Having grown up in the orbit of New York City, and having lived there now for the last few years, it never fails to surprise me that other supposedly “major” cities can operate any differently. There’s no shortage of excuses as to why other cities can’t perpetually provide for its citizens the way NYC can. Assuming that the way New York functions is the same everywhere has proven unfortunate in both the past and present, especially when it comes to transportation. The first time I arrived in Atlanta, for example, my mother and I had to change our plans on the fly, since after a delayed flight we ended up landing after Atlanta’s public transit system, MARTA, shut down for the evening. Another historical example was barely catching the last Tube train of the night on my first day in London in 2013, almost making the literal panic attack I was having that much worse.
Today’s story of epic shutdowns and my delayed awareness of them began in October 2022. As I prepared for the trip I’m currently enjoying, I figured arriving into London on Christmas Day would be a nice, low-pressure first day to get my bearings and prepare myself for the wonderful vacation ahead. I even selected a hotel that was on the same line running from Heathrow Airport. Having spent quite a few Christmases in NYC, I thought at the very least I could expect a delayed schedule for transit. A month or two after booking, when I started double checking how I was going to get to my hotel, it became apparent that London shuts down its whole transit system on 12/25. No (government-run) busses or trains of any kind. A trip on the Tube to the station conveniently located by the hotel was replaced by a very expensive cab ride (though I can now say I’ve officially ridden in a London black cab).
Once I arrived at my hotel, there was a “closed” sign hanging in the window (have you ever seen a hotel close for a holiday??). I followed the instructions taped to the door and rang the bell. With no receptionist in, someone else on staff had to help set me up with my key, which turned into an hour-long ordeal. At first I was given a malfunctioning keycard, and once I was able to enter my room it appeared as if someone had already been sleeping in it (the woman who helped prepare the continental breakfast; she was very surprised when I told her I was also staying in room 44). Thankfully the manager popped in to check on things, and in about 15 minutes he sorted out my room situation.
With my room situation finally resolved, I finally felt at ease enough to begin one of my Walks®. At least for the first half of the walk, it appeared as if almost everything in the city was nonoperational, in addition to TfL. Both stores and restaurants featured dark windows and holiday hours signs. The lone exceptions to this were bodega-type stores, a few middle eastern restaurants, and every Subway sandwich shoppe. To my surprise, coming from a region where blockbuster movies debut on Christmas, cinemas in London were all shuttered, with ads for new films proclaiming Boxing Day as the first opportunity to check them out on the silver screen.
Not unlike the US, many Chinese restaurants were open in London’s Chinatown. Chinese restaurants I passed on the first leg of my walk were all closed, even during what would normally be considered lunch time. By the time I made it to London’s Chinatown around 2:00 PM (generally accepted as late lunch time, except in Spain, where you’d be too full from the breakfast you just ate to think about lunch), the entire area was packed. At first I was impressed by the car-free series of blocks encompassing Chinatown. There were enough paper lanterns hanging overhead that they would have blocked out the sun if the clouds ever let it out. Many of the restaurants were open, with long lines snaking out the door and around the corner in the rain. I was turned off by what I saw for two reasons: I have long been opposed to standing in long lines for pretty much anything, and most of the places serving lunch were buffet-style only. I can’t vouch if other restaurants were doing this, but I spied one establishment with a message taped on their menu display that prices on Christmas were double what they’d normally be. Determined to satisfy my people’s tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas, I settled on one savory and one sweet bun from a bakery with a notably short line (as in, one of the only open spots without a line getting drizzled on).
From a cursory walk through the neighborhood, only taking stock of places that were open on Christmas, it seems like this is a place less to find authentic cuisine made with love, and more a place where some intelligent folks are cashing in on what they believe the masses (clearly) want. Chinatown’s location could also play a role in the types of restaurants it helped foster. A stone’s throw away from the paper lanterns is Leicester Square, London’s answer to Times Square. Walking through Leicester Square brought back all of the familiar feelings I experience when I need to walk through New York’s Theater District. After walking through many parts of an empty city in the morning hours, it was jarring to once again be thrown into a tourist mosh pit, filled with folks who’ve never walked on a sidewalk before, coupled with young adults on bike-share bikes bobbing and weaving through the crowds. There were busking musicians, portrait artists, and even costumed characters that New Yorkers have come to know and revile. Everyone was congregating around the Leicester Square area because not only were a good number of the Chinese restaurants open, but so were many other tourist-centric businesses. Souvenir stores, candy shoppes, and many other traps were open for business. While I was amused with the area when I first visited in 2013, an additional 9 years of life experience left me with the same sense of cynicism that comes from visiting any tourist trap.
In addition to researching holiday train options at an inopportune time, I also looked into what British Jews and other assorted minority gentiles of the UK do on Jesus’ birthday. Most interviewed said they just stay at home eating mince pies, which I wasn’t going to do (though I did have a tasty mince pie at the continental breakfast). If I lived in London and wanted to keep on the tradition of eating some sort of ethnic food on Christmas, I’d probably choose kebab or other middle eastern fare. For Christmas this year I stopped at a Turkish/Indian fusion takeaway spot. They had an interesting selection of curries and kebab on the menu. Desserts included baklava and gulab jamun. The chicken schwarma I ordered had a very distinct curry flavor to it. If it makes up for not having a true Chinese feast, the “chips” that came with the meal tasted exactly like what I’d expect fries from a Chinese restaurant to taste like (IYKYK), and the guy fulfilling my order said “ni hao” to two folks of Asian descent who walked in after me who I can’t confirm were actually Chinese (they seemed a little uncomfortable about it either way). So there’s that.