Thank you to the Weeks family!
The Weeks family were unbelievably kind and thoughtful hosts! They gave us a room to stay in, treated us to a sumptuous lunch, and invited us into the family! Thank you so much, you made our stay remarkable and we are forever indebted! This solid foundation afforded us the boundless freedom to explore London, and here is what we found (complete with Oxford commas).
Welcome home, to a place you’ve never been
London is an incredible and bustling metropolis at the center of the world (literally, they’re the center of the world clock). You see a beautiful fusion of cultures everywhere, and when asked where to find good British food, we were repeatedly told not to, and to go find Curry. It seems that the youth of Europe are flocking here to escape the heavy cloud of economic stagnation on the continent, hoping to find opportunity, community, and a vibrant culture. Reputations travel far and refugees from the near East are also gathering, although many cannot get in and have crowded around the train and car tunnels connecting London to the continent. We're told that on occasion, there are accidents as they risk life and limb for dreams of a better life.
Personally, I feel an odd cultural connection to London and the UK. All across the city's meandering cobblestone streets are signs bearing names that I recognize as being a town, city, or state in the US. This is the land of our cultural predecessors and we are their namesakes. Who knew that Jersey was far older than The Shore?
The old red brick buildings in the suburb we stayed in were wonderfully maintained and the houses were dotted with large chimneys with many stovepipes on each. I could not help but make the association with Mary Poppins, bedknobs and broomsticks, king arthur, and the old world of my childhood. This, combined with the British accents and our run through the beautifully untamed urban wilderness of Hamstead Heath park gave me the vague feeling of being an extra in a Robin Hood or Harry Potter film.
London’s Youth Culture
London is also young, edgy, and gritty. I found myself floored by the sarcastic and cutting humor that the youth employ to connect with each other. I was amazed at the extent of the graffiti, although by now I really shouldn’t be. The shopping, drinking, and nightlife culture is vibrant and we’re told by friends that we met with that the culture is to drink early, drink steadily, and then go to bed before midnight. In this way, they’re very different from the Europeans who don’t make it out of the house until midnight and stay out until the sun rises. This is changing, we’re told, and London is becoming more European every day.
One of my favorite cultural quirks were the caution signs around the parks and subways. Whereas back in the US, and in fact in every other capital in Europe so far, they simply warn you not to hurt yourself. The British version is slightly more passive aggressive and the signs feel like a nagging aunt is scolding you:
In outlook, you would expect the former capital of the former British empire to feel somewhat haughty about it’s grand old history, but this is not the case. Everyone including our tour guides were laughingly self-deprecating about the fantastic global colonial pillage that resulted in so many great artifacts from Egypt, Syria, and India finding their permanent residence here. It’s still a modern day point of contention with India.
The Albert & Victoria museum of textiles also offers a rather contrarian humble view of the UK’s willingness to learn from other cultures. This museum was established by Prince Albert in 1852 because while England’s industries were highly productive, they lacked the beautiful designs necessary to compete with France or Germany. The Museum thus was intended as a free center where students, architects, manufacturers, and artisans could soak up inspiration from the best designs and textiles from cultures around the world.
A kid in a candy store, if candy stores were museums and that kid liked to read a lot.
The British Museum was like a coming of age rite for someone so in love with History. That being said, it was an absolute madhouse, and could easily be confused for the British Zoo. There were so many people that if you headed up a gallery in the wrong direction you would be forced back by the stream of bodies, like a salmon failing to swim upstream. We did more listening to the audio guide than we did actually seeing the pieces under discussion but I felt like I got an immense amount of out of it. There was an air of vibrating, radioactive historical-ness about being here and amongst such a powerfully storied collection, and I was in heaven.
Again, I felt bound by a shared cultural ancestry. This initially Celtic nation started to take shape after the viking invasions of the 9th-12th centuries and the infusion of culture from the Anglos and the Saxon invaders from Germany and Scandinavia (hence, the phrase Anglo-Saxon). Did you know that in the year 1066 William the Conquerer successfully invaded England with an army of only 10,000 people? You’d need five times that to fill up an average football stadium. It gives you pause for thought about how exponentially our population has grown since the days of the middle ages: back then, England only had 1.6 Million people. Today, it has 64. Check out this chart.
Wandering through the European section of the British Museum I imagined myself among the pagan bog people who buried the first ritual iron daggers in the peat outside of London and prayed that the Romans would halt their Northern advance. It’s fascinating to imagine the ascendancy of these violent anglo-saxon and celtic tribes to a world empire famous for it’s stiff upper lip, tea, crumpets, and civility. And much less, that we Americans are the inheritors of this history. We’re like lost cousins whose paths diverged only a few years ago by historical standards, and I see in both of us so many similarities. This entire process is on display here. That is, if you can focus over the thunder of the great smartphone wielding barbarian hordes.
But what about Africa?
The Africa exhibit interested Eve and I deeply, both for it’s content and, as she pointed out, for it’s location. While Egypt occupies its own grand wing near the entrance (culturally it belongs in the Middle East), Africa occupies only three rooms and is suspiciously tucked away in the basement. Perhaps there is a subconscious cultural statement being made here? It included mostly modern artistic pieces about the disorder, warlord culture, and child soldiers that we’ve all come to associate with the continent, as if Africa itself were just one problematic country with no prior history. The chair and the tree pictured below were crafted by ex-child soldiers now employed in artistic endeavors that pay homage to their past while dismantling arms for the future.
Wandering the Streets
For the remainder of our time here we wandered as far as we could in every direction. We enjoyed some great restaurants and cafes that came highly recommended, and strolled through Portobello road during it's peak hours. This area seems to have it's own culture that's entirely divergent from the city around it, full of street merchants, sizzling foreign spices, vagrants, hippies, and hawkers, and we reveled in the sights and smells as we dashed from awning to awning in the rain. London has so much to offer and we really only scratched the surface.
That’s all for London!
All in all, London was a great experience that drew us inexorably back to our European roots. It was interesting hearing about it’s magnetic draw not only for people around the world but the youth of Europe. And it was great seeing how many cultures have fused in such mixed area. There was so much to see that we were very intentionally selective about what we visited on the understanding that life would bring us back here again, and we know it will!
That’s all for London and we’re off to Paris next!