Exchange Diaries: From Paris To London

By David Kong (Comm ’14)

London is the New York City of Europe. Europeans go there expecting skyscrapers and roaring cars on the wrong side of the road. Hyde Park might be Central Park and Canary Wharf might be Wall Street. But this comparison belittles New York and sullies London. Instead, London is closer to Toronto.

Mayfair is to Regent St. as Yorkville is to Bloor St. of Toronto. A posh neighborhood is lined with boutique shops, resting incognito behind the touristy and flamboyant Regent Street. A winding historic building, lights and arches in full galore, could be a pathway on a Giant Land pinball machine; the balls are the iconic double-decker-busses that wiz recklessly through the streets, much like the scene from the Harry Potter movie.

Riding on the top of one of these buses is a must, and a cheap way to get a good look at the city. The metro is relatively expensive (3£ a ticket) but highly efficient and a testament to the technologically competent British. Oyster cards (aka Octopus cards in Hong Kong, a former colony) are smart and slot commuters into the least expensive price bracket given the trips they’ve taken.

The first impressions London gives me are ones of diversity, cleanliness and helpfulness. It’s also resoundingly refreshing to hear English, albeit with an accent. People dress well, smell nice and seem ever so classy, yet they don’t hesitate to laugh at themselves. For example, the Bakerloo line is an amalgamation of Baker Street and Waterloo; it seems ever so frivolous compared to the regal sounding ‘King’s Cross’, but even there exists a tribute to J.K. Rowling’s platform 9¾.

Too few people talk of British coffee shops; they are never as highly regarded as French or Italian ones. Yet the espresso bar scene is widespread, similar to the outgrowth of bars seen in Toronto. At Kaffeine, microfoam of steamed milk is poured in a tasty shot and mixed in a riveting design, as is the norm in London and Toronto and unfound in Paris. Cafés have the same exposed wood communal tables and hipster baristas I know and love.

The bone marrow at St. John’s is probably the tastiest thing I’ve ever had. It’s glorified fat on a stick; it tastes better than it sounds. Frenzied diners scoop mountainous fatty globules from the inner compartment of the bone onto toast. The fat is spread like butter and accompanied by a fresh parsley salad. The restaurant is somehow refined despite the strained grey floorboards and deliberately austere walls. A cafeteria style dining area is wrapped around the formal restaurant, and both apparently serve the same menu and selection of local beers. For a more lavish (but just as expensive) restaurant, Wheeler’s serves impressive tuna Carpaccio and fish and chips complete with mushy peas. Finally, Indian food is good for budget dining.

London’s architecture is different than that of Paris and beautiful in its own right; it isn’t as forceful because there is an anachronistic mix. New buildings spring up everywhere and are often juxtaposed between remnants of the Victorian era. Lloyd’s building, for example, is excruciatingly ugly and ranks high up on any ugly buildings lists; yet historical structures maintain a presence. Both the Tower of London and Big Ben are standard tourist destinations and probably worth seeing.

London is a far cry from the dreary, grey and boring city as it is often described. Instead it’s a hub of international collaboration and on the leading edge of civilization. And it certainly does rain frequently, though I was lucky to have some beautiful days of sun. This is when London wakes up; the shiny new buildings reflect the rays onto the older ones. It has hardly as much character as Paris and is far less touristy, but it would be a wonderful city to live in.

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