Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Last day at the internet cafe

I've been wanting to try to sum up the differences and impressions of being a short-timer American in London, and now as luck would have it, I'll have to try to distill it all down to a short enough entry that I can be out in a half-hour or so and back to my hotel so my mother and sister won't worry.

They shouldn't really, but I did promise them I'd try to be back by 11pm. But I don't feel afraid of being by myself on the short walk back to our little hotel room. This area of London is well-travelled by other pedestrians and only seems to get more so as the night progresses. I'm sure it must winnow off at some point, but we've never been up that late.

And in any case, London on the whole seems to be a pedestrian's paradise. It has that in common with the bigger, older cities in the U.S. -- New York and Chicago most especially. Whereas you're a lowly wanderer in the desert if you're getting around by foot in most cities and a downright freak if you're doing it in Southern California (I once had a stranger ask if my car was broken when I decided to take a walk in Garden Grove) -- in a city like London, you're in good company. Lots and lots of good company. There is something grounding about getting around so much just under the power of your own two feet, and of course it's invigorating for body and soul. The temperature has been in a range from about 35-55 degrees Fahrenheit (my guess. They give all the temperatures in Celsius and I don't have time for such nonsense.), and it's just lovely to go around in a coat and scarf, just one of the masses going here and there in a city that has seen nobles and ignobles treading its stones for centuries.

It's a hard city, to be sure, and I don't say I could keep from feeling some misery if I was here for a prolonged period. The skies are constantly gray, rain always seems likely and sunshine is fitful and noncommittal. Those crowds can't help but seem faceless and drone-like from time to time. And the beautiful stone and brick that is everywhere -- in the cobblestones and paving stones that make up every street and out of which the ubiquitous multi-storied Victorian buildings are made -- could seem cold and make you feel friendless if you looked at nothing else for long.

But there's also a wonderful smell of wet stone and earth that permeates the streets and the tube stations. There's a naturalness to walking along with everyone else walking along, trying to get in and out of the tube stations in some kind of mild-mannered but no-nonsense hurry because ... well, because there's so damn many people, and the only way we'll all get wherever it is we're trying to get is if we all keep moving at more or less the same pace.

With that in mind, I've thought to myself that this would be a terrible place to be handicapped. There's almost no provision made in London's driving pace for people that are in wheelchairs or who just can't stride out in a military way.

As to whether it is any less harsh on those who can't keep up in other ways, I couldn't say. I haven't seen a single homeless person in all of the miles and miles of London streets we've covered on foot and by bus. I haven't had a single person come up asking for money. I've heard from our professor, he said only that the city had dealt with the homeless problem very harshly because it was getting out of control. But I don't know much about it myself, so I won't hazard a guess.

But all of this isn't getting me any closer to my sum-up, so let me try my favorite old bullet-point format for other noteworthy comments:

* Anti-Americanism ... what Anti-Americanism? -- This roving reporter can faithfully inform the reading public that I haven't seen anything of the much-ballyhooed English loathing for all things American. To be sure, I've heard an anti-Bush remark or two, but nowhere near the amount of heartfelt grief they give to Tony Blair or the royals. And a short compilation I read of P.J. O'Rourke's impressions as an American in England corroborated my feelings, further remarking that whatever Yank-loathing was supposedly out there couldn't be any worse than what he had experienced during the Reagan years. I think part of the reason that the English aren't still in a righteous fit of pique with us over our audacity in electing Bush is that they simply can't spare the time. The city is rife with nationalities and ethnicities coming and going about their business. To remember always to particularly sneer and glare at American tourists would take more work than I think they're prepared to put into it, and most likely they're so pleased to encounter someone who at least marginally speaks the same language as themselves that all other differences sort of pale by comparison.

* Tubin' -- I am absolutely going to miss the London transport system. Well, no. I have to be very specific. I will miss the dizzying complexity and relative efficacy of the London underground. That they were able to pull this off in the 1860's seems to my naive heart to be one of the great wonders of engineering in this busy world, and one that I know every large city in America would love to emulate. On the other hand, I don't think much at all about the buses. The bus drivers and conductors seem to range only from sullen to mean. My mother and I had one bus pull out almost literally from under our feet as we were stepping onto it and another pointedly and ridiculously ignore our signals to pull over at the bus stop. Those may just be a couple of bad experiences, but who needs it?

* Pardon me, waiter, but there's a toad in this hole -- the English food. Well, the English food. It's better than it has been. Unfortunately, since it has been downright diabolical in the past, to have it better than that still means it's pretty bad overall. We've had some lovely meals, but we've had some rude surprises. If you ever come here, stick to fish and chips. It's brilliant.

* If it's broke, don't fix it -- I'm definitely not going to miss how often things in London are broken. All things mechanical and logistical go awry, but the whole area seems to be about 33% likely to be as close to broken as fixed at any given time. It teaches you not to count on public facilities, transportation or much of anything else, but it's incredibly frustrating at times.

* Who's rude? -- On the whole, I have to give high marks to the Londoners for courtesy. I don't know if it helps to have been in some of these busy cities and not have my expectations very high, but given the press of people going around by foot and vehicle, I've encountered almost no shoving, snippiness or horn-honking. On the other hand, there are little things I find amusing in the environs, especially given that Americans are the ones who are always accused of crassness. For example, the English don't call their public toilets bathrooms, restrooms or facilities. They call them toilets. That's accurate, no doubt, but it also seems funny to see signs in elegant locations that say "Toilets". It strikes an American as a little crude, and I can't bring myself, when those signs are absent in a restaurant, to go up to anyone and say, "Where's your toilets?" I'd think someone was a dolt if they asked me that. But then, I can't tell them that, or else I'm the dolt.

Oh well. Only two days left to work out quandaries like this. Tomorrow we go off to Stratford-on-Avon for the day, so if I don't intend to just hold it all day, I'll have to figure out how to walk up to someone who is probably a great Shakespearian actor or actress and ask them proudly, "Where's yur terlet?" I think I'll bring my cowboy hat along.


Blogger Jan Bear said...

Of course they can't be rude. They've got those classy British accents.

Even Liverpudlian insults couldn't sound as rude as "Good morning" in someplace like Chicago.

January 6, 2005 at 10:57 PM  

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