Thursday, July 12, 2012

Return to London

I've lived in several places since graduating from high school, but I haven't really gone back to visit many of them. Obviously, I moved back to my college town, and I was shocked at how much things had changed. But I haven't been back to Milwaukee, Columbus or Charlottesville (yet, the flight is booked) since moving away.

And this trip was the first time I've been back to London since I spent a semester there in 2005. For me, going back was similar to how it would be to go back to any of the other cities, except that there is a lot more to see in London. But I loved seeing what had changed and what stayed the same, and I spent a lot of time trying to picture in my head what it was like seven years ago. We stayed in a hotel in the neighborhood where I lived. The hotel wasn't great, but it was nice to already know my way around to some extent.

We went back and saw my apartment building, and I walked back from dinner one night on a route I used to take pretty frequently and stopped at the grocery store where I used to shop. We'd also be out exploring the city, and I'd pause at a spot and know what was done a random street or realize we were on the same route I always took to work or to classes.

WHAT CHANGED: There used to be a pretty ghetto grocery store next to the tube stop, and it's been replaced by a much nicer grocery store. There's also a Whole Foods on Kensington High Street. Frozen yogurt shops have popped up everywhere there, similar to the U.S., and it felt like that had replaced gelato (sad!). There seemed to be free Wifi everywhere. Granted that seven years ago, I had a laptop instead of an iPhone so I wouldn't have noticed all the hotspots but still free Wifi in the tube stations, very hard to believe! I didn't even see the Internet cafe I used constantly in the neighborhood, but why would you need it?

Maybe it's because I'm not a student trying to use money wisely or that the exchange rate was 1.5 pounds to $1 instead of 2 pounds to $1, but it felt less expensive than it did when I was living there. But that might just be my perception or lack of calculating the exchange rate at that point in the trip. And I mostly focused on seeing things that don't charge an entrance fee.

I was in London from January to April, so I missed the bulk of the tourist season. (By the end of April, it was getting too crowded for me.) And I don't know if this is a time of year thing or just changes in the last seven years, but Portobello Market has grown a lot, not just in people but in the length of it and the number of booths. These crowds made me a little anxious.

And obviously, the Olympics have changed some things. In 2005, London was competing with other cities to get the Olympics, so there were lots of London 2012 signs. But now that they are just a couple of weeks away from the Olympics, most of the signs are warning people to prepare for increased traffic everywhere — on buses, trains, roads. But there were cool things like the countdown in Trafalgar Square, the Olympic rings in St. Pancras station and the gold medals on display at the British Museum.

I also felt like I was in Paris in February — everything was being "refurbished." Everywhere we went there was construction (including at our hotel). And stuff was closed or limited because of renovations, nothing terrible, but it really made me wonder if all this stuff was going to be ready. Because when I was there, London was not looking prepared to be shown off to the world. Hopefully, they get it together and things run smoothly for the Olympics.

WHAT STAYED THE SAME: The thing about traveling in Europe is that everything is old. We think things that are 100 or 200 years old in the U.S. are really old, but in Europe you have stuff that has been around for much longer than 200 years and obviously that doesn't change. Roads stay the same, as does the tube system. I used my A to Z map and tube map a fair amount, but there were some places I probably could have gotten to without a map.

Since we stayed in my old neighborhood, we used the same tube station I used daily for four months, and nothing had changed about it. We ended up in an underground walkway to a tube station that I used to walk through frequently to get from work to class. The smell is still the same, and birds still get in freak you out.

The exhibits in museums are always changing, and I don't remember that many of the museums. But there was definitely a familiarity in the museums we visited. In the Victoria & Albert Museum, it took me a while, but I found the balcony over the room of sculptures that I loved. Of course, it was all being "refurbished" but at least it existed.

The bigger grocery store I shopped in was still there and looked exactly the same. I could go right to the aisle I needed. (The candy aisle, in case you were wondering. Cadbury chocolate is much better over there.)

OK, I'm sure there are many more things, but this was my brain dump on London. The next post will have lots of pictures.

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