This past week I had two completely opposite American experiences here in London.
I needed to go to the US Embassy in London yesterday to have a document notarized. This is one of several services offered by the Embassy, including (not surprisingly) passport and visa services. I made an online appointment a few weeks ago for a 9:45AM appointment. The Embassy sits on Grosvenor Square in the heart of London. The Square is an open park space, with a nice statue of FDR.
Our Embassy, I’m a bit embarrassed to say, is a hulking 70’s monstrosity of architecture. It’s no wonder we recently broke ground of a new one in South London. (The US will make a killing on turning the land into residential real estate, converting the building itself will take some imagination.)
One of the quirks of the Embassy is that you can’t bring any mobile devices inside nor do they have a place to check them in. I learned later that two nearby pharmacies make a pretty pound by running a phone check business, and the Embassy is exploring doing their own with money to go to Veterans’ causes. So naturally I got completely lost on my way there, having grown dependent on my phone GPS. And this was the coldest, stormiest day here so far (and I had the first moment of missing LA as I trudged through the mess).
I arrived at the queue outside around 9:45, and eventually got through security. I was sent around the side of the huge building to a side entrance, and once up a grand set of stairs entered the building. Let’s just say our tax dollars weren’t wasted on updating the interior. I checked in, got a number and went into the waiting room. Imagine a DMV mixed with a nursery with heightened levels of desperation. There was a play area filled with the siblings of the dozen or so babies brought in for their passports. Thankfully the visa people were in a different holding area altogether or it would have been a real madhouse.
The array of people was fascinating. Many bi-national couples, Americans and folks that sounded like Brits but were American by birth. American efficiency was in as much evidence as the indoor decor, ie limited at best. After bouncing between 5 windows and waiting 3 hours I got my notarized document. Lesson for the next time – bring a newspaper or a book!
On the complete opposite side of the spectrum was my visit to Westfield Shopping Centre in Shepherd’s Bush. A full-on American style mall in the middle of London. I realized I was missing some key warm clothing items (gloves, hat, a long wool overcoat) and my friend Ed recommended Reiss, a UK-based clothing chain. Reiss carries men’s and women’s clothing and the nearest one is in Westfield, so I took the bus (yes the bus) over there and was happy to find a very familiar set-up.
One of the big adjustments from LA living is going back to a car-less existence. The largest change is in how I shop – gone are the Costco days of filling up my Audi with bulk toilet paper and Pelligrino. Most neighborhoods have a “High Street” where all the shoppes you need are in one stretch, but the shoppes are smaller and tend to be specialty shops, requiring multiple trips to get what you need. I’ve tried a few of the supermarkets, and have settled into Sainsbury and M&S Just Food for now. But I can only buy what I can carry half a mile home. My shopping strategies have completely changed. So it was nice to have multiple options all in one place like the Mall.
Westfield has UK style anchors such as Marks & Spencer, Next and Debenham’s, as well as UK/Euro faves H&M, Zara, Thomas Pink, Uniqlo and Ted Baker. They also have plenty of global stores like Disney and Apple. There is a high end fashion annex called The Village with a variety of shops like Prada and Louis Vitton. Overall Westfield felt a lot like home, bigger and airier than Sherman Oaks Galleria, Pasadena or Westfield Sherman Oaks. It was a fun experience, and in the crappy weather, easier to navigate store-to-store than fighting the crowds on the typical High Street. But I don’t want to give up the joys of the smaller specialty store experience so I expect my visits won’t be too frequent.
In the end I did buy a new grey wool coat at Reiss, gloves and scarf at H&M, and a wool cap at Marks and Sparks that I need to return – it’s just way too Olde Man British.
Any good London shopping tips before the holidays kick into high gear?