When I’m bored or stressed or antsy, I like to just pick a direction and walk. It’s a way of both burning off steam and exploring.
So after my first class of the semester (more about that later), I turned left and walked. I couldn’t tell you what streets I was on. I’m still trying to get the hang of looking at the buildings for the street names instead of a pole on the corner. I don’t know how Brits do it, honestly. I guess they just never knew different.
It didn’t help that I took random turns, wandering through one-way residential streets that curved in odd directions. I enjoyed looking at the expensive Kensington houses, wishing I was rich enough to afford one or imaging who was. They were beautiful in a way that was oddly familiar: the box-like urban houses with ornate details repeating down the street in long lines. They were similar to Boston bownstones, Baltimore rowhouses, and New York City townhouses. As I walked past the London version, there were times I had to remind myself what city I was in. I never knew before how much northeast American architecture had been influenced by English building styles. It makes sense, considering the history, but it’s not something you’d think about stuck in an American-bubble.
Speaking of American things, I ran across a Whole Foods. Being a native to the city that founded the health food chain, I thought it would be interesting to see inside. I meandered through the isles, snacking on the dozen or so food samples they had polite English employees giving out, noting the small differences. Everything was still much more expensive, but certain food items were more prevalent. Various meringues populated the baking session, British-grown squash and berries were sitting in a place of pride, and there was a whole room devoted to cheese.
Once away from the food, the next couple hours were characterized by books. I stumbled onto a library and got a library card. It was as simple as filling out a form and telling the librarian I was studying abroad. Next, I found a Waterstone (the English version of Barns & Noble) and was amused by the cover and sometimes title changes of my favorite books, Harry Potter included. Finally, I wandered into a second-hand bookstore.
It was a long, narrow place with fiction lining the walls and comics filling the middle. There seemed to be no sense or reason to the order of the books. Some were alphabetized by author, and others were just shoved together based on their genre. There were less than a dozen people there, but it felt packed. So, I scooted my way around them and into the basement. If I thought the ground floor was disorganized, it was nothing compared to the underground. Piles of books laid haphazardly on shelves and counters, with no system to arrange them. It smelt of damp, and the lighting was dim. I smiled. If this was a movie, this place would be where the main character found a long-lost treasure. I would’ve liked to be a main character, but I didn’t feel like spending a couple hours looking, so I moved on.
From there I strolled down some main streets, encountering the occasional tourist shop along the way. There were several who were selling the exact same dresses at £10-15. It reminded me of New York City in some way: numerous shops stocked with shallow, ostentatious souvenirs and cheap, mass produced clothing. I wondered who first opened those kinds of stores. Probably the Americans.
I ended up on Portobello Road, the famous market place sung about in Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I strolled down half way, eventually buying some souvenirs. (As much as I believe they are basically representations of unabashed capitalism, I can’t be harshly cynical all the time.) I would’ve walked down more, but I was tired and getting hungry. “I’ll come back,” I told myself, “and bring my camera.”
And from there, I took the tube home.