London, England. The most visited city of 2014. What is it about her? There is nothing she can do that other great cities in the world can’t do better. Bangkok has proven that by shoving it off the No. 1 spot this year as the most visited city of 2015. British Vs. Thai cuisine is a no brainer (or a no tongue-r, if you will). I see Londoners mouthing ‘Bollocks’ at me, and rightfully so. British cuisine might be bland at its best (sorry fish-n-chips and mushy peas), but London boasts a host of Michelin-standard/starred restaurants that can satisfy all kinds of palates, starting from the traditional to the more adventurous types. Maybe it’s the Thai beaches and weather that dethroned London? She can’t boast about either, even if her life depended on it. Nor can she boast of the notoriety of Amsterdam, skylines of Kuala Lumpur or bazaars of Istanbul. The Shard is no Burj al-Arab while Thorpe Park is certainly no Disneyland.
Yet, for all their splendour and beauty, no city in the world can claim to enjoy the kind of reverence London does. There’s this undeniable thing about her. Something that transcends the liveliness of New York, romanticism of Paris and futuristic charm of Tokyo. London is incontestably aristocratic – and cleverly marketed as just that. The fancy accent, centuries-old monarchy and colonisation history lend London’s well-preserved narrative the aristocratic edge over her international counterparts. She is the austere yet cosy, ancient yet modern, regal yet fun, one-stop tourist spot. Can you blame the world for being smitten?
In Bangladesh, a country whose capital finds itself regularly being flagged as one of the least liveable places in the world, the attraction is hundredfold. Take a superficial look at the two cities and you will find out why. London has endured centuries in perfectly poised sophistication with an air of class and elegance that remained unpretentious and unwavering despite its intense diversification over the years. Dhaka is not even half a century old, with much of its turbulent youth spent trying to hold 160 million people together in a melting pot of every problem an overpopulated, scarcely resourced country can possibly face. The stark differences between the cities aid and abet an almost addicted fascination that goes only one way.
The deeper you look into the Bengali society, the more the fascination shifts into focus. While everything in London begins and ends with alcohol, or the lack of it, everything in Dhaka begins and ends with money, or the lack of it. Bengalis are sticklers for the high life. More specifically, the stately high life, the kind you cannot buy or be without being born into historically verified and sustained royalty i.e. aristocracy. The Bengali word is ‘khandaani’, an important difference that sets puran poisha apart from notun poisha in our money-obsessed society. To understand this phenomenon, think of London (historically-royal-without-trying aka puran poisha) Vs Dubai (money-wielding-wasteful-wannabe aka notun poisha). We recognize and admire the idea of novelty to orgasmic proportions. No wonder the British Royal Family, crowned in regal (*cough* stolen *cough*) jewels, rubs our khandaani obsession obscenely well. Once upon a time, the Royals were all about the charming Princess Diana, even when she was no longer the wife of Prince Charles. Over the past decade, Diana’s death has slowly brought the more ‘important’ (read less good looking) ones to limelight. The Queen has managed to hang around long enough to become the oldest reigning British monarch. Prince Charles has managed to turn the hatred for his once-upon-a-time-mistress-now-wife into lukewarm acceptance. William is married to the lovely Kate, raining babies together in the perfect boro chele-choto meye format. You are so damn smitten, you are probably crying at this point.
When we aren’t obsessing over the royals, we are drooling over the nation’s posh accent (as clueless as we are about them northerners). Anyone who can talk British is elite (unless you are a Sylheti-speaking Bileti, in which case you are just confusing). Then there’s the Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. Harrods and Madame Tussauds. Red double decker buses and black cabs. David Beckham and Wayne Rooney. Oxford and Cambridge (even though they aren’t in London but try convincing a Bengali that). The Beatles and Spice Girls. Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. Scrabble and Monopoly. Castles and Pubs. Wimbledon and Wembley. Jack the Ripper and Robin Hood. The list goes on and on and on. From time to time, someone tries to rain on our London parade by talking about the ‘dreadful weather’. However, the grey and gloom fail to taint our deep-rooted love, reflecting in the way we imagine our futures. Honeymoon wishes? London. Higher study aspirations? London. Dual citizenship dreams? LONDON. She’s the Holy Grail of Cities for Bengalis.
