When we decided that Lebanon was not the right destination for a family vacation this summer, we had to decide quickly on an alternative. We settled on London. Despite a lifetime of travel and innumerable transits through the city, I had never visited London. Each of us had a reason why they wanted to go to London. My parents first met there; so in a sense, I owe my existence to London. My wife, as a teenager, attended summer camps there and had not been back since. My daughter wanted to see the Monty Python show Spamalot and my son, a Chelsea fan, was promised a visit to Stamford Bridge stadium by friends of ours who are Chelsea fanatics. But the most compelling reason is the need, felt by myself and my wife, to leave the United States at least every twelve months. The source of this feeling is complex but it boils down to the need to periodically clear one's head from the fortress America mentality that seems to permeate many aspects of life in the United States since 9/11. I suspect that most Arab-Americans know exactly what I mean.
From a tourist's point of view, London did not disappoint. What's not to like: a lively city choke full of history, people from everywhere, big pompous old buildings, castles galore and ridiculously attired guards performing anachronistic rituals. We stayed in the Kensington area, a couple of underground stops from the Marble Arch, my parents' rendezvous spot several decades ago. We roamed the city by foot and the Underground and occasionally by bus. Despite its size, London feels cozy with few steel-and-glass skyscrapers and numerous pedestrian friendly and lively neighborhoods. Given the sizes of the crowds we saw everywhere, the Glasgow incident and the rigged London cars did not seem to have dented the city's tourist appeal. In a week's time we crammed as many of London's attractions as we could.
Clearly a week spent gawking at tourist attractions hardly qualifies me as a London or a UK expert. Nonetheless, a few things I saw made me stop and think a little beyond what was in the tourist brochure.
Windsor castle was one such place. I was astounded by the accumulated wealth contained within the walls of the castle, from the paintings to the arms lining the walls and the loot of war including Napoleon's Egyptian-made burnos. But more astounding was the fact that the castle and its contents were the property of the Royal family. I inquired with a friend in London about who pays for the upkeep of the castle. That set off my friend, a British republican, on a tirade about how the Royals live off the sweat of the people.
The British Museum was another place that both impressed me but also troubled me. Much of the content of the Museum was "taken" -to put it politely- from lands without the consent of the people of those lands. My daughter, a thoughtful fourteen year-old, had a similar reaction. She kept on whispering to me "it is not fair!" as we passed statues, parts of temple walls and other massive artifacts from Egypt, Greece and ancient Iraq among other places. When you see the size of some the artifacts and realize that they were dismantled and transported without modern machinery, you cannot but be amazed at the gall of those British colonialists from days past.
One final observation is the shocking contrast I observed between the glitzy center of London and some of the decrepit and neglected residential areas on the outskirts of London that I glimpsed on train rides in and out of the city. On our final day in London, the cab driver taking us to Victoria station to catch a train to Gatwick expressed frustration at the economic situation in the country. He was a Moroccan immigrant in the UK for ten years, but was making plans to resettle in Australia. He says that London has become too expensive for the average wage earner.
Clearly a week is not enough to understand this sprawling metropolis. We enjoyed our time in London and vowed to come back for more. My only regret is not being able to visit with my friend SB.