Friday, 3 February 2017

Hidden London

London is not the easiest introduction to a Cretan about the ways of the north. There are some things that you can understand better inter-generationally and (not 'or') with experience. Age helps, but cultural education starts very early. Even I make bloopers along the way, but the difference between me and my family is that I know how to correct myself. During our recent winter holiday in London, we went to a 'curry house', a Pakistani restaurant that we often visit when in London. Before we got there, I found a few sites of interest along the way to extend the journey. Here are a few things we discovered about London that you may or may not find in a guide to the city, with a Cretan twist.

Oyster cards
3.6m London travellers ‘fined’ for Oyster card errorsLondon's transport system is a good, albeit complicated, introduction to the ways of the north. The stations are modern, the pace is fast, the system is automated, and some human movements may look robotic to the uninitiated. We've been using London's 'oyster card' transport ticket system for a few years now. It's the easiest cheapest way to get round London, rather than buying individual tickets every time you use public transport. We just 'top up' our cards with credit every time we want to use them. The maximum amount of money an oyster card will charge you depends on the places you travel, but it's equivalent to a day pass according to the London 'zones' you've traveled in. The card will let you begin your travels if you have enough money in it for the hypothetically cheapest fare, and it will let you finish the journey even if the card runs out of money along the way (because you went on a longer journey); therefore, it still runs in 'overdraft' mode, ie you owe money on it, which can be paid back before your next journey. Because oyster cards cost £5 to buy, without any credit on them, it will usually work out cheaper to top up your card rather than buy a new one. Whichever way you travel on the London trains, you will notice that they are expensive.

Some stations don't have barriers, so you can enter them even if you don't 'touch in' (I did this once by accident - if there was a barrier, this wouldn't have happened), but if your destination station has a barrier (in the previous case, mine didn't), you won't be able to get off the platform without embarrassing yourself as a fare dodger, unless there is no barrier. So as a rule, if you don't touch in, you mustn't 'touch out', otherwise your card will be credited for the longest possible journey on that train line, because the card will think you just tapped in rather than out (thankfully, I knew the rule). Confusing, isn't it? Pity the Athenians, who are now waking up to a new dawn, as the barriers at the metro platforms finally get put in place. A similar system to the oyster card is now working too, called the ATH.ENA card.)

Knowing how to use the train system of one of the largest capital cities in the world takes some getting used to. Experience comes with time, and age makes you less flexible. I now watch my kids handling the whole process more quickly than I do, even though I taught them to use it. 

So the first thing we do before catching a train is to check how much money is still on our oyster cards. On that particular day, each card had about £2 on it, so I topped up the adult cards with £10 each, and the children's with £5 (they travel half price until their late teens). It's better to top up the oyster card as you need it, rather than adding a lot of money to it, in case you lose it: as tourists, we don't have 'registered' cards, which means that in case of loss, we can't claim back the remaining credit on them. When you touch in, you'll hear a sound which tells you that your card was read properly by the card reader. So sound is very important when you use the trains. My husband once passed through a no-barrier station thinking he'd tapped in. He tapped out at the end of the journey, but the card thought he'd just tapped in, so he was charged for the complete journey of that particular train line. I tried to teach him how to use the system: 'SLAM the card on the reader, don't pet it as if it's a cat!' (There are ways to get your money back: it takes a bit of patience.)

With our travel cards sorted out, we began our journey into London's city centre, which is a bit of a misnomer since London is not a small city. The best way to see the city is to walk as much as you can. You won't save a lot of transport money by walking if you come into the centre from far away as your oyster card will be 'capped' to the maximum amount equivalent to a daily travel card, but you will see more of the real city, instead of being stuck in the twilight zone of the 'tube', as the underground train system ferries you about in the darkness of the tunnels. 

The Shard
As London stands today, it's in the midst of a concrete-glass-steel reconstruction, as it races to become the leader of the global connected world (while the UK's prime minister rushes to take the country out of the EU), and it keeps changing appearance on a regular basis, every time a new building starts to be constructed. It's both frightening and exciting: you have to try to keep in mind the end result of the hideous construction sites, otherwise the city will look like a cruel, heartless and ugly monster. But if you are lucky to see the end result one day, it may leave you gaping in awe. The Shard looks like just another tall building when seen from far away against London's horizon. It felt formidable seeing it from close up. It's about as tall as the Eiffel Tower.
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If you come from a small town and this is the first time you see a skyscraper, it can feel very intimidating. Having lived all my life in seismic-prone regions, the first thing that comes into my mind when I see a skyscraper is earthquakes. It's an awesome experience to look up to the top of the building and to literally see it scraping the sky. (You can go to the top floor of the Shard for £30 or so per person if you can afford it.)

