Eccentric Flower:201107/Stray Trip Thoughts

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Stray Trip Thoughts

[Repost of this.]


Again, this is mostly for the handful of people who are interested, although I don't guarantee there's much of interest to anyone in here. It's not that I didn't enjoy the trip; I just don't know that I have all that much to offer beyond the photos (posted yesterday) and a few random observations.

I don't sleep well (which is to say, I often don't sleep at all) on planes or in hotels. Walking around - often for many miles a day - while constantly a little bit sleep-deprived is not really conducive to Great Thoughts, or even Coherent Thoughts. But you're welcome to what I got.

- No one informed me that Piccadilly Circus is the Times Square of London, or I wouldn't have booked a hotel there. Really, this is a horrible thing to have as your first impression of London. The whole Piccadilly/Leicester Square/Covent Garden area is thronged with tourists, businesses designed to separate tourists from their money, and garish signs. And ridiculous traffic, but that's all of London in general.

- Piccadilly is not QUITE Times Square though, and here lies a bit of cognitive dissonance that was to stay with me throughout the trip. Piccadilly looks like Times Square until you look UP, where you see the tops of all these white buildings that look like old banks or urban mansions or other places of great age and dignity - and they stop about five stories up. The glass skyscrapers and dark frontages of Times Square are nowhere to be seen. Both Paris and London had an extremely small "skyscraper district" - in both cases, the city's banking and finance area - as opposed to, say, Manhattan, which is completely vertically stacked from top to bottom. Although it must be said that this is largely forced upon Manhattan by its lack of real estate, even Boston has a bigger sheet-glass-and-metal-frame skyscraper zone than Paris or London.

- This was even worse in Paris where all the buildings look like they are straight out of the 1700s, making the businesses that occupy their bottom floors even more incongrous to what you see in the upper stories and the roof level.

- One of the first things that was stripped ruthlessly from me in London was my idea that Londoners were more civil, more urbane, calmer, and/or better behaved than their US urban counterparts. It ain't true. They're just as bad on the subway or behind the wheel of a car as anybody else. They're not as random in traffic as Bostonians, nor as aggressive as New Yorkers, but I think their nerves are worn even more ragged than either. Put another way: London has the same traffic congestion as Boston, but has far lower capacity roads - often one narrow lane in each direction even on major thoroughfares - a much more active bus and taxi system, and an even more nonsensical street grid. That would make anyone a bit raw.

- The counterbalance of this is that every Parisian I dealt with was far more civil, patient, and tolerant than I expected them to be. Basically, I expected the Londoners to be extremely polite and often got brusque and impatient (never actually rude, though, I hasten to add); I expected Parisians to be snotty and rude, and they were largely polite and friendly. Go figure. It might be because of the differences in the urban attitude: Londoners, these days, are apparently always in a hurry. Parisians are NEVER in a hurry. I don't know why this should be such a surprise to me since I had already observed it in microcosm in Toronto and Montreal.

- The language problem did not cause any real trouble. My accent is horrible, and I did not fool anyone into thinking I was anything but an American for a moment, but I was able to do all the things I needed to do - to wit, ask where the toilets were and negotiate with the waiter. (As with so many other languages, I cannot read a newspaper, but by god I can kick the ass of any menu I see.) Actually, reading French is usually something I can stumble through well enough to get the gist; it's spoken French, which is rapid-fire and often mumbled, where I'm lost.

- Nonelvis, of course, did magnificently, and was actually complimented on her accent at the least English-friendly restaurant we went to (which was also, by the by, the best of the restaurants we ate at).

- I did not get condescended to by a single French waiter. There was one who insisted on handing me an English menu; I reached over to the next table and grabbed a French one. This wasn't snobbery, it's just that the translations were bad and the French one was a more accurate description of the food!

