Monday, January 12, 2009

Some final thoughts on London

I suspect a person could live in London for years and hardly scratch the surface of what the city has to offer... and we were only there for a week! It's impossible not to be swept up in the history that permeates every street corner. Just think that a scant 400 years prior, Shakespeare was roaming the streets of Elizabethan London, busily crafting his most famous plays, adding many notable phrases to the English language* (one fell swoop, vanish into thin air, flesh and blood), and avoiding the Plague. Hopefully we'll make it back to the London area some day for further adventures, but for now it's time to officially wrap up the posts on London with some final thoughts and observations...

We're lucky we didn't get run over. Everyone knows the British drive on the wrong ("wrong" meaning "left") side of the road. You might not know that the British are in fact responsible for the vast majority of other countries that still drive on the left and that mainland Europeans largely have Napoleon to thank for the privilege of driving on the right side of the road. (It seems the history of driving on one side of the road over the other is all tied up with wagons and occupying forces.)

In addition, unless you've visited London, you may not know that painted on the street at every single intersection are the words, "Look right→" or "←Look left." These carefully placed words, as you might imagine, are designed to keep tourists from looking for cars in the wrong direction, seeing that the road is clear, and then stepping into the street and getting hit by a double-decker bus. These kind reminders saved me a number of times, which in turn also saved Laura since they reminded me to horse-collar her out of the busy intersection and back onto the sidewalk.

We also enjoyed seeing how the left-ness (much like our own right-ness) permeates every aspect of life, with trains traveling on the left, escalators on the left, people walking up/down stairs on the left, etc.

The world economy is not, in fact, conspiring against us. At the time that we moved to Europe, the dollar was so incredibly worthless compared to the Euro that we probably would have been better off burning dollar bills than using them to pay for our heating bill. But this time around, we got lucky - at the time of our trip to London, the British Pound was almost dead even with the Euro, meaning that based on the historical exchange rate, we effectively received a 20-30% discount on everything. We call it "The British Holiday Sale."

I will never step foot in Harrods or Selfridges again. London's two most famous department stores - one of which (Selfridges) is the original home of Paddington Bear - are many things, starting with world renowned, marvelously appointed, and eminently luxurious. They're also mindlessly expensive and suffocatingly crowded... I'm sorry, Laura - there's just something unnatural about flipping through racks of £500 sweaters while packed so close to other shoppers that crowd surfing is the only viable exit strategy.

Mind the Gap. "Mind the Gap" is a quirky phrase that is repeated no less than a billion times a day in various London Underground stations. It refers to the gap between the train and the platform, which is larger in some stations because they are curved, though not large enough to pose a risk for any marginally attentive human being.

A little slice of home. Britain is a nice middle ground between Europe and the United States. The lack of language barrier is an obvious boon, and there were enough other similarities to make these two European travelers feel almost like we had made it home for the holidays. For instance, in British restaurants - like American restaurants but completely unlike any mainland European restaurant - you can actually expect servers to ask you if you are enjoying your meal while you're still eating it and bring you the bill without first requiring you to club them and physically drag them to the cash register. They'll also serve you tap water, and they'll even - wait for it - put ice in your cup! Woohoo! No one whines about giving you change, the stores are open ridiculously long hours, storekeepers openly acknowledge your existence even when busy (with a friendly "Be with you in a moment"), people drive big cars (by European standards, anyway)'s like America Light. Laura and I felt right at home.

Well, it was almost like home... British English and American English are not quite the same thing, and thus talking to people was not always effortless. Exhibit A: When going through customs on our way into London, the customs officer asked us a number of quick-fire questions that largely left me staring at him in stupefied silence. (Meanwhile, Laura answered effortlessly, as usual.)

On that note, it is now my lifelong goal to make the word "rubbish" cool in the US.

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