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May 19, 2010

in London

I am on a long journey: Boston -> Washington -> Boston -> London -> Lisbon, all within 48 hours. I had a layover at Heathrow that was long enough to allow me a quick trip to Paddington and then back to the airport. I walked a circuit of a few miles: Paddington to Notting Hill Gate, Hyde Park, South Kensington, Gloucester Road, Kensington High Street, Kensington Church Street, Bayswater Road, and back to Paddington.

I have spent about eight years in this city, including almost every summer from ages 0-20, plus five school years. Nostalgic by temperament, I am fond of London for quasi-objective reasons as well as strictly personal ones. Actually, it would be hard for anyone to deny the elegance of Kensington on a cloudless spring day. But I admire much more of the city than its wealthiest squares and mewses. London has been a polyglot entrepot since Chaucer's day, when Lombards and Flemings were especially important residents, and it has become an amazingly multiracial and multicultural metropolis in the 21st century.

The underlying English culture is absorptive and adaptive. London changes faster than New York (the supposed capital of creative destruction) because both market and state have the power to reorganize this city in each generation. After just a few years away, all the retail chains seem new, people eat and drink different things everywhere, the transportation system has been sold, resold, and reconfigured, the slang is new, uniformed workers speak different languages (I heard lots of Polish and Spanish today), and whole new neighborhoods seem to have sprung up. Yet the bricks are still made of London Clay, which the Romans used here. Ladies still pull tartan shopping baskets home from Sainsbury's. Stinging nettles still force their way between railroad tracks and garden sheds. The morning streets still smell of wet cement, curry, and beer.

May 19, 2010 8:35 AM | category: cities | Comments



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