Tag Archives: england

the little things.

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”

–Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I’ve been known to get things wrong before, especially when it comes to travel bookings. Booking my flight home for Christmas, I purchased it so fast I didn’t realise my return journey to London included an unintentional 12-hour (and not to mention, overnight) layover in Chicago. I’ll be leaving Richmond on a Monday night, arriving in Chicago at 9pm, departing at 9am the next morning and not getting back to London until 10.45pm Tuesday night.

Epic fail. Epic travel fail.

But as it turns out, my flight to the States today also included another unexpected twist. My itinerary with American Airlines was to start off with a quick jaunt north to Manchester, from where I would catch a flight to Chicago and then on to my final stop, Wichita, Kansas. An AA representative had a quick look at my schedule, though, before saying, “Oh, no, that couldn’t be with us. We don’t fly to Manchester.” A brief dart of panic shot through me. I’d been anticipating this–a stopover in Manchester before an international flight just seemed too weird–and I had my Please-Have-Pity-On-Me sob story all ready for use at a moment’s notice: “But you don’t understand, I have to get on this flight. My sister just had surgery…brain surgery…and my brother’s meeting me in Kansas…Kansas!

The script wasn’t needed, after all. “You need to go to Terminal 5, Miss,” the woman explained. “You’re flying to Manchester with British Airways.”

I’m what? I wanted to ask, but I knew better than to question this little stroke of luck. I might as well have been picking up the Ford Taurus rental car I’d hypothetically scheduled and been told a Lexus was waiting for me outside. I’m not well-acquainted with upgrades when it comes to the world of travel, so as I walked down the jet bridge, where there stood freshly-pressed stacks of the Daily Mail, the Independent, and Financial Times–all complimentary, of course–I knew I was in new territory.

That’s also when I realised life is all about the little things. When it comes to flying, I’m more accustomed to the business plans of budget airlines, whereby they strip you down to nothing but a body. Don’t get me wrong, the insanely low base fares are well-worth the inherent demoralisation (recent bookings have involved a $14 flight to Sardinia, Italy, and a $20 flight to Porto, Portugal–thank you, RyanAir), but what these fares don’t include are the $10 administrative fee, the baggage fees, the online check-in fees, the extra transport to London’s less prominent airports, and they certainly don’t include free copies of the UK’s finest publications, nor other more important incidentals involving nourishment. There have even been rumors concerning RyanAir and a potential charge for using the toilet, which seems like they’re just asking for a lawsuit.

But on my unexpectedly lovely ride in luxury this morning, I was amazed at how nice it was to have all those small touches again–the newspapers, the leather seats, and the built-in headrests that seem to welcome you in like an old friend–and then, as if that wasn’t enough, the pilot came on once we were in the air and said, “We are pleased to be serving you a hot baguette with tea or coffee this morning.”

Could it get any better? On one of those 40-minute flights that seems to begin preparing for landing before it’s even taken off? And as I sat there, sipping on hot coffee, a little plastic cup of orange juice, and tucking into a baguette filled with warm tomatoes and bacon, I thought of how nice it was to feel like a human being again, not just a body filling a seat, and how the simplest gestures bring such a smile to your face.

The little things can go a long way, can’t they?

 

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snow day.

“And finally Winter, with its bitin’, whinin’ wind, and all the land will be mantled with snow.”
–Roy Bean

Snow day.

Can you think of two words with a more magical connotation? Growing up near the beach, I can remember waking up and holding my breath for a quick moment right before pulling back the blinds every time snow had been forecast. It was hardly ever there, but in the few times it was, when the world outside lay beneath a blanket of snow, there was barely enough time to throw on clothes. Because snow was so rare, we never had the right kind of gear. We’d pull on parachute-like track pants over our jeans, three pairs of socks with our trainers, and mismatched hats and coats. Waterproof was a foreign idea.

