MAD DOG: A Mad Dog in London

London's a funny place. It's a city where the babies and the old men look exactly alike -- ruddy complexion, only a couple of teeth, and a blank stare. It's a city where banks routinely lose money in your account, though being the civil bunch they are they always apologise, as they spell it. And it's a city with few public trash cans, not so much as a precaution against IRA bombs as they claim, but more as an excuse for the incredible amount of litter and trash on the streets. Though come to think of it, it might just be a tradition.London, you see, is steeped in tradition. Westminster Abbey has been the site of every royal coronation since 1066. The Royal Opera House has been in use since 1732. And London's greatest Kodak Moment, the Changing of the Guard has been happening like clockwork since the first bear cub sat on a guard's head and they called it a hat.But that's not to say things don't change there. During the Changing of the Guard they carry assault rifles instead of single shot muskets. And during the ceremony the band plays a rather striking version of Hey Jude. Really. Forget saving the Queen, let's make sure Sir Paul gets his royalties.Pubs are another great London tradition. At first glance they all appear to be pretty much the same, but this isn't true. The secret to telling a good pub from a bad pub is easy -- the name. The best pubs are named after two totally unrelated things. The more oxymoronic the non-sequiter, the better. The Slug and Lettuce is a good pub. The Star and Garter is better. The King's Head and Eight Bells is even better yet. Beware of pubs named McPint, Ales-R-Us, and the International House of Suds. Do stop into a pub if it's named The Thick Green Snot and Hacking Cough, Thrice Testy Twits, or Free Sex For the Asking and What's It To Ya, Mate?To give you an idea of how seriously the English take their drinking, walk up to any pub at lunch time and you'll see a crowd standing out front with pints in their hands and not a lick of food to be found within 30 metres, which is an English measurement that equates to "in the next county." This is even true in Tower Hill, London's financial district, where the well-dressed bankers and brokers can still be found clustered outside the pub at 2pm, drinking and chatting and asking each other "Wot say we go back to the branch �n' sell off a bit more of the Empire, mate?" This may go a long way to answering how it is the banks manage to lose your money.Speaking of food, English cooking lives up to its reputation and less. While the Indian food was excellent, the turkey sandwich with cranberry sauce at Waterloo Station was the first I've found that resembled my favorite post-Thanksgiving treat, and the crispy pork belly was actually much better than it sounds (so quit scrunching up your face), the more traditional fare like chicken and mushroom pie, sausage rolls, and fish and chips are, well, rather unexciting.Some of that's due once again to the English sense of tradition. Take fish and chips. They not only fry their chips in the same oil they've been using to fry the fish, but being the great traditionalists they are they haven't changed the oil since the 15th century when Henry V dumped it on the heads of the French at the Battle of Agincourt.A little food history lesson: the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey was made for Kind Edward I and all but two English monarchs since 1308 have been crowned while sitting in it. Until they gave it back in 1996, the chair rested on a large rock called the Stone of Scone, which the English hijacked from the Scots in 1296. To remind themselves of this stone, the English regularly eat dry hard-as-a-rock biscuits for breakfast called scones. As I said, it's all about tradition.In England anything newer than the 15th century has the prefix nouveau attached to it. This is, incidentally, the only thing they've borrowed from the French other than French fries, which they call chips. In the U.S., on the other hand, we consider anything from before 1982 to be old, which helps explain why there are so many movies being made from bad 1970's TV shows.Communication is a problem in London. Signs are in English, the people speak English, yet communicating is almost as difficult as it is in France. The first time I walked through the tube -- also known as the underground, or subway to you -- I was approached by a man asking for directions. His English accent was heavy, but he managed to explain that he's lost and can't read, so can we please tell him which train to take. My friend tells him how to get to his destination. "No, that's not right," the man mutters as he wanders off to ask someone else. "That's not right at all." Maybe he just didn't understand us.This wouldn't be surprising, since even the English can't understand each other. That's because every person in London has a unique accent. The only thing they have in common is that they all drop every 5th letter, but that's only because it's a law and they don't want to mess with the bobbies, Royal Guard, Beefeaters, traffic wardens, or anyone else in a uniform, and everyone in London, it seems, wears a uniform. Chiswick becomes Chisick. Worchester becomes Wooster. And help is shortened to hell, as in, "Oh hell, I give up."I'm sitting in a tea room in Leicester Square (pronounced: Lester Square) sharing a small table with a young Irish woman who's reading a book of limericks. The Irish have a way of wanting to make sure everyone knows they're not English. She asks the waiter for another cappuccino, which he promptly forgets. Or possibly ignores since she is, after all, flaunting her Irishness. When she reminds him, he asks if she still wants it."Excuse me?" she says, not understanding him."D'ya still wan' ye coffee?"After several rounds of this I jump in and explain what the waiter's asking. Apparently it takes an American to interpret between the Irish and the English. Actually it was a lucky guess on my part; it happens to be the first thing I'd understood all day.But the English have a simple, direct way with signs. Way Out is an exit. Give Way means yield. A flyover is an overpass. And the space between the train and the platform is a gap, which is why you hear announcements and see signs painted on the platform that say Mind The Gap. Either that or The Gap is paying them big bucks, which is how they can afford to pay royalties to Sir Paul every time they have the Changing of the Guard. If it was Paris it would have been "mind the crap", but we'll save a discussion of the French mode of carefree dog walking for another time.

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