Wednesday, 5 January 2011

NY-LON Part II – London calling

Call me biased but as far as cities go, London is truly phenomenal!

I like to think of it as the smart cool kid of cities. When you're in this densely populated city of 7.5 million, you feel like you're part of a vibrant metropolis that isn't defined by any one thing. It's colourful, it’s exciting, it's lively, it loves to debate but at the same time doesn't take itself too seriously. There are a million and one things to do that will engage your mind but at the same time allow you to bask in the glow of the ‘stylish set’. Londoners are some of the coolest city dwellers around. Although admittedly when I moved back a few years ago I felt like a fish out of water and what struck me the most was how well put together most people were. I was left wondering when exactly everyone became so stylish. Having spent time in France and Italy, I readily admit that the British are not natural style icons but like so many things - they are open to ideas and as a result they've learnt how to look good and make the most of their assets, not to mention the fact that the city being the melting pot that it is, has meant Londoners have become closely acquainted with Spanish, French and Italian style among others.

Aside from being on trend, London is an open-minded city. I think this is as a result of a massively diverse population who are allowed to be themselves, no assimilation for us thank you very much. Londoners get on with their lives, embracing each other’s cultures and redefining British culture as we know it, so much so that the last time I checked curry, ( in korma or vindaloo) was the national dish!

Some may argue that it creates problems when people don't assimilate but I beg to differ. A lot of African, Eastern European and Asian children start school with English as their second language but as adaptable as children are, they are soon able to pick up the language, its nuances and convincingly speak and act British. To be British however is not to be confused with being English. For me, being British is about being articulate, appreciating a dry and sometimes dirty sense of humour, being self-deprecating, not taking myself too seriously, sharing a drink at the pub all the while knowing that I'll go home and enjoy some hip-life as I tuck into my fufu and okra soup and speak fondly of 'back home'. I know it must all sound terribly contradictory and yes I probably would fail the cricket test if it still existed today.

But back to this fabulous city which embodies my definition of Britishness! To compare it to New York or Paris would be doing it a disservice, yes it has all the bright lights of a big city; its theatre rivals Broadway, its architecture is comparable to that of Paris and Rome, but it is about so much more than all the trappings of a big city. London rocks because it is the most tolerant city I have ever visited or lived in. This may be as a result of the British 'stiff upper lip' which means that self restraint is the order of the day. Generally as a group we tend to not be shaken by much and this allows for a great deal of room to manoeuvre. A half-naked girl on the tube doesn't move Londoners; if however she were to start smoking, "well that simply won’t do!" At that point 'one would have to voice one's concern' ....mind you more likely than not 'under one's breath'. The effect of this stoic, some would say passive aggressive approach is that people can be themselves, however that is defined and this, is no mean feat.

London offers choice in everything, from entertainment to eateries, to clothes, to ideas. Although it can sometimes seem like too much choice is a bad thing, only when you're faced with a situation where everyone is 'singing from the same hymn sheet' do you appreciate its value.

I'm always struck by the 'underlying' lack of choice when I travel to Europe and to an extent North America. Underlying because it seems absurd to suggest that there is a lack of choice in Western countries when comparing them with some parts of the developing world, yet if you pay closer attention, you’ll see that what you get is simply 'more of the same'. I always notice particular products and franchises that are overtly more present than others when I travel to other countries. For instance, last summer I couldn't get over the fact that every single pushchair (stroller) I saw on the streets of New York and Boston carried the name of British manufacturer, Maclaren and I visited enough parks and child friendly areas to say that with confidence. I also used to find it amusing as a teenager visiting family in Maryland that every single American family I came across seemed to trust only Robitusson to get rid of their coughs, so much so I started my own theory that the company must be government-owned.

Moving to Europe, in Holland, it seems virtually impossible to shop anywhere other than Albert Heijn supermarket, whether in Rotterdam, Amsterdam or the Hague, I found myself confronted by the same A-H logo that made me think I was on some eerie horror movie set where the protagonist runs for miles and miles and finds herself back in the same ghost town.

In Paris, everyone who has ever ordered a Chinese take away in my presence seems to go for the same thing...'riz cantonais' and 'les nems'; in the US, the equivalent would be General Tso's chicken!!! I cant help but wonder if there's some unwritten rule book that everyone gets about ordering Chinese food when they arrive in these countries.
I admit that there are key brands that are apparent in this city too but I truly believe London makes for a much more discerning consumer. Whether it's clothes retailers, supermarkets, quality fresh produce, restaurants, clubs, bars, newspapers and even political thought.

Whether you're shopping at Portobello market, grabbing some dim sum heaven at Ping Pong or watching a show at South Bank, there just seems to be more on offer including the opportunity to use your head and if necessary to go against the grain.

The only thing to bear in mind is that when in London, conformity is simply not an option!

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