mercredi 3 décembre 2008

For Richer and for Poorer

Unlike Paris or Manhattan, London is a very mixed city. I can just hear some of you protest that Manhattan is indeed quite diverse, and that it is home to millions of people from all over the world. But the truth is that the poor can no longer really afford to live in Manhattan, as even areas like Spanish Harlem and Hell’s Kitchen are turned into yuppie condo enclaves. And let’s not forget that in Paris, it is the poor minorities that are relegated to an existence in the suburbs, while the affluent get to live in the central parts of town.

London, however, is different. Here you can have a street in a historical preservation neighborhood (like ours!) lined with charming Georgian homes interspersed with council estates (low-income housing). Sure, some neighborhoods are very, very posh and only the richest can afford to live in them. But as far as the majority of London areas are concerned, the poor and the not-so-poor tend to live in mixed company.

This phenomenon is due, in part, to the fact that London did not use to be a city with its own central government. Rather, it was made up of different boroughs, and each borough had to find a way to provide for its own poor. Now that London is more centralized, this means that low-income housing can be found throughout the city, rather than being concentrated in one area of the city.

This perhaps explains the public service announcements that appear in many streets and buses, like this one, warning against “benefits fraud.”

In our neighborhood, one resident, concerned with the government’s efforts to crack down on benefits fraud while letting other types of fraud go unchallenged, decided to add his own message to the public service announcement.

In case you can’t see it clearly in the picture, the message reads, “List Below Your Favourite Fraudsters.” The handwritten list, started by the original concerned resident and continued by other concerned residents, states:

1. British Aerospace £ 200m
2. Chairmen of Banks £ 900m
3. Ministry of Defence (£ xm) (perhaps the number is too difficult to calculate?)
4. People who you think love you (I think you can tell where the original poster left off!)
5. My phoney parents
6. Tony Blair £ 12m
7. The queen with more than £ 2 tax per hour for my job
10. Ordinary people – nothing

Alas, no one was able to fill in slots 8 and 9 as the friendly council folk took down the list. But stay tuned in case we see further public service announcements by Camberwell’s concerned residents.

mardi 2 décembre 2008

Living in Victorian Times

We’ve now been in London for about two months and are still disconnected from the outside world. I thought that our inability to get phone and internet installed sooner was related to the fact that we decided to use a cable-based service from Virgin Media. Last week, however, we went out for drinks with a couple of friends and learned that it also took them about two months to get the phone connected, despite choosing British Telecom as their provider. Even in France, where such things take much longer than in the US, we were connected to the outside world sooner than this.

I suppose it should not surprise me. The UK is oddly behind the times in some ways. For example, our plumbing is quite Victorian. We have a water tank in the kitchen, which is basically a big, plastic box with water stored in it. According to Diego, every building has some contraption to catch the water on the roof, and then somehow the water gets sent to each of the individual apartments.

While I don’t particularly care what type of plumbing system we use, I do care that we have rather weak water pressure. I learned this is because water pressure is based on gravity here. I think this means that once the water is collected on the roof, the water pressure is dictated by how fast it comes down the pipes to our first-floor shower. Bizarre!

I also remember that when Diego used to live here, he seemed to have constant issues with the boiler in his apartment breaking. I’m not too sure what a boiler is, but I do know that it heats up the water. I always assumed that it was just Diego’s apartment that had this problem, but when we first moved in, we learned that our neighbor’s boiler had broken. We’ve also heard of a couple of friends who have had to deal with broken boilers in the last few weeks. Seems to me that the hot water gods over here should rethink the whole boiler system.

Getting added onto Diego’s bank account has also been an ordeal. Even though I did manage to get added onto his existing bank account in early October, it took about another month to get the debit card. And while I’ve had a debit card for a couple of weeks now, I did not get the pin code for it until this past weekend. It’s pretty embarrassing to have to ask your husband for money every week, so you can imagine that I am relishing my newfound debit card freedom.

Mind you, I don’t think that everything should always be done in the most advanced, modern way. I think some things, like bread and certain wine-making methods, should not be modernized. But when it comes to plumbing and banking, I am a modern woman.