It was a British friend who used to throw bits of French into his letters, which impressed me in spite of my having discovered early on that he was not in fact reading Gide in French, but in a Penguin translation that kept the French title on the cover. “Plus Ã§a change, plus c’est la mÃªme chose” came to mind today, as I took the train to Nottingham to visit the China Policy Institute.
The customer service in Britain used to be so awful that it was almost blistering to someone who came from California, land of eerily cheery (perhaps stoned) wait staff. But I thought that privatization and Americanization, not to mention deunionization and perhaps even concern about having a job next month, had changed things. Not so. The train service is a bizarre combination of super-efficiency and old-fashioned surliness. â€œPoor track conditions,â€ â€œTaking the train into the yard for servicing,â€ and, on the London Underground, â€œProblems due to a body under a train at Earlâ€™s Court.â€ I was trying to figure out why they would be so explicit. Perhaps to reassure travelers that it was not terrorism disrupting service.
Yesterday I was sent round and round Kingâ€™s Cross and St. Pancras Stations to get a simple question answered: would there be wifi on the trains Iâ€™d be taking to and from Nottingham on Monday? (â€œWhy what?â€ said one man). After being told emphatically â€œNoâ€ by both of the train companies, I had free wifi all the way to Grantham.
Le plus ca change applies to that, but also to a sight that puzzles me: middle-aged to elderly women wearing long tweedy skirts and cardigans, with sensible lace-up shoes. When I first came to England as a student, over 25 years ago, I noticed this Miss Marple look and thought it amusing and sweet. But how is it possible that women are still dressing this way? They are not (yet) my contemporaries, but definitely getting close. Iâ€™m baffled. It is 2008. Where do they buy these things and why would they want to look like Miss Marple? Could it be counted as a traditional indigenous costume, like the bowler hat and thick skirt worn by the first female indigenous judge in Bolivia, who was interviewed in one of the papers yesterday?
By the way, to be fair, the new St. Pancras International station, where one picks up the train for Paris (how tempting is that?), is stunning. And has free wifi through the vast Victorian space.