There is an oft-used (read: over-used) saying coined in the 1800s: “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” This was actually my first time hearing this turn of phrase, but just outside of the airport I was already tired of it (it being the saying, not London), as it was printed in just about every guide, pamphlet, and article about London.
Things in London are civil: you must buckle your seatbelt on the bus (the driver actually came down the aisle to make sure we were all tethered in), the immigrations officers were formal yet cheerful, everyone queues up (lines up) perfectly and even the ATM machine was nice to me. ‘He’ said: ‘thank you for getting cash out of this hole in the wall.’ And I’d only just left the airport.
During all my past travels, I’d only been to London once, nearly 12 years ago, on my very first trip abroad. I was only here for three days and it was the end of a three week backpacking trip with my good friend from university, Katie. I have to admit—three days was not enough and I guess after being in Paris and Rome for the first time, London seemed a bit boring. But now I know I had barely scratched the surface.
This town is so much more than red double-decker buses, big black cabs (in which the drivers are rigorously trained and are supposed to know every single street in the city), and the queen. London is a fitting end (did I just say ‘end?’ I’ll get to that later) to the European leg of my world tour. Probably alongside New York City, it is the most culturally diverse city in the world.
As I walked down the streets and crisscrossed the city on the tube (with the help of my trusty Oyster Card), I was elated to hear bits and pieces of other languages I’d encountered all over the world—Polish, Turkish, Chinese, Romanian, Arabic, French, German, etc. In fact, you can hear about 300 different languages being spoken all over the city from the underground to the pubs to the streets. More than a third of all London’s 7.3 million residents were born outside the country. London is everything to everyone: its manicured gardens and stately palaces are complemented with vibrant ethnic street markets and raucous pubs (where you can breathe deep—they are sans smoke nowadays).
I walked with Joanne (a friend of a friend of a friend… and probably a friend of Kevin Bacon) nearby and along the Thames and saw the big tourist attractions from the huge Norwegian Pine in Trafalgar Square to St. Paul’s massive cathedral to the wonderfully progressive Tate Modern Museum.
I braved the Christmas crowds and gawked at the festively decorated shops along Oxford and Regency Streets. I wandered down posh Upper Street in Islington (home of former PM, Tony Blair) and Portobello Road in the uber-trendy Notting Hill (no sign of Hugh, though).
I ‘rocked down to Electric Avenue’ in Brixton made famous ‘round the world by Eddy Grant back in the early ‘80s. The block was an amalgamation of sights and smells. Jamaican tunes blasted out of fish shops, halal butchers, and wig stores all side by side.
London was, as expected, cold, gray, and wet, but in some ways that added to the Christmas feel (and added to the flu I’d caught in Sweden). There was no snow covering the cobblestone lanes or Victorian roofs though and there was no sign of Ebenezer Scrooge (“I’m as merry as a school boy!”) or Tiny Tim (“God bless us all, every one”). It’s funny how I spent both my Christmases abroad in English speaking countries… one way down under in the southern hemisphere and the other up north near the home of 0 Longitude.
I have to say it was odd speaking English all the time again. I was more aware of this than any other time in my life. I would go into a store ask for something and they understood me straightaway. It was so bizarre after all this time, to just open my mouth and simply use my native tongue. There was no odd mix of Spanglish or mangled Turkish. I did miss the challenge and felt like now my brain could officially turn to mush since I was using even less of it than before. Although here in England, I guess I still do sound ‘different’ and of course as soon as I speak they know exactly where I’m from.