Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Score: England vs. France

This isn't a post about the Rugby World Cup. In fact, as they're not in the same pool and playing in a mediocre fashion, they'll be lucky if they get to meet each other later on.

No, this is the traditional wrap-up post, being written as I eat a shitty Subway sandwich for dinner, sitting at work - the result of going on vacation just before a big midnight product launch. But for now, I get to take a few moments to recount some holiday bliss.

Long known for boiled "meat and two veg," England has come a long way culinarily. London is one of the most international cities in the world, and now hosts some of the finest restaurants in the world. And while all the kebabs and Indian food and fusion cuisine have really elevated the status of food in Britain, all the competition has made even the stalwart pub meals become that much better. Whether it's chicken tikka masala, shawarma, or a full English breakfast in front of you, it's hard not to get a fresh, satisfying meal just about anywhere in the UK.

That said, a simple slab of cheese from the corner store, a pastry bought at the train station, or a coffee just about anywhere in France will make anyone lament even their finest food choices at home. While I enjoyed every meal in England and consumed it with gusto, not once did I curl my toes and roll my eyes back into my head as much as I did with any French meal. The fact that I'm putting a Subway sandwich into my digestive tract while a Parisian côte de boeuf is still lodged somewhere further along is probably insulting to the French people and their way of life. Because I think food is life there.

Points Awarded to: France

Winemaking may be sacred in France, and it'd be astonishing - perhaps even illegal - to get a poor house red for just a few euros, but even the biggest wine snob has to admit that we have a greater variety and range in California alone. Don't get me wrong - the Imperial sampling I had at Moët & Chandon was about the best sparkling wine I've ever had, and the Côtes du Provence I had with one dinner was a brilliant suggestion on the waiter's part.

But England... damn, bring on the beer! Just the fact that every pub has real ale on cask makes it worth a trip across the pond alone. And while a couple of my favorite beers are French (Kronenbourg 1664 and their Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs white... yes, that's a beer), very few French drinking experiences hold a candle to sitting in a warm pub and enjoying a few pints in good company.

Points Awarded to: England

I found it damn near impossible to go anywhere of interest either in London or Paris that wasn't crawling with tourists. I still cringe at my mental soundbites of hideous American accents exclaiming, "We sure ain't in Kansas anymore!" or "Wow, that building's gotta be over a hundred years old!" (Try over 800, jackass.) But there's a reason people in shorts, sandals, and tube socks swarm all over Europe. It's because as Eddie Izzard says, it's where the history comes from. And it's all very breathtaking.

When you take into account that the cathedral you're staring at is from the 1100's, that the romantic bridge you're strolling across affords a brilliant view on either side of the river, or that the building before you is one of the great architectural marvels of the modern age, you can't begrudge anyone else for going to check it out. Even if it spoils your perfect little experience.

And for all these things - history, beauty, and architecture - both England and France are winners. And they both get demerits for the irksome number of irritating chavs, bothersome con artists, and general scumbags hanging around. But for the first time on a trip, I've factored in another variable: Romance. Being that this was my first big trip with a significant other, I found myself constantly thinking, "Wow, this place certainly is romantic." Most of the time in France.

Points awarded to: France

Getting Around
Laugh all you want about Socialism, but London and Paris have both benefited largely by having mayors of such persuasion. Since my last visit to either, both are criss-crossed by an impressive number of dedicated bike lanes, and as such, more bicyclists. This has eased congestion greatly in the metropolitan centers and has made it easy to get places while enjoying the great views on tap. And in smaller places - like Exeter and Epernay - biking is already commonplace and easy to do. Largely because the areas are so small to begin with. This alone makes Europe heaven for a regular cyclist as myself, whereas in California, we're persectued by the authorities. (See recent LAist stories about incidents in my former stomping grounds of Hollywood and Beverly Hills.

The metro systems in both capitals are also legendary. They get you around with ease, usually with little delay, and if you do it right (i.e. getting a transit card like the locals do), cheaply. Sure, both are prone to the occasional transit strike, but I'll take that over gridlock any day of the year. I'd have to say, though, that London has an edge because of its more straightforward metro layout and hilarious station names. (I'm talking to you, Cockfosters.)

Points awarded to: England - by a slight margin

Paris has this certain... I hate to say it... je ne sais quoi that envelops you everywhere you go. Despite longstanding rumors to the contrary, the people are friendly, every other corner looks charming, and as mentioned before, it's just f'ing romantic - as if frozen in time. London, even with all its history and pagaentry, is downright modern and dynamic. There's an energy about the city that spreads to the rest of the country (with beer prices dissipating as the radius grows) and it's infectious. Both are at the forefront of style and fashion, not unlike an American metropolis like New York, but have a crazy amount of history and tradition behind them that dusts anything on our side of the Atlantic.

And both England and France have played host to once-in-a-lifetime memories for me. Whether it was attending a culturally unique wedding ceremony, shouting along at a Rugby World Cup match, cycling through vineyards, or having an extravagant snack in the lap of luxury, I've had some amazingly memorable experiences in both countries on this trip alone - nevermind past sojourns to either.


Ok, call it a cop-out, but it's really hard to choose between these two great countries. Every time I start thinking, "Damn, France was really something," I remember something about England that was equally as cool. And although I'm partial to England, having lived there as a child and still consider it "home" in a way, there are things about it that irk me beyond belief. As the immigration officer at Heathrow said as she opened my passport to stamp it - "Been here a few times, have we?" But as much as I've done England to death, I still haven't done it all, and would just as eagerly book a flight there as I would to France.

Hell - I salivate at any opportunity to leave the country.

And although I've really enjoyed my years as a lone wolf traveler, and even the group trips, I'm looking forward to all the future opportunities with my true love.


Er, I mean Alannah.

(Don't give me that look! She wouldn't be with me if she didn't love my jerkwad comments.)

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