"There's a hole in the world like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
and its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit
and it goes by the name of London."
Whenever I think of London, England, I think of the aforementioned stanza from Sweeney Todd, a Broadway musical about a barber/serial killer set amidst the nineteenth century squalor of the capital. It is a place with an illustrious, albeit controversial, history. A global centre of commerce and culture and corgis, one of THE greatest, most influential cities in the world. And yet ... it is also probably one of the most difficult places I've travelled to. The only place where I've ever felt that being a polite, friendly Canadian has put me at a disadvantage.
Londoners don't have time for polite.
Londoners are primed to eat people alive.
"I, too, have sailed the world and seen its wonders
for the cruelty of men is as wondrous as Peru
but there's no place like London."
Take, for example, my first hour in London (2007). Having just landed at Heathrow Airport, I was still excited from seeing the iconic red double-decker buses navigate the roadways from 20,000 feet descending. Then, while in the airport, I became more excited at overhearing the variety of British dialects (that I love so much). Several of my senses were now fully computing that I was, indeed, in a foreign land which made me MORE excited for the upcoming adventure. Slightly lost, I approached an older gentleman wearing a security uniform.
"Excuse me, can you tell me how to access the Tube?"
For full effect, one should re-read that while thinking of Oliver Twist's famous line "Please sir, can I have some more?" because that is how I felt after receiving the response. I felt like I – a perplexed, lost visitor from a foreign land in a freakin' AIRPORT – could not be inconveniencing this AIRPORT EMPLOYEE more by asking a relatively simple question. The security guard took one glance at me and sneered "Can't you read the bloody sign?"
I stood, my mouth agape. My father, whom I was traveling with, whispered to just keep walking.
And so we did.
That bit of rudeness was but a taste of what was to come. From hotel staff that couldn't be arsed to divert their attention away from a tiny television playing an especially riveting arc in Coronation Street (I am not making this up), to a sales clerk that actually apologized for his initial rudeness to me because he assumed I was American (I am also not making this up), my first excursion to The Big Smoke was a real eye-opener. I admit, all I knew about traveling through Europe up until that point was learned by watching National Lampoon's European Vacation. The British were supposed to be mannerly, genteel and self-effacing. Instead, I encountered some of the biggest assholes on the planet. People that went out of their way, it seemed, to be passive-aggressive-aggressive at the slightest opportunity.
Of course, these statements don't apply to ALL Londoners.
But I encountered enough on a daily basis, either personally or through observation, to have it temper my impression of the city. It did not feel like a welcoming place.
So why would I want to return, as I will be in the new year?
Because I am more seasoned now. Less wide-eyed Dorothy from Kansas, more agile Lara Croft. One's experiences shape personality, character and outlook. Since 2007, I've developed an arsenal of charm ... and belligerence, when needed, as well as a mighty fine suit of invisible armour.
Because I may be Canadian but England accounts for 50% of my lineage. Somewhere within me, I have the fortitude to swim where others may sink. It is my ancestry. It is my very blood.
And because there's no place like London.