Hello, readers, from the UK, and Happy New Year! As you maybe can tell, I’ve made a quick trip back to London to visit my aforementioned boyfriend. My trip so far has been simultaneously wonderful and soul-crushing as I wander the extremes of joy at seeing loved ones and the disappointment of reliving my life as it once was.
One of the things that has made this trip particularly strange is that I have the benefit of seeing London again without actually living here anymore. It makes me sad, but without my valid student visa I feel much more like a tourist. It’s been harder to come back than I expected; as is the way of things, though, I understand that this will ease with time.
That being said, this trip has given me a unique perspective on the city- one of a person who knows it well, but slowly rediscovers the annoyances of it as well. As I’m constantly reminded of things I really miss, I’m also reminded on the less savory facts of life in London, and the ones I doubt I’ll miss as much when I’m gone. I’ll eventually do a list of things I love (and I really do love this city and owe much of my life to it) but I thought it would be more fun to start with the things I could do without.
So without further ado, here is a list of the things I forgot I dislike about London:
1. The pollution
I realize that this is a problem for big cities in general, and not just London, and is of course worse in other places in the world (Beijing comes to mind), I still can’t help but think that the pollution here is the worst I have ever experienced. Even Seoul, South Korea wasn’t as bad in the middle of summer during extreme heat and humidity, when the haze was so thick I didn’t realize Seungwon’s apartment had a view of a mountain range until the very last day I was there. That’s really saying something.
It’s not just the fact that you can only see the outlines of the banking buildings in the City from Primrose Hill on a bad day, or that tube trains seem to disappear into a cloud (because they do that in NYC, too), but that while walking down Finchley Road to do some grocery shopping I sometimes suddenly feel like I have something stuck in my throat, or that I’m coming down with a sudden cold. The feeling never goes away until I get back to my flat, blow my nose, and see a bunch of black on my open tissue. Bleugh.
2. The exchange rate
This is also something that gets mentioned in various other countries, but there are not so many outside of Scandinavia that will suck Americans’ wallets quite as dry as England. The current exchange rate is 1.53 USD for 1 GBP, lower than it’s been in the last few years, but still terrible for anyone looking to save a buck. If that weren’t bad enough, even English who don’t deal with this rate on a daily basis will complain about skyrocketing prices for just about everything in London.
Transportation is bad in particular. I paid £30 for a one-week tube pass for the first two transport zones (where just about everything important is located), which is actually $45. It’s okay for a week or two, but to deal with as a foreign student who can only work a limited number of hours? No thanks.
3. The darkness
London is actually a lot further north than most people realize, which means that the sun rises an hour later and sets and hour earlier than it does in the continental United States. This doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s actually 2 hours less of sunlight every. single. day. In addition to that, the weather can be consistently cloudy for weeks at a time, meaning that the already-dim light begins to fade around 3 or 3:30 as the sun starts to dip below the horizon. No matter what the weather, it’s completely dark by 4:30. It’s possible, depending on the time you get up and get home from work, to just not see sunlight during the winter months. This is nothing to those who live in even higher latitudes, but for me it was actually hard to deal after a month.
4. The local express stores
This is a really personal beef, because I really like to cook for myself at home, but I really can’t stand the proliferation of Tesco Express and Sainsbury Local shops around London. For those of you who have never had the chance to visit one of these terrible institutions, a local or express shop is basically just an extremely scaled-down version of a larger store, carrying the minimum of only the most popular groceries sold by that particular chain. This means you can mostly get what you want for a decent emergency meal without having to go far, but if you’re someone who likes any sort of variety in your life, you’ll find yourself schlepping around the city for a normal-sized store that carries more than just kidney beans and bananas.
I understand some of the rationale for these stores, because they’re far smaller (in a city of already small buildings) and they fit a very mobile clientele, but their proliferation across London makes me wonder if they’re built at the cost of bigger stores that carry an actual variety of goods.
5. The English attitude
This is also a really personal complaint, mostly because I’m an American and I’m just culturally programmed to not really understand the English much. The English, and Londoners, really can be lovely, friendly, helpful people, and once you’re in their good graces there is nearly nothing they won’t do for you. HOWEVER, it’s extremely hard to crack through most peoples’ Outer Shell of Englishness. (I would know; it took me three years to make a group of English friends I actually felt I belonged in.)
Most of the time, I just find the average English attitude baffling. Among the things I don’t understand: a propensity to complain, a habit of self-deprecation, and gloominess. There’s a quote from a book Ivan got from a friend for Christmas (called The Xenophobe’s Guide to the English) that sums up my general feeling about English culture quite well: “English people are capable of admiring something without enjoying it, and enjoying something they suspect is fundamentally reprehensible.”
For an culturally-dense American? Just give me some optimism, please!