Life In London: October 2002 Archives

Take Your Tongue Out Of Your Mouth

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Today, we are scheduled to pick up the keys for our new flat. We are moving to Holland Park, which, we have been told, is one of the priciest and most exclusive addresses in the city. Our new home is within two blocks of Richard Branson's primary residence and Bill Gates' vacation getaway. Ironically, we chose this particular flat because it offered the best value for our rental dollar of any place we saw.

The explanation is fairly simple. Across London, multi-story Victorian single-family townhomes have been generally converted into apartment buildings. On our new block, however, they've been mostly left intact; our block of flats is one of the few exceptions. The Richard Bransons and Bill Gates looking for multi-million-dollar, perfectly preserved homes know to look here, driving home prices up, but young couples looking for flats tend to look elsewhere, driving flat prices down.

Or, at least, down for London. For any one of the rental payments we will be making each week to our estate agents, we could pay a month's mortgage on a mansion in Pittsburgh.

In any case, before I receive the keys, I will have to sign off on an inspection of the apartment. With past apartments, I've been too easy-going on sign in, and we've ended up having to clean our places top-to-bottom before unpacking our belongings. This time, it's going to be different. No matter how much pressure the estate agents put on me, I'm not accepting the keys until the place is in perfect condition. It will be a fight, I know, but after moving ten times in two years, we don't want to have to work to make our home acceptable.

I show up at the flat at the appointed time to meet Larry, the independent inventory agent, who has been hired to make a written record of the state of our flat on move-in. He's sitting at the kitchen table taking notes, and he invites me to take off my coat and sit down. "A lady is coming from the estate agents," he explains, "and I'd like her to arrive before I begin."

I take off my coat, and sit down, steeling myself for any criticisms I will have to make, mentally rehearsing the words, "This is unacceptable." I may not need to use them, but it's better to be prepared.

Jenny from the estate agent's office soon arrives. We shake hands, and Larry takes a deep breath. "I asked you to come," he tells her, "Because I wanted you to see the sort of things I'm expected to work with. This flat is filthy. It's completely unacceptable. Look at this." He runs his finger over the counter, then holds it up to show a thin layer of dust. "And this." He opens the wall cabinets, revealing stains. "And look at this." He pulls open a drawer, and pulls out a poorly cleaned fork. "I'm not inventorying this junk." He throws the fork back into the drawer, petulantly. "There was supposed to be new silverware. This is an insult to me, and to this man here. Let me show you something." He takes us to the window; on the ledge outside is a flowerpot, with cigarette butts stubbed out in the dirt. "This is supposed to be the most exclusive neighborhood in London. Do you think this man wants to open his window in Holland Park, and see cigarette butts?"

"No, no, this is completely unacceptable-" Jennie starts to say, but Larry is just getting started.

"I want the people who were supposed to clean this flat to come back, and I want them to kneel on the floor--even if we have to put a gun to their heads to get them to do it--and I want to tell them, take your tongue out of your mouth, and run it over these surfaces, and pick up the dirt and taste that delicious lemon scent--"

"Yes, yes," Jennie says, "We get the idea--"

But Larry is not to be stopped. "--so they can know that some people do their job with duty and with honor and with pride." He whisks us to the bathroom. "Look at this! They've dumped dirt in the toilet! The cleaning people were leaving as I arrived, and one of them asked me to flush the toilet as he was on his way out. I nearly picked him up by the scruff of his neck and cast him down the stairs. Come into the bedroom for a moment."

We follow him there, and he turns to me, and says, "Kneel down for a moment." I am afraid that if I do so, he will next insist that I take my tongue out of my mouth and clean the floor, but he kneels down before I can protest. "Come on, join me for a moment." I kneel down beside him, and he points under the radiator, where a dust bunny lurks. " When those cleaners come back, I want you to insist that they kneel down with you, and see that dust there, and explain to you exactly why they left it there." I promise him I will do just that.

Cooked Food Is Poison

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In pre-Roman times, Spitalfields was a graveyard. Since then, it has held a hospital; a fair ground; and an artillary yard. Since 1682, the area has been primarily known for its market, which has steadily grown over the centuries. As we discover when we arrive there this morning, Spitalfields Market is now a large, glass-enclosed space the size of a large city block, with stalls selling handicrafts, antiques, and food.?

