Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Christmas in London

I’m on my way back to Kyrgyzstan after an enjoyable 3.5-day Christmas holiday in London. It was a rather luxurious departure from Osh. My boyfriend found an internet special for a four-star hotel in the heart of London. We were greeted with glasses of champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries and pampered with access to a health club and Jacuzzi, a regular supply of Christmas mince pies (bite-sized pies filled with a mixture of dried fruits), and giant $30 English breakfasts delivered to the room.

I hadn’t been especially excited about London as a destination, a bit leery of the weather and the food, but it turned out to be a nice place to spend the holiday. There was no snow on the ground and in comparison with the recently frigid air in Kyrgyzstan, London almost felt balmy.

There was plenty to do. We started out our visit with a West End production of The Producers. It was shown in the Drury Lane theatre, the oldest theatre in London and the place that the West End theatre district built itself around. One of the lead actors, Nathan Lane, didn’t show up for that performance. Either he was sick or he decided to take Christmas Eve off. Even with the understudy in the lead role, it was still enjoyable, a huge difference from the one musical I’ve seen in Kyrgyzstan – where drama students in costumes made from scraps performed the first Kyrgyz musical in an unheated hall.

The city effectively closed down on Christmas day. But crowds of tourists still wandered around, looking for holiday entertainment. The few cafes and restaurants that were open, mostly run by foreigners, did a brisk business. We decided to turn down the $100-$150 Christmas lunch options on offer at several hotels and on Thames River boats. Instead, we joined a giant horde of tourists on a two-hour walking tour. It was supposed to cover Dickens in London, but instead seemed to be a patchwork of information from other walking tours on offer – telling us about different haunted sights, giving us some insight into history and architecture, as well as a few anecdotes about Dickens. It did add a little life to the scenery though to see the place where Eliza Doolittle met Henry Higgins, to hear how a woman’s head was knocked off near Trafalgar Square when her carriage emerged from a hotel with a low overhanging, to see where Benjamin Franklin lived, to hear of Dicken’s boyhood experiences working at a blacking factory.

We had our holiday meal at our hotel. For some reason, lunch seems to be the main meal on Christmas, so dinner was half the price. I had parsnip soup, turkey with carrots, spinach and cranberry sauce, and winter fruits with ginger ice cream. We were each given a “cracker” at the meal, a tradition we’d learned about during the tour. A “cracker” looks like an oblong holiday gift. They are available for purchase, ranging from the very cheap to the extremely expensive. If you receive a cracker, you pull the ends and it bangs open with a pop, similar to the sound that Pillsbury croissants or cinnamon rolls in the blue cardboard rolls make, and a present falls out of the center piece. Inside, we found paper crowns (so that’s why many of our fellow diners were wearing colored crowns), remniscent of the kind Burger King provides to children, and a measuring tape. We guessed these crackers must have been amongst the cheaper versions.

On Sunday, Boxing Day (so named because it used to be the day when people would give service workers, like milkmen, boxes with tips or gifts for the holidays) we attended the Chelsea versus Aston Villa premiership soccer game. This was an event my boyfriend had been looking forward to for ages and it was what drew us to London for this visit. I hadn’t been to a soccer game in a very long time and I knew virtually nothing about English soccer. Nevertheless, I donned the blue and white striped Chelsea scarf my boyfriend bought me and I joined the ranks of fans streaming into the stadium. The game was virtually sold out, with close to 40,000 people packing the stands. I learned how the opposing team fans are relegated to a tiny little corner of the stadium and that they stand up for almost the entire game, that games are played outside in an unroofed stadium, even in the middle of winter, that fans sing songs that don’t seem to have a lot of relation to the players or the game (one song went; “One man went to mow a meadow,”), that numerous guards in fluorescent orange and yellow vests line the stands on the lookout for hooligans, that beer is sold on the premises, but not allowed into the stands, that the thin billboards that line the rim of the field change simultaneously, making an entire colorful ring of ads for a single company and that overall, the fans, while largely male, were quite enthusiastic, but well-behaved. Chelsea won, 1-0.

On Monday, the first day a number of stores were open, we decided to go shopping. We both hoped to purchase winter coats, but neither of us was successful. Walking down Oxford Street in the center of London was like wading through a virtual sea of shoppers. The dense pack of humans extended as far as we could see, slowing our pace to a crawl, making us pay more attention to not getting separated than to what was in the shop windows. Inside the stores was even crazier. At Marks and Spencer, shoppers attacked the sale racks like ants around a breadcrumb. The staff couldn’t keep up with the shoppers and the merchandise had become disorderly. The only fitting room I could find was out of service until the new year, and those who found items to buy then waited in a tremendous line just to pay.

At Selfridges, a very expensive department store, the staff managed to keep their merchandise neat and shiny and the crowds were more orderly. But that may have been helped by the fact that not many people could actually afford to buy anything there. The only long coat I found was on sale for $500. The coat my boyfriend was interested in was also on sale, for a mere $700. The line for Subway sandwiches went out the door and the line for the Gucci department at a department store wrapped around the building.

We took refuge from the crowds in an Indian restaurant, where a piece of naan bread went for $5, as did a side of plain rice.

We spent our final afternoon playing merry-go-round in the subway, as the Piccadilly line was halted due to the smell of smoke, available again, halted, slowed, finally puttering along at a slow pace to the airport.

During my time in London, I missed the more reasonable prices of Kyrgyzstan, as well as the spicy excitement of the unknown and unexpected that fills the air there. But I also enjoyed a short reprieve into a world that was fairly orderly, where people use soft white toilet paper instead of hard brown cardboard, where a herd of 100 tourists can be processed with an ease that comes from practice, where the bright reds of the telephone booths and double-decker buses, the black taxis, and the ivories, greys and browns of the elegant buildings provided a sense of stability and where the quality of life is high enough that people can afford to pay $4 for a hot chocolate at the corner café.

I have to admit that I didn’t actually meet anyone, I didn’t have the chance to engage a Brit in casual conversation to ask about the details of daily life. In fact, one of our most memorable encounters was during our walking tour, when a grey-bearded, thick waisted man in his 50s, dressed in trousers and a suit jacket, barreled down the narrow alley toward us, crying out in a deep, angry voice, “Get out of my way, fucking tourists! You cunts – go back to where you came from!” The tourists and the tour guide moved slowly, uniformly, in shock, then returned their attention to the tour as though nothing had happened.

That’s the uniqueness of London - the city is set up so that one can live, eat, be entertained, travel and learn while remaining distinct from the masses, an anonymous little atom of humanity, able to move through the streets without bumping into others, averse to causing chaos amidst the order.

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