Lyall

Lyall

A weeklong electronic journal.
Jan. 16 1997 3:30 AM

Lyall

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       In an attempt to pretend that we are not facing an imminent cataclysm, my husband and I had a dinner party last night. Big mistake, because it involved lumbering over to the screaming-toddler-filled supermarket (boy, I can't wait to give birth!) and cowering enormously near the dairy section while everyone else scurried around, bumping into my stomach. I vow that for the rest of my life, I will be nicer to the old, the infirm, the obese, and the otherwise slow-moving. Also, food itself has become sickening, except for a dwindling group of acceptable items, like pineapples that are fresh and mandarin oranges that come in cans. But you can hardly sit there drinking your banana-yogurt milkshake (acceptable food No. 3) while plying your guests with real food. So when dinner time came, I had to pretend I really liked the murky parsnip soup; the greasy coq au vin; and the string beans all covered in anchovies, capers, and garlic (what was I thinking? I fell asleep in clouds of garlic that appear to have moved in, turned on the television, and settled down for a nice long stay in the house).
       I feel completely stressed-out at these parties. A little more than two years ago, when I was single and living chaotically in my repulsively decorated apartment in New York, I could happily serve pasta primavera on paper plates to groups of unkempt friends who had to sit on the floor. You could get people to bring stuff, too, even major appliances, and if the spaghetti stuck together or burned (yes, it's happened), it was OK--you could always order out. But now I live in London, where they take these things seriously, and I have a husband whose friends seem to want meat. They want vegetables. They want to drink wine that does not come in a screw-top jug. Perhaps it's because they're all in their 40s and 50s, whereas my friends are my age, 33, and still in the throes of arrested development.
       Time is ticking on at work. I'm working on so many things at once, between taking pregnancy-related naps in the conference room, that I find myself needing a lot of phone numbers, fast. But of all the things that bug me about London--the "delis" where the food is mostly small pots of graying meat covered in viscous sauces; the lack of a constitution; the slavish devotion to the ludicrous tennis player Tim Henman; the no-deodorant situation in the subway--the telephone-information service bugs me most of all. Maybe it's my accent (once I asked for the number of the Royal Arts Club and the person informed me, perfectly seriously, that they had no listing for "the Royal Oats Club"). Maybe it's my pushy, New Yorker's attitude, which holds that--call me crazy!--a service is actually supposed to provide a service. But I keep having conversations like this:

Me: I'd like the number, please, of Brock Thoene, spelled T-H-O-E-N-E. It's a residence in Primrose Hill, London.
Learning-Impaired Person on the other end of the phone: What city?
M: London.
LIP: That's a residence?
M: Yes.
LIP: Do you have a first initial?
M: Brock. The first initial is B.
LIP: And you're spelling that T-H-E-O-N?
M: No. (I'm thinking, "I want to murder you." I spell it again.)
LIP: Do you have an address?
M: As I say, Primrose Hill.
LIP: So, you don't have the address? (She's thinking, "It's an American! What a loser!")
M: How many Thoenes could there be? There must be a listing. Plus, IF I HAD THE ADDRESS, DON'T YOU THINK I'D HAVE THE PHONE NUMBER?
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        It makes you long for the hyperefficiency of 411 in New York, even if you do have to talk to a computer. On a visit last year, I asked for the number of the Guggenheim Museum. "That's spelled G-U-G," I began, cowed by my London experience. The actual operator got on. "I know how to spell Guggenheim!" she shrieked indignantly, as if I'd accused her of a major social crime, like forgetting to wear deodorant on the subway.

Sarah Lyall reports for the New York Times from London.