I was having dinner with a few girlfriends a few weeks ago, all of whom have been living in London a fair bit longer than me. They asked me what my thoughts of London were so far, and I was thinking that it was worth noting down how I feel now and then see how my feelings have changed in a year’s time. So having been here for a little over two months now, here goes:
The London Underground, or the tube, is absolutely fantastic. Sure it’s overcrowded and hot, but it runs frequently (you hardly ever have to wait more than 2-3 minutes for the next train), it’s pretty clean, and those colourful maps and station signage make it dead easy to use. Buses in central London are cheap, and the Oyster card makes ticketing so simple and straightforward. Hello Iemma government, take note!
There is just such an enormous variety of restaurants and cafes, with cuisines from all over the globe. Initially I thought that I would have severe pad thai withdrawals, but there are loads of Thai restaurants (albeit not as good as in Sydney) along with Indian, African, Turkish, Chinese, Italian, Korean, Caribbean and more. There are lots of cheap eats, as well as the Michelin-starred affairs. The fast food here is also very good, with lots of tasty yet healthy options through places like Eat and Pret a Manger.
Theatre, culture and entertainment
There is certainly no shortage of entertainment in London. There are more theatres than you can poke a stick at, and you can almost guarantee that every big name play or musical is showing somewhere in town along with loads of smaller productions of upcoming playwrights. There are also lots of dancing clubs, ranging from big superclubs pumping out house and trance, R&B clubs, and Latin dance.
Proximity to Europe
The ability to be able to make weekend trips to other parts of the UK, Ireland and continental Europe is obviously the big drawcard for lots of Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans. With the fast Eurostar train and the multitude of budget airlines, you’re paying the same price to fly to Spain as you would from Sydney to Brisbane or Cairns.
Chip and pin cards
I had seen chip cards floating around in Australia but here they are extensively used. Apparently they came in last year and every debit and credit card has them. Almost all shops and restaurants have EFTPOS machines where you insert your chipped card into the machine, you enter your PIN, and voila, instant payment without signing slips of paper. A much more secure method of payment, since noone looks at signatures these days anyway.
If you’re in a restaurant with 3 other people and noone has cash, you can embarrassingly excuse yourself and duck down to the nearest ATM, or each person can throw down their debit or credit card! I swear, the waiters won’t even blink an eye! They bring around a portable EFTPOS machine and then process each person’s card. Fantastic!! Of course, we have the facilities to do this in Australia and it doesn’t cost the proprietor any more since they’re only paying a fixed percentage of each charge, but if you even suggest separate payments the lazy person behind the counter will attempt to smite you with an evil look and promptly point to a sign that says “Bugger off, no separate bills”.
There is no shortage of coffee in this town. Starbucks, Costa, Caffe Nero – there is usually one *each* of these chain café outlets on every block in the city and one each in every other part of town – and sadly they all serve extremely poor-tasting coffee. I’ve been to a few smaller coffee outlets and their standard is usually wide of the mark too – either too weak, the milk is lukewarm, or the coffee is burnt. I guess it’s understandable when no Italian in their right mind would live here when they could live in Italy (or Australia!).
I imagine that an aerial view of Central London during the day would look like an ant’s nest that has just been bombarded with rocks and probing sticks. Particularly along Oxford Street, the city is teeming with people and the overcrowding makes catching public transport and even walking down the street unpleasant. After one particularly frustrating experience walking along Oxford Street on a Saturday in January (when all the sales are on) where I was constantly having to stop and then weave around slow-walking people, I vowed never to go to Oxford Street on a weekend. Apparently Christmas time is ten times worse. Ugh.
The free London papers
Every morning and evening, there are people giving away free newspapers to the commuter crowd. It’s filled with mindnumbing celebrity gossip and quasi-news, and then eventually litters the ground and the trains. It not only looks messy but I shudder to think of all the energy used to produce this waste (literally, and waste of brain cells) and then the supposed collection and recycling. Read a book, people!
Not only do people here eat badly, not exercise, and spend an inordinate amount of time in the pub drinking themselves stupid, they also love a fag or twenty. Walking down the street, you’re invariably walking behind a smoker and having to fan their foul smelling toxins away from your face. At least smoking is banned in all pubs and restaurants here. I only wish that cigarettes would kill smokers faster.
Cold and grey winters