A Panda in London (France Pt. II)

Okay, so maybe the title needs work, as obviously London is not in France. But hey, whatever.

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So after spending a few days in lovely France and putting more delicious sandwich mixt in my stomach than one might think humanly possible (that’s where the half-panda part comes in handy), I decided to travel across the pond to see those perpetually stiff-upper-lipped cousins of the French, the English. And of course, where else to go but London!?

As you may recall from my last entry, the French have somewhat of a laissez-faire attitude towards things like immigration or knowing who’s in their country at any given time. In their opinion, procedures such as “passport control” or “customs” are really nothing more than minor irritants impinging upon their cigar-smoking, cheese-consuming time, not to be taken seriously, or perhaps even done away with all together if the fancy strikes.

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The British, on the other hand, regard the question of knowing who’s entering their country as a matter of utmost import and accordingly, the immigrations queue for the train heading to London from France wound halfway down the terminal as at the head, friendly, but quite severe looking English inspectors dutifully examined, stamped and returned passports and papers all the while chatting to themselves in that delightfully undulating British accent that made the gate area sound very much like the opening scene from any Guy Ritchie film (except, perhaps, the dreadful “Swept Away”).

(In case you want an idea of what I mean by that last bit, click here. Bonus points if you can name what movie this is from – not that it’s really all that hard)

If you’ve never taken a train from France to England before, here’s the general procedure.

  1. Clear French “Immigrations”
  2. Clear British “Immigrations”
  3. Go to plexiglass room filled with benches and wait for train to be called.
  4. Board train, settle in seat, contemplate the mysteries of the Chunnel.

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With this in mind, I nervously made my way towards the front of the line and the first of the series of hurdles I would have to clear before heading to the land of Fish and Chips.

“$’@*!&” called out the French immigrations officer, a dour, morose lump of a man sitting seemingly molded to his hard plastic chair within the confines of his clear plastic box. Ahh, the beautiful French language. The language of love. So beautiful. So lilting. So utterly incomprehensible to me. Nonetheless, his less-than-enthusiastic gesticulating hand gestures made it clear I was to approach his plexiglass throne.

As I hand him my passport, my eyes instinctively look down to purposefully avert themselves from his gaze. It’s like I’m back in my first year Japanese class all over again, where to make eye contact with the teacher was to invite a tremendous barrage of questions in a bizarre foreign language, which would be followed, in succession, by an extremely awkward pause which made it quite clear you were supposed to reply in some fashion, then invariably with a stream of angry criticism increasing steadily in volume, insults about your study habits and possibly your mother, and finally, an exasperated sigh and punctuated throwing up of hands as the teacher turned to your left and asked stupid Endo-san, who would answer with a smug smirk on his face which wasn’t fair because that fucker was half-Japanese and spoke Japanese at home and what the hell was he doing in Japanese 101 anyway!?

Errm, but perhaps I digress.

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Anyway, my brilliant plan to suddenly feign interest in the (non-existent) shine of my shoes failed to achieve its desired effect, as the next thing I knew, the sullen lump-o-frenchman moved slightly in his seat, then barked down what was clearly an interrogative of some sort at me.

“#&*@+!=%~……?”

I suck in all the air I can fit in my lungs as my brain scrambles for oxygen to fuel its desperate quest to gather the few meager scraps of French it has picked up over the past week and form them into some form of coherent reply that would placate the increasingly irritated Frenchman before me.

“@{^\”$# }(‘”&#$&&!….!??”

While the words sound like a whole lotta of “sssshhhhh -sshhhhhhhuuuuhhhuushshshs” -ing to me, the guy’s face makes it pretty clear I am supposed to participate in this exchange sometime really soon. I take another deep breath, and decide to dive in, head first.

“je….vouse…vousedrais un…. un sandwich mixte… ……. sil vou plait.”

(“I….. would… would like a …. a ham and cheese sandwich …… ….. please.“)

Hmm. Not exactly the cleverest of responses.

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The Frenchman before me turns a very disturbing shade of irritated, which is not something that you want to see in a man in a plexiglass booth, no matter the situation. He harrumphs something very obviously not-pleasant (see aforementioned paragraph about possible insults regarding one’s mother) and swivels with a squeak in his chair to swipe my passport through the little passport machine. I feel a moment of shame at my inability to speak French, then followed by a rising tide of irritation. I want to pound on his stupid little booth and shout “hey man, can’t you see I’m a foreigner? I don’t speak French…!

