Expat Chronicles: Pubs, Revisited

Tonight I went to my first pub since, oh, March 16 or so. It was the Gregorian pub here in Bermondsey, Southeast London. I was greeted at the door by a friendly, cheerful lad who told me it was strictly table service tonight, no rolling up to the bar to make an order. He asked me my pleasure and I said a Moretti (yes, sometimes I order Italian beers in the UK). I immediately went to the toilet. This is what you do at my age — enter the pub, order, go to the bathroom.

There was a sign outside the bathroom that advised about the importance of social distancing. My assumption is that if you walked in and saw a dude at a urinal, you were to go to the farthest urinal. This did not need to be said. Even in normal times, when there is not a global pandemic, guys always distance themselves in a public bathroom. There could be two guys and 80 urinals, and one guy would be at one end, and one at the other, and there is no eye contact, or speaking, or acknowledgment that the other even existed, or ever existed.

A sign inside the bathroom had a graphic on the wall demonstrating the proper way to wash hands. It was one of those old-school cartoon panels showing how to rub your hands together, this hand on top, that hand curling around, wash the fronts AND the backs, do it for at least 20 seconds, using warm water, lots of soap. I have never seen that before in 45 years or so of visiting bars. I’m not sure I even saw it as a first grader, when we needed instructions on how to wash hands properly. But these are strange days in a different world.

London and the rest of the UK are more or less fully open now after 3.5 months of coronavirus lockdown. All non-essential businesses re-opened on July 4 — oh, irony! — and the Queendom rejoiced. Large, tightly-packed, non-social-distancing crowds were reported in some parts of town, namely Soho, where the wild things are. It was a bit of a worry, all these people packed together in such tight spaces. But over on our side of town it’s a little more chill. None of the pubs in our neighborhood were too crowded on the Fourth of July. Crowds, yes. But manageable.

The Gregorian was not crowded tonight either, which was surprising. I figured after all these months of lockdown the places would be bursting with Londoners suffering from cabin fever. But no. Maybe 20 people here tonight. Plenty of room to social distance, which is swell by me. I sat outside on the patio until a drizzle came, then moved inside to a small room off to the side with 3 tables — near the bathroom! — and I had the room to myself. Nobody was wearing a mask. But since it’s a pub, where you eat and drink and need your mouth to do so, I guess that wasn’t surprising.

I asked my server how he was doing, whether he made out okay during the lockdown.

“Yeah, been tough not working,” he said. “But now it should get better. Should get much better, I hope. You think so?”

“I think it will when they come up with a vaccine,” I said.

He smiled. “Do you think Billy Boy Gates will come through?”

I laughed and said something like, “Ha ha, maybe with computer viruses,” because I had no idea what Bill Gates had to do with a vaccine. So I googled “Bill Gates vaccine,” then learned that there is some weirdo conspiracy theory going around about Gates promoting coronavirus vaccines as a cover to plant microchips in people.

Was my server one of these conspiracy theorists? Did he wear the tin hat?

Whatever. I tipped him double and he was very grateful because damn, it’s been a very rough few months for restaurant/pub/retail workers, and anybody who can’t sympathize with that — who get all triggered because working people are desperate to get back to work despite the risks — can go piss up a rope for all I care.

While sitting outside I overheard a conversation between a couple of gents one table over (OK— I was listening in). One of the gents had an accent. Italian? Turkish? Greek? Serbian? I don’t know, there are so many accents in London. It was something southern European at any rate, though he still had the British inflections mixed in. I don’t care where somebody is from here, they still pepper their talk with “a bit of” and “innit” and “at the end of the day.” He was talking about death, and his parents. I tuned in from my spot a table away. This is my best approximation of what I heard:

“It’s hard for my mother and father, you know?” he told his friend. “They don’t know if they might die. The virus has been bad there. Others have died. Friends, neighbors.  I talked to my father on the phone and all he wanted to talk about was old times, old memories. When I was a boy. All our old neighbors, the fun we had. What do I tell him? What can I say? I wish I could get back to see them. The travel restrictions, they are not as bad now. Maybe I’ll go back now, visit them.”

All I could think was: I hope you get back to visit them.

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