The Beatles
I added a brief surprise detour to a place whose significance my family knew nothing about, nor would they understand what I was talking about if I told them what we were going to do there. They often let me lead the way: they know I know the Anglo-Saxon world in a way that they don't, and perhaps can never know it, especially now when the Anglo-Saxon world is barricading itself and turning turning inwards. I too make 'mistakes' when I find myself in that world (which used to be the only world I knew a quarter of a century ago), but I know how to hyper-correct while I am maneuvering myself in it. They don't: that's the difference between me and the rest of the family. It takes years of experience to understand the highly developed world. The internet has brought us closer together, but it does not replace experience.

Now imagine the conversation:
- Where are we going?
- We're going to a pedestrian crossing.
- A pedestrian crossing? Is that all we're going to see?
- Yes, in a sense.
- OK. And what are we going to do there?
- We're going to take a photo.
- Of the pedestrian crossing?
- Of US on the pedestrian crossing.
- Why?
- Because that's what people do there.
- They take photos of themselves walking across the road?
- Yes, but it's a special road.
- Why?
- Because. You'll see. Promise.

While all my English language books are visible to everyone on the shelves in our living room, my vinyl collection from abroad is still in storage: I would have to wait until we got back home to show everyone my Abbey Road album. I liked 60s music and during my teens, I built up a small collection of records with my pocket money (earned by working at my parents' shop every day after school). My kids are too young to know about the Beatles, and Greece's 60s came a little later than the 60s (some time in the 80s, in my humble opinion, when wealth was more widespread and everyone could afford more or less the same things) which means that my husband missed out on the furore that the Beatles caused in their heyday. He knows that they were a 60s pop group, but he did not live through the craze that swept through the Anglo-Saxon world in those times. For a start, television was not so widespread in Crete in the 60s; Crete was quite considered remote from the Greek mainland back then, and it was hardly urban compared to Athens' sprawl. Greek youth culture was more developed among the wealthier class. Young Cretans did not have a rapport with the outside world. I recall a story my late mother told me, which shows how she came to understand the concept that was the Beatles: Even though she was a relatively newly arrived Cretan immigrant to NZ, she could recall the traffic jams and crowds of people in the area of the St George Hotel where the Beatles stayed in Wellington, during their NZ tour. She may have never heard their music, or cared for it, but she had experienced the concept. My husband started school at the beginning of the 60s, in a rented house in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Hania; only the very well to do had 'pickup' players and records.

Platform screen doors
The Abbey Road crossing is located near St John's Wood station on the Jubilee Line. This gave us a chance to see one of London's more modern train stations. At the London Bridge stop, the platform has barriers (known as 'Platform Screen Doors') that separate passengers from the trains, in order to stop people from jumping/falling onto the tracks. So two doors have to open before you get onto the train - the platform door and then the train door. The significance of the double doors has a more sinister meaning than just passenger safety, ie to stop people falling onto the tracks accidentally. The act of falling onto them deliberately, ie the concept of 'one under' (or 'track pizza' in American English) is a relatively new one in Athens. Despite the rise in suicides in Greece over the period of the crisis, the Athens metro is not the place where it is commonly performed: there was one incident per year per year in the last two years so far. But 2017 has not started very well - a man fell onto the tracks just last month, although he was pulled up in time.

Abbey Road crossing
Coming out of the station at St John's Wood, the area looks quiet and feels very suburban, whereas in actual fact, it is anything but so. The area hides great affluence: Lord's Cricket ground, Regent's Park, the London Zoo, the Sherlock Holmes museum and Madame Tussauds are clustered close to it. The Abbey Road pedestrian crossing is located within a few minutes walk from the station. We headed straight to the crossing. Not many people were walking towards it on that day, so I hoped that it would not be very busy, and we could take our photo in relative peace. This was not quite the case: a busload of Italians had arrived before us, and they were all having a jolly time on the crossing. The presence of the Italians softened the stark austerity of this otherwise ordinary looking London street. They were talking loudly and laughing, Something rarely heard on London streets. The media often talk about the lack of affordable housing in London, but most of the time, you cannot be sure if people actually live in any of the buildings. The streets are noisy from the sound of the traffic, not from human voices. That's an aspect of northern European culture which southern Europeans find hard to cope with: in the north, people are seen but not heard, while in the south, people are heard without necessarily being seen. To understand the significance of this, think about your neighbours: we can hear ours more often than we can see them. They will not lower their voices to keep the area peaceful. If they're having a party, we'll hear that too. But Greeks are also slowly but surely becoming more sensitive to too much noise: one of my neighbours called the police last summer to get another neighbour to lower the volume of the music they were playing at an outdoor party. If they had specifically come to inform us about the party, perhaps we would all be more accommodating, by arranging to go out ourselves or buy earplugs. When no notice is given, people are less compromising.
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Had only the regular users of the Abbey Road crossing been there on that day, I would have had a harder time taking a good photo. I could say that the Italians did me a favour getting there before we did, since it helped my family to better understand what the fuss was about, and to calculate aspects of safety concerning how to get into the middle of the road and snap the photo. If you are a Greek driver, you won't realise how patient English drivers can be. Regular drivers passing through the Abbey Road crossing slow down for photo-takers, showing relative courtesy towards a very banal activity. Every now and then, they honked the horn lightly to remind the sightseers that they shouldn't loiter. This is how I was able to stand in the middle of the road to take a reasonably good photo, at least in terms of the photography process.

