Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Finally London

The view of the London Eye and Westminster, over the Thames from Waterloo bridge

It's been two months since I was last in London, and I haven't written about the city. I've been thinking about it, but lots of writing-related questions kept cropping up, such as: what do I write about London that is interesting to people, and new? What can one say about a city that has been written about millions of times? And, how can I be honest about this city and all its contradictions without sounding negative about it? I've puzzled over these questions, and I'm not sure I've solved them, but I decided that it's time to blaze ahead anyway.

So first, what's good about London? History. In your face. Every day, at every corner. I've you've ever read a book or watched a movie, you will see things that you recognize. In this way, London has reached a level of culture-saturation that far surpasses other oft-cited cities, like New York and Paris. It's interesting to walk around a city that at once seems brand new and familiar; there's a kind of dissonance to it, like you can't fully accept that you're in a new city because you've seen the places and read the street names a hundred thousand times before. It's also fun, when walking in London, to come around a corner and have something famous instantly pop into view. The city is so dense that landmarks - which might have been visually breathtaking given more space - peek out from in between other buildings, and pounce upon you as you pass a tube station. The effect is that of a city built upon itself in layers, with no wasted space, like a pop-up book.

Replica of Sir Francis Drake's ship,
the Golden Hind - an example of
history hiding between buildings
I loved the vibe of London - the electric buzz of things happening, and the hum of activity. Birmingham, being a much smaller city, didn't have that same feeling, and I found that I missed it. There is an air of expectation and excitement in London, and since there's always something to do and see, it's easy to understand why. The food and drink is also good. There is all the variety that one would expect in a city of its size. The neighbourhoods are jammed with cafes and bars, and even though I wasn't going to the highest-rated establishments in London, none of the spots I went to disappointed. Floridita especially stood out for the awesome live band and delicious sidecars they served up, as did Waxy O'Connor's, a tree pub which must be seen to be believed.

And now, what's not so good about London? Well, the cost of everything, to be honest. I was lucky to stay with friends on my visits, so avoided having to pay for accommodation. Food and drink is pricey, and the tube is also pricey. When one considers that the exchange rate of one British pound is nearly two Canadian dollars ($1.90 at the time of writing, and $1.55 American dollars), it becomes clear that the UK is an expensive destination. Living in Birmingham for the winter, I was used to the prices, and yet even then I found London to be dear.

London is also heaving with people, both locals and tourists. It's quite amazing how packed the city is. I've rarely seen crowds as heavy when not condensed into a music-festival-like venue. It would be best to visit in the off-season (i.e. winter) if one has any reservations about crowds, germs, pickpockets, and other things that happen when humans are thick on the ground.

Kingly Court, in Soho. Charming, to say the least
The tube is crammed, as well, and very small. As North Americans, many things in the UK seem small - cars, buildings, shoes, etc. - and the tube is smaaaaall. Imagine a Toronto or New York subway car, then make it narrow, so that there is one row of seats for people to sit facing the middle on each side of the train, and room enough for one person to stand in between their knees, and a person about six-feet tall could stand upright only if in the very middle of the train, and that the roof slants down on both sides. That's a tube train. No wonder the tube is always super busy and awful! In comparison, North American subways are monster trucks rumbling under the earth.

It's totally understandable, therefore, that people get really grumpy about suitcases on the tube. Handy for the traveller, all London train stations and airports are accessible using public transit. Surely someone at some time anticipated that there would be suitcases on the tube, but the luggage-tube reality is an ugly one. Not only will you inevitably feel like a monster not fit for civilization for taking your luggage on the tube - unless you travel at the off-peakest of all off-peak times - you may even have to man-handle your suitcases up various flights of stairs to get out of some stations. Not every tube station has escalators. This happened to me at Oxford Circus, which is one of the busiest stations and also somehow fails to have escalators. I had my giant suitcase (since I'd been in England for 3 months) and was doing my best to get myself and it quickly and efficiently into and out of the tube. It was an impossible task. Between the awkwardness of hefting a 45lb suitcase up three staircases, the exhaustion of same, and the jostling of hundreds of grumpy Londoners, I was sweaty, red-faced, and frustrated before I'd topped the last stair. Imagine my chagrin upon arriving at my friend's 3-storey walk-up.

The moral of this story, friends, is that London is a wonderful fantasy town. If one has gobs of money and no baggage, I can't imagine a single reason why one wouldn't love it unreservedly. For the rest of the wallet-watching, luggage-festooned masses, I think it will continue to be a complicated relationship.

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