Panic on the Streets of London

The magic of air travel meant that we would leave Newark at roughly 7pm Tuesday and arrive at 6:30am Wednesday. What hath God wrought? In order to ensure good sightseeing, I should have fallen asleep on the plane. But I can’t fall asleep on planes, not really–to paraphrase Patton Oswalt, plane sleep is sleep robbed of all its nutrition. The best I could manage was a few fitful nappy-time moments while I listened to game 5 of the 1999 NLCS on my iPod. Every few moments, I would wake up to find out that still no one had scored after 10 innings, 12 innings, 15 innings… All told, my actual asleep time totalled approximately 45 seconds.

When you get to London/Gatwick, you are faced with a number of transportation options into London herself. You can take the Gatwick Express, which runs nonstop to Victoria Station and serves overpriced snacks and drinkage. Or you can take the cheaper Southern Rail, which makes lotsa stops on its way into Blighty. Always looking to save a quick buck, I went for the latter.

What I didn’t fully realize is that Southern Rail is a commuter rail. So the seats weren’t equipped for people with baggage and carry-on items. The Wife tried to put one of her bags on rack above the seats, but it proved unsuitable for any luggage that couldn’t be carried by a Barbie doll. Not only that, but by the time we’d gone four stops, the train
was completely packed. Initially, I’d put my enormous luggage on the empty seat next to me, but before long all seats were taken. I pondered moving the bag to the floor so someone could sit, but all available floor space was taken by grim looking commuters holding on to handrails and completing the Times cryptic crossword with one hand.

It soon became apparent that I was not a popular person on this train. In New York, people would have yelled at me something like “Move your shit ‘fore I cut you, bitch.” In London, I was merely the recipient of polite but firm throat clearings. Finally, one bold individual asked if could move the bag (and he called me “mate”–local color!). I reluctantly volunteered to do so, and I’m still not sure how I managed to wedge my bag in between all the large-legged Londoners. For the remainder of the trip, I balanced my suitcase carefully between my legs. With every lurch of the train it would smack someone in the groin, but you know the English, they keep a stiff upper lip at all times.

We exited the train at Victoria and barely managed to escape the sharp hobnailed boots of the London commuters. Imagine being dumped out on a Long Island Railroad or NJ Transit platform at 8:37am, but without prior knowledge of the Mad Max-type environment you would encounter there. We pulled to the side with our little wheeled bags, and I half expected a slave driver to come by and whip us back into the throng.

Our crowded and baffling train ride was immediately followed by a crowded and baffling tube ride to bring us to our hotel, a pleasant facility near Hyde Park that took a laissez faire attitude to busted toilet fixtures (more on that later). We spent the rest of our morning getting acquainted with the tube (not too hard if you’re used to the subway, and much easier when you’re not lugging 70 lbs of provisions) and taking in some of the more touristy sights: Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Cleopatra’s Needle, Trafalgar Square.

We didn’t actually go in any of these places (the ones that are go-in-able, anyway), thinking that after a long plane ride with no sleep, we’d absorb little of it. Because this was gonna be a learnin’ vacation! No sitting around and doing nothing for us, no sir! It will soon become apparent to you that a “sitting down and doing nothing” vacation will be right up my alley next time.

Oh, and Harrod’s. Dear sweet Christmas, Harrod’s. Imagine if Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s fought to the death, like the last scenes of an episode of Dragonball Z. And then, after they’ve thrown each other through mountains and they’re heaving and leaking spinal fluid, in comes Saks Fifth Avenue and a Jersey shore dark house ride to rekindle the battle, and it NEVER ENDS. That’s Harrod’s. I shall say no more.

We never quite used to the flow of British pedestrian traffic. That whole “driving on the left thing” can really throw a Yank off his walking game. Most streetcorners have helpful reminders telling you LOOK RIGHT or LOOK LEFT as the case may be. Thank God, because without them, I would’ve been dead about eight times. In London, unless you’re talking about a main thoroughfare, streets are narrow and almost always curve off in a weird direction, thanks to the surveying of Lord Snotbottom’s estate back in 1237. So you can look down the street all you want, but usually your visibility is about three centimeters long, and you can easily get your head caved in by a sputtering diesel-engine Citroen. Killed by a French car–what a ignominious end!