The family had not seen the Abbey Road album cover before we came here, so I had to give them instructions: "I Want You to stop in stride on the crossing." Some of them understood what I meantL the younger and the more outgoing you are, the easier this will be. My daughter clearly knew what she was doing after watching the Italians taking photos. She is experienced at taking selfies which also helps. My son seemed to know what he was doing too, but he probably decided to show solidarity to his father, who was totally clueless; when husband has his photo taken, he clearly poses, like most people his age would do, and doing the splits while being photographed is obviously not part of his culture. "OK, The End, no loitering," I reminded everyone, so we could hurriedly Come Together to get back to the station. It was probably the weirdest thing they had ever taken part in, the closest they had come to a real life meme (although I did once glimpse a photo of one of them doing the ice bucket challenge - you never know what they are up to when you aren't looking).

Transport etiquette
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Touch in, pass through the gate, don't loiter, walk forward, don't step back, check the platform, mind the gap, wait for the doors to open, wait for the passengers to exit, get onto the train, wait for your station, get off the train before those waiting, clear the doors, find the exit, stop on the escalators on the right, walk on the left, run only if you have to, get to the exit, touch out, clear the station, just keep moving. If you take a wrong step while performing this act, it is immediately visible to the other actors around you. Everyone in London has to know how to use the tube in order to avoid holdups. Except maybe Her Majesty, although she has been seen on the tube on occasion - no doubt the doors were held open for her, if she used a ticket, it would have been as a token gesture, and she didn't have to follow the rules exactly. My children need about a second to go through the barriers from the moment they touch in; my husband still needs more than a second - just to touch in.

Borough Market
Our next stop was the Borough Market, which, as we were to discover, has now become a tourist trap. Along the south bank of the Thames, nearly all the restaurants are branded, there's very little in the way of traditional atmosphere, and someone's always trying to selling you something overpriced. We have better memories of Borough Market from previous visits, but there is no turning back to old times: reviving the market's ordinariness will look like a recession rather than progress.
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Pie, mash, mushy peas and gravy from a stall in the Borough Market
Our good experiences of Borough Market in the past are based not on the products on sale at the market, but on the sellers we meet there. We once met a Greek woman there who was selling Greek extra-virgin olive oil. Across from her stall were some Italians, also selling olive oil, among other Italian products. She told us sales were very slow, because local customers in the area were not really very well informed about what constitutes good olive oil (something I could confirm with a trip to the supermarkets there). Another of our favorite stall holders is the Kosovar manager of a paella bar. Whenever we're in the area, we pass by and say hello, and he treats us like old friends. We talk about our messy politics with him and his Greek-speaking Albanian staff. When we're there, it feels just like home to us - we may be in the centre of London but at that moment, it feels more like I am on the Balkan Express; the ride is bumpy, but the end of the journey feels sadder. We've also bought fantastic French cheese from the market. It's hard to find something 'traditional' now; everyone these days is creating their own traditions.  

