Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Spit spot, Albert Hall, meat and two veg, Big Ben, Dave Clark Five, Spam and eggs, a baby's arm holding an apple, pip pip, cheerio

Today is one of those days that makes traveling so very strange, especially in Europe. I woke up in Belgium at 4:40 in the morning, watched my aunt eat aloo paratha with a knife and fork, and then took an early morning train to Brussels and then another to London. Entering the UK required a few passport checks, unusual in that I haven't showed anyone my passport since I entered Hungary. Despite the reasonably tight securitry, the ability of border guards to make idle small talk with me cemented America's status as the undisputed asshole of the international community, at least of the eighteen countries I have entered. I even got away with a lie on the border card since I didn't actually know where my hostel was, I just put down an address somewhere on Euston Road (I don't think it exists).

Once I got here, I realized how much time I've spent in non-English-speaking countries (far too long). I paused outside a bookstore for a few moments to make sure it had books in English and I made a mental note of all the significant buildings I saw so that I would have landmarks to tell a taxi driver in case I got lost. A search of my bag would have revealed small stashes of wrapped napkins and sugar packets, habits of hoarding I picked up in China.

I heard nothing but bad things about London from my relatives in Belgium, which was surprising, and so far it's so good. Parliament is a lot like the Parliament in Ottawa, with absurd, insignificant details governing the entire building and its processes. The difference is that the Parliament here is bigger and better, and we just imported (or inherited, depending on your point of view) the absurdities and quirks. That members of the House of Commons sit facing each other, for example, in both Canada and the UK reflects the fact that the Commons met in a chapel for a lengthy period of time, which was not equipped for the purpose.

It's very tempting to walk around this city crossing out a mental list of the British Monopoly board. So far, I'm already at 5. What's perhaps stranger is assessing the merits of each place based on its value. So, I expected Euston Road to be somewhat dirty because of it's worth only 100 pounds, compared with 240 for Trafalgar Square, which trumps Whitehall at 140, though Whitehall is nicer than both.

Speaking of value, everyone told me how expensive London would be, and I tended to acquiesce, but without concern. The fact that the pound is worth more than the Euro is a good indication of how expensive it is, not to mention that it's almost double the American and Canadian dollars, as well as the Japanese yen, my old benchmark for absurdly expensive. A hundred Canadian dollars will buy 52 pounds at an Obama-inspired Bureau de Change on the streets here, which means that my 7-pound lunch was really something like 18,000 Korean won, enough for four simple meals there. All things considered, then, it's amazing that you find an 80-pence cup of tea at the cafe in Parliament of all places.

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