Tuesday, 7 October 2008

A Year in London

This month is Lauren's and my anniversary of living in London. It's been a great year. There's no place like home of course, and we do miss the land, family, friends and kumara chips. But London's probably the easiest place for a New Zealander to live in overseas, outside of Australia. After all, there's probably more Kiwis living in the west of the city than in Masterton, as well as the stream of family and friends passing through on their tours of Britain, Europe or the world.

But there's still a lot of differences between the colony and the Mother Country. Here's a few I've noticed during the year.

Bricks. Pretty much the first thing you notice when coming in from the airport at Heathrow is that wow, they really do have lots of terrace houses. As our latest visitor Laura put it, you expect to see Mary Poppins popping up over the rooftops at any minute.

Cricklewood, in north London

And all those houses - plus most other buildings - are made of little red-brown blocks. It's said that Augustus found Rome brick and left it marble. The Georgians and Victorians seem to have found London wood and left it brick. Having grown up around wooden and stucco houses, it's one of those small differences you really notice. I guess building flexibility is not much of a worry when your equivalent of a powerful earthquake is one that rattles the tea cups.

Diversity. You're taking the Tube and the guys sitting next to you are peaking Polish. Opposite you are some teenagers cursing in Italian. Down a bit is someone in a turban, next to the couple whose parents came over from the Carribean. Back home, the plumber who's come to fix the loo is from the Seychelles. His boss is called Cyrus - his family's Persian.

London is the most ethnically diverse city I've ever seen. It's brilliant.

Public transport. Speaking of the Tube, much of your time in London - certainly before you get the chance to orientate yourself by walking around the central city - is spent like a groundhog. You disappear into the tunnels, pop your head up to see something, then duck back under again. You could be in five kilometres or 50 metres away from where you started, for all you'd know.

Being a true Londoner also means being able to have conversations like: "Take the Central line down to Bond then change to the Jubilee, that's quicker than the Picadilly" and not be thought weird.

Everyone moans about the Tube and the train system fairly often - the stuffiness in summer, the suffocating commuter crowds, the delays. But for all of that, you can get everywhere in the city without having to drive. It makes you realise just how terrible Auckland's public transport system and urban planning are.

These crisps are well good, yeah. It's English, innit?

From palaces where Henry VIII chopped and changed, to pubs that Shakespeare might well have had a pint in, history is everywhere in the UK. It's quite easy to get blase about it, but geeks like us love it.

Elizabethan era pub in Stratford-upon-Avon

Foxes. They're like really timid little dogs, or big cats with pointy noses and bushy tails. There's dozens around where we live, and, though you only ever see them for a few seconds, we love them. Even if they do scream like banshees.

Watch enough British tv or movies and you'll realise that they're obsessed with class. And it really does tint everything, from the paper you read to the supermarket you shop at. The snobs are snobbier, the yobs yobbier. People seem to take more pride in their 'station' - you'll see a lot more ostentatiously expensive cars, floppy-haired public school boys and thuggish men with shaven hair and gold chains than back home.

Countryside. England has the prettiest countryside I've seen. Ireland runs it close, as do parts of rural New Zealand, but England is the best. Before you bring up the magnificence of the Rockies or the bush, I'm thinking about farmland, not wilderness - though parts of the Lake District do rival the South Island for rugged splendour. There's rolling hills, pockets of trees, fields of rich green grass and - the key factor - hedgerows. Hedgerows are great. Every farm should have them or, just as good, dry stone walls. They may not be as cheap as wire fences, but they're a heck of a lot nicer to look at.
Troutbeck valley in the Lake District

Books. When you get millions of people spending hours on trains, buses or tubes getting to and from work every day, you get a lot of folks with little to do but read. Which means books are really cheap relative to what you earn - £8 for a new paperback vs $NZ22 back home. By way of comparison, a pint of beer is about £3.30. Lauren's in heaven.

We're closer to the pole, which is great in summer, but means in autumn it gets really dark really early really quickly. Going to and coming back from work in the darkness isn't fun.

I think the litmus test for whether you'll like London is how you deal with crowds. There's eight million people in Greater London and does it show. At peak time every main street and transport hub is like Lambton Quay at lunchtime - but often worse. Oxford Street on the weekend is madness.

The centre of things. If all the big events and big gigs didn't give you a hint, then looking up on a clear day in west London would tell you that you're in one of the world's hubs.
Vapour trails above the Thames, near Hampton Court

It's a small world after all.
For all of London's teeming hordes and being on the other side of the globe from home, you do get frequent reminders that it's a small world. There was the bus tour to the Costwolds where we sat behind two women that were in my university hostel. Then there was the former colleague I bumped into at Paddington Station. At times like that London kind of feels like a suburb of Hamilton.


Lindsay Margenau said...

Great overview! But I have to admit - I don't agree that England's countryside is prettier than NZ's. I've spent a lot of time travelling around the UK, and I would take NZ anyday - perhaps its hard for you guys to see just how incredible NZ is (I for one think the Rockies are pretty boring, having grown up there!). Its all perspective.

Tane said...

I was more thinking of farmland rather than the landscape in general - hard to go past New Zealand for that!