04 January 2009

london calling

London -- Before Lent Term gets underway in Cambridge, I am spending a week around England with the full nuclear family: Mom, Dad, two brothers, one sister, and our newest addition, my sister-in-law. We have peered through the gates at Buckingham Palace, toured Churchill's underground WWII bunker, looked down at the Thames and Big Ben from the London Eye, minded the gap on the Tube. Given what's to follow, I should state at the outset that we're having a wonderful time, but it's just more fun to write and read about the "bad" experiences. "We went to the Tower of London, learned a lot!" just doesn't make for good blogging, you know?

Encounters with bad British food, vol. ii. On our second night in London we had dinner at a pub just a few hundred meters from Trafalgar Square. By then I think everyone was beginning to catch on to the fact that the UK has somewhat different standards of service and convenience than the U.S., but it still came as a surprise that we had to walk up to the bar to order our food and that the waitstaff were not exactly falling over themselves to clear the previous party's dirty dishes. But so far we had been lucky with food, particularly with a delicious dinner on the first night. That luck would come to an end at this particular pub. All four of the guys ordered "sausages and mash"--known more colorfully in the British culinary lexicon as "bangers and mash," as if you didn't already have enough to smirk about with all of the guys ordering sausages. One of my brothers declared it to be the worst meal he had ever eaten. I wouldn't go that far, but the sausages were mushy and bland, the potatoes clearly of the instant variety, and the gravy utterly devoid of taste. The ladies' meals didn't go over much better, and we ordered a pizza when we got back to the hotel.

Jack the ripoff. By far the worst tourist attraction I have seen to date in the UK is the Jack the Ripper walking tour. As far as serial killers go, Jack the Ripper has a more terrifying reputation than he deserves. He killed five prostitutes in 1888, and his notoriety owes more to the conspiracy theories swirling around the killings--more than one involving the royal family, naturally. The tour started off promisingly enough, with our apparently quick-witted guide getting regular laughs from the group. By the time we got to the site of the first killing, however, it begin to become clear what we were in for. The temperature was near freezing; the guide rambled, repeated himself and frequently went off on tangents; and nearly 45 minutes had passed before we moved on to killing #2. To make matters worse, there was nothing to actually see along the way, as most of the important Ripper-era buildings are gone or now house reputable establishments such as banks. We had been out for nearly two hours, going ever deeper into deserted East End neighborhoods, when we finally bailed out, leaving about ten poor souls to listen to the rest of this guy's yammering. By this point most of us were delirious with cold and finding ways of entertaining ourselves and each other on the sidelines. I didn't feel too bad, because I have little patience for people--whether they're teachers, conference speakers, or Jack the Ripper tour guides-- who show so little effort to assess and respond to their audience's level of interest and engagement.

Krakow preview. My youngest brother, Trevor, is staying for an extra 11 days beyond the rest of the family. He is enjoying this longer sojourn thanks to the Winter Study term at Williams, which he is using for an independent project (already written before he even boarded the plane) on WWII in Europe. I am putting him on a train to France during my first week of class, but on the surrounding weekends he and I will enjoy two parentally-subsidized trips to Edinburgh, Scotland and Krakow, Poland. There will surely be many fantastic experiences on these trips, but somehow what my little bro has latched onto is the idea of going clubbing in Krakow. The idea has found its way into almost every conversation about his European tour (always accompanied by his rendition of a techno beat: nnnnnn-TST nnnnnn-TST nnnnnn-TST), and it now feels absurdly over-anticipated... which will surely add to the hilarity of whatever actually does happen.

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