London remains, for me, definitively the greatest city in the world. Endlessly interesting, more earthy and democratic than Paris, and a genuine melting pot in a way that New York isn't. It's difficult to pin down what it is that so fascinates and attracts about London, but I think it has something to do with the fact that it's been a city, and a highly important centre of trade, culture and commerce, continuously for over 2,000 years. The sense of histoy is palpable in every little corner. The original city swallowed up the surrounding villages and countryside, but gradually, allowing them to retain some of the character of villages and countryside. Contrary to what some imagine, it's also an immensely green city, full of parks and woodland.
I stayed with Simon and Jill in Whitechapel, which is a grittily attractive area just east of the City, only about 20-25 minutes walk from Tower Bridge. Whitechapel road is like Little Bangladesh, with a daily soukh of vegetables, clothes and other goods dominating the sidewalk. Women in Islamic headresses bustle through the markets: some of the younger ones are quite attractive, and the headress adds an alluring mystery. I really wouldn't be surprised if they eventually find their way to being a fashion accessory among Western girls.
On a Sunday the cafes off Brick Lane are full of antipodean, French and Spanish twentysomethings in black duffle coats and scarfs, smug about working abroad and living in the middle of it all. And the food is improving: they now serve the kind of fusiony cafeteria food that in New Zealand you might whip up on short notice in your flat. Not quite to the standard of actual cafe food in NZ, but an improvement on just sausage and chips.
Meanwhile Britain, despite Tony Blair's Cool Britannia and the Orwellian-sounding Modernisation Agency, remains what we only half-jokingly called a "Stalinist State". According to people I'd caught up with there, trying to open a bank account remains a Kafkaesque exercise in futility. Simon and Jill hadn't even been able to *re-open* their previous account, largely due to not being able to talk to the same person twice. While I was there, the bank where they had managed to open an account, managed to deposit their rent money into *the wrong account*. Whew! In NZ you have to be dealing with WINZ or some other genuine branch of bureaucracy to find that kind of incompetence. To buy a stamp so I could send a single postcard, I had to line up for 20 minutes at the local post office. I actually found myself gratified that the line, which stretched all the way out the door, moved faster than I had expected. Then, when I went back to the public gym where Simon and I had gone two days previously, the girl at reception told me she had to see my gym membership card in order to let me in. I tried to convince her that I just wanted to pay for one session, but she wouldn't accept the cash. Just because.
Oh, and the pubs still close at eleven. If you're half way through your pint when closing time comes along, it's knock it straight back or leave it.
But, give me a job, let me live somewhere within Zone1-2, and I'd still rather settle there than pretty much anywhere else.