In some ways, London was more of a culture shock than South East Asia.
Instead of dodging speeding motorbikes on the tangled streets, you try to weave into the hurried crosshatch of people as they rush through the tube stations. On the tube, you try not to make eye contact, even when you're practically crammed into someone's armpit during the morning crush, and any sort of laughter or smiling elicits a strange look.
But the city has an understated beauty which lies in its history, the ornate buildings hundreds of years old that were standing when people got around by horse cart, women were wearing petticoats and people were being beheaded in the streets.
Yet so many British do everything in their power to get out of England, flocking to Australia and slaving away on farms for three months to secure a two-year working visa down under. And in contrast to my ever-gushing description on how beautiful Canada is and how everyone should go, Brits do everything in their power to convince you to stay away from England.
When I told one girl in Brighton I had moved to England from Canada she said "why would you come here, England is shit." “No way, it's beautiful,” I said, just having walked along Brighton's sun-drenched pier and pebbly beach. The sea-side city reminded me of California's Santa Monica with the white Ferris wheel and the bright-coloured carnival rides that looks like a child's play land at the end of the pier. The girl looked stunned, as if trying to understand what I was seeing that she wasn’t.
I am looking at everything for the first time. And I've been lucky enough to
come to England when it's been engulfed in a heat wave, with temperatures and
sunshine not seen in several years. Maybe I'd have a different outlook if
everything was cloudy and grey and rain-soaked which is how most Brits describe
I visited Newquay and Plymouth, two charming sea side towns in Cornwall and Devon which could not be more different but are equally stunning. Newquay is more of a surfers haven, the streets lined with surf shops and bars catering to stag parties and big nights out. Plymouth's water front is lined with charming tea shops and antique stores. It has a rich military history and stone walls that were once military fortifications tower over the harbour.
You never hear the British gushing over their lovely coastline or the melt in your mouth scones and clotted cream, or the delightfully deep fried fish and chips.
The British will be the first to admit they love a good whinge. “We love to complain, it’s what we do,” said my friend Tony, from east London.
Funnily enough, most of my favourite travel companions have been British. Maybe it’s because they’re always down for a pint and their dry sense of humour always has me in stitches.
A friend and I have a joke that Brits have a decidedly underwhelmed reaction to some of the world’s most stunning places.
“Well that wasn’t the worst drive in the world,” said Matt, a Londoner, after we had just zig-zagged on motorbikes over the Hai Van pass, one of the most beautiful coastal roads in the world.
The Canadian translation: “Oh my God, wow, that was so stunning, that’s, like, the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen! I never want to leave.”
So while Brits are great explorers who take the opportunity to travel the world, that skeptical, slightly cynical view seems to taint their opinion of their own country. Laurie, an Aussie friend who left Queensland’s sunny east coast for the rather sedate town of Birmingham said people are always baffled that he traded paradise for rainy old England.
I guess the grass is always greener….
I absolutely loved exploring London. There are so many areas that are so distinct from each other yet fit together in a harmonious diversity: The tranquility of the Thames, as it rises and falls with the tide; The imposing lion sculptures that ring Trafalgar Square, tempting you to climb into their steely embrace, no matter how awkward you'll look getting up there; The leafy expanse of Hyde Park; The gold and gilded British pubs, noisy with the sound of unabashed intoxication, laughter and revelry; The posh exclusiveness of Chelsea and the designer-handbag toting women who can afford to do more than just window shop; The shopping mecca of Oxford street where you can find the discount Primark on the same street as the upscale Selfridges; The hipster bars of Camden; The sorbet coloured buildings on a steep slope along Portabello Road; The foodie heaven of Borough Market where you can get enough samples of gourmet olive oil, cheese and fudgy brownies to fill you up for the day. The city is dotted with galleries and museums, which are free, meaning you can take in art at the National Gallery or the Tate Modern while on a budget.
The tube itself, which will take you to any of these places remarkably fast and efficiently, is an engineering marvel, a complex web of tunnels which make up one of the best urban transportation systems in the world.
As I’ve wandered through the streets of London, my head swivelling to take in the charming streets and impeccably preserved architecture, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a distinctly English culture the English don’t know they have, or at least take it for granted.
I’ve grabbed onto the culture, tried to savour it and take it all in in the mere two months I’ve been here. I fly home to Canada tomorrow, sad to leave this vibrant city that is London, sad to say goodbye to the friends I’ve met, but excited to head back home to my family, friends and people who don’t make fun of the way I say about.