I’d like to send a shout out to my sister and brother-in-law for many reasons, but this week in particular for 1) letting me stay with them in sunny, beautiful Hilton Head, and 2) while I was there, reminding me about a blog topic they’d inspired that I had forgotten about.
Late last year, my sister was cleaning out her files and came across a letter from me–isn’t that so retro and quaint? We do have hand written letters we sent each other in college, but this one is post-college, so it was written on a computer, with bold and italic fonts and everything.
It’s entitled “Sandy’s Tour of London Insider Tips.” Pretty heady stuff. They were traveling there for vacation, and I had lived there for nearly three months right after college, via a work exchange program. The letter is filled with random recommendations and observations that only a near penniless, recent college graduate could come up with. I have no idea if my observations are still true, but I could at least Google the places I mentioned to see if they are still there. I was there in *cough* 1987. I was pleasantly surprised. Here then, is the much sought after, highly rated, and totally random Sandy’s Tour of London.
- I’ll start with how I got there, through a programme (might as well start getting British now) called BUNAC. Back in the day, the acronym definitely stood for something, British University Needs Academic Chumps or something. But they wisely have dropped the name and kept the acronym. When I signed up, they got to bring 2 British college kids over to the US for every US kid who went to England. I paid them a coupla C-notes (that’s old timey ganster–not gangsta–slang for you newbs) for the privilege (aka permit) of being allowed to work there. They arranged for three nights in a London hotel stuffed with college kids all doing the same thing, a 20-minute pep talk when I checked in about how London was my oyster, and a cheerio and good luck. That was it; the rest was up to me. Not that I’m complaining. Most of the poor British kids got stuck working in summer camps in the remotest areas of the US whilst getting bitten by mosquitoes and dealing with homesick kids. I had the entire city of London to run amuck in. Now the programme looks much more formal, costs a boatload more, and the website has links called “The Parents Page” and “My BUNAC Account.” That can’t be good for running amuck. They also require proof that you have $1,500 in a bank account, just to go there and get a paid job. I barely have that much in my account now, never mind when I was 21. Maybe too many kids just starved or stayed or went on the dole and ruined it for everyone. For the record that wasn’t me. I landed there with two suitcases, about $100 bucks in my pocket, and a dream to speak fluent British.
- So now, on to the tour. I wrote: “I figured everyone else gave you the tourist places to visit. I’m going to give you the insider scoop. The best advice is to take the bus more than the tube, because the double-decker buses are more fun and you get to see the city more. The British have an awesome bus map that’s easy to read.” Now before you make fun of me, you have to understand, Boston had a terrible bus map back then, so discovering London’s superior map was like realizing Parmesan cheese didn’t come in a can naturally, and tasting the real deal for the first time. This may or may not have happened to me in real life.
- Forget Harrods. “Americans may not have invented the department store, but we did perfect it. No big whoop here. Lots of blue hairs to boot.” This one is funny because I was just talking to my sister about blue hairs. It’s one of my favourite things to say, but sadly they don’t really exist anymore. When I was a kid, old ladies would put a rinse in their hair to make it ungrey, and the rinse was tinted blue. Hence, blue hairs. And they often paired the hair with big, black orthodic shoes that could total a Smart car with a couple of good kicks. But now old ladies dye their hair blonde and wear stylish shoes. Where’s the fun in that? I’ve vowed, when it’s my time and my hair is totally grey, to bring back the blue hair; black shoes optional.
- Then there’s this puzzling gem: I gave them highly detailed directions to the flat where I lived. The only thing interesting thing about it was that it was “on Chippenham Road, near Paddington of Paddington bear station.” I admit “Chippenham” is fun to say, and who doesn’t love Paddington bear? But wait, there’s even more insider advice: “Along the way stop in any of the little markets and laugh at the familiar candy wrappers with funny names. We bought lots of crumpets and candy.” Um, OK. People really should skip London Tower and Big Ben to see the candy bars with funny names.
- Farrington Rose Garden. “I whiled away the time here while being “redundant” (unemployed).” I worked for a temp agency (see entry number 9) and when they didn’t have an assignment, this is where I would go. It was a pretty garden, but they are dime a dozen in London. I think I just wanted to use the word “redundant.”
