A walking tour of a different end each day helps immensely. The touristy areas like Trafalgar, Hyde Park, and London Bridge are awful. Think of the most obnoxious stroller filled mall you’ve been to, and it’s still worse. But one stop away, in any direction, from that stuff on the tube is loveliness. The above ground train, though, is better for getting a view of things.
King’s Cross was seedy and disreputable. Lester Square, while having more than it’s share of tourists had some comfortable cafes and a Chinatown with the usual Chinatown stuff if you want it. We stayed in Islington around Caledonian Road at Offord Road, away from the bustle and mess, and loved the real neighborhood cafes there much more than anywhere else. Breakfast at Two Brothers for instance is unforgettable. Nice fruit stands in the area, too. Recommended for a calm morning and nice coffee. Liverpool Street was annoying yuppie stuff, being London’s financial district with it’s usual overpaid, overpriced set (same merchant bankers the world over), but there’s a pub right outside the station to one side that’s actually quite nice.
The best part of London, for us, is the vast outdoor and labyrinthine markets like the Stables Market. They all have different personalities. Camden Town was our favorite place to eat, in one of the food vendor markets there that had two dozen nationalities, including Portuguese egg custard. The Camden Night Market was our favorite evening hangout, until about eleven, when it is reduced to feral twenty somethings who seem to be obnoxious and odious the world over, at least when congealed in vast numbers in one spot. In general though, Camden is our London.
It was great seeing all the stops in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere which is my Harry Potter. That was a real treat, if you’ve read it and like urban fantasy. There are Harry Potter film location walking tours, but I’d love to go on a Neverwhere walking tour. Some of the walks at walks.com come closest.
The usual American myths about England are, as usual, wrong. The English have excellent food, along with incredibly efficient transportation. And most English would never trade national healthcare for the US system of planned human obsolescence and pure, random Darwinism. They say it has significant problems, but there’s no way they’d do without it. We tend to quote just the first of those two clauses. We found the English exceedingly hospitable with a few exceptions, notably in the twenty something crowd.
It’s also an international city, so just in Islington for example, we’d eat breakfast in cafes run by Greeks or Italians, buy fruit or do laundry with Muslims, and meet or see people from a dozen other places living and working there. Maybe that night we’d have beer with Poles and Irish, or chat with Italians.
Immediately abroad it struck me that you spot Americans even in an Olympic crowd of every nation. We’re fatter, walk slower, eat more often, and stare up at things with our mouths open. And the ugly Americans who suspend their manners and demand to be served and made way for constantly, because no one of importance is watching (i.e. Americans back home) are an embarrassing reminder of why many of us, when we travel, prefer to keep it low key.
I think travel either changes you fundamentally, if you’re open to new places to allow them to be bigger than yourself, or fear keeps you from changing and you end up looking down at places, almost scornfully, from above.
My family is more London than Dublin for the same reason that we’re more NYC than Chicago. But both places are nice for their own reasons, and have their own problems. But, for us, as beautiful as Ireland is, and as nice as the transportation is in Dublin, and the quality of its people and social life, we like the amenities of a big city with serious subway systems, despite the occasional wanker.
Transportation is the center of any real city. Because of it, there are real neighborhoods and local businesses. People buy their fruit and eggs mainly from a guy in their own neighborhood, and the nearby cafe owner knows their names. The subway or tube means they can get anywhere easily, and instead of isolating people, it makes for neighborhoods centered on a particular station with lots of amenities. When you live in a mainly car area in the US, you drive out of the neighborhood for more things, because you can, and the result is fewer real neighbors, more residential sprawl, and the influx of Walmart and big box stores in corporate blight areas. In this way, London is a real city, like New York, Boston, Chicago, or Portland Oregon, and I am more convinced than ever that cities do not really consist of a few showpieces like stadiums and tourist-oriented light rail that isn’t arranged to serve primarily real commuters. In short, places like London convince me that a lot of “cities” are actually big rural towns with superficial city veneer.
You WILL pronounce things differently in England, and after, unless you’re obstinate. There’s no need to be pretentious with unnecessary changes like the British pronunciation of massage, but if you actually want to get around easily, you won’t pronounce Gloucester and Leicester, “Glauchester” and “Lyechester”, and it’s just easier when wanting to be easily understood to say “SUFfuck” and “SMITH-ick” instead of “Sufohlk” and “Smith-wick”. The local or international names for things are easier for when you need them, too. “TwahLETT” for restroom or tube instead of subway, for instance. It would be pretentious to add, say, a twang or drawl if that’s where you’re from: can you imagine “twahlayette”? You’ll get used to what bacon means, what chips are, etc, just like you’ll know what you’re getting if you order pudding. That is, if you want a smooth experience. And some of the slang will be obligatory. You might not have to say “wanker” but you probably will. You’ll probably say something is crap rather than bullshit, especially if you’re prone to adding an extra syllable to that. In the same way you could end up saying you’re just having a crack in Dublin, to make sure your drinking partner knows you’re joking. Just easier to use the local parlance. Ask for “take away” instead of take out, except in the tourist zones, and a bin instead of a trash can.
