I don't think I ever really figured out what London is like.
It was certainly not what I expected. I think I'd made the same mistake I'd made with Dublin: having expectations based on literature. Not that I expected the London of Dickens or even of Sherlock Holmes, but even the London of novels from the Fifties and Sixties is apparently no longer there.
Since I've got back, I've been reading a number of mysteries by Martha Grimes, all published within the past ten years, and all I can say is that I find no commonality between the London of those novels and what I saw. (But then I didn't go to the parts of London which figure in her novels. Her characters seem to spend a lot of time in Fulham and Hammersmith and sometimes Southwark and Wapping.)
I never got any sense of London as a place where people live. Except for Ealing, which is where Sylviane and her husband live, and which is at the very west edge of London and is full of Indian and Pakistani immigrants.
The whole city, or at least central London, seems to have been completely gentrified. In particular, Soho has been gentrified into an upscale trendy entertainment center, although there do still exist a few sex shops.
Well, I wasn't there long enough, for one thing. A week in London turned out in practice to be four afternoons to actually explore the city. There was another afternoon where I decided to accompany Sylviane while she did her household shopping in Ealing, and in some ways this was my most satisfactory experience of London. We had lunch in a very small cafe (or ``caff,'' as many Londoners say) which was, I think, the most English place I exerienced in the entire week. Well, that and Petticoat Lane, where I heard a lot of the Cockney accents I'd been hoping for in vain everywhere else.
My first day was spent in Charing Cross Road, going in book stores. This was a good choice, I think, although I found that London bookstores are not actually all that much different from bookstores anywhere else. (Foley's is certain impressive in sheer terms of size, and I would have liked to have spent a whole day just in there).
Starbucks is all over the city, McDonalds even more so. Starbucks was the one place where I know for sure that I got short changed: I gave the cashier a ten pound note and got back change for a five, and I'm quite certain it was not an accident, but the place was so crowded that by the time I realized it there was no chance of doing anything about it. Of course when you're first learning the money system, it's hard to be careful about that because you don't have any sense of what things are worth. In Paris, of course (but not in the rest of France), it's well known that that's standard operating procedure, so I'd been very careful in counting my change. In London, I started being a lot more careful after that one experience and trying to make sure to have a lot of small bills available.
It took me a couple of days to figure out that I didn't need to worry about getting lost. From the start, I was traveling on the tube. One looks at the tube map, and it looks like incomprehensible glob of spaghetti. But after an amazingly short time, and after learning about half a dozen landmarks, one can easily look at the tube map (which is posted at several places in every station and at many bus stops) and see how to get anywhere one wants to. Sylviane thinks that the London tube is easier to make sense of than the Paris metro, even though the metro has many fewer lines and stations. (Addendum, written after spending more time in Paris: Is she ever right! Maybe I'll eventually learn the Paris metro, but the London undergris ever so much easier.)
At first, when I got off at a tube station, I tried to pay careful attention to the streets I was walking on so that I'd be able to find my way back to the station. But in fact, I never wound up going back to the same station anywhere. Wherever you go, you never have to wander very far in order to find a sign directing you to some tube station, and once you learn how to use the map, you realize that any station can get you anywhere you want to go. (Of course it's a lot easier when you're not in a hurry.)
The bad thing about the tube is that there are constant breakdowns. Worse than the streetcars in San Francisco. But although I saw a number of signs informing me that various stations and segments of lines were out of service, I never personally encountered any difficulties because of this.
The other problem with the tube is that although it gets you from one place to another fairly conveniently, you get a sense of the city as a bunch of isolated spots connected to each other rather abstractly. (Of course if you walk around quite a bit, which I did, then these isolated spots are actually fairly wide.)
So I got up my courage and took a double-decker bus a couple of times. (A day pass, which costs a little more than $5 as I recall, is good on the tube and all the buses and a lot of the trains.) And in fact, the bus system is reasonably straightforward. It's certainly easy enough if you're going to some major landmark such as Trafalgar Square or Picadilly Circus. The one problem with buses is that you do need to be able to recognize the spot where you want to get off, at least if the bus is crowded and you can't depend on the driver to let you know. But although I didn't always manage to get off at the perfect stop, I always managed to come close enough for practical purposes.
In retrospect, I know that I went about seeing London all wrong. I did what I make it a policy never to do in visiting a city, namely I went to ``see'' things. Well, I guess it would be stupid to come back and tell people that I hadn't seen Trafalgar Square or Picadilly Circus (where the most conspicuous landmark is the enormous Tower Records store), but it wasn't giving me what I came to London for. I saw Victoria Station and Waterloo Station and Liverpool Station and Paddington Station and King's Cross because I wanted to know what they look like, but the fact it that they're just train stations. Not as interesting as the Gare de Lyon in Paris had been.
Petticoat Lane was the only place I was really glad I'd visited.
The thing that's really interesting about London, I realized, and maybe England in general, is the names. All those wonderful names like the Isle of Dogs and Bethnal Green and Hampstead Heath and Oxford Circus and Chelsea and Soho and Belgravia and Elephant & Castle and Maida Vale and Shepard's Bush and Bloomsbury and St. John's Wood and Great Portland Street and Blackfriars. But when you get there, it turns out that none of these places (at least the ones I went to) are nearly as interesting as their names. So it seems like it might be better to just read novels about London and enjoy the names.
Not that London is not interesting. It's extremely interesting with lots of very interesting buildings and places to walk. But it was not what I had been looking for.
So what had I been looking for? Well, it made me ask myself afterwards: What is my usual way of visiting a strange city? I do get a guidebook most often, but what I'm looking for in the guidebook is not places to "see," but for bars, cafés, and shopping districts that sound like they'd be interesting. I want to know where the interesting people hang out. I especially want to know where I'll find the university students. And then I want to know the basics of the geography of the city. And then I just want to walk around and look for streets that look interesting. And get the look of the city (as well as its smell and taste).
And in London, central London, that is.... It's not that the streets weren't interesting. In terms of buildings and so on, many of them were very interesting. But I couldn't seem to see any signs of real life.
I walked by lots of pubs, but they all looked like places that catered to tourists and shoppers and I didn't go in any of them.
It was so different from being in Paris. In Paris, I'd be sitting at a cafe or standing at the bar in a bistro or eating in a brasserie and I'd look at the place and think, ``This is so neat! This is so French,'' and it would seem like it had been worth spending well over a thousand dollars to get there. But in London, there was the feeling that it would have been a lot cheaper to have gone to Toronto, and almost as satisfying.
Except for Petticoat Lane and and going shopping with Sylviane in Ealing. Those were the two places where I really felt I was getting the flavor of Britain.
I would certainly go back in a heartbeat, though. Because what I saw was such a small part of the city and I now have a better idea of how I should approach getting to know it.