It amazed me how well kept the attractions are, considering their age. London is ancient, but its most touristy places–compared to those in NY–are immaculate. I’m pretty sure they’re painted and refaced hourly. Either that, or places like Nelson’s Column have multiple copies, so when they bring one into the shop for delousing, they can put up another one in its place.

And there’s so many god damn monuments. You can’t walk two feet without running into another football field-sized statue of a man on a galloping horse, commemorating the Battle of Bumblefuck, where 20,000 conscripted soldiers from Belfast and Newcastle bravely gave their lives so the Queen could hold on to another tiny scrap of land halfway across the world.

I knew London would be expensive, but having to spend a lot of money is a lot like steeling yourself to get hit real hard. You can brace yourself all you want, but it’s still gonna hurt like hell. At times, it’s easy to forget just how much more things cost there because 1 pound = 2 bucks, so things can look like they’re even cheaper than they are here. When I was in Liverpool eight years ago, several of my classmates made that mistake–particularly in music shops, when they didn’t realize a CD priced 14.99 was gonna cost them more than 30 bucks American.

The most annoying thing about London’s expensive-osity is that there is no alternative but to spend through the nose (or any other orifice you care to mention). Granted, on our tight schedule, we pretty much stayed in the most touristy-type nabes. But as expensive as NY is, there are cheap things to do and see and eat and drink. If you just want a slice of pizza and coke, you can escape with only spending 3 bucks.

Not so in London. I’m sure if I went around with a local, he could point me to Ye Olde Cheap Pub where I could get a pint and a plate of fish and chips and Man U jersey all for 30p. But if you’re on your own, you will have your wallet raped for even the smallest of purchases. Thimble-sized Hagen-Dasz: 3 pounds. Cup of coffee, not nothing fancy, just coffee: 2 pounds. Pints in pubs are roughly NY-priced, but that’s about as close to a bargain as you’re gonna get. So we got most of our caloric intake through warm cask ale (difficult to find here, impossible not to find in London). This is fun for a few days but I
don’t recommend as a lifestyle choice. After a few days, your lower intestine will beg for mercy.

Speaking of which: For lunch on our first day, we ate at a pub near Trafalgar Square. Nothing fancy, just standard pub fare and a coupla pints. Later that night, exhausted and not wanting to venture too far, we decided to eat at a pub near our hotel that we’d heard was good (according to an ale appreciation society The Wife keeps tabs on). It had a different name and décor than the pub we’d patronized earlier, but the menu was exactly the same. Not just the food offered, I mean the sleeves, the paper, the fonts–all the exact same.

It soon became obvious that this–and many other pubs in the greater London area–were either owned by the same brewery or catered by the same food outfit, Aramark-style. I felt duped, because when traveling I avoid chains like the plague. I want to eat like the locals! I want to sup with the rabble! And now London was trying to make me eat at a series of stealth TGI Friday’s.

By the end of the day, I was looking at London like a version of what I fear NY is becoming: a dystopian, completely tourist-driven economy accessible only to the very very rich, engineered to suck every last dollar out of those who can least afford it. Endless parking
regulations. Jacked up prices on everything. I couldn’t imagine how someone who made my kind of money could live in a place like that. The answer, of course, is that someone like me is not meant to live in a place like that.

And everyone was wearing Yankees hats. So help me, 7 out of 10 young kids wore a Bombers cap, and it was easy to tell that these were not just NYers on vacation. All the shops had them in their front window, displayed alongside other examples of Hip Fashion. The Yankees hat was clearly the hot item of the moment, and the entire city was wearing them regardless of whether they’d ever even seen a baseball game. The entire trip, I wore my Mets ski hat in defiance, not realizing that these kids probably didn’t even know who the Yankees were, let alone could identify their crosstown rivals. They probably thought I’d bought a cheap knockoff of their much cooler headgear.

Does anyone remember that hot second a few years ago when the fashion trend amongst urban kids was the Nascar jacket? I swear this happened, but it was here and gone like slap bracelets. That’s what the Yankees hat in London is like–seeing a 17 year old kid from Bed-Stuy wearing a vinyl jacket emblazoned with STP and Skoal. He doesn’t understand it’s true meaning–and won’t bother to understand–because it’s cool, and that’s good enough for him.