An American in London

Ed Uthman, MD

Diplomate, American Board of Pathology

16 Jun 1997

I just got back from vacation in London, so here are a few of my observations from the trip. It turns out that one week is not nearly enough time to see even a minimum of interesting things in that tremendously historical city. Americans who have not traveled much (such as myself) will be overwhelmed at the number and scale of historical sites. Standing at the foot of Darwin's tomb in the floor of Westminster Abbey was an especially moving experience. I had no idea the Church would permit such an agnostic to be buried there. Maybe there's hope for me yet!

Of course, the most exciting thing about any type of international travel is the native people. I found the British as a group to be delightful, much more patient and tolerant than Americans. They are also a lot thinner, probably because they all smoke.

There were a lot of other international tourists, especially Germans. It was a very poignant experience to stand in the Imperial War Museum and watch a video about the WWII European theatre with a group of young German visitors and English schoolchildren. The Germans were my cousins by original nationality, the English by linguistic heritage. My father fought against the Germans' grandfathers in World War II, and some of the English kids probably lost civilian family members to German bombs in 1940, the Germans to American and British bombs. Yet all groups in the museum, English, German, and, American, watched the films of the liberation of Belsen with equal horror. Is there still bitterness? If so, it doesn't show. In fact, when all museum visitors keep their mouths shut, you don't even know who's who. We all look the same.

Also in the Imperial War Museum it is interesting to see how the British view the international situation following World War II. For one thing, they seem to view Ronald Reagan as some sort of fanged warmonger who led us to the brink of World War III. Conversely, most Americans (myself included) are of the opinion that Reagan's tough talk ("evil empire") and big defense buildup are precisely what dealt the death blow to the eastern bloc and led to dissolution of four decades of Cold War. I guess the closer you are to the missiles, the more nervous you get when someone starts rattling sabers (if you will forgive the martial anachronism).

London is a huge, crowded city with lots of activity, but there is not near the hysterical level of freneticism than permeates a great American city like New York or Chicago. As in Toronto, I was accosted by only one drunk panhandler (asking only for a cigarette) who seemed not particularly disappointed when I was unable to accommodate him. In the US, one typically gets cursed by such people. London police in fact do not carry any visible sidearms, which would be suicidal in the US. However, they do not look like the type that anyone would want to give trouble to. Most are very big and very fit-looking, again a contrast with American police.

London is much cleaner than any American city I've visited, despite the fact that trash cans are all but absent. In Houston, there is a can on every corner, but the sidewalks are littered just the same.

The London Underground railway system, or "tube," is excellent, very easy to get around in. Above-ground traffic is a problem, as it is in any big city whose streets were laid out prior to the automobile.

A few notes for American travelers to London:

  1. It is very expensive.

  2. Be careful crossing the street. The cab drivers are as homicidal as any in the US, and there are few pedestrian cross signals. Furthermore, it seems that the traffic signals are positioned purposely so that pedestrians cannot see them.

  3. Don't waste your time looking for restaurants with non-smoking areas. When you enter a restaurant, the host will ask you if you smoke, and when you say "no," he will immediately seat you right next to a table full of postprandial puffers. I guess this is an example of the wry English sense of humor.

  4. The bus tours have excellent guides who are very well-trained, but tourist sites are extremely crowded, and tour stops generally don't provide the time you need to investigate sites in detail. We had maybe 20 minutes at Stonehenge.

  5. The London parks are wonderful, and they are free (the only thing that is, apparently). The speakers' corner in Hyde Park is especially interesting to those of anthropological bent. The best speaker there was a fair-skinned native Englishman who was preaching Islam. He was so good, he almost converted me, and I thought I was immune to preachers. I guess I have a little more insight into Cat Stevens as a result.

  6. There are maybe 3 pounds of ice in the whole city of London. Don't look for much of it in your Diet Coke.

  7. English taste in food is apparently radically different from that of Americans. The good news is that this is the one vacation you won't gain weight on.

  8. It is very expensive (did I say that already?)