But is she, really? I have lived the life of a Londoner long enough to seriously consider that question. I am sorry bondhus but after years down the London road, I have to admit that our obsession is a tad bit overzealous.
- London Bridge is a sham. I am still in a bit of denial over this. *sniffs*
- Most Brits would love to see the monarchy abolished. *gasp*
- Grey and gloomy is NOT charming.
- Oxford is not in London….
- ..and not everyone is Oxford-smart. (You can make heads turn here just by having a degree);
- London doesn’t snow…enough. Hence it’s not bideshi…enough.
- It’s fecking expensive;
- The concept of savings in this city is a joke;
- People can be occasionally racist;
- The landlords are always rubbish;
- The public transport has a vendetta of its own;
- There exists a sordid tabloid/reality TV obsession that is beyond my understanding (judgmental? who, me?);
- Immigration policies are getting stickier than toffee puddings (just not as appetising).
If you still hope to visit as a tourist or want to return as one, you can pack your bags and leave at this point. Google a Buzz Feed article about ’30 things I love about London’ and nurse your broken heart over a cup of Twinings. If you are made up of stronger stuff, try not to break and read on. London IS great but owing to the ideal picture Bengalis paint in each other’s hearts, she has fallen short of many of my expectations. She was supposed to be near-perfect and, like most crushes dreamed up to larger-than-life proportions, she isn’t. For a while, I struggled with this sad realization, even sneered from inside her gloomy underbelly, watching her touting her khandaani image with accusing eyes. A bit rich for a Bengali if you ask me but hey, where we lack in ‘being’ we make up for in ‘believing’. We believed in London. I believed in London. Yes, we might have believed a little too much but that’s London’s fault, not ours. SHE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE THE HOLY GRAIL!
Once I realized London isn’t ALL that (well she is, and isn’t), she started growing on me. And then one fine day, I realized I was in love. The head-over-heels, till-death-do-us-apart, I-need-her-more-than-air kind of love. I guess it’s got something to do with growing up in the least liveable city in the world, and loving it regardless. It’s in the inherent nature of Bengalis to fall in love with imperfections. London gave me a semblance of belonging, something I still struggle with as an immigrant. I am quite the nomad and when a nomad feels like she belongs, that’s saying something. Home becomes an emotion rather than a space you occupy. A love story blooms. This is my London love story.
- London is history in brick and mortar.
How many of you get to encounter relics in your daily lives? I walk past an 18th century lamppost on my way to the tube station every morning. No matter where you happen to be London, you are most likely to stumble upon something traceable back to one or two centuries, if not more. It’s like time travelling in your present life. Amazeballs, if you ask me.
- London is a bookworm’s soul city.
Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station. Enough said. If Harry Potter isn’t your thing (boo you!), there are many more sources of experiencing eureka moments in London. Like when you walk past Baker Street or visit Shakespeare’s Globe. You don’t even need to locate specific literary spots to be wowed. If you are one with an active imagination, simple things from Christmas trees to boarding schools (Malory Towers, anyone?) to the greener than green countryside (Enid Blyton, I still love you) will be enough to trigger nostalgic moments spent in bed reading your favourite British author. Furthermore, if you are a foodie bibliophilic, you can revel in indulging in Cornish Pasties and Yorkshire Puddings (You know you always wanted to). If the savouries can’t impress your taste buds, the sweetgasms from scones and tarts most certainly will. Last but not the least, best selling books gets advertised in this city, just like best-selling movies. So. Damn. Cool
- London can have all four seasons in one day.
