London: The City That Won’t Make Eye Contact
I must admit, as much as I wanted to get to know her, London did not fully reveal herself to me this time. While Rome is shameless, wearing her heart on her sleeve and flaunting her beauty to anyone who cares to notice, London is fairly coy. She doesn’t quite make eye contact and she won’t show you too much skin, perhaps for the fear that you won’t stay if you are not kept intrigued.
This is the city you consistently hear about growing up – chances are, either as a traveler or a businessperson, you will cross paths with London sometime in your life. I must admit that, stepping onto British soil, I made the fatal assumption that I knew what this city was about. Learn from my mistake: wherever you go, assume that you know nothing. It is only when you open your mind to chance and possibility that serendipitous moments will present themselves to you. Life seems to enjoy catching us off-guard.
Perhaps due to our jarring first encounter, I had a hard time pinning down how I actually felt about London. I instantly got the impression that she was not being very honest with me. On one hand, she was interesting, cosmopolitan, and dynamic. On the other, she sometimes felt sad, moody, and distant. After much thought, I realized that her aloofness was not a dismissal, but rather an invitation. Unbeknownst even to myself, London inspired me: her enigma pushed me to try harder, to carefully seek the little details that pieced her together and peel back her many beautifully complex layers.
Fixated on consuming as much of the city as I possibly could, I walked. For a few days, I aimlessly wandered from neighborhood to neighborhood. I spent a shameful amount of Pounds on overpriced scones and porridge. I awkwardly lingered in the bathrooms for a minute too long trying to flush those damn toilets (seriously, you’d think a first world country would have developed a decent septic system by now). Every day, I didn’t stop until my feet were raw from the incessant abuse of British cobblestone. For all of my persistence, London did finally throw a few shy glances my way. Here is what she showed me:
The English are sticklers for their old traditions, in the most endearing way. There is something quite lovely and ironically refreshing about their commitment to the Old World: iconic red telephone booths are peppered throughout the city, residences and public spaces alike boast perfectly manicured gardens, and the Buckingham Palace still religiously changes its guards daily (I wouldn’t recommend wasting too much time on this, it’s an overcrowded tourist trap.. although there is something irresistible about those giant furry hats). In the afternoon, High Tea rooms such as the one in the famous Brown’s Hotel – which the queen herself apparently frequents – buzz with the clinks of porcelain and muffled sounds of socialites munching on their cucumber sandwiches. And, despite my fuss about unnecessary coyness, I couldn’t help but blush and advert my own eyes every time a dapper-looking gentleman opened the door for me and tipped his hat. Extra points if it was a top hat.
London’s architecture is dark, romantic, and remarkably beautiful.
It was rather becoming for a city that has accumulated its buildings over the course of many centuries. While many cities house a melange of architectural styles, London pulled it off gracefully and coherently. The bridges were particularly special; the Tower Bridge, my personal favorite, reminded me of a moat-encircled modern castle. I was so awed, so hungry to feast my eyes on every historic building, that I hardly had time go inside most of them. My exceptions were the Westminster Abbey church and the Victoria and Albert Museum, which each had an exquisite version of English history to share. Structures like St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London, the House of Parliament, and Big Ben, however, had their own unscripted stories to tell. Their magnificence was a sheer reminder of the Empire that was once Great Britain.
There is something amusingly outlandish about walking through a park in London, and it goes beyond the unpredictable weather and the green, year-round effervescence. I personally find it quite humorous to watch the English relax – it’s not something I see often, especially as someone who works in the advertising industry. But alas, there were indeed some stragglers and horseback riders (!!) basking in the sporadic sunshine. I got hopefully lost through the paths of Hyde Park and the Kensington Gardens. Every so often, I would stumble upon a hidden gem: a Peter Pan statue, a Speaker’s Corner, a Lover’s Walk. Not unlike London and her inhabitants, these parks initially appeared unwelcoming yet became absolutely delightful once I took the time to know them. Every so often, when the wind blew and the mist temporarily lifted, I could have sworn I caught London sneaking me a wink.