15 Observations That Might Change the Way You Think About London
We travelled to London for about 5 days last week! I visited London about a decade ago, but I found myself making quite different observations this time around. As an American living in Paris, I saw London under a new lens while vacationing to an English speaking European country.
The very first thing that I noticed was the air quality. I have daily frustrations in our Paris apartment dealing with cigarette smoke (even with the windows closed!) and it’s my favorite thing to rant about. However, air pollution is typically not on my radar once I step outside my apartment.
In retrospect, maybe it should be; a few days before we left Paris there was an announcement on the metro that the air quality was so poor that metro patrons could purchase a special "air pollution" ticket. This would allow one to use the metro for the entire day (on one ticket) to avoid the outdoor air.
Walking from the train station to our hotel in London, I quickly noticed how fresh the air felt, even in an urban environment. There were way less cigarette smokers, which was (quite literally) very refreshing.
In the United states, it is common to greet someone with a smile or a hello when you pass them on the street. By contrast, Parisians typically do not make eye contact with strangers (unless you are moving out of your way for them on the sidewalk, then they give you a polite smile and say Merci). It’s been explained to me that Parisians value privacy and this is their way of giving it to each other.
London was certainly more like the United States in that people would often stare at me or Ryan; I was not anticipating being uncomfortable by this (or even noticing it)! Most of the time, people in London would smile at me or wave at Ryan, which I found very sweet, but I had to do some self-reflection to try to figure out why the smiles or looks of strangers was suddenly so uncomfortable. I had not anticipated my adaption to the Parisian cultural norm of not looking at people on the street; I’m grateful to realized this now before our trip to the US soon!
A very obvious point was the ease of speaking in my native language. Funny enough, someone approached me and asked for directions to a museum of which I was able to help because I was heading there later that day! People often approach me in Paris looking for specific metro stations, and I don't yet have the vocabulary to help.
It was strange hearing people talk on the phone or to each other in a language I could understand. I've noticed that it feels almost peaceful being in a foreign country and not being able to understand what people are saying as they pass by - you are really left to be alone with your thoughts. On the other hand, being around English speaking people and constantly hearing funny conversations ("You know, I don't really like pork but I like pork chops", or “Oh yeah, I totally don't have jet lag today because I slept so well on the plane”) was very strange.
On the flip side, it was so pleasant to be able to say small things to strangers, such as "Mind if I join you?" when entering an elevator, or responding “No thanks, I'm just enjoying your artwork” instead of "Just looking” when someone asks if they can help me find something in a store or art gallery.
I did realize in the very beginning of the trip that I was a bit tongue-tied as I entered shops or engaged with the hotel receptionist. I'm so used to saying "Bonjour, parlez-vous anglais?" that I felt almost silly approaching a native English speaker and trying to remember how the heck to greet them.
The next thing I noticed was the amount of runners out and about. I think I saw more people running during our five days in London that I have the whole time in Paris! Other similar, small observations followed:
The sirens heard from ambulances and police cars are similar to those heard in the United States (sirens in France are very different, and pretty loud. Have you ever watched the Minions? They do a great impression!)
THEY HAVE ICED COFFEE IN LONDON! I didn’t realize how much I missed this (hard to find in Paris). You bet I got one on the first day!
Wheelchair and stroller accessible stores and restaurants are much more common. I was able to go in multiple stores with the stroller and take an elevator to different floors of the building. Elevators were also US-sized - most Paris apartment elevators are too small to even fit our stroller inside.
Most buildings had a baby changing station in the bathroom. This was a game changer and very different from the tiny little bathrooms in Paris (where you have to go up or down a tiny spiral staircase to find it). This made it really easy for me to be independent during the day when Chris was working!
It is very uncommon to see people eating while walking in Paris, but I saw a decent amount of people eating sandwiches while walking through the streets of London.
People in London seem to use public parks in a similar way that they do in Paris – lots of people picnicking the park or simply lounging during a break from their busy day. However, in Paris you'll often see people in business casual picnicking during their lunch break. In London, I never saw anyone picnicking in a suit!
It was incredible seeing how many pride support decorations were on display. There were rainbow flags hanging nearly everywhere, including the Opera House! I went into many bookstores (and enjoyed the opportunity to buy English children's books) and there were always a wide selection of LGBTQI+ awareness books or poems available for purchase. Many coffee shops also had supportive messages along their windows for pride month.
I loved seeing people selling newspapers on the street! It made me feel like I had stepped into an old movie.
I didn't realize how many museums and famous monuments and artwork London houses. For example, I was lucky to go to Athens this year and visit the Acropolis. I hadn't realized that London housed some of the artifacts from the roman structures! I was also able to see lots of artwork from famous artists (Van Dyke, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, etc.) and other iconic pieces (such as the Rosetta stone and Cleopatra's mummy).
There weren't as many trash cans as I would have anticipated, especially after seeing so many of them on every street corner in Paris. However, where there were trash cans, there was almost always a recycling bin attached!
We were not expecting to be unable to take our 5 month old to restaurants for dinner. The first night, we were told that children were not allowed in restaurants after 8:00 PM. We were a little put-off but understood, as we happened to be in a pub and it was pretty loud. The next night we ventured out around 6:00 PM, and were told children weren't allowed in restaurants then either. They also didn't allow us to order food to go.
Later, after talking to locals, we realized that it seems to be very location-dependent, and we were able to get dinner out the last night with no problem (Shepard's Market or Covent Garden are good spots). I've never heard of restaurants refusing to serve you due to having a child with you in Paris. However, the eating scene in Paris is much different. British food and restaurants seemed to be more centered around drinking beer, and around dinner-time they became bar scenes. Children in Paris are expected to eat the same or similar food as adults, entertain themselves, and be patient and calm. I imagine this is another reason that children are invited to join their families for dinner in Paris restaurants.
People certainly had a more liberal style approach, and the whole city seemed to celebrate the uniqueness of each person. This was shown by the many pride flags, the hipster (Soho) and family friendly (Covent Garden, complete with a magician to entertain families during the day) neighborhoods dotted around London, and some of the quotes advertised on buildings (such as “All are welcome here”)
How We Spent Our Time
We spent the five days in London going on a hidden pubs walking tour (walks.com, highly recommend), exploring Soho, checking out Covent Garden and a few of the churches surrounding it, visiting the British Museum (free, and included the Rosetta stone, Cleopatra's Mummy, the Lewis Chessman, and more), walking through Hyde Park, visiting the National Gallery (free, included paintings by Michelangelo, Van Dyke, Leonardo da Vinci, Rubens, Monet, Van Gogh, and Rembrandt), visiting multiple book stores (and bringing back 12 English children's books!), having fish and chips at a few pubs (of course with a beer or cider to go with it), attending a service in Westminster Abbey, popping into St Pauls cathedral, checking out the Crown Jewels and the Bloody Tower in the Tower of London, walking over London Bridge, getting a vegan brownie and prosecco at Borough's market (because, you know, balance), and walking by other landmarks such as Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly village, Waldorf Mansion, and more.
Overall, I can see how it's enchanting for an English-speaking person (especially an American) to visit London and understand the language while experiencing a taste of Europe. London is an incredible place with rich history, great pubs, great museums, and beautiful outdoor spaces. I can't wait to come back and explore more of London, including some of the villages outside of downtown!