The roads oft travelled: Northgate

CanterburyBeing introduced to a new culture can be frightening, even if that culture mirrors the usual in nearly every way. It’s not the overall picture that strikes fear into one’s heart – it’s the subtle differences; the accent, the way the money feels, the cobblestone streets and old world feel.

This was the feeling in England. It was clandestine – hidden just below the conscience, a fear arose that helped drive each discovery. I went into every situation expecting everything to be completely different. And when it wasn’t, I was more open to the subtle changes therein. I learned to love that accent, that money, those streets.

One experience did move me into a different realm – an eating experience, actually. And it occurred in Canterbury, England, just blocks from Canterbury Cathedral, where my favorite story of British history occurred – the two-faced, pious and frustrating friendship between Archbishop Thomas Becket and King Henry Plantagenet, the second.

It occurred on Northgate.

It occurred at Gandhi Tandoori Classic Restaurant. It was my first Indian meal.

Northgate is one of many names for a major traffic/pedestrian road through the center of Canterbury. It is by no means a wide, multi-lane street – instead, it is more like a quiet path through the center of town. It is the backbone of Canterbury – the white line through the town’s Underground-Logo-shaped middle.

NorthgateNorthgate begins in the northeast, right where the north gate of Canterbury’s medieval wall still stands. As it travels southwest, it turns into The Borough, where it splits in two. One branch leads to King Street, which turns into Best Lane, which ends at Stour Street. The other branch turns into Palace Street, which turns into Burgate and curves to the east. It sounds complicated, but its not – imagine a tuning fork with one tong bent. That’s the layout. The multiple names confuse things, but it’s still the same path. I promise.

We traveled this path almost exclusively while perusing the middle part of Canterbury. This middle part was a circle of old England that touched upon every part of English village life.

Every stereotype was covered. Green gardens and river paths led to park bridges that held duck houses and swaying reeds. These bridges led to nearly abandoned graveyards, complete with thin crumbling tombstones aching to stay upright and grassy knolls that held Canterburians from centuries in the past. Cobbled streets turned around decaying walls, and buildings seemed placed almost at random, with no regard for direction or style.

This jumbled, charming mess of architecture is a fond memory. City planners were either non-existent or remarkably lax, allowing streets to wind without reason, perhaps leading to the random naming and haphazardly placed storefronts. A map is necessary in these small English towns. You could get lost easily. It’s not a horrible thing – after all, the center of Canterbury is rather small, and you’d end up at a recognizable landmark before too long – but there is no time to waste when experiencing the daily wonders of Canterburian life.

Canterbury CastleThe southwest end of this road (Stour Street) is just a half-block away from a crumbling Norman castle – Canterbury Castle, namely – and was found nearly by surprise. This hulking relic, a forgotten building from centuries past, is in horrible shape, the victim of erosion, weather, war and indifference.

When I think of the buildings that once occupied these spaces – the monstrous protective outposts – and think of everything that happened in and around the blocks that still remain, I’m amazed that I’m allowed to stand so close – with nothing but time separating me from the inner turmoil of Norman England.

Further up the road, where the split occurs, is Canterbury Cathedral (on Palace Street). This was the main attraction, obviously, and serves as a larger than life history lesson for most visitors. The Becket/Henry II story is one of the biggest in all of British history, but until a person stands in the corner where Becket was slain, peers upon the alter that once held Becket’s bones (before they were destroyed by Henry VIII) and considers the millions of people over hundreds of years that have made Canterbury their pilgrimage destination, the story seems unreal and fake. It’s that proximity that makes it real. I stood where the blood was shed – where Becket’s skull was cleaved. It was real. I could nearly see it.

Canterbury CathedralIt was getting to be dusk when we finally came upon Gandhi Tandoori. Kerrie made a point to remember its location, and even though I wasn’t necessarily up for trying anything new – it had been a long day (Chunnel to London, bus to Canterbury) and I was looking forward to our beautiful bed and breakfast room at London Guest House on London Road – I followed Kerrie back to what would become my first Indian meal.

We were seated near the back of the restaurant, next to a partition and close to the kitchen. We were far enough back from the front entrance to benefit from a lack of distraction, and we quickly ordered wine and dinner. The specialty was Balti sauce, a special mixture of Indian spices that is uncommon in most Indian restaurants.

I ordered a spinach Balti and waited, not knowing what to expect. I’d like to think I soaked up the sounds – in my mind, it’s a CD of classic Indian music, accented with the smells of curry and other spices. I imagine our wine was good, and I imagine we spoke about our day, what we would do next, how we would make it to Alnwick, England in a few days – where Kerrie would remain as I trooped back to London and, from there, back to the States. I imagine everything was perfect.

I can’t remember, though. My mind remembers just one thing from that night – the food. It arrived on some of the most beautiful metal cookware I’ve ever seen – small silver/copper colored bowls with flames underneath for the sauce, a larger bowl for our rice. The sauce was amazing – cooked with enough spice to deliver a shock to my palate while creamy enough to continue eating without aplomb, oblivious to the rest of the world, uncaring of manners or speech.

Balti, dish, etc.So this is Indian food, I thought. This is what I’ve been missing. Our small Minnesotan city didn’t offer this to us, and the idea of seeking out Indian food in Minneapolis was as foreign as the food itself. It was amazing, it was edgy, and I loved it.

The rest of Canterbury was a blur after that night. We may have left with food in Styrofoam boxes, but to this day I can’t imagine we left anything to waste. The gentle buzz of a half-bottle of wine sent us floating through the now dark streets, and the winding roads welcomed us back. We giggled and marveled at the small-town-at-night feeling we were suddenly sucked into, and by the time we made it back to the B&B, we were ready to watch some basic BBC and call it a night, filled with some of the best food ever cooked and prepared to travel, yet again.

My time in Canterbury was spent learning and loving everything about small town England. And even though the town itself is widely known and more touristy than most small towns, it still gave a great contrast when compared to Paris or London.

My time in Canterbury also taught me about the beauty of ethnic food – of eating things that don’t come naturally. I try to eat Indian whenever I can. But try as I may, I’ve never been able to find any restaurant that serves Indian the same way they did in Canterbury that day.

That’s the thing. When we imagine a perfect night, we drop out anything that proves the contrary. Of course I’m never going to find a Balti dish just like the one at Gandhi Tandoori. And I’m not really supposed to. Otherwise, what else would make that first meal so special?

This was lovingly handwritten on February 18th, 2007