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A few things about London

April 2, 2011

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The climate is milder than you'd expect, considering the 51° north latitude — farther north than Vancouver or Calgary. The ocean currents temper the weather. When Connie and I visited in late March, we had expected the stereotypical fog and drizzle, but it was exceptionally sunny and warm, the grass was green, and the trees were budding out.

People are very courteous. If someone thinks they have inconvenienced you in any way (even if you are the one who has bumbled into their path) they will excuse themselves with a quick "sorry".

The city attracts people from all over the world, both as tourists and as residents. It's a totally happening, sexy, 21st-century, world cultural capital.

People smoke way too much, even compared with, say, Las Vegas. This in spite of the huge SMOKING KILLS labels on cigarette packs. Fortunately, smoking is banned in pubs and restaurants, though not at sidewalk tables just outside.

The plumbing tends to be suspect. I finally understood the context in which Mike Myers, in character as Austin Powers, complained about someone leaving a "floater".

People dress stylishly and drive exotic cars — more Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Maseratis, Bentleys, Rolls Royces, Jaguars, and Aston Martins than we're used to in our part of California. This in spite of gasoline prices equivalent to nearly $10/gallon. There may be an economic downturn, but some people are doing very well indeed. To be fair, you do also see a lot of tiny, electric Smart Cars. And swarms of motorcycles.

The public transporation is fabulous. With an Oyster Card, you can easily get anywhere on the iconic double-decker buses or the Underground. And there are a half-dozen railway stations to take you out of town. It is very easy to get around without a car.

The street layout is not a grid, but seems to have evolved organically over the centuries as scattered setttlements filled in. Streets go off at all angles and take picturesque bends, so that public spaces feel enclosed and intimate. The only long views are in the parks and along the Thames.

Even many of the major streets were sized for horse-drawn transporation. We stayed near Old Brompton Road, a major route that is narrower than the side streets in our sleepy suburb of El Cerrito, California. The London speed limit is supposedly 30 mph, but seems much faster than that when traffic is whizzing by right next to the sidewalk. Drivers do respect traffic signals but will usually gun it between intersections.

The residential neighborhood where we stayed consists of five-story row houses with a shared private garden in back extending the length of the city block. This is high-density housing, interspersed with lovely, park-like open spaces.

Unlike New York, Chicago, or even San Francisco, there are relatively few high-rise buildings, so most streets get plenty of sky light. The U.S. city most similar in this respect is probably Washington, D.C.

The parks and riverside paths are lovely, and can be walked for miles without having to dodge traffic. Nothing seems more evocatively English to me than bare winter trees against gray skies, or willows overhanging river water. This might have something to do with reading The Wind in the Willows as a kid. Or maybe I'm remembering the Disney movie about Mr Toad of Toad Hall.

Public infrastructure — roads, trains, buses, parks, etc — seems to be in better shape than where we live in the U.S. A lot of stuff is under repair, but there are generally no potholes in the streets. And the public spaces mostly feel safe. This is the upside of having all the surveillance cameras, I guess.

The Thames is tidal water, and gets a powerful surge of current when the tide rolls in. If global warming ever does cause a 2-meter rise in sea levels, it could be a problem here.

We had some excellent restaurant meals, contrary to stereotype. One night our friends from the suburbs took us out to a lovely vegetarian dinner in Hammersmith. The only really disappointing meal was at a Japanese noodle place where the soba noodles were overcooked, eastern European style, to mush. Many of our meals were take-out from Waitrose or Whole Foods.

The neighborhood pubs were overflowing with people, especially Friday after work. At a younger age I would for sure have made the rounds. For us it sufficed to look in from the street and see people having a great time.

The museums were fabulous. We visited the Tate Modern, Tate Britain, the Victoria & Albert, the British Museum, and the National Gallery, which, due to bad planning on my part, we had to dash through, not allowing nearly enough time to sit with the pictures. The Van Goghs, in particular, were astonishingly luminous, as though lit from behind.

We did a lot of stuff, but obviously only scratched the surface. You could live in London for years and not see half of it.

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