How you handle language and dialect is an indicator of how you handle other cultures and subcultures in general and in particular. I refuse to speak ebonics or valley girl or say “like” every other word, but I am willing to drop into a genuine drawl if bargaining for help or advice from a junk dealer in the country or the South, and I’ll slip in a “know what I’m saying” to make the nonverbal parts clear. Not to manipulate, but to remove any barriers to communication and clarity – even slight ones. I have found ninety percent of communication is either nonverbal or non-explicit, and only about ten percent of a conversation is contained in the bare words, if that. Protestant cultures obsessed with “the word” – by which they mean the bare word, isolated from the ritual polity that frames it, is the sole source of meaning. In other words, supposedly, a person means what they say, mainly, and little else. It can be done with very slow, deliberate clarity, which is the proximate cause of my interest in clarity. But this also ignores millennia of recognition of the full range of channels on which humans simultaneously communicate. I can speak Protestant, but I always listen catholic (i.e. on multiple channels at once) and I can switch channels where it helps.
I am convinced that you travel either to let it change who you are or else to look at different things as strange and reaffirm that you’re right about it all. Just as the architecture of a church will tell you what it’s adherents believe, or about their religious attitudes, so a dialect or a language will show you who a people are, if you listen. And if you’re used to adding things to yourself, when you travel, some will rub off.
Dialects stick to me like glue, and I can’t shake them once they’re attached, unless I resist them up front. If I’m around a lot of Mexicans, I take on a sing song speaking cadence. Around Irish, a slight lilt. My Korean pronunciation is near perfect, though if you ask an American born Korean they’ll say otherwise, because mostly they don’t really speak it. In the dark in Korea, I can pass quite well, except for being a huge caucasian. But basically, I can sit in a cafe and walk out sounding local in English and in a few other languages, or a lot. Maybe it’s the years in sales, as some suspect, but I think it’s that I am deeply enamoured of clarity (philosophical and otherwise, and clarity means not missing a linguistic beat), and also because I favour anonymity when traveling, and I think of myself as always traveling, even when I live a long time in one place. When you live in 23 cities before you’re 18, you look at the world differently than most Americans, and become a bit of a stranger everywhere, and also a bit stranger everywhere, in the nice sense of that adjective. I don’t think of myself as from anywhere, as having a home town, or as being a particular nationality. And likewise, I’ve spent the educated portion of my life interested in social and cultural anthropology, sociology, and linguistics. I think I was essentially constructed to travel, blend in quickly, and absorb the essence of things. And of course talk about them confidentially, which is how I talk on the internet and in public. There are places I certainly don’t blend well but they’re places that either offend me in some way or don’t want to be (such as cubicle farms and corporate meetings).
I don’t particularly like to blend in anything but language, though. Fashion or personal habits are my business. The world is always bigger than any one locality’s attitudes. I found it interesting that I took flack in England and Ireland for smoking a cigar, and in England for wearing a muffler. Every people seems to have their prejudices, and apparently a half corona or bigger cigar in those places is considered a wealthy, wasteful, and potentially show off item. The muffler was Dublin colours, so the Irish had better have no problems with it, but I did get teased about being “out on the town with cap and gown’ in London. It was “cocktails” for teasing when it came to the Cuban’s, but I’d actually just finished coffee. I’m not offended, just surprised. 🙂 In fairness, cigars aren’t cheap there. Europe has cheaper tobacco.
By the way, I recommend Cotswolds outdoor gear in Covent Garden if you can go. Not only do they sell great wool hiking socks, but for shoes they’ll do a full set of measurements and chart, whether or not you buy from them. The socks helped immensely but I really have to switch to D/E width shoes, not that I can find trainers (sneakers) with width measurements in London.
What else about London? I like the weather. I like the food. I like the architecture. I like the pubs. The clothes are too small for me. Extra large isn’t, by American standards. I like the tube and trains. I like the stores, cafes, the international diversity. The women are beautiful to look at and listen to. I like some of the social character of the place. I don’t like the rancorous twenty somethings.