Running on Empty

A newspaper column on the Internet.

Category: London

The Subway vs. The Tube: Which Is Better?

The London Underground system turns 150 years old this month. In honor of this occasion, I’m publishing the results of a five-year independent study of the Tube and its 108-year-old American cousin, the New York City Subway. Below is a comparative analysis of the two systems, based solely on the observations of one person with no social science credentials, no car, and a chronic people-watching habit.

Size: New York’s subway carries 1.6 billion people a year to 468 stations on 660 miles of train track. London shepherds 1.1 billion to 270 stations across 249 track miles. Advantage: New York.

Map aesthetics: The Tube map – designed in 1931 by the civil servant Harry Beck, with few major alterations since – is a modernist masterpiece. It’s bright and clean and beautiful and no one cares that it bears no geographic relation to the London above it. MTA’s map looks like a Body Works cross-section of a dead man’s scrotum. Advantage: London.

Value: A single ride on the subway is $2.25, whether you are going crosstown or from the Bronx to Brooklyn. The shortest Tube journeys start at £2.10 and steadily increase. A single ride from the outer boroughs of Zone 6 into central London – a trip thousands of commuters make daily – is £5 one way for the average rider, or nearly $8. This does not include butler service. Insane. Advantage: New York.

Willingness to move down: In a crowded subway car, the importance of “moving down” – the distribution of standing passengers equally throughout the length of the car – is an article of faith. Failure to move down is grounds for intra-car abuse and ostracization. Tube riders unable to get a seat tend to limit themselves to an invisible vestibule directly in front of the doors. This scrum delays boarding and results in the infuriating spectacle of half-empty trains pulling away from crowded stations. This is why so many people died on the Titanic. Advantage: New York.

Read more . . . 


Courtside at the World Championship of Ping Pong




The consensus in Alexandra Palace, the Victorian-era exhibition hall in north London where the World Championship of Ping Pong is happening, is that ping pong on this island has never seen anything like this.

The center court game is televised on Sky Sports, Britain’s closest home-grown thing to ESPN. There are TV commentators jawboning in a glassed-in booth and colored spotlights shooting across the audience and “Born to Be Wild” blasting on the sound system while lanky men in shorts rally under klieg lights.

Adoni Maropis, one of three U.S. players, is warming up on the center court. All of his matches today have been televised, which has less to do with the fact that he was the 2011 U.S. hardbat national champion and more with his former gig playing terrorist Abu Fayed on “24.” The tournament’s promotional materials refer often to the Hollywood actor among the 64 entrants, but Maropis is hardly the only star. Number-one seed Maxim Shmyrev of Russia has his own trading cards. Gavin Evans, 19, was an auxiliary member of the UK’s Olympic table tennis squad. There are four representatives here of the Orange Army, the traveling fans that accompany Dutch athletes to seemingly every competition in the world, and one is wearing a full-body plush lion suit in support of Marty “Loekie the Lion” Hendriksen.

The Philippine delegation looks a little dejected. Sandpaper table tennis – the kind played here – is a fringe religion in the Philippines, with money trading hands over illicit games in back alleys and basements. The squad had high hopes, but only three of their seven players are advancing to the round of 32. Organizers did not pay expenses, and it’s a long flight back to Manila without a piece of the $100,000 prize pie to show for it.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Reece Mavro, 18, a former competitive player who’s just aged out of England’s under-18 table tennis program, outside of the audience grandstands. “If this was normal table tennis, it’d be sick.”

Let’s get some things straight: Table tennis and ping pong are the same thing, except on specific occasions when they are not. The World Championship of Ping Pong is such an event. Whether that’s a good thing depends on who you ask.

Read more . . . 

License to Ill: The Summer Weekend Road Trip

For each of the two summers we’ve lived in England, my husband and I have taken a weekend road trip to the countryside with our daughter. We do this because we sometimes forget ourselves and start to believe that we are normal people – civilians, if you will – and not parents.  We need this weekend road trip to remind us that this is not so.

Our daughter was five months old when we picked up the rental car last year to drive to a hotel in the Cotswolds. Those were not easy days. We had just moved for the second time in three months. We were still trying to pretend that the sour-musk smell in our new apartment would eventually go away. We were tired. This was our first official “vacation” with the baby. We still believed that stress was something we could pack up and get away from for the weekend, not something we now carried in our DNA and in a plastic Graco car seat.

