“Will inspector Sams please report to the central concourse,” boomed an overhead radio system into the mostly empty cafe.
I am at Victoria Station, eating a cheese sandwich, and drinking a tall glass of Strongbow cider. Neither taste the same as they do in the States. It’s a nice break from cheap pizza and economy-sized Peroni.
I arrived in England peering through half-open, sleep-filled eyes, depicting a hazy scene that could have also indicated I was in purgatory. Travelers were immediately ushered into orderly queues, organized by paperwork and bureaucracy.
Turns out, I was spoiled entering Italy as my first foreign country. I walked off the plane, into the airport, picked up my bag, and hopped in a taxi. No one checked my passport. No one asked me to declare anything. Everybody was taking their time, stopping for a coffee or tied up in casual conversation. Today was a different thing. I waited in a snaking line full of silent minds, and something about it felt clinical. No one was speaking, but the space was near full. It was like a class of elementary students who were just threatened by the teacher. One peep, and we’d all miss recess.
A woman handed me a slip of paper identifying the time I joined the queue, for quality control, she assured me. I was asked to give it to boarder control as a method for measuring our lines’ wait time. Twenty minutes off the plane, and they were already utilizing me to benefit the system…sneaky Brits. Well played.
From Stansted, I took a spacious bus with leather seats and a flatscreen TV mounted above the driver, displaying a live feed of the street in front of us. I’m not sure what this was for. I think it was supposed to help us feel like we were driving. The whole thing was meta, but in a depressing, endless expanse of highway kind of way.
In the hour and a half bus ride to London, I examined the back of my eyelids, struck in the middle of dreaming and thinking. Never fully committed to being asleep or awake. The content of my thoughts were muddled and disturbing. A cocktail of the wrong ingredients. A manhattan made with rum.
I forced myself awake when I realized we were in the heart of the city. I was curious to begin the identification process. When I came to Rome, I knew of certain landmarks, but I never spent any time with a map. In part I wanted to be surprised, and in part I’m really lazy about my adventures. I had a vague mental image, but I never tried to define it. I didn’t want to ruin it with expectations. I came to London with the same sentiment.
On first impression, the buildings are sleek and smart. More modern and abstract than I would have expected. You can sense the Germanic influence. There is a coldness to the architecture, especially in contrast with Roman romanticism. It feels like a cleaner, smaller and better organized NYC. At one point, I saw a man raking leaves into very precise piles off a side street. The city workers seem dedicated and plentiful. Well organized, and with good attitudes. This is already different than Rome and the States. A healthy sign for a city.
London feels chic and current, with “healthy fast food” restaurants peppering between buildings and taking advantage of the “vegan, soy-free, conscious consumption” movement. I’m not complaining, because their design and marketing teams have done a killer job. I will add that anytime someone markets themselves to be something, they probably aren’t that thing, but okay, they still did a hell of a job. There’s a level of stringent sophistication permeating from the concrete. I’ll be curious to find where the homeless sleep. You can learn a lot about a city from their homeless.
I keep saying “ciao” and “grazie”, which is really terrible, because I have a strong American accent. They’re at the tip of my tongue, because these are the few words I use to communicate with Italians. After a few months of conditioning, it seems like I don’t know how to speak to people.
When I first came to Italy, street conversation was extremely alienating. It made me uncomfortable to not know what people were saying around me. After awhile, it became a white noise in the background, enabling me to develop intense focus on my own thoughts in public spaces. Here, I can understand conversation bits from all directions. It’s disorienting, and I’m experiencing a lot of noise pollution. This has been the biggest surprise for me, the realization that I like strangers better when I can’t understand them.
On the surface, I like the feeling London gives me. There is a crisp quality to the air that makes me feel like I can breath. I’ve navigated the public transportation with virtually no problem, to which I can thank the horrible transit system in Rome. I’ve spent most of my day alone, except for a quick stop at the gallery for a long hug from an old friend. This is just the beginning. I have a city to learn.