London: First impressions

London Eye

In October I visited the U.K. for the first time – just for pleasure. I spent all of the week-long trip in London, with the exception of a day trip to Oxford. This is what I thought about it:

It feels like I’ve stepped into a parallel universe. Cars drive on the opposite side of the road – smaller, generally, than vehicles in America. Many of the trucks, vans, and fire engines are made by Mercedes, which strikes me as odd given Mercedes’ status in the U.S. Everyone is speaking a language I can understand, even though I can’t replicate its tone, style, and vernacular. For the first time I am self-conscious of how my voice sounds – of how it stands out. The currency in my pocket in familiar denominations – bills of twenty, ten, and five pounds, and coins worth two, one, half, fifth, tenth, twentieth, hundredth. Like the American dime and nickel, their value does not line up logically with their size. The underground public transportation system runs on familiar electric rails, but trains come every few minutes at all hours of the day, unlike in my current home of Washington, DC. Reports of “good service on all lines” echo from the intercom more often than anything else (also unlike DC), and the lines have fun names like Piccadilly, Bakerloo, and Jubilee – rather than being called by the colors that denote them.

A river flows through the city, moseying under a series of ever-trafficked bridges, grimy but affectionately embedded in the national consciousness. I think of my own Potomac River. Americans know it thanks to a famous painting of George Washington, but the River Thames goes back in civilization’s memory more than a millennium. I try to reconcile this with the glass-paneled buildings puncturing the skyline around aged structures like Westminster Abbey and The Tower, marveling at the contrast. Over the week I will tour these places, along with Parliament. I do not have a category of experience for any of them, no reference point for places that go back seven or eight hundred years. In preparation for this trip I read Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples. All of them have seen more historic events than I can keep track of. I will continue to try wrapping my mind around it the rest of the week.

London Slouching

The government buildings surrounding parliament are remarkably similar to those in D.C., reminding me how much of my heritage as an American I owe to the British. Their War Department building, for instance, could pass for a congressional office building or the IRS headquarters on Constitution Avenue. On the narrow, tangled streets surrounding these marvelous buildings, men and women in sharp suits swarm everywhere, as well as tourists, foreigners, and people who look like they could be in one of my favorite indie bands.

I probably use that description about the bands because it seems the U.K. produces a disproportionately large number of music artists and actors. I chalk this up to superior culture and civilization, evident even after a brief observation of the public space. “Mind the gap” sounds nicer than “watch out,” as does “alight” rather than “get off.” And that’s only considering the way everyone talks. It’s the norm. I’ve already mentioned the superior public transportation. I never venture to strike up a conversation with a stranger, but just by look of them, I’m convinced I would find anyone in the surprisingly diverse mix of people streaming past me on the tube profoundly fascinating. London is the hub of the U.K., after all; people come here from all over the place. After a day or two I come up with a formula from my America-centric experience: London = DC + New York City + 1000 years.

What a seductive cocktail for anyone who has any sort of ambition in almost any field – business, foreign affairs, the arts, academia. This is all apparent the first time I emerge from Waterloo station and walk to the path along the River Thames to Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. Unlike the gently-flowing Thames, the city’s waters are vigorous and tempestuous, and they run deep. I decide within the hour that I want to be here. I want to live here. I want to be a life among all the others, riding the swells of the vast sea of knowledge and experience that humanity has to offer. I want to let wave after wave of history and creation and innovation break over me as I walk past these bridges, monuments, pubs, museums, business meetings, markets, and theaters. I want to be in the setting that inspired Shakespeare and captured the imagination of Dickens. The city that survived the blitz with a stiff upper lip. The city which even still lingers in the fantasies of the English-speaking world (Sherlock, anyone?).

London Tower bridge

For all of the Brits’ talent and sophistication and place in the world’s attention, I notice after a day or two that Londoners are generally not a physically attractive bunch (the bad teeth stereotype comes to mind). They compensate plenty for it, however, by dressing and speaking well. I’m reminded of a joke I share with one of my best friends that British girls instantly become two points more attractive as soon as they start talking – as in she would be like a six, but with that accent, a solid eight. This creates an amusing contrast between the United States and the U.K. With American girls, it’s usually the other way around.

I oscillate between the feeling of intense alienation that comes from being a foreigner, and the sense that I could easily make this city my home. Three times during my week there someone stopped me to ask for directions. This was a source of immense pride for me because I think it means that I look the part – at least before I open my mouth.

When I moved to Los Angeles from Bakersfield, California, I assumed the identity of being from Bakersfield. When I moved from California to D.C. I assumed the much-cooler identity of a Californian. In London, I’d be an American, and I’d be okay with that, even if it came with certain baggage and stereotypes. It would be an instant signifier to anyone I met, a conversation starter.

I start making a mental list of the virtues of living in London. I would become more conscious of my American-ness as I fully steeped myself in the parent civilization that has long since ceded its world superpower status to its offspring. My use of the English language would improve markedly, even if the accent never developed. And the ghosts of literary past, the universities, the libraries, the museums and bookstores – surely they could all be absorbed through osmosis or something like that.

But perhaps I’ve added a touch of rosiness to my glasses on that last point. On my last day I took a train out to Oxford for the afternoon. It was delayed an hour and a half. A friend there took me around a number of the colleges, all of which were delightfully old and full of serene gardens and Hogwarts-like lecture halls. I had tea in his dorm room and we talked intelligently about literature and politics and film. But the true purpose of my visit was a pub called the Eagle and Child, which C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien frequented as part of a group called the Inklings. I sat down with some fish and chips ready to breathe in a bit of Middle Earth or Narnia, only to find American pop songs by Train and Owl City filling the ambiance. I like both of those songs, but I cannot think of a more ill-fitting place or time for them.

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