OK UK?: London For Tourists...
Wot The Dickens...
Why do normally staid Englishmen and Englishwomen wear paper hats to eat Christmas dinner? What exactly is a cracker (as in pull, bang) and does anyone actually eat a goose?
We are unquestionably a strange lot, and trying to explain the above questions to Dickens obsessed Americans is, I feel, a public service on my part.
I get genuinely concerned (due to my current countrymen's proclivity to legal action) that a very false image of "England" has been foisted on an innocent American public. If you step off the Jumbo expecting to be greeted by a Victorian waif, with a cheery, "Can oi take yer bags, miss?", the reality might be a bit of a shock. Bags are no longer taken in public view, criminal gangs of Russian extraction, do it underground, in the bowels of baggage transfer. The victims are those people standing hapless at the luggage belt, watching the same battered box going round and around, hours after their flight-mates have collected their bags, and moved onto the M5.
There is a simple equation at work here. To many Europeans, and certainly the ex-East Europeans, Americans are rich, and love to donate their possessions to the locals. Americans don't exactly help themselves here. If you can afford, and use, luxury luggage, the above logic dictates that you can afford to lose the luxuries contained within. My suggestion is to buy knock-off stuff from China, it looks almost as good, and you can afford to replace it every time you travel (for the rest of your life), for less cost than the luxury case. Sure, no one is fooled, but that's exactly the point here. The chance of your bag being on the, "collect me" merry-go-round, is exponentially increased. Score one for the savvy traveler.
The first character you will actually meet is a London Cabbie. All kidding aside, although the fares might seem like highway robbery, you are, in fact with the last honest person in England. The drivers of the cabs have to spend years driving around London on a moped (arguably a bicycle with an engine, or a motorcycle with pedals - either way, a total death trap). This is termed "learning the knowledge" and means that these guys actually know where "Ye Olde Victorian Hotel and Manse" is.
The mini-cab drivers are moonlighting criminals and lowlifes, the polar opposite of the venerable cabbies. Cabbies keep their business within the family, and are legendary heroes in their homeland, something akin to a knight of old. Pay him, tip him, and thank him with gladness in your hearts.
So, you're in the cab and noticing that there is no snow. I believe it only snowed in England in the olden days, and it is a fact that the Thames actually froze hard enough for their to be “Ice Faires” (with the e inserted for oldness' sake) in days of yore. (Poet speak for "I don't know when, but old, really old)
Victorian clothing is noticeably absent, as are white faces. London is now the cultural hub of the world, thus truly multi-hued. The cockney accent, hard to understand under normal circumstances, has now morphed with Pakistani, Caribbean, and European, flavors, with only one universal. Every sentence ends with the meaningless phrase "init". (And the uniform blank stares of completely befuddled American tourists.)
Depending on your choice of cab, you will either have been dropped off by the black cab at your hotel, or, you will still be driving on the M5 on your way to Basingstoke, (“Nah, this is the best way to avoid the inner city traffic, love...")
Your hotel will probably be the first bit of Victoriana you have actually come across. There are no elevators, even if they are called lifts. And, yes, the bathroom really is down the hall and to be shared with the occupants of the other eight rooms on the sixth floor.
And though the bed will be lumpy and uncomfortable, and the wardrobe too small to put any real clothes in, your biggest challenge will be the bathroom. The bathroom will be cold. Keeping penguins happy, cold. And all the "furniture" placed in the most awkward location possible.
The bath will be under the window, to best emphasize your shadowed figure when getting in and out. Sitting in a chrome cradle will be a thing that resembles an old fashioned telephone. This is the shower. Don't touch it, or even think of using it. It will be broken. The whole idea of a bath might be a bit brave, and you may like to follow the native custom and leave it to the end of the week.
Extremely hot water, appetizingly colored brown, will dibble out of the hot tap. It will be enough to cover the bath in a sheen of wetness and steam up the entire room, but it will soon run out, and turn instantly frigid. Seriously, how badly do you need that bath? You'll be back home in Price-Pfister heaven in a week or so.
The toilet will be situated directly opposite the door, so that anyone bypassing the completely ineffectual lock, will see you in all your glory. This is a level of embarrassment that can kill a regular English person, so please sing while on the loo.
On a wall that has a chipped mirror, and that is all, stands the pedestal washbasin. It is cunningly designed to appear to have enough of a flat surface for you to put things on. This is a trick. Once you stick the plug (yes, it's attached by a dog-tag) into the plughole and wrench the hot and cold taps on, whatever you place there will now fall in.
The taps (fawcets) are deliberately placed far apart so that you can enjoy the sensation of stirring the water to get ‘warm’. Of course, this means your hand is alternately scalded and frozen until something approaching warm is reached, the only problem being that you have now lost feeling in that hand, and the liquid is, at best tepid.
The mirror will have steamed up and, no matter what you do, you will never see a reflection in it, so give up. And where would the plug for the hairdryer or shaver be? The surprise answer is… in the hall, or somewhere completely inaccessible due to safety reasons. (Very wise, water and electricity should not mix, but they should share a zip code)
You can do this for one, maybe two, nights, then, like the rest of your tribe, you need to find a Marriott or a Hilton (not Paris, an actual hotel) as soon as possible. If you are lucky, you can stay in air-conditioned comfort, with room service and a plasma TV. I suggest watching the travel channel on TV, and remain firmly ensconced in room 4323 for the duration.
Actual interaction with the real England will only serve to disappoint, and the Castle thing is way overrated. Look, if it was really any good, some uber-wealthy American would have purchased it and shipped it out to Arizona anyway.
So, if you find yourself staying in London, my advice is to take that literally, and stay in in London...
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