Date of Trip: September 2003
As an English major, studying abroad in the United Kingdom was almost a prerequisite.Mycollege’s only international option forLit studieswas London, so I didn’t have much say in the matter. Had it not been for the fact that quite a few of my fellow English majors and friends had decided to go, I may not have ever gone in the first place. I’m not sure what my rationale was, but in retrospect, I can’t say why my mouth wasn’t watering at the chance to get the hell out of Hamilton, NY for a semester.
I took British Airways from JFK to Heathrow. We were given a group rate, which I recall being about $700 for the roundtrip flight. I had an aisle seat next to a kindly man from Lebanon. Fortunately for us no one ever claimed the window seat, and after exchanging a knowing nod and grin, he shifted over to the window. After that we became fast friends. We had overcome the differences of race, religion, socio-economic background, age etc., transcending these arbitrary distinctions, meeting in an elevated place, somewhere between thought and action. The rest of the flight went smoothly.
Communal Flat Living
My apartment was on Hatton Garden (Chancery Lane and Farringdon Stations), a streetknown as the diamond district of London. There was a steady stream of Hasidic Jewsrushingabout duringnormal businesshours. The combination of traditional black dress, beards, and payos (long, distinctive sideburns) were a nice complement to their $500 cell phones and $5000 rings. As one may imagine, there was also a Kosher Knoshery on the street, which claimed to be a 24 hour establishment. I found that when I needed them most, they consistently let me down. In fact, besides the fashionable night clubs, London pretty much shuts down at 11 p.m. For someonein awe of the24 hour spirit of New York City, this was a bitof a let down.
I was a little apprehensive when I arrived at the apartment. I knew that there were to be seven of us living together in what looked like a somewhat limited space. In London, the cost of real estate in generalisfrightening. Fortunately, I arrived early enough to choose one of the two double rooms. Even then, my roomate and I were a bit cramped, but this is one of the costs of city living. The triple room was utterly ridiculous. The three guys that were stuck on top of each other deserved it though.I sighed contentedly everytime I noticed their room decomposing into a den of puerile filth.There was a small kitchen in the flat, which really caused more aggravation than it was worth. As soon as one person started to cook dinner, everyone decided that, well you know,they would try to do it at the same time. And because no one could agree on how to share the economic burden on necessities –milk, sugar,condiments –everyone simply purchased their own. On the last night we made a delicious meal, using everything that was left over. I guess it was sort of a fried rice/pasta/cereal with chocolate syrup, honey, peanut butter, soy sauce, vinegar andeverything in the spice cabinet.
I decided after about the first week that I would just eat out every meal. It was expensive to do so in London, but worth it for the piece of mind it gave me. I was never stressed out during dinner time. You simply have to find a cheap spot that you can be happy eating four or five meals a week. There are sandwich places all over the city. My favorite was a place by the British Museum and the Florida State Center — whereour classes were held–called The Colesseum. I would usually get the Ham Calabrese salad sandwich.
A group of seven guys in a tight space for three months makes for a sociological experiment with painfully obvious results. The ad hominems flowed freely. Everyone thought they were great cooks. Word of advice, if you’re with someone who claims to be an amazing cook, whilealso insisting that oil should be heated until the entire apartment is filled withdense white smoke, don’t believe anything he says.
There were weekly physical confrontations over things like someone borrowing mayonaise without asking, or someone not calling “fives” after getting up from an open seat, and then having one of your scumbag roomates take the seat and refuse to return it. There were tears. There were TV dinners thrown at people, which exploded on contact. After a month, I learned that the flat we were sharing had a value of 700k.
Getting About the City
London is a great walking city, and you can get pretty much anywhere in zone one –which is where most of the “attractions”are located –in under 40 minutes. The zones are simply designated areas that radiate outwards from the center of the city. As it’s almost impossible to get lost, it’s nice to just walk around and explore. I would often find myself in some little park sharing a bench with a toothless idiot who kept asking me if I liked “maf.” He would then proceed to show me a “maf” trick of alarming stupidity. He wanted some money, but as a poor college student, he would have to be a little more impressive.
I’d also walk around until I found one of London’s numerous librarys, where I would sit at a reading table next to some loon who kept me in complete confusion, babbling incoherently for over an hour. Like any other major city, there are a lot of homeless people about, and if you’re in the habit of walking the same routes, you’ll get to know quite a few of these insane people and their diseased animals too.
I wrote a research paper about infectious disease in the Victorian period, so I was able to get a pass to use the The Wellcome Library, alarge medical research library with a huge selection of original texts. If you would like to be repulsed/fascinated by human health and behavior, this is your place. It was also free to use.
The Tube, AKA the London Metro system, is also remarkably easy to use. It’s somewhat common,however,for certain lines to be non-functioning(strikes, repairs,loons on the tracks etc.).Sometimes your ride would be made more enjoyable by the addition of some free (sort of) entertainment. On one occasion, a homeless duo entered my car and played for the commuters between stops. Their best diddy included the ponderous line,”If you can’t shave in the public toilet, where can you shave?” They wanted money at the end of the performance.
For my final month in London, I purchased a monthly Tube pass, which was good for all bus and subway travel in zones one and two. If you want to go outside zone two to the more blue collar areas of London, you have to pay an add-on fare. I ventured outside zone two on only three occasions, and I never felt limited.
