Every city has a pattern. Some are organized into grids- some about a central expressway or an intersection of those. Some are oriented in a way to divert traffic to certain districts. London is all of these. It’s a constant reminder of its rich history as an evolving city from the time of the Roman Empire. It isn’t in a grid of streets or even circled about a central location like many European cities. The river Thames cuts it in two, so it’s an easy reference point.
Every day, I get dressed in warm clothes, and I cross the Thames on my commute to class. My first consideration, of course is blending in. The style of people over here is much different. I’ve only worn black pants since I arrived. I bought a Barbour and Burberry coat, both for warmth and because I can’t afford something like a Canada Goose. Warm clothes are of paramount import, followed by the function you’re dressing for. Suits for days with meetings- expensive outfits for going out. The people dressing for work generally prefer suits and overcoats, which reminds me of the way Peaky Blinders dress. Mostly dark colors. Other international students are usually the only ones wearing outfits out of the norm- Americans prefer Patagonia, LL Bean Boots, Sperrys or Vineyard Vines. Chinese students prefer outfits worth more than a year of my tuition cobbled together from luxury brands like Off-White, Gucci and Supreme. London is a fashion capital- you simply must consider the image you project.
My commute is an easy one mile walk (don’t ask me for the kilometer conversion). I start across Blackfriars Bridge and I look to my right, at the financial district in the background and the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in the foreground. I’d make a comment about religions of man changing over time, if I were wittier. I take a left after the bridge- joining the throng of commuters, all looking at the ground, none talking to any other, all bound for their work, school, or play. I walk along the Thames opposite the London Eye, in the direction of Parliament and Big Ben. Every morning, I’m greeted with the sun coming over the river to my left over the House of Parliament. There’s a bronze statue, titled ‘City Worker Hailing a Cab’, to my right, past the J.P. Morgan Building. Some days, his expression seems hopeful. Other days, panicked. Still others it reflects the melancholy of a midweek commute. Perhaps that’s the art in it. I’m a math major- don’t ask me.
You can’t see the Thames, the central reference point of London, from inside the city. The distinctive skyscrapers of London offer a secondary reference for lost folks- the Shard, the Gherkin, Canary Wharf, all offer waypoints to orient yourself. But it’s often the case on the narrow streets that you can’t see anything but the buildings immediately in front of you. If your phone is dead (as mine consistently is), you resort to following the maps on bus stops and referencing signs pointing you at landmarks. I have a disposition to wanting to learn the city by heart instead of using my phone, so I’m perfectly ok with getting lost a little on the way. You get the best experiences like that, in my humble opinion. Finding little shops serving any kind of food you like. Doner, Fish and Chips, hole-in-the-wall pubs you file in your memory for later but never visit again because you can’t find them. Vintage markets selling Barbour jackets from 1980 alongside classic records. Tailors offering insane discounts due to competition from international brands.
I retrace my steps back after class along the same route. The statue seems more hopeful after I’ve been in class and have the day under my belt. There’s graffiti opposite Blackfriars station reading ‘Things go right if you do all the little things right’. Someone has scratched out ‘all the little things’. Returning to my dorm, I cross in front of the Tate Modern and take the lift to the fourth floor. It’s a double, and my roommate is usually watching political videos or typing his essays. I feel bad for him because all I have are problem sets for quantitative courses- he feels bad for me for the same reason.