In which I attempt to describe London’s spirit through architecture, local habits, and vegetables.
London is busy but relaxed. Like any city, London is a hub of activity. There are more things to do and see than one can possibly fit into a single vacation, maybe even a single lifetime – but goodness knows that this fact doesn’t stop Londoners and tourists alike from trying to do it all. Yet despite this constant hustle and bustle, London is also the most leisurely city I’ve ever come upon, and I don’t just say that because the tube closes at midnight (which, by the way, is really annoying). No, I say that because, although Londoners know how to keep busy, they also know how to purposefully relax. To put down everything and take a break from the continual motion. As a New Yorker, I find such intentional and extended rests strange, but a pleasant change, too.
London is crowded but spread out. Geographically, London is huge, but the city’s giant scope is often not felt in one’s immediate area. The buildings are relatively short for an urban environment, and it’s not peculiar at all to wander down empty streets in the middle of the day.
London is friendly but reserved. I’ve lost track of the number of times that a Brit has approached me while I stand on a street corner glaring at my map. Locals are not only generous with helping lost tourists, but will go out of their way to do so rather than waiting for the tourist to ask them and then grudgingly give directions (as more frequently occurs in NYC). But this London friendliness is not exuberant; tones and faces remain calm, and to offer more help than needed pushes into the territory of rude.
London is the familiar made strange. Sometimes, for brief moments, I will forget that I am not in America: everyone speaks English; the buildings, although generally squatter and older, resembles NYC’s gorgeous mish-mash of architectural styles; and the weather is more-or-less like the temperamental Seattle weather I grew up with. But then I remember my location again with a jolt: I have to press floor ‘0’ in an elevator, rather than floor 1, to get to the ground floor; the speaker inside the tube announces in a distinctly British posh accent to ‘mind the gap’ as we step inside instead of to just watch your step; and the plethora of British coins is not only confusing, but very heavy inside my wallet.
Does this riddle of contradictions help at all in describing the spirit of place within London? Hopefully a simile will help. For me, London’s genius loci
, its characteristic atmosphere, is much like mushy peas
. Mushy peas, for those unexposed to this gem from English culture, are essentially mashed potatoes, but with peas instead of potatoes (and no, that’s not the technical definition or recipe, but that’s how I think of them). It’s an English comfort food, served frequently with pies or fish and chips. Peas are not a difficult vegetable to acquire in the western world nowadays, but the specific peas required for mushy peas (marrowfat ones) are harder to locate if you’re not in the U.K. The sight is bright green, not a sickly green, but rather a healthy shade of growth and harvest; the taste is soft, a substance flavored rather than dominated by its vegetables; the smell, too, is soft, a delicate scent of mingled gardens and salts. Mushy peas do not overwhelm the palate with distinction, but rather comfort with a familiarity that, although strange, is welcome.
If you can’t tell, although there are some days when I miss my good ol’ American garden peas, I really do like mushy peas, too.