I’m back in London after a two-year absence. This is my 15th time here, each time with a group of students. I have eight with me this time, the fewest since my first year in 2000. It’s expensive, and although the cost of coming here for two weeks for the class is quite reasonable, it’s still expensive for students.
I have unfairly compared London to New York. It does neither of them justice. Of course, there are many similarities: Both are centers of industry with global corporate headquarters; both are media and entertainment capitols; both are international banking hubs; both have about 8 million people.
London, of course, is much older. Just outside the Tower tube stop is a part of the London wall. It was built by the Romans when this island was an outpost of the Roman Empire and was called Londinium. It was built 2,000 years a ago — just about the time Jesus walked the Earth. You can walk right up and touch it, and there are other spots around town where the wall is still visible.
Along Fleet Street is a pub called the Cheshire Cheese. The sign above the door says “Rebuilt in 1667.” Let that sink in for a moment. “Rebuilt” in 1667. The original pub was destroyed in the Great London Fire of 1666, the one that killed all the rats and ended the last great period of the plague. It was actually one of the first buildings rebuilt after the fire.
Simply because the workers of the day who were rapidly putting the crippled city back together again had to have a place for lunch and a pint of ale. First came the pub, then came the city, a somewhat vulgar version of “form follows function.”
Now, 390 years later — 390 years — the Cheshire Cheese still serves up fine ales and excellent food, like steak and ale pie.
The city is dotted with squares — Russell Square, Bloomsbury Square, Tavistock Square, Brunswick Square, Lincoln Inns Field — finely tended square block parks of grass, flowers, benches, fountains and statues to this historic person and that.
On warm days people flock to the squares. Families have a picnic or at least some ice cream. Kids run, shout, kick a ball and laugh with mom and dad. Young adults spread blankets or mats, kick their shoes off and sit back with friends, sharing a bottle of wine and some cheese with bread. The elders sit on the benches, often with a jacket even on warm days, and watch younger versions of themselves decades ago. Some smile, some doze, some sit with the wives of many years in contented silence and enjoy the activity around them.
The noise of the city seems to disappear in a square. And believe me, London is a noisy city. It is choked with traffic. Older double-decker buses roar when the traffic light turns green or when they pull away from a bus stop. But it is a very walkable city, and I find myself walking five or10 miles a day. If at all possible I avoid the city buses, the tube (subway) system and taxis.
The best thing to do when one walks down a London street is to look up. The storefronts at ground level are everyday storefronts, nothing special. But upward you see the great architecture of the 20th, 19th, 18th and 17th centuries.
The streets are lined with restaurants of all sorts. Indian restaurants abound. Indian food, after all, has become British food.
But London is a global city, and immigrants have come from around the world to live and work here. I met a Portuguese man and an Argentine man both serving from from their kiosks in an open-air mall.
Here in the Royal National Hotel, if you stand in the lobby for an hour, you will hear at least a dozen languages. The Royal National calls itself the largest hotel in Europe, and it may well be. There are 5,000 rooms here. And I’m not kidding about that. Pensioners on holiday to London and grade schoolers on class trips swarm the lobby and the courtyard.
The global nature means global menus. There are jokes made about British food, and indeed you can still find things like boiled beef and jellied eel. But every ethnic food has also found a home here.
Many of the restaurants are fairly small, long bowling-alleys of tables and chairs. Young immigrants are often your servers. And if you can’t find an ethnic food to your taste, pub grub is a fine alternative. Pubs are quite proud of the food they serve and especially take pride in their fish and chips. Believe me, there is no fish and chips like the fish and chips made from freshly caught, never-frozen cod.
“When you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life,” Samuel Johnson once wrote some 400 years ago. It’s even more true today. Even after 15 years of bringing students, often on their first visit to a foreign country, I still love life, and I still love London.