I wouldn't say backpacking Europe is a pilgrimage for a North American, but it's definitely common to jump the pond. Europe's historical shift, unique cultural dishes, shifted norms and mores, and wide ranging diversity seem to preclude a growing and maturing world view. If there's one activity I recommend to those a few years younger than me, it's that a few weeks in Europe can teach you as much as a full year of post secondary education. Probably more.
I’m an avid Cereal Magazine reader, deriving many of my travel choices from the Bath, England publication. Cereal’s introduction to London in their city guide is quite prescient:
In most great capitals, the statues tell stories of régime-change, revolution and upheaval. The marble and bronze denizens of London, however, have never been beheaded, unseated or evicted to an out-of-town retirement zone. The story of this city is one of relentless continuity. While it can no longer be counted amount the world’s largest metropolises, it remains redolent of Empire and the soot-laden might of the Industrial Revolution. Unrivalled in finance and at the forefront of fashion, tourists throng its streets. A truly global city, its residents not only speak 300 languages, they also walk with an undeniable swagger.
Excuse me for ever assuming English homogeneity as the norm in London. Sure, the accents are tremendously posh and seemingly instantly transferrable to newcomers. Driving on the wrong side of the road, instantly the norm. Ordering bangers and mash, instantly expected.
But what I failed to expect before stepping off the plane was just how “English” any person could be. People from all walks of life and the farthest reaches of the world seemed to meet in London’s middle. It didn’t matter who you were, English Breakfast could be your morning norm.
Of course, we happened to be in London during the pinnacle of the stunning Brexit referendum, thrusting the rawest form of Londoners to the forefront. It was humbling, really, to witness the everyday-London leading up to the final conclusion.
Yet, it’s very clear the English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, and all other nationalities within, will overcome. Historically, they always have. Betting against them would be irrational.
We stayed in Westminster, about a five minute walk from the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and the great Elizabeth Tower. I’m not sure we could have asked for a more quiet, more private central location in the city.
Despite traveling to Europe in 2009 and 2011, my wife and I both hadn’t visited London. We made sure to combine landmark sightings with long walks through the ritzy streets of Belgravia and Chelsea. We rode the Tube to Notting Hill Gate and shot photos of the colorful Notting Hill homes. We rented bikes and cycled through Hyde Park, visited Kensington Palace, walked through St. James’s Park, grabbed morning tea in Borough Market, and endured a pouring rain in the canals of Paddington. You name it, the city had it. And we tried to see it.
To be in London is to feel its pull, especially as a Canadian. My first time in another Commonwealth country, this felt more like home than any other country I’d been to. London beckons, in a way. It has a pull of its own. Be it the history, or the food, or the loyalty to such a strong, enduring woman, it felt like London was itching to have you.
If I ever had to leave my country, London would be home. Especially if that’s what real porridge tastes like. And real Guinness.
Unlike London, my wife and I had visited Paris before. Me, twice before, actually. Its streets, arrondissements, Métro locations, and naming conventions were as comfortable as I could ask for. If not for Euro 2016 sweeping through the city.
Oh, and the flood. The Seine hadn’t been that high since the 1950s they said, forcing many of the most prized works from the Louvre to be safely stowed elsewhere.
In fact, Euro 2016, the miniature flood, and increased worldwide tensions had Paris feeling like it had been commandeered itself. Our two days felt edgy, abrasive. As if but a spark might throw the city into a frenzy.
Those things can’t stop you, though. If they stop you, they’ve won.
So we visited places we hadn’t visited during our prior stays. The Luxembourg Gardens had history winking through its restored walls. We had American-styled burgers and a Parisian lager at Roomies just off Rue Étienne Marcel. We enjoyed wonderful coffee and mid-afternoon pastries at Carette by Square Louis XIII. And we grabbed lunch at a simple bar in Montmartre before admiring how Place du Tertre has evolved into a tourist destination.
I truly believe getting off Paris’s tourist track is the key to understanding the city. Even venturing into Les Halles gets you far enough away from some of the bustle. The same can be said about the quaint Latin Quarter, or walking beyond Notre Dame to Ile Saint-Louis and grabbing world-famous ice cream at Berthillon. Whether it’s your first or tenth time to the City of Light, the real heart of the city rests away from the landmarks.
Paris can be a hard city. With its history — both recent and ancient — it’s hard to blame Parisians for any abrasiveness. We’d run into it first hand a few years ago.
But it’s not the norm. At least it wasn’t this time around. Helping hands and directions were given, while a few kiddish jokes were handed out. Despite all that has happened, the Paris we visited was still there. It still shone through the hardship. To the point that I’d say I preferred the Paris we met a few months ago.
Our two day stint in the French capital was short, but it was sweet enough. After a week of walking the streets of touristy cities, we took a cab to de Gaulle and hopped on an airplane. We were excited to take the pace down a notch in the stunning Tuscan countryside, and ready to soak up the sun on a Mediterranean beach.
In all, our 19 day voyage began smoothly and with just enough culture shock to leave us wanting more.