Thursday, February 15, 2001

Perpetual Autumn and Perpetual Verbosity In The UK

I grew-up in New England, and Autumn has always been my favorite season. The air is brisk and clean and refreshing. The temperature is cool, not yet cold. The mornings can be misty and damp, but refreshing still.

Today is a bright, sunny day with a brisk chill in the air so that you could see your breath, just a little. That is, until you walk a block and it is still very bright and sunny, but kinda warm now.

Yesterday was THAT London day I had been warned of: cold rainy grey foggy (is that actual fog, or is it just mist?). It was a good day to stay inside.

Last Thursday, that brisk Autumn smell of February was in the air. Well, until lunchtime, that is, when it became a balmy fifty (and stayed that way through Friday)!

The previous Friday was one of those classic London days for weather. In the morning, the air was warm enough to open the windows. Then a little rain started. As I stepped outside, the air was still warm but the raindrops were like ice-water! One short block away, the rain had ceased. Another block along, the sun was coming out.

It really is amazing and amusing.

My friend, The Crocodile, has been back in touch from the wilds of New Hampshire. He made an observation last week that he recalled Londoners using lots of words but not saying very much. I thought he was giving me a croc; but, lately I've begun to notice exactly what he means!

I get in the queue at Starbucks every morning for some strong coffee and a bad muffin (they are from Seattle, Starbucks, and like every other Seattle corporation, they will never get everything correct -- even if it's their specialty). Anyway, I noticed the verbosity today. And I realize it permeates all of London.

The two women in front of me are having a pleasant little chat about nothing. They are together and are admiring each others accessories: "Well, it's lovely, darling, but it's not very big," said Lady One to Lady Two about the latter's new bag. "It certainly wouldn't hold very much. No good for the beach." And Lady One turns 180 degrees as if she'd never seen Lady Two ever before in her life. Lady Two stood there a bit dumbfounded looking at her leather bag that she'd purchased, it seems to me, to hold make-up (not beach balls)!

I tried not to let the sound of laughter escape as I put my hand over my mouth and pretended to yawn. Lady Two, however, turned and looked at me with an embarrassed and knowing smile. I smiled and nodded and turned to the glass case with the cloyingly sweet croissants, sticky buns and dry muffins.

Like most public spaces in London, the temperature in Starbucks is uncomfortably high, and most of the surfaces get a bit steamy. I spend most of my time in a queue removing my scarf, then opening my coat, then wiping my brow, then shaking my arms out a bit to try and get some air under my suit jacket. None of this helps, of course, but the motions do create a bit of a breeze. When the door opens for a customer to depart, every face in the joint rises up and points to the ceiling, like drowning men in a submarine pressing their faces into the last bit of trapped oxygen, attempting to savor a bit of cool air.

Lady One and Lady Two eventually started another conversation as the queue moved forward. I watched the people behind the counter buzz about with the marked inefficiency that shouts: We Are An American Business Design In Action. If you think the Re-Engineering of the American Workplace was a failure in the United States, you should see it in Europe! If it wasn't so amusing to hear it done with a British accent, it would be infuriating. And I guess that gets me back to my point. Language. Talk. And The Crocodile's observation about English Verbosity.

I have spent about five minutes in line and I have decided on the Cinnamon Pecan Swirl for breakfast, as it looks a little moister than the Sunrise Muffin.

Lady One and Lady Two are now next to be served, and believe it or not, although Lady Two has returned her rather smart orange leather bag to her purse, Lady One is discussing it ferociously. The veins in her neck are sticking out, her forhead is furrowed, and she's going on about the beach and how Lady Two's bag is simply not appropriate for the beach. Lady Two is smiling pleasantly and nodding at Lady One.

It is The Ladies' turn in the queue. Lady One smiles at the server. "Am I next?" She asked with a big Helena Rubenstein smile, her wrinkly old neck pushed forward like a combination of a lizard and a Kennedy woman.

"Yes," smiled the server.

"Oh, good!" She exclaimed. Turning to Lady Two, she asked, "Do you know what you'd like?"

"I'd not really though about it," Lady Two explained. "What will you be having?"

Lady One's eyes opened wide, a conspiratorial smile exposed her yellowed teeth, and she said gleefully, "I've brought THIS!" And from her bag she pulls an open pint container of goat's milk. "I'll have them steam us both up a bit of hot cocoa!"

The server smiles at me and the man behind me and the woman behind him and the man behind her. We all smile back at the server, and at each other. It seems to be getting warmer in Starbucks, and there are no longer any patrons who will be opening the door as they depart, because everyone in front of The Ladies has been served and stolen off to work. There is now an eerie silence in this hive of American Industriousness Tainted by European Sensibility, and you could hear her breathing as Lady Two asked: "Will they do that?"