The irritation grows as I begin to consider the multitude of silent judgments (well, not so silent in his case) he’s probably making about me at this very moment. “I’m not just another dumb American!” I want to tell him – “You know, I speak Japanese! Why are you judging me just because I don’t speak your silly language?!”

My philosophical musings are interrupted, however, when monsieur inspector decides there is no more sport to be had with the American (primarily because I don’t understand a damn thing he’s saying) and tosses my passport back at me with a dismissive jerk of his head, indicating I am to remove myself from his sight forthwith.

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My first hurdle cleared, I trepidatiously head over to the second booth, housing inside of it two very chatty and very British people. I step over to the first, a smiling, very friendly looking young lady, and hand her my passport.

“Oh sorry dear, since you’re not a EU citizen, I’m afraid you’ll need to fill out one of those forms ” – she motions with her hand – “over there. Just come right back to the front of the line when you’re done, okay?”

Already I decide that British people are so much nicer than French people. I nod and head off to the indicated counter. I finish filling in the form and look up. The British guy sitting on the right hand side of the booth waves his hand and beckons me over.

“Hello.” I say, putting on my biggest million yen smile.

“Hullo!” He replies in a delightfully British accent. “How are you today?”

In my head I silently replay his greeting, only this time in the tone and mannerisms of a London Cabbie:

“A’ight guv’ner! ‘hows tricks eh?”

(hee hee. isn’t racial stereotyping fun?) Anyway, I digress:

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“I’m fine thanks. And you?” I reply almost instantaneously, legions of Japanese junior high school kids having drilled this parroted sequence of greetings into my head.

“Great. So you’re headed to London today?”

“Yes sir”

“Your first time?”

“Oh, yes. My first time to England.”

“Ahh, welcome.”

“Thanks.”

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“So what’s your purpose for travel then?”

“Ummm.. Sightseeing.”

“What will you be seeing then?”

It is at this point that I suddenly hit a mental block and realize I don’t really know the names of any famous places in London off the top of my head. I concentrate very hard, and the pause stretches just long enough to be suspicious.

“Ummm…. Big Ben.”

“Big Ben?”

“Um… yeah. The big clock.”

“Anything else?”

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Shit…! I rack my brain hardcore. Of course now, sitting comfortably at my desk, it’s easy to rattle off a near exhaustive list. Buckingham Palace. Seville Row. The London Eye. Oxford Street. Camden Town. Westminster Abby. Sigh. But customs and immigrations always makes me nervous, ever since I saw that movie “Brokedown Palace” where someone plants some dope on Claire Dane’s character as she’s backpacking through Thailand and they thrown her in a gulag to rot away because they think she’s a smuggler. Oh and add to that a healthy dose of Catholic guilt as a result of some fire-and-brimstone parenting when I was younger and you get me, who despite being probably more innocent and naive than 90% of people out there, still walks around burdened by so much guilt and the near unwavering conviction that even though I can’t recall doing anything remotely criminal in recent memory, I probably deserve to be punished anyway. Point being, at this point in the “interrogation” I’ve withered and cracked so much that I can’t even think straight.

“…uhhh… uhhh…” I stammer. My poor brain fails to come up with any more suitable touristy spots in London, so I do the next best thing.

I improvise.

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“Well ummm. you know, really, I’m just… uhh, going for the food. “

Great. I just told the man that the reason for my travel to Britain was for the FOOD. Who goes to England for the FOOD? Moreover, who LEAVES FRANCE to go to ENGLAND for THE FOOD?

The answer, ladies and gentleman, is “no one at all” and the immigration officer with his jovial smile is well aware of this.

“The food? I see. What kind of food do you want to eat?”

Oh shit. He might has well have just started shoving bamboo splinters under my fingernails as I start to break out I a sweat. I should never ever be employed in a position that might require me to be entrusted with national secrets as I would crack at the first sign of torture. Heck, they don’t even need to torture me, they could just talk to me in a harsh fashion and I’d probably be spilling my guts. We pandas are not the most resistant of creatures.

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However, my nervousness was due to more than just the scrutiny of his gaze. You see, the man asked me the number one question I absolutely HATE during customs/immigration procedures, which is “what do you want to eat?” I f-ing HATE this question because no matter my answer, I always feel like I’m being judged and analysed. Like they will determine whether or not I have a right to be there, if I am who I claim I am, solely on the basis of what comes out of my mouth in response to this question. Like if I say “tacos” immigrations in America might toss me out on my ass. “He answered TACO instead of STEAK! He’s not an American! Guards! Seize him!”

