I have been to London before, but today it feels like the first time. Unfortunately, it was not possible to leave Canterbury before 10 a.m. so that we reach London as late as 12 a.m. (and we need at least twenty minutes for the last 300 meters through heavy traffic around St. Paul’s). Nine hours remain for exploring the famous capital of Great Britain. At first my roommates and I take a stroll around Westminster to look at the sights that make London’s skyline so unique: Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, London Eye, Westminster Abbey. Of course we also walk across St. James Park to catch sight of Buckingham palace and pay a visit to Mr. Holmes at Baker Street 221b.
Cosmopolitan London! The sheer magnitude of the city makes me feel small. Even by looking at a good map it is not possible to capture the immense dimensions of this place, where more than 8.5 million people make a living. It is a warm day, and sunbeams frequently make their way through between small clouds. I enjoy watching the people on the streets and the variety of lifestyles they pursue. Businessmen in expensive suits are holding a conference in a glass-fronted upper floor of a multistory building near St. Paul’s, which is at the same time occupied by a number of tourists, who are in danger of stepping backwards into the traffic while they try to take a photograph of the cathedral. A young woman in high heels is walking her Chihuahua along the sidewalk, and I am wondering how she manages to not have it trampled underfoot. People are drawing out ringing mobile phones with harried faces or rummaging within their bags while walking at an important-looking pace. Continuous car hooting drowns the lunch break conversation between ‘real’ Londoners. It is so noisy that you have to listen closely to what someone next to you is saying and so full, that you easily lose sight of a person walking a few meters in front of you.
Royal London! Buckingham palace with its golden gates is as impressing as always (the union jack waves in the wind; the Queen is at home!). We have a break at the foot of the Victoria Memorial and take our lunch, unimpressed by lots of (police) cars surrounding us and the fact that we are probably spoiling a lot of tourist photos of the memorial with our presence. At the Pall Mall entrance of St. James’ Palace there is a real rush of tourists taking photos of the poor guards with their big hats that seem too hot to wear on such a sunny day. I feel a bit of resentment towards a bold young man who is trying to provoke the Queen’s Guard, and I find it quite funny how je jerks when the guard is suddenly stepping aside with a salute in order to let two policemen on horses through the gate. Due to such an annoying public spectacle I can quite understand why the guards are not presented to the public in more places in London anymore. However, in my opinion London’s royal tradition contributes a lot to the world city’s distinctive charm.
Alternative London! Our next stop is Camden Town, the quarter of manifold and diverse markets and subcultures. As soon as we leave the underground station I feel quite boring and conservative. Goths, Punks and girls in vintage clothing or big black platform boots are walking on the sidewalks that are narrow due to the colourful stalls of the Camden street market. Shoes, dresses, bags, sunglasses, souvenirs. Some punks are offering to take a photo with them for £1 (which, I must say, is really not punk-like!). The front facades of many shops wear heavy and oversized plastic decorations in form of the items they sell. Rather like a southern bazaar it is loud, filled with young people and a real contrast to the modern architecture and emotional indifference of the inner city. After leaving one of the bigger houses in which they sell jewelry, paper art, wooden decorations and accessories through the wrong exit, we suddenly find ourselves in the middle of a street food market. Marketers are loudly presenting their freshly cooked food from all over the world: Spanish tapas, Turkish wraps, German bratwurst, Italian pizza or Arabian hummous. I try an Indian curry with chickpeas, salad and yoghurt and it tastes delicious. We sit down at the bottom of a little bridge with our feet just a few inches above the water of a branch of the Thames. Many young people are surrounding us and I am catching small pieces of conversations in foreign languages while I am trying to take in the atmosphere down here. The grey slow water under my feet. The smell of spicy food and marihuana. The citrus taste of fresh coriander. The street musician on my left, who is singing “Valerie” and “American Pie” with a beautifully broken voice. The feeling to be hours and miles away from the Westminster rush hour with its well-dressed busy people and traffic jams. Am I still in London?
Glamorous London! Big Ben has already struck 6 p.m. when we reluctantly decide to leave Camden. Four of us want to see the Tower and Tower Bridge, but Elisa and I take the tube to Knightsbridge. It would take more than a day to see all of Harrods, so we decide to limit ourselves to the writing and reading department. I completely lose myself among beautiful editions of great classic literature, notebooks with thick auspiciously empty pages and pens that cost my year’s income. It may seem odd that in the end I buy one of those cheap mandala colouring books, but I just have to. Not only because of coming -potentially boring- lectures at university, but just because they are available everywhere we have been to until now in almost ridiculous variety. As we are stepping out of the warehouse, it is again like entering another world. It has become dark unnoticed by Elisa and me. The windows of the expensive town houses on the opposite site of the street reflect thousands of little lights that gleam from the elaborate facade of Harrods. Taxi drivers in black cabs and private chauffeurs in dark and polished cars are waiting with professional patience for their clients, who must now be tired of shopping, overfed and saturated with luxury items after a day at Harrods. Even at this hour too many too well-dressed people carry too many bags away with them, ignorant of everything that is not splendid consume tonight. I can smell the intense perfume of women whose shoe’s brands are identical with those of their silky scarves. London, glamorous and deeply impressing.
In a kind of enjoyable fear of being too late Elisa and I hurry back to our bus stop, somehow excited and (as for myself) consciously breathing London’s air. The chilling evening wind, the lights in the darkness and the traffic make me lose my orientation. I am thinking of today’s events and they could as well have been the events of three days. Am I experiencing a small kind of culture shock? Fortunately, we manage to reach the bus in time and right now I am feeling more awake than in the morning. Today I was lucky to discover some facets of London that I never noticed before. But there are many more left, I guess, many more that cannot be discovered within a nine hour’s stay. What a day! I have to be back some time…