The stories of a couchsurfer

London: “Greatness” personified?

Big Ben

What makes a ‘great’ city ‘great’? How do we define it’s greatness? The cities that are renowned worldwide, almost unanimously, for their seemingly undisputed greatness. But for what?

Is it the ability to provide endless sights and activities?

Or is it rather the beauty of it’s perhaps limited sights?

Does it have anything to do with it’s extensive history?

More likely is that it’s related to the amount of satisfaction that it provides the visitor or citizen of which the city accommodates. Some form of combination of all things mentioned above. And so, in this way, asking the question of what defines a cities greatness is a pointless activity – for the satisfaction is purely subjective and will vary from person to person.

But there has to be some sort of objectivity in it, because there exist some cities that everyone appears to be enamored by. It’s these cities that evoke the most excitement to visit while traveling. The hype surrounding it almost always manages to be justified and if 50,000,000 Elvis fans can’t be wrong, neither can just as many advocates of New York City or Paris.

Every now and then though, ever so rarely, one of these great cities does in fact fail to live up to its lofty expectations. These are some of the moments of the greatest disappointment while traveling. Having planned a trip for so long, building it up (almost unrealistically) in your head as the time approaches, only to be sorely let down upon arrival.

Perhaps this was my mistake when visiting London – the famed English capital without peer. The expectation and excitement had been allowed to fester inside of me, to bubble up and expand at an uncontrollable rate. Eventually, it became too large and not even had my imagination of the place become a reality would I have been satisfied.

London was a disappointment. A city of whose reputation preceded it so much that the temptation to fantasize about it also became too much.

Strangely enough, this reputation seemed to have been fueled mostly by none other than the French. The stereotype tells that the English dislike the French and the French are hostile to the English. To an extent this is true, but (perhaps not so) secretly, the French actually love the British. They walk around the streets with the Union Jack plastered on their handbags and gloves and a sparkle appears in their eyes when they talk of past or upcoming trips to London.

In contrast, you’ll rarely find Londoners strolling the streets with bags of the Eiffel Tower or a scattering of French phrases. And although the reality of the rivalry may be less than what is said about it, there’s a perfectly balanced comparison between the two nations. There’s a certain inevitability to the rivalry between Britain and France fueled by the history of the two countries and their ongoing wars, promoted by the proximity of the two. The parallels are uncanny – France with a population of roughly 66 million and the UK with a population of roughly 63 million, both dominated by a single, massively populated capital, rich in history and home to some of the worlds greatest artists and philosophers.

With this similarity and the rivalry that becomes of it, it’s difficult not to constantly make comparisons, and this may account for why London was seen as such a disappointment. Because even though London couldn’t satisfy, it’s hard to determine exactly why. All the right ingredients were there, they just hadn’t been put together in the same manner as, say, Paris.

London is jam packed with tourist attractions – whether for their history, beauty or both. In many cases, they can claim to be better than their Parisian counterparts – you won’t be able to think of a bridge in Paris as stunning as the Tower Bridge in London nor could you find a Parisian park that is either as large, central or green as either of London’s Hyde Park or Regent’s Park.

Hyde Park is a vast, open area that is perfect for runners, cyclists or casual walkers to enjoy. It’s a credit to the City of London that this space has been reserved in such prime location and the locals surely appreciate it as there seems to be a typical hive of activity here. The same goes for Regent’s Park, which is more lush than Hyde Park and more suited to the casual audience who would like to see gardens and relax under the shade of a tree. London surely does not lack in the parkland stakes.

As for Tower Bridge, this is a remarkable piece of architecture that can be seen from a large distance along the banks of the River Thames. It was spectacular to approach it and gradually see it become more detailed, providing the ability to only further appreciate it. There are no restrictions to walk across it on a general day and when you do, not even the view of London to the west can distract you from the bridge itself. Perhaps most remarkable is that it is only one hundred and thirty years old.

But this is one of the fascinatingly strange disappointments of London. For all it’s history, for all of the events and legendary moments that have taken place in the city, London doesn’t display a lot of history. The history is there, no doubt, and one can feel it as they spend time in the city, but there are no physical reminders on every corner. It only manifests itself in relatively small pockets of town such as the Palace of Westminster or the Westminster Abbey. Even well known sites such as St. Pauls Cathedral (~300 years) and Buckingham Palace (~160 years) are not old in the greater European context. It sounds picky, but one of those “unreasonable” expectations when arriving in London was to witness the kind of history you would find in other European capitals.

Compare, if you will, the Parisian sites.

Pont Neuf has recently passed 400 years since it’s construction and is still standing strong. The Cathédral de Notre Dame de Paris celebrated it’s 850th anniversary in 2012.

Across almost all major European centers it’s easy to find examples like this and London is supposed to be renowned for it’s history, yet can’t reproduce the same artifacts. There are two main reasons for this.

The first is of course the Great Fire of London, which wiped out a lot of historical sites in 1666. This is why the current St. Paul’s cathedral is so young and it is a positive point to observe that the city did take active measures in rebuilding some of the important structures to create a new stream of history. This explains the relatively low count of historic monuments in the city.

The second is simply London’s willingness to progress into the modern era. London’s skyline is dominated by cranes. Building machinery that constantly redesigns the look of the city. Here, there is nowhere near the same amount of protection of buildings as in Paris and as a result it’s not uncommon to find a modern glass faced building or a bulldozed allotment ready for installation of the next one. It’s hard to know whether it’s a good thing or not.

