Impressions From A 56-Hour Sojourn: In No Particular Order|
Imagine, if you will, being brought up to drink milk that has been laced with a miniscule amount of soap for safety’s sake. You’d like milk, of course, but that mild wash of detergent taste coming after the end of a long, satisfying sip of milky goodness would spoil a fine drink.
A glass of milk or two would be fine, since the taste of milk is a powerful thing… But as the sips went on, that nasty cleansing fluid taste would accumulate at the back of your throat like bits of wet detritus collecting in the bottom of a sink, and eventually it would strangle any pleasant taste that the milk could provide. Drinking three glasses of milk in a row would be a Herculean effort.
Then, one day, you would go abroad and discover – to your amazement – that you didn’t have to put soap in milk. The milk would be stripped bare of everything you’d hated about it, and suddenly it would be pure and clean and wonderfully lactose.
This is what beer is in foreign lands. For years, I’ve loved the top note of beer, but that acrid over-malty backwash at the back of the swallow just almost killed it for me. I’ve had friends who can’t drink beer because of this sensation. And now I find out that it doesn’t have to be there.
In America, we boil the beer to pasteurize it, ostensibly to make it safer to drink. Now, I don’t know how many people are killed in England every year from drinking unboiled beer – it could be thousands, it could be millions. This is completely irrelevant. The only thing that matters is understanding that it is worth killing them.
Seriously. If you looked me in the eye and said, “Your mother will die, but you can have this beer,” I would throw Momma from the train in an instant. Those who die drinking this toxic, unpasteurized, and undoubtedly virally-tainted beer are either hopeless alcoholics or people who don’t drink much, and we can all agree that allowing such people to die is but a happy coincidence.
This is beer. An Australian couple has told me that it is better in Germany. I cannot wait.
London is a very odd town. It is crammed with people, but it is also incredibly tiny. The streets, even the biggest ones, could be comfortably stashed in a New York alleyway where only the bums would notice it. This feeling of living inside a model is not helped by the absurdly miniscule cars that putt-putt their way along the London streets; even the garbage trucks and moving vans seem oddly truncated. In America, we value cars by the sheer amount of space they take up, but there seems to be some contest here to see how small they can make a car before people stop buying them. On the plus side, I’m led to believe you can drive for five days on a cup of petrol, which is good because it will cost you seventy pounds to purchase it.
The funny bit, however, is that for all the small shop fronts and streets and cars, the pigeons are huge. In New York, the pigeons are scrawny and in disrepair; except for the wonderment of Central Park, all the New York pigeons seem to be about two meals away from death. (The same could be said of many of its human inhabitants.) But the pigeons of London are squat and swollen and angry, glaring at you with the squat reluctance to move that I’ve only seen in overfed housecats; screw you, buddy, they say silently, I’ve got a place here. You can walk around me.
I’ve never seen anyone tossing them crumbs. It’s as if they are fed by the very history that surrounds them.
In fact, just before we got on the train, I saw a pigeon pick up a London car and carry it back to its nest. I swear to God this is true.
The signs of London are wonderful. In New York, there are basically two types of signs on the subway: BUY SHIT and DON’T DO SHIT. But the signs in London are actually helpful; MIND THE GAP, they say, informing you of the number of lives they’ve saved over the past year. They ask you to pitch in for local charities. They tell you that taxes are due, but you must do your part.
In America, we absolutely hate our government, and in return it hates us. We largely view the government as a necessary evil, something that should help us out when we need it… But in the end, it’s a faceless bureaucracy and we despise it. In return, our government tries to be cool (“Crack is whack!”), but largely it just issues demands that we have to follow or fuck you, buddy.
Whereas the impression I get here in London is that the Brits actually like their government, in much the same way they’d like a sheepdog with queer habits. Oh, it’s inefficient as all hell, and it makes a lot more noise than you’d think for the amount of work it gets done, but in the end there’s a strange fondness for this great exertion of manpower. It may not be the best, and certainly it’s full of stupid twats, but in the end it’s theirs.
Gini and I watched a British game show the other night. The amazing thing was the absolute lack of any suspense anywhere. In America, I’m used to huge musical stings (“Dun DAH dun!”) whenever there’s even the slightest thing on the line, but this was just a British guy who calmly informed us that 13,000 pounds were at stake and oh, gosh, they just missed this question, what a shame.
And at the end, when the winning team won the challenge against a team that had a thirteen-show winning streak, they immediately collapsed into a British heap of “I couldn’t have answered their questions” and “We didn’t deserve it”s as the credits rolled. I’m pretty sure that had I given them extra camera time and a leather strap, they might have actually begun to flog themselves.
On the flip side, we watched Big Brother for fifteen minutes, trying desperately to figure out why anyone would watch this show. Wow. A bunch of whiny idiots with no useful talents or even interesting personalities griping at each other. At least Survivor had a fat, sneaky, naked guy.
Buckingham Palace is fucking astounding. I’ve seen the White House, and the Palace just puts it to shame. Every room is knock-down gorgeous, and we spent the entire time gawking.
Then I got mad at President Bush. Goddammit, Dubya, if you’re going to act like you’re Emperor of the fucking United States, can’t you at least go nuts with the artwork for a bit, too?
Westminster Abbey, on the other hand… Well, we wanted to like it. But the problem with Westminster Abbey is that it’s where everyone who’s important gets buried, and each person has a different style of tomb. They’re all beautiful and elaborate, of course, but since there’s no coordination you wind up with wildly clashing styles of art sitting next to each other, giving it the appearance of the world’s most expensive garage sale.
Plus, I spent the entire time desperate to play Dead Guy Hopscotch, since every other tile marks a set of fresh bones. I was pretty sure I could make it through the entire abbey with a single stone.
Gini and I had great London meals. The first day, we had a traditional English breakfast (beans, toast, sausages, ham they call bacon, a fried egg), and at lunch we had fish and chips, and for dinner I had the Lister Special – Chicken Vindaloo with lager.
My mouth still hurts.
The one thing that London cannot provide, however, is Diet fucking Pepsi in a bottle. People told me that London had Diet Pepsi, but they apparently only sell it in cans or fountain beverages, which you must drink on the spot. I like bottles, where you can seal it up and stow it away for a bit, but this bit of technology is apparently beyond anything Britain has to offer.
I have wandered into every single convenience store, and they have Coke and Diet Coke – and, rarely and frustratingly, Pepsi regular – in happy little bottles. But despite three days of near-constant searching, the best I can find is Pepsi Max in a bottle. Not so much.
Incidentally, the national drink of England is “lukewarm.” They have heard of ice here, but have no clue as how to apply it. At one meal, I had a glass of ice water that was, miraculously, lukewarm – I have no idea how the waiter did it.