Southwark Cathedral
Near one of the entrances to Borough Market is the very well preserved Southwark Cathedral. Entrance to the cathedral is free; by buying a guide (£1) to the church, you have permission to take photographs inside it. The last time we were in the area, the church wasn't open for visitors because a service was taking place. We took the opportunity to enter it today, as a chance to warm ourselves up in the process. (It was very cold in London over New Year's...  a bit like what January 2017 turned out to be in Hania!)
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Religious tourism is always of interest. The Gothic style of architecture is so very different from the Byzantine one that we are used to, and in Hania, we have nothing to compare it with. But it is not just the architecture that is worth noting: Churches in the western world make for an interesting case of trying to hold onto a concept which no longer has a strong following in a liberalised world. Let's face it: we are not very religious these days. So why do we need churches which costs £4,500 a day for maintenance costs (as the cathedral guide informed us)? The way Southwark Cathedral was being used at the time might be of interest tot he Greek Orthodox church too, as people move away from strict adherence to a creed, and use churches more for their social aspects rather than their religious function. For example, Greeks generally don't get married too quickly in a church these days: it's expensive. In Crete, they are more likely to marry at a registry office to legalise their union, and have a church wedding later (complete with white wedding dress), preferably after the first child is born, so that the wedding and baptism take place together.
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Southwark Cathedral provides a peaceful setting to get away from the cacophony of the street noises. As we entered, we were most impressed by the clearly Christian Orthodox icons that we found in it, which obviously makes the church very welcoming to visitors, irrespective of which denomination they belong to. We found the addition of a lit-up Christmas tree rather odd, detracting from its religious function. But it also made for a more convivial environment, similar to the use of organ recitals and concerts that arouse the interest of more than just religious devotees. These are all ways to create a new use for an obsolete concept whose historical significance in the ares makes it too precious to turn into luxury apartments, as many churches in the west have been transformed. Greece has, perhaps sadly, too many churches that are not being used, but their redevelopment at this time is a culturally sensitive and highly controversial issue. We don't place Christmas trees in our churches; we don't have organ music; we rarely see religious iconography that is not part of the Byzantine tradition. Some lessons could be learnt from less traditional churches concerning the survival of the Greek Orthodox church and its place in a modern changing world.

Hay's Galleria to Tower Bridge
Despite the chilly weather, we continued our walk to the restaurant, passing through what looked like a mixed-bag cluster of relatively new buildings along the south bank of the River Thames. Hay's Galleria is not a gallery as its name suggests; it's more like a high class restaurant and shopping hall. Affluent, indulgent, plush, it looks like it's catering for very expensive tastes - or, at least, for people whose tastes are based on brands, similar to Attika Mall in central Athens, a soulless virtual reality playground for the wealthy. Everything looked too expensive for our own pockets. It wasn't busy when we passed through it, neither in the late afternoon, nor in the evening on our way back. Perhaps rich people's tastes have changed too; you don't flaunt your wealth these days. It reminded me of a time when someone asked us to book a table on their behalf at an expensive restaurant in Hania, 'something in the range of 50€ per head', they asked. They did not realise how egalitarian the town where I live is. To pay 50€ per head in a town like Hania, you will have to go to a popular Japanese restaurant and order a bottle of wine per person together with the meal. Good food out need not be expensive, and expensive restaurants don't necessarily serve the best food either.
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Hay's Galleria overlooks the Thames, and it has a steampunk sculpture in the middle. How do you explain steampunk to someone whose appreciation of art is limited? I think you don't. Art is not only subjective, it can also be very abstract. This sculpture was installed here as a tribute to the area's working class past. Personally, I couldn't make the connection between the sculpture and working class society. We wandered out of mall to the chill of the outdoors, walking by the river past the egg-shaped City Hall and over the Tower Bridge where you can get a good look of the Tower of London. The skyline of the buildings in this area of London is quite spectacular and worth spending some time gazing at it: many skyscrapers with the kinkiest names - the Walkie Talkie, the Cheese Grater - and more going up. What was once a dirty dingy dockland has now all been gentrified. Despite the mix of mainly new buildings with many old ones, nothing looks neglected or forgotten.
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Over the Tower Bridge and north-east of the Thames, the area is not very tourist-oriented (you will understand why later) and finds itself in the midst of gentrification, a kind of slash and burn process if you will, which is redeveloped into something that bears no resemblance to what existed before. Some parts of Whitechapel have been renovated while others are undergoing the process. Along some of the streets, you can see old and new London staring across at each other, or standing side by side, like strangers forced to live together. What was once considered an area for immigrants and the working class is now undergoing transformation for the investment of the wealthy/elite classes. What once may have been some kind of factory is now an apartment block. The warren of small streets hiding behind Commercial Road in the Whitechapel area hold the greatest surprises. Here, you will get a glimpse of those empty London homes that are being used as 'gold bricks': rich people who do not live in the area are buying up the properties, mainly as a way to invest their money for lucrative profits. People who grew up in the area are most likely unable to afford such properties. Some properties may be rented out, but the rents will be very high, hence the kind of people who live in the properties will not necessarily need the kinds of stores that a neighbourhood survives on, to provide a community feel. Most absent of all is the sight of perambulators and the sound of children. Since the buyers do not live in them (and if they do, it's only for a very short period of the year), the area has no need for the traditional elements of a typical British neighbourhood: what do you need a betting shop, florist, teahouse, chicken shop, drycleaners, among others, if there are no people in the area?
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The streets here are well lit, despite the lack of sound and light coming from the apartments, with most of the curtains drawn, although I did spot a nice sofa set with cushions - it looked as though it had never been sat on. The main signs of life are seen in the concierges who wander around aimlessly in the empty lobbies of these empty buildings. They are probably doubling up as security guards, only coming out of the buildings for a quick smoke. A few of the ground floors of those buildings are occupied and used as 'stores' of a kind, mainly real estate agents: money brings money.
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Most of the empty shop fronts have a very enticing sign on them: "This could be your next business!" But imagine how hard it must be to entice businesses to set up there that rely on street trade, when the area which is void of people.
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We landed in the midst of this gentrification without actually intending to. My online phone map gave no hint of what we could expect. I was actually looking for a particular street next to what looked like a compact streetless zone, where there was either an empty plot or just one big building. What it actually consisted of was lots of apartment blocks, some roads for cars, and a few pedestrianised areas. We weren't really sure if we should risk walking through the area, in case we hit on a dead end. At one point we passed by what looked like a beautiful landscaped garden which was sectioned off (read: gated) so that the public could not wander around in it, probably for the exclusive use of the very large apartment block that was facing it. The fencing and trees still had Christmas decorations on them.
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The road led through to a small well-lit piazza - that was once again void of people - graced by a very snazzy sculpture of galloping horses, light and sound effects included, to make them look as though they were moving. It is very entertaining, as it distracts one from thinking about the complex factors that gave rise to the development of the area.

