I suppose I said I’d share the details of the trip, and fast-fading as they are, now is as good a time as any.
However I am still tired from the jetlag, further compounded by some various and sundry other illnesses that I picked up on the plane. So a brief summary will have to suffice. (Oh, and the pictures are all here.)
Stuff that was done in Oxford:
Stuff that was done in London:
Impressions of Oxford
Spending time there, it’s a beautiful town with incredible architecture and history. The longer I stayed though, the more my jealousy grew. Amazing scholars have been gracing those hallowed halls for centuries, producing some of the finest writing, and most significant math, science and economic breakthroughs in the history of higher learning. Watching the students, it seemed to be everything I wanted my university experience to be, but never was. I want a do-over. I wish I had the grades and finances to pursue a graduate program there.
Perhaps it’s the academic intimidation factor (most college grounds aren’t open to non-students/faculty, and have large iron/wooden gates and signs to tell you so), but I felt very much like an uneasy tourist there. I actually found that the entire town had a very “fuck you” feel about it. Most people were oblivious, and those I encountered in customer service were ambivalent at best. I distinctly understood why Canadians are perceived as so friendly. Not that anyone was unfriendly – but having to interact with us, offer assistance, or (heaven forbid) do their job (even the cashiers at Sainsbury’s and Boots) came across as a huge chore. Everyone just came across as very… sour.
Impressions of London
The insistent and haphazard mix of centuries old buildings with ultramodern architecture was disconcerting to say the least.
Charing Cross Road is now devoid of traditional pubs, with a slew of US and UK-but-modeled-after-US franchises, like TGI Friday’s, O’neil’s, and some now-forgotten but ubiquitous steakhouse. The iconic Spirit of the West song has now been ruined for me.
Everyone I’ve spoken to who’s been to London in the past 6 years has said that “wow, the scaffolding over St. Paul’s was already up when I was there…” Not exactly a model of restoration efficiency or effectiveness.
The one tourist thing we paid for was the Tower of London. The Yeoman Warden (Beefeater) tour was really entertaining, and while I couldn’t bring myself to believe that the jewels in the Crown Jewels were the real ones (having heard too many times that the ones on display are fakes), the artisanship that went into creating those pieces is still extraordinary.
The London Tube is the least accessible public system I’ve ever encountered. Stairs everywhere – very few escalators and lifts, and even those that do exist only go to street level, and not between lines in a station. Example: you can get from a far underground tube station up to street level, but to change lines, you’ll still need to hike 3 flights of stairs up and over tracks to the other platforms. Highly inconvenient for those who are burdened by wheelchairs, strollers or (like ourselves) luggage.
With the notable differences of modernization and obvious indicators to which trains are on which lines (for the slow and jetlagged, like myself), and the fact that the London Tube had significant service problems while we were there, it’s very similar to the Seoul subway system. I think that for the relative size and age of the city, Vancouver is doing just fine in terms of providing accessible, relevant and cost-appropriate transit systems. What we need now are longer trains and more frequent (and further reaching) service. Also, we need turnstiles and RFID chip payment cards. Seriously. Whoever decided against those is a first-class idiot as far as I’m concerned.
Another tidbit in terms of being a “world-class city” – I didn’t find any shopping in London or Oxford that I couldn’t have reasonably done at home (different store of course, but essentially the same merchandise is available). I did pick up a few things at H&M and Dorothy Perkins, but again comparing the size of the cities, Holt Renfrew and Robson Street offer exactly the same shopping opportunities as Selfridges and Oxford Street. Except popular London fashion is about 6 months ahead of what’s being worn in Vancouver, and (as everything except beer is in london) about twice as expensive.
Even though we had a great time chatting with both Neil’s colleagues in Oxford and family in London (proving certainly that the Britons can be great and friendly people), and that we were treated to a fantastically beautiful Saturday during which to wander the banks of the Thames, I never felt welcome in England. As a tourist I was merely an entity to be tolerated. The history, the beauty, the significance of the Empire and its role in the shaping of the world seems entirely wasted on the English, who would rather sneer at those of us who come to admire it, and adop0t an unexplainably sour disposition the rest of the time.
Perhaps after another 600 years of history and tourists, Vancouverites will seem just as bitter and jaded, but I certainly hope not.
Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t expect too much from a people who have collectively managed to completely bastardize, assault, and otherwise ruin the noble sandwich.