- As is typical for us, we had no truly bad food on this trip. Even bad French food tends to be better than bad American food - we ate a couple of "meals" of premade sandwiches and such from the local Carrefour (supermarket) out of exhaustion, and they were better than the equivalent would have been in the US. The real surprise was that we had no outright bad British food - and I'm not talking ethnic, I'm talking actual British food. We had three different pub meals and they were all fine; one of them was outstanding. Even the food on the Eurostar and on the Virgin Atlantic flights was a sight better than expectations for transport food.

- British usage amuses me in unexpected ways. Mind you, I am easily amused. Two that got to me in particular on this trip were "Diversion" (which is what a British road sign says where an American one would say "Detour") and "alight" on the Tube, as in "Alight here for the British Museum." I was all "oh, let us alight" for a while after every time I heard that.

- The other side of that is that I was appalled, utterly appalled, to see how much American usage has crept into both cities. When and how did the chemist start becoming a pharmacist, for example? That's not acceptable. (Actually, we saw one small business - the kind where there's still an old guy in the back who fills prescriptions personally and knows everything about everything - in Earl's Court that still called itself a chemist. But the Boots chain is now a pharmacist everywhere we went.)

- It also disgusted me how much American businesses have permeated places which I really had hoped would know better. Oh, no, I don't mean good American businesses. I mean (for example) that Domino's is apparently a prominent source of pizza in London, and that's just sad. No one should voluntarily buy pizza from Domino's and it pains me to think there might be Londoners who know no better. (Nonelvis points out that it may be because they deliver, and not because of any perceived quality.) We did not see too many Starbucks in Paris, thank god, but they're all over London. Of course, Starbucks may actually be a step up for British coffee, but it's definitely a step down for French.

- What no European seems to understand about coffee is that drip/filter coffee does not taste like espresso, and espresso is not the end-all-be-all of everything. Espresso is pumped out so fast that the water doesn't get to stay in contact with the grounds for very long. Some of us think it makes less complex coffee. Mind you, I like espresso, but not as a steady diet. An "americano" - espresso diluted with hot water until it approaches the volume of an American cup of coffee - is unacceptable on all counts. I'd rather stick to espresso for a week, which is what I did, except for one stop at a Starbucks, which is the only place one gets a cup of proper drip coffee in either town.

- In France you can order a "grand creme" in some places to get an espresso diluted with milk until it approaches the volume of an American coffee; but in other places you can order a "cafe creme" or a "noisette" (which means hazelnut and here describes the color), which gets you an espresso with a little steamed milk and is far more to my taste. Remember that in France anything but a straight black coffee is for breakfast only, and that coffee comes AFTER dinner, not with dessert. (I have actually always held to the latter principle myself, but in American restaurants I order it with dessert because I know the waiter will never come back again - it was so pleasant to actually have a waiter come back after dessert reliably and ask if I wanted coffee!)

- London trades more on its heritage to tourists than Paris does, I think, but it's a near thing. Paris tolerates its tourists, but does not so much pander to them; you find less of the equivalent of Ye Olde Authentic Tourist Trappe Pub in Paris. There's a certain amount of, "Oh, look, Mabel, we're actually in a quaint Parisian sidewalk cafe" (with English menus and le cheeseburger and inflated prices), but not nearly as much as we saw in London. Then again, we WERE in the touristy parts of London.

- It's also possible to have both at once. The first day we were in London we dined at the Lamb and Flag, a bizarre little pub at the end of a dead-end alley with misshapen stairs, tilted floors, and creaking boards. It was clearly aware of the tourist trade and prepared to cater to them; but on the other hand, it HAS been there since the 1600's, and the food was good (top-notch shepherd's pie) and the beer was excellent (Fuller's ESB, which I realize is a chain beer but which I cannot get on draught in the US). So who cares?

- Some American visitors might have a fair bit of culture shock at the idea that some of these places and institutions have been around for so LONG. America is, after all, a young country in the grand scheme of things. Baton Rouge, where I come from, is one of the most venerable places in Louisiana and very little of it existed before the post WWII boom. But years of living in Boston - one of the few places in the US where you can go drink in a bar that's been around since before the Revolutionary War - has cured me of this. Even so, Boston ain't a patch on some of the antiquity to be found in London or Paris.

