The First Week

I lug my bags through customs, and am met by my grinning cousin, Tim. He’s the eldest son of my father’s younger sister, and is simultaneously trying to make it in an unlikely pair of industries: insurance sales and rock ‘n’ roll. I met him during my last major trip to England: a month travelling around the country after my freshman year in college, when I was eighteen years old. We hadn’t communicated since then until six months ago, when he called me up: He wanted to bring his band, Skoot, to the United States. Could I give him the names and numbers of some clubs in New York City?

That trip went reasonably successfully, despite Skoot’s gear being seized at customs and sent back to the United States; they didn’t have work permits, and the best story Tim could come up with on the spur of the moment was that they were going to play a garden party for my father. They rented new equipment, and played a few successful gigs; since they didn’t have any sort of record out, the net result was that they and some friends got a week’s holiday in New York. And something I couldn’t have anticipated then–that Tim is more than happy to pick me up at the airport.

Tim and I make our way to the parking garage, where I have my first encounter with the fabled British politeness. Tim and I mistakenly leave the elevator (excuse me, “lift”) on the third floor instead of the fourth, and a family filed in heading for the second floor. When Tim and I turned around and hopped back on, they insisted that we head up to the fourth floor before they went back down to the second.

With my mind fully boggled by this very un-New York display, I manage to make semi-coherent conversation on the drive into London. For Christmas, Jill had bought me one night at the Covent Garden Hotel, a posh place in the center of town. Tim drops me off there, I check in, I crawl into bed, and fall sound asleep.

When I wake up a few hours later, considerably refreshed, I stay in bed and read the previous day’s New York Times. With less than a day since my departure, it already feels like a dispatch from a faraway land, like Marco Polo was informing me of the strange customs of the distant natives. Paging through the sports section, I read a story on the Knicks, and am halfway finished before I realized that when I read a Patrick Ewing quote, I am supplying him with a British accent.

I get up and wandered around London in a late-afternoon drizzle. I stumble into some tourist-oriented shopping mall and bought a baked potato (called “jacket potato” here, which summons images of a spud in a tuxedo) with sweetcorn, on the general principle that one wouldn’t find such an object in the States. The potato turns out to be fine, although I don’t think it was measurably improved by being buried under a pyramid of yellow corn niblets. (I don’t think there’s any such thing as “sour corn”; the terms serves to distinguish corn on the cob from all other grains, since the British refer to wheat and barley generically as “corn.”)

On my way back to the hotel, I spot a sign on a pub door: “No Football Colours Allowed.” Wow–just like high schools in the U.S.A. banning the signifiers of the Bloods and the Crips! I had thought hooliganism was on the decline, but apparently not. Since there are British football teams with uniforms of every conceivable color, I am a little mystified by this sign: it seems on a par with banning all the colors of major-league baseball teams.

The next day, Tim picks me up from the hotel and drove me down to Crystal Palace, where his girlfriend Fiona lives. She’s a little cautious around me, which I understand; after all, she’s never met me before, and I’m going to be sleeping in her living room for the next week. Fiona cuts hair for a living, working at Harrod’s, the upscale department store owned by the father of the ill-fated Dodi, Princess Diana’s paramour and fellow car-crash victim. Fiona’s a big fan of the British soap opera Coronation Street, and since she lives in a small basement flat, this week I too am a fan of Coronation Street. Plotlines involve a teenage couple running away for a weekend in Scotland and enviromentalists practicing for a protest by locking themselves to the staircase banisters and then losing the key to their cuffs.

Fiona offers me tea just before I go to sleep. This mystifies me somewhat, as I don’t think of tea as a sedative. It soon proves that Britons will drink a “cuppa” at any time of the day or night, and have become immune to the effects of the caffeine. The essential first appliance for any London flat is the electric kettle, so that teatime comes all the faster.

The next day, I begin searching for a flat of my own. Jill already has her job lined up, at Finchley Memorial Hospital, so I figure the sensible place to begin looking is Finchley itself, so she can walk straight to work. And since the Finchley area has fourteen different real-estate agents (or “letting agents,” in British terms), I am hopeful; real-estate agentry appears to be the major industry of this section of London.

