LONDON -- The old saw that "there's a pub on every corner" here doesn't quite tell the entire story. Oh, there is a pub on every corner, the Sports Page to the left, maybe an O'Reilly's to the right. But the notion is actually understated, because in the journey from one block's endpoint to the next, the open-door temptation of a Guinness or Newcastle usually offers itself once or twice somewhere in the middle.
This abundance of beverage establishments is hardly overkill, especially during the next two weeks beginning with the London Olympics' official commencement Friday.
The locals are probably going to require a personal visit to every last pub, and not just because of the helpful but unintentionally humorous suggestion by the London Olympic Committee that rather than returning home immediately after work, commuters should stop to have a refreshment rather than hopping immediately on the Tube, the subway system that is typically congested at rush hour even when thousands upon thousands of extra visitors aren't hovering in the neighborhood.
With the Tube certain to be overstuffed and commuters, particularly cab drivers, already frustrated with the congesting side effects of the Games Lanes -- which opened Wednesday exclusively to athletes, media, and others involved with the Olympics -- the Games aren't so much a thrill as a nuisance to many Londoners, particularly those on the West End. And so the bartenders at all those pubs will be lending a friendly ear and frosty glass to many a local over the next 17 days or so as they endure the Olympic invasion not just in terms of people, but corporations. Seeing the slogan "London's Calling" on the sides of Vodaphone vehicles is enough to make one wonder what Joe Strummer would have to say about that.
But the residents, frank though they are, generally are friendly, and if you're a visitor rather than someone whose routine is being unceremoniously interrupted for two weeks, it's hard to imagine the scene could get any better. The weather, wet, cool, and uncompromising during the recent Wimbledon, has been reminiscent of a perfect July Sunday on your favorite New England beach. (That may change Friday, however, when the Games formally begin.)
Green Park, a tube stop near Buckingham Palace, is the edge of the social center at the moment, at least until Olympic Park lights up Friday. A cacophony of languages -- an informal accounting indicates every other voice here is speaking English -- fill the air near Buckingham Palace, where the stoic, impressive routine of the changing of the guards provides a classic London photo op, though perhaps one not quite as trendy as catching a glimpse of, say, Will and Kate, or perhaps habitual scene-stealer Pippa.
Turn away from the palace's gilded gates a full 180 degrees, and one immediately realizes the palace's role in these Games is in part as the spectacular backdrop for the end of many of the distance events, including the marathon, which will finish with a gold carpet marking the final strides to the finish line. It's not quite paved with gold, but it will suffice.
In nearby St. James Park, couples, sunbathers, and locals taking a lunch break mingle, some basking in the sun, others ducking away in the shade. The bobbies and military personnel are ubiquitous and engaging, with some accommodating tourists by snapping their photo with Big Ben as the backdrop.
Sometime around the beginning of Friday's Opening Ceremonies, the shift will happen, and Olympic Park in renovated and transformed East London will be the center of the competition and the social scene. But for the moment, it looks like a carnival waiting for the gates to open, with beige and white tarpaulins covering would-be food and drink stands on the new wooden pathways between the various venues.
Soon it will be bustling, but in the hours before the 2012 Summer Games begin, it looks, well, not quite finished, or at least unchristened. En route to the venues, even someone fortunate enough to cruise through the Games Lane can't help but notice a message in large black lettering on a nondescript gold building: "Sorry! The lifestyle you signed up for is currently unavailable.''