I have in mind repaying de Tocqueville, but as we don’t leave for Paris until tomorrow, I thought I would practice on his neighbor first.
London is a quaint little town of roughly 12 Billion people, that Billion, with a “B”. I know, the travel guides pitch it as much smaller, but I personally counted them all. Its not as hard as it seems, they were all on the sidewalk with me today.
Because in London, all 12 Billion walk on the sidewalks all at the same time, and flow like lava intot he streets where double decker buses, with tops for reasonable locals and topless for us silly Chinese, Japanese, Americans and French. There are no Italians here. It took me a little while to figure that one out. I finally realized if you were in Italy, it would be very hard to understand why you would come to England.
While no one in the city actually seems to be happy, they are all painfully polite. Even the 12 million or so men sitting on the wrong side of the front seat of the tiny little black taxis that cost 20 pounds to go anywhere. The funny thing is, 20 is not too high a price to pay. I would not drive in London for less than a million, pounds, not dollars! There are a few million Frenchmen, a dozen or two Arab girls and about a million American tourists. The Frenchmen here remind of the guys from New Jersey here. Not sayin’nuttin’ ‘bout Jersey nor France, only, the ones here, coppish?
We American tourist are here to try the patience of the locals, and by and large, they pass, admirably so. If you are cut in line, you can be sure the accent is French or that normal sound of an American voice.
There is one exception to the grand great well oiled ancient machine that is London. Okay, compared to south Florida, everywhere is ancient, but even for old places, London is well, at least middle aged (pun intended), and yet, smooth as silk, like a polite Rome, no horns, no bumps, the police wear funny hats and rarely shoot unarmed people, rarely shoot armed. In fact, in England, possibly the safest place to be is in police custody, strange, I know.
That exception is also one of the least cute parts of a truly cute institution. In America, We have the United State Postal System, and if you do not have time to go to the Post Office, you drop your letter in the Mailbox. In England, you have the little red trucks, I kid you not, red mini vans. Of, and by the way, if you are of the mind to think that the Mini, the Fiat 500 (I love them) and even Smart cars are really toy cars. You will be surprised to see there is a land rover that fits half way between the 500 and the smart car, and tiny Vauxhall (England’s GM label, only I think after the bankruptcy, somebody over here bought them out) Estates, or station wagons.
But I digress the little red trucks are labeled Royal Mail and they collect mail from Post Boxes. Post boxes are the cute little bottle opener looking contraptions at the top of this page. Of course the really funny thing is they all, in America and England, end up at the Post Office! Ah, the Post Office, there as our local boy would have said, lies the rub. All my life I have heard people trash talk the US Postal System. These people are idiots. Probably these are people who have not been in a post office in years, if ever. They are the kind of people who say, “First, lets kill all the lawyers!” until they have a car wreck or someone feeds them poison and calls it medicine, then they are ringing my friend Bill Bone or some such fellow and begging for representation, on commission, no less. The USPS is the greatest service known to man, short of indoor plumbing, that is. Cheap, quick, reliable, and cost not a dime to the US Taxpayer. I wonder who pays for the Royal Mail? The Queen? I doubt it.
Maybe Londoners are so uniformly not happy (not angry or sad, mind you, just not giddy, silly, happy), they realize their tax money is going to subsidize my postcards back to the states which will, in turn, encourage more people to come to England. People like me, who will try every bit of their politeness. That would explain it.
At any rate, there are exactly 12 people in the whole of London who did not get the memo. And oddly enough, they all work at the Eastcheap Post Office. First of all, you walk in off the street, and in America, there would only be one place that reminds you of this hell, maybe two, the DMV or the Metro PCS “service center” There are self help machines, like I would have a clue, there is a take a ticket kiosk, there are poor souls of the damned sitting the several rings of hell, clutching a tiny scrap of paper and saying the rosary to be called upon. As I waded through the gnashing of teeth and avoided those already being eaten by worms, I found someone I assumed worked for the Royal Mail. One can never be sure at the Post Office, because the workers there live in such wretchedness none will bear to be identified by wearing a uniform. (I would suggest a cute little red jumper (American) with a Gold Crown and ER embossed on it, no matter, no uniform, no sense of wht the heck one was to do there. So I, being the rude American, plodded through the groaning masses and asked the lady, “How do I post a postcard to the states?”
She looked at me and said, in her best Jersey girl, “take a number…” I looked around, and she added “or you could do it yourself…”
I looked at her doubtfully. “Even postcards to the US?”
Feeling a bit like my hero Arlo Guthrie a generation and a continent away, I wondered over to the Group W bench, oh, I mean the self check machines. One fellow, in a dress shirt, had been studiously ignoring me, and I settled in next to him and realized he was training a young lady on something or another. I started, but after about one click, I realized I wasn’t going to buy any stamps. I clicked on help. Nothing happened, I clicked thru again to be told HELP IS ON THE WAY.
Three more times and I tried to make the machine pay out something, and that got some attention from the one nice person, ok, there are only 11 people in the whole of London who are not painfully helpful. She was completely unable to accomplish helping me but three stamps, so she, with great deference asked the man who could not be bothered with a customer if it was actually possible for me to buy stamps. Yes it was, he assured her. So she tried again. Then she went back to him. This process was repeated for about 3-4 more times. And finally we came t the end of the whole thing, and there on the other side was the fact that in all of London, the Post Office was the only establishment that could not read my debit card.
I dug out a five pound note, and with 5 minutes, I had 3 stamps and a 2 pound coin. And the guy who had been so much less than helpful told I could drop the cards in the post box around the corner. Whew. Me and the 12 billion polite people were back out on the street, and 4 minutes later I arrived at our flat. Cards posted, and my view of London slightly rearranged. I had met the eleven.