- Cafe Creperie. “Off of Bond street on the corner of James and Barrett. After shopping your socks off [or taking a random trip to see a flat near Paddington Station??] reward yourself with a wonderful crepe, smothered with ice cream and chocolate sauce. The waiters are also very cute. My roommates and I had quite a few of these crepes for dinner.” The place is still in business, and it has a Trip Advisor rating of 3.5, which, like most of Trip Advisor ratings, runs the gamut from, “most delicious crepes ever!” to “Terrible service, overpriced, and the seating outside is too close to street hawkers!” Which is to say, it’s probably a lot like I remember it. There were no comments on the cuteness of the waiters.
- Jams. “A little hole in the wall. Good food, very cool music and the tables are in ‘bunks’ very interesting eating and the waiters are funny.” It’s still in business, but now more fancifully called “Buonasera Restaurant at the Jam.” It has a 4.5 rating and looks like it has been gentrified– the airy website says it’s the “Perfect spot for a night out in Chelsea,” which is fancy talk for, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it on my temp wages. But they still have ladders for you to climb up to your table, so I’m going to go ahead and brag that I helped put it on the map.
- Hard Rock Cafe. “Go around 5 or 5:30 pm or for lunch, otherwise you’ll have to wait in a long line with a lot of Americans with heavy Southern accents and screaming kids. If you do get stuck, pretend you’re Canadian and look sternly at the Americans, shaking your head sadly.” This is self-explanatory, except I will add that the Brits often asked us if we were Canadian, since we didn’t have Southern accents. If there were loud Americans around, we would not correct them.
- Centre Girl Agency. “On Bow Lane, off of Cheapside Poultry (I’m not joking), closest tube stop is St. Paul’s. Here’s where the evil wicked temp witch sent Sandy on many bad assignments, mainly to rake in the pounds. What’s interesting about this place is that Bow Lane is very small and it’s where real working British people hang out. Go at noon and you will see them all having a beer at the pub across from Centre Girl.” Like the flat, I can’t really explain why I thought this should be included, because, you know, when you’re on vacation in another country, you want to skip all the famous landmarks and see the everyday working people drinking in a pub. However, this entry totally became worth it when I Googled it. What came up were a number sites: Tidy Models | Promo Girls Agency, London Escorts, and Exhibition Girls Staffing Agency. I don’t know what a Tidy Model is, but I might have been willing to learn. Back then it was basically a secretary temp agency, but the new incarnation is not actually that much different from when I was there. I often felt like they were pimping me out. This was waaaay back when there were multiple word processing programs that were different enough to slow you down if you didn’t know them.They were much more interested in supplying bodies rather than actual skills, so I guess they finally found the right business angle.
- Then I move on to entertainment. Free entertainment includes “British television. Funny as hell if you can figure out what time the shows are on 7:20, 8:45, etc. The commercials are great, and if you can catch Monty Python it’s even funnier over there,” and “Buckingham Palace. Best seen on Sunday. They block off the road to cars and all the English people are inside having their roast beef dinners and the tourists are just arriving or leaving the country.” Then there’s Trafalgar Square. “See a beautiful fountain, and watch people actually feed flying rats, oops, I mean pigeons from their hands. Watch out for the bird doo. The place is covered with it.” And lastly, “In Hyde Park on Sunday, Speakers Corner is filled with zealots and wackos all spouting forth. Warning: anti-Americans sentiments are sometimes expressed. Pretend you’re Canadian.”
- For paid entertainment, about the Tate Museum I found it worth mentioning this nugget: “Besides the modern art, there’s a photo of the ‘Lost in Space’ robot — a must-see!” I have no defense of that one.
- And lastly, Stratford-upon-Avon. “It’s an hour or so train ride from London. You can see a Shakespeare play, but the action is really on the river. Rent a rowboat and ride upon the Avon. Oh yeah, Shakespeare’s first house and grave and stuff is there too.”
And there you have it. If you take my advice, I can’t guarantee you’ll have a good time, but I know you will have content for a blog. Cheerio!
Photo: The fabulous London bus map.