Sunday, July 27, 2008

Dateline London, part 3

Farewell, London, it was nice getting to know you a little better. Indeed, it was only on this, my fifth or so visit, that I feel I finally got London. Before, I could never get the lay of the land and constantly got hopelessly lost, unable to figure out where the most basic landmarks were in relation to each other. I truly think it had something to do with the driving-on-the-left thing, as I experienced a similar disorientation on my trips to Australia. In any case for some reason things clicked this time, and I was able to actually enjoy walking around—especially since I also knew which bus to take, and which direction to take it in.

A couple of recent highlights: a really good lunch buffet in a vegetarian South Asian place (lots more fresh veggies and fruits than we'd find in the NY equivalent, where they seem to think everything has to be drenched in either sauce or syrup) and Hampstead Heath. Now that is a city park! I was struck by how bucolic it was, especially since unlike Central/Prospect Park, it wasn't overwhelmed by nonstop athletic activity and nutty picnics in which people feel they have to transplant their entire living room to the outdoors, complete with recliners and stereo systems. The most striking feature: the swimming ponds reserved for men and women. We only saw the women's one, of course, and it was like being beamed onto another planet; the sense of isolation was enhanced by the fact that our host and guide tried to use her GPS as a joke and the device was utterly befuddled as to what our location was. It felt like a slice of women's utopia lifted out of a 1970s feminist novel. I wonder if such a thing could exist in New York.

Before I leave for Heathrow, some observations about cultural differences on television.

In Stockholm, we watched a show called Singing Bee, on which contestants are tested on their knowledge of song lyrics. (I believe there was an American version but it didn't last.) The participants were all quite good, but what blew me away is that they essentially knew pop classics in two languages, Swedish and English. They had no idea what would be thrown their way but they never looked fazed. A guy was equally at ease performing Eurovision entries, Motown, and Swedish tunes I couldn't recognize. Oh, and "The Final Countdown." I'd like to see English or American contestants with this kind of bilingual facility. Actually, you could find them, but they'd be, like, Asian in England, Hispanic in the US. Perhaps a similarly bilingual show exists on, say, Univision in America, but I seriously doubt it could be on one of the major English-speaking networks.

In London, we caught the end of the British version of Deal or No Deal. First, we were surprised by how many family and friends the contestant, Betty, was allowed. But then it turned out they were the people holding the suitcases! So instead of a big razzamatazz set with identikit models holding cases out of a James Bond movie, you had totally normal people, in all shapes, ages and colors, around some kind of table. Second, the whole thing was tuned down several notches from the hysteria reigning on the US version, which somehow bolstered the suspense. It was kinda hushed and thoughtful, and the closeups on Betty's anguished face were almost…haunting.

Which brings me to third: Betty seemed to be in her late fifties/early sixties and looked every hard-lived second of it (HD is particularly merciless). Our Brit host remarked that the show looked like a Mike Leigh movie! I doubt Betty would be allowed on American television: The web of wrinkles and creases on her face harshly illustrated the very notion of aging and mortality, which is not allowed to be suggested in the youth-obsessed US. You could tell Betty had not had an easy life, which of course made the suspense even more biting. Very canny casting there!

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