Daily Digest London: Life as a Londoner

Jeff Hargarten

Glass eyes of CCTV cameras reflected rising sunlight in England’s dawning hours. Roars from a skidding motorcycle breached the seventh floor window as metro police sirens approached. Before the cellphone alarm could sound, the city’s life awakened the sleeping, drawing them into a new day as students, tourists and guests in London’s cosmopolitan jungle.

It was the morning of Wednesday, June 27, with many tasks to traverse and wonders to witness.

Housing

A buzzing 9:30 a.m. alarm vibrated through the mattress, the phone’s screen blinking white light. Sunbeams cut through the window and wind gusts pounded against the door. Cold wood panel floors were covered in papers blown about overnight.

The showers were chillier than at home, but served as a wake-up call. Tiny dorm-like rooms were considered large in a city where living space is premium and compact.

Dressing warmly helped ward off the chaotic weather jumping between summer heat and cold rains. Ever-present clouds loomed overhead, constantly threatening downpour. Some lingering puddles were visible through the windows but it was otherwise dry. A British summer was typically colder than across the pond.

Fiberglass barriers prevented unauthorized entry or exit from the housing complex. It was oftentimes easier to pass border agents than it was to leave the student housing as the ID card refused to read the first couple times.

Mornings

Breakfast was an egg and cress sandwich from a Tesco convenience store and leftover cider from a pile of bottles left over from the night previous. Food prices were stiff on an American’s budget.

Chalkboard advertisements outside local restaurants vied for commuters to step inside for a pasty, scone, tea or a full 12-item breakfast. Instead, crowds spilled from the Starbucks down the street.

Many Britons start their day with a dose of American-style food. Coca Cola and Pizza Hut are common London sights. Two McDonald’s sat on opposite corners from one another, orderly queues awaiting service.

Classes

Walking to City University London used to be a confusing journey but has since become second nature. The university is quite young by English standards, only founded in 1894. Passing through the small courtyard out front, sprinting up three floors and walking through winding hallways revealed a single door labeled “Arcadia University.”

The class instructor was a Londoner, but like so many, came from elsewhere before moving to the city, her accent unlike so many of the Britons. Schoolwork is light. First class, or A grades, only take 75 percent to obtain. The program is free-wheeling and rewards independent study.

The two-hour class on Briton’s possible Olympic legacy droned on.  Very few had done the readings with so much to see and do in the city.

Greek classmates passed the lecture drawing their sorority symbols over, and over, and over, and over …

Transport

By 3:00 p.m. class ended and wanderings began. The walk back to King’s Cross St. Pancras, the “Harry Potter station,” seemed shorter.

Winding deeply beneath the city, London’s massive Underground world teemed with life. Swiping a blue Oyster card at the gates granted entry to a realm full of street performers, vendors, newspaper stands, transport hubs doubling as megamalls and foot traffic rivaling the density found on the surface.

Those same cards work with London’s iconic red double-decker busses, Overground trains, Docklands Light Rail and Thames ferries, a united transportation system that is relatively cheap and simple compared to driving.

Newly plastered signs announced the availability of free wi-fi throughout the Underground and warnings of impending service changes for the Olympic launch. Signs pointed future Olympic spectators to tourist spots and shopping centers.

A long red, white and blue tube was heralded by gusts of wind, the Piccadilly line train arriving on schedule. Experienced riders allowed everyone to disembark first before pushing their way onboard.

“Mind the gap. Mind the gap. Mind gap,” the automated voice droned repeatedly until all were aboard.

The train rattled and skated along the tracks, lights flickering sporadically with each stop until reaching Leicester Square where most of the cars emptied.

Media

Emerging from the station to the surface, newspaper vendors yelled “free Standard!” to passersby.

Each issue was page-to-page coverage of the same stories unfolding for months and years: Olympics. Julian Assange. Rupert Murdoch. Banking scandals. Diamond Jubilee. Football matches.

The repetitive grind of U.S. election coverage is nearly silent and it's easy to lose track of American developments.

BBC television service is available by paid annual license fee. Channels at the student housing complex are constantly tuned to British MTV except during football and tennis matches as Euro 2012 and Wimbledon wage on.

Recent American Top 40 hits have just landed in London. Groups of schoolgirls singing “Call Me Maybe” are a common sight.

Shopping and entertainment

The shops of Leicester Square bled into Piccadilly Circus, the West End’s sprawling commercial center drawing tourists from across the world. America’s fast food chains rested on every strip of road. A life-sized statue of Iron Man stood in the doorway to TGI Friday’s.

Posters for upcoming U.S. films and British theater productions wallpapered discount ticket booths.

The walk through the square gave way to Chinatown, then the perpetual street theater of Covent Garden where a contortionist twisted himself into a human pretzel for spare change from onlookers.

Theater is a huge part of London’s culture. Signs for acting and stage lessons hang near King’s Cross.  The weekend previous featured free musical numbers from West End theater productions in Trafalgar Square, drawing thousands of people braving the rain to watch parts of “Shrek the Musical, “Rock of Ages,” and “Thriller Live!”

Food

A late lunchtime rolled around at a dimly-lit pub. Orders were paid for upfront. No tips or gratuities required. The bartenders almost never asked for ID.

Some American students have described British food as “bland,” menus of fish and chips, steak sandwiches, lasagna and pies common in most restaurants.

Though Indian and Bangladeshi –inspired curries are among London’s most popular dish, the city’s ethnic diversity adding some color to traditional British cuisine.

Unlike the U.S. many London restaurants are not open past 9:30 p.m. or 10:00 p.m., especially pubs. Fast food places like McDonald’s and Burger King are more commonly open late, along with kabob joints popular among late-night party crowds.

Nightlife

London’s evening sparks to life around 10:00 p.m. The Eye, the city’s immense Ferris wheel, lights up along the Thames.

Nightclubs party on into the early morning hours. Alcohol is typically served and the drinking age is 18-years-old. Beers are stronger than many students may be used to stateside, according to Arcadia program advisers.

The streets of London pulse with a late-night music scene offering everything from classic British rock, house, dubstep, electronica, drum and bass and American chart-toppers, including hip-hop and R&B.

The Tube stops running around midnight, leaving club-goers to stumble their way back home before sunrise. London streets are typically safe due to a very low violent crime rate. Though rates of petty larceny such as shoplifting and pickpocketing are fairly high. Some students have already had their pockets picked at this point in the program.

Bike cabbies lobby to take drunken patrons back home, but Londoners typically know to avoid these unlicensed operators in favor of the traditional black British taxis. Night buses operate on a more sporadic basis. But the cheapest and fastest way back for Central London dwellers is simply to walk. The streets are clearly labeled and simple to navigate in most cases.

Returning to student housing, the party often either continues outside or upstairs in the café, but it’s a school night and many turn-in earlier to do it all again the next day.

Students are being given a taste of London life prior to the Olympic Games when analysts see the whole city virtually turned upside down. Most will be on homeward planes before the opening ceremonies. Yet in a summer as packed with major events like 2012 is, it’s certainly an experience to remember.