Ye Olde London

The whole facade of Buckingham palace in LondonMy flight to London was uneventful. Well, it could have been eventful, but I was sound asleep until we landed in Dublin. When I connected from the Irish Republic, I was surprised I didn’t pass through passport control in Heathrow. I looked, but it was right on to baggage claim for me. Now I’ve managed to get into England without a UK stamp on my passport. Weird.

My friends live about 45 minutes away from Heathrow in North London. Or at least it should be 45 minutes. Halfway back to their flat, the tube (train) broke down. We got stuck in the train for over an hour, turning the ride from the plane to the flat into a 2.5-hour ordeal.

Yet the train ride would have been bearable even with jetlag, had not another passenger decided she wanted to sing the whole time. This old woman, an obvious American Idol reject, began singing (or rather murdering) what sounded like Chinese folk songs as loud as she could. At first it wasn’t bad, but she got progressively louder and louder.

It’s funny how you can learn a lot about a culture in instances like this. The English are famously reserved. My friends couldn’t stand the woman, but when I told them they should say something (I didn’t want to be the loud American tourist), they replied, “Ohh no, I’m far too polite for that. I don’t want to cause a scene.” The other passengers seemed to feel the same way. The English are known for their reserve and politeness, and rather than be perceived as impolite, they’d tolerate an annoyance such as this. In America, the whole train would have thrown that woman out.

Windy streets in  London, England on an overcast dayUnable to take it, I said something. Then I said it again. Everyone else seemed to mumble in approval. She just looked at me and gave me a thumbs-up. A guy across from her laughed and began to sing along. Soon they were both singing and the train was mumbling in even more discontent. Yet there was no revolution. English manners still prevailed.

But I had had enough, and, lest I look too improper, got my friends and switched carriages. It took two carriages before the woman’s singing faded away, but silence finally filled the stale train air.

Today, I’ve been exploring London. With London being so massive, I divided the city into little sections. Today, I explored the Thames River and the plethora of sights around it. I saw Trafalgar Square and walked down Whitehall Street where all the governmental offices are until I came upon Big Ben. There I was in front of the icon of London and, gazing upon this giant clock, I was disappointed. I had expected him to be… bigger. The Parliament tower went higher than Ben. I had always pictured Ben to be very tall (not that he’s short), and I’ll admit it was a little disappointing to see his stature. I guess all those angled shots from movies have ruined me, much like the close-ups of Mt. Rushmore hide the fact it, too, is tiny. Not to say it wasn’t beautiful – it was. Big Ben was still amazing and as I ate lunch in the shadow of him and Parliament, I couldn’t help but be in awe of their Gothic architecture. I’m glad Guy Fawkes didn’t blow them up. He would have robbed humanity of wonderful things.

One thing that did sadden me about London was all the congestion and construction around their tourist sights. Some of the best tourist cities in the world shield their historical sites from modern development. Philadelphia’s historic area is blocked, and parts of Rome are no-drive zones, as is Athens’ Parthenon. It allows you to enjoy the cities without having to dodge big double-decker buses. If I had one complaint about London’s historical sites, it would be that. Attractions lose some of their historic wonder and magnificence when surrounded by construction crews, buses, and trains. It’s hard to throw yourself into the history when construction crews are blasting sidewalks behind green fences. I know it’s hard when cities are so big and congested, but if other places can do it, London could too.

Now my Internet hour is up and it’s time to explore the famous Tower Bridge and Tower of London before meeting my friend for dinner. It’s been a long day already, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of London.

For more information, visit my page on backpacking Europe or my guide to England.

  1. Cuckoo

    Well, speaking about culture, generally we Indians are also very polite. Probably we took it from the English. :) I couldn’t imagine myself asking that lady to tone down.

    And without a stamp in UK ?? You are plain lucky I guess.
    Pictures are beautiful.
    Keep writing.

  2. Welcome to London! Funnily enough, as a Londoner who’s lived here most of my life, I happened to come across Big Ben on my way to a meeting the other day, and I was surprised at quite how much it did impress me gleaming in the sunlight. I suppose you take the things in your home town for granted too much.

    How long are you here for?

  3. Check out the Portobello Market near Notting Hill as a great way to spend a Saturday or Sunday people watching. – Half day trip to Greenwich is well worth it. Enjoy!

  4. Anthony

    I understand the annoyance that singing people on a train can cause. On a train back from Naples to Rome, two old ladies across from us started singing and wouldn’t SHUT UP the whole ride back to Rome. It was high pitched and when people want to sleep, that is the last thing you want to hear. Of course, no one said anything.

    As for London, I was there once, by accident, and it was an entertaining 10 hours. Hopefully I’ll go back one of these days for longer. Safe travels.

  5. Theresa

    I think you just have to get a few drinks in the British and then they say whatever they bloody well please. Either that or the many, many Brits in Jeff’s lab are all anomalous and that’s why they’ve ended up in the U.S.

  6. You’ve covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time! I know what you mean about the construction. The year I lived in Cork, Ireland was the year before it was the cultural center of Europe (that’s not the real name, but I can’t remember at the moment). Needless to say, in preparation for the influx of tourists for the following year, there was so much construction. I bet it is an entirely different place now that I don’t live there.

  7. NomadicMatt

    @cuckoo: we’ll see how lucky i am when i exit…

    @lakshmi: if it wasn’t for the fact i’m staying with friends i couldn’t do it either.

    @anthony: i agree

    @theresa: yes! that’s why the British are known as those rowdy drunk tourists. give them a beer and all that passive aggressiveness turns into pure aggression.

    @geoff: until monday. E-mail me your number and I’ll call you.

    @kristy: I’m in the suburbs! I’m over in east finchley and it’s pretty different than central. But I do love london. It’s been pretty cool.

    @steve: I was in Highgate last night! Nice area!

    @everyone: Sorry for the delay in comments, I’m lacking constant internet!

  8. Hahaha,

    The singing woman story was hilarious. I can’t believe people didn’t at least shush her. Here in Brazil she would definitely get a few shushes.

  9. Karie

    Love the story about the singing lady. I know it’s annoying at the time, but funny to us who weren’t there!

    You should keep track of all the strange/random/annoying people you come across, then in a year post all their stories and let us vote on which was the worst! :)

  10. NomadicMatt

    @sula: The british are just too polite!

    @karie: good idea

    @tanya: No, I go to Thailand in August. You should my going away post again for my route!! :)

  11. The train story is very funny. At least she didn’t come around with a hat asking for change. A lot of people sing on the NY subway for money or with their ipod headphones on. The latter is not pleasant.

  12. London!! I loved it so much, can’t wait to go back… Spent 2 weeks there last year and my oldest daughter and I just did as much as we could. We went to Camden Town and got awful hairdos and got heckled by scary youths in heavy steel-toed boots, stood in horrible queues for the National Museum, etc… its amazing how exceedingly calm the British are about things.

    I think its funny that you got welcomed with the awful serenade! Have ever so much fun.

    ps- there is a little pastry shop outside of Harrod’s, on a side street. a piece of cake there is awful, about £5.50, but was absolutely the most divine thing i’ve ever eaten. their pastries are a work of art, and filling enough for a meal!

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