This awe and wonder continued through my first year of college, where I’d wander the campus with my camera and love how often it snowed in the mountains. The world was transformed, back gardens off the Lawn without a footprint to mar their powdered landscape. But in winter of my second year, the white stuff and I had a bit of a falling out. Suddenly, living miles off campus put me  out of walking distance to class or work in inclement weather. A weak battery in my car meant countless mornings it wouldn’t start and ice to battle against while scraping sheets of it off my windshield. Snow became something to endure, not enjoy.

But here in London, without the stress of not being able to get where I need to be, I’ve found myself falling back in love with snow, rediscovering that childhood wonder, in fact even hoping for it. The past couple of weeks the temperature has dropped so bitterly (okay, okay, to freezing level), it seemed almost like it’d be unnatural for a few flurries not to result from it. They’ve been calling for snow since early last week and finally, last night, it came.

I woke up today and let out a little scream at the sight of big white flakes tumbling from the sky. I pulled on boots, hat and jacket and rushed out the door with my camera, if only for a few seconds to get a picture or two. The ground was scarcely covered, but brittle autumn leaves had crystallised beautifully overnight. Even though I spent the morning reading on the couch, instead of outdoors building a snow fort or sledding, it was such a lovely change of pace seeing a white blur in the window out of the corner of my eye.

And while the dusting on the ground today may not have been enough to make a snow angel in, not even enough to make the smallest of snowballs out of, it was just enough to make me smile.

Flashback to January of 2009 and my first snowfall in London.

 

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a week’s worth of thankfulness.

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
— G.K. Chesterton

The last Thursday in November is inevitably the one day of the year where my homesickness soars to unprecedented levels. Yes, being away for Christmas is hard, but there’s something about Thanksgiving that makes it even harder. After hearing other Americans the past couple of weeks explain to Brits what it exactly it is that makes the holiday so wonderful to them, I’ve realized I’m not alone in my sentiments: it’s like Christmas, but better. All the food and family and fun, with none of the pressure of gifts and certainly nowhere near the massive commercialization. And so I’ve come to expect that pang, a little twinge of sadness, every time I Skype home on Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s just that my entire extended family seems to have that afterglow of gluttony on their faces and all I’ve had is spaghetti, but I always miss home a little more this time of the year.

When we were younger, my mother–much to the chagrin of everyone’s grumbling stomachs–would hand out five kernels of corn to each of us and before we dared touch the turkey, dip a finger into creamy mashed potatoes, or, God forbid, sample Grandma’s green jello salad, we had to go around and say five things we were thankful for. I hate lists and will have nothing to do with them in my normal blog routine–we can all figure out the “Top 10 Most Amazing” whatever’s wherever on our own, right? But, in the spirit of the season and given that it’s been an exceptionally good week in London, I thought I might dig up the old tradition…with or without the kernels to help me count.

1. Flatmates

I spent the summer at home practically stalking sites like Gumtree (a British version of Craig’s List) and Kingston’s own accommodation site. I bought Skype credit to call landlords and agents and did my best to convince them I would wire over a deposit to secure a room for September. Ha! Like that worked well. But now that it’s been two months since moving into my current flat in London, I can, with that blessed gift of hindsight, see why none of my desperate attempts this summer panned out. Although both Welsh Nick and Zambian-English Keith are lovely, it’s an Essex girl named Claire who has made me know for sure I was meant for this flat. Whether it’s catching up on the latest episode of Gossip Girl, nipping over to our local pub for a quick drink, or sharing travel stories and plans for new trips, my new friendship with Claire is one of those connections that makes each day a little brighter.

2. Food

Keeping in with the theme of one our favorite shows–“Come Dine With Me,” in which a group of four or five random people take turns cooking and entertaining each other–Claire has been fixing up some exquisitely tasty dinners for us the past few Friday nights. Two weeks ago it was a Moroccan-themed dish of lamb and red peppers, stuffed with chili, couscous, and halloumi cheese. Last week it was a Thai green curry with chicken and veges. “Where will we go next week?” Claire asked as we sat down to eat.

