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40 Hours in Enchanting London, England

From Munich, it’s less than two hours in the air and my body is delivered to the United Kingdom.  To say that London is a contrast to Munich is an understatement.  Considerably warmer, it’s also considerably denser, paranoid and manic.  It’s been ages since I’ve been in a city this crowded, noisy, and fast-paced.  Like a hillbilly, I feel clumsy and slow amongst the seas of people.  But, you know, it’s London.  It’s amazing.

London, England

Before I started my journey three years ago, a friend in Oregon gave me marbles and asked me to distribute them throughout the world.  This is the latest deposit, left on the South Bank of the River Thames in London.

My hostel reminds me how miserable hostels can be.  And yet, these days, with refugees on my mind, I feel thankful every night to have a place to sleep and the luxury of warmth which is denied the thousands of refugees stuck behind border walls all throughout freezing Europe. 

I share the room with five others and a hundred dust-bunnies which reside beside my bed.  The Tube, which travels under the building, creates an ominous vibration with each pass.  My roommates are Brazilians in their early twenties with gigantic suitcases and cosmetics and hairbrushes strewn about.  They fit the stereotype – all stunningly beautiful.  In their midst I feel like an old frump.  They ask me if I’m on holiday.  A question I never know how to answer.  I’m on life.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey Gargoyle

I was last in London nearly two decades ago and I don’t recall it being so densely populated.  In fact, it wasn’t.  From 2001 to 2011 the population of Inner London grew by 465,000 people.  Surely more by now.  Every language you can imagine, and some you can’t, can be overheard on the Tube.  This gallimaufry of culture is fresh and exciting and also agitating in it’s unfamiliarity.

When I lived in Portland, Oregon, a popular bumper sticker read: Celebrate Diversity which I found particularly funny because excepting weirdness, Portland had little diversity.  It’s easy to celebrate when cultures aren’t clashing in tiny spaces.  It’s far more challenging (and when it works, amazing) when 8.6 million people representing thousands of homelands and religions can make it work.  And that’s London.  In my experience, only NYC compares in it’s diverse cultural mix.

Southbank Carousel

Carousel horses behind scaffolding on London’s South Bank.

Since my last visit, the Muslim presence is more obvious.  Now, roughly 12.4% of London’s residents are Muslim.  Brightly-patterned hijabs cover the hair of devout women.  The face of this city is changing, as it does over time in all great cities and states, which become destinations for those seeking a better, more prosperous life.  Change is the only constant.  Everywhere.  Always.

After arrival, the London Eye, Europe’s tallest Ferris Wheel, beckons me, but unfortunately I find it closed for annual maintenance.  Hoping to warm up, I duck into a hole-in-the-wall for seaweed soup which dazzles with flavors of ginger and garlic and overflows with chewy udon noodles and slippery emerald-green leaves.  

Walking on the South side of the River Thames, it’s impossible not to be swept up in enchantment. The delicate spires of the Parliament buildings pierce the rusty sunset like hypodermic needles.  The golden features of Big Ben reflect the last rays of the day’s sun, sparkling.  Colorful lights reflecting on the river are magical. 

London, England

London, England

On my only full day, I walk to Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, a gothic masterpiece where England’s kings and queens have received their crowns since 1066.  The place is oozing with fabulous history and beauty but it costs 20 pounds ($28US) to enter, and since I’ve been twice before, my frugal budget denies me a third viewing.  It feels that in this city, money flies out of my pocket just for breathing.

It’s notable that in London, unlike Munich, police and security cameras are ever-present.  You wouldn’t be paranoid to feel that “they’re watching you”.  Everywhere.  I try to be on my best behavior.  I have no doubt that, unlike in Munich, a lone, seemingly abandoned backpack would be identified and destroyed in minutes.

Always curious about nooks, I walk into the private Dean’s Yard beside Westminster Abbey.  Schoolchildren play ball on the lush green lawn in the center.  Private schools and offices line this ancient courtyard.  Boys wearing navy blazers with white piping pour onto the sidewalk while a bald man in a long wool coat tells them to wait.  Then, he escorts them in procession to the interior of Westminster Abbey.  I wonder what life is like for these pasty-white boys of privilege. 

London Boys

Rambling on, I enter the bustling Victoria District.  Fast-food restaurants offer exotic foods for modest prices: bento, sushi, falafel, and the uniquely British egg and cress sandwiches. As I walk the crowded street, trying desperately to keep up with the intense pedestrian flow, a businessman passes and his overloaded bag sucker-punches me in the side. By the time “Ouch!” has escaped my lips, he is ten feet past me, looking back, without apology.  Ahhh big cities. 

I make my way towards Trafalgar Square passing memorials, and majestic buildings along the way.  Arriving there, I’m so exhausted by the sheer number of people (and this is a Tuesday in January!) I seek refuge at a place I remember from years ago — St. Martin in the Fields Church.  The church was built in 1722 and although unimaginable now, it really was once “in the fields”.  If you’re a classical music lover you’ve certainly heard music recorded there.

Beneath the church is a cafe and a crypt. Which is great.  Because nothing goes better with coffee then dead people.  Am I right?

Cafe in the Crypt

Cafe in the Crypt

The floor is a patchwork of tombstones, with names mostly worn away.  Those underfoot lived and died long before low-fat, triple-shot mochas and free wi-fi.  As an American, I’m uncomfortable sitting atop these graves, each move of a chair causing further damage to the stones, but I guess in London, ancient graves are just so common, that anything goes.

Coffee, warmth and the hum of hushed conversations recharges me for the brisk walk back to the hostel.  I cross over the River Thames on the relatively new Jubilee pedestrian bridge.  Buskers sing on the South Bank, and merry-go-round-horses wait frozen, behind red scaffolding tarps, for better weather to arrive.  As the sun falls, the air chills and strings of white bulbs are triggered into illumination, bringing in the night and another magical, colorful view of London.

Photos of London, England (click to view):

 

2 Comments

  1. Laura, love this post. I am planning a trip to London in Summer 2017. Your pictures have gotten me excited. Believe it or not I am just now getting my first passport ever in about a month and am excited to use it! Hope you are well, Meredith 🙂

    • Awesome Meredith! As Americans, we are so lucky to have so much access to the world with our passports — I see my passport as a golden ticket. Now, you will be joining the 38% of Americans who have a passport and best of all you’ll get to see London which is such an amazing and romantic city. I’m psyched for you.

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