You may scoff, but actually this very thing happened to me during my trip back to America last year. I had just gotten off the plane in Chicago after a 14 hour flight from Kansai and was broken, exhausted and ready to collapse on the spot. As a result, I was hardly at my spiffiest when I approached the immigration counter.

The guy at the counter looked at my passport and noted that it was my first time back in America in 3 years.

“Welcome back! First time home in 3 years huh?”

“Yeah. I was in Japan.”

“Bet you must be hungry for some good old fashioned American food after all that sushi Ha ha!”

“Yeah.”

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“What’s the first thing you’re going to eat?”

“…..what?”

“What’s the first thing you’re going to eat?”

Having never thought about this question before, I blurt the first thing that comes into my mind:

“Umm… a cheesesteak.”

“A cheesesteak? What’s that?”

“….umm, what?” How can you not know what a cheesesteak is!?

“What’s a cheesesteak?”

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And here, gentle readers, is where we cue panda breaking out into a sweat. I was exhausted. Tired. Bedraggled. Had just spent 3 years of my life in a country that has never seen a cheesesteak in its life and also doesn’t speak English very well, consequently affecting my ability to speak English well. And I’m being asked to explain what a cheesesteak is to a man who has the ability to refuse me entry to my own country at a moment’s whim.

“Uhhh…. it’s like.. uhhh… a sandwich with umm… meat… and cheese… and peppers, I guess.”

“What kind of meat?”

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Speaking of food… here the girls spy something delicious to eat…

And here is where my English abilities – and brain in general – failed me altogether. The correct answer, of course, is “sliced beef” or “shredded beef” or shit, anything along those lines. What my muddled intelligence managed to croak out however was:

“uhhh… thin… uhhh…. meat.”

Yes. “thin meat”.

*sigh*

“…Thin meat?” He replies, his eyes instantly regarding me suspiciously, a potential terrorist trying to dupe his way into the country but being caught out by his inability to describe an everyday food item any American should be able to easily explain.

“uhh…. thin…. uhhh… brown meat.”

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If you knew my friend in the back, then you would know this is exactly the face she makes whenever she spies chocolate or pastries

Yeah. It only went downhill from there – my bizarro answer lead to an intense 10 minute interrogation as I stood there at the immigration booth with sweaty hands and trembling feet, stretching up to try and reach the counter (why do they always put it just high enough to make it awkward?), with more than a few times when I felt like he was seriously about to call security or refuse me entry to my own country.

So I hope you can see why I hate questions about food from Immigration/Customs people. Now back to the British guy.

So….what kind of food do you want to eat?

The question hung out in the air like the proverbial Sword of Damocles. My body broke out into a sweat, my knees began to quiver. It was like I was back in Chicago all over again. “Just give them an answer…. any answer…!” my brain began to repeat to itself.

And then, like a burst of divine inspiration, the answer came thundering down from the heavens.

“Well…. I would really like to eat some Fish & Chips and some bangers and mash*.”

*(not really)

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There was a pause for a second.

say sausages! English people love sausages! Say sausages! my brain shouted at me.

“…Oh… and some sausages. Yeah, lots and lots of sausages.”

And then, as if we were engaging in some sort of cinematic martial arts battle, I seize hold of the momentum and turn the tables one him.

“…Speaking of which… do you know where I can get some good Fish & Chips then?”

And with that, the guy broke into a smile and stamped my passport as he began rattling off the names of some random places in London I forgot the second they entered my ear as my brain was too busy shaking its fists at the heavens screaming “YES!! YES!! TAKE THAT PROVIDENCE!! I HAFT SEEN THY IMMIGRATIONS CHALLENGES AND VERILY I HAFT MADE THEM MY BITCHES!” and my knees stilled and body stopped sweating as I celebrated my victory over that terrible question that has plagued me ever since I first started traveling overseas.

At least until the next time I have to go through immigrations. ;)

Denouement, London Trip

Other than, my London trip was quite uneventful. I saw an absolute truckload of tourist sights and did an incredible amount of walking in the mere 30 hours I was there. London was really nice and the people were as well (which surprised some of my British friends who collectively were like “Really…? Are you talking about Londoners? Most people here are arses!”). And while I didn’t get to meet anyone who talked like a Cockney or London Cabby (not even the cabbies themselves, which was a terrible disappointment), I did get to fulfill just about all the other stereotypes I had about London (for starters: it really does look just like it does on those World War II documentaries they always show on the History Channel where London is always gray, damp, perpetually overcast, windy and rainy as hell. I kept waiting for a V2 rocket to come crashing down or to round the corner and run into Winston Churchill) Oh, and it’s insanely expensive. One normal ride on the tube (even just one stop) is 4 pounds, which is EIGHT US DOLLARS (920 Japanese yen…!!!). A cup of coffee is also about that much (which blows me away, since it is rare that someone who lives in Tokyo goes to another country and is like “holy shit I don’t think I can afford to live here”), which is insane.

