People & Places: An unexpected lesson at the French House

This is quite cliche but one of the many things that I’ve come to appreciate and love about London is the chance to meet very interesting people. Sure, the city might not be as “open” as New York where conversations with strangers on the street are quite an everyday occurrence, but it just makes one appreciate them that much more.

This past Saturday night, a couple friends and I decided to grab some drinks in Soho. After navigating through a few crowded streets, we settled at a quaint but busy pub dubbed the French House.

Interestingly, the pub only serves half-pints and has a “no music, no TV and no cell phones” rule that I suppose encourages good conversations in our digital age. Built in 1910, pictures across the walls serve as a reminder of its history and regulars – writers, poets and artists alike including one of my favorites, Francis Bacon. I can’t say I’m familiar with the pub scene in London or anywhere else, but the place is definitely littered with dashes of magic.

Anyway the three of us managed to snatch the rear counter seats and wondered at our surroundings. We must’ve stuck out like eyesores as both the youngest and most unfamiliar faces in the crowd because just half way through our drinks an old man, sporting a sky blue suit and matching Homburg with a coated walking stick in hand, made his way over to introduce himself. With the stature and charisma of the Godfather and an uncanny resemblance to Ellie Wisel, I was sure he had walked straight out of a 50s movie.

He took obvious interest in our visit and when I jokingly mentioned that we were simply poor college students studying abroad in London, he generously offered to buy us a round of drinks. Next thing I knew, we were each holding glasses of double whiskey and toasting to the US government shutdown and us making it to the other side of the pond. Michael, whose name I later learned, spoke to us of the French House’s unique presence as well as his journeys around the world – a grand total of 14 countries. Having mostly lived in Israel, Guinea and Cameroon when he was young, I found him to be not quite Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World but no less intriguing. We jumped from exchanging our views of London and New York to the States’ party politics, from our academic disciplines to China’s economic growth and humanitarian crisis, and to other topics that I now unfortunately have trouble recollecting. I was surprised to find that, despite the vicissitudes of the seasons, he lacked the numbing jadedness and instead spoke with great candor and spirit. He marveled at my ability (being “a Chinese woman,” no less) to handle Scotch whiskey and I at the gentle and worldly man that he was. Admittedly it was at times difficult to comprehend his part British and part Scottish accent, but it was nonetheless one of the most interesting and pleasant conversations drunk from knowledge (and other things).

About an hour and a half and £60 worth of Talisker later, we gracefully parted our ways. But the story doesn’t quite end here. Having experienced similar cities in the States, it had been easy for me to live in complacent ignorance – going to class, making small talks, visiting the tourist attractions. Sure I was “exploring” the city but what I desperately needed, though unaware prior to this, was to put to end this lethal sickness that had been sheltering me from expanding my world. Saturday night reminded me of the simple joys in the most unexpected and instilled in me an overwhelming urge to learn more about the people around me, to step outside of my comfort zone and breathe in everything this city has to offer. I haven’t made plans to return, but I like to think that I’d left a bit of myself there in exchange for something equally valuable. So until then, here’s to living and growing and embracing vulnerability – because the vagaries in life may just be that sweet.

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