Dissecting first impressions of London

As of today, it’s been more than a week since the London program unleashed us onto the city. Since then, I have moved into my flat, had my first fish + chips, gone grocery shopping, taken the Tube, mingled with real live Londoners, made important emergency purchases, gone school shopping, seen my new national landmarks, seen an authentic Shakespeare play and started classes. So far, senior year has been challenging emotionally and physically, before it even could be academically.

That being said, I have noticed a few things, both good and bad, about the city of London. Maybe my perception will change over time, but here are some observations I have made.

The balancing act between endlessly polite, brusque and friendly
Every time someone asks me how I like London, my answer is that I do like it. There are so many marvels to see and restaurants to eat at it and everyone is pretty nice. And that last part is quite true. The faculty and staff of my program have been so kind and helpful and accommodating to me. I adore everyone I met at Ladies, Wine + Design night. That being said, I have had some less-than-friendly encounters with Londoners.

I could be eating at a café or winding through the Underground. I could be cutting a path to school. I could be admiring the roses in the park near my flat. It doesn’t matter: I am constantly being mean-mugged by Londoners. Nothing breaks the staring contest I find myself in on an hourly basis. Not even a smile.

Photo by Anna Dziubinska

No one smiles back. Not even the kids.

I keep left on the stairs. I don’t dally with pounds. I try to be as courteous as possible of strangers’ space and time. It doesn’t matter.

Sometimes, it seems like the default expression in London is an air of disdain. A mien of stank neutrality. You know, the Stiff Upper Lip. I can’t quite tell if this code of Self-Restraint + Slightly Disapproving Looks is the result of city-slicking or the by-product of a reserved national culture.

Okay, now, you’re talking my language
(Now, you’re talking my language.)

Apart from realizing there are lexical differences between American English and English English, I have become more aware of my own shifting vocabulary.

I’ve stopped slipping up and saying “dollars” or the erroneous “Euros” when I mean pounds. I ask about the “toilets” more often than “restrooms.”

Photo by Paul Green

I still have to get in the habit of asking for “soya milk” instead of the half-baked “soy milk.”

Photo by Tyler Nix

My girlfriend roasted me about still having my phone in Fahrenheit instead of Celsius. Baby steps.

A different kind of drag race
In London, you can expect to find a higher percentage of your co-workers crowding around the base of your office building than in the break room at lunch time. I guarantee it. Around 1 pm or so, the people are out in droves puffing on smokes and e-cigs. Twice now have I seen people rolling joints in broad daylight.

It isn’t London if you’re not sitting by the door of your café or restaurant and you don’t see some sourceless stream of smoke billowing across your line of sight. 

I am almost sad that I don’t smoke. What’s avoiding lung cancer if I can’t partake in (what seems like) such a crucial part of English culture?

Photo by WillSpirit SBLN on Unsplash

Honestly, though, the love of smoking is out of control. I saw a man (with a frothy white beard and newspaper boy cap, no less) pack a literal wooden pipe to smoke on his break.

The road is their runway
The English can dress! Of course, being in London, that’s no surprise. But it does delight me to no end to see so many perfect and simple constructions of turtlenecks and trench coats, leather jackets and button-down shirts, rolled beanies, beat-faced and bougie hijabis, translucent glasses, ADIDAs and Pumas and loafers, coiffed beards, bomber jackets and straight-across fringe, choker tops and cropped cable-knits, fleeky funky eyebrows and so on.

Even if the looks are a bit on the funky side or outfits take their cues from athleisure, clothes are tailored and just so. There is also a penchant for minimalism, no matter how detailed or fabulous the garment.

You’ll be hard-pressed to avoid American music
Yes, I heard an Ed Sheeran remix at the pub. (You know, that might even be more British than listening to the Strokes on the way to Buckingham Palace.)

But for the most part, I’ve heard my fair share of “Wild Thoughts” as well as Michael Franks. I heard “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder in a café. When I was eating my falafel today, I listened to “Complicated” and “Irreplaceable” and “Hey Ya.”

I am only a week into my great British adventure and yet, it feels longer. I have about a dozen more weeks to go in the city. This means a dozen more weeks to get a better grasp on London and develop a more nuanced opinion about it.

The food has been great, as anticipated. So far, I am only a bit overwhelmed with adulting on an international scale and a tad homesick. I’m only mildly infected with FOMO for all the rollicking good times my friends are having without me. (I say “mildly,” but I did express anger yesterday over delicious almond crêpes being eaten without me).

Moving ahead, I’m interested in seeing how London lives up in terms of what I was looking forward to, what I wasn’t looking forward to and the surprises that will arise in between.

By Caroline Colvin

Black retro-obsessed non-binary baddie ♡ pleasure & wellness advocate ♡ aesthetic archivist ♡


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