London: Stuck in an Eternal Struggle Between Shabby and Chic

This is the first part of a series called “Summer in the City” in which I’ll be casually pretending to be Carrie Bradshaw and writing about my summer spent between three of the major cosmopolitan centers in the world: London, Paris and New York. Yes, you may call me Mrs. Worldwide now. 

In my last article (which was a lifetime ago, I knooow, I’m sorry!!), I wrote about my impostor syndrome and feeling like a sell-out because I had recently gotten a fancy content marketing internship instead of directly pursuing my journalistic ambitions. If anyone had told me back then that in this new job, not only would I get to work with amazing people and feel intellectually and creatively stimulated, but also go on actual work trips to exciting new destinations, I would’ve immediately swallowed the blue pill and tattooed “capitalism rules” on my forehead. Okay, maybe not, but you get my point. 

So what has an accomplished business woman a summer intern got to do in London, you’d ask? The short answer to this question is pretty simple: do a social media live coverage of EGG, the annual conference on human-centered AI that my company organizes across different cities. The long answer is the rest of this article. 

Crossing the Channel to Escape a Heatwave and Accidentally Bringing the Sun to London

Despite having multiple friends there and living only a two-hour train ride away, I had somehow managed to get through my 22 years on this planet without having set foot in London. Okay, this is technically a lie, since I did pass by it once on my way to Oxford. But trust me when I tell you, I actually thought the Tube was a Brit rock band until about a month ago, and my only perception of London Bridge was through the hit 2006 Fergie song. 

I guess the British capital had never really been on my bucket list until now. I mostly associated the city with 325 days of rain per year, rising knife crime and a bunch of depressed Love Actually character look-alikes talking about the weather and shagging. However, after a week of suffering in my tiny air-conditionless apartment in Paris during one of the worst canicules in French history, I was ready to take my chances with the knife attacks for some cool rainy weather. 

Little did I know that the heat would follow me all the way across the Channel. You know that silly dad joke that goes “I love summer in England. Last year it was on a Wednesday”? Well, this year it was a wet hot English summer in London (and by “wet hot”, I mean a solid 25°C with a light breeze) for the entire week I was there. Thanks, climate change!

Ah, I See You’re a City of Culture as Well

While even just getting out of Paris and staying at a nice air-conditioned hotel room for a couple of days would’ve been a good deal at this point, I was actually able to combine business with pleasure and arrive in London the weekend before my work event. I stayed at a friend’s place, at a charming red-brick terraced house in Archway, in the north of London. While he was quite busy hustling lab practice and a late-night job at a downtown ramen place (like only a true Londoner can), I set out to explore the city by myself, in the hopes of getting some good instagrammable #solotravel content. 

I was in luck, since I had arrived just in time for the Friday Lates: the last Friday of each month, most of the biggest museums around the city stay open until late in the evening and host numerous free special exhibitions and events. So I put on my The Smiths Spotify playlist, hopped on a double-decker bus for the first time in my life and crossed the Thames, ready to immerse myself in high culture. 

What followed was a surprisingly calm walk along the South Bank, an impromptu tasting at a food market and a brief flirtation with the Tate Modern, where the free exhibit options were so many and all sounded so fascinating, that I couldn’t make up my mind and commit to any one of them. I finally gave up and settled for the V&A, short for Victoria and Albert, one of the world’s leading art and design museums.  

Who’d Know that Chatting With Strangers is not Frowned Upon in Some Places?

While the edgy-sounding “FOOD: Bigger Than the Plate” exhibit I chose was highly instagrammable yet overall underwhelming, my night at the V&A turned out to be so much more than I’d hoped for. I was sitting by the fountain in the museum courtyard and swiping through insta filters, when it suddenly hit me: what was I doing? This isn’t what solo travel is supposed to be like! What’s the point of being in one of the world’s most famous cultural hubs, if you don’t actually talk to the people and experience culture first-hand?

Living in Paris, I had gotten used to the most acceptable form of talking to strangers being saying “bonjour” in the elevator and then proceeding to awkwardly avoid eye contact for the rest of the ride. But this was London, things had to be different here. And so, I gathered all my courage and actually did it – I struck a conversation with a couple of random strangers! 

My victims of choice turned out to be two really cool Northern Irish guys. We ended up getting drinks from the V&A bar (yes, apparently they have bars in London museums!) and spending the whole evening talking about topics ranging from the history of haute couture to the Babe dot com fallout. We exchanged contacts and even though I don’t know if realistically we’d ever hang out again, I was happy to have overcome my social anxiety and to have met people I could have a real conversation with (to be honest, I was getting kinda tired of the Parisian crowd and the ça-va-ça-va-let’s-talk-about-obscure-French-cinema-and-nothing-else drill). 

What’s the point of being in one of the world’s most famous cultural hubs, if you don’t actually talk to the people and experience culture first-hand?

All in all, my first night of cultural exploration in London was a resounding success. And the best part? The guys gave me a long list of local insider tips and ideas of interesting places to visit, and more importantly, good food. 

Is This What a Melting Pot Tastes Like? Cause I’m Into It

Over the course of the next few days, I got a taste of real London. By this, I mean I got to taste a lot of cool inexpensive ethnic food. The degree of authenticity may have varied, but in any case London cuisine was much more diverse than anything I could get in Paris, where even *real* Asian restaurants usually don’t serve spicy food to cater to white Frenchies. 

The rest of my trip was characterized by a constant struggle between shabby and chic.

One of my favorite experiences was the Brick Lane market, where I had Chinese bao buns, Turkish-Indian fusion, and a smoothie, for a total of under 12 quid. The whole Brick Lane neighborhood, with its funky crafts shops and hidden vintage bookstores was a hipster paradise. The surroundings screamed “gentrification”, but I suppressed my white privilege guilt by marvelling at the city’s vivid celebration of Pride month and by accidentally taking part in a Bengali New Year festival. 

The rest of my trip was characterized by a constant struggle between shabby and chic. One minute I was drinking bad wine from the bottle and considering moving to a boat by the canal at Angel Station, the next I was sipping equally bad but 10 times more expensive wine and watching Fiddler on the Roof at the Playhouse Theatre. At one point I was scouting for the best street food options for under 5 pounds, next thing I know, I’m ordering a four-course meal on my company’s expense at a fancy Turkish restaurant (if you’ve read our blog before, you’d remember my obsession with Turkish food). 

Even the neighborhood where I was staying for my work conference seemed to exude this curious shabby-chic dichotomy. Squeezed between the corporate glitz of the City and the supposedly “dodgy” Whitechapel, I wasn’t sure what I should be more worried about: getting stabbed to death on my way home, or having to endure a conversation about stock bonds with another guest of the hotel. 

Luckily, neither of those things happened. Instead, it was right in this strange area that I stumbled upon one of the most exciting places in London – the Barbican, a contemporary performance art center, where I got to see a fascinating exhibit on AI and futurism (and later earned street cred by referencing it in multiple conversations at my own company’s AI conference). The center itself and the buildings surrounding it were remarkable sights on their own, combining brutalist architecture with a softening touch of flora that could make Kew Gardens turn green with jealousy (pun absolutely intended). 

At the end of the day, the chic element prevailed, as I ended my journey with champagne at a corporate after-party on a rooftop overlooking the Shard, the Gherkin, among other famous skyscrapers with bizarro names. Yet, if you asked me to go to Brick Lane again for those 1-quid bao buns, I’d be jumping on a Eurostar train back to London faster than you can spell “gentrification”.

Stay tuned for part 2 of the “Summer in the City” series, in which I’m crossing the Atlantic to continue my shameless participation in gentrification, this time in NYC