Once the capital of the greatest empire in the world, London might be considered the depressed has-been of the world’s great cities. But people there do speak English, and phone booths are filled with pornographic call-girl advertising. Besides, where else are you going to go? Canada?!
Crossing a street in London is not unlike crossing a street in New York City, in that you take your very life in your hands each time you do so. Much like in New York, motorists do not slow down, but speed up at the sight of a pedestrian. The difference is that in New York this rapid acceleration is accompanied by loud blasts from the horn to announce that you’re about to be run over. In London, drivers speed up but remain totally silent. No horn, nothing. They really intend to hit you. Worse yet, England’s senseless “drive on the left” custom ensures that anybody from outside the islands will automatically be looking the wrong way for oncoming traffic. This is how drivers can tell who to hit. You can actually sense their disappointment each time you narrowly escape death. Try it sometime.
Once you’ve been in London for awhile, you might notice the curious absence of anybody in wheelchairs or motorized carts. This is because nobody is disabled in London. The city was built in the days when survival of the fittest was the rule, and the handicapped quickly perished when left to fend for themselves in the cold, cruel world. This system is remarkably effective in that it keeps unsightly cripples off the streets, but the danger is that when a normal person is temporarily injured, they have no choice but to be carried to back to their flat and become a recluse for several weeks. On wheels or on crutches, London can be an unfriendly place. Steep, narrow stairways are everywhere, and wheelchair ramps are the stuff of legend. Even public transportation spites you with an enormous gap between the subway train and the platform–not that any platform anywhere in the city is accessible without taking stairs, or at least an escalator. You’ll be lucky just to find a building with a lift, which is English for “uselessly tiny and disturbingly shaky elevator.” So be careful out there, and don’t hobble yourself. You’ll regret it.
Anyone who’s ever been told to “have a nice day” by obviously unhappy clerks and waitresses with plastic smiles and thin facades of bubbliness might suppose that doing away with all this phoniness in the service industry would be a good thing. But let England serve as a warning: Remove this seemingly pointless crutch, and the entire industry comes crumbling down. Merely suggesting that a restaurant might move two tables together to accommodate your large group will result in being blatantly and spitefully ignored by an openly resentful wait staff for the remainder of your visit, until the only dignified thing to do is to leave without ordering. One might expect that such treatment would adversely affect business prospects, seeing as most restaurants want customers; some even go so far as to spend money on advertising, or installing people on the sidewalk to lure customers in! Apparently this is somehow not the case here. This adversarial attitude toward the customer pervades the culture–even ATMs don’t spend time “processing.” Rather, they are “dealing with your request.” This is partially due to the English tendency to say simple things in as many words as possible, but it also bespeaks a certain irritation on the part of the machine.
I’m not saying we really need depressed teenagers flashing halfhearted grins at us when we order a burrito, but if that’s what it takes to maintain a service industry that actually performs the function it’s paid to do without clearing its throat and spitting in your face, then we’ll just have to live with it. Because when undisguised hostility is the norm, bitchy waitresses still bitter about turning thirty will feel free to abuse their customers, especially when said waitresses work in the Bella Pasta chain on the southern end of Queensway in London. Don’t go there. And if you do, spit at the waitress for me. I owe her one.
When choosing a guide to exploring London, make sure to avoid picking up Getting Acquainted with London: A Traveler’s Guide by Kenny Byerly. It is smug, unhelpful, and shockingly incomplete in terms of topics covered. Also, the ink comes right off on your hands.