Parliament and Big Ben
Originally uploaded by rustedrobot.

There exist very few cities in our world within a two-hour train ride of each other that are so distinctly and blantanly different. London and Paris are both obviously rich in history, but the similarities more or less cease there.

I’ve been trying to figure out how it is that so many Parisians appear not to be working. The cafes we stopped into each day for lunch while in Paris were almost always quite full, and not with just tourists. It’s true that France’s unemployment rate is roughly double that of the United States, but the amount of residents walking the streets in the middle of the day was still an oddity that I haven’t quite figured out yet. London, on the other hand, appeared to me to be more of a bustling, workforce-laden group, much like New York City or Chicago.

One thing that has always attracted me to large cities is the architecture. Here, Paris simply smokes London, although it’s not London’s fault that portions of its old-world charm were rendered to dust by the Germans during the bombing of Britain in the Second World War. Incidentally, Paris may have also suffered a similar fate had Dietrich von Choltitz obeyed Hitler’s order to destroy as much of Paris as he could upon exiting the country. He disobeyed the order – perhaps he felt the same way I did when I saw how beautiful that city was. Either way, I’m glad for the defiance on von Choltitz’s part, as I’m sure many others are.

Regardless, what has resulted in London is a very odd mix of beautifully constructed buildings from hundreds or even thousands of years ago, flanked here and there by some rather horrific and questionable post-war era buildings, which may have appeared modern and flashy when first built, but are now quite inexplicable (that picture is their City Hall).

We weren’t able to spend as much time in London as we did in Paris, but we did manage to see just about all of the important tourist attractions that London has to offer, complete with a ride around the city on a double decker bus, which would have been made all the sweeter had I not been rendered mildly motion-sick from sitting on the top. I didn’t get physically ill from it, but couldn’t spend much time up there.

In reading what I’ve written so far, one might think I wasn’t crazy about London – that couldn’t be further from the truth. In some ways, I find London to be a far more inviting city to return to. For a person who’s tuned into the entertainment world (music, film, theatre, etc), London is as good as they come, if not the best.

Strangely enough, in looking back at our travels, I found the food in London to be first rate – and then some. Where Paris excels significantly in quick-bite items like crepes, pastries and various bakery items, London’s restaurants provided us with what I consider to be first-rate full dinners. In all fairness, you wouldn’t have ANY problems whatsoever eating in either city, but I guess I was more surprised by London because of its reputation for bad food, a tag which is clearly undeserving.

While portions of London were irreparably and unfortunately harmed by the war (whenever I was on the subway, I kept imagining London’s residents sleeping down there during the Blitz), it has maintained some visually stunning buildings. The Tower of London, an old castle (turrets and all! check out that pic!) which has served many purposes for hundreds and hundreds of years, was incredibly interesting and Parliament/Big Ben (pictured above), as many times as you’ve seen pictures, can only be truly taken in by seeing it firsthand. Same goes for Westminster Abbey, an absolutely breathtaking piece of architecture, rife with amazing, ornate, beautiful carvings.

The trickiest thing about London is getting used to looking in the correct direction when crossing the street. In my mind, I told myself this wouldn’t be a problem – it was. You become aware very quickly of the instincts drilled into your brain about what direction to look in when crossing a one way street, of which there are many in London. I found myself in a couple of close situations, nothing crazy, but as time went on, I found myself looking in any and all directions multiple times before the crossing the street. We didn’t drive anywhere during our trip, so I can’t comment on what it’s like to drive there. More on the traffic, cars, etc in Europe late this week – it bears it’s own post.

I wanted to be able to stuff some music tourism into our trip (Abbey Road, Muswell Hill, etc), but time prevented us from doing so. Next time. As we wandered around, though, I couldn’t help humming tunes from some of my favorite London-based bands – you can’t help it, really, when you see things like Waterloo Station and Hammersmith .

With that, I figure I’ll leave you with one of my favorite songs from my favorite English band, The Kinks. “Two Sisters” was a song I found myself humming over and over again. It’s the story of a woman looking at her own life and being envious of her more stylish sister’s existence. In the end, the grass isn’t actually greener, though. I do honestly believe that this is one of Ray Davies best songs.

Davies voice is also deceptively brilliant in this song. When Davies sings about the drudgery of being a housewife serving bacon and eggs each morning, you almost forget that the song has been written by a man. Then that same voice turns uplifting and exciting in the very next line when describing the housewife’s sister and her “luxury flat.” You actually get a true sense of that bitter jealousy in those three lines alone. It is one of Davies’s shining moments, both as a lyricist and as a singer.

I’ve said time-and-time again that I believe Davies to be of equal, and in some cases better, songwriting talent than Lennon & McCartney. Ray Davies, without argument, has a leg or two up on the Beatles duo when it comes to writing about the struggles of London’s post-war middle class. It’s really a shame (and one of music’s great mysteries) why The Kinks aren’t held up to the same pedestals that The Beatles or The Rolling Stones maintain to this day.

Listen here. To download, right-click and choose “save as.” Enjoy.

Two Sisters
Sylvilla looked into her mirror
Percilla looked into the washing machine
And the drudgery of being wed
She was so jealous of her sister
And her liberty, and her smart young friends
She was so jealous of her sister

Sylvilla looked into the wardrobe
Percilla looked into the frying pan
And the bacon and eggs
And the breakfast is served
She was so jealous of her sister
And her way of life, and her luxury flat
She was so jealous of her sister

She threw away her dirty dishes…just to be free again
Her women’s weekly magazines…just to be free again
And put the children in the nursery… just to be free again
Percilla saw her little children
And then decided she was better off
Than the wayward lass that her sister had been
No longer jealous of her sister
So she ran ’round the house with her curlers on
No longer jealous of her sister