The graduation cap kept slipping off my head and the tassel was getting into my visual field, occasionally blotting out important surrounding objects, like pillars or toilets. I couldn’t bend down, nod, or even glance at my phone. I was beginning to get an inkling into why all graduands look so dignified – standing tall, chin up, gaze fixed firmly ahead, stiff smile. They must be terrified of dropping the thing…
I hadn’t worn a robe before either, and this ceremony at the London Barbican for alumni of the University of London’s International Programmes was my first British-style graduation, national anthem and all.
So when the lady at the dressing booth carefully placed and arranged the heavy black robe on my shoulders, the eerie weight of responsibility settled on them too.
I was on my best behavior: walked across the stage confidently when my name was called (having wisely ditched my stilettos in favor of more sensible flat-sole boots), bowed imperceptibly to the Vice-Chancellor and the other members, looked proudly (how else, cap was unstable) up into the audience, shook someone’s hand and was utterly relieved to be seated again without any major incident.
I was all too happy to relax and watch the long procession of excited graduates that followed, their enthusiasm, the faculty speeches, and the subtle yet undoubtedly motivating and inspiring pomp of the ceremony. I barely fidgeted. The fact that I was dead beat after hours of walking through London must have had something to do with it.
Trying to pack this buzzing and fascinating city into only 48 hours and tick most of the major boxes on my to-see list is no small feat. It is, in fact, for no small feet at all. I have come dangerously close to a broken back, but I did manage to get a pretty good sense of the place, if I do say so myself. Yes, boys and girls, it can be done!
So, as my throbbing, swollen feet are my witness, and in my capacity as surface-scratcher extraordinaire, I feel it is now my duty to dispel at least 3 common misconceptions right off the bat:
1. English food is terrible.
No way. Not necessarily. The gusty winds of healthy living are sweeping through the busy streets and teeming bike lanes of London, with tasty treats, leafy salads, fresh thick soups and vegan sandwiches on every corner. Things like pumpkin or papaya slices on rye bread with seeds, arugula, coleslaw, vegan mayo, vegetables and cheese can make a wholesome yet light and savory breakfast at a fraction of the price of fish and chips. Eat away! The food scene is amazing, and old traditional pubs, local steakhouses, elegant seafood restaurants, or first-class international cuisine are equally sophisticated and delightful. I particularly liked the looks of some eateries around Covent Garden.
2. The British are sticklers for protocol. (You know, stiff upper lip, haven’t been properly introduced type of stuff…)
Well, what can I say, if you marry into the Royal family (new wedding coming up!) most likely, but then you’ve brought it upon yourself. In my experience, however, even during official ceremonies there is the occasional cutting of slack, and guidance is always offered with smiles and in a calm tone of voice.
On the streets, the British are considerate and friendly chaps (and lads), who do not seem at all phased by the bustling crowds and will always take a second to give you directions or duck while you’re trying to photograph the sights. There will be a polite sorry for every brush against your arm, and thank yous are abundant. Never an arrogant snarl, never a condescending eye roll. There is a touch of affability and humor with every interaction. (Oh, I love decorum and a good upbringing!)
And even though the city is as vibrant, diverse and fast-paced as they come (more than 300 different languages are spoken in London schools), I did not get a sense of hectic rage among its inhabitants at all. They are lax and at ease in the commotion (occasional exception: cyclists – no, they are not training for the Tour de France, they’re just pedaling to work). To my complete surprise, most pedestrians don’t pay the slightest attention to red traffic lights. These seem to be optional, as jaywalking is common. So no sticklers there.
The hard focus on discipline and immediate punishment so typical of Germany is oddly missing here, as is the idea that human communities can only be held together by an obsession with conformity and the strict enforcement of procedures.
3. London is outrageously expensive.
Again, if you want an apartment on the riverbank, overlooking the Tower Bridge, or a nice flat in a posh neighborhood (ok, rents are pretty high everywhere) that will bore a significant hole through your bank account. High-life central London entertainment and tickets to most tourist venues will also take a toll on your finances; croissants and hot dogs in the immediate vicinity of a tourist attraction tend to be quite overpriced. But regular food and transportation fares are decent and even a couple of nights in a pleasant hotel not very far from the City are affordable.
You will see the occasional homeless person, and beggars on the Tube. But you will also see great culture and art (Tate Modern has sections with free access); impressive architecture – an eclectic mix of old and new, gleaming glass-and-steel structures cuddling the grimed walls of old churches, townhouses emblazoned with heraldic symbols, and charming little gardens redolent of rhododendrons; garrulous seagulls on the Thames and a buzzing fleet of red double-decker buses that will seem like they’re all driving on the wrong side of the road!
So be careful when you cross the street, pack an umbrella and enjoy five o’clock tea!
I’ll interrupt my reminiscing now and stand for God Save the Queen as my graduation ceremony closes. London, it’s been a pleasure!
Spoiler alert: here are (some) pictures. Don’t forget to also follow me on Instagram, under ipesardna, for more interesting stuff.
See you next time!