Earlier this month, we had dinner with two of my professors from Bethel University (my undergraduate alma mater), who were here teaching a World War I course. One of them asked us what had surprised us most about London. That was a question I hadn’t reflected on much, or at least not since moving here in September. I’ve tried to think about it since then and here are four things that surprise me about London…
1. Tropical Plants.
We are not talking about exotic specimens on display in a greenhouse, nor are we talking seasonal installations at a botanical garden. No, my friends, we are talking year-round palm trees and other subtropical specimens adorning roundabouts, parks and other open air spaces at 51°30′N (i.e. the same latitude as Calgary). How do they survive!?!?
2. How much of London is open to the outdoors. When I first moved into our flat in September, and subsequently wondered through the open-air East Street market, and saw all the shops that had no front doors (I suppose technically most of them have something like a garage door that they close at night), I thought I should enjoy this gaiety while it lasted, as the vendors and the outdoor frivolity would both certainly disappear once the cold came. But I was wrong!! The market has gone all through the winter and even during the dramatic snowfall a few weeks ago, most shops kept their doors literally open. This one, like the first, is to do with defying the weather, but it’s more than that. The “market” feels less like a neoliberal abstraction and more like a real, physical space — at least in our little corner of London.
After a year in Africa, I had resigned myself to not seeing much in the way of wildlife in London. I was not too greatly troubled by this prospect, as I was happy to accept architecture and history in exchange. But much to my delight, in addition to the normal cast of urban fauna (squirrels, pigeons, etc.), London also features many foxes, various waterfowl and other birds. And if wild animals are too unpredictable, I’ve also run through Vauxhall City Farm by the alpacas.
4. How un-foreign it feels.
More significantly, it’s been very surprising how easy it was to settle in and think of London as home. In some ways , London feels no different from a big city on the East Coast than a rural Midwestern town would. Perhaps it would feel more different if we’d moved here straight from living in the US, rather than after a year in Uganda, after which any two places in the Global North would probably look rather similar to each other.
Of course there are all sorts of one-off surprises that crop up in London — hundreds of Santas marching on Trafalgar Square, a glass box filled with dancers being pulled by a lorry along Aldwych to promote Thriller-Live, etc. But the above are the most recurrent.