“This heavy coin here is a pound,” said Paul (friend, tour guide and former London native). “The ten and fifty pence pieces are about the same size. The twenties are smaller. This tiny thing here is worth 5 pence. It’s not even worth carrying around, really. I like to throw them at poor people.”
If you have lots of money to throw around, London is the place to be, that’s for sure. We had been warned how expensive it was, but we still weren’t prepared for the prices. When you look at a pub menu and see a pint of beer listed at £3.90, it seems pretty reasonable. Then you do the math and realize that this is nearly $8.00. About now, you consider either giving up drinking or coming up with ways to get people to throw their five pence pieces in your direction.
Fortunately for us, though, our friend Leah generously lent us her very lovely flat for the weekend, so we didn’t have to scrape together enough change for a hotel room or, more likely, sleep on the street next to a paper coffee cup marked “donations.” And better still, her flat was in a very posh part of town, right around the corner from Bridget Jones’s apartment, London Bridge, the house used in the shootout scene of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Borough Market. She’s also right upstairs from the Southwark Pub (pronounced “suffuck”). Very convenient.
We spent our first night in London eating curry and drinking pints in pubs called “The Anchor” and “Dirty Dick’s” (despite what you may think, it’s a reference to King Richard III, who locked his young nephews and heirs to the throne in the tower of London and stole the crown for himself). The next morning we wandered through Borough Market and had Cumberland sausage sandwiches and milky coffee from one of the stands for breakfast. Johann also had a classic hot-cross bun.
We then followed Paul’s directions to the Tate Modern: “Walk along the Thames. If you find yourself getting damp, you’re in the river. Stop, retrace your steps and veer a bit more to the left.” This was good advice and we found the museum without difficulty, enjoying views of London Bridge, Tower Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, “The Gherkin” and Millenium Bridge.
Once inside, the first thing we did was get in line for the slides. That’s right, the slides. The interactive exhibit by Carsten Höller (ambitiously but unimaginatively titled Test Site) consists of five twisty slides of varying heights, the tallest requiring escalator rides to the fourth floor to get on. “While I don’t think that the Tate has actually changed its slogan to ‘Come for the Slides, Stay for the Art,’ there has been an increase in museum attendance amongst the under-tens that probably cannot be attributed to the Gilbert and George exhibit,” Paul said wryly. (Watch a live webcam view of the slides.)
We tried out slides number one and three before heading up to the big one. By this time, we had the procedure down. Each rider is given a canvas mat with a pocket in the bottom. You sit on the mat, insert your feet into the pocket, lie down, cross your arms and go when the person manning the screen showing the bottom of the slides gives you the “all clear.” Paul’s two children were grinning furiously with anticipation, but Johann looked a little anxious. “I just hope that sausage sandwich stays down,” he said. As we approached the front of the line, Arthur, age 9, started to look a little worried. “I may scream on this one,” he confided. “In that case, just do it,” I advised. “Yell all the way down, yell like you mean it.” He balked a bit after getting his feet in the mat, but Paul grasped the top of his head and pushed him into the tube. He whooped like a commando the whole way down. This caused the eyes of the little boy behind us to grow large with fear. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “He planned to scream like that.”
Then it was my turn. “Do you know how to do this, ma’am?” The man at the video screen asked. “I believe the main idea is to not die,” I replied. “Yes,” he said. “And to cross your arms.” Four dizzying stories and about as many seconds later, I was at the bottom. “Okay,” Paul said. “Now let’s have some deep, meaningful appreciation of Surrealist art and then go to the pub to watch the game and get pissed.” Good plan.
Somehow, I think modern art is best experienced after plummeting feet-first through a steel tube. Dali’s Lobster Phone made perfect sense to me after that. All and all, the visit was a bit like being inside a giant Candyland game in which Gumdrop Mountain and the Candy Cane Forest have been designed by a committee consisting of René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp and Roy Lichtenstein.
The rest of the weekend was a blur of sights: Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Bond Street, Green Park, St. James’s Church, Soho, Chinatown and Greenwich. We got around easily thanks to Leah, who had thoughtfully left us each an Oyster Card, good for all public transportation in the city. “Why is it called an Oyster Card?” I asked Paul as Johann used the machine to top up the amount of credit on our cards. “Hell if I know,” he replied. “Are you done? Okay, we’re off! The world is our oyster! …Oh. That’s probably why.”
We packed a lot into our four days in London, but can’t wait to go back and see more. All considered, the price was right. Roundtrip tickets from Marseille on Ryan Air cost just one penny, plus airport tax. You can bet we held onto those five-pence pieces for future flights.