Though I had to work today, I did get the chance to do more exploring! At lunch time, a couple of my coworkers took me over to an area by the Thames that had a temporary shopping center erected for the holiday. The shops were all in temporary little house-like buildings that reminded me of the little shops that are set up at Bryant Park in NYC during the holiday season. From where we stood, we were able to see the Millennium Bridge, a food bridge built over the Thames in honor of the millennium, and St. Paul's Cathedral on the other side of the Thames.
During our excursion, I commented that I was surprised how few Christmas decorations there are in London. She told me I just hadn't been to the right places and recommended that we go to the West End after work.
We headed out immediately after work and walked 10 minutes to the tube, which is the equivalent of a NYC subway. From this, I learned that Londoners walk faster than anyone in NYC. I was completely winded when we got to there! The tube is clean, well-lit, and crowded. There is upholstered bench seating throughout and plenty of standing room. We got out a Piccadilly Circus and made our way to Regent Street, which (as my coworker promised) was decorated for the holiday (but the decorations don't come near the quantity or quality of holiday decorations in NYC - sorry London NYC has you beat here).
The West End has a ton of stores all featuring modern name brands like Gap, Apple, Channel, etc. Normally, I wouldn't make such a comment - who cares if it was full of modern brands, right? Well this was striking because of the age of the buildings in which these brands were housed. Is was so odd to see an Apple store in a building that dates back hundreds of years. All of the buildings were magnificent! I really love the architecture here in London. It is so interesting to see very old buildings and modern buildings side-by-side as is common here. I am told that many of the newer buildings have been built over the years to replace buildings that were destroyed during WWII.
The West End was very crowded with holiday shoppers and tourists like me blocking the foot traffic to stop and take pictures. As I was walking, I tried to figure out the social/cultural norms of walking a busy street in London. In NYC, for example, those "in the know" walk on the (their) right side of the sidewalk to keep foot traffic moving and avoid colliding with people coming the other way. I am not sure whether it was because there were a lot of tourists or because no such norm exists, but in London everyone walks anywhere they want.
I do find it interesting, however, that jay-walking is relatively rare here and you cannot cross at every corner. Most cross walks have a traffic light and you have to press a button to change the light so you can cross. I don't know if the light would change naturally because no one lets it get to that point. If you don't press the button - someone else will. The walk signals are a green person silhouette, caution (the light is about to change) is a red blinking silhouette and a steady red person silhouette means don't cross. The lights also make a noise to indicate the status, though it was so busy in the West End that I couldn't hear the sound.
Cars and driving are interesting too! I have not personally driven in London but I have taken the Black Cabs and watched closely to see what's what. As most know, Londoners drive on the left side of the street and the driver is on the right side of the car. This continues to make my brain hurt. I could never drive in London! Since the city is so old, many of the streets are very narrow with people parked on the street making the streets hard to pass by car (particularly for those huge Black Cabs). It is rare to see anything that resembles a traditional street sign and few buildings are clearly marked with numbers. I cannot imagine how the Black Cab drivers do it... but they seem to know where everything is and how to get to it despite these challenges!
Overall, it was really nice to see the West End even though I think my legs are going to fall off because we walked so much!
Pictures and more details about my first time in London will be coming soon! Unfortunately, I am having a little problem uploading pictures to the blog via the hotel WiFi. So for now, all I can do is stock photos. I promise I will put up my real pictures as soon as possible!