Saturday, September 26, 2009

"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life"

I'm not tired of London, but I remember seeing this on a change purse when I was a kid. For some reason, I remembered it and even the speaker, Samuel Johnson, though I have no idea who he is. I heard a lot about London, where I have a lot of family, family that I'm not seeing for the most part this week. It's a city that affected me a great deal even before I came here, living in Pakistan and Canada. Of course, those days are long since gone, and my Belgian relatives weren't all that impressed with the city. As impressed as I am, I often find myself thinking, "they have this in Tokyo as well".

London has a lot of history, and the Parliament, Westminster Abbey and the state rooms of Buckingham Palace are head and shoulders above comparable sights I've seen elsewhere. Buckingham Palace in particular compares to Versailles in the way a furnished house compares to an empty one. At the same time, the Tower of London is a bizarre mishmash between a medieval science centre and an amusement park. If those are the real crown jewels and the real imperial crown on display at the Tower, with low-speed moving sidewalks to prevent crowding, then this country is run by buffoons.

At any rate, walking around the streets, the city seems oddly quiet and the food really sucks. If you came here, like me, seeking the London of Elizabethan and the early-modern periods, you'll be reasonably satisfied, with statues of Oliver Cromwell, the mausoleum of Queen Elizabeth I, and a place to mark the executions of Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey. If you came seeking a city as interesting as Paris, New York or Tokyo, you'll find a surprisingly sterile city centre.

One example is the Tokyo neighbourhood of Shibuya, well-known for the bizarre mishmash of ideas and fashion that makes up Japanese youth culture. Outside the subway station of the same name, you will find what Wikitravel calls the world's busiest pedestrian crossing. I have no idea what it's true, but I know that people cross in five directions over a very large area, coming and going like the tides at the ocean. Overlooking one of the many corners of the crossing is a Starbucks on the second or third storey. You can't have coffee to watch people because it's typically too busy to sit down there.

In London, Starbucks close at either 7 or 8 o'clock and virtually every other coffee shop and many smaller restaurants are the same. Of course, London has lots in its favour. It has a large cosmpolitan population from all over the world, and it has a great combination of both high and low culture. There are people that seem so stuffy that their monacles are liable to fall out any moment, and people so dirty that you seem liable to contract venereal disease by being in their presence. Of course, after traveling halfway around the world to get here, everything that London combines into one neat city, you've already seen elsewhere.

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