Saturday, May 28, 2011

first impressions of london

I've been in London about a week now and I thought I'd summarize some of my impressions for you.

Cost of Living

First, this city is very expensive, especially since the dollar is trading against the pound at a ratio of about 1.77 to 1. What I wouldn't give for those days of a strong US dollar. Well, I guess I gave about $17,000 because that's what the tanking economy drained out of my 401k account. Thanks again, American bankers, your greed is exceeded only by your stupidity and ability to effectively lobby the US government.

British Charm

People here are not very nice. They're not exactly rude, just not very nice. I've had people push and shove me, put their hands on my backpack, put their hands on my luggage, and walk directly into my path without so much as a "sorry" or "excuse me." It seems you literally have to knock something out of somebody's hands in order to get an angry and accusatory apology. My Aussie boss agreed with this impression of Londoners but a friend's roommate, a native, commented that this is just the way of life in a big city. True, I am from the South (Austin and currently residing in Atlanta for school) which is known for its manners, but I never noticed such incivility even in New York. People don't talk much in NYC, that's true, but they also tend to keep their hands and bodies to themselves.

Also, people don't talk much on the tube unless they've been drinking. Then they will shout boisterously the lyrics to some pub song, often in chorus with a bunch of equally inebriated lads.

Tea & Biscuits

It's not just a stereotype, Londoners really love their tea and coffee. Every meeting I've been to this first week at work has started off by getting tea or coffee. People meet up to have a coffee and do business by having a coffee. However, my work day has yet to be interrupted by tea time and no one's put out any eyes with an errant pinky. The worldwide monolith that is Starbucks is present here. But the local dog in this fight as far as chain coffee shops is called Costa. It's far and away the most present coffee chain I've seen. But there's also a smaller chain called Caffe Nero.

Biscuits mean cookies, not those doughy, delicious bread things you get in the South with breakfast. I've only been to one meeting where biscuits were served. They were pretty tasty. I've yet to sample a crumpet.


Speaking of coffee shops, the wi-fi culture here in London is very different than in the States. Whereas most coffee shops, cafes, diners, and even fast food restaurants offer free wireless connectivity to lure the perpetually digitally connected in the doors to spend money, most London businesses do not. Places do offer wireless internet through BTOpen, but you have to pay for it. This may have something to do with the culture of takeaway, which I will mention next.

Starbucks does offer free wireless at their shops if you have a Starbucks card and you register it online. I may have to get one, hopefully with the Union Jack logo on it, in order to access wireless when I'm away from my flat.

One other thing... unlike the US, where a lot of people don't password protect their wireless and many who do leave the password defaulted to "password" or "admin," wireless access in the UK is guarded jealously. I think it may have something to do with download caps on most home internet plans. If you have to pay for data per megabyte or gigabyte, you certainly don't want your neighbor piggybacking on your connection and driving up your costs.


Ah yes, the culture of takeaway. In London, this means more than simply picking up your food or coffee and taking it with you, the "to go" option of America. When a business asks you if you want it "takeway," they're asking you if you want to pay the premium for sitting down and enjoying your food or beverage on the premises. Most places will show you the price for an item listed as takeaway and to sit (though I don't think "to sit" is the actual verbiage). Also, I have yet to see a drive-thru in London.

Top Up

This means add money to your card or plan. You can top up your Oyster card (for the tube), your pay as you go phone plan, your Starbucks card, and probably a whole lot of other things. I'm not sure where this phrase came from.

The Tube

Like most big cities in America, mass transit is preferred to driving a car. The same is true in London. The most popular way to get around is on the Underground railway system often referred to as "the tube." You can buy single-use tickets based on destination but use of the Oyster card, a prepaid travel card that gives you a 30% (I think that's the amount) discount on fares, seems to be preferred. The Oyster card also covers transit on the Overground trains, the National Rail, most busses (yes, the double decker kind), and some boats and ferries (I think). I've been using the heck out of my Oyster card to get around London. But it's comparatively expensive to American subways. Even a very short ride will cost you about £1.30 during peak hours (about $2.30).

Oh, and unlike the NYC trains and SF's BART system, you just hold your Oyster card up to the reader at the turnstile; you don't have to insert your card and let it crank through the machine. How's that for modern technology?


No, I haven't gotten myself behind the wheel of a car here in London. I only rode in one for a very short period of time as my landlord took me to get our lease witnessed and then dropped me off at the tube station so I could make a meeting.

Instead, I'm going to talk about cars from the perspective of foot traffic. I'm still getting accustomed to the fact that Brits drive on the wrong side of the street in the wrong side of the car. In a lot of places where pedestrians are also likely to be tourists, they've written on the street "look right -->" or "<-- look left" (yes, with the arrows) in front of the crosswalk to indicate where traffic is coming from. Still, I get a little afraid when I see no one in the driver's side of the car.

There does appear to be something like Zip Car or car2go service here in London but I'm neither foolhardy enough nor in need of a vehicle to try it out. I'll stick to the tube and the sidewalks, thank you very much.


Like most big big cities (NYC), trying to find a place to live in London is really, really expensive. Most people can't afford to do it alone. That's why flat sharing is so popular here. Basically, lots of people have roommates to make their bills. And here I thought Mark tolerated Jeremy (yay! for you if you love Peep Show) living with him because they were old school chums but no, Mark actually wanted help paying the wildly expensive cost of living expenses in London.

Expenses are so high here that people will even temporarily let out their rooms for a few months or just a few days to help pay the costs of housing. I understand NYC has a similar gray market economy in housing, complicated by rent control.

Medieval City

One final comment for this blog entry, but I'll be sure to keep sharing my thoughts on my stay here in London.

London is a medieval city. You can see that in the sameness of the brick architecture, the cobblestone streets and sidewalks, the low pressure plumbing, and many of the major tourist attractions. But where it becomes particularly salient is trying to navigate the city at street-level topside. The streets are windy, branch out, and terminate suddenly like the limbs of some kind of alien tree. And a tree is probably the best metaphor to describe the why. Unlike most American cities, which are intentionally laid out on a grid system, London is a medieval city. The streets kind of grew up around the city and the castle slash palace at the heart of London without any aforethought or planning. Combined with really poor labeling of streets, this makes it nearly impossible for a newcomer to navigate the city without GPS or a really good map. I have not tried to jailbreak my iPhone to make it work on a UK SIM card for talk and data, so I am left at the mercy of getting lost all too often.

Rather than label streets at intersections as American cities (Japanese cities, towns, hamlets, and villages too, by the way), in London they will often only post a sign somewhere along the street. As you can imagine, this makes figuring out where you are pretty confusing. I will say that in the sort of heart of London where I was yesterday for a meeting, most of the streets were labelled at the corner where they met the major street.

Oh, and the main street in most neighborhoods is called the High Road. Kinda like Main Street in the America of yore.

Next time I'll try to talk about some of the British chains and brands, my time at the London Eye hostel, toilets & bathrooms, the two-tiered taxi system, food & a multicultural city (hint: fried chicken is supremely popular here), my landlord, warm beer, the weather, day & night, the relatively inexpensive costs of getting to other parts of Europe, CCTV & the surveillance society, and who knows what else. Maybe if I have time to turn on the telly I'll say something about it. Oh, and sports. They love their footy here


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