Archive for the 'london' Category

Don’t cross a gypsy, boy

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

Several times in the past two days the same woman has pointed to the empty sidewalk in front of me, reached down and pretended to pick up a gold ring that she had been hiding in her hand. The first time she gave it to me although I tried to decline it. She showed me that it was too small to fit her (though that would mean it was certainly too small to fit me) and forced it on me. Then she came back ten seconds later and asked for money. I assume she probably has better luck with people who actually put the ring on (or ones who don’t notice that she is conjuring the ring out of thin air). Her “office” is around the Louvre, but she has so many customers, she didn’t recognize me until she tried the trick for the third time.

In Brazil I had a similar kind of trick played on me, also three times: a guy points at your shoe, you look down to see that it is covered with bird guano. The guy happens to have a shoeshine kit with him and cleans your dirty shoe for 5 reais, then asks for a tip to “even them up”. The first time this happened, I thought it was strange that I hadn’t notice any birds or the mess on my shoe. The second time it happened, I was sure that the shoeshine guy had fouled my shoe, but I didn’t see how he did it. The third time, I figured it out: the guy points at your shoe, you look down and don’t see anything. You look back up at him and say, “What?”. While he’s keeping his eyes locked on yours, he squirts the crud on your shoe and says, “Look!” You look again and see the mess and convince yourself you just didn’t notice it the first time. I made the last guy clean my shoes for free — he denied several times that it was a scam, then finally confessed.

The virtue of his trick over the gypsy ring trick is that your shoes actually end up dirty and you have to do something about it. The ring trick relies on a very feeble thread of obligation created when she offers the ring, and reinforced only slightly if you actually take it.

The best scam that I actually fell victim to was when someone entered my normally locked apartment complex and started ringing doorbells telling the upstairs people he was a downstairs neighbor and vice versa, asking for change to pay the pizza delivery guy. I was suspicious, but as I was on slightly bad terms with my upstairs neighbor, having complained about the noise when he and his band held a full-volume rehearsal for seven hours on a Friday night, I thought I should make an investment in bridge-building. After I closed the door I called the landlord and asked for a description of my upstairs neighbor. It didn’t match the guy at my door, but by that time he was gone. That delayed suspicion was better than Ollie’s, though — he came to my door about an hour later looking for his money and I had to tell him he had been conned. His response: “The dirty dog!”

After that incident, I went and introduced myself to all my neighbors. I also made a personal rule to look at all requests for money as simply requests for money — to ignore the story or trappings that surround the request and decide whether to give money for the sake of charity or in expectation of a return or repayment. I think this has helped me avoid giving money in circumstances that play on the very natural inclination to be obliging, as with the false monk in Thailand.

“Don’t cross a gypsy, boy” is what the old bats in grey pea coats around Picadilly Circus curse you with if you don’t let them put a flower in your buttonhole. If you do let them, they hit you up for cash.

London -> Paris

Saturday, January 24th, 2009

I took the Eurostar from St. Pancras to Gare du Nord on Saturday the 24th.

Goodbye to all that

Monday, September 1st, 2008

Farewell, London. I’m leaving today! First stop: Freiburg, Germany, where I lived for a while when I was twenty. It’s a small, charming city, I’ll get to see a good friend from my time in Tokyo, and the weather is bound to be nicer than the rain here in London. (Though it rained heavily last night and today looks like it’s going to be very fine.)

Andy and Mechelle got me a beautiful journal as a going-away present. The leather smell reminds me of boots and saddles, so it’s kind of an invitation to travel as well as a way to record the trip. I took this picture of it on top of Manny’s “world traveler” chest, with China in the upper right.

Port to port

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

Today I read Kate Fox’s book Watching the English. It’s an anthropological investigation of English cultural “rules” that I should have read before arriving, but couldn’t get through amazon.com in the US.

I read this passage yesterday:

Port must always travel round the table clockwise…so you must always pass the bottle or decanter to your left.

No-one has the slightest idea why clockwise port-passing is so important. The rule serves no discernible purpose, other than to cause embarrassment to those who are not aware of it, and, presumably, a peculiarly English sense of smug self-satisfaction among those who are.

I loved this book, and wish I had found a copy much earlier than my penultimate day in London. But the last paragraph stuck in my head as “wrong”, and while I was packing the reason came to me: port means “left” in naval jargon. I think the rule of passing port clockwise/to the left is likely in deference to all the party-going naval officers waiting to make a joke about how unnatural it is to pass something called “port” to starboard.

I did a google search to test this theory. I didn’t find direct evidence, but found the phrase “port to port”, which suggests it is a reasonable assumption.

Fish Yard, Chip Street, Vinegar Street

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

I was flipping through my London A-Z to check my knowledge of Covent Garden’s topography, and King Street, Great Queen Street, and Maiden Lane started to seem like the beginning of a fairy tale. I looked through the index to see what other stories might be hiding there, and found a Groom Crescent and a full page of Princes.

