London is a city I still can’t quite put my finger on. Mainly, it’s so enormous that it seems impossible to try to think about it as one solitary entity. I am always shocked by how long it takes to traverse the city on bus or underground, making me evermore grateful for how everything in Paris is relatively close in comparison (people still get lazy in their respective quartiers, but it doesn’t usually take more than 20-30 minutes to cross the city on public transport.) And unlike Paris which has a definitive boulevard péripherique, London has no clear borders. It’s easy to tell that people aren’t always sure whether a certain neighborhood is in or outside of London. Perhaps it’s “outer London”? Not that it really matters. Though I do think that because of its much higher population and the gigantic, nebulous land area that London inhabits, certain neighborhoods can appear much more distinctive when traveling between them. In Paris it’s often just a matter of turning a street corner to find a completely new socio-economic/demographic/cultural makeup; in London you may have to travel farther, but the feeling of coming across a world-within-a-world is more apparent.
The world of central London has often left me a little at odds. Parts seem too commercial, like Times Square, or too bourgeois, like Paris’ Opéra quarter. The national monuments just don’t strike me with the same unapologetic romanticism as they do in Paris. I was eager to find neighborhoods a little off the beaten path that might interest me more. So last time I visited, Gary and I looked for something a little different to do on a (yep) rainy day and settled on a free “alternative” tour of East London. We braved the lightly sprinkling rain as our guide showed us old markers in the road that serve as the border between the City of London and East London (another system of borders I still don’t understand) and off we went to explore Brick Lane and the surrounding area. Besides being the site of what is probably the highest concentration of curry houses in the world, this neighborhood has been home to many different groups and immigrant communities. For one reason or another, it has also served as a chosen canvas for the incredible work of local and international street artists.
The Brick Lane Masjid, or mosque, is a perfect example of East London’s layered mulit-cultural history. Built in 1743 as a Protestant chapel for French Hugeunots who had escaped persecution in France, it was later adopted as a synagogue for Jewish refugees and finally as a mosque for the growing Bangladeshi community.
We saw a few pieces by a Belgian artist named Roa, who primarily paints giant black-and-white animals on the sides of buildings. This recent and particularly haunting piece is in color, though. Gotta wonder if he’s a vegetarian.
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The wine was red wine, and had stained the ground of the narrow street in the suburb of Saint Antoine, in Paris, where it was spilled. It had stained many hands, too, and many faces, and many naked feet, and many wooden shoes. The hands of the man who sawed the wood, left red marks on the billets; and the forehead of the woman who nursed her baby, was stained with the stain of the old rag she wound about her head again. Those who had been greedy with the staves of the cask, had acquired a tigerish smear about the mouth; and one tall joker so besmirched, his head more out of a long squalid bag of a nightcap than in it, scrawled upon a wall with his finger dipped in muddy wine lees—BLOOD.
-Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859
It feels like people don’t read Dickens much anymore—at least I can’t remember anyone I know recently having read him. The last I remember was everyone having to read Great Expectations in high school and hating it (since I enrolled in my high school late I somehow avoided reading it). In the mood for some classic literature over the holidays, I decided to remedy this mysterious Dickens absence with A Tale of Two Cities, which I chose due to its relative brevity and its subject matter—London and Paris around the time of the French Revolution. I wasn’t disappointed: because the novel was written in installments for a newspaper, Dickens uses common literary devices such as plot twists and cliffhangers, and the characters are rich and complex despite the short amount of time taken to develop them (though the central young female character is an annoying idiot who faints due to overwhelming happiness/sadness depending on what is happening to the various men in her life. Naturally.) But the best part is how the cities themselves act as characters in the novel—Paris of course being the bloodthirsty unstable force that pulls the characters towards it and forces them to unleash their suppressed guilt/rage/heroism…and that threatens to behead you at any moment. Yeah, pretty awesome.
I adore how Paris is introduced in the novel, with a scene in which a cask of wine is accidentally spilled in the street, and every man, woman, and child in sight struggles to drink the wine directly from the ground lest it be wasted, cupping hands to bring up wine and mud from in between the cobblestones in a hungry frenzy that culminates in the wonderful foreshadowing passage above. Given the overwhelming decadence of today’s Paris, where the satisfaction of every sense is available on every corner, there is always a certain fascination that comes with reading about the periods in Parisian history when the city was under siege or on the verge of revolution, when people were driven to survive by eating rats, or something of that nature. This is more the sort of portrayal that Dickens offers, with everyone so impoverished (though some can still afford wine) and haunted by that other personified force, Hunger:
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