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Oh and speaking of the tube, in less than 30 hours, I had the trains stop working at least 6 times, which for someone used to Japan, where in 4 years, I don’t think I’ve had a train be 5 minutes late that many times, is neigh unbelievable. The best part were the announcements which ran something like:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we apologize for the inconvenience but the Northern Line is running extremely sporadically at the moment, so we suggest you either take a bus – your tickets will be honoured for any city route along this line – or else walk. (emphasis mine)

Thank you for your cooperation.”

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That’s right, they actually suggest YOU WALK TO YOUR DESTINATION. I think the Japanese part of my brain exploded when I heard this because I cannot fathom some Japanese guy coming on the intercom at the JR station going:

“Sorry folks, but the Yamanote-sen isn’t working at the moment, so, ahhh… why don’t you just walk to wherever you need to go, yeah?”

If that ever happened, I do believe the universe would just end right then and there. As the lovely Matchamonkey wrote on her brilliant blog, Japan really does have the best customer service in the world. In England….? Errr.. not so much. But it still is a nice place.

Okay I’ve rambled on far too long with far too little to say, so I’m off. Enjoy the pictures. Go visit England if you ever have the chance.

Oh, and if you do go, grab me some fish & chips while you’re there, because ironically, I never managed to find any to eat.

Now listening to: Mistah F.A.B. – “Ghost Ride It [Thizz Street Edit]

This is such a stupid song but I just love it. Maybe it’s because I always loved the Ghostbusters theme song?

To ghost ride, frequently used in the context of “ghost riding the whip” (a “whip” being a vehicle) or simply ghostin, is when the driver of a car puts the car in neutral or allows it to idle and then the driver (and passengers) of a vehicle exit while it is still rolling and dance beside it or on the hood or roof.

Ghost riding is one of the latest trends to be popularized by hyphy culture, which originated in the Bay Area of California. The act is one of the highest forms of “going awesome” and a representation of the style of hyphy. The term “ghost ride the whip” was given nationwide exposure in E-40′s 2006 song “Tell Me When to Go”.[2] However, E-40 was not the first to use this term, as it was coined much earlier by other Bay Area rappers such as Mac Dre.

7 Reactions

  1. MatchaMonkey

    The pictures in this poast are brilliant!
    It’s funny you had problems with the French immigrations officer. Whenever I’ve had to deal with them at that station they were surprised I spoke French at all. They actually pulled a sort of Japanese response on me–I would say “bonjour,” and they would respond with “Aren’t you good at French.”

  2. Ben

    No Fish ‘n’ Chips in England… WTF!? Isn’t that the most common meal there? And by the way. These are kick-ass pictures.

  3. Lori

    Wow. Imposing cathedral shots! I’m an architecture junkie, so yeah, post more of those.

  4. lizb

    ahhh man i would be screwed my brain totally shuts down under pressure. i can usually think of food, though. yesterday i ate chocolate pudding and miracle whip with lucky charms and a cherry on top! it was yummyyy :3
    ps that is a LOT of ties. did you buy any??

  5. Buffy

    Only someone native to neither (me too) would call the English and the French family.
    Mind you, in these dysfunctional days….
    Absolutely ADORE your photography.

  6. Johnny B

    Ah Mikie!
    First, you could have gotten an all day, 5 section ‘underground’ or ‘tube’ pass for like 5 pounds (probably 6 pounds now). Basically, London sections radiate outwards from the city and are broken out by some sort of distance measurement. There’s a special name for this pass, but I forgot what it was called. Sucks, I really should have given you a ‘tips’ guide, but I didn’t remember you where headed to England as well.
    Second… London is very easy to walk around… no seriously! The suggestion to walk isn’t very far-fetched for the masses there. From Waterloo, you can pretty much walk anywhere important, and with an extended walk (about 30 mins) you could even reach the other interesting areas… for tourism that is. Oddly, when you first start discovering London, you would just hop the tube and end up at the location. But once you start walking around, you find out all the places you where going were just hiding around the corner and it was faster to walk than take a tube!
    hehe, such is the reason I love London! That and “Ciao” the Italian ice cream bar. *drools*
    Hey, when I get married in France, and of course you’ll be there, we’ll take a trip to Londres (as the French call it) and we’ll sight see and hit a few discos.
    Cheers,
    John