The snow lay on the ground
The stars shone bright
When Christ our Lord was born
On Christmas night
'Excuse me, I've been waiting a half hour...'
The man looked Russian. He was sitting opposite us at the Pain Quotidien, a café at St Pancras station in London. He was polite about it... but wished to register a complaint with the waiter for neglecting him.
'You don't have to be rude,' the waiter, a slight, young man with a south London accent and tight-fitting black clothes replied.
'I wasn't being rude... I just would like some service.'
'Well, don't be rude... I'll be back as soon as I can.'
Outside, in the great hallway of St Pancras station a Salvation Army band was playing Christmas music.
Oh Holy Night...
We turned to the Russian man. Gripped by the spirit of Christmas, we wished to make ourselves useful by offering a little cultural interpretation.
'Rude? That guy should get out more often. You weren't being rude. You were merely complaining. If you want to be rude you should call him a "f***ing a**hole. That will help put things in perspective for him.'
Pleased with ourselves we went back to listening to the music.
Oh little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie...
There are times when you need to relax. Listen. Pay attention. Let your mind wander. Rather than try to organise your thoughts...you should let them organise themselves.
The Russian man greeted a friend...
'I always begin my trips with a stop in London,' he said to his friend. 'I bring my money...and my passport. And I leave my money here.'
On the other side of us, a hearty, almost burly, young man with red hair was regaling a young woman with stories. They must have been funny stories, because the woman - who had a very pretty face, but had allowed herself to become rather plump - acted as though she were having breakfast with Woody Allen or Rodney Dangerfield.
To say she laughed 'lustily', might give away too much. But there was something insincere about her laugh, as if she might not find him so funny after they were married.
A French couple sat on our left. Both in their 40s. Both dressed all in black.
'The doctor called. He said I only have six months to live,' she said with a tossed-off laugh.
The man said nothing. Then, neither said anything. After they had finished their coffee, they got up and left.
That night we went to a restaurant along the river in Southwark. The Gaucho it is called. It is very stylish. And very full of patrons, almost all young, hip, urban, successful...men in white shirts and ties (having taken off their coats)...women in sleek dresses.
The couple on one side both had dyed blond hair. The man looked a bit like a dishevelled version of Brad Pitt. The woman looked like she might be imitating Amy Winehouse. Otherwise, the diners were practically interchangeable parts of a vast machine. Clerks. Traders. Lawyers. Managers. Analysts. Salesmen.
We had seen them going to work in the morning...a river of them coming out of London Bridge station. In the evening, the river reversed course, like the Thames itself; the people flowed back out of central London.
But at 10pm many were still collected in the tidal pools - the restaurants, bars, and clubs of the city. There were at least 100 of them in the Gaucho.
Which world do they belong to, we wondered? To the world of real work... and real output? Or to the grey, zombie world...where people go through the motions, but never really add a thing.
London grew rich by offering financial services. Its people show well. You wouldn't trust an Italian or a Greek with a sausage, let alone your money. But who expects to get ripped off by an Englishman with a good accent? And who knows a good English accent, except another Englishman?
And so the money rolled in...and the rents went up. And now, a small army of professionals dines at the Gaucho...fed on the profits of leveraged buyouts and securitised, derivative-enhanced hedge funds, far out on the efficient frontier.
'Russians are the worst,' the cab driver told us on the way back to our hotel.
'I guess they're used to getting ripped off at home. So, they come here. They get in the cab. And if I get stuck in traffic... or if I have to detour to get around traffic... they think I'm trying to put something over on them. They're stupid. They trust the bankers but not the cab drivers. It ought to be the other way around.'
for The Daily Reckoning Australia
The article was first published by The Daily Reckoning Australia