London is a great city, and like all great cities, it is amazing and horrible at once. There is a strange sense in visiting London of sifted history. Taking the Underground, even staring at the map of the Underground, there’s an uneasy sense in my chest that London is incomprehensible, that the lines are based on a thousand years of history, and the bump in the diagonal of the Picadilly line is the result of the great fire, or some historical accident that forced a station to be built several blocks away from where one would logically go. I stare at the map and know that in a week, I’m not going to understand the territory, and will be happy when I can read the maps well enough to navigate.
Worse, there was a constant tension trying to get by in London. I have no job right now, and don’t know when, or if, I’ll return to getting a steady paycheck. The prices made me feel uncomfortable everywhere we went. They would look, at first, entirely rational – inexpensive, even, given that we were in one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas. £3 for a beer? Why, that’s entirely reasonable at first glance, except that £3 at $1.90/pound means that beer’s about $5.75. The £12 meal is £23.
It provoked a kind of horror that made me afraid to buy things, and sent us into grocery stores and the food department of Marks & Spencer over the corner noodle store. And the food sucked, generally speaking, even without correcting for cost. Finding a decent meal wasn’t hard, but it cost so much that it discouraged exploration.
It takes some of the fun out of vacation when you worry about money. I know that we’re supposed to say “hey, it’s vacation – don’t worry that a bad plate of fish and chips runs £8.50” but in practice, it’s an accumulated mental weight that makes each night a little harder to justify spending.
It’s part of what made London seem more work than vacation. Everyone in London seemed unhappy to be there, as if they were on their way to or at unpleasant jobs that barely paid the bills. Once we talked to them, they were almost all quite chipper and helpful, but taking a train from one place to another felt like joining a funeral procession. One paper estimated that the average London commuter spent 45m each way. I have no way of evaluating whether that’s true or not, but from the looks of it, it seemed to fit: each day, eight hours and then nearly two in transit is a quick way to knock off another day on your way towards death.