Backpacking 201-London

My flight from Shanghai to London was via Frankfurt. Michael Field, journalist and very-travelled man advised me that the route went over the Gobi Desert so I should ask for a window seat. And sure enough it was a spectacular sight from many miles high in the air.  Lots of red land rolling on endlessly. The rest of the journey was quiet. There was no in-flight entertainment and the red haired, unshaven Chinese girl next to me refused to talk either in English or in Chinese. She kept drinking the black, sweetened, aerated water available in red cans and then complained of a headache. It was okay though. Pudong airport had been a bit of an ordeal. I thought Indians were bad with standing in line, talking loudly and trying to get to the front. Wrong. There were these hep looking Chinese dames with lots of stuff constantly manoeuvring to get in front of me and I kept blocking them. Then of course my new suitcase was overweight so I had to transfer stuff into my new dotted handbag bought in anticipation of exactly this. After all that, when the bag went through the x-ray machine the women behind them summoned me and a whole lot of other passengers to figure out what the suspicious looking bottles were. Of course one will pack large toiletries in a suitcase ya? Talk about being overzealous! So I preferred the quiet time.

London has a contagious buzz and energy about it.  Non-stop motion and a lot happening at the same time with potential for more. I can see why for some people it is the centre of the universe. Culture and heritage confront you at every corner. Whether it was obtained from colonial plunders or from before is immaterial. It is the preservation of it all that is worthy of respect. The museums and the art galleries are proud institutions that allow much interaction with their customers, the public. It is impossible to see everything even in fifteen days and that was not my plan anyway. An important aspect of this journey/holiday is to figure out my place and space in this world. That of course did not stop me from doing the most touristy thing of visiting Madame Tussauds.  It is a glitzy, kitschy artificial atmosphere not to be taken seriously at all.

I stayed with friends in the City. Marylebone Road. Went running ever so often at Regent´s Park which was just behind the house. Baker Street was the Underground station I prefered to commute from. The same Baker Street where Sherlock Holmes resided. The first day I walked down the street it took me time to realise it was the Baker Street. The eureka moment passed and my cerebrum started eliminating numbers…where did Sherlock live? 55? 66? How could there not be any memorial or a statue…? Then I discovered it. 221B Baker Street that is now home to the Sherlock Holmes museum. Du-h!

So apart from the energy and the unbearable heat in the Underground, the next thing about London that hits you is the multiculturalism. It is everywhere and it is beautiful. It is more than a melting pot or `salad´. It is individuality and collective expression of something new. I guess I cannot express it in a more articulate fashion but for New Zealand to be anywhere at that level it needs to get out of the PC mediocre rut. (But more on that in another blog.) Of course this multiculturalism is not without problems. When you see black kids cycling late at night in Hounslow you can sense something is wrong. Or the amount of discussion on domestic violence means that there is a lot of it hidden too. There are ethnic gangs and other forms of dissatisfaction and disenfrachisement expressed by minorities that one would not want to see in New Zealand. Yet the creative explosion is quite something else. Something New Zealand ´ethnic  sector´ bureaucrats need to take note of and understand.

One day I visited Whitechapel to meet my friend who works at the Royal London Hospital. It was like being on the streets of Crawford Market/Bhendi Bazaar/Masjid in Bombay/Mumbai with the stalls and Bangladeshi readymade dress shops selling salwar kurtas, sarees and prayer clothes. I spotted the Imraan Travel Company And Money Transporter, there were restaurants selling ´Indian´ food and women in full black burkhas wandering around with kids in tow. Yet somewhere in the mix was a biergarten and people of all cultures and ethnicities comfortably hanging out. Brick Lane is very much part of the suburb although I did not visit.  There is a famous art gallery in there too. Once upon a time Whitechapel was a Jewish suburb. There still are quite a few Jewish families living there.  A Kiwi friend, who is actually a Briton of Indian origin, suggested I visit Southall too if only to see how waves of migrants move in and move out and leave remnants of their existence. These remnants are not destroyed but built upon and preserved to tell the story of that place. Apparently there aren´t that many Indians living in Southall anymore but more Africans and people from the middle east. I could not visit Southall.

London Chinatown is bang in the middle of the city. Gerrard St. Of course I passed through. It is a very commercial area and I was pleasantly surpised that it smelled like….well….China. And there was so many Chinese of course. Restaurants that look straight out of Kowloon and typical shops selling Chinese looking things. I discovered a Sikh behind a shop counter. Intigued, I went into the shop to ask him if owned the shop. He did! But I think he was embarrassed by my directness and curiousity and said no more. A Sikh selling little cheong-sams and other Chinese trinkets? It amused me and amazed me for the rest of the day. Imagine that! A business opportunity knows no ethnicity and colour eh? My brother-in-law had Chinese student waiters working in his Indian restaurant in Auckland and that was as far as I saw cross-cultural employment in niche ´culture´ business sectors. I like. I suppose next I could be selling sauerkraut in Berlin ya?

London can get addicting. Particularly the shopping. All Londoners are so well dressed-not fancy designer stuff but just putting together an ensemble that looks attractive and quirky that I am inspired. I am going to make an effort. And all the shopping helped. Perhaps I helped the economy along Oxford St. Topshop is quite the tops too.

I loved London. I shall visit again-for work, to shop and to just be at the centre of the universe.