The Brave World of Globalization – First Impressions, London, October 6, 2015
After one of those very long nights trying to sleep on a transatlantic flight in “cattle class” (augmented by two extra hours sitting in the plane on the ground before takeoff while technicians fixed a minor plumbing leak), we arrived at Heathrow, London, England at 10:45 am yesterday morning. Hazy, semi-conscious, aching, we stumbled through border control and luggage retrieval.
When we exited the arrivals hall, the car driver was standing there with my name on a card, as planned. But he was basically sleeping on his feet. It turned out he had not been given the message I’d sent to his company the evening before from Atlanta about the two hour flight delay, and the airport had not posted the flight as delayed. Nancy and I felt enormously guilty — though we’d done everything we could to alert him. And who knew that the plane would not show in airport communications as delayed? Isn’t two hours significant enough any more, in a world where estimated itineraries have been enormously inflated to minimize the number of late arrivals posted for any airline? There’s a surreal feeling about all this!
It’s been decades since I’ve been in London, and my memories are vague. However now, after 24 hours here, it actually doesn’t seem as though I’ve arrived in a different place from where I left to “jump the puddle” called the Atlantic. Have I become jaded as a traveler? I don’t think so. Rather, the world HAS become much more connected – the whole homogenized, even as every local place has diversified. In the airports at Raleigh and Atlanta, the service people had brown faces and variously accented English that had originated, mostly, in Asia or Africa. The same appears true in London. In North Carolina, the cars are a hodgepodge of brands from Asia, the US, and Europe. In London, the same mix of cars plies the roadways. The British do seem to appreciate black cars more than Americans. I saw my first black Toyota Prius. The color of the year in North Carolina seems to be red. The same mix of clothing appears in London as in the US – a wide variety of Muslim head coverings, as well as mini skirts, leggings, wildly colored sneakers, hooded nylon rain jackets, slacks outfits on women, jeans on guys. On the ride into the city, we did pass by one official looking building with people entering and leaving, and those men looked traditionally English – large, broad, bone structure, longish fly-away hair, gray suits with conservative blue or red ties, large dark-rimmed glasses, pasty white round faces with familiar flat features and anxiously raised eyebrows… But the women were the same international blend I was seeing everywhere – slender, small-framed, and dark-haired, striding efficiently on stiletto heels. We drove through the fabled West End, equivalent to New York’s Broadway – and realized that the same shows are playing on both sides of the Atlantic (it HAD seemed strange to us at the Tony awards last year that the shows we had enjoyed on a visit to New York and that had won the lion’s share of awards all were from Britain, with British casts.)
When we arrived at the apartment we had let for the week, familiar Ikea furniture and cabinets greeted our eyes. The laminate floors resembled those in our house in Durham. We have in our house the inexpensive Noguchi lampshades that cover the light bulbs here. The folding canvas chairs, compete with cupholders, available on the balcony, could have come straight from Lowe’s or Home Depot. The Sainsbury’s quick-shop down the street familiarly posts its opening hours from 7 am to 11 pm.
Some things are still characteristic of London. The many grand buildings, square after square, are solidly reassuring. Gabled buildings with numerous chimney pots speak of multiple fireplaces within, probably now unused. The double decker city buses are still bright red (while proclaiming on every vehicle that they’ve “gone green” – a symbolic, though not visual, hint of Christmas images probably not remotely suggested for Londoners). The black taxis still have the traditional high and narrow chassis – though the lines are now curved and so 21st century, and the size has shrunk considerably from the old model cabs. Every once in a while, a grungy corner pub with a clever name survives and clearly has not shifted an inch in its décor, menu, or personnel. And, of course, “Her Majesty’s” presence on numerous signs as on the now decimal currency interjects a frequent reminder of where I am.
On the drive from Heathrow into the city, I noticed the round European style speed limit signs (a colored circle surrounding a number), and asked the driver if the numbers still referred to miles, or if they too had shifted to metric measures. The driver (Pakistani) laughed and replied “Yes, we are stubbornly clinging to our miles, although every other measurement is now metric.”
I’m realizing that Britain, at least, is no longer a truly “foreign” destination. We are aligned so thoroughly, with the same immigrants, the same brands of products and commercial establishments, the same fashions, the same food brands (Coca Cola versus Pepsi Cola, Oreo cookies, Quaker Oats…) that the “Pond” has apparently shrunk to the significance of a pond – despite the physically rattling 5 hours of jet lag. I’m pretty sure that this phenomenon is limited to large cities – but even there, I’m reading of more and more second tier American cities with large and diverse immigrant populations, a situation I’m sure applies as frequently here as in the US. And of course, stores and products have become amazingly homogeneous in America, as here. I came here wanting to purchase a certain well-known brand of British walking shoes, only to find that they’re now more readily available in Durham, North Carolina than in London!
Apparently, we now need to go much further afield than London to reap some of the basic benefits of world travel – the dislocation to the senses and the mind, the challenge to preconceived habitual patterns of thought, an appreciation for the amazing variety of human ingenuity and sensibility.
I know, as our visit proceeds, that we will, despite the globalization of English speaking cultures, enjoy some experiences that we could have only here in this moment, and that we will leave grateful for those opportunities to stretch ourselves. And now, visiting Harrod’s Department Store has shot to the top of my priority list. At least there, from what people are saying, the traditional British shopping experience, enhanced by Harrod’s legendary flights of fantasy, has not only survived, but thrived. Hooray!