The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

City of a Million Faces

I haven't posted anything the past few days because I haven't done anything really huge that you guys would recognize, like going to Big Ben and all that. I've just been exploring, basically. My friends and I walk around different neighborhoods, getting a feel for the place. Last night we went down to Charing Cross Road, near Trafalgar Square and the Strand. Charing Cross is famous for having all the bookshops in a row, and that's what we were there for. We needed books for class, but we weren't entirely successful because we kept looking for a really cheap secondhand place. The cheap secondhand places didn't have what we needed. So we went back to Foyle's, where we'd gone first, and ended up getting most things there. Foyle's is stylistically similar to a Barnes & Noble or Borders, but it's enormous, the biggest one in the area, and, I think, London. Five levels, I believe. Almost the entire first floor is fiction, and they have a whole room full of catalogued sheet music. I got most of the novels for my Contemporary British Fiction class; in case you were wondering, they are: Atonement by Ian McEwan, Brick Lane by Monica Ali, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. This, of course, will be supplemented by readings from various short story anthologies. I was a bit surprised that White Teeth by Zadie Smith didn't make the list, but perhaps the professor thought it overdone.

We walked to Charing Cross instead of taking the tube, though we were tired enough and saddled with enough books by the end that we took the tube back. It took probably half an hour or so to walk there, but the pain from the cold and the pavement are worth it just to see the city, familiarize yourself with the neighborhood, and, well, see the city. In the area we were in, it was very "artsy modern big big city;" there were theaters everywhere, and I even found play with Cillian Murphy in it, which I will be going to see before long, I think. I absolutely MUST. There were tall buildings in close, pubs here and there, lots of lights, rushing traffic, busy sidewalks, lots of shops. But even in the rush and the flash, London still remains London; that is, the streets wind and fork off from one another; there is no grid. One moment your in a Times-Square-esque rushing boulevard or intersection, but duck into an alley and you're in a tight cluster of pubs, shops, and theatres entwined with narrow cobblestone paths. Twisting, turning, secrets around every corner, just as Neil Gaiman described it. Riding the tube makes me want to read Neverwhere again; Islington Angel, Knightsbridge, King's Cross, Blackfriars, they're all real stops.

The thing that has struck me the most about the city is how it seems to have so many different faces. I'm sure this is true of most big cities, but with London it seems that it never comes to an end. Neighborhood by neighborhood you go deeper and deeper into it's personality, like getting to know a very complex person. The grand scale and awe-inspiring history of the Westminster district (Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, River Thames, St. Paul's) are in direct contrast with the shabby, bohemian youth culture of Camden Town. The intellectual artsy-ness and romanticism of the Bloomsbury area compliments the flashier performing of the Strand. Oxford street smiles cooly with designer shops frequented by hordes of tourists, Regent's park is a quiet oasis. There are many sides to this city, many different parts of its personality, but it doesn't seem schizophrenic. It just seems like a person with layers, who likes to go out to rock shows on Friday nights, read a book sunday mornings, eat Indian food for lunch on Wednesday, and, above it all, happens to have rich parents. In other words, London seems like a Londoner. I'm certain, just like a really complex person, 4 months isn't nearly long enough to get to know it well. If I'm lucky, by the time I leave I'll be a close enough acquaintance that it might e-mail me once in a while and ask how I'm getting along with my highly religious and unnecessarily strict mother, Springfield.

Oh, and I posted picture of week one on Flickr. You can get there by clicking on the icon to the left that plays a zoom-in, zoom-out slide show.

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