The problems started at rental car pick-up. Our directions suggested that we drive through the center of London, on a Friday, at rush hour. This struck both of us as somehow the other’s fault. A travel tip: If a discussion about directions between two people in a relationship lasts for longer than 45 seconds, it is no longer about directions. It is about How you never listen, and Why you always do this, and How this is just like that time at Ikea. All the ads on Google Maps should be for marriage counselors. We got lost in London, and then we got lost in Oxfordshire, and then the baby screamed all night, and it took a full 24 hours before either of us uttered a civil word to each other. We returned home defeated, each of us quietly nursing the sinking feeling that we were never going to have a good time together again.

One year later, we were sat again in London traffic in another rental car heading for another weekend in the Oxfordshire countryside. Several significant changes have occurred in the intervening year. The baby is now a toddler who (usually) sleeps all night. We are no longer chronically exhausted and short-tempered. (We have also moved to a stench-free apartment.) We were spending the weekend with friends who don’t have kids, resulting in an advantageous 7:1 adult-to-child ratio. A friend was driving, a face- and marriage-saving arrangement for everyone.

Before we left the house I fed, bathed and dressed Lily in her pajamas, a superstitious ritual meant to ensure that she would sleep as soon as I put her down in the rear-facing car seat she is rapidly outgrowing. Of course she could not sleep in the car. Cars are a huge treat for her, and she was just so busy. She needed to watch the traffic, then play with her rabbit, then say “All done!” and attempt to unbuckle her car seat, then shout angrily when she had to go back in the car seat, then eat a breadstick, then play with the car seat sunshade, then sing “Wind the Bobbin Up” several times in a row. This was before we’d left greater London. London’s ring roads and motorways are all designed for use by no more than four cars at any given time. Friday evening traffic on a summer weekend – even a summer of endless rain, like this one – is slow. It started to rain. Things got slower. By 8 p.m., the hour we thought we’d arrive at the house, we’d barely left the city limits.

Lily stayed awake the whole time, mostly chatty, sometimes fussy, but without any signs of the meltdown that traveling parents dread. By 10 p.m. we were less than 20 miles away from the house. She was eating a tortilla chip. A piece got stuck in her throat. She coughed. She coughed again. Then she threw up, everywhere.

There was no stopping it once it started. She threw up four times in a row, an automatic assault of meals, drinks and snacks dating back hours. I managed to undo her straps and get her upright so she wouldn’t choke, then sat quietly acting as a human shield between a jet stream of sick and the rental car deposit.

We pulled off the highway and into a grassy lane leading onto some farmland. Justin and I stripped off her dirty jammies and cleaned her and the car as best we could with a half-pack of baby wipes. The driver bolted from the car and stood a few paces facing the fields, quietly gulping in fresh air and frantically tapping something on his iPhone. Probably scheduling a vasectomy or ordering a lifetime supply of condoms. Occasionally we’d look up and say “Sorry,” and he’d say “That’s okay!” in a too-high, too-fast voice that clearly said I will remember this horror until the day I die. Justin was disgusted. I think moms have a different relationship to their child’s excretions. Like yes, in a perfect world there would be economic equality and less carbon in the atmosphere and no regurgitated yogurt in my hair. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Cleaning barf off a Ford Mondeo really hammers that point home.

We rode the rest of the way in silence, in a reeking car, pulling into the house two and a half hours later than we intended and with another hour of scrubbing, bathing, airing and showering to come. But here is the difference. Last year, we spent the whole weekend waiting to feel like we used to feel on vacations before the baby came around, and then sniping at each other to cover up how disappointed we were that things were no longer the same. This year, we finished cleaning up the mess and went on to enjoy ourselves. We’ve wised up. We no longer expect to get away from it all. It’s good enough just to wrap up the life we have – mess and all – and take it on the road.

A Right Royal Cock-Up: Watching the Diamond Jubilee

My family moved to London in April 2011, just weeks before the royal wedding, and the day after that spectacle I was watching an evening news program criticizing the BBC’s coverage of the event. The presenters were unbecomingly star-struck, the pundits grumbled, pointing out celebrity guests like Victoria Beckham instead of former King Constantine of Greece. They were concerned that this pandering, lowest-common-denominator attitude would not be rectified by the Diamond Jubilee.