My old address Minerva Street has a Hera Court, an Ares Court, and a Bacchus Walk to keep her company. I particularly like Bacchus Walk: I imagine the god of wine stumbling home after a night out, doing the Bacchus Walk.

I found a Fish Yard, Chip Street, and Vinegar Street, but what to wash them down with? The abstinent can choose from Tea Trade Wharf or Water Gardens. And the rest? The index goes from “Bee Passage” to “Beeston Close”: No Beer. No Lager, no Stout. No Pint. But not to despair: for the impatient tippler there is a Wine Close.

The witch of Covent Garden

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

The guy on Garrick Street who calls out, “If you are lost or require information” is working for tips. There are plenty of potential customers (i.e., lost people) there, but I don’t know how many are happy to be asked to pay to become unlost.

I have spent a day or two drawing maps of Covent Garden from memory. I originally pictured Covent Garden as a pennant on the mast of Monmouth Street, but after playing with a few drawings, it seems more appropriate to think of it as a hat, specifically a witch’s hat: its shape is more irregular than the perfect triangle of a pennant, and the “Covent” of Covent Garden is perfectly balanced between convent (a residence for religious brothers or especially sisters) and coven (a congregation of witches).

Both come from the same Latin word convenire, to come together or convene. The double rectangle of the garden and the Opera House makes a perfect buckle, and imagining a Union Jack patch at the western edge of Shelton Street makes it easy to reconstruct Seven Dials from memory.

Here’s the outline in the correct north-south orientation. I left out most of the internal streets to make the witch hat shape clear. This drawing fits exactly over the mini A-Z: I took no artistic license!

True change comes from within

Monday, August 25th, 2008

I’ve been keeping track of my expenses (i.e., recording everything I spend) so I can produce an accurate account at the end of my trip. I’m planning to spend money as I normally would for the first month, then categorize my expenditures and see what I can reduce (taxi fares!) and what I should increase (books, excursions).

Two things are becoming clear: I spend a lot of money on sweets, and I get shortchanged a lot. When I say I’m being shortchanged, I mean I’m getting the wrong change from purchases, and that it’s never in my favor. When I say “a lot”, I meant it has happened three times in the past week (I just started keeping track this month).

Yesterday I didn’t get shortchanged, but I got an incorrect bill. I went to the fish and chips shop around the corner on Endell Street and had cod and chips and a coke. The bill came back as £25 ($50). I asked if it was correct, the server said Yes. I asked him to check again, he said, Oh, I’m sorry, crossed out £25 and wrote £21. I said, What’s 11+3. He said Sorry again and gave me the revised bill for £14 (the correct amount). I think it was a genuine mistake, but I never would have noticed if I hadn’t been writing my expenses down in my notebook.

36 Views of Hackney: Invader

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

Detail of mosaic in lower right of previous photo:

Strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet

Monday, August 18th, 2008

It seems obvious when you say it, but you meet a different set of people wandering around London during the day than you do working in a bank.

Yesterday, I walked from Covent Garden to Primrose Hill to see the view. The most prominent part of the southern horizon was the nest of mechanical cranes on almost every building. I counted 54 of them.

Since it was Monday morning, there were just a few moms out with their kids, an older, perhaps retired, couple, and me…and a community police officer (or at least a guy dressed like one).

I was reading my book on one of the benches when the officer sat down at the other end of it. All the other benches in the park were empty, but he sat next to me and started talking about the weather, the relative absence of people in the park, and how he likes to have fun at work, “because otherwise, what’s the point?” He asked my name, I told him, and he said, “Ah, like Robert Redford. And you have his same golden hair and good looks.” Was a cop hitting on me? I wonder what the residents of Primrose Hill would think about the kind of fun in the park their council taxes are supporting.

On the way home I saw again the guy who stands on the corner of Garrick Street calling out, “If you are lost or need information”. I wanted to ask him something to see what he was up to (performance art? an entrepreneur? a shy person trying to become bolder?), but all I could think to ask were questions that would sound facetious (e.g., Where is the nearest undiscovered horde of Roman coins?).

“If you need information”, is a very open-ended offer, however, and if I see him again I will definitely find out what he is up to. Maybe he is exploiting the Pareto Principle and asking for a fee from the 80% who want to find Covent Garden, the British Museum, or the tube station. For the rest, he can just say he doesn’t know. If that’s the game, I’ve missed an opportunity by helping all those lost people for free.

36 Views of Hackney: Eine

Saturday, August 16th, 2008

Eine is one of the local Hackney street artists/vandals. He writes his nom de guerre on buildings and airbrushes letters of the alphabet on shop shutters.

When I first moved to the neighborhood, I took the letters as a kind of treasure hunt, first trying to find all the letters of my name, then trying to find the “hard” letters like Q, X, and Z. It was a good way to get to know the area, wandering through all the streets when the shops were closed to try to find a new letter. A lot of websites discuss Eine and his alphabet, but not a single one mentions the thing that I think explains their appeal: these letters on square shutters look like children’s alphabet blocks.