorts to locate an old, weathered copy of Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger. But, this being London rather than America, Salinger isn't quite as popular (but he's still iconic, to be sure). As usual, I struck out in my search.

I think it may be the market's positioning -- under a bridge and near the water -- that makes me spend little time there. Feeling a good bit colder than some twenty-five meters in either direction, it's difficult to sort through the unorganized litter of used books. But it's still something to behold. Science fiction, the classics, maps, modern fiction, non-fiction, history, etc. They've got it all covered. But still, my own impatience prevents me from sifting through the treasures at hand. Perhaps I'd find that Salinger if I kept my eyes peeled.

Once again, Lauren took some wonderful photos. We even found a bundle of London Walks brochures. We smiled. Good advertising, DT.

The vendors here are a treat as well. Seated near the river, these men and women hold dominion over the market, and their presence is like that of a monarch lurking over a village. As I would inspect books and sift through the rows, I'd always look up to see if I'd caught their attention. Surely they were on the lookout for thieves. But I'm no thief. I may be impatient, but I'm no thief.

Borough Market

"The best jam I've tasted in my entire life."

So said Lauren, regarding her sample of Pear & Vanilla Butter from England Preserves. I can't say I disagree, though I found the taste a bit puzzling. But Lauren seemed pleased (to say the least) with her purchase, though I am willing to wager it had more to do with the man she bought it from (pictured right). I'm comfortable enough in my masculinity to say that is one handsome jam salesman. Or it could have been the fact that it only cost £3.50.

Moving on.

Borough has a sterling reputation, and we think it's well warranted. Thursday through Saturday at Borough is something to behold. Throngs of people, delicious samples and smells filling the air. My own personal favorite at Borough would have to be the grilled cheese, which is basically sourdough bread infused with halloumi cheese, shallots, and onions. Greasy? yes. Disgusting? a thousand times yes. Delicious? always.

But today was no day for grilled cheese. The donut was still with me from Portobello, so I opted for simple samples of salsa and hummus. Quite good, I'd say.

And while I love Portobello with all my heart, Lauren holds Borough near and dear. It's undoubtedly her favorite market -- and I can't blame her. We both love food. I just love Portobello's diversity of product a bit more. Plus Borough isn't so easy on my middle-class billfold.

Borough was exceptionally crowded on this day. It was about half two in the afternoon on a Saturday, and the yard at Southwark Cathedral was packed with groups snacking on food and sipping mulled wine. As I sat in the same yard, waiting for Lauren to snap some photos and reviewing some poetry in my journal, I surveyed the scene before me. I thought back to Church Street. To the diversity there versus here. Borough, like Portobello, is very white collar. I felt that guilt creeping back.

How can I be so unappreciative of the real? The affordable? Why am I drawn to the inexpensive and unattainable? The fancy and the wealthy?

I don't know. One more chance. One more market. On to Brixton.