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Seeing the Future in London

Since I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, one might presume that I have seen what the future looks like. With so many startups, venture capital, tech company headquarters, shouldn’t we be living like the Jetsons? I sometimes fool myself into thinking that this is truly the best that technology and society can provide.

And then I travel and realize that the rest of the world moves too, and sometimes it works out better even without that.

Immigration

When we landed at Gatwick, I wasn’t looking forward to immigration. Since residents always get preferential lines at airports, I figured my passport would get me into a long line for everyone else to have a border agent disinterestedly ask me how long I would be staying and what the purpose of my visit was..

Instead, I arrived at several lines only five people deep that led to booths like subway turnstiles. I stepped up, scanned my passport, had my picture taken, and then shuffled through without ever writing an entry form or talking to anyone. I was through immigration in two or three minutes.

Payment

Mildly pleased at the experience, I continued with my usual international travel process by finding an ATM to get cash. I still firmly believed that cash is “legal tender for all debts public and private” and can get you out of any situation. Also, it apparently is pretty unnecessary in London.

So are physical credit cards: I only used contactless payment (tap to pay) on my iPhone for the first 5 days. I broke the streak at an amazing kebabs place that served me spicy kofte in a pita with salad bits despite their uncertainty about what I wanted and my uncertainty about what the posted menu meant. They only took cash, and only after some discussion about what I had actually ordered because I didn’t know if I had gotten a small, medium, or large order of doner in the other pita.

It was also really hard to find water fountains in London. These guys let us use their sink.

Since I only recently got a contactless-capable phone, I may be late to this technology, but it’s much more convenient than expected. It’s faster than swiping or reading a chip. Waiters didn’t need to fumble around to find a pen because I still have a chip-and-sign card. I don’t need to worry about getting receipts because my phone confirms the amount charged (though I still take the paper receipt). Since we came back to the Bay Area, I have been using contactless as much as possible, and it’s more common but not quite universal.

Public Transit

I have low expectations from public transit. In Houston, everyone drives everywhere. I have never taken public transit because it has never been available from where I was or where I wanted to go. In the Bay Area, the most convenient train to SF is much slower than driving and only comes every 90 minutes on the weekends.

With that in mind, we didn’t want to miss the Gatwick Express train to London, so we rushed over to find that they left every 15 minutes, and we were at no risk of a long wait.

Of course, we also minded (minded? mound?) the gap and took the Underground all around London. I enjoy walking around cities on travel, but it was hard to resist taking the Underground even on short trips. It was cheaper, faster, and more prevalent than I had expected from all of the praise.

A local modestly pointed out that it was loud and hot in their subway system, but those were easily secondary concerns of mine. Only once during our entire week did we wait for more than 2 minutes for the subway to arrive.

My only possible complaint is that they don’t have cell signal everywhere in the Underground. However, I also was generally having difficulty with my Three SIM card.

Other Tourist Observations

London is a fascinating amalgamation of old and new. At ground level, pubs retained their charm with chalkboard signs out front. On top of the pubs, modern offices housed white collar workers on their computers. New glass buildings were literally conjoined with old brick buildings.

I really enjoyed playing with the wide angle lens on my phone.

I often imagine the future as a gleaming utopia of master-planned buildings, but London is probably what the future looks like. We love old things and our heritage too much to knock it down, and short of catastrophic destruction, we are always accumulate old. It would take a lot for SF to knock down the Ferry Building.

I was expected English accents everywhere, but I was surprised by the diversity of accents and languages. I heard a lot of Chinese. And although we ate fish & chips and had afternoon tea, the best food was from international cuisines.

Apparently the go-to vegetarian substitute is Halloumi. I learned I really like Halloumi.

There were little bits of local celebrities that I wasn’t familiar with, but I was surprised how familiar the culture was overall. I saw ads for the same TV shows. There were American faces and brands. Or maybe they weren’t American. Maybe it’s just global.

Because culture is pretty global now. I now await Pret a Manger, coming to every city block in the US.

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