Two days later and two more trips into town from Bethnel Green, then out to South Woodford for late afternoon. Picture of London is evolving daily.
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The underground machines get more and more on my nerves. They are simply not easy to use, precisely because they try to be too easy to use. Just let me get a card with specific value on it and spend it down, like they do in New York. I suppose that would be the Oyster card, except that the Oyster card costs £10 just to buy empty, before you put any value on it.
Also a bother is the fact that the card machines simply don’t work (i.e. they have severe difficulty actually reading cards), which makes it a total pain in the ass to buy any kind of transit ticket whatsoever. If it’s going to be like this, can we just drop some coin into a stile instead of having to queue forever?
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Food is looking up. Specifically, we started hitting the pubs. Clearly this is where the actual eating is meant to occur; there is no convenience food of any use here beyond fish & chips and kebab. The pub food, however, is quite good as long as you do it right. The burgers are profoundly good in comparison to American burgers, and I don’t say this lightly. But in nearly every facet—patty, cheese, bun, bacon, accompanying chips, whatever—the British burgers have American burgers beat. Oh, except for in the tiny domain of ketchup, where the U.K. earns a massive, massive fail with a runny, overly sweet sauce that just plain isn’t any good. But with the superbness of the rest of the product going on, ketchup is hardly needed.
Pizza, on the other hand, is another story. Basically, in the U.K., it’s more or less inedible and really quite kitschy. I could easily imagine Brits and other Europeans not taking pizza at all seriously if that’s what it tends to be like on this side of the Atlantic. Chintzy ingredients, overly greasy, overcooked, oversalty, and simply lacking in gravitas.
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The service is really too good here, particularly—though not exclusively—at the pub. One could easily become spoiled—or nervous for standing out as a matter of not being willing to go as far as everyone else does in being courteous and generous. Delivery places deliver from miles away and do it in just a few minutes, in contrast to the typical NYC delivery limited to a six block radius and expected an hour after ordering.
More traditionally, from what I understand, pub staffs are really remarkably genteel. They are wearing pinstripes and button-and-collar shirts with a nice press, as well as shiny dress shoes (as opposed to the bar-labeled t-shirt and jeans that you see in the U.S.) and rather than yell, they whisper—because in the U.K. pubs during the daytime, it is virtually silent as patrons dine.
They say things like, “I’m terribly sorry sir, it appears that I can’t read properly, I’ll try again immediately,” in a very low voice when they accidentally run your bankcard through the slot facing in the wrong direction, and “Thank you very much, sir, for your custom; your meal will arrive at your table in approximately ten minutes with your cutlery and a selection of sauces and garnishments.” All of this for ordering a burger, chips, and a cold brew—decidedly lowbrow, downmarket food typically served in downmarket places in the U.S.
That’s not, at the same time, to suggest that these places are posh or elbows-off-table formal; they aren’t. They’re very informal and relaxed, in fact—very homey. They’re a category that we simply don’t have in the U.S.—informal, familiar places at which customers in hoodies and jeans and customers in pinstripes and alligator leather gather together to silently much on cheap-but-fabulous hamburgers in total, spacious cleanliness and relaxed good humor.
Clearly, I am a tremendous fan, particularly since New York can’t even approximate the best American pubs, none of which hold a candle to any of the British pubs we’ve stepped into thus far.
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Trafalgar Square: Ho-hum.
Picadilly Circus: Ho-hum (and mostly under construction).
Oxford Circus: Basically Fifth Avenue only more stodgy and gray.
The urban-ness is not where London shines. Stick to the classics—Big Ben and parliament, Westminster Abbey, Covent Garden, Buckingham Palace, the river Thames, and so on. That’s the good stuff.
In terms of the actual city of commerce, diversity, and transit, London is little sister to NYC, San Fran, and even places like Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles. Lots of little monocultures and unremarkability here, so far as I can see. But the architecture, history, and sense of pomp, circumstance, and national importance are where the U.K. holds its own.
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All Brits are tight-lipped. This comes, I think, from a particular position into which Brits spread their mouths when making a variety of “eee” and “aay” sounds that bare all of their teeth without actually generating a smile. This is where the humorless expression comes from—their facial muscles are simply exercised or trained into that position—straight, stiff, tight mouth when not in use.
Also, British men tend to slump forward for some reason; they don’t hold their heads high, and they also don’t lean forward—it’s a definite, if slight, slump that seems to be characteristic. British women seem to don black tights and miniskirts in a much larger proportion than their American counterparts.
British children are all in uniforms, and they are everywhere. This is a nation of field trips, clearly, and then take them on public busses and in the densest of downtown areas.
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Emerging realization: London is small. Tiny, even. Every single sight and place of any repute or note is within just a few minutes’ walking distance of every other similar sight or place. Today we went to Chinatown, which is basically about 16 buildings on a parallel one-block stretch of two streets. That’s it. And it’s right next to Covent Garden, which can be seen in about 10 minutes, end-to-end. And that’s right next to Westminster Abbey, which is sandwiched between Buckingham Palace and Parliament, where you’ll also find Big Ben and the River Thames. Picadilly, Oxford, and so on—they’re all within blocks. You can see one from another. A typical NYC jogger (an average, middle class one—not a pro or a marathon runner or anything) could hit every major tourist attraction in London in a typical morning’s jog.
In comparison, NYC is huge, and I’d always thought NYC to be tiny in comparison to all of the cities I’m most familiar with “out west.” At the same time, it’s quite dense, especially given the kind of (relatively short) pre-20th century architecture to be found everywhere. No idea how they manage it.
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The strength of the social contract here is the most interesting thing I notice. This is a major, modern urban area, but the oil and gas caps on the public busses are just of the screw-on/screw-off variety, no lock on the cap and no locking door or panel to protect them. Anyone could wander up and siphon off dozens of gallons of gas, or sabotage a bus 30 seconds flat.
The children on field trips ride on the top levels of double-decker busses and their chaperones ride on the bottom levels and nobody thinks twice about it. When they reach their desired stop, the chaperone yells up that they should get off, and then the chaperone disembarks—leaving the kids all to get off of their own volition…and they do, even with nobody checking.
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One more big inconvenience: separate hot and cold taps, everywhere here. I can see it in the bathroom, I suppose. But everywhere, even in kitchens? Is that really necessary? It is literally impossible to run warm water over something (your hands, a dish) here. You get to choose between hot and cold (during those 2-3 hours a day when there’s hot water) or between cold and cold (during the rest of the time).
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Final thought for the night relates to Chinese delivery, which is dinner. In New York, all Chinese delivery dishes are basically the same brown sauce, broccoli, and green pepper fragments, with the meats/seafood/tofu changing around depending on your order. In London, the sauces seem to change in color but are all basically a greasy, salty, nondescript soup, and here the meats are basically indistinguishable from one another and lost amidst the uniform collection of yellow onion chunks (!) and water chestnuts that infest every single dish. Oh, and much greasier, with no rice. Instead, they give you (I kid you not) the deep-fried shrimp chips that you can buy uncooked at any Chinatown store.
I can honestly say that I have never had worse “Chinese” food in my life, and this from a place that has piles of online reviews meriting four or five stars from local customers saying it’s great food and a good value. No, Londoners, it’s really, actually just crap—nondescript grease soup with onions and water chestnuts and a couple slivers of soggy, otherwise unprepared anymeat in it. Four separate dishes, all indistinguishable, and one of them claimed to contain prawns!
I’d say they cost about £0.99 each to make. I wouldn’t pay more than £1.05 for each of them—if that, and only on a very generous day. Truly not a place to order Chinese, for any reason.