Please keep left

Summary: Westminster Abbey, Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, the Mall, Trafalgar Square, Picadilly, Bond Street, London Pub Walk, dinner at an Italian place, Charles Dickens history walk, London museum, evensong at St. Paul’s, fish and chips, Macbeth at the Globe, Borough Market, Camden Town Market, British Museum, going out in SoHo, Tower of London, time on the Tube, ale, ale, ale, snakebite.*

London in 10 words: Beautiful.  Self-explanatory.  Ancient.  Polite.  Cosmopolitan.  Ethnic.  Regal.  Tacky.  American?  Sprawling.

Things it is easier to do in London than you think:

1) Know where to look, where to stand, where to walk, etc.  So, they drive on the left-hand side of the street here.  Better still, about half the streets are one-way, though to you, the pedestrian, it’s usually not clear which way that is.  Suspecting, correctly, that this system might be a little jarring to the rest of the planet, London has kindly undertaken to paint the words “LOOK LEFT” or “LOOK RIGHT” at every intersection in the city.  And this is a city with, estimating roughly from my guidebook map, a billion hillion roads.  (Could be one reason their sales tax is 15%.)

In fact, the British love putting signs like this everywhere. “Mind the Gap!”  “Queue starts here.”  “Charles Dickens owned this house from 1842-9,” “Shakespeare got very drunk at this pub in June 1605,”  etc.   There are signs marking exits, entrances, street names, building histories, places where famous people died, etc.  And they are always so nicely worded: a sign outside a pub read, “Polite notice:  Patrons are kindly reminded to leave space for pedestrians to use the walk.”

But the “keep left/right” sign is the British favorite.  A placard reading “Keep right.  No smoking!” is posted literally every few meters on Tube escalators.  You can usually read all three/four/five from the top of the stairs.

2)  Buy beer!  Or wine!  Or champagne! Ok, not earth-shattering to report that they drink more and more often on this side of the pond.  But there is really something bizarre about seeing a group of really distinguished looking, Monopoly-style elderly gentlemen in suits sitting outside a cafe at 11 am on a Friday drinking beer.  I can’t think of a single place I went in London where there was not booze on tap for sale within a few blocks’ walk.  A few public spots have signs notifying you that you have entered a no drinking zone and that a police officer “is permitted to fine you for drinking here.”  These usually written in tiny font and are not well-marked; in a churchyard adjacent to the Borough Street Market, it was hidden behind a bush.

3)  Lapse into an English accent. At first, hearing it is sort of a special treat every time you get a native to open their mouth.  An American associates English accents with things like expensive watches, luxury whiskey, pirates, etc., so the first few times you hear this accent applied in any other setting, it can be a bit of a jolt.  (Case in point: evening service at St. Paul’s.  It was hard not to feel like I was having Psalms read to me by a Mercedes ad announcer.)

After two days, American accents are the ones that sound weird.  You find yourself peppering your speech with “brilliant!”, “rubbish,” and, especially, the perennial British suffix:  “isn’t it?”

After three days, you start thinking in a British accent.

Things it is harder to do in London than you think:

1)  Find help. Harriet, my very gracious and lovely host in London, told me several times that the British are “always polite, but never helpful.”  This proved unfortunately to almost always be the case.  Londoners really want to help you, but usually, they can’t.  Instead, desperate to prove useful, they barge on and offer lots of answers to questions that you didn’t ask, in case these come in handy at a later time.  Example:

(At an STATravel store, buying an international youth travel discount card:)

Me:  “Great, so what kind of discounts does the card cover?”

Travel agent: “Oh, loads.  You can view the full list on the website.  It’s got everything listed on there.  Tons of discounts, there is.  Thousands of different things.”

Me: “Cool.  I see a few listed here for hotel rooms and transportation…do you know if there are also discounts for  attractions and sights as well?  Things like museums, tours?”

Travel agent:  “Oh, yes.  It covers all manner of discounts, doesn’t it?  I see there’s even a good one for Blockbuster, if you care to rent videos or what have you while you’re traveling.”

Me:  “Ah, ok.  Well, do you have any ideas about where I can use it in London?”

Travel agent:   “You see there, in the booklet,” *gestures at a rack of pamphlets* “it’s got a few in there.  Best is to always just ask.  Can never hurt to ask, can it?”

Me: “Yes, of course.  …So, do you think it’s worth the fee to go to the Tower of London?”

Travel agent: “Oh, depends on what you like, really.”

Me: “…”

Travel agent: “…Yeah, I don’t know, I haven’t been there since I was six.”

To be fair, though, Brits at least try very hard to help, and in many cases, politeness is all that’s needed.  I saw a woman leap to help a stranger lift a stroller off the train, a totally impossibility in New York or DC.  And the man who sold me my SIM card, while a little confused about the details of how work the phone, bore with me through 15 minutes of explaining how to activate my card and “top up”–add more funds.

