George Bernard Shaw once said, “The whole strength of England lies in the fact that the enormous majority of the English people are snobs.” Apparently, the French are not the only European citizens who have a stereotyped reputation for being less than welcoming.
Since the beginning of the semester one of my main goals was to dispel common stereotypes about foreigners perpetuated by Americans. Thus far I have dispelled many about the Italians and my brief stay in Paris taught me that the snooty stereotypes about French people were far from accurate. Looking to see if Shaw’s perception of the English was correct, I spent last weekend in the United Kingdom’s capital, London.
While images of telephone booths, fish and chips, and Big Ben often filled my mind when thinking about London, the city was not on the top of my to-see list while in Europe. Had it not been for my roommate Kate, who is studying abroad in the city, it is likely that I never would have flown to the United Kingdom this semester. There were multiple reasons for this, the main one being the high cost of living. The United Kingdom is one of only three countries in the European Union that does not use the euro as currency, something that perhaps contributes to the nation’s snooty stereotype. Exchanging U.S. currency for the euro is already significant a loss for my bank account at ~70 euro for every 100 dollars, but the U.K.’s sterling is even worse with only ~61 pounds for every 100 dollars. So while London street ads might proudly advertise McDonald’s cheeseburgers for 1.39£, one must realize that the equivalent price in America would be $2.20, thus much more costly considering that the same item is on the U.S. dollar menu.
Another reason not to visit is the food. Why would I leave Italy, a gastronomic heaven of pasta, cheese, and nutella, for a country whose specialties include shepherd’s pie, Yorkshire pudding, and a dessert called spotted dick? Within all the countries I have visited during the semester, I have always looked forward to what culinary adventures laid ahead on my plate. England, however, never inspired such enthusiasm. Yet, regardless of the high costs and less than exciting food, I looked forward to the opportunity to reunite with my roommate and add another stamp to my passport.
After flying into Stansted Airport and taking a bus ride into central London, I met up with Kate late Thursday evening. A semester student at a university in London, Kate was gracious enough to host me on her floor for the weekend. Since I arrived late Thursday night, there were no St. Patrick’s Day celebrations for us, but rather a girl’s night in spent recounting our study abroad experiences and planning our two days ahead. On our to-do list: the London National Gallery of Art, Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Harry Potter site-seeing, and Harrod’s department store. The list was long, but considering that I might not have the chance to return to the city, it was better to be ambitious and try to see it all.
I could not have had a genuine experience in London had it not rained at least one day during my visit; Friday was that day. Warm and dry in Kate’s dorm room, the two of us did not venture out into the city until shortly after noon. While Kate was aptly prepared with her rain boots, I unfortunately was not, and thus my umbrella served as a trusty companion throughout the day. We decided that because of the gloomy weather, the afternoon was an ideal time to spend indoors at the National Gallery of Art. The museum in Trafalgar Square is home to collections of paintings from the 13th century through 1900. The exhibitions of Renaissance art were particularly interesting for me because of my current enrollment in an art history course. After studying pieces such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks, Michelangelo’s The Entombment, and Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, my visit to the museum enabled me to see first hand many of the paintings I have studied in class. Regardless of the weather, the gallery’s collection of Rubens, Renoirs, Rembrandts, and Monets make any visit the perfect excuse to be indoors.
Although very wet, our journey to the National Gallery enabled me the chance to see some of London’s finest landmarks. Right now is a very exciting time in London because in less than five weeks the city will play host to one of the most momentous events of our generation: the royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton. If my program did not finish before Easter, I could have foreseen myself crashing on the floor of Kate’s room just so I could say that I was in the city during the royal ceremony. Unfortunately, I will not be returning, but I was able to see the façade of the Buckingham Palace and the road that the royal procession will likely take to the wedding. I also saw Westminster Abbey, the sight of the April 29th ceremony. It is as if the city has only thing on its mind: marriage. When I purchased a postcard featuring the young couple, the cashier smirked. “They even have them on postcards,” he said in his charming British accent. Postcards, coffee mugs, handbags: you name, their faces are on it.
So after an afternoon ruining my boots in the rain and exploring classic art and architecture, there was nothing left to do but spend the evening in a traditional British pub. It was here that I refuted Shaw’s negative perception of the English. The Brits we met at the pub were friendly and welcoming, perhaps even to the point of being excessively so. While Kate and I enjoyed talking to a couple of the locals, there was a time when we actually wished they would leave us alone and stop asking us questions about America. Perhaps they might have been a tad drunk, but there were no signs of snootiness or arrogance, just intrigue and enthusiasm. Even more, there is something so enchanting about the British tongue that makes me want to listen to it forever. My time in Europe has convinced me that my next life will be spent devoted to studying linguistics and speaking foreign languages.
It took only one day in London for me to quash the British snob stereotype, but my second day in London was equally exciting. With so much more to say, expect all the details tomorrow about Day Two with Harry Potter, Big Ben, and Harrod’s.