3. Events

I first met Dr. Chris Barlow, a fine art historian, two years ago through my flatmates at the time, Kim and Emily. Although they’ve seen moved back to the States, they sent me an email from Chris about a month ago, an invitation for the opening night of a contemporary art exhibition here in London. I was intrigued, and invited my Slovenian friend Tanja along to take advantage of her art expertise. The exhibit, held in La Galleria along the Royal Opera Parade, was called “Parallax,” which, I’ve since found out, means, “the apparent displacement of an object as seen from two different points that are not on a line with the object” (thanks, Princeton.) The paintings and pieces displayed couldn’t have been any more different from each other, but apparently that was the idea. “The theme is that there is no theme,” Chris explained to us. “How very postmodern of you,” was my response. “We need a new art history,” Tonja said to Chris as they discussed it further. I simply rolled my eyes, loving every minute of it.

 

Robert Bodem, “An Invitation,” bronze. £25,000. Yes, you read that right.

4. Travel bloggers

It’s true. Ever since TBEX in Copenhagen, I can’t get enough of them. Even as we parted ways after our whirlwind Danish adventure, I was excited to find out that many of the people I met at the conference are based here in London. I’ve since gotten together with some of them at a house party hosted by the esteemed Travelling Editor, otherwise known as Dylan. Last week I had a chance to attend a lunch the Dubai Tourism Board was giving especially for travel bloggers  and last night, Matt and Deborah of Travel With a Mate hosted a monthly London Travel Bloggers meetup at the Founders Arm in Blackfriars, where I got to catch up with my friend Justin and hear about the next 48-Hour Adventure he’s got up his sleeve. Conversations with Justin, Dylan and their friends were some of the most stimulating and thought-provoking I’ve had in a while, from freedom for Tibet to genocide in Africa and figuring out just how to make our love for travel and the world work. Who knew Copenhagen would open up so many doors in London?

5. The view

With a wall of windows overlooking the Thames, last night’s pub couldn’t have been located any better. As enjoyable as the conversations were around our table, I felt myself distracted half the time by the dome of St. Paul’s literally just across the river. It’s amazing how easy it is to get caught up in yourself here, in the craziness of commuting and the busy-ness of life. But pressing pause for a few seconds just to take in the view around me is enough to know I couldn’t imagine being anywhere but here

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seaside on a saturday.

“Brightly coloured beach huts are an essential part of the British coast. They go together with ice creams, sandcastles and the unreliable British weather to form part of our experience of summer by the seaside.”

–Seasidehistory.co.uk

Catching the bus for Southwold, I am distinctly aware of being the youngest on board. By about four decades at least. Every other white-haired passenger wears oversized polarfleece zip-ups produced by brands like “Arctic Storm.” I’m sporting a black leather jacket. But that doesn’t mean I’m not loving this trek to an out-of-the-way seaside town of no more than 1,500.

At an intersection, signs point the way to places like Spexhall (2.5km), Bungay (8km), and Beckley (9km) and it’s nice to not have any idea of where I’m going. Each little place we pass through, places like Blyford and Wenhaston Village, is lined with cottages with names that hang next to their doors on painted signs; names like Honeysuckle, Driftwood, Fern, Daisy, and then, questionably, Post Office Cottage. A row of terraced houses is painted in such a way that it resembles the inside of a carton of neapolitan ice cream. This is an altogether lovely corner of the country, I think to myself.

By the time we arrive in Southwold, my nostalgia is moving with full force and I make straight for the beach. Two months in the capital have left me itching for salt in the air and gulls squawking above. Maybe it was a week my family once spent at the beach over Thanksgiving when I was seven years old, but there’s something about being near an ocean in the winter that always gets me. Walking along the shore, it isn’t so much about the warmth of the sun and the swimming anymore, but a fundamental state of being, the openness and a briny chill in the air.