"I don't see why not," Lady One insisted. "It's perfectly good goat milk," and turning to the server, she looked at the floor, straightened her pearl choker with her right hand, inched ever closer to the counter, leaned forward with her left hand high in the air holding a container of warm goat's milk and asked, in a hushed tone: "Would you steam up some cocoa for us with this? I simply can't have the cow's milk you people pass off in a place like this, and mine is such special milk from my family's place. They're up North, you know. Of course, you generally don't do this sort of thing, but it would really be no bother for you. Really. Just use this instead of that rubbish you usually serve."

This special product can be purchased in any Tesco Metro or high-end bodega in Central London. It is about as special as a Starbucks in an urban setting, or as special as being shocked to learn that your newly-purchased notebook comes with Microsoft Windows already installed. And this opened container of goat milk has been inside this woman's purse for who-knows how long!

Lady Two was leaning forward to listen in anticipation. I was leaning forward to listen, as was every other customer and worker in earshot. The server's eyes darted from Lady One to me, to those behind me. It was still amazingly quiet. At this point, even the espresso machines and steamers had been silent so long that they seemd to go into stand-by mode.

"Of course, we can," the server smiled a big smile. There was a collective audible sigh of relief from every worker and customer in the place! "Two cocoas then. That will be three and a half, please."

Then it happened. Why, you might ask yourself, are they charging this little old lady full-price if she is supplying the ingredients?

Understanding that Lady One knows nothing about the Re-Engineered workplace, with the cash registers designed with only three cocoa keys: Tall, Grande, Venti; I am on her side. There is no key for 'hold the milk,' nor is there a number pad for a worker to enter a random price that might seem fair. It's cocoa, tall, grande or venti, or it isn't cocoa, at all!

Lady One is a woman of means. This is not a little old bag-lady here. Those pearls are real and that sweater is cashmere and the wool top coat is impecable! Three pounds fifty is not really a problem for this lady's purse; but, you can see it's the principle of the situation that has her upset. And I agree with her, not because I think she should get a discount, but because this is exactly why the Re-Engineered workplace is a failure: The Ladies can never bring the goat's milk if the computers only allow for TallGrandeVenti Cocoa. (What the f**k is this tallgrandeventi s**t anyway? I miss smallmediumlarge!) You get it this way because some Microsoft Flunkie with a great idea for a coffee shoppe has decided, and there is no other way. Starbucks offers you coffee the same way Microsoft offers you an internet browser. There is only our way and no other way. If you want it differently, you will just upset the entire network!

"It costs over three pounds for you to steam a little goat's milk for me?" Lady One asked. Another audible collective sigh. Chapter Two in the saga of this morning's cocoa was about to begin. One customer behind me swore aloud (which always sounds so quaint and dirty with a British accent) and loudly left the store. Ahhhh, a breeze and breath of cool air!

Finally, one of the other workers (they have a special name for the coffee makers and it escapes me now) stepped to the other cash registered, signalled me over and took my order of a Grande Americano No Room and Cinnamon Swirl. The conversation between Lady One, Lady Two and the server continued as I paid my three twenty-five and moved to the pick-up counter, which has a splendid view of the brewers at work.

I have become a bit friendly with the workers at this Starbucks, because I am there every morning. They recognize me and we always exchange nods or pleasantries. The girl with the pierced face, poured The Ladies' goat milk into a stainless container and looked in horror at it. Lady One came rushing down to watch that her milk was being prepared properly and saw the expression on the pierced girl's face and asked if something was wrong.

"Well, it looks like this," the pierced girl explained, holding the container up to Lady One. "And there really isn't enough for two."

"It's fine, that's no problem for us; and just top it off with a little of your milk, then," Lady One explained and retired to a stool at the bar against the wall.

Pierced Girl looked at horror and showed me the contents of the container. This was barely a cup of goat's milk, and it was so curdled that you could smell it from afar. This was the classic fish and loaves or silk purse v. sow's ear set-up. This woman arrives with three ounces of sour goat's milk and would like it made into 24 ounces of rich, creamy cocoa! Brilliant!

Pierced Girl shrugged, filled the container with plain old cow's milk, whipped up a couple of cocoa's and The Ladies sat on their stools chatting about how much better the cocoa is when made with real goat's milk!

I don't know if Lady One got a discount for the rancid goat's milk; but, I might bring some used coffee grounds from my apartment and ask the girls at Starbucks to make me a nice cup of coffee from them!

Ahhh! Another day in the life of an American guy lost in the wilds of Olde Londinium.