The city of London is a big sprawling area with very little vertical lift and no distinct center; its geography reminds me of Los Angeles. Like L.A., it’s a patchwork of many small neighborhoods, each with its own “high street”: not a place where one gets stoned, but the equivalent of “main street,” usually containing a grocery, a bank, a fish-and-chips shop, an Indian restaurant, and a couple of pubs. An essential difference between London and L.A. is that London has excellent mass transit. So although it takes me most of two hours to get from Fiona’s place to Finchley, I can get there without using a car. Since southern London is built on clay, they were never able to install Underground lines there, so I take a British Rail train into Waterloo and change there for the Northern line on the tube. (“Tube” is synonymous with “Underground,” but not with “subway,” which in this country refers to an underground pedestrian crossing.) West Finchley, Finchley Central, and East Finchley are all on the Northern line. (Happily enough, they’re all on the northern branch of the Northern line. Living at the south end of the Northern line would probably be too confusing for me at this stage of the game.)

I’m looking for a two-bedroom flat, so we will have an extra room where I can write and we can house the many Americans who have threatened to visit. Since we’re only planning to stay for a year, we want a furnished flat–there’s no point in buying household items that we’ll have to give away twelve months later. And since we have zero interest in acquiring a car, we want to be a short walk from the local high street and Tube station. Unfortunately, every place I look at around Finchley is impossibly grotty: peeling paint, stoves dating from World War II, faintly moist carpets. In one case, a flat described as “recently redecorated” has decrepit, clearly third-hand furniture. The agent assures me that it’s much better than what had been there before.

I give up on Jill’s ability to stroll to work in the bracing British drizzle, and start working my way down south on the Northern line: Highgate, Archway, Tufnell Park, Kentish Town. I am already learning some of the quirks of British real estate: for example, all rents are quoted per week, although they are actually paid by the month. (The weekly number is multiplied by 4.3 to provide the actual, unwavering rent per month.) Furthermore, refrigerators range in size from the large shoebox to the slightly larger shoebox; all of them could be brought onto an airplane as carry-on luggage. In Kentish Town, I find that rarest of animals, on either side of the Atlantic: a real-estate agent who listens to what I am looking for and shows me a few applicable apartments, rather than everything he currently has in the book.

Chris the Competent Realtor is also an engaging guy; as he drives me around his little corner of London, he tells me how much he enjoys watching the recently imported Jerry Springer Show. Much of his pleasure, it turns out, is discovering that there are plenty of fat, ugly Americans: a lifetime of watching toned and tanned Hollywood actors had led him to believe that everyone in the States is vastly better looking than in the United Kingdom. We also talk sports–he watches a little late-night baseball and basketball, but he’s really a football fan, meaning soccer. Chris scoffs at the idea of Americans enjoying soccer: “I don’t think you’re capable of enjoying a nil-nil tie.” I suggest that this might not be a character failing, but he isn’t having any of it.

Sadly, Chris the Competent Realtor’s best flat is occupied for another two weeks, and I don’t want to sleep on Fiona’s floor any longer than that. When I stop in the posh neighborhood of Primrose Hill, I mention my price range to a local realtor. She just raises an eyebrow and gives me directions to nearby Camden Town–clearly, I’m out of my price range here.

When I get to Camden, I’m glad she did: it’s much more bustling here than in most of London, with lots of restaurants, record shops, and even a movie theater. And Regent’s Park is only a short walk away. I hit the local lettings agents, and they start taking me around. And once I start bending on my price range, I find a place that I really like: a two-bedroom flat with an enormous balcony and totally acceptable furnishings. The refrigerator’s small, but in a week of searching, I’ve grown accustomed to that. At £1170 a month, it’s a bit more than I wanted to spend (okay, almost twice as much), but it seems worth it. I say “yes” and “how soon can I move in?”

The final obstacle proves to be establishing my financial bona fides. In England, this is not done by running a credit check. Rather, the letting agent sends a letter to your bank, telling them that you are thinking of renting an apartment with a certain amount of rent, and asking their opinion on this matter. The bank responds with a formally phrased letter giving a yea or a nay. I tell the letting agent that I don’t have a British bank, and Citibank don’t play that. This causes a certain amount of distress, but after I go to an ATM and print out a recent account balance (enough cash on hand to cover a year’s rent), they decide that they’ll let me slip through the cracks. A week after arriving, I have a place to live in London. I immediately decide that I’m not much of a Coronation Street fan after all.