2)  Take the Tube. Great news, Washingtonians!  There IS a subway system worse than yours! While the Tube is, at least, very clean, the system map is misleading at best and reaching your destination on the weekend, when track repairs are done, requires advanced calculus.  It’s not uncommon for entire branches of a particular line to be closed.  Most closures this weekend involved at least 10 stops.

These usually involve track work in the suburbs, so you, inner-city traveler, might think these closures don’t affect you.  Au contraire. (Or as we say in London, “The Hill-Upon-Woldsmoreshireforth branch is closed today, isn’t it?”)  At 6 pm, I tried to board a Tube train west at the Tower Hill stop.  We sat on the train for 5 min. before the announcer declared that there was a suspicious package and the line was closed indefinitely.  I walked up the block to a different line, where the ticket line was so long I got out again and walked further up the block, where the next station was closed.

Did I mention the Tube doesn’t have air conditioning?  This is fine in April, but Colin, a lovely gent I met up with who commutes an hour each way, said in July he has to take off most of his clothes before boarding the train, where his face usually comes to rest in the sweaty armpit of a fellow commuter.

This is already a long entry and yet I feel like there’s so much more to say about London.  SO much more.  I’ll try this again when I get to Paris!

*Snakebite = beer plus cider and grenadine.  Huge over here.  Very tasty.

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7 responses to “Please keep left

  1. Colleen Rudman

    I think New York City could hold its own in bars per square feet, at least in certain areas. 🙂 But not so good on the signage! Lovely to read your comments (lapsing into English expression just reading!) – keep them coming. Cheers for Harriet and Colin!

  2. I’ll have to try a snakebite! Love reading your updates.

  3. Colin de Silva

    Well to be fair, I do leave my pants on…:-) But it is unnaturally hot. The tube has its own ecosystem, and its own species of mosquito – which survives in the warm tunnels even in Winter. Mind you, the metro has air-conditioned trains, but the heat is pumped right out on the platforms, so after getting a drenched shirt waiting for your train, you do have to pick it off our skin when on the train to avoid pneumonia…

    You didn’t comment about on the roads we drive on the left, and on escalators we stand on the right. Surely that drives you nuts? I think its the intention. In our defence, these signs are definitely needed. Nothing infuriates us commuters more that tourists impeding the traffic. How to spot:
    Italians: stand on left on escalators, completely oblivious to people bearing on them from behind. It’s expected; this is a country that doesn’t approve of the use of wing mirrors in cars.
    Spaniards: Tend to congregate into groups, like a herd. Also spontaneously break out into song when herding has reached critical mass. Unfortunately they tend to congregate in the worst places, like the top of escalators, the only entrance/exit to a platform, or the best one, bottom of escalators.
    Americans: these are the ones giving directions to everyone else, including us Brits, because they are so bloody well-prepared, guidebooks, maps, all at their fingertips. 🙂

    As for drinking, well. There was actual backlash when drinking was banned on the tube. In fact the tube was trashed on the last night of legal drinking, by a roving party of drunks 🙂 This is a country that invented Port to get unspoiled drink around the French blockade, what more can I say.

    And I do have to correct you on the ‘isn’t it?’. More common to hear ‘innit?’ I think Americans somehow search out the English accents they want to hear 🙂

    Oh – liked the article….fantastic keep it up..

  4. Colin de Silva

    Snakebites: should come with a Govt. Health Warning for American students. Our Uni had a pretty active US exchange program, and I can’t tell you how many times I had to carry comatose/upchucking Americans out of the student bar. I blame your under-age drinking laws – 21 is far too draconian a limit. It takes a while for students more used to surreptitious drinking on fake-id to realise that ‘going out for a drink’ in the UK involves having at least 5. Before dinner.

  5. Colin de Silva

    “London has kindly undertaken to paint the words “KEEP LEFT” or “KEEP RIGHT”” – you mean LOOK LEFT and LOOK RIGHT, don’t you?

    of course, it assumes all tourists speak English. But I think there is always an arrow accompanying those words…

    • Colin! Thanks for checking out my blog! And thanks for your comments–they add much more to my blithe observations. I laughed out loud at the descriptions of all the tourists.

      And yes, good call on the LOOK LEFT signs. I’ll go fix that now.

      Yes, that did drive me crazy. I could never figure out where I was supposed to walk in London. On the left? The right? Because even Britons themselves do not appear to have come to a consensus on that.

      But you’re right about the signs, of course. We don’t have very many in the DC Metro and it drives Washington commuters insane when tourists stand on the left on the escalator. So you guys have the last laugh there, for sure.

  6. Colin de Silva

    One thing about our signs I do hate, it’s the ones that start of with ‘Polite notice’. I mean, I’m the reader, so surely *I’ll* be the judge of that? It’s being rudely presumptuous.

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