I quickly grow obsessed with the beach huts that line Southwold’s promenade. They’re nothing more than your standard backyard shed with a little porch tacked on the front, except they seem imbued with all of the character and personality Americans normally give their beach homes. Each hut has a name and is painted in distinct and vivid colors–bold primaries, funky teals and fuschias, and quiet pastels. Apparently they date as far back to the early twentieth century, when British conservatism and modesty was at a high. Changing in public was strictly forbidden, so city councils began providing the huts as changing rooms. Many are outfitted with small stoves, so that no one will have to sacrifice afternoon tea for a day at the beach.

There’s an old man working on the door of a hut named Nollers Nock. I walk up to him and ask frankly, “Is this yours?” When he realizes there’s someone standing there, I have more questions. How do these work, I ask him, do you sleep here or just hang out during the day? Do people own or rent them, are they passed on from generation to generation?

“Oh, yes, this one’s been in the family since the 1960s I’d say.”

“And is that how it normally works?”

Before he can answer, a woman’s voice from inside the cabin calls out, “Not as much as they used to be.”

“Sorry, voice from the deep,” she says again, poking her head out of the door, holding a curtain rod in her hands onto which she is in the process of sliding gauzy material.

I leave them to finish their improvements in peace and soon pass a family, little Tom and Rachel all bundled up. Tom has a small red spade which apparently Rachel wants back, despite the larger blue alternative her mother holds out to her. As usual, Tom sets off waddling down the sand like a goose with a limp, Dad and Rachel running after him.

“Don’t snatch it from him, please, Rachel,” her father exhorts. “Remember what we talked about yesterday? He just needs a bit of time to warm up before he hands it over.”

Rachel isn’t so understanding.

I make a final loop down the beach and then, full of sea air, pop into the Boardwalk Café for a coffee and a place to eat my lunch. From my seat at a long counter facing the ocean, I can see the lighthouse and the very top of St. Edmund’s church. There’s an old man wearing a naval cap sitting at the end of the bar from me. He reaches into his fleece and pulls out a pair of binoculars that hang on a string around his neck. He stares out through them towards the horizon for such a period of time that I start to wonder if maybe I’m missing something.

But then I look again at the rows of brightly colored beach huts, at the fisherman gathered under large umbrellas at the end of the pier, and at the muted sunshine glinting through the clouds onto the surface of the sea, and I know that no, I’m not missing anything.

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how UK travel is like internet dating.

“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore.”

–Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

I’ve recently taken to comparing travel within the UK to Internet dating.

It’s one thing to spend a few hours getting your itinerary together–buying regional train tickets, noting their times and working out local bus schedules–and yet it’s another thing altogether seeing how it works out in reality. In a similar vein, seeing someone online is a nice thought. You can learn a couple of things about them and view their (undoubtedly enhanced) photos but the real test (not that I would know…) comes when you meet them in person. Will they measure up? Will they follow through with everything they promised? You can only hope for the best, right?

And so I set out for the seaside town of Southwold this morning fearing for my life.

Well, perhaps not life–no need for the melodrama, I suppose–but at least my sanity. The last time I attempted a “day trip” in the UK a few weeks ago, things didn’t end so smoothly. It turns out London Midlands rail service isn’t quite as punctual or efficient as her online profile leads you to believe. As the train delays began stealing precious hours from my life, I began cursing their inane scheduling shortfalls. Leave it to be said there was no shortage of weeping and gnashing of teeth before that night was through.

Nearly a month ago, though, I came across a tiny blurb in Lonely Planet magazine mentioning the Ways With Words literature festival being held this weekend in Southwold, England. Although I might’ve happily gone along no matter how illustrious a line-up they had on, one particular speaker arrested my attention: Alain de Botton. With his books often said to cover “the philosophy of everyday life,” he’s a phenomenal writer and thinker, but–and maybe this is obvious–it was his book, The Art of Travel, that had me hook, line and whatever.

