Saturday, July 10, 2004

Not-so-great Britain, Part II: Just bumbershoot me

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In our last episode, I described the prelude to the boring trip my wife and I took to London. This week, things go from mediocre to mediocre-er.

A tip to remember about walking around London is that it's not a good idea to walk around London.

It's an enormous city, for one thing, with more than 25 different neighborhoods. Around the second time we headed for Notting Hill but realized after 75 minutes of slogging through a steady, soaking drizzle that we were still in Kensington, for Chrissake, or we missed it and ended up in Bayswater or God forbid Knightsbridge, we realized that we didn't have to see Notting Hill that badly to get the gist of it: stores closed during prime shopping time, wet sidewalks, impassive and overdressed British people hiking briskly by with a better umbrella than ours.

Also, in England vehicles have right-of-way over pedestrians. British drivers heave their Fiats and Peugeots through the streets with the speed of hummingbirds and the precision of apprentice bricklayers. Compared to London, crossing a Manhattan street is like ambling across a rural Nebraska cow path.

The best way to see London is by subway, or Underground. To get around, simply decipher the system of 13 overlapping train lines using a map that looks like a picture of two octopi in flagrante delicto, or perhaps a rumble between two rival gangs of assorted Crayolas.

Most Underground stations are located across the street from fun places like Westminster Abbey and Speaker's Corner and the Tower of London. Once again, do not attempt to cross any streets. Stay on the sidewalk outside the subway stop and take pictures from there.

One morning, as my wife bandaged her foot blisters, news anchors on the telly were saying that a study showed London's streets were not as "pedestrian-friendly" as they could be.

I looked at my wife. She looked at me. We looked at the telly. The news anchors looked at us.

"Well, duh!" we said in unison.

Drool, Britannia

On page 130 of the Frommer's "England 2004" travel guide is this sentence, written without irony: "London is one of the great food capitals of the world."

Later on, the guide also says, "Pigs' nose with parsley-and-onion sauce may not be your idea of cutting-edge cuisine, but Simpson's-in-the-Strand is serving it for breakfast."

"We can get pigs' nose breakfasts at home," my wife said. "Let's eat interesting food."

London has many restaurants, all of which are open from noon to 2 p.m. and then from 6 p.m. to 6:05 p.m. And you need reservations. If you don't eat during these times because you're busy seeing the sights, fuck you.

The few times we did eat, it was usually cold meat.

"Please, no more cold meat," my wife said more than once as we sat down in a cafe for lunch.

I checked the menu. "We have our choice between cold mutton and cold lamb on white bread."

Once, we had British food at a pub in Stratford, birthplace of William Shakespeare. I ate a lamb shank lathered in gravy and served on mashed potatoes. My wife ordered something called a Ploughman's lunch.

"Sounds warm!" she said, shivering under a fleece sweater we bought to shield her from the rain outside. She would discover that a Ploughman's lunch is cold ham, boiled potatoes, and a chilled slab of pie made from several organs.

After our dinners, we found nothing to do anywhere in England, except visit pubs to drink ourselves to incontinence, which explains more than a few things about the British.

Everything else closes at 6 p.m. We splashed through the rain, passing darkened stores, headed to the hotel to turn in early. We watched fascinating British TV, like the original "Big Brother." The 10 or so housemates were mystified that they'd run out of toilet paper. "Where's it fockin' goin'?" one person shouted. Spoiler alert! Turns out they were just using a lot of toilet paper.


On TV, the British are hilarious. In real life, the accent gets annoying real fast. Also, actual Brits are mopey to the point where I was constantly shoving mirrors under people's noses to see if they were breathing. I'd be mopey, too, if I were always moist.

The only thing that makes British people animated is soccer. Then they turn scary and mean--sort of like zombies that way.

One day, on the Underground, we heard an announcement that a person was caught under the train. Five minutes later, there was another announcement: a second person was caught under a train. There would be "slight delays."

We didn't hear a word about it on the news--but we learned all about the Euro 2004 tournament and British star Wayne Rooney, who scored twice against Croatia.

A member of Parliament was on TV to discuss the health care system--so the anchors asked him about the upcoming game against Portugal.

"I hope Rooney scores three goals!" he said.

"Roo-mania" (that's what they called it, not I) swept England that week. On another station, one anchor asked another: "I think Rooney's a very good player. Do you think he's very good?"

"I do, actually," the guy replied.

England ended up losing to Portugal, Rooney be damned. The next day, our last full day in England, everyone was more glum than usual--except our beefeater guide at the Tower of London.

At the start of the tour, he bared his teeth and shouted, "I hope nobody here's from Portugal!"

I glanced at my wife, who snickered and threatened to turn me in. I had visions of the beefeater locking me inside the tower and swinging an ax at my neck. So I bit my tongue--I still have the scars to prove it.

Home again, home again, jiggety-jig

A few more so-so sights and two broken umbrellas later, we left for home. London may have been three-fourths boring, but my wife and I did have some fun. We compared notes on the flight back.

"The museums were great," she said. "It was nice and dry in there."

"Buckingham Palace is a very large house," I said cheerfully. "And Big Ben's clock was more or less accurate, I thought."

"Those guards who don't move sure didn't move," she said, "except to give us dirty looks."

"It's my beard," I said. "It looks Portuguese."

We were served cold meat on the flight. Instead, we broke out a colossal bar of duty-free Toblerone.

We arrived at our Fall River apartment in the late afternoon, picked up our dog and cat, then stared into our empty fridge.

"China Star, dearest?" I said.

"Order me anything that comes hot," she said.

I hopped in my car to pick up our warm spare ribs and fried rice, and somewhere on President Avenue, where a couple of kids were kicking a soccer ball around North Park, the rain began to fall. I was home.

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