Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I'm back, ol' chap

So I'm just back from our trip to London, which was (happily) unaffected by all the chaos surrounding English travel after the Eyjafjallajokull volcano grounded flights (I totally copy-and-pasted that from another site...I bet news rooms all over the world have reference notes posted on the wall reminding reporters how to spell and pronounce that ridiculous Icelandic name). I had a jolly old time across the Channel, and have revised my opinion of London from a sort of "meh" European city to "I would totally live there some day". I'll be making a few more posts this week to give some pictures and recap of various experiences I had, but for this first one I'll just give my general impressions of the city.

Let's start with the basics: the London Underground (or "Londerground," as it should really be called). If you read this blog often you'll know how much I both love and am critical of public transportation. The last time I was in London I found their system overpriced, run-down and not at all user-friendly. The improvements between then and now blew my mind. The Tube is undergoing major construction (or, for the Brits, "improvement works") and it is now cleaner, brighter and more efficient than the Paris metro. Stations don't smell like piss, ads come in flatscreen TV form, and "Oyster" cards facilitate the day-pass payment process in a way that ends up being pretty cheap (at least if you ride the metro a lot in one day). Trains have also come a long way towards being more accessible--"lifts" (elevators) are still few and far between, but their availability is well-marked on maps, and all trains have a clear voiceover reading out the direction and stops. The downsides: it's still unnecessarily confusing, with line transfers often poorly marked and maps not at all to scale. All the works also mean that they take advantage of commuter weekends to essentially shut the whole system down, leaving you without many alternatives other than the iconic if slow double-deckers to get around town. Whenever I started to get frustrated, though, I was able to find humour in the utter Englishness of it all--from the "mind the gap" and "this train will wait on the platform to even out the gaps in the line" warnings, to the strange names the lines carry. Rather than using colors (like D.C.) or numbers (like Paris), the English opted for rather more arbitrary system of names, some self-explanatory ("Central", "District", "Northern") and some place-based but hilarious ("Bakerloo", "Jubilee", "Hammersmith and City").

The stereotype of the polite Englishman is all too true, and it was charming to be apologized to instead of trampled during rush-hour. London is also delightfully diverse, however, and while it's easy to find pasties, meat pies, fish and chips and tea, they might well be served with a foreign accent. The number of French-speaking Londoners everywhere was incredible; language-wise it didn't feel that different than Paris. Judging purely by accents heard on the street, there also seemed to be a pretty sizable American population (which I suppose explains why the English don't find my accent nearly as 'exotic' as I do theirs). The availability and quality of foreign cuisine was also great, and we had delicious, non-English dinners pretty much every night.

Food and clothing seemed much cheaper in general in London than in Paris (although hotels and housing are apparently much more expensive). Since the pound is at a record low against the dollar right now I spent some of my time while Tom attended his conference on London's famous Oxford street, a shopping mecca with all the major chain stores represented (sometimes multiple times!). I bought some new summer wardrobe fare and also picked up a few choice items that are either non-existent or exorbitantly-priced in Paris (cheddar cheese, Crunchie chocolate bars, sunscreen, toiletries...)

Overall, my favorite part of London was the literary/film/theater associations it brought to my arts-minded brain. Passing through Paddington (the bear) or King's Cross (Harry Potter) stations made me smile, and walking around Fleet Street (Sweeney Todd), Portobello Road (Bednobs and Broomsticks), Notting Hill (the movie) and Baker Street (Sherlock Holmes) put me in the same sort of fantasy world (albeit not that of Madeline, Notre Dame's Hunchback, and Amelie) that Paris used to evoke before it became so quotidienne. Parliament had me pondering Guy Fawkes, and Big Ben Peter Pan, and I found myself chanting "oranges and lemons..." and "London bridge..." and other nursery rhymes under my breath almost constantly. I'm slowly realizing that I must be a little bit crazy to constantly be zoning out and making the connections that I'm so apt to. No matter, though--it's cosy in here.

(That odd-shaped building is affectionately known as "the Gherkin." Tee hee hee)

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