City of Paradox

It’s the little things that remind you you’re living in a foreign country: the bananas are from the Cote d’Ivoire, not South America; the strawberries from France. You have to be very careful crossing the street – especially if you have my tenuous grasp on the concepts of “left” and “right”. And god forbid you should forget yourself and say pants instead of trousers! But the most fascinating things about life in London are the contradictions.

From a teaching perspective, puzzling pairings abound. The children are, in many cases, incredibly rude – they swear, they scream, they litter and spit. In my limited experience thus far, it’s unusual to have a class in which no one throws anything at anyone else. Yet they’re also incredibly articulate, strong writers and clever speakers. The point has been made that we North Americans now “own” the English language – and perhaps it’s a valid one. Not only are we the ones still pushing its linguistic envelope (go on, look up Jedi in the OED), but it’s also more likely for a Brit to be able to understand a Canadian’s accent than the other way around. But then you listen to these children speak, all the considered little pauses and inflections in their speech; you read their writing, see their command of vocabulary and punctuation; and it all belies the easy familiarity and breadth of the native speaker.

Some of this may have to do with the school system here, yet another contradiction: It’s more prescriptive, yet also more supportive than the BC system. The National Curriculum here dictates many more details than our provincial systems in Canada – right down to country-wide rubrics and teachers checking each other’s marks. Yet despite the temptation this creates for treating students even more like numbers, it comes hand in hand with another national policy: that of having “tutor groups”, wherein a teacher is assigned 20 or so students for the year and is responsible for ensuring that they are cared for each day. The tutor takes attendance first thing in the morning, before any formal classes, and often again in the afternoon; she provides relevant announcements in order to keep her pupils connected to the school community, and ensures that they are keeping their uniforms tidy, using their agendas, bringing their equipment to school. If behaviour or other problems arise the tutor becomes involved as a mentor, along with subject teachers and administrators. It’s a formalized advocacy system, essentially, and while of course it works better at some schools, with some teachers and children, than others, I think it’s impressive that it’s policy. Impressive – or perhaps worrying, that it HAS to be policy, and can’t just be the unspoken professional responsibility it is back home. Hmm.

The paradoxes of London life are evident in the wider city as well. Londoners take immense pride in their national history, much of it incredibly bloody, racist and nationalist – while simultaneously welcoming a growing immigrant population from every nation under the sun. I’ve talked a little about the food here, but when you look at it from this perspective it starts to make sense – the English don’t need a strong national food; they’ve got everyone else’s! I haven’t had sushi here yet, but surprisingly, it abounds, alongside Chinese, Thai, Jamaican, Indian, and various flavours from the nearby regions of the Continent. I never go a day’s travel on the tube without hearing at least half a dozen different languages. I’m also starting to learn that the reality of English food can escape the stereotype, depending on where you go. There really are a whole host of native flavours – fresh bread, organic produce, Cumbrian cheese. I visited Borough Market recently, and while on the surface it reminded me a little of Granville Island, the sheer abundance and variety of food, the crush of the crowds, and the Cockney calls of the merchants created a real Old World market feeling, something straight out of a period piece.

This is, as I’ve pointed out before, a city of rules and regulations. And, incredibly, they work. The museums and galleries here, gloriously, are almost all free – yet they’re cleaner, more secure, more current and better staffed than most of ours. You often feel as though you’re being managed as you move through this city – managed deftly, but managed nonetheless. The tube system is especially indicative of this, with its innumerable reminders about minding the gap, its constant service updates, its tight security (including, rather disturbingly, the fact that there are no trash cans, only metal rings holding clear plastic bags, because the IRA used to plant bombs in the metal cans). Yet amid all this utilitarianism there is a flourishing love of art, and history, and music. Londoners seem prouder and more supportive of their role as cultural mecca than many of the world’s other major cities. In Athens, from what I saw, it was unusual to run into locals at museums or performances – here, it’s perfectly normal to tour the Science Museum or attend the Opera alongside people who live here, but don’t take here for granted.

Even the very act of experiencing this great city is fraught with contradiction. I find myself wanting to see everything, all at once – and often trying to do so much in a single day that I hardly remember where I’ve been when I get home. And taking photographs isn’t always a good way to create lasting memories – I often have to stop myself, put the camera away, and remind myself to stay in the moment, to experience rather than just record. It is an overwhelming place. As a newcomer it’s necessary to carve out space for yourself here and there, manageably-sized chunks of city that you can wrap your mind around, claim as part of your experience. And my favourite, so far, is the River Thames.

