Magazine | August 26, 2019, Issue

London Letter

Hot air balloons fly over London as a part of the Lord Mayor’s Hot Air Balloon Regatta, June 9, 2019. (Harry Roth/Reuters)

London is my favorite European city, and not just because I can read the menus. In Finland I was handed a menu that had the usual consonant wads, and I didn’t know if I wanted the Hlklkklkrrj or the Klkrkrkrrrrr, or whether that was the name of the owner or perhaps the street. There was a picture for hopeless folks, so you could point and hope. Can’t remember the dish — chipped elk on bark, something Finnish — but I chewed carefully, since the number of chilly consonants made it seem like it’d be full of tiny bones. 

No insult intended to the Finns. I love the Baltic nations, and their food is better than standard British fare. But I love England. Of all the foreign nations, I find their language the easiest to understand. If someone in France asked me to remove the metal sheet from my car and take it to the elevator, I would be useless, but here in England I’m just dying for someone to ask if I could take the aluminium from my boot and put it in the lift, so I can say “Ta, mate! Cheers!” like a local. I love telling someone to “sod off” (get off the grass) or “go quid sand!” (go do something useless).

As you might suspect, I’m often mistaken for a native. So I’d be delighted to answer any questions you might have about the Sceptered Aisle. 

Q: What is the sentiment about Brexit?

A: I saw a sticker on the trashcan that once said “Bollocks to Brexit” before someone made a half-hearted attempt to remove it. If you’re pro-Brexit, this could mean “There’s some lingering anti-Brexit sentiment, of course, but it’s fading.” If you are anti-Brexit, because you hate Donald Trump, and Boris Johnson reminds you of him because they have meaty gobs and ruinous hair, this could mean “There’s still a lot of anger; the anti-Brexit emotions sometimes seem like a lid on a pail of rubbish that could tip over any minute, although it seems securely affixed to the side of the café.”

At a restaurant in London, the menu was keen to point out that all the ingredients came from a small island in Italy; the shallots were handpicked by a fellow whose family had been picking shallots for nine generations, which suggests no one in the family has much ambition. Oh, there was probably a son who felt awkward when his father tried to show him the ancient ways, and he was determined to leave and seek his fortunes in the great wide world, but he returned home upon his father’s death and realized that the tradition of shallot-mongering was in his blood and he had to continue the family ways. Anyway, I asked the waiter how Brexit would affect the restaurant’s ability to get these specific shallots, and he said he didn’t know.

So I’d say there’s an air of tremendous uncertainty when it comes to Brexit. 

Q: What issues are they discussing that we don’t hear over here, because our parochial media look only  at stories that affect Americans?

A: If you use my Uber driver as an example — and they have replaced the taxi driver in the lazy journalist’s go-to guide for local wisdom — Londoners are terribly angry that credentialed scientists believe that gravity is the dominant force that binds the universe together, when any bloody fool can see it’s electricity, and if it weren’t for the idiots at Uni who have so much invested in Big Gravity, we’d have a new appreciation for a cosmology that didn’t need to invent things like dark matter, which any fool can see is bloody nonsense, although of course any fool can’t see it, because it’s dark. All right, here’s your stop.

Q: Are they concerned about plastic waste?

A: Very much so. Couldn’t get a plastic straw anywhere, and it’s made loads of difference; apparently you could walk across the Thames a few years ago, what with the thick carpet of plastic rubbish. The hotel was quite keen to tell us they abjured the single-serving shampoos in order to protect the earth. I suppose that’s a good move, although it means I couldn’t set aside a few in my luggage to take home and set out for houseguests, who don’t use them because they bring their own, which means I have a drawer of hotel soaps quietly coagulating in the dark.

The hotel had wall-mounted containers of soap with a pump on the top. The soap tended to clog the nozzle (I believe that’s a British expression, as in “Well that clogs my nozzle, dunnit now”) and hence only a thin ribbon six microns wide would come out when you pushed the pump. You had to strike it hard to dislodge the clotted soap, but you never quite got enough, so your shower felt unsatisfying, as if you hadn’t scrubbed away the grime but had just moved it about a little. 

I wasn’t alone, judging from the ripe aroma of the Underground, or “Subway,” as they call it over there, but when I remarked to someone, “I gather a bit of stench is a small price to pay for reduced plastic usage, eh?” he nodded and moved away a few feet.

Breaking News: Just learned there is a strike looming at the airport and my flight home may be canceled unless they sort it out. Can’t find out if my flight’s in peril. They are warning of six-hour waits in the security line.

Oh, this bloody, stupid place.

Now I really feel like a local.

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