London was, as it likely is for many Americans, the first major world-city I experienced outside of the United States. I disembarked my train at London-Euston from Holyhead in the late afternoon. With about 40 minutes until the British Museum closed, I ran downtown and was able to see the Rosetta Stone, and some of the Parthenon pieces on the ground floor, before museum curators cordoned off all the exhibits a hair after 5:20.
The Rosetta Stone is, one could say, a cornerstone of London. The British Museum is to London as the Statue of Liberty is to New York in many ways. Is Lady Liberty “American”? No, she is Parisian, originally, and she does not stand for established New Yorkers but for all Americans, even future Americans. There is some controversy that the Rosetta Stone belongs in Egypt, and that the U.K. has no rights to it. However, I disagree.
At the risk of using too many metaphors, the Rosetta Stone and the Statue of Liberty maintain their cultural relevance as bridges that span between cultures. New York has its harbor, its gateway that welcomes those from abroad not just to partake in the city’s local delights, but to add some new ones as well. Needless to say, with anti-immigrant sentiment bubbling up all over the west, it is always refreshing to see one of these human mosaics in action, be it in Brixton or Brooklyn. Any place where you can walk a block and overhear conversations in 3+ different languages is a beautiful place in my opinion.
I would not be surprised if the average Londoner were not ethnically English at all, but a mix of Syrian, Turkish, and/ or Indian. Waiting for the Tube, or strolling between Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square, one sees way more hijabs and bindis than one would expect.
Unfortunately, I got to see little of this side of London. This is the drawback for tourism in these ‘world cities’: sometimes there is no guidebook to their veritable worldliness. Want an architecture tour of London? Amazon will happily furnish you with any one of 374 books to suit your needs. Food more your interests? I can tell you with complete certainty as a library employee that every public library travel section has at least a dozen restaurant guides to London.
I would not expect someone on their first day trip to New York City to go to Jackson Heights for Indian food, or check out the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side. If you have a hot dog or a slice of pizza, and make it to the Empire State building, I would say that is good enough. So, in the 22 hours I had in London, I saw the British Museum, Trafalgar, the Rosetta Stone, and Buckingham Palace, and sat down for fish and chips.
The establishment was called “Rock and Sole Plaice,” a fairly upscale (14.50-17.50₤ per plate) cafe-style spot with outdoor seating. There were no small tables available, so I was seated with a couple. I would say the man was in his early sixties, and his wife was in her late forties. He was English, dressed in the classic English all-white way that would indicate he was about to colonize a small third-world Asian country. He was born and raised in London, and his wife, it seemed, was some sort of Eastern European that was capable of tanning. Slovenian, perhaps, or maybe Albanian? When I asked where they were both from he just said “I’m from England, and she’s from… outside of the U.K.” Real specific. He had spent the last twenty or so years largely in the UAE as an architect, so he was not necessarily a close-minded English elitist. However, he made sure he scoffed several times at the idea of my Grand Tour. I have to agree, 8 countries in 9 days is difficult, and I admit I will not get to see nearly as much as I would like. In my defense, however, most do not even attempt to travel to some countries. How can one prioritize England over Ethiopia, or Ireland over Iran? I had fish and chips, and I saw Big Ben, though all but the clock-face was covered by scaffolding. Had I remained in London longer, I undoubtedly would have seen the scaffolding come off, only to go back up again for more repairs a few years later.
My point is that, at this point in my life, I don’t go on vacation to stay somewhere. For me, vacation means “always vacating the place prior for somewhere new.” While it seems lovely to hang out in a town for a bit, make pretend you’re English or Dutch, or Burmese, and taste everything there is to offer sounds lovely, it seems extremely luxurious. My dream to see every country as soon as possible, even if it means for less than a day, is largely a logistical feat given the little free time and relatively little money I have. But, it’s also a reasonably hedonistic feat as well. Who else could, or would even want to, engorge themselves with eight different cultures in less than a week and a half? Relatively few, and so that is why I do it.
My dinner date called it a “typically American” way of doing things, to skip around. This is probably fair. I would imagine Europeans tend to vacation more leisurely. Do they not get an entire month off in August? However, I would imagine they tend not to have the desire that I have to see more countries. Something is to be gained from, for example, reading and being well-versed in a handful of classic pieces of literature. But would there not be a separate value in reading, perhaps, the first and last chapters of every major work? What about if one were to simply read the Sparknotes of every available novel and play? He may not be classically “well-read,” but he’d be one hell of a Jeopardy contestant.
Breakfast in my hostel was comprised of toast, cereal, and juice. I could have gone out for bangers and mash (is that a breakfast food?), but with all the banging and mashing my stomach had done on the similar Welsh breakfast the day before, I stuck with bread and granola. Butter is very yellow in Europe. I don’t have anything to say about that, I just think it’s interesting. Buttered toast in hand, I tried to make it as far east as possible in the hopes of seeing Shakespeare’s globe, or the London Bridge. I had little luck. At Blackfriar’s station (a very English-sounding station name) I got caught in a terrible downpour. It would have been less terrible if I had remembered a raincoat (or even a sweatshirt or long-sleeved shirt), but I was able to make it to nearby Waterloo station and ride the tube to Victoria station without getting too soaked.
The Tube offers the best insight into the diversity of London, outshining the bland white tunnel tiles. In many ways, it is a bland, white city, but you have to dig. And where better to dig than underground? On Westminster bridge, immigrants con tourists unironically in games of three-card monty. This seems like an oldish English traditional, but it is clearly also new, and not English, like, at all. London is cliche, classic, and probably a little bit clandestine, too unless you know where to look. I did not, but I’d be willing to bet a lot of Londoners don’t either, just like how a lot of New Yorkers neglect to see their own city. I write from the choppy English Channel ferry restaurant, where rogan josh appears to be on the menu. My dad always said that, as a general rule, if you go to a country and they once conquered another country, then the annexed cuisine is likely quite good. Dover rogan josh here I come!
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.