Two weeks I ago I taught my class before the one-and-a-half week Toussaint holiday. This terminale (the final year of high school) class was the first class I ever taught. It consists of mostly boys who told me about the virtues of pimp rap during our first session together. They were opinionated, funny and pretty good at English so for the next two weeks I looked forward to the vacation and teaching them again. To reward them for being the most animated class, I took printed out the lyrics to “Gangsterz,” a song by English rapper Wiley, blasted it several times and had them play fill-in-the-blanks. This activity meant I got to explain what it meant to “squash the beef” or when “the shells start spraying.” It was an amusing way to end the day, the first two weeks and to send me off on my holiday to London.
My last stop on my backpacking tour last summer was two weeks in London and I absolutely fell in love. After a month and a half traveling nonstop, it was a relief and luxury to have such a long time to spend in one place (especially since I had one friend kind enough to let me stay with her for the entire trip.) This time coming from Strasbourg to London, I felt a culture shock that I never anticipated.
While I’m frequently clueless in France because of a language barrier or the French way of doing things, London makes sense to me but is so big it becomes a mess of logic. The quintessential London experience for me is going through a series of false starts before I finally head down the right road I meant to follow. Londoners are pretty useless when it comes to giving directions. The city is so big even people who have lived there their entire lives plead clueless when asked how to go somewhere. The sheer number of people constantly milling around made me feel claustrophobic. I remember feeling the same way last year but somehow this trip, the feeling was much more intense. Somehow it felt like I had come from the countryside and was being overwhelmed by the city. I had obstained from buying winter clothes in France because I knew I was going to London. When I worked in flagship stores in downtown Toronto, we got people driving from small towns in Ontario and even from Ottawa to do shopping. I had always looked at those customers with amusement and a little pity; travelling so far to Toronto, all just for a shopping trip. And now, here I was, one of those people.
Both times in London I’ve been pumped full of stories by the people who live here about the dangers of the city. Last time it was my friend’s roommate who was off-work during my visit because he was recovering from having his jaw bashed in a pipe in a random act of violence. What happened to him was scary but seeing how much he enjoyed telling the story and watching him smoke weed to cure the pain lessened the impact of his story a little. This time most of my trip with my friend Mark’s apartment in Walthamstow, a borough in northeast London. There I faced foxes running through the streets and in our backyard at night. Bulletholes in windows in windows of stores were pointed out to me during our hurried walks through the streets. I earned the respect and awe of Mark and his roommate when I returned home at 2 a.m. after taking the night bus alone.
Maybe the most bewildering part of my trip was the culture of poverty that exists in London when you look past tourist hotspots of Zone 1. Houses aren’t billed for their gas consumption but instead you top-up your gas credit like a mobile phone. This is why during the first morning of my stay in Walthamstow I had an icy shower and couldn’t turn on the stove to cook. As spoiled and naive as it sounds, the concept of not having credit automatically extended to me is strange. When people here forget or have no money, they just have to do without. Something so basic and essential, like gas, for me, was just always, by some mysterious force, just there.
I regret now not taking any pictures of Walthamstow. It’s the kind of place no one would take a picture of for aesthetic purposes, which is why I forgot. (Apparently, it’s also not unheard of to get jumped for your expensive technology there.) The only reason anyone would is to document what normal London is outside of the glamourous bits. It’s unremarkable, dirty and even ugly. I’ve been told by teachers that my neighbourhood in is dodgy, but Strasbourg wouldn’t know dodgy if it got bit in the face by it.
What people will give up and put up with to live in London is both sad and admirable. Surprisingly, living in Strasbourg is slightly cheaper than Toronto. While I don’t earn much or live in luxury, I can live comfortably. People in London pay twice as much as I do for half (or less) of what I have here. After leaving, I could feel already how more culturally alive I felt there. I found myself in an old factory on a Wednesday at what may or may not have been “a dubstep rave.” On a lazy Sunday I sat in on an afternoon of children’s activities at the Victoria & Albert museum. I made my own bejewelled Indian headpiece and followed barefoot women in saris in a parade around Hellenic sculptures. When I flipped through a copy of Time Out and saw both Morrissey and Brett Anderson (of Suede) were playing on the same night, I really felt like I was at the centre of the universe. I didn’t go to either, but I could have and that felt amazing.