Visiting London has always been some sort of distant fantasy of mine. I guess in the same way that one puts off visiting local sites in hometowns, I had put off visiting London as a place that was always going to be “there”, and whilst the “emerging economies” would only change with each passing year, London, and the “Old World”, had already seen its era of change pass by.
On the other hand, there is something in visiting a city that is so steeped in history and culture. It takes you back to history, English class, and the sciences. And coming from the ever-changing culture of Silicon Valley, I found it to be a surprisingly pleasant reprise. Of course, it had its own set of intense moments, stemming more from the lack of familiarity with the neighborhoods than fire-drills in the traditional working sense. Since my friend and I were staying with friends at Oxford, an hour outside of London (sans traffic – I think our longest Oxford to London commute took somewhere closer to three hours due to an accident on the road!), it involved timing busses (which only ran in once an hour past a certain time), figuring out London’s impressive – and massive – underground tube system, realizing our dependence on mobile Internet (Google Maps has never felt so much like a godsend), and coordinating meeting times here and there. Our first night in London, we went up the London Eye, the city’s iconic Ferris wheel along the Thames River. From above, the city looked so deceivingly calm but as we would learn in the coming days, there was much more to London than meets the Eye (no pun intended ;))
Like my friend Jay observed last night while walking from Buckingham Palace to Big Ben, there is a satisfaction you get in traveling mayhem that comes when everything begins to click, when you can recognize that to get from Westminster Station to King’s Cross, you would need to hop on the Circle Line, without looking at the metro tubes map.
I think London’s metro tube system is definitely one of the most impressive I’ve seen (and something I think a lot of larger US cities can learn from, including San Francisco!). Coming from San Francisco, where the Clipper system – a smart-chip embedded transportation card – was only recently implemented, London’s Oyster card system was a reminder of how it should work. When the Clipper first came our (Translink back then), I always wondered why there wasn’t any incentive for people to actually make the switch. You had to go to a local store, tag it on a bus where more often than not, the transponder isn’t working, the funds you add to your card are often delayed by 72 hours that there isn’t this “top off” concept, and perhaps, the most effective driver, you pay essentially the same, if not more (your time etc). With the Oyster system, you are actually rewarded for using your card. During peak hours, a trip within Zone 1 costs four pounds (roughly 7 USD); conversely, through the Oyster card, it comes out to be about 1.5 pounds ($2.40). But anyway, there is enough to write about the effects of pricing mechanisms of different public transit systems for another blog post. =)
But perhaps what London left me most with was how much I missed San Francisco. While I definitely appreciated Buckingham palace, the cute neighborhoods around Paddington and Notting Hill, true London-style fish and chips and Magner’s cider, I missed the zany San Francisco culture. The type of inexplicable and intangible craziness that surrounds this city teeming with ideas and just a sheer enthusiasm around … creating. Perhaps I haven’t given London a fair chance (after all, three days is hardly enough to properly explore a city, even in San Francisco’s 7×7 geography, much less sprawling London).
Now, we’re off to Brussels, as I write this on Eurostar. While it was a bit of a sad farewell with London, I had to keep reminding myself that along the way, there was still Belgium and Paris to come. I do have to admit that Paris is a city that I have always wanted to go to, rent a little studio across from the Eiffel Tower, and just sit and read, write, visiting little cafes with tea, pastries, fromage and wine, and weekend trips to the French countryside (no, I definitely haven’t romanticized it at all).
As for London, I’m sure I’ll be back, and would definitely love to check out of those crazy Oxford costume parties (And of course, Top Shop ;))