London

While we were in England, we got the train from Bournemouth to visit London.

London was an important part of my life as soon as I was old enough to be allowed to travel there without adult supervision. Some people are naturally country folk, some people are city people; even though I grew up in small villages and quaint towns, that was never where I really wanted to be.

I was curious to see how London had changed since I last saw it, nearly 10 years ago. We arranged to stay overnight with Shimrit in Stoke Newington, which Sara amusingly misheard as “Stoat Newington”.

Memories fade, and my main reason for going to London was to take my new video camera and visit a bunch of familiar places and record them; the streets, the buildings, the traffic, the crowds.

We arrived at Waterloo Station, so we started off by wandering towards the Thames and taking a look at the London Eye. The Eye had been built some time after I left the country. I’d seen it on Doctor Who, but not in real life. We didn’t actually go up in it; there was a long queue, and the ride itself would have taken another half hour or so out of our busy schedule. There were more important places to see.

We crossed over to the Houses of Parliament. They were protest-free, thanks to the new “Serious Organized Crime and Police Act”, which bans such serious crimes as holding up a banner outside Parliament. We continued on to Parliament Square, where some Iraq war protesters were quietly camped out along the fence facing Parliament. Across the street, heavily armed police kept everyone away from their elected representatives.

We turned right and headed along Whitehall, past the Treasury and Cabinet Office. Some tourists were gawping at guardsmen outside Horse Guards; it’s good to see that the Queen is doing her duty and keeping the Colour regularly Trooped. We passed the old War Office; and defra, who were probably busy panicking over the latest outbreak of foot and mouth.

Trafalgar Square was disappointingly blemished by scaffolding, tarpaulins and wooden hoardings. It was also full of sky rats, of course, but they’re expected, so you can’t really call them a disappointment. We stopped at a small Italian restaurant nearby for a spot of lunch, then continued towards Leicester Square.

As we walked past the Odeon towards Piccadilly Circus, everything started to get very familiar, and I started to get tearful. The Swiss Centre is still as it was, and the Trocadero hasn’t changed much. Apparently the former is due to be modernized a bit, so I was probably lucky to get to experience it in its retro cuckoo clock glory.

We visited tate modern, of course. One thing we always missed in Boston was a decent modern art gallery, and Austin isn’t much better, though the Blanton does try.

By the evening, we were exhausted. We had some vegetarian curry at a restaurant near Shimrit’s pad, then crashed on the futon.

The next day we tried to take things a little easier, and started off at Oxford Circus for a day of shopping.

Now, I could be misremembering, but it seemed to me that the crowds were far worse than ten years ago. It was a rainy English summer day, but the herds of people reminded me more of the run-up to Christmas. We struggled towards Tottenham Court Road, ducking into stores here and there.

Given the current exchange rate, we tried to buy as little as possible; but inevitably, there were books, CDs and DVDs unavailable in the US which we were unable to resist. We went in to HMV, but tried to limit ourselves to stuff with a single digit price.

We had lunch at The Plaza, which had mysteriously moved the food court up to the second floor and made the basement vanish entirely. Baked potatoes. They’re not nearly as popular in the US. I used to buy one most Saturdays, from a guy with a cart in the Market Square in Cambridge.

Tottenham Court Road is still just like it used to be. I even recognized several of the gadget stores. The infamous Centre Point is still there, and still unnavigable by foot. The Telecom Tower is still visible from Oxford Street, but sadly sanity has prevailed and its existence is no longer an official secret.

The biggest change to London is that there are now coffee shops everywhere. Back in the 90s I had to bring an espresso machine back with me from Italy; now, you can’t walk for more than a minute or two without finding somewhere offering Illy or some other variety of “Genuine Italian espresso”. And tasty snacks, too. I definitely approve.

One good English food item I had forgotten about until I saw them at Waterloo Station was the pasty. I wonder if there’s somewhere in Austin that will sell me a good pasty?

Anyhow, we finished up our day with a little book shopping at Foyle’s and Borders, then got the train back to Bournemouth.

Spot the crook?

I’ve beem thinking about how one can actually spot shady businesses. It’s not as easy as it initially seems—there are plenty of dodgy retailers that manage to look totally legitimate, and there are plenty of good companies that you might assume to be crooks because (for instance) they don’t list any kind of address online.

For example, if you’ve ever shopped online for camera equipment, or browsed the ads in magazines, you’ve probably seen lots of stores in New York selling photo equipment at way below MSRP.

Don Wiss decided to start a project to photograph the actual storefronts of all the discount camera businesses in NY and NJ. He has put the photo gallery on his web site.

For instance, I’ve seen legit-looking ads from Cambridge Camera in magazines, so it’s interesting (ahem) to see their actual business premises.

In the UK we call these places “box shifters”. They all used to collect along Tottenham Court Road in London, though that may have changed.

The problem is that not every obscure online store in Brooklyn offering amazingly low prices is run by crooks. I bought our new TV from Best Buy Plasma in Brooklyn. It arrived promptly, in perfect condition, and has made me very happy; so Best Buy Plasma are clearly not to be confused with PC And Plasma.

Similarly, HKFlix are legit and knowledgeable (in my experience), even though it seems to be almost impossible to find out where they’re actually located. (No address on the site, domain hosting points to Hawaii, stuff ships from California.)

Generally speaking, I’ve been able to shop online and save a ton of money and not get ripped off. But I don’t think I could write down a set of objective criteria for working out if a vendor is honest; it’s usually an intuitive decision for me. I do a bunch of research, but ultimately there’s some kind of non-logical synthesis of the available information.