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Sunday, 1 December 2013

What I'll Miss About London

If you've seen my Twitter or Facebook accounts, you may have noticed that I complain about London to a fair degree. I make no apology for this - there are so many things about the city, its people and their collective attitude that I find maddening, and if I didn't vent from time to time, I'd probably explode, or set a Tube station on fire or something.

But on this occasion, I feel it's worth mentioning a few of the things that I'll miss about the city, when I leave in three weeks. I've been here so long that I've fallen into a routine that's generally pretty pleasant (otherwise I wouldn't have fallen into it!), and transitioning back to life in Palo Alto, with the added dimension of regular work and trying to be a grownup, is likely to present some challenges. So here are the things I'd like to single out for praise before I go:

Europe

I know this pisses off a couple of my British friends when they hear talk like this, but I really like how easy it is to get to the rest of Europe from here. For various reasons (primarily lack of money), I haven't been able to take as much advantage of it as I'd have liked, but at the same time I don't think I've done too badly. My job, in particular, has been great for helping me travel - this year alone I got out to Barcelona, Amsterdam and Portugal for work, and it never took much more than a couple of hours.

I expect there to be some travel for work when I move back to the US, and apart from that I want to explore more of the rest of the country, but it won't be the same as hopping on a plane (or a train, because I love the Eurostar) for a few hours and finding myself someplace where they speak a totally different language.

Pubs

Perhaps it took me a while to appreciate this, but now that I'm getting ready to leave I'm really seeing the function that pubs serve in this country. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that it's winter now, and sunset is at around 4.30pm (and getting earlier!), but there's something congenial about stepping into a quiet, warm pub, grabbing a beer, and sitting down to chat for an hour or so. It may seem weird to apply the term to British pubs, but the best word I can think of to describe the atmosphere is the German word Gem├╝tlichkeit, which is generally translated as "comfortable", but also has overtones (to me) of homeliness and warmth.

Possibly the most "gem├╝tlich" pub I've encountered in a while was the Red Lion in Mayfair, which was paradoxically also where my sister and I had our accents mocked by a couple whom we'd just expressly notified could have our seats (cf above: people, maddening). But that aside, it was a really nice place - when we stepped in on a Saturday night it was full but not a madhouse, and didn't have music or fruit machines or sports blaring. There are no similar places in Palo Alto - or, I suspect, in all of the US, where you can just stop in for a quiet drink on your way to somewhere else.

I also suspect people in the US will be mocking my accent for a few years to come anyway. One of the curses of being so cosmopolitan, eh?

Culture

Now, don't get the wrong idea - the Bay Area has a lot of great culture, and I'm looking forward to going to concerts and museums and what-have-you when I'm there. But the difference is, when I'm in Palo Alto I'll have to drive for an hour to either San Francisco or San Jose to get it, whereas here I can just hop on the Tube and be standing in front of the British Museum or the Natural History Museum or the National Gallery in about half an hour.

The other important point here is that each of these museums is preeminent in its own field, so if I happen to be reading about Chinese or Indian history, it's nice to be able to drop by the British Museum on a whim after lunch, and browse its Chinese and Indian collections. There's a good museum in Golden Gate Park that showcases African, Pacific and Asian cultures (among others), the de Young, but it won't be the same (because of that drive, and because parking in Golden Gate Park is a bitch and a half).

Oh, and did I mention that all the big museums in London are free? Another big plus.

Community

Kind of related to the point about culture is the fact that there are so many people in London (maddening as they are), that you can find just about every interest catered for. This has been my experience particularly in the last year, as I've started to get more involved in the SFF writing/fandom community. There are a lot of writers living here, as befits one of the two centers of the Anglophone publishing industry, and - at least in the SFF community - it feels really easy to meet them.

Just today, in fact, I was poking around Blackwell's, on Charing Cross Road, in anticipation of the Sarah Pinborough book launch taking place later this week, and noticed that the recommendations in the SF section were still signed by the former SF/F buyer, Den Patrick - who's now a full-time writer and whom I met in Brighton last month.

I'm reliably informed that the Bay Area is crawling with speculative fiction writers, so there may not be too much cause for alarm. But since the closure of Borders on University Avenue, we don't have any big bookstores left in Palo Alto, and even if we did, how likely would I be to randomly run into the likes of Paul Cornell there, if not for a signing? There may be a well-established community in San Francisco, but I'm gonna have to find it - here it's all around me.

Bookstores

I was going to end with community, but once I got to the part about the bookstores, I knew I had to add a final section about them. There's nothing I love more than hitting the Forbidden Planet and poking around the comics and novels, or getting lost among the shelves at Foyle's, or spending an afternoon reading something from each floor at Big Waterstones on Piccadilly.

As I said above, there are no big bookstores like my beloved Borders left in Palo Alto. There's Kepler's, in Menlo Park, which is nice and indie, but I'm deeply skeptical about their staff, given that they have no idea Thomas Pynchon's books are still in print. If I want another place similar to Borders, I have to drive all the way out to Redwood City to the Barnes and Noble there. At least there are some good options for used books, but even Know Knew Books is nothing compared to the gigantic collections at Big Waterstones or Foyle's.

Now, I don't want this to sound like I'm not looking forward to the big move. I've been working toward it for a good long while now, and I'm excited that it's finally coming to fruition. But I'd be lying if I said I won't miss anything from here. Fortunately for me, I'll have plenty of reasons to come back and experience these things again over the coming years.

And who knows? Maybe I'll end up moving back. Never say never.