Caption: British pub food is okay. Just don’t spill that beer on your laptop.
I’m ambivalent about London. I’ve been there six, maybe seven times. Some trips have left me cursing the city; others have left me extoling it. It depends on the context and content of my visit.
A bad trip, for example, was when I got food poisoning (maybe from raw oysters at the open air market) AND spilled a pint of beer on my laptop. Feeble and delirious, I sought support at the Apple store in Covent Garden, one of the most hectic squares in London, where business folk, shoppers, and tourists collide in clusterfuck crosswalks (The Apple Geniuses were derisive and unhelpful).
A good trip, in contrast, was that time I went to the Olympics. Have ever I told you about that time I went to the Olympics? It is my single most favorite topic of conversation and I ebulliently recount it as often as possible.
But I will restrain myself now (I saw the bronze medal match of women’s handball! Spain vs South Korea!).
Even on the good trips, there are some aspects of London that consistently flabbergast me. And the weather is not one of them. The weather is not England’s fault. It is what it is—dreary and drizzling with sporadic spells of temperate sunshine.
I respect this kind of climate. In fact I firmly prefer places with erratic, seasonal weather. In Southern California, where everyday is 70° and sunny, the pleasantness becomes monotonous. It’s like weather on Prozac—comfortable and stable, but with an impoverished emotional range.
Moreover, bad weather is the single most reliable topic of small talk. Stuck in the elevator with the crotchety department administrator? Commiserate on how cold it is. Don’t know what to say to your manager at the office happy hour? Just say, “How about this weather?”
That doesn’t work in Southern California: “How about this weather?”
“What about it? It’s the same as everyday, 70° and sunny.”
The weather in London does not bother me. What bothers me is:
1) People are unreasonably difficult to understand.
I spend a lot of time in countries where people don’t speak English. It’s not that hard to communicate. You point, you pantomime, you throw out rudimentary vocabulary. Knowing ten words of Serbian I can ask a Serb who knows five words of English where the bus to Niš is and get a comprehensible response. Knowing no Catalan, I can purchase three persimmons from a Barcelonian fruit vendor who knows no English.
But somehow, in England, with us both speaking fluent English, communication fails. I can’t get directions to the bus. I can’t buy persimmons.
Much of the trouble stems from the accent. I know they’ve been speaking English for longer than Americans, but we obviously speak it better. My evidence is that non-native English speakers consistently agree that Americans (excluding Southerners and Texans, which I always do) are the easiest to understand of all English speakers. Americans are the clearest, cleanest English speakers. We have perfected the language (or have the most globalized media).
Sometimes I have no idea what a British person is saying. Other times I have the wrong idea.
Last time I approached passport control:
The lady said, “Do you have the British cod?”
“Do you have the British cod?”
Was she asking me about Fish n’ Chips?
“Ummm, not yet.”
It was after midnight and I was not in the mood to chitchat about British cuisine.
“You have to fill out the cod.”
She handed me an entry CARD and pointed to a seating area for delinquents who didn’t fill out their British CARD on the plane.
However, it’s not just an issue of accent. It’s also an issue of content. Brits are often just too fumbling, bumbling to be coherent.
I was in an academic building and asked a woman, “Excuse me. Where is the bathroom?”
“Ohhhhh it’s just right down there on the left on the right.”
Another time, I tried to buy a bus ticket from a machine and received a message “No trips available.”
Fortunately, there was a man inches away at the information desk. Unfortunately he was British and incoherent.
“Excuse me, I tried to buy a bus ticket and it said there are no trips available.”
“Oh it probably just says that because the buses were canceled tonight.”
“So how do I get to downtown London?”
“Well you can go ahead and purchase a ticket, but there weren’t be any buses ‘til the morning.”
I gave up and took the train.
2) The plumbing.
I know Brits are proud of their antiquity, but plumbing is really worth modernizing.
I encounter British toilets that I just can’t flush. They appear to be standard lever flush toilets, but when I push the handle there is no flush. Water gushes into the bowl, but nothing flushes down the drain. The waste remains. I push the handle again. More water. Stationary excrement. I jiggle the handle. No flush. I try it like a lawn mower engine—two quick pushes and one prolonged push. Still no flush.
I give up and walk away.
The next time I use that toilet it flushes without fuss, with one push.
The adversity is not over. Many—perhaps most—sinks in England have a separate tap for hot and cold water. This is ludicrous. One tap is scalding and the other is freezing. The only way to safely and hygienically wash your hands is to maintain a feverous cycle of cupping the cold water in your hands then quickly thrusting the little pool under the hot water. Again and again until your hands are washed.
It is splashy and ludicrous!
3) London is really expensive.
You order a cappuccino and it is £5. You think, “wow five is a lot for a cappuccino. OH WELL. What the heck, I’m on vacation!”
Then you remember that the exchange rate is something between 1.5-2 U.S. dollars to the pound. “Holy shit! This cappuccino is $10!”
After about two days you stop doing the mental conversion because five is expensive enough and you don’t want to ruin your vacation by knowing how much you’re really spending. Go treat yourself to some British cod.