Along with Paris and Amsterdam, London is one of those cities seemingly every single American student in Brussels manages to visit. On the Eurostar, it’s two hours away, and a real pleasant two hours at that.
It’s taken me this long to visit the darn place for two main reasons. First, the United Kingdom is not part of the Shengen agreement. In other words, there are intense border controls, and I couldn’t sneak in without my Belgian residency card. And if you recall, I didn’t receive that until one month ago.
The second reason? Well…
I just didn’t feel the draw that so many others seem to feel toward London. To me, it was — and still is — a huge, modern, international city with no real British identity. If I wanted to get a feel for the real England, there was no point in visiting pricey London.
My travels over the course of the year kept reinforcing this idea. I met countless Brits who had fled the country, feeling like England — and London especially — was becoming more and more of a shithole.
Their words, not mine.
Plus, all of my American friends from last semester who went to London came back disappointed. London was cool, they’d say, but it wasn’t so different from visiting New York City. They felt like they wasted a weekend that could have been spent somewhere more exotic.
In a way, after returning to Brussels yesterday, I felt similarly. To think — I could have spent way less money and have lived like a king in Budapest, or something, somewhere.
But London is London, and I probably would have kicked myself for not taking advantage of my proximity if I skipped it. Plus, when would I ever have not one, but two buddies from home living there again?
So I went. And for three days in another country, I felt bizarrely at ease. People are speaking English?? I was confused at my sudden abilities to communicate.
To finally arrive face-to-face to some of the world’s most recognizable buildings is striking, no matter how many other amazing palaces and cathedrals you’ve also encountered. To look up at Big Ben is to realize you must have done something right in your life — you made it to London.
And for all my ragging on London, with its lack of British culture and whatever, there is no getting around the fact that it’s a mecca for culture in the general highbrow sense. The National Gallery? Too impressive. The Tate Modern? Inspiring. Every other museum I didn’t have time to hit? Assuredly world-class. And free.
Apart from the sights and the museums, the thing everyone says you simply must do in London is go see a show. This is obvious. And obviously, the productions are likely better than anything you’ve ever seen in your life. With this in mind, my friend and I made our decision the way that any cheap student would — what discounted tickets could we get under 30 pounds, and which of those had the best seats?
Hay Fever. Ta-da.
Hay Fever is an awkward 1920s comedy about a manic family and their bizarre guests at an impromptu weekend party. But it honestly didn’t matter what the play was — in that gorgeous theater with London’s lively, windy streets just outside, the weekend felt right; the experience necessary.
Other highlights of the weekend include two trips to the Borough Market, London’s rightfully renowned food market. The large, beautiful space has the finest in British and international products, with lots of yummy free samples.
I couldn’t help but stop at one of the sandwich vendors for buffalo and venison baguette, with red wine and apricots rolled into the juicy meat, and four vibrant sauces slathered on top.
Then there was Camden Town, by day and by night. On a spontaneous decision, I met up with a group of couchsurfers on a St. Patrick’s Day pub-crawl through Camden, where the Guinness flowed freely and lines of would-be-revelers formed outside every bar. Camden is popular at all times — a neighborhood of alternative culture, hippy street markets and grinning punks. In other words, the perfect place for a couchsurfing pub-crawl.
The too-trendy hipsters were discovered around Spitalfields, as were organic health-food stores, fair-trade coffee and designer shops with ironic signage. We walked through on the way to Brick Lane, a “lane” famous for all its curry houses.
We stepped into the smoky Aladin, where we agonized over the spread of choices far greater and far more interesting than what we’re used to in the states.
My buddy ordered a lamb sizzlar, which consisted of shredded lamb with onions, green peppers, tomato and pistachios. The pistachios were unexpectedly potent, giving the whole thing a nice… well… pistachio flavor.
I went for a garlic lamb tikka chili masala, which was a classic tikka masala amped up to rock star levels. The sauce was a piercingly bright red, with the tomatoes not dulled down by cream, rather reliably heightened by butter. And living up to all expectations of London-Indian curry, the chilies were hot. I only wish I had a pot full to take home.
On paper, London really has it all. Solid, or better than solid, cuisine from all over the world. Some of the best collections of art, ever. Constantly changing and constantly intriguing exhibits. Theater. Cool, grungy neighborhoods to offset the tourist mines, and tourist attractions that are actually worth the effort. And red double-decker buses.
It’s too much. And at the same time, it’s not enough. The question still remains: where is Britain in all of this? Do Londoners even consider themselves a part of England? And when the English don’t consider themselves European, should I even give a shit?
With my handy map, I helped a Londoner find her way to a tube stop one afternoon. I asked her about life in London — is it worth it; is it really what dreams are made of?
“London has everything you could ever want in a big city,” she said. “When you’re in your twenties, you aren’t thinking long-term and you can enjoy the galleries, the film screenings, the concerts, everything. You don’t care about the simpler things you might want in your life later on. Then you’re in your thirties, and you have to work so hard to survive that you can’t enjoy anything.”
“London’s great. You just need to come in with an exit strategy.”