First of all, I never wanted to come back here.
I’d seen its dismal underbelly once before – a decade ago, when budget-booking airfares forced my brother and me into London’s ancient maw: We had an overnight layover and a change of airports before flying back to the States. Simple, right? Fun, too, you say? That’s what I thought.
We landed, forked out a heap of cash for over-priced train tickets into town, walked for miles through the darkened streets, glimpsing landmarks and shivering in the cold, and then took the last trains back out to a different airport for a morning flight.
We saw the stuff, and the drunks, and the rats, and the cold.
And I said no thanks to ever stepping back.
“But you’re OK with it, too, right?” Andy asked one evening over dinner. “We haven’t had all the siblings together in three years, and you and I probably won’t be back in Europe until—”
A decade makes a difference, you know. Ten year ago we were college students with no money and younger siblings we wanted to show the world to. Ten years later, we’re… well, employed, but still with no money, and younger siblings who know the world for themselves. Yes, today, with two sisters-in-law and a handful of cousins making their lives in England, and with an infrequent chance to gather all Andy’s siblings together for the first time in years, I had to acquiesce. Family calls.
I sighed, threw a rain jacket into the suitcase, and sighed again. I was heading back to the dankest capital I’ve known, and I wasn’t happy about it.
The train into town was smooth, quiet, and politely stuffed with sensible people. The routes were well-marked, the rolling stock impeccable, I could actually understand the voice on the loudspeaker, and the conductor wore a suit and didn’t yell the names of the stations. “Definitely not Jakarta,” I mumbled to Andy. “People here actually wait in line.”
“Yeah, well, for what you pay for a ticket, you’d better get decent treatment,” she mumbled back.
That much was true – for the cost of two all-day rail passes, we could have groceries for two weeks back home.
I groaned at the thought. And promptly received a dissatisfied huff from a suit with newspaper to my side. Apparently I’d trespassed the unwritten quiet rule.
The rainy suburbs drolled listlessly, quietly by. I shivered. Somewhere out past the nose of the commuter line, London waited for my return. I clenched my fists inside the pockets of my jacket.
Second of all, I have no idea what a Piccadilly is, and I certainly didn’t find any circus there—not a single elephant nor acrobat. Not even a peanut. Turns out, the famous Piccadilly Circus is merely a glorified intersection saturated with rainwater and red double-decker buses. Shopping, yes, but I could have done that in any roadside outlet mall back in the Midwest, or any apocalypse-scale megamall in Jakarta for that matter. I didn’t need the glorified cave-city of London to stroll through displays and shake my head endlessly: “Not in our budget. Not in our budget.”
I said cave-city, and I think of all the terms I could peg to London, perhaps that’s the most fitting. London is a dark place. It’s shivering cold, even in the middle of July, and it’s full of ancient history that you sure can’t touch. The queen might as well be a 10,000-year-old stalactite: an off-limits relic of bygone days that you sure can’t hassle without raising some rancor.
Other evidence of London untouchables? The guard in the Piccadilly sporting goods store asked me not to take pictures of the “circus” from his window; the signs at the changing of the cavalry guard warned me not to touch the horses; the “constable” at Trafalgar blew her whistle at Andy and made her climb down from the giant lion statue; I took one look at the fifty-dollar teas in the window of Whittards and dragged Andy away before she could touch any of it—all off-limits. And all in the shiver-your-core dankness of the cave.
The only thing missing is a smart-alec tour guide who thinks he’s cool for turning out the lights to show you just how dark a cave is.
Rather than take my subjective word for it, flip through a couple weather pages on your smartphone. Jakarta sits at a balmy 32 (Celsius) year-round. Your weather app will show a thunderstorm next to that temperature 360 days of the year, because there is pretty much a fifteen minutes rainshower that many days of the year within a stone’s throw of the city. London, though, even in the height of July, will show something like 17 degrees. Or maybe 19. And clouds thicker than the moss growing from the walls.
That’s roughly half the temperature of where I’m coming from.
And those clouds—those clouds are anything but the fifteen-minute showers that dump a small pond on your head and leave the brilliant blast of the tropics in their wake. These are dour, old, quilt-heavy clouds, layered heavier than a toddler on a snow day, one over the other in an endless parade of ponderous, billowing, stuffiness.