Commercial Road
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We wove through the nameless streets until we came out to the high street, close to where the restaurant was located. Commercial Road is a completely opposite experience to the gentrified streets we had just emerged from. It maintains its ethnic identity as the home of mainly South Asian immigrants, and it is still closely linked to the 'rag trade', as evidenced from the many clothing and bag stores located here, selling not retail but wholesale. The traders are mainly South Asians, having taken over from the Jews who took over from the Huguenots, an almost uninterrupted stream in the area of cloth makers and sellers. It was quite revealing to see well known bag and clothing designs in one area, as viewed from the shop fronts here, and to imagine how those items on display make their way not just to this road in London, but throughout the rest of the world, including Greece. The styles look very familiar even though they are not branded. They can be found in both cheap and expensive stores, on any high street almost anywhere in the world. They make you think seriously about who may be making these items, whether they would wear/use them themselves, how much they are getting for this work, and what the end price of these items is in our stores. 
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The restaurant
We arrived at our destination restaurant - and were surprised to find it looking rather empty: in past visits, we could not always get a table and would have to wait! Initially we thought it might be closed for the holidays; the main hall was not well lit up, and there was only one person sitting at one of the many tables in the dining area. You have to understand that this was a big indoor restaurant, in our terms at least, since we are used to seeing large outdoor seating areas and small interiors! We could see only a couple of people in the kitchen, which is usually bustling with activity, creating steamy windows and a noisy atmosphere with the clatter of pans and mumble of voices. Then we thought that perhaps we had arrived too early; it was only five o'clock and dusk had already set in. Don't the English eat much earlier than the Mediterraneans?! Finally we saw the door opening and a man came out. He didn't even notice us: I couldn't work out if this was because we were not from his cultural group, or because we didn't look like potential customers. So we asked him if the shop was open: of course it was, he told us, with a surprised look on his face. Service couldn't have been faster today for us!
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Chili peppers and Asian food are not really a mainstay of Greek cuisine, but Greeks are getting more used to this kind of food. There are now Japanese and Chinese restaurants open all year round in Hania, as well as an Inidian restaurant which opens in the summer - it still caters mainly for tourists. The world is coming closer in terms of food, but in attitudes, they couldn't be further away from each other, as we have seen in the current global political arena.

Bonus photos: London by night - the city is more exciting in the dark.
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The red words are all Beatles songs from their Abbey Road album. I deliberately highlighted them when I tried to listen to some genuine Beatles music on YouTube. Some bastard's bought the right of access to them, so you can hear hardly any of their tunes on the web. Not even the Beatles can own thier songs. At least we can now sing Happy birthday without paying royalties, but I would also like to hear the Beatles on youtube, and I don't mean cover versions of their songs!

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