That was the first I heard of the Diamond Jubilee, the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne. Like the commemorative paperweights or coffee mugs awarded at less nepotistic workplaces, Jubilees are doled out to monarchs after 25, 50 and 60 years of service. “Jubilee” refers to both the whole calendar year in which the anniversary takes place, and to the four-day pageant officially commemorating the milestone. It is an unusual word to associate with a woman who only smiles at corgis.

When Jubilee Weekend finally rolled around earlier this month, banks and other businesses shut down for a four-day public holiday. People held street parties all over England, while in central London thousands of flag-waving revelers lined the banks of the Thames and the Mall for a series of parades and concerts honoring Her Majesty. It felt like a repeat of last year’s wedding – Union Jack bunting hung from every vertical surface, a run on Pimm’s at the grocery store, horses, hats, bugles, and my daughter and I watching the festivities from a safe distance on the telly, marveling at the customs and ceremonies of this strange tribe we now live amongst.

In the run-up to the Jubilee I read an online debate analyzing Americans’ fascination for an institution it so bloodily rejected 200 years ago. There were a range of solid theories – we’re subconsciously longing for what we relinquished when we broke away from the Crown; the couplings and machinations of the royal family have the lurid appeal of a living soap opera; we are magpies who love brass buttons and furry hats – but none that quite capture the impression these archaic performances have on an outsider looking in, in the 21st century. It’s like watching Civil War re-enactors, or Darkon – the elaborate costuming, the commitment to staying in character, the sense that carefully choreographed human interactions are the only kind the participants are comfortable with. The difference is that an entire nation has agreed to treat it as real, with tens of millions of pounds of public funds annually shoveled toward the maintenance of a performance that seems of little benefit to anyone but the actors themselves. We let our role players use the parks and turn a benevolently blind eye when they show up at 7-11 in costume. We don’t let them open Congress.

And just like Civil War re-enactors who must endure the illusion-shattering effect of a car horns in the distance and kids on Razor scooters hooting from the sidelines, even Her Majesty’s most ardent supporters must contend with the reality that the monarchy’s power falls short of divine.

The centerpiece of the Jubilee was a boat parade on the Thames. Let your imaginations run wild, the event’s official website suggested in a breathless tone. Square riggers. Wooden launchers. Oyster smacks. If it floated, and was not a dead body, it would be proudly sailing past Her Majesty on the afternoon of June 3. It sounded like a lovely thing to do on a pleasant early summer afternoon, which makes me wonder if the Jubilee events were originally scheduled to take place somewhere other than England.

England has no summer. It has no seasons. For 340 days of the year the island sits beneath a gray, cloudy, drizzly sky that veers wildly between 50 and 63 degrees. There are a few dozen days of glorious weather sprinkled at random between April and October, but you can no more count on a sunny day in June than you can upon a winning lottery ticket coming into your possession. And yet people were shocked – shocked! – to wake up on Sunday morning and find rain dumping upon London (though not on Belfast or Edinburgh, a sign that God might be a Republican.)

As the wind kicked up, boats backed up on the river and the whole thing turned into a soggy, sorry mess, the army of television reporters stationed across the channels clung resolutely to the script that viewers were watching something magical. On CNN Piers Morgan called it an “orgy of excitement,” a baffling statement that only raises questions about the kinds of orgies Piers Morgan attends. The BBC collapsed upon itself, its coverage a pastiche of awkward camera angles, cuts to people clearly unaware that they were live, a minute-long shot of the controls of a ship, and a long debate between two presenters wondering if the trash boat currently on air was part of the parade, or was in fact transporting trash.

Someone noted on Twitter that requiring an 85-year-old to stand outside in the rain for hours is more assassination attempt than party, and in fact the Queen’s 90-year-old husband spent the rest of the weekend in the hospital with an infection. But there she stood, this tiny little white-haired lady, looking and smiling and waving and acting like this didn’t suck when so obviously it did.

I don’t know what monarchs do now that they can’t have rivals beheaded or commission portraits of themselves as virgin fairies. I don’t know how you justify the public expense or how voting taxpayer can conceive of him- or herself as a subject instead of a citizen. But as a woman who finds herself increasingly short on patience, I can respect what might be the Queen’s most singular accomplishment: to endure sixty years of tree plantings, garden parties, ship christenings, wing openings, polite chatter, endless parades and English weather without getting caught complaining.