It’s one if the parts of the London experience that makes it manageable to wrap your mind around this much history. Buildings change, roads shift, culture takes unexpected twists and turns, some of them disappointingly in sync with the rest of the world. Because hey, we expect England to be jolly and cobbled, not to live down the street from Coca Cola’s London headquarters (seriously, it’s like two blocks away). But, as far as the human conception of time is concerned, the river has always been here. Everyone who’s ever lived in London,  has walked along it, skated on it, thrown up into it, written about it, gazed across it as moonlight twinkles or the sun rises. It’s a size we can comprehend, and, like all great rivers, it’s the reason there’s a city here in the first place. And of the few things I’m sure will stay fresh in my mind, long after I give up my old-timey keys and turn in my train pass, is the simple, tangible, manageable memory of sitting by the Thames. I’ll remember gazing out at the deep dark twinkle of city lights on cold water, breathing in the rivery smell that reminds me just a little of home.

Here are some things I have committed to film for posterity – take a gander when you’ve got the chance. (And while I’m on the subject of posterity, I’ll be framing this sometime soon – congrats Andrew and Aliesha! Can’t wait for the wedding!)

Hyde Park (31 pictures) – very beautiful, and some really interesting structures, not least the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain and the Prince Albert Memorial with its… um… less than PC depictions of the four corners of the Empire.

The Victoria and Albert Museum (58 pictures) – Arts through the ages. Only scratched the surface, but snapped some shots of the most beautiful things I saw, and had a nice old gentleman take a shot of me on a gorgeous wrought iron bench.

The Science Museum (57 pictures) – Completely amazing. The best bits were definitely the NASA bits and pieces, including mission gear from Apollo. The history of technology displays, each a different era in a nutshell, were also fabulous… I took a short video of each. It’s amazing that we can get such a sense of time and place and memory just from some bits of plastic and metal.

North Ealing (5 pictures) – This one’s really just for Bryan, and anyone who’d like to see where Bryan worked when he was here in the 70’s.

PS: I notice that no one’s had a gander at last week’s “Literary City” album yet, and I’m curious (but in no way offended!) – have you not had time? Did the update not come through? Is Flickr hard to use? Can you see the captions I added to the photographs? Gimme some feedback – it makes me feel less like I am whistling in the dark! 🙂 Love you all – I’ll be back with more soon.


5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Erin N. on March 22, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    I perused your album last week, I swear!

    I greatly enjoyed your post this week. I understand your urge to consume all you can of London culture while you’re there and the overwhelming need to take a picture of everything. I do that when I travel (not that I’ve traveled much…) and even in the everyday, all in an effort not to forget. But I always wonder if I’m absorbing as much of the experience I’m trying to remember when I’m caught behind a camera lens. Ugh, when will they invent a memory recording device for you mind? Come one scientists, speed up!

    Also, I like your observation about the city’s layout and feeling “managed” when you move through the streets. We have less free will than we like to believe (if any…) when even our movements are dictated by the length of a sidewalk and the placement of a building, always being directed somewhere.

    Now I’m going to look at your new photos…


  2. Posted by Aunt Kathy on March 24, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    Hi Sam,
    Have not looked at all the photos yet but enjoyed the read and update from this week.I will try to Skype later today both yourself and BC. We were away last week without the laptop sometimes a good thing! We were checking out next years rental 7 hrs south of Panama City Beach, hoping for a warmer winter and a few more things to do where we are going; Tarpon Springs, a huge Greek community complete with the diving of the cross in Jan each year. We stayed here 9 years ago and liked it; have friends there and we are looking forward to the change next winter. It is also where they dive for sponges and it is the big source of work in this small quaint town.


  3. Posted by Bryan Peter on March 24, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    Sam, Thanks for stopping at The Greystoke. Brought back memories like the 1964 Autstin Van I had bought for 15 pounds. It was quite small but huge and awkward when driving on the wrong side. I once was driving down Broadway and getting stuck behind a double decker pulled out to pass it and scrapped the back corner of the bus. Horrified, I stopped and spoke with the driver, he said, “How was the damage?” I said, hard to tell but I left some paint along with others. “Don’t worry and carry on”. Hmm, I worked 60 hour weeks at the pub and lived up stairs. All for 16 pounds a week and keep. I left the van in the parking lot at the Pub and went to Spain for a couple of months, the Governer sold it for a bottle of whiskey.
    Your writings are very good Sam I look forward to reading them. How long are you staying? The pictures really make me want to go back for a visit. London is a very cool city.

    cheers Bryan


  4. Posted by Dianne and Ivan Mills on March 24, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    I am now caught up on your blogs and pictures. Your pictures are fantastic. Keep them coming. I sat here all afternoon and went through everything. No housework done (who cares). As I said before, I envy you. Make the most of it while you are there. Glad teaching is getting a little easier.

    Take care – I am looking forward to more blogs and pictures.

    Love Aunt Dianne and Uncle Ivan


  5. Posted by Dixie on April 3, 2010 at 3:12 am

    Wow Samatha this is great, it reads like I’m there walking beside you……. wish I was. Have a good one and soak everything in.
    take care Dixie


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