But after my trip home from Liverpool spiralled into a disastrous, nearly seven-hour mess of a journey, I started thinking this week: is Alain de Botton really worth all this fuss? Is visiting an obscure village on the east coast of England actually worth the risk of losing more hours of my life to the incessant failure that is UK transport? Last night, my flatmate Claire had a good laugh predicting things wouldn’t end well for this trip. “You know you are so not going to make it there! Buses hate you!” she said, tearing up with laughter, all the while fueling the fires of my inner panic.

In the end, I ran the risk anyway–but not without great trepidation. A 5am wake-up call got me out of bed and fumbling around for several layers of warm clothing–something about visiting a coastal village on the edge of the North Sea in November sounded slightly more threatening than a trip to the beach for, say, spring break in Miami.

My journey from Surbiton to Liverpool Street Station was remarkably unremarkable–both train and bus proved capable of holding to a schedule. My train from Liverpool to a town called Halesworth 100 miles away also not only left on time, but arrived exactly on target as well…I hardly knew what to think. The last test, however, was the local bus, No. 520 from Halesworth to Southwold. I waited outside the Halesworth train station with my fingers crossed so hard they hurt. And sure enough, at 10.09am on the very dot, a big yellow bus flashing “Southwold” in red letters miraculously appeared around the corner.

Just like it said it would.

I could have wept with joy. I’d come prepared. I’d brought my laptop, plenty of writing to work on, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and a full roll pack of milk chocolate digestives, just in case things got truly desperate. But for once, over-preparation was totally unnecessary.

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hunting for history.

It’s all about baby steps, right? It may not be big, but here’s an article I recently wrote for Cheers!  a newsletter published by Kingston University specifically for its contingent of North American students.

Hunting for History: the top 5 traditions to see in London…for free!”

In a modern city like London, it’s easy to forget just how much history there is all around us. Between the museums and markets, gardens and green spaces, there’s never any shortage of things to do. But I’ve found that experiencing the traditions that still exist today is what has made my time in England most meaningful and truly different from my North American upbringing. Coming from a country whose written history begins only in the early 1600s, the rich traditions British culture is steeped in is something I try to remember and take advantage of whenever I can. And with so many great traditions to experience for free in London, the only thing that’s left to work out is logistics.

1. Old Bailey Public Galleries

The gilded arms of Lady Justice are extended wide over the dome of Old Bailey, a set of scales in her left hand and a sword in her right. Inside the Central Criminal Courts, the principle of blind justice that she stands for is carried out on a daily basis. Your seat in the Public Galleries will give you a bird’s eye view of the courtroom–the twelve members of the jury, the high-backed, green leather seats, and the UK Royal Coat of Arms hanging above the judge–with the Latin phrase Honi soit qui mal y pense reading, “Shamed be he who thinks ill of it.” The black-robed solicitors wear wigs with curls that look like wood shavings and address the judge as “My Lord” or “Your Honour.” Their proceedings are rooted in the original medieval court founded in 1585, but were more firmly established in 1673, when Old Bailey was constructed after the Great Fire of London. Although it has undergone several transformations and reconstructions since then–with the present building dating from 1907–the court’s commitment to justice has remained the same. The open public galleries are an excellent way to experience a different legal system at work.

How to get there: From Kingston, take a London-bound Southwest train to Waterloo. Then, take either Bus 4 to St. Paul’s or take the Waterloo and City line to Bank, switching to the Central Line to St. Paul’s. Old Bailey is a short walk from the station–follow signs to the Central Criminal Court.

Note: You are not allowed to bring any electronic devices into the Public Galleries–that includes mobile phones, cameras, iPods, etc. Either leave them at home or at Bailey’s Cafe Deli across the street. They charge £2 to hold your items during your visit.

2. Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace

“Say hi to the Queen for me,” rang the words of several of my friends before I left for England. While I might never get close enough to the Queen herself for such a conversation, it is possible to witness the troops that are responsible for protecting her and her home in London. The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace is one of the most well-known traditions you simply can’t miss while living in the UK. When you watch the guards march deliberately and exaggerated, their right arms swinging like the pendulum of a grandfather clock, their bearskin hats standing stiff and their red coats as bright as winter berries, you’ll be witnessing a tradition that’s been in place since 1660. When the royal residence was moved to Buckingham Palace in 1837, the sovereign’s household troops stayed at the old St. James Palace and since then, have continued to march down the Mall to relieve the Old Guard.

How to get there: Take a London-bound SouthWest train to Clapham Junction and then change to Southern rail from Clapham to Victoria. Buckingham Palace is a short walk from Victoria station–just follow the signs!

Note: From Spring to Autumn, the Changing of the Guard takes place everyday at 11:30am, however from Autumn to Spring, it alternates every other day. Consult the schedule on http://www.changing-the-guard.com/ before planning your visit and be sure to turn up early to secure a good spot in the crowds.

Related events: You can also view the Household Cavalry. The Changing of the Queen’s Life Guard at takes place daily at 11am (10am on Sundays) and the Daily Inspection at 4pm.

 3. Evensong at Westminster Abbey

Crossing the threshold of Westminster Abbey is a step into the past, your footsteps echoing on the marble floor as you approach the High Altar. Light is diffused through the rose windows and the organ’s strains fill every corner of the Abbey’s many filigreed arches. When the choir begins, it’s easy to think there’s no sound more beautiful on earth. It’s been this way since 960, when Westminster Abbey was first founded, but the present building wasn’t constructed until 1245. The history of evensong at the Abbey begins with the arrival of Benedictine monks in the tenth century, and the daily worship they began continues today. Attending evensong is not only a free way to view the inside of such a historically significant building, but also a chance to be part of a tradition that stretches back into an earlier millennium.

How to get there: From Waterloo, take the Jubilee line to Westminster. The Abbey is right across the street from the Underground station.

Note: Consult the Daily Services schedule on http://www.westminster-abbey.org/ for service times. Evensong is held at 5:00pm daily during the week and 3.00pm on the weekends.

4. Debates in the Houses of Parliament

Soft afternoon sunlight filters through rows of stained glass windows, reflecting off the exquisitely gilded throne in the House of Lords. Oral Questions have just begun and from your seat in the Public Galleries, you can see that the padded, red leather benches on the floor of the House are filled to capacity. Unlike MPs who meet in the House of Commons, members of the House of Lords are not elected and are unpaid, but the role they play in lawmaking and legislation is still crucial. Parliament began meeting as two distinct houses in 1341, but a number of acts throughout the centuries have revised and refined the role of the House of Lords. Visiting debates in either the House of Commons or the House of Lords is not only a rewarding look at a different system of government, but also a way to view a beautiful, historic building–from the the detailed mosaics in the Central Lobby to the vaulted ceilings and statues of St. Stephen’s Hall.

How to get there: From Waterloo, take the Jubilee line to Westminster. The Houses of Parliament are a short walk from the Underground station.

Note: Only UK residents can reserve tickets to visit the debates. Overseas visitors must arrive early to queue. For more details regarding sitting times and dates, visit http://www.parliament.uk/visiting/attend/debates/.

5. Key Ceremony at the Tower of London

“Halt! Who goes there?” the armed sentryman calls out. You can hear the jingle of the keys as four soldiers approach escorting the yeoman jailer, the light from his lantern dancing against the fortress walls. The jailer confirms that he holds the keys of Queen Elizabeth and they are allowed to pass. This brief exchange is one of London’s oldest traditions–the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London. For nearly 700 years, the ceremony has taken place every night–no matter the weather and even during the worst bombing raids of World War II. The soldiers and jailer walk away from Bloody Tower, their arms swinging and boots stepping, and lock both the outer gate and that of Byward Tower, securing the fortress for yet another night. Our guide for the evening, a yeoman warder named Colin, tells us this is one of the oldest and shortest ceremonies in the world. “It’s pure history, people don’t realise you are a part of history here.” Don’t miss your chance to be a part, too!