This blog has touched on this issue before and London brings it to the forefront again. One one hand, it’s a commendable approach by the councils to move forward and not allow the past to prevent any progression. On the other hand, it produces a patchwork of architecture styles that make the city overall less beautiful.

This is perhaps the single most revealing difference between the attitudes of London and Paris and in our ongoing comparison of the two, neither win this category. For Paris is too far on the conservative, preferring to dwell on their history and afraid to replace it with something more suited to the modern age. The side effect to this, though, is that the majority of apartment complexes in Paris all conform to a similar style and height and fit together seamlessly producing a gorgeous network of old fashioned buildings.

London seems to do the opposite, apparently willing to destroy it’s historic (albeit historically insignificant) buildings in order to replace them with modern equivalents. This allows the city to become more practical and comfortable with all the advantages of energy efficiency and modern luxuries. But the result produces an untidy patchwork of concrete and glass that seem unable to cooperate with one another.

The density is another key difference between the two cities. Due to the common design of five floor apartment complexes in Paris, the population is fairly densely concentrated in the city. The suburbs surrounding are sparse, but they are nothing compared to those of London. London is a beast of an urban population. This is realised when one takes a bus or car out of the city to the next destination. It is immense, and its size makes the feat of engineering a functional transportation system even more impressive.

Citizens of London live by way of the Underground and the Overground networks, which are vast yet not overly complex – given the area of land that they cover. They are serviced frequently enough – the Underground in particular and are generally comfortable enough.

As usual, to analyse the effectiveness of the transport, we must return to the comparison with Paris. London’s underground carriages are, on average, smaller than the Parisian métro carriages. This is not a problem in the middle of the day when the passengers are dominated by tourists and there is plenty of room even at the inner city stops. Once it becomes rush hour though, this becomes an issue. The Parisian métro, too, becomes massively overcrowded during the hours of going to work or returning from work. The amount of people crammed into a carriage is no different to that found in London. But at least in Paris there is room to comfortably stand up. In London some of the carriages are so small some people might have trouble doing this.

The frequency of services is pretty much identical between the two systems. The only difference is that the London underground seems to stop services at an earlier time than its Parisian counterpart. The London network does cover more ground than the Parisian system, which doesn’t like to stretch too far outside the Péripherique. This London network is a little harder to understand however. The East/West and North/South concept seems like a logical one, and they do demonstrate it fairly well, but for those not familiar with the layout of the city may get confused at first. In Paris, by contrast, the respective line directions are named simply by their respective termini, which is known to all by the assurance that the line maps are plastered all over the interior of the carriages. It’s hard to explain exactly why it’s simpler to understand, but personal experiences are just that.

The main difference, however, is the cost. In Paris one can pay just under twenty euros for a week long unlimited pass within zones one and two (essentially anything within the péripherique). In London a similar pass (week long unlimited trips for zones one and two) cost around thirty-five pound. This is quite a steep increase, given the exchange rate between the pound and the euro.

But this is the norm for London. It’s a costly exercise to live or travel to this city and the rewards aren’t much (if at all) greater than those you could get for much cheaper in other European cities. The clothes, the souvenirs and the food. Even going to the pub for a pint and some fish and chips is a daunting prospect for the wallet.

This high cost of living is no secret though and despite this the city boasts a large amount of tourists that wander it’s streets – testament to it’s reputation as being great. These tourists will be in the masses around Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square and Big Ben, for example. It’s for good reason – these sites are well worth visiting, but once they have been seen and experienced, get out of there and enjoy the space at some less central places. Even Piccadilly Circus offers some respite and the Borough or Camden Markets are worth a visit.

The greatest thing about London is not the buildings or sites or activities on offer. It’s the people. Not necessarily the personality of the people, for they aren’t the most considerate people in Europe or indeed in the United Kingdom I would imagine, but for it’s multiculturalism. This multiculturalism is a hot ticket item in the United Kingdom and I had even had discussions on it within Australia. I distinctly recall one conversation being punctuated by the comment

“.. the UK let everybody in and look how fucked up that place has got.”

I remember thinking at the time that the UK isn’t all that fucked up in comparison to other nations around the world. Upon coming to London, this was only confirmed. It was with great pleasure that as I walked the streets I saw all forms of cultures interacting. For me, London is proof of the advantages of a multicultural society, not proof of it’s disadvantages.

One can observe it in obvious places – non more evident than Brick Lane. London embraces it’s subcontinent community with it’s selection of local curry houses and Brick Lane hosts the most frequented of them. Mosques are not an uncommon sight in London and there are plenty of options for the Halal conscious.

The multiculturalism can be seen in more subtle areas too and one of the most pleasing experiences of my entire trip was walking into a standard Sainsbury’s store and seeing the collection of staff there. People of Arabic descent, of Indian descent, of African descent and of course of English descent all working together fine.

The equality act in the United Kingdom is fair and it works.

Besides this, though, London did nothing but confound me. The things I didn’t like about it I can’t figure out why. The things I did like about it I can’t figure out why. All this leads to a horribly undescriptive, unstructured, excessively late and blown-out article about it.

London can’t be summarised in one blog post. Is this alone qualification for being a “great” city? Great is not an adjective I would use on the city of London. If the tone of this article hasn’t alerted you to it yet, it doesn’t match up well in my comparison with Paris. And yet despite all of its shortcomings, I also don’t think I could discount it from the list of great cities.

Perhaps it’s fitting – the English language is just as confusing as it’s homeland appears to be.

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