Everyone is a weather enthusiast in London. The weather is constantly PMS-ing, leaving you guessing where it’s next mood swing is about to land. It’s like gambling with someone who insists on playing hide-and-seek. Dressing up in layers and still being able to function is an art you need to master to survive in this city, while never compromising the fashion of course. I have learnt to appreciate double digits on www.bbc.co.uk/weather, perhaps the most frequented website in the UK. I have learnt to appreciate the sun and act ridiculous when it pays the occasional visit (SO Bri’ish). My love for the sun has extended to beaches. I bet Londoners are sitting up in excitement already. Brits are mad about beaches even though they hardly ever get beach weather (something like our khandaani obsession when we are drowning in poverty). Not that I didn’t love beaches before – I come from the country with the longest beach in the world after all. But my love has turned into full-blown, British obsession.
- London makes me appreciate the third-world-country life.
I appreciate cheaper costs of living after spending £35 on textbooks, £45 on haircuts and £200 on spectacles (KILL ME SOMEONE). I miss photocopiers, pirated CDs and ten taka rickshaw rides. As they say, “you can take the girl out of the city but can’t take the city out of the girl.”
- London is pedestrian friendly.
If you hail from an overpopulated, poorly planned city, you will know how important this is. I used to despise the idea of walking in overcrowded paras, sweat-inducing roud and ill-kept golis. Thanks to a cooler weather and cleaner, safer roads, not to mention fewer people (when those bloody tourists aren’t in your face), I now love walking. And I walk a lot. In fact my brain and I are always jogging to keep up with the city’s vibes – there is simply no other way to be. You will find me on the go like a clockwork mouse whether on the West End or East, doing my thing, often on my feet, happily so. Unless I find myself far from home at 3 am on a Friday night and Uber is either out of cabs or demanding 3.5 times the normal price. F.M.L.
- London is health-obsessed…
It’s not a secret that American food portions are frowned upon here. The food culture in America is as ‘crazy’ as the Americans themselves (or so the Brits religiously believe). In London, people eat moderately and try to live healthy however they can. The supermarkets and restaurants offer enough motivation to adhere to a fit lifestyle. Quinoa, kale and chia seeds are fads to be had. People tease each other over consumption of greasy foods (oh, Dhaka). Marathons and charity runs take place throughout the year, even in winter. How can the culture not rub off on you? Even a hard-core Bengali foodie like me talks about her health and considers exercising like she actually gives a shit. Scarily enough, I do too.
- …yet London is a coffee dealer.
I became a coffee addict, thanks to the permanent proximity to a coffee shop or boutique café at any given location. I have more coffee in my blood than blood itself. I can’t possibly bleed to death. Which means technically, I can’t be killed. Coffee sure aint helping my health but does it even matter when I am superhuman?
- London is bhodro.
And it can’t hurt. No matter how much we laugh and tease the Brits for it. You eventually pick up a bit of the bhodrota yourself. Sorry and thank you become reflex actions to you, as natural as breathing. Along with the ability to mince words, fake smile, brisk walk and avoid eye contact.You find yourself queuing patiently for your turn at the tills, waiting for people to get off the tube before you board and holding out doors to help people pass through.There’s so much more to Brits than mere politeness, though. Once you poke through their seemingly sarcastic, ‘uptight’ attitudes, their dry humour is amazing. Just don’t get overboard with the emotions, please. Thanks. Loosen them up with a few pints and they are highly likely to get more embarrassing than you (being a Bengali, that’s a hard feat), throwing all forms of bhodrota outside the window.
- London is reserved.
I know how to converse in a withheld manner, even when I am totally allowed an emotional outburst.
- London doesn’t take itself too seriously.
I have learnt self-depreciation is admirable, which the Brits do all the time. In contrast to making yourself appear bigger and more important, and inevitably looking like a fool, (something Bengalis are prone to do), making yourself seem less serious comes across as funny and cool. The city is no different from its dwellers. The world’s coolest people keep coming to her shores yet she remains unfazed.
