For someone who had already visited 10 countries, London seemed like a relatively easy location.
The last country I had been in for an extended period of time was Morocco. There, I found the exact kind of unknown, exciting experiences I crave when traveling to new places. But England and the United States share a language, have similar cuisines, and are even inspired by overlapping fashion trends, so I couldn’t help but subscribe to the notion that England is too similar to the States for culture shock to be induced. These assumptions turned out to be right, but I learned about England and myself in ways I had never anticipated.
After a few weeks, I realized just how rich London’s culture was. I had forgotten that culture isn’t just a way of life and behavior, but something embedded in the arts, landscape, and history of a country. This city wears its history on its sleeve — the West End blares with the sounds of musicals and concerts, Shoreditch drips in street art, and the Royal Palaces display the steadfast traditions of the country.
England is one of the most historically rich countries I have visited, and it was astonishing to see buildings from the late 1800s as I walked to class, or to take a day trip to see wonders like Stonehenge that have been standing since 2500 BCE.
The prevailing mindset in the U.S. is to renew and stay up to date, so we often tear things down to make room for something new. In England, it’s quite the opposite.
Instead of demolishing, they restore or renovate in order to preserve the original architecture and design. The apartment I lived in had been redesigned into a dorm but, from the interior structures, you could tell it had once been a beautiful house with big rooms. The exterior structure of the buildings in Kensington still had the initial construction of the red and white brick from the time of Queen Victoria’s reign. It was inspired by the war and represented wounds being bandaged. Even the old corner pubs boasted the same architecture as they did during the 16th century.
It was as though the history books came to life, and I was peeking into the past of London’s prior life. When you walk through Westminster Abbey, you can see the tombs of Queen Elizabeth, King Henry VIII, and other famous monarchs. The thought of being a foot away from one of the most influential women on the planet was difficult to wrap my mind around.
Moments like this happened every day as I passed Winston Churchill’s home, had afternoon tea in Kensington Palace, or watched “Swan Lake” in the Royal Albert Hall. I’ve never been a history buff, but London left me awestruck.
There are many similarities between major American cities and London in terms of energy, diverse populations, and never-ending activities. But each city has its own personality, and I was surprised by what I discovered in London. Even if a new place seems easy from the outside, it’s always going to offer something different and exciting once you’re there.
Around the nine-week mark in London, I started to feel like I had transferred my entire life there. I adopted the rhythms of the city, went on runs through the Kensington Palace gardens, had drinks with co-workers on Fridays, found cafes hidden away in flower shops, and even started giving tourists directions. London shattered all of my expectations and amazed me every day.
Samuel Johnson once said, “You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
He was right.