How to get there: From Waterloo, take the Northern Line to Embankment, and then change to either the District or Circle line to Tower Hill. The Tower of London is just opposite the station.

Note: The Tower of London website advises requesting tickets up to two months in advance. Visit their website at http://www.hrp.org.uk/toweroflondon/whatson/ceremonyofthekeys.aspx for more details about how to request tickets.

Good luck on your hunt!

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a city within a city.

Conurbation: noun–an extended urban area, typically consisting of several towns merging with the suburbs of a central city.”

I learned a new word yesterday: conurbation. It’s one of those words that sounds tricky, but when broken down to its roots actually makes a lot of sense: the Latin words con, “together,” and urbs, “city,” combined with a neutral suffix, –ation. It was Scotsman Patrick Geddes who first coined the term in his 1915 book, Cities in Evolution. Although primarily a biologist, Geddes is known also for his work in urban planning. He discussed the way new technologies–such as electric power and motorized transport–were essentially making it possible for big cities to be assembled rather like a jigsaw puzzle, hooking up with their surrounding suburbs and growing together.

Think of New York City, otherwise known as the Tri-State Region. Thirty counties stretching across New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania to form a metropolitan area of almost twenty-two million people. Yikes. That’s the total population of Australia. Or Romania. Or the Côte d’Ivoire…choose your favorite point of comparison.

I was in the St. Paul’s area of London yesterday following an interview I had near the South Bank. As I walked down Newgate Street, passing by the London Stock Exchange and the offices of major banks and investment firms, I wasn’t sure what there were more of–black suits or black cabs ferrying the suits around. Gratefully, I was still wearing the suit I’d worn to my interview. I tried to imagine myself blending into the “we-mean-business” crowd in my usual attire as of late–dress, boots and leather bomber jacket.

As I approached my destination–the Central Criminal Courts of Old Bailey–I was distracted by the bollards along the sidewalk, short iron posts whose tops had been painted red and white. Near the bottom of each post, a coat of arms was placed above the words, “City of London.” When I got home later, I started sleuthing, curious about the choice of color on the bollards. Wikipedia didn’t disappoint: red and white are the colors of the City of London…an entity I soon learned is not to be confused with the city of London.

Long before London was conurbated (or is that an inappropriate conjugation of conurbation?) it was just the City of London. Nowadays, the little space this historic area occupies within Greater London is often referred to as “the City,” or on maps, simply as “City.” But the City’s own boundaries have hardly changed since the Middle Ages and indeed its city status has remained intact since the dawn of the earth, practically.

Don’t let its size deceive you–it may measure in at just over one square mile (giving it yet another nickname of the Square Mile), but in 2008, the City alone accounted for 4% of the country’s GDP–$87 billion dollars. That’s one productive mile–talk about getting your money’s worth. And as London’s financial center–which explains the army of suited-up citizens–it rivals New York for the title of financial capital of the world, with over 500 banks having an office within its bounds.

Although the numbers are impressive, what I was more interested in were the peculiarities surrounding the City’s governance. It’s run by the City of London Corporation and even has its own Lord Mayor, giving proof to its “unique political status, a legacy of its uninterrupted legacy as a corporate city since the Anglo-Saxon period” (thanks, Wikipedia). Even 108 livery associations which began in medieval times as guilds and trade associations still exist today, although their function is largely ceremonial. “Ceremonial” is a word that surfaces often in descriptions of the City–with all manner of roles and positions no longer particularly relevant, and yet kept in place nonetheless. It’s like no one wants to break the magic.

So who knew such a microcosm existed? A world all of its own with connections and traditions stretching back into the centuries? As I walked the City’s streets, from the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral down Watling towards Mansion House, I wondered if London will ever cease to amaze me, if there will ever be an end to what there is to learn and find…

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