- London is functional (minus the NHS).
Again, this means the world to me as a Dhaka born and brought up girl. Step off any tube station in London and you will find a trusty Tesco, Boots and Costa, along with a branch of your bank and that Indian store you can’t do without, just round the corner. You are never too far from things you need in this city.Every journey is google-able and every institution is search-able. The city is geared up to all that the fast paced world of technology needs it to be. Swipe your phone to board your plane and access Wi-Fi underground. Easy peasy. One might view the Londoner’s life as being too ‘mechanical’ but hey, it works.
- London is a commuter’s city.
Our relationship with the public transport is that secret affair everyone keeps mum about but can’t wait to go back to every night (technically day, because night tube is still not a thing!) London’s public transport, even when Central line goes bust during weekend ‘engineering works’ and buses on periods change destinations mid-journey, is the key to unlocking all of London’s treasures. No matter how bitterly we complain, deep down we know we couldn’t survive without it.The world is truly my Oyster, or at least I can ‘Oyster’ to it via Heathrow (who doesn’t know HER) AND Gatwick (busiest single runway in the world) AND Stansted AND London City. London is a transport hub for England, UK, Europe, the World and possibly the Universe as well. If aliens are a thing, I bet my oyster they use the tube too.Other than getting me around, Transport FUCKING For London (TFL) has taught me a lot about patience, missed flights and unladylike cursing (I can easily put rickshawalas/drunk Brits to shame.) But most importantly, it has made me realize how well a robust public transport system can blur the rich-poor divide.
- London doesn’t have buas.
How can that be good, I hear you scream. Once you know how liberating it is to be able to cook a dish of your choice to your preferred tastes, you will understand. Self-sufficiency and independence is not just about earning money and paying the bills. It’s also about making your bed, folding your linen and doing your groceries.
- London works hard, plays harder.
Londoners have a very strong work ethic. Work and play have a bold-lined division here and though the workaholic life gets monotonous, it gets you the success you need to stay buoyed in this competitive city. When the weekend arrives, you are expected to let your hair down and go wild.
- London has Brick Lane.
The only place where I can satisfy my shutki cravings and pretend I am in Dhaka as I walk past Bangla-lettered signboards. Shutki might be a turn off for most but nothing else in Brick Lane will be. A hub for the avant-garde masses, Brick Lane is as hip as it gets, second only to the gothesque Camden. It delights me immensely to discover a Bengali-dominated scene being home to some of the most artsy and fashionable crowds, exhibitions and pop-ups in London.
- London is always happening.
THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING NEW TO DO…(I have beaten up random people with pillows at Trafalgar Square, watched a scandalous ‘boy’-lesque comedy at Southbank and slurped cereal cocktails at a restaurant in Brick Lane)…AND A NEW PLACE TO EAT IN…(You are spoilt for choice when deciding a place to dine in on days when the omnipresent Indian and Chinese takeaways don’t cut it)…AND A NEW SOURCE OF INSPIRATION…(My fashion sense has definitely grown as a result of living in the £28 billion UK fashion industry. The city is so chic, you can’t not be influenced. The inspiration for your wardrobe knows no limits here. I also happen to write much more than I used to, thanks to the culturally diverse air I breathe).
- London is unconquerable.
Just when you think you have seen it all, you stumble across something you’ve never seen or done before. No matter how dig you deep to explore London, you realise you are only scratching her surface. She was, is, and always will be, the lover you had but couldn’t win. And that, my bondhus, makes her unconquerable in the most irresistible way.
London is all that and more. SO. MUCH. MORE. I guess I’ll fail every time I try to capture her in any form, whether words or videos, songs or plays. As a Londoner, I often feel the need to get away from the relentless buzz for some peace and quiet to recharge my overused batteries. But soon enough, I crave to be back. And when I do, I jump in joy in earnest desire to hug it. And breathe it. And eat it. And sleep it.