The funny thing about tourism is that designating certain areas as worthy of the foreigner’s inquisitive gaze immediately calls their authenticity into question, so that a tourist in search of — for example — the Real London must steer clear of the guide books and rely instead upon the idiosyncratic recommendations of Real Londoners.
Because the truth is, to an open-minded tourist, almost any destination can be a tourist destination. Check out how these potholes in the street have been cunningly circled in yellow paint. You’ll never see that in America, will you?
A Victorian-era smokestack rises above a rugby field. Doesn’t get much more English than that, does it?
Or maybe it does. In just a few blocks in this neighborhood, we pass shops and restaurants catering to Somalis, Jamaicans, Filipinos, Poles, Indians, Irish and Iranians. An Islamic college faces a Catholic church across the street. I am reminded that, as far back as history records, this island has been shