Learning to Love London
It sounds so easy, right? The city's charms are legendary. But as Dave Herndon found out when he moved there for all the right reasons, the dropping dollar has London playing hard to get.
What you'll find in this story: Lodon restaurants, London culture, London attractions, London bargains, London flea markets, London apartments
After a season in the African outback, the homeward itinerary read Nairobi-Paris-London-New York, but I got seriously snagged in London: I fell in love! Not with London, but with a foxy French girl who was living there. We embarked on a whirlwind transatlantic romance, and six months later I found myself living in London--whereupon I promptly fell out of love. With London.
It was the $15 chicken that did it. I'm not talking about a nicely prepared dish in a naked celebrity chef's restaurant, mind you, but a jaundiced-looking specimen from a local shop. Multiply £8.25 by the $1.80 exchange rate--which has since gone up to $1.88--and that's what you get. It was as if I'd been slapped upside the head with the thing, like a stooge in a vaudeville act.
There's no way around it: London is pricey to begin with, even for Brits, but for those of us operating in good, old, depreciated Yankee dollars, it's almost twice the price. For just about everything. By simply deplaning with a resident visa in hand, my net worth had virtually halved.
I reacted badly--went into a deep funk as I contemplated my new life as a pence-pinching coupon clipper. Unsurprisingly, the Foxy French Girl did not find the new, blue me very appealing, and the romance was in jeopardy. What did I do? What could I do? I resolved to learn to love London, to find a way to keep the romance alive. Not at all costs--because going broke isn't very sexy, either, and doesn't have a whole lot of future in it--but at costs nice middle-class people like us could afford.
I consulted an expert, a lifelong Londoner who's an editor at a tourist magazine. She shared lots of insider tips and, just as important, two paradoxical truths about surviving and thriving in London on a budget. One: "You can do things cheaply, but you have to think about what you're doing." And two: "Sometimes you just have to forget about what things cost and get on with it."
So I threw myself into the fray of that sprawling, higgledy-piggledy city, and the more I did, the more I found haughty ol' London to be accommodating, even generous. London knows it's too expensive and actually does something about it, doling out freebies and discounts on all sorts of attractions and cultural events. This is especially true in summer, when the historic streets and squares, the opulent parks, and the resurgent riverfront come alive with markets and festivals of so much street-theatrical entertainment value, it's as if the wildly animated spirit of a medieval fair had been updated and set loose on a citywide scale.
The Foxy French Girl and I became eager tourists of the town we lived in, poring over the weekly Time Out magazine (bursting with listings that put New York City to shame), planning dates and outings and explorations. When we got home at night, happily exhausted, we'd keep the lights low and dance to Lou Reed's "Perfect Day": "Just a perfect day, problems left all alone/Weekenders on our own/It's such fun...."
Romance was alive and well. Before very long at all, "Perfect Day" would be played as our wedding song. (Everybody say "Awww.") We live there no longer, but we'll always have London--and the precious baby boy who was born there. (Gimme a double "Awww.") So it is with great fondness and nostalgia for London Towne that I share one erstwhile expat's recent and thoroughly successful journey toward enjoying some of the best of what that great city has to offer, while keeping the expenses real in a town that's just too bloody expensive.
To live in London without going to the theater would be like living in the Alps and not skiing, so that was an obvious point of entry. And when I learned that the National Theatre sells steeply discounted tickets to lots of shows for $19, I logged on to its website and signed up for e-mail alerts to on-sale dates so I could snatch up seats. Once a month, we'd attend a world-class production of a new or classic play for about the price of a movie ticket. Brilliant, as the Brits say.
The National became our home base even when we didn't have tickets; it was always putting on free, high-quality music and theater in the lobby and outside by the Thames. We weren't the only ones: Londoners and tourists alike throng to the river's South Bank, a promenade that must be the most culturally rich boardwalk anywhere, with everything from skateboarding to classical music to mind-bending art installations.
One of our more Perfect Days began at Borough Market, near London Bridge, a Friday and Saturday food extravaganza that has existed in some form since before the Roman era. After a pint of ale at the legendary Market Porter Pub, we grazed the stalls of the covered market, picking up various picnic supplies--serrano ham, focaccia, olives, and artisanal cheeses--and headed toward the river. There we had a quintessential London moment: Just after we passed by the 14th-century Westminster Hall, an amphibious Bond-mobile came skimming across the surface of the Thames. (As Austin Powers says, "Groovy, bay-beee.") Shakespeare's Globe, a replica of the Bard's artistic residence, spilled its matinee audience onto the riverside walk, where it mingled with the crowd emerging from the Tate Modern, a temple of contemporary art (admission is free, as it is at many of the major museums), and perhaps with patrons of the nearby Royal Festival Hall and the National Film Theatre. But the high-caliber street musicians and a bird act worthy of Ed Sullivan were pulling crowds as readily as the bastions of official culture.
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