AN AMERICAN LONE WOLF IN LONDON: QUIETUDE
November 24, 2009 2 Comments
If you are American, like me, and are planning to spend some time in London then there’s a lot you may want to know. Nothing can take away from the actual experience of living here. No one can teach you that. Yet, if you are a rookie in the UK or making arrangements to study here abroad or live here for a time – there are some interesting tidbits, pitfalls and surprises that will ultimately become part of the best stories of your life.
I’ve been living here for five years. Back when I began studying here, I only knew London by its landmarks, rituals and monarchs. No one who arrives in central London is going to be very surprised to see the changing of the guards or Big Ben. They might be intrigued or excited, but not surprised.
What might prove to be a revelation, however, is the quiet. Now I don’t mean to paint a picture straight from The Sound of Music, with some nymph-like woman twirling around on a hilltop. London is a major city with traffic, rush hours, homeless people, tourists and criminals – make no mistake about it. Yet, there are subtleties that sneak up on the unsuspecting newcomer. For example, during rush hour in the city, you will almost never hear a car honk its horn. If you are from Minnesota, that might not be a huge surprise. But I’m from New York, and it’s not possible to walk through that asphalt jungle at 9AM on a Monday without hearing a cacophony of car horns. Every car is speaking, and though each one sounds different they are basically saying the same thing. ‘Get out of my way!’ Yet in London, a car horn is a rarity. You may hear one ever so often – but even then – other drivers are looking at the trigger happy horn blower as if he has utterly lost his mind.
Another reality is that Englanders, as a rule, are very reserved people. That is not to say that there aren’t scuffles, arguments, scenes, tirades and even the occasional fight. Still, on average, voices are at a moderate pitch. If you are from a major city in America, this may take getting used to. In my first year in London, I was always asking people to repeat themselves. I was also very aware of the stares I received whenever I spoke in public – the loud New Yorker that I am. I’ve since learned to lower my voice, so much so that when I return home, my family and friends are asking me for the first two days, ‘Why are you talking so softly? What’s wrong with you? Are you sick?’
These aspects of quietude gives London an overwhelming calmness that presents itself when least expected. One of my favourite hangouts was Leicester Square, which for all intents and purposes reminds one of Times Square if it was scaled down by about 60%. But right in the centre of the large movie theatres, restaurants and tourist shops is a tiny little park with trees, benches and statues. And though there is touristy mayhem and a vendor jamboree going on right outside the park, stepping in it is like entering a vacuum of hushed tranquillity. It’s as if the noise cannot penetrate the invisible walls of the park.
There are ever more interesting aspects about the journey that is England to be revealed in future blogs; as they are, even now, being revealed to me. Stay tuned for more. And remember, you don’t have to be American to relate to these experiences, and you don’t have to live in England to understand that every place on earth has its own special nuances. And the world keeps going ‘round.