“It’s really no wonder these people set out to conquer the tropics,” I apostrophized while stuffing my face with a sandwich during a picnic in Trafalgar. These English needed some vitamin D. They hadn’t seen the sun for half their lives, and putting a few thousand ‘indigents’ in their places was a necessary sacrifice for peeping their heads from that cave.”
“Ugh,” Andy mumbled from a mouthful of ham-and-cheese. “Why didn’t they just all move to Ibiza? That’s what they do now.”
Thirdly, Big Ben is the most over-rated clock on the planet, Westminster Abbey is always under construction, and even though I refused to wait—or pay the exorbitant ticket prices—for the London Eye, I was sure it sucked too. Probably just as cold and drizzly as the rest of the city. Why would I give away $45—per person, mind you—to ride a giant Ferris wheel over the river Thames and see the scaffolding around Westminster? Would the drizzle be any more picturesque from up top?
I have no idea what London’s official slogan might be, but I have a few suggestions:
- “London: Why not just live in a cave?” I think I’ve covered this one already.
- “London: Bring an extra sweater, love.” Other places might invite you to grab a comfy pullover, or an adventure jacket, or a stylish, suave, sleek sort of fashion-wear. But not London: London is the perfect spot for a heavy, woolen, scratchy, oppressive sweater. And any time I need to wear three layers of sweaters in July—at sea level in the northern hemisphere—things are out of hand.
Yes, they will call you “love.” Just don’t expect to feel it.
- “London: We’ve got a crapload of history.” That is something no one can really argue with—the history. Centuries of traditions and literatures and empire and warfare and some of the most famous names in the role-call of Western learning. London hunkers under rain in marble columns and frowning brownstone and weathers the worst of its climate gazing back across its storied past.
And for all my complaints about the place, I have to confess that London’s starring role in the narrative of the modern world is something rather humbling.
Here was the seat of the people who mastered the seas and the science and the art that has made the modern world. Of course they weren’t the only ones writing and exploring and thinking, but here was the capital of Newton and Shakespeare and Cook and all their crews. Here was the head of the geographical little oddity whose populace tamed the tropics, brought trains to the backwaters, industry to the globe, bureaucracy and judiciary to the tribes. True, they demanded centuries of discrimination and tons of priceless heritage treasure in return, but the feat of the exploration and the empire was indeed something not so easy to accomplish.
“I wonder whether weathering this dreadful weather all their lives made them somehow more adept at fighting through the storms at sea, and overcoming the setbacks faced ashore, and soldiering on in the muck of hardship in working toward a larger goal,” I murmured in another moment of epiphany.
“By that logic,” Andy replied, “Greenland and Patagonia and Siberia would be world superpowers.”
She was right. Something different was going on in London.
I pulled my rain jacket a little tighter. London indeed was a different fish. But that little thought-gem didn’t make the afternoon much pleasanter to visit.
Fourthly, what’s the deal with the Brexit? Is it really all race-related?
Before stepping into the cave, I was under the impression that surely, surely, an intelligent, understanding, cultured civilization like England’s wouldn’t stoop to Donald Trump levels of intelligence to deal with immigration issues.
“I mean, there’s got to be more to it than just the immigrants, right?” I asked my in-laws and cousins around the dinner table. “I mean, it’s mostly about controlling their Sterling and their economy and not getting sucked into funding Italy’s failing pension and Spain’s overdue debt and Portugal’s—”
“No, not really,” they replied. “It’s mostly the immigrants.”
Now this little conversation has to be understood in the context of my in-laws and cousins not being British. They’re all Romanians. One is an electrician, another a truck driver, another an interior designer, another a construction worker and box-packer at an Amazon warehouse. They range from blue collar to white, from one year to eight years in country, from little English to advanced, and they seem like they’d like to stay.
We stayed with these guys during our London days. It was fun to see the irony of the Island of Xenophobic Colonizers—perhaps another fitting moniker to add to my list of slogans—from the eyes of the immigrants she is currently complaining about.
To be fair, it’s not exactly that these are the immigrants the Britons want to stop. These guys work hard, live peaceably, pay their taxes, and make stuff around them better. I think any country would appreciate hardworking additions that pay their dues, better their communities, and add to the GDP.
