An Ode To London – I

by Ranim Elborai

The day after tomorrow I’ll have lived in London for a total of two years.

That’s also the day that the visa that allows me to live in the UK expires, an event that fills me with a measure of both apprehension and sadness.

I won’t bore anyone with the legal details of my immigration status. Instead I’ll attempt to use humour to deflect my anxiety and grief.

It only took about 730.484 days, but I’ve finally warmed up to the place.

I’ve learned how to get around using the city’s excellent public transport system (thank you so much, Google Maps). I’ve realised that you can never leave your flat without either your umbrella or your Oyster card. The cold, hard fact that my neighbourhood supermarket closes at 6pm on Sundays has finally sunk into my thick skull.a I now think twice before I bandy about the word “pants” — they’re trousers, trousers, trrrouserrrs.

I feel settled here, and I’d like to stay on. Whether or not that’s the case is another matter.b

But like every other person on this good earth, I love me a good moan. And expats, particularly those that hail from North America, love to compare notes on what they think is so gosh-darn weird about Britain.c

But even as I am fully aware that this particular subject has already been done to death, I still feel entitled to throw in my (lengthy) two cents.

Justification: I am fun and interesting and what I find puzzling or endearing about this place is very likely to differ from what your workaday American friends have been yapping about ever since you met them.

Given my penchant for lists, what follows is a personalised catalogue of some of the things I find fascinating and dismaying (sometimes simultaneously) about this brilliant city, in no particular order.

Ca-caaw, ca-caaw!

It’s 4am in the morning. You’re up out of bed for a wee, thinking that it’s going to be fine, you’ll just crawl under the sheets again, and now unburdened, drift back into a sweet slumber for a few more hours before getting up for work.d

Think again.

Whether you spot them roaming the lawns of Hyde Park or are rudely roused from bed at the ass-crack of dawn by their cries, London seems to boast a huge population of crows.e During the 8 years I’ve lived in the US, I had never come across even one of these creatures. I’ve seen more than my fair share of rats on Manhattan’s East 1st St., hordes of cockroaches in an apartment belonging to someone who can only be described as a hoarder in D.C., but crows? Never.

Are all the crows here a cause for complaint?

If you’re an insomniac, they will plague your existence. If you’re that jogger that was savaged by two crows in Battersea Park back in 2005, you’re likely to nurse a debilitating phobia. I myself  was slightly traumatised when, on my way back home from the gym, I came across two crows tearing apart the carcass of a pigeon that had just been run over. I ran into the house to retrieve my camera, hoping to document the morbid act (I can be a little macabre like that), but they had already flown away.

images-5“Caw to tha Caw, mothafackaw,” is what I imagine this moody little guy is thinking.

Will the average Londoner have anything to say about them? The crowsf of London are atmospheric, perfectly in keeping with the city’s overcast skies and the sense of gloom that permeates London eight months of the year.

And someone needs to keep those goddamn pigeons in check.

A dearth of iced coffee

Late spring and all of summer in Cambridge, MA was hot and steamy. While keeping my head down in the library, studying for exams and writing mediocre final papers, any excuse to venture out into the sun was welcome. But you’d swelter in the heat without a cooling drink. It was during that time that I began my love affair with iced coffee.

Toscanini’s, a nearby ice cream parlour that doubled as a coffee shop, made exceptional cold-brewed iced coffee. Topped with a generous splash of Silk Soy and half a packet of Sweet & Low, I pretty much had a low-fat coffee ice cream on my hands, both addictive and delicious.

By my senior year, I no longer restricted my affinity for the icy beverage to the hot months. In September, I would stroll into Spanish class a few minutes late, risking my instructor’s withering glances and wry commentary, massive plastic cup in hand. I would collect it from the 1369 Coffee House on the way to school, every morning without fail, until about early December, when it would start to snow.

When I moved to New York, I became more health conscious and decided to ditch the aspartame. Finding simple syrup nowhere near as sweet as I needed it to be, I switched to unsweetened iced soy lattes — somewhat naturally sweet, but not really.

The main point is, I love iced coffee. So you can imagine how crushed I was when I moved to London and found out that it simply was not done here.


Oh the humanity! What kind of uncivilized coffee backwater was this place?

Most people I spoke to had no idea that iced coffee was meant to be cold brewed at all. “Cold brewed? Is that even possible?”

Not to sound like some kind of stuck-up coffee connoisseur (I’m not, I swear!), but the coffee scene here is still nascent as contrasted with some of those in parts of the US.

Fortunately, it’s on the rise, mainly driven forward by Australians, who I’m told have a very strong coffee culture.

Still I think iced coffee, as a concept, has been slow to arrive to London. When I first got here, I paid a call to one of the more highly rated coffee shops according to my Independent Coffee Shops of London Guide.g

There, at, least, I’d be able to get my hands on a good iced latte. When I asked the handsome Aussie barista for one, he confessed that they had no ice. At all. They made their “iced coffee” using an Americano and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. This was basically a long Affogato. It was extremely delicious, but come on…no ice!?h


On the hunt for something to fill the iced-coffee-shaped void in my life, I settled on Vietnamese iced coffee. This is made with sweetened condensed milk, so is terribly unhealthy, but also terribly delicious. Detrimental to the waistline in the extreme, this is a treat I indulge in very rarely.

My drink of choice nowadays is a double macchiato with a teeny bit of extra milk, chased by a glassy of icy cold water.

By way of note — I’m seeing more and more people here walking around with plastic cups full of ice and creamy brown liquid, so maybe iced coffee of a decent quality has finally crept its way into the British coffee shop menu. (Starbucks doesn’t count.)

Now my main complaint is that only one Thai restaurant in the whole of London serves Thai iced tea.

Get it together, Britain!

  1. A thorn in my side, all thanks to the Sunday Trading Act of 1994. This piece of legislation permits larger shops to open for a maximum of six hours on Sundays. This was an improvement on the laws previously in place, which barred trading on Sundays outright.  (back)
  2. I’m taking applications for prospective EU husbands. Email a CV, photographs, as well as a brief cover letter to I’m kidding! Or am I..?  (back)
  3. The British will usually restrict themselves to a remark or two about the weather, most likely due to the stiff upper lip mentality they’re raised on and a national obsession with propriety. The climate here does give you a lot to complain about, on an almost constant basis. So I’ll spend zero time in this series of posts discussing the weather — one only need think of it as the subtext underlying any sort of writing about living on this island.  (back)
  4. I feel, at this point, I should explain my policy on anglicisms. I don’t have one. If I like a word, and I feel like using it, I’m going to use it. But I haven’t gone so far as to pull a Madonna and change my accent. That’s just too much.  (back)
  5. Are they crows or ravens? The black birds I see all over Hyde Park are massive, about twice the size of pigeons, indicating they’re ravens. Except ravens don’t like being in the proximity of so many humans, whereas crows don’t seem to mind us people. Also, what I hear in the small hours of the morning is a crow’s “caw-caw,” rather than a raven’s “gronk-gronk.” So you help me figure it out.  (back)
  6. Ravens?  (back)
  7. This, and I’m not exaggerating, was the first book I bought when I got here.  (back)
  8. Come to think of it, this was a place with plenty of seating but no bathroom, so maybe ice was expecting too much from the likes of them.  (back)