Archive for the ‘london’ Category


September 20, 2011

Now that I have some time off work, I wanted to try a new hobby. “Creative handicrafts with battery acid” didn’t sound fun enough, so I took up “Getting my security deposit back from my estate agents” instead.*

Estate agents are the used car salesman of England. Everyone hates them.** Mine in particular are sort of like the Gambino family, without the professionalism and moral compass. Here are some of the things they’re trying to charge me for:

  • Broken blinds

These are broken because they were broken when I moved in. They stayed broken for the next 20 months, despite my desperate requests to have them effing fixed already.

  • Missing vacuum cleaner

This is missing because the apartment came with two vacuum cleaners, and I gave away the one my estate agents said didn’t belong to the landlord.

  • One missing teaspoon

Okay, but are you 5 years old?

  • Broken drawer

This is my favorite. The reason the drawer doesn’t open is because it’s not a real drawer. It’s one of those false-front drawers you often see installed below a sink.

As Shakespeare once said, “O emerald isle! Thine estate agents got the stumpy end of the bell curve.”



* “Estate agent” is the English word for “real estate agent.” You pretty much have to go through an estate agent to rent an apartment. It’s very rare to rent directly from the landlord or an on-site manager. I’m convinced this is the real reason that Great Britain has such a high rate of home ownership: It’s the only way to exorcise the estate agents from your life.



** And yet everyone puts up with them. Stiff upper lip, etc. I’d like to beam a message out to the English people: IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY. In America, you can rent an apartment by signing a one-page lease and handing over some dough. They run a credit check and presto, you’re in. There’s no 38-page contract you have to sign on every single page. No letter from your employer. No inventory. Also, when you leave, the landlord makes sure you didn’t trash the place, and then you get your deposit back. No quibbling about teaspoons.

The only time I didn’t get my full deposit back — including all the times I painted the living room and didn’t paint it back before I left — was once when I was 24, and I had thrown out the landlord’s mirrored plant stand. This piece of furniture was ugly and tacky in a way that is hard to put into words. So even though the $300 they dinged me was painful (because $300 is a lot when you’re 24 years old, and also, come ON, $300 for a mirrored plant stand?) — I was able to be philosophical about it. Our planet is an infinitesimally more beautiful place without that plant stand. So the three hundred bucks was practically a charitable donation.



August 14, 2011

I live across from some public housing* and earlier this week, I saw two little boys playing out front on their bikes. One of them raced across the sidewalk crying, “Nee-ner! Nee-ner!” The second boy said, “Okay, now you have to arrest me.”

That’s as close as I ever got to the riots. Which is to say, I didn’t see any burning cars or angry mobs. But I felt the change in atmosphere.

Our office, along with most businesses, closed early so workers could get home before dark. People took extra care of each other: “Is your cab coming soon? You could share mine.” Everyone went straight home, locked the doors, and turned on the TV news. Overall, it was what you’d expect if London had been invaded by a horde of vampires.

I don’t mean to be glib. It’s just that to me – an outsider, living on the surface, who hasn’t plumbed the culture’s discontents – the riots seemed to come out of nowhere. Then disappear again, just as mysteriously. So even though I live here, I can’t offer any on-the-ground reporting or insider scoop.

All I can tell you is that for a minute there, it felt pretty weird.



* I find it interesting that the English call public housing “council estates.” The “council” is just your local government. But “estate” seems to suggest land, inheritance, birthright. As if the people who are born there have poverty in their blood. The American word – “housing project” – is just as illuminating. A “project” is a task, an enterprise, an item on your to-do list.

Sure enough, English council estates tend to be a lot more solid and liveable-looking than American housing projects. Which makes sense. Why would Americans want to make such a pessimistic investment – housing for the poor – when poverty is surely a transitory state, something to be overcome, a mere speedbump on the way to the American dream?


August 4, 2011

The second half of my vacation was home in London, where Julie came to visit me. We mainly ate at restaurants, shopped at Selfridges, ate at Selfridges, and rode around on double-decker buses.

In between we did a little sightseeing and took a lot of pictures — holding the camera at arm’s length, the way you do when there’s no one else to be the photographer.

Julie and me on the bus.


Julie and me in a cab.


Julie and me on the bus again. This bus drops you off exactly at the entrance to Selfridges. The bus announcer voice even says “Alight here for Selfridges.” Alight here for shoes. Alight here for perfume. Alight here for unnecessary pretty things. Alight here, in a city that’s got its priorities straight.


At the Tower of London, with the creatively-named Tower Bridge in the background.


On the little bridge that takes you to the Tate Modern.


In which my head, neck and nose are doing a remarkable impersonation of Big Ben.


Above London on the Eye. It was, as they say, splendid.



June 19, 2011

Last week I had lunch at a deli in Mayfair – the kind of place that sells aubergine salad and jars of jam with handwritten labels; across the street from the Marc Jacobs store and the Marc by Marc Jacobs store; you get the idea.

The women next to me ordered Pumpkin and Sage soup. It arrived. They tasted it. Whereupon one of them raised her hand to hail the waitress.