Over a dinner or Romanian sausages, and over strolls through the after-dark cave, and over long car rides out to Stonehenge and back, they ran through the usual litany of immigrant gripes:
- “They are all fake. They smile to your face and act like they will help, but as soon as a job comes open, they give it to an Englishman who doesn’t care and can’t do the work.”
- “There are no English who want these jobs. The only English you see on a job site is either a foreman or a foreman-in-training. No English driver wants the night shift. Only the English drug addicts want the Amazon jobs. Why do they complain about the immigrants when no Englishman wants these jobs?”
- “We get the worst shifts, and less pay, and mostly do better work.”
- “English workers are lazy and drug-users. No wonder employers like to hire foreigners.”
And the list goes on. It’s quickly apparent that an us-v.-them attitude has taken place, and even within the immigrant community, there are divisions quickly apparent: European immigrants vs. African immigrants, for example. Or even within the Romanian nationals, there’s more than a bit of bias between the “Romanians” and the “Gypsies”—the latter of whom are only Romanian by state citizenship, but not ethnicity, they emphasize to me several times.
An in-law of an in-law told stories of African immigrants trying to cross the English Channel by climbing under the wheel-wells of trucks, or in the tarp-covered loads of trailers, or in the anchor wells of ferries. British border guards use dogs to sniff out the occupants and send them to detention centers. “I got caught once,” he told us matter-of-factly. “We were bringing a load of supplies back from France. Had a trailer with an open top and a tarp tied over it. My co-driver and I stopped for a coffee late at night, and the next thing you know some soldiers and their dogs are at our truck—eight Africans inside. Who knows where they climbed in. I got a six-thousand Pound fine for that.”
All agreed that the North—yes, England too has stark cultural differences between the South and North—is much more “racist,” and probably the main culprit for pushing the Brexit stuff through.
“I went to the same church for several months,” my brother-in-law would later tell me. “And every week, the same guy stood at the door, saying, ‘Welcome, my name is Richard. What’s your name?’ After the fifth week, I told him, right there at the front of the church, ‘Just stop right there, Richard. I know your name. You’ve told it to me for the past five weeks. And you have no idea who I am. I don’t appreciate that.’ That’s the way they are, you know. They don’t really care about us.”
There’s much talk about the new prime minister and the new foreign secretary and the “Brexit means Brexit” slogans.
In the end, here’s the deal with the Brexit: The falling stocks are what grab the headlines, but the social divisions that lie at the roots are not going to be as simple as a single referendum.
Fifthly, public transportation in London is something to be admired. From a fleet of giant buses that look as populous as the local citizens, to train times nailed down the minutest minute (are you catching the 7:22 or the 7:29 train?), to a map of services that leaves you reeling in the options.
In the metropolis, city buses compete with tour buses, and often share the same routes and stops. The subway—sorry, the “tube”—isn’t always underground, and is easy to confuse with above-ground commuter trains. But both are numerous and frequent. Taxis are plentiful and keep the look of the 1940’s alive and well. Everything is clean. Everything is timely. Everything is scheduled and precise.
All London is missing is a tram. Or maybe an omnibus.
The rolling stock in each is clean, and quiet, and more like a library than anything. Well, if that library has glitzy ads plastered to every available square centimeter—or is it a square inch here? Not even Londoners seem committed to systems of measurement—of flat space. And often it’s not even a question of flat walls being ad-ed up: the tube’s curved arches and walls get their fair share of curved and slanted and oblong ads.
They plant them all over the stalactites and stalagmites, too.
And those ads, by the way, are something unusual in themselves. Did you know that in London, people actually advertise books? Yes, books. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. Movies? Of course. TV series? Ok, if it’s a good one. Plays? Yeah, it seems London has an identity crisis in trying to upstage New York’s hyper-profit musical these days.
Do those things still turn a profit around here?
Are Londoners keeping the ancient British tradition of literature alive—are they actually up and excited and buying new books? I suppose they must be or the ads wouldn’t exist. I also suppose that public transport is a nice place to advertise: Imagine the commuters burying themselves in a novel on the way to work, and then getting bombarded on the escalators upstairs for newer and flashier novels.
The only problem with that little gimmick is, well, that marketers incorrectly assume commuters still have some pocket money left after buying a ride on the public transport.
They don’t. It’s too expensive.
But back to the books being hawked: I’m not sure that the sexy, flashy, pop-culture narratives being lauded across the bus terminals exactly quality as “high art” to snobby literature types, but even so, seeing a city that still advertises books, well, helped London grow on me a little.
