Sunday, February 17, 2008

Cosmopolitan London Quickly Sheds Stereotypes

published February 17, 2008 in the Terre Haute Tribune Star

I spent the first week of February in London. This was my first time traveling outside North America. I was there on academic business, a conference and meetings with new colleagues at King’s College.

I did very little “typical” tourist things, although Monday was my lightest day, made more so by an ill colleague who cancelled our meeting. Like a cancelled class, I made the most of it. Within sight of the campus is the London Eye. Think of a huge, slow moving Ferris Wheel, owned by British Airways. I purchased a ticket and got in line for my 36 minute “flight.” Before boarding the “capsule,” passengers go through a security check point. My bag was searched, I was patted down, wanded, and just before we entered the capsule, a 2-person security team swept the capsule with electronic devices. These were greater security precautions than on my overseas flight!

I expected Londoners to be pasty and tweedy. They are pasty but not tweedy. I was a bit disappointed with the lack of tweed because I wore my tweed jacket in order to “blend.” According to my new British colleagues, I looked “very American” in my tweed blazer. I also felt very large. I rode the Tube (the subway) to downtown London every morning. I saw very few people as large as me, both height and girth. I noticed there were very few “fat” people in London. Could it be that when you go through “passport control,” if you can’t fit through the rather narrow turn styles, that the British authorities just don’t let you in the country?

A “row” occurred in London while I was there. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said he could see a future where Sharia (Muslim religious law) is recognized in Britain. That caused quite an outcry. It dominated the headlines for two days in the tawdry British tabloids. London is multicultural. The two college campuses I visited both had Muslim prayer rooms as did Heathrow Airport. I found restaurants offering cuisine from all over the world in a three block area, including fish and chips and scones. My “full English breakfast” was prepared and served by two Filipinos. My fish and chips and two British brews were chosen and served by an east European. My hotel’s front desk was staffed by a Lithuanian, a Swede, a Bangladeshi, and a Romanian. A Russian straightened my room every day.

There is assimilation. There is pluralism. There is separation and segregation. I suspect it has always been this way in London and in all other cosmopolitan cities of the world. Cosmopolitan or a “world” city is multicultural. French Huguenots built a church in London. They later joined the Church of England, only later to become Methodist, then the church became a Jewish synagogue and is now a Muslim mosque. The original building remains but its inhabitants changed. Isn’t that evidence of adaptation and integration?

I am encouraged when I watch a young Hindu man tutor a Muslim family trying to figure out the rail transportation system. I know exactly how the Muslim family feels because a Londoner did the same for me on my first day at Paddington Station.

Londoners are very polite; even the transplanted ones. Despite “suspended” trains, “diabolical” delays, and very intimate stranger contact on packed “tubes,” I never saw any bad behavior. Even when things screwed up, Londoners responded in a calm and civil manner. This is made even more amazing given how diverse London is; it is one of the most diverse in the world.

Even the dogs are polite! I crossed Hyde Park to get to my conference at the Royal Geographical Society. The British love their dogs. Lots and lots of dogs and only about half are leashed. This worried me because I thought surely the ruffian dogs would jump up on me and get me muddy. But the dogs were very much like the people: civil, polite with a quick nod and smile and on their way.

This baffled me. Did the British train their dogs that well? Was I succumbing to the stereotype of the proper British Higgins character on Magnum, PI?

On my last day I figured it out. While walking around the Long Water in Hyde Park I happened upon a most British sign. It read: “Do not allow your dogs to chase, worry, or injure the wildlife.”

Tourists are just part of the wildlife in London Town.

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