Eggs, Beans, Rotting Tomato, Chips, Sausage, English Bacon
As someone who’s obsessed with food, I found London’s restaurant scene a little difficult to cope with. That said, I really don’t think France’s haughty attitude towards British food is full ydeserved. The food is just pretty mediocre. You know what country has the worst cuisine? Russia, that’s who. I will admit that I quite like the traditional English breakfast, which consists of the elements listed in the title of this section. As far as this breakfast was concerned, there was really no difference in quality from place to place. There were, however, differences in price and quantity.It takes a little effort to find the place where cost and quantity unite, but it’s worth it if you’re a miser.
One joint I did make a habit of eating at was a place in zone two called the Grain Shop (269a Portobello Rd, Ladbroke Grove Station). It’s a vegetarian take out place that allows you to choose from around 20 hot and cold dishes for three set prices (starting at 4 poundsor around $7), depending on how much you want. They also have loaves of sourdough bread for 2 pounds, or halves for 1 pound. Outside the building, quite a few vagrants would tally about the trash receptacles, waitingto claimyour leftovers.As soon as your pace of consumption slowed, the drooling and greedy staring would begin. I would get my food, and consume it with or without company in a nearby park. I was always amusing to throw the unfinished portions of the meal to the pigeons. To see pigeons fighting over an olive thatthey have no way offitting into their beaksis a simple pleasure.
When I didn’t eat out, I liked to make something called Pork & Bean casserole. Head over to the Safeway or Sainsbury’s and buy the following:Two potatoes, half a stick of butter, a can of Pork & Beans, dash of salt and pepper. I was skeptical too at first.
I had some mediocre Indian/Bangladeshi food on Brick Lane (Aldgate East or Shoreditch Stations), a street lined with empty Indian restaurants andstrategically placed hostsimploring you toenter. On one particular occasion, we had a young man giving us the standard, “all you eat,eight pounds, no seven. ” I was in the habit of being curt with these guys, and so I simply said “no!”Hefollowed inprecisely the same tone of voice,”Drugs, hashish 10 pounds, no 9.”
If you like Lebanese food, there is a small chain that’s quite good called Al-Dar (Edgeware Road or Marble Arch Stations). The prices are moderate, the staff speaks very little English (a good thing), and the food has style and substance. I was in London during Ramadam, so there were always muslims breaking the daily fast and smoking hookahs.
I was also on a relatively tight budget — not as tight, however as the horribly stingy people that I lived with, but tight. There are, fortunately, many things to do even if you’re low on pounds sterling.
Every Sunday at Hyde Park (Marble Arch station), approximately six stops on the red line from our flat, there’ssomething called Speaker’s Corner. In the spirit of free speech and self-love, rhetoricians would come out and blabber on about whatever subject matter that they enjoyed blabbering on about. There were always quite a few people with a somewhat frightening religious fervor, be they haters of the Jews, lovers of Jesus or both. Quite often, there was this woman who went on and on about the “pure breed” of British. Her speeches were surreal, drawing large crowds of bemused onlookers, who thankfully saw her as some cosmic absurdity rather than an upholder of Aryan truth. She was mocked relentlessly, her face becoming a shade redder following every verbal assault. Anyone who tried to debate her was always met with unfailing support from the crowd, and regardless of the opposition’s rhetorical talents, crowd solidarity would quickly destroy her. She was left in a pitiful and bitter silence, eyes averted, head slightly bowed. Her pridewas all that prevented tears.
Most of the museums are free, and they are every bit as great as people say. Imperialism was a smashing success. The British Museum certainly attests to just how good it was. While they were taking over most of the known world, they were also thinking about the future. They knew quite well that the”artifacts” they plundered would be worth billions of dollars some day. Unfortunately, they didn’t foresee the ungrateful nations thatthey hadfreed demanding the return of their treasures.
The National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery are also not to be missed. If you’re in London for longer than two weeks, return visits to all the museums is really a great idea. They are just too extensive to get the feeling for in just one visit.
Things to Pay For
London has a great theatre scene. The people are quite proud of this aspect of their cultural heritage. And as part of one of my classes I was fortunate enough to see a play a week for 12 weeks. The plays ranged from West End (Broadway of London, or maybe Broadway is the West End of NYC) blockbusters like Tom Stoppard’s “Jumpers” starring Simon Russell Beale to experimental offerings staged on miniscule budgets. The Royal National Theatre offers fantastic plays at great rates. The British government believes in subsidizing the arts, and so common blokes get the chance to see Kenneth Branaugh in Mamet’s “Edmond” for about 14 pounds ($24). For the more expensive, international known plays and musicals, there is an officialHalf Price Ticket Booth at Leicester Square.
Londoners also fancy themselves having great taste in music. Instead of bland pop garbage monopolizing the charts like we have in theStates, they have a nice mixture of bland pop garbage (Atomic Kitten)and more interesting(British Sea Power) choices. I had the chance to see Radiohead at a cavernous, bunker-likevenue called Earl’sCourt (Warwick Road, Earls Court station). Myfriend said that it would be areligious experience, but I was skeptical. Itturned out to be the best concert I’ve ever been to.