Thursday, September 27, 2007

London Journey: Part Three

September 21st, Royal Borough of Chelsea and Kensington

Well, we’ve settled in and visited our local Tesco (one of the country’s major supermarket chains). This was an interesting experience to be sure. About half the brand names in the store are recognizable (and so, I’m trying to stay away from them where possible- I have no desire to spend a year eating and drinking stuff I can get in the States.) But the other half of the inventory is…well…foreign.

There is also one very bitter fact which we can not find away around. Because of the popularity of Tea- the old world leaf- the habit of drinking coffee, so rich and robust at home, has atrophied here to almost nothing. Coffee in the United Kingdom would seem to have become a pale and shadowy reflection of it’s robust New World Self.

In fact, the only whole bean coffee you can buy in the store is from Starbucks and there is NO ground coffee ala Maxwell House or Chock Full o’ Nuts here whatsoever. All they have is Nescafe…unlike at home, where it comes in the glass jar suitable for emergences- something that you offer only with utmost embarrassment (“sorry, I’ve only got instant” you say. And your guest says, nine times out of ten, “oh…well, that’s okay…I don’t need coffee. Have you got a pistol so I can shoot myself?”) here, Nescafe Instant comes in every conceivable flavor and size container…no wonder the British don’t seem to like coffee…they haven’t been drinking it.

Also, Cream, or Half-and-Half, simply does not exist. At all. Period. Not even in the many Starbucks which proliferate here (coffee, like a springtime plant, is trying to push it’s poor little head above the soil), so, at least to my way of thinking, it is simply not possible to get a GOOD cup of coffee here. The best you can hope for is an adequate cup from Starbucks (thus forcing me to break my rule about products from home) flavored with … milk.

I have to admit, this absence of cream really surprised me. This is the land, after all, which gave us the names of most of our American Milk Cows- Jerseys and Herefords- they all come from here. So do many of our favorite cheeses, such as cheddar. James Harriet was always sticking his fist up a cow’s butt here in the All Creatures Great and Small series…so I guess I had just naturally sort of suspected this country to be a cream haven. After all, you have to put SOMETHING in your tea.

But it is all and only…milk.

In fact, when I asked the clerk for cream at Tesco, he lead me first to Carnation Sweetened Condensed, and then, when that didn’t serve, brought me to canned coconut milk. It just doesn’t exist here.

This morning, we negotiated the Tube for the first time…taking it from Sheppard’s Bush to Russell Square (which meant a change in lines- we truly are diving in with both feet!) which is the station nearest Bobbi’s school. As we waited for orientation to begin, we found ourselves setting in Russell park- a wonderful green space dominated by stately trees with plenty of benches and…wonder of wonder…trash cans! (Bobbi has decided that we will have to keep note of where all the trash cans are in the city, so that, like squirrels, we’ll always have an idea of where to go in an emergency.)

The parks here all full of pigeons, just like at home and huge stately trees that have had centuries to achieve their grace. Except for the age of a few of the buildings, this city has a similar to feel to some of the older parts of Boston or Philadelphia- so, unless you happen to be looking directly at something quintessentially British (like the lions outside of the British Museum) it doesn’t feel anywhere near as exotic as you’d expect.

Sitting on the benches and watching the world walk by, you begin to get the impression that the British Empire is now working in Reverse. Instead of English Families traveling out to India, Africa, the Caribbean or Hong Kong…those places and many, many more seem to be sending people streaming into the United Kingdom. In fact, I have to say the accent I seem to hear the least of in England is English. The whole world, it feels, is pouring into London.

Back in our own neighborhood, Bobbi and I have been pleased to find the open arms of our Local Pub, the Kensington. Because the bureaucracy of the British utility services is all but unbelievable…while at home, Verizon can take two interminable days to solve a simple problem, BT (British Telecom) can take two weeks…we are without ways to communicate with the outside world from our flat.

The Kensington solves the problem for us. Not only do they offer free wireless internet access (all you gotta do is buy a pint!) , but there are phone booths just down the corner. International calling cards are cheep here- I’ve called the States three or four times on mine and used £2.00. Meanwhile, our local calls to the London Animal Reception Centre, where Buffy is being held, run us about £1.00 per minute.

Buffy, by the way, seems to be doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances, and, as only Buffy can, is making fast friends under the most adverse of circumstances. When we called the Animal Reception Centre to check on him, the lady said: “Oh, you mean the little ginger fellow with all the extra toes? Oh, yes, he is absolutely darling.” Bobbi’s folks have come through, yet again, and will drive to Boston on Friday afternoon to pick up the little fellow, who, Lord Willing, will arrive safely. Both Bobbi and I are quite worried about him and really won’t be fully able to relax and take all of this in until we know he is safe and sound again.

The Kensington is a wonderfully warm place, nice big couches, cozy little tables, fireplaces (not lit), and of course, warm beer. It doesn’t seem as bad, however, when you are sitting in your local pub drinking a pint of London Pride while checking your email and trying to keep in touch with the world. The only thing that is missing are friends and family to share it.

We’ve also met our landlords. Tanya and Leoneid are Russians who left the Soviet Union as soon as possible after the walls came down, whereupon they moved to Australia and stayed for 17 years. This makes for a very interesting accent…mostly Aussie on top, but with a heavy bedrock of Slavic tones. Again…the only accent you don’t seem to hear here is an English one.

Leonied commiserated with us about the fact the BT couldn’t even seem to find our flat on the map, but was careful not to go too far into politics. “I don’t vant to ovened anyone, but I tink ve who lived in the kummunist kun-trees, ve tend to be more conservative dan most people here, I tink.”

I have to say that I expect to come back to the States with a better appreciation for the free market…but I’m not quite ready to join Alan Greenspan (who’s book I just bought in a British Bookshop) in completely chucking out Keynesian theory.

In most areas of the city we’ve been to, there seems to be an awful lot of urban renewal. The British have just been through their own real-estate boom, and the big story here is the collapse of Northern Rock and the moves by Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, to begin instituting the kind of Bank regulation that FDR put in place back in the thirties. The British have just narrowly avoided what could have been a disastrous blow, a result of back room dealings between unregulated bankers. Meanwhile, at home, the Republicans continue to press for LESS government restriction. It seems insane until you reflect that British brokers in the know made billions of pounds off this recent disaster.

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