- Both cities were staggeringly multi-ethnic by American standards. Many American cities have enclaves of that sort of thing - e.g. we live near a big Brazilian neighborhood - but here they were scattered throughout without pattern. We heard an enormous variety of languages - and it wasn't all from visitors, either.

- I did not expect much from Parisian infrastructure, but in general the plumbing and such did what it was supposed to do (to my pleasant surprise). However, Paris is far more chaotic in its urban services and functions than London is - ride both subways and you'll see what I mean. As I commented elsewhere: British infrastructure either works flawlessly or fails magnificently. French infrastructure never quite works and never quite fails, yet muddles on somehow. (I will say that, on the multi-connection trip back to the Gare du Nord on the day we left Paris, we had to unexpectedly take a shuttle bus due to RER line renovation work, and their signage and information - with yellow-clad helpers everywhere to show you the way - was unexpectedly excellent. Well done, RER.)


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DanLyke:

Wow, I thought I was the only person on the planet who preferred drip coffee.

And are they really still chemists? I reserve that term for back when they made their own damned pills. I still respect the art of the pharmacist, actually perhaps more so now, but there's a difference between dispensing pills and mixing the mercury, radium and sulfur into the pill yourself.

-- 22:57, 22 July 2011 (BST)


Bunny42:

Last time I was in France was 1999. I don't know how much the infrastructure has changed since then, but I was mightily impressed with the TGV train ride. We were over an hour late arriving in Lyon, due to some sort of malfunction or other, but, by golly, my cousin got a letter from the TGV people, apologizing profusely for the delay and including two free passes for the next time he wanted to ride. (He had secured our tickets.) They take/took great pride in their efficiency and friendliness.

Didn't spend any time in Paris, that trip, but found very friendly and helpful people in all the small towns we visited in the South. I had the same shock in NYC that you experienced in Paris. I visited Manhattan, fully expecting to be utterly snubbed. Not so. Not at all. *shrug* Ya never know.

I've always heard that everyone in England smokes. Is that true, did you find?

-- 01:18, 23 July 2011 (BST)


Columbina:

I wouldn't say "everyone," but we certainly saw a great deal more smoking in London and especially Paris than we see in the US. Then again, Greater Boston is not what you would call a smoker-friendly environment.

-- 02:41, 23 July 2011 (BST)


ProfRobert:

Somewhere between the early '80s and mid-90s, Parisians changed. They had been profoudly rude, unpleasant people to the point that I didn't bother going back to Paris when I went around the world in '90-'91. My joke was that Parisians and Hong Kongese should compete in the World Cup of Rudeness -- it would be a great matech. But when I went for work in '95, it seemed as if the lightbulb had gone on in their collective heads: "If we are nice to the tourists, they will spend more money and come back."

There's a big anti-smoking drive in Britain and France. As in NYC, you can't smoke in pubs and restaurants anymore. However, smoking is much more a part of French culture, so you see a lot more of it on the street.

Bunny, as a native New Yorker who's lived here for about 3/4th of my life, I can tell you that, as a general rule, not only are New Yorkers not rude, they will be very helpful to visitors who ask for directions. What we are is busy, and also because New York is crowded with pedestrians and public transportation, we tend to hurry and not interact with other people. That reads to some visitors as rude or abrupt, but it's actually just busy people trying not to impose ourselves on others.

-- 19:17, 23 July 2011 (BST)


Bunny42:

Mother, who is French, has always asserted that French cigarettes aren't as harmful as American ones, because they only contain tobacco, no additives and filters. That may have been true, back in the day, but I wouldn't know about now.

As for New Yorkers, I can see that the sheer pace of life could be mistaken for rudeness. Crowds tend to be more indifferent, and frankly, I prefer it that way. But whenever I asked for assistance it was cheerfully given. Glad to hear it's the same in Paris, these days.

-- 23:47, 23 July 2011 (BST)

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