We arrive having slept somewhere between four and seven hours of the eleven hour flight. The challenge isn’t just going to sleep, but deciding how many movies to catch and in what order. More often than not, we end up seeing the same thirty minutes of the same movie several times, leaving us with absolute expertise on just one part of the story and little else. There are many movies that we’ve never finished this way but ruined for ourselves in the process.
Arriving at any international airport is no indication of the culture of the country it serves. Most international airports are substantially the same and the society only comes into clear view at the airport exit, or sometimes even further away. Claiming knowledge of a country because you’ve connected through its airports is like saying you know parenting by being an uncle. Or own dogs. International airports are a sterile, clinical version of local culture. With a Starbucks and Burger King thrown in for comfort and familiarity.
- The floral-clad elderly woman smelling of lavender
- Her gray-haired, plaid-shirted husband in sensible shoes
- Distinctly pale English girls in their leotards and hoodies
- The Every Boy with earring(s), untucked t-shirt and baggy jeans…he can be found everywhere but even so, seeing him in London is bit jarring
- The ‘chic’ immigrant, who was probably chic back home
- The awkward immigrant, who was probably awkward back home
- Mid-level workers with their shirt and tie under a V-neck sweater
- Financial workers in the very latest English style of suit and shoes
- German and French vacationers with stylish glasses on tanned faces and below-the-knee pants
Stereotypes, yes, but accurately covering the majority of the passengers. London is a highly diverse city, perhaps the most diverse on the planet. It wasn’t always this way, as my first times through in the early 90′s left me with an impression of a city that had seen better days and a population that was primarily Indian or what we think of as classically white English. The truth is that London has never seen better times than it is enjoying right now, with a large influx of outside cash and a clean, cosmopolitan atmosphere. It is now impossible to guess the backgrounds of many people you see and that just makes it more exotic than ever. It is fascinating to see it all work.
London food was once described to me as “based on a dare” but I think that was before its modern days, where every culture and its cuisine are to be found in the same city. Quite a turnaround from the days when I found only the pub food to be of reasonable quality and price, and you can only take so much of shepherd’s pie and fish and chips. About a week.
London hotels rooms often have features straight out of your grandparents’ home…towel warmers and teapots standard in every room. Ornamental tile and cast iron fixtures. Thick rugs with ornate fleur-de-lis patterns. It all feels heavy but permanent and comforting in some way. Very non-IKEA.
The one thing that will likely never change about London is its brick architecture. Outside of steel and glass high-rises, bricks are the material of choice for everything from buildings to walls, which is distinct from the Continent, where stucco rules the building material world. Bricks make up the manor house as well as the train shed and are the greatest common factor between the rich and poor…everyone lives in brick buildings, separated by brick walls, with brick sidewalks. It is a brick country.
There is a very calm order about even the most crowded parts of London. Passengers on the tube queue for the turnstiles quite differently from New York, where anyone brash enough can fight to the front or sneak in from a side. The trains are again orderly and polite, regardless of the time of day or load. Quite different from Tokyo, where people push to make space where none seemed possible. London flows smoothly and without the tension found in most crowded places. Cars give way to pedestrians and to each other with few honks. That doesn’t mean you won’t die for not looking right at the curb…and it won’t necessarily be a little car, but a Land Rover, Mercedes or Jaguar that creams you.
England, like the French, is gorgeously green, especially to a Southern Californian. Leafy parks stretch to sidewalks, which lead to more parks, with the only break in the green spaces as buildings, lanes and motorways. It becomes impossible to remember that there was Winter when you visit London in Summer. I suspect English summers are the way they survive English winters. After all, there has to be some explanation.
I used to dismiss London as a sooty example of a bygone era…Jane Austin’s lords and ladies and Charles Dickens’ chimney sweeps. I don’t anymore. It is a world-class city that is as unique as Paris or New York. From palaces to original steel and glass architecture, it is a surprise around every corner that includes centuries-old pubs and Euro-chic, electronically-enabled shopping experiences. We love it…and keep in mind that my wife is French…
Ran into Erwin McManus at LAX, traveling with his wife and daughter and on our same flight. He was on his way to a TED conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. Erwin, for those who don’t know him is a ‘futurist’ which seems to mean he thinks ahead of the rest of us in some way other than next year’s vacation plans. From what I know of him, he does have interesting and sometimes provocative ideas for where humanity is going and why we’re at this point, so I guess he wears the futurist mantle well. He has a new book coming out next year with the title of Humanity that will be published by Simon and Schuster. I’ll watch for it, as I’ve read several of his books and find his style to be casual and thoughtful.