LONDON -- And so the time has come, after three weeks at the Olympics, to pack our suitcases, pour gasoline on them and set them on fire because we have been recycling our underwear to the point where it can never be used again except for biological warfare.
But before we leave, lets assess these Olympics. Well start with the bad:
• SHOUTING MICROPHONE IDIOTS: This trend started at U.S. sporting events, and unfortunately has spread to the Olympics - the practice of giving a microphone to a DJ wannabe who, instead of letting the spectators react naturally, hectors them relentlessly, demanding that they cheer, often when nothing is happening. The worst offender here was a bellowing twit at the basketball games who kept ordering the crowd, over the absurdly over-amplified p.a. system, to MAKE SOME NOISSSE!
I came to hate this guy. While plugging my ears with my fingers, I had this fantasy, which is that scientists had invented, and I had brought to the arena, a portable but very powerful Sound Ray Gun. In my fantasy, the first time the microphone twit ordered us to MAKE SOME NOI ... he would be floored, in mid-bellow, by a tightly focused blast of high-decibel energy that would melt his microphone and leave him naked and hairless. The spectators would then be free to make their own cheering decisions.
• BBC HOMERISM: Many people, including me, have criticized NBCs tendency to gloss over or ignore non-American athletes. I will not do this again, not after two weeks of watching BBCs Olympic coverage, which was so obsessively focused on British athletes that you sometimes couldnt be sure what sport you were watching, only that some athlete from Team GB was battling it out against a Croatian for 17th place.
• THE FOOD: I know, I know, its a cliché that English food is bad. But a lot of people have been claiming its getting better. These people are lying: Its still horrible. At least it was at the Olympic venues. Heres a tip: If any food vendor ever asks you if you want, for your side dish, something called mushy peas, tell him no, even if the alternative is squid gonads.
OK, those are the main things I didnt like about these Olympics. Heres what I liked: Everything else. London was a truly great host city, somehow managing despite its confusing vastness, its crowding, its insane traffic, its frantic overwhelming busy-ness to be gracious and welcoming. The games were well organized; the thousands of volunteers, God bless them, were as earnest and helpful at 2 a.m. on the 11th day of the games as they were at noon on the first. The Londoners I encountered people on the street, people in the Tube, taxi drivers, waiters, store clerks were uniformly cheerful and patient, no matter how long it took me to figure out which coin was ten pence, and which was twenty.
People say London is not as civil as it used to be. That may be, but London has a long way to fall before it becomes (to pick a city at random) Miami. Theres still a charmingly quaint politeness about public discourse here, especially the fussy way that instructions are phrased. The most famous example is Mind the gap telling you not to step between train and platform but you see it everywhere. For example, this was printed in the shower wall of my hotel bathroom:
INSTRUCTIONS FOR OPERATING YOUR WATER TEMPERATURE
1. Turning the temperature control anti-clockwise (to the left) increases your water temperature.
2. Depressing the red button and continuing to run anti-clockwise (to the left) will increase the water temperature further.
In the United States, these instructions would consist of an arrow pointing left, and the word HOT. More efficient, yes. But less polite, and far less entertaining.
Which brings me to my favorite thing about the Brits.
WARNING: ANOTHER CLICHÉ AHEAD
These people have an excellent sense of humor. I mean, all of them. Whatever the joke is, they get it. My favorite experience here was participating in the International Rock, Paper, Scissors Championship in a pub. Now, this was a funny event, but the humor could easily have been ruined, in two ways:
1. Somebody pointing out that it was funny. Nothing drains the wackiness from a wacky situation as quickly as somebody going, This is so ridiculous! Because its rock, paper scissors! Ha ha!
2. Somebody taking it too seriously that is, actually wanting to be world champion of rock, paper, scissors.
In most places, if you hold a rock, paper, scissors tournament, you will quickly see both of these humor-killing behaviors. In the United States, lawsuits would be filed. But not here. Here, the people in the pub and there were hundreds executed a perfect parody of spectators and competitors at an important sporting event. They never broke character; they displayed great passion and intensity throughout, without a single ounce of sincerity. It was brilliantly funny, and nobody ever said so.
It almost makes me wonder whether the Brits were kidding about the Olympics, too. Probably not; they seem genuinely proud of the way things turned out. As they should be.
But Im pretty sure the mushy peas are a joke.