Maybe there’s more to the city, after all, than a dungeon-ish climate and a clammy sort of people. Maybe it’s got more to offer than a litany of past genius and a continuing tradition of marginalizing outsiders. Maybe, just maybe, London deserves a little patience.
With the violins and guitars strumming from a dozen street performers—who had conveniently re-located below the streets to avoid the rain—I started to picture London less like a cave and more like an innocuous little hobbit-hole. And I started to see its inhabitants less like fist-shaking Tea Party anti-immigrants and more like, well, a traditional tea-party crowd—the “one lump of sugar or two?” types.
Walking up the concrete steps of the subway and into the blast of cold air from London, I decided to be more patient with my London visit—like dropping by to see a crotchety old acquaintance in a musty old house—whose heater is broken and whose roof leaks worse than Eric Snowden—that you’re somehow obligated to stop in to see. It may not be the most exciting visit, or the most inviting; it may be full of protocol and formality and sitting still during the pauses in the conversation to hear the ticking clock on the mantle; but if you listen, really listen, to the experience being shared, well, you might just come away with a wealth of something to think about.
I needed to listen more closely.
Here was the Spanish photographer taking pictures with film instead of digital at the cavalry parade grounds. He took a shot of Andy—in her intentionally ridiculous Union Jack pants—posing with the tall-and-fluffy hatted guards, and then explained that, “Yes, if you’re only out to the see the place and the map and—“, here he smacked his palm against the ancient stone wall—“do the ‘been there done that tour, of course you’ll finish quickly and leave with a superficial impres—.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” we shouted over our shoulders on the way out. “That sounds like a great idea if you’ve got the time. But we leave—” The poor guy was already shaking his head at our lost cause of giving London a “proper” visit.
Seventhly, as if about to confirm that little epiphany, the sun busted out from behind the three-quilted layers of clouds and dazzled the panorama of the London Tower and Tower Bridge. It was a Friday afternoon, and the ancient bricks of the Tower split a fresh glow across a populace scurrying out of their workplaces through the crisp evening breeze, and into the nearest pub.
Andy smiled a “I told you so” type of smile, and we set up the tripod for some selfies with the Bridge.
Wind and rain whipped in and out of the afternoon’s light, and by the time we found ourselves crossing the bridge to meet up with the family on the other side, a luminous streak of rainbow slit the thunderheads from ear to ear, glowing in a blustery sort of triumph.
It was the starkest, brightest, glimmering-est rainbow I’ve ever laid eyes on, and at its feet, encompassed by its giant frown, was the city of dank cavey-ness I’d spent the last two days trudging through and struggling to forgive.
It felt almost like an apology from the ancient city for giving me the cold shoulder on our first – and our second – meeting. It was something like the dour old man finally finding the strength to contort his perpetual grimace into a crooked kind of smile.
Rain was still spraying us as Andy skipped and sprinted back and forth on the Bridge, looking for the best angle to capture the miraculous rainbow. Our relatives waited, shivering, with oozing, steamy pizza in cardboard plates. Beneath us, on the storied River Thames, barge after barge of party-going youngsters—London’s young stock-brokers and YUCCIES and university crowds—were getting noisily drunk in tuxedos and evening dresses. Giant red buses hustled the locals home while the tourists and immigrants were taking pictures like crazy—with smartphones that London wages enabled them to buy.
And I still couldn’t believe that London had actually smiled upon me. Even after all the mean things I was planning to write about it.
That night we prowled the city in zipped-up jackets and chattering teeth, roaming the sidewalks of history and the shadows of empire and the maze of tipsy youngsters, ourselves reveling in a simple moment of catching up on old times with old friends in an old—but very new to us—cave. I mean hobbit hole. I mean… I mean a rather unique sort of place, to pick up on the local levels of politeness and understatement.
Then we took an over-priced but orderly train—no loud conversations, please, only scrolling through e-books on phones—out to the suburbs, had a 1 AM snack of Turkish kebabs and Jamaican “Ginger Beer” from a neighborhood infested with delicious immigrant dishes, and headed for home.
A completely fitting way to end the London journey.
Would I ever give London a third shot?
Well, let’s just say it’s going to take more family moving there to ever drag me back.