Lauren and I split up, since she wants to look at the jewelry and clothes, and I want to inspect the Japanese import booth for instructions written in humorously inept English. I don't find any, but as I wander, another stall catches my eye. It's displaying a bumpersticker with the simple, straightforward message, "Cooked Food Is Poison." I make a beeline for it, trying to look like the kind of person who would derive an entirely un-ironic pleasure out of such a sticker.

There is a woman squatting next to the booth with what looks like some sort of giant, hollowed-out gourd clutched between her legs, but I am not quite sure whether she is part of the booth or, metaphorically as well as literally, a squatter. I therefore avoid eye contact with her and focus on the contents of the stall. Unfortunately, raw food advocates don't seem to focus on the more pleasant raw foods, such as grapes or cookie dough. Instead, they are selling items like "un-cookies," which look very much like raw hamburgers would look if cows had the same color and texture as carrots.

But I have not come to this booth for the food; I have come for the crackpot science, and it does not disappoint. First, I pick up a brochure on the health benefits of drinking urine. For example, "Even though urine contains toxins, it is not harmful to the body it comes from regardless of its condition. Whatever was in the blood cannot be that toxic, or the person would have been dead." Well, that's certainly good enough for me! Nothing says Good Eatin' like a fluid that is not toxic enough to kill the person it came from. Plus, urine is "anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, anti-cancer, anti-convulsive, anti-spasmodic, and anti-tuberculin, among other things."

I am intrigued by the question of what those other things could possibly be, but the urine-drinking pamphlet is not the main course in my pseudoscience buffet. It is, if you will, a mere palate cleanser. No, the centerpiece of the Cooked Food Is Poison booth is an article explaining the dangers of cooking your food before eating it. As the article observes, it has long been recognized that cancer patients benefit from a raw food diet, but applying heat to foods destroys enzymes and other miraculous substances. (Putting two and two together, I realize that, if you want to cure cancer, you must not heat your urine before drinking it.)

There is also a pamphlet from Hempseed Organics, printed on tree-free hemp paper, offering recipes for hemp butter and hemp marzipan, and concluding "It is taught that Buddha subsisted on one hempseed a day during a six year aesthetic period, prior to revealing the four noble truths and the eigth-fold path to enlightenment." (The pamphlet also notes, "Hempseed contain no THC or other psychoactive chemicals," lest you somehow conclude that a group of urine-drinking, cooked-food-avoiding hemp chefs is in anyway associated with the counter-culture.)

So engrossed am I in my reading that I fail to notice I have moved closer to the Squatting Gourd Woman. She interrupts my reverie by asking, "Have you tried some?"

I look down, and am relieved to see that she is merely offering me a spoonful of the pulpy inside of the gourd. "It's durian fruit," she says. Durian fruit looks like the inside of the spittoon in a compulsive paper-chewer's home, but free food is free food, and I accept the spoonful. It tastes pleasantly sweet, and I enjoy the taste for several seconds, until it is replaced by one of the most unpleasant aftertastes I have ever aftertasted. Suffice it to say that I now understand why drinking your own urine seems like a viable alternative.

Hoping that eating lunch will help me lose the taste, I track down Lauren. It turns out that, while I've focused like a laser on the one booth that will let me learn the wonders of uncooked urine, Lauren has been browsing the many stalls of fine handicrafts looking for gifts for friends and family members. What an odd person I've married.

Pain and Pleasure

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Most phone booths in London seem to be papered over with little business cards, each of which features the image of a naked or nearly-naked woman, a phone number, and some unsubtle come-on. But today I saw a particularly disturbing example. It featured a woman in a tight leather outfit, leering at a man who was chained uncomfortably to the wall, with the words (and I quote exactly here) "You're pain is my pleasure." I was horrified. What sort of deviant would display, in full view of passing children and other impressionables, a sign that confuses "you're" with "your"? Is there no shame left in this world? I was tempted to get out my pen and blot out the apostrophe and the extra 'e', thereby rendering the phone booth once again suitable for public viewing.

But then a thought occurred to me. Perhaps London is such an extraordinarily literate city that a professional dominatrix can torture her clients just by misusing the English language in their presence. Certainly, if I was the type who wanted others to cause me pain, I would have gotten my money's worth just by reading the business card.