“I’m terribly sorry,” she said. “The soup is lovely, the flavour’s absolutely wonderful, but unfortunately… it’s a bit salty.”

The waitress apparently didn’t have the authority to deal with too-salty soup, so she left. Minutes later, the cook appeared.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, “I understand you don’t like the soup?”

The diner demurred. “It’s really very nice! Lovely flavour! I’m sorry, if it weren’t quite so salty…”

The customer apologized again, the cook apologized back, both customers again complimented the lovely but inedible soup, the cook offered chickpea soup instead, and just like that – after fifteen minutes of quiet waiting, face-saving niceness, and inexhaustible politness – the Affair of the Salty Soup was resolved.

One thing’s for sure. I do not have the patience to be English.


June 12, 2011
Sunday lunch.
Chris and Alex at the Albion, a pub you shouldn’t miss.


May 7, 2011

When the weather’s good – or merely dry – millions of Londoners emerge from within to stroll, wander, and stand in the streets. I find this… vexing. Fine weather is not improved by heaving crowds.

But over Easter, so many people left town that the city had a quiet, emptied-out feel.

I decided to visit Eel Pie Island, which I’d been wanting to see because: 1) it’s a tiny island filled with tiny houses 2) it’s accessible only by footbridge and 3) it’s called Eel Pie Island.*

Off I went, equipped with a book and visions of neat stone cottages, lapping wavelets, and lilac trees encircled by benches, where I could curl up to read.

Ah, expectations.

Turns out, Eel Pie Island is across from Twickenham Embankment, a suburban esplanade lined with pubs and the very crowds I’d hoped to avoid.

The island has one walkway and not a single bench. The houses are newish, and the yards have a cluttered, hippieish vibe (if hippies liked “Keep Out” signs). I heard helicopters, the Beastie Boys, and “JUMP! JUMP!” – from the Twickenham side, where some of the drunker, fatter boys were daring each other to leap from the footbridge.

Naturally, I filmed this.



* Aren’t you surprised you’ve never heard of this place? But most Londoners haven’t either. It’s not hard to get to – just take the tube to the Richmond, walk a ways, and it’s right there, in the middle of the Thames.


March 26, 2011


November 7, 2010

Shelley and Amanda being silly at Kew Gardens.




The Heath.
Lost again.


November 7, 2010

Last month my friends Amanda and Shelley came to stay. I slept on the daybed, and they slept on the main bed, which a) wasn’t weird because they are sisters and b) proves there’s room in my apartment for visitors, viz. you.

We tromped Hampstead Heath and strolled Kew Gardens. We drank tea. And we saw some modern dance.

The troupe was somehow related to Cirque du Soleil, so it was the kind of thing where they jump headfirst through hoops and do pirouettes on their pinky fingers. It was thrilling, but also made clear how far I am from fulfilling my potential as a person with a body.

The other thing we did is get lost. On Friday, Shelley and Amanda were an hour late to dinner. Understandable; it was their first day in London and they didn’t have good maps or GPS.

Then Sunday, equipped with no such excuses, I got us mired in a dumpy neighborhood in East London. It would’ve been perfect if we’d been looking for a kebab or a tank of gas, but we were looking for the Tower of London.

Still, you should visit. I swear the day bed is comfortable.

To and fro (a special 382-word entry)

May 31, 2010

Last week someone at work someone needed, for bureaucratic reasons, to know my travel schedule – the dates I’ve flown from London to Los Angeles and back again. I looked it up… and discovered that I have yet to stay in London for more than four weeks at a stretch. Perhaps this is why I sometimes feel a visitor in my own apartment. And strangely at home in a hotel. (Of course, it’s easy to feel at home someplace where they make your bed every day and deliver your clean laundry in a little basket, swaddled in tissue paper.)

I know it’s silly to complain about my jet-setting style. And it’s true that I still enjoy traveling, especially on the occasions I am permitted to fly business class. (Last time Sasha Baron Cohen was a few rows back from me, and I used the bathroom right after him. He didn’t stink it up, and put the seat down.)

But California has a weird hold on me. It’s especially tight at the end of the day, when I’m on the cliffs above the ocean: listening to the faraway waves and the oddly similar roar of traffic on the PCH, watching the sun lower into the ocean, with the lights flickering across the curve of the bay – it is hugely, ridiculously, heartbreakingly beautiful. I don’t know why, but it gives me a feeling that’s vaguely similar to the feeling you get when you’re kissing someone, and you really mean it, and you know they’re going to leave you.

In London, the beauty is on a more manageable scale. I try to really see things, instead of going around on auto-pilot. Today I noticed a number of wrought-iron fences with an acorn motif. And a door knocker shaped like a fish. Yesterday I heard the breeze in the trees above the canal.

It can be hard to believe that the world contains such different kinds of beauty. California and London. Pacific Ocean and door knockers. It’s a little overwhelming.

I’m sure a wise person would just fly back and forth, like a dandelion seed on an uncertain wind, letting California go, and then letting London go, and then letting California go, and then letting London go.

But I always find myself trying to hold on.