London and the Weight of History

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I just got back from a week in London yesterday after spending a week with my old officemate Alex and his wife. Aside from my trips to FanFest, this is really the first place I've been to outside the States, and I had a great time -- London is an amazing city, and I really hope I can return there sometime in the future.

When I was planning this trip, I honestly expected that the culture shock I'd experience in London would be far less than in Reykjavik; after all, at least in London the street signs are in English. In retrospect, I think both of them are roughly on par, and if there's a city that felt more alien to me it was definitely London. Reykjavik is still a small city (not much bigger than Champaign-Urbana) and by and large most people there speak English -- and probably because it's a second language, it tends to be spoken slower and a little more enunciated than you might get from a native speaker. Yes, all the street signs are in Icelandic, but you don't really have to know what they mean. Most of Reykjavik seems like relatively recent construction as well.

In contrast, there are few cities anything like London in the United States. I have never been to New York, but I have been to Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Seattle, Phoenix, St. Louis -- but none of them is really like London. We have big cities, for sure, and we have older cities, but there is nothing that even really approaches what London is and what it represents in terms of world history.

I had this realization several times while I was over there, but two occasions stick out in my mind. The first was when I was out at dinner with someone I know from FanFest, a native Brit, and he asked me how much travelling I'd done. I explained that this was really only the second place I'd been to outside the US, but that I'd traveled around the States pretty extensively. I was listing places I'd been and when I got to Boston, he asked me why I liked the city so much.

Now, Boston is an amazing city, and I never get tired of going back there. And, in terms of how it feels, it probably comes closest to London of any US city. There are streets and buildings in Boston that are still largely the same as how they were almost 400 years ago, along with the graves of many of our founders and the sites of many of the most important events in American history. I'm telling all of this to my friend and after about two minutes I suddenly realize how utterly silly I'm sounding to him.

400 years? In London, that's an eyeblink. On Thursday, I went to Borough Market, a street market that is known to have been in existence for at least twice that long, and in all likelihood actually stretches back to the Roman occupation of Britain 1800 years ago. Westminster Abbey has been standing for over a millennium, and within its walls are the graves of some of the most important people not just of English history, but of world history -- Issac Newton, Charles Darwin, Queen Elizabeth, and Geoffrey Chaucer, just to name a few, stretching back nearly a thousand years. Within that church, every British monarch since the Norman Conquest has been crowned, and I've stood in the same place now. The British Museum contains some of the most important archaeological treasures in the world -- pieces of the Parthenon, the Mausoleum at Helicarnassus, the Temple of Artemis, and the Sphinx, the Rosetta Stone, original writings from some of the greatest minds of the Enlightenment...

I am not sure if most Americans can really understand what that means -- there's really nothing here that can compare. Everything that dates back that far here has been largely wiped out, and certainly nothing here has been continuously inhabited that long. Cahokia, a thriving Mississippian city, larger than London in the 1200s, is today just a bunch of oddly shaped hills. Even in Mexico, I'm not sure how much remains of the ancient Aztecs in Mexico City; in London, many of the buildings that were there that long ago are still standing, still in use today. Even buildings like that in Boston have only been around maybe a third or fourth as long at most. The Smithsonian is amazing, but it doesn't even come close to the British Museum, despite the fact that it is probably larger in its entirety.

The other instance where I was struck by how different Britain really is was in Westminster Abbey when our tour guide was telling us about the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Of course, in the United States, we have the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, so the concept wasn't exactly alien to me, but in Britain, at least to me, it seemed to have so much more...prominence in the national mindset. In the United States, it is really only something you hear about or are aware of on Veterans' Day or Memorial Day. In Westminster Abbey, though, it sits in the middle of the floor, right in front of the Great West Door. Of all the graves in the Abbey, however, it is the only one that no one -- including the monarchs of Great Britain -- is allowed to walk on. During state funerals and royal weddings, everyone walks around it, which, at least to me, makes it seem like it has a much greater place in culture than does our own monument.

That wasn't what really struck me though, it was the fact that these kinds of traditions -- some dating back hundreds upon hundreds of years -- were almost commonplace in London. While many of them seem rather quaint, and most seem tied to the monarchy, which has its own obvious downsides, I still have this feeling like we don't have anything to really compare. The United States is both a modern nation and an almost inherently disjoint one -- we've only been around for a little more than 200 years, and almost no one here in the US can trace their ancestry back more than a few generations before they leave our shores. Part of me can't help but long for a tie to the past like that, that sense of continuity.

This weight of history also shapes modern London too, though in ways that I am much more familiar with. The layout of the city seems very much like Boston to me, only more so -- it's clear that the streets of the city were not designed for cars, or even really "designed" for anything, but more laid out in a haphazard fashion as it struggled to accommodate the geography and the way things happened to already be built. For a Midwesterner, from a place where the roads are in an easy to follow grid with no terrain really at all, London strikes me as a complete mess to get around in for a driver. Roads twist and turn all over the place, change names regularly, and narrow to little more than the width of a small truck at times. Even the Tube, rather than being the sort of hub-and-spoke design I've seen with the T in Boston or the Metro in DC, is a squiggly mess of spaghetti, at least when you first see it. Like the roads, the Tube's design, I suspect, is a legacy of its history, where it was just sort of added to as they went along.

However, after spending several days walking around, I definitely began to feel like I knew the general layout of the city, at least in the area I was traveling around in the most, which was generally just Westminster and a few other surrounding boroughs. And, like Boston, I definitely enjoyed the experience of just walking around the city, seeing the layout and the mix of architecture as I went. That's something I don't really get in Champaign or even Chicago really, where most of the construction is pretty recent (even in Old Chicago). As much of a mess as the roads seemed, it wasn't that hard to figure out where I was going with the help of a London road atlas (oh, how I missed having GPS and Google Navigation, though), especially after I'd walked around a few days. I got a rather nice sense of satisfaction on Friday when I got stopped on the street and gave someone directions to Westminster Abbey (though it wasn't really that far away).

I was also struck by the international nature of London as well; while I know part of it is that I was spending a lot of time around tourist spots, I think even while I was walking around London I heard more French, German, Italian, Arabic, and a half dozen other languages I couldn't recognize than I heard English. Even in the biggest US cities I've been to, I still hear mostly American English. Yes, some of that is because you're only 3-4 hours away from countries where a dozen other languages are spoken, and in the US that's not the case, but's a unique experience you don't get here in the States (though I've had a sort of similar experience on a much smaller scale at FanFest, where you have people from all over the world convening in one small space).

Overall, London was probably the most amazing single trip I've ever taken, and I feel really grateful that I had the opportunity to go there. It definitely makes me want to not just go back and see what I missed, but to travel a lot more outside the US in general. If you want to see the pictures I took while I was in London, you can find them here.

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Good Post.

Can certainly identify with what you're saying. I moved over here, to London from New York, a little over a year ago, and while New York certainly has an international feel to it, the depth of history here is fascinating. If you enjoyed your first trip then I would strongly encourage you to make more trips to London. After a year of exploring London I still feel as if I've only scratched the surface.

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This page contains a single entry by Chas Blackwell published on February 6, 2011 5:40 PM.

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