LONDON, United Kingdom
Tristan and Victoria
March 09, 2008
I've been spending the past few days catching up with my hosts, Tristan and Victoria. They're friends who I met back in Urumqi, over my last year at Xinjiang University. Several years before making their way out to Urumqi, Tristan and Victoria were students here in London, at SOAS: The University of London School of Oriental and African Studies. Unsurprisingly, many of their friends are also fellow SOAS alumni. Hanging out with Tristan, Victoria, and their many friends, I've found myself in the unfamiliar state of not having to elaborate and give explanations as to just where it is I've come from whenever meeting somebody new. Not only do most of Tristan and Victoria's friends have a good sense of which places lie where around Asia, it seems like every last one of their friends has also made a trip to Urumqi at some point.
We've been quite social, most often getting together over food or drink. At home, there have been a couple dinner gatherings with me as chef, attempting to cook couscous or Indian food. Victoria has been busy in the kitchen often as well. Today she cooked up a traditional Sunday Roast. On occasion, we all go out somewhere: often to some pub or restaurant with friends. Thursday evening was even more of an event: Tristan invited us to the opening night party at the photography gallery where he works: lots of champagne flutes around. I found it amusing that, despite free booze flowing at the exhibition opening, we still followed the tradition of an obligatory pint at a nearby pub, both before and after the event.
Direct from Airport,
Dion Struggles with
Luggage at Tate Modern
I've been seeing other familiar faces as well. Saturday, I got together with Dion, who hosted me in Tbilisi earlier on this journey. She had literally just flown in, arriving from a long trip from Tbilisi mere hours before. Dion had only a few hours in London, so we took what time we could together. We caught up over breakfast at a simple restaurant near Victoria Station, then spent our remaining time visiting the Tate Modern.
It was good to re-connect with Dion. I've recently met up with several people around other parts of Europe, also people who I had previously met through CouchSurfing. It's good to affirm that there truly is more to CouchSurfing than a free night's lodging, good to know that there is a continuity to the connections made.
London is different from as I remember it. I suppose it has been nearly a decade since I was last here. And I never was all that connected to the city. But that said, here are some things I've been noticing that I don't recall from before:
- There are a lot university sweatshirts being worn around town these days. It's a style that I had associated purely as an American style of sweatshirt--that type with the skinny, bowed-out font. Some of the shirts I've seen are for actual U.S. institutions, though just as many proclaim institutions such as "Oxford" or "University of London".
- Initial and subsequent meetings with members of the opposite sex follow what I thought was more of a continental custom: kisses to both cheeks. Maybe this is how it's always been in England, but I just wasn't meeting so many people on previous visits. However, I find the practice so prevalent around London today that I suspect that habits have changed.
- All the top museums are free now. I'm certain that when I was last in London it cost several pounds to get into any museum at all. Now, all the best museums are free. So far, I've enjoyed days at the Victoria & Albert, the National Gallery, and the Tate Modern. I'm hoping to make it to the British Museum and Tate Britain, next.
- Alcohol consumption is the default on any given day. I'm guessing that this is likely how it was back when I last passed through England, only on this trip I'm aware because I have more locals to go out with. It seems like everybody will meet at the pub after getting off work for a pint or two. Or three. Then, a return to the pub for one last round after dinner.
- When I was last here, there was no Oyster card--it was necessary to buy tickets to take the Tube.
- Conversation always seems to come around to the topic of the NHS--the National Health Service. This usually means listening to somebody criticize and complain about how bad things are, though there are a few people who will defend the merits of the system. Examples are often cited of paperwork and bureaucracy, long waits to visit a specialist, and how members of other EU nations who live in Britain--most often, France--would rather make a journey back to their native country for treatment, despite being covered by Britain's NHS.
I try to keep out of what I don't know, but I do occasionally state that having any national health care system, no matter how broken, has to better than having no national health care system at all: the state of affairs in the U.S..
- Words seem to come up in every other sentence, words which we would seldom use in the U.S.. I had heard both brilliant and wicked used in slang before, with a sense akin to American great and cool. But I didn't realize how frequently people say them here. Furthermore, brilliant is often clipped to a simple, Brill! which always makes me think of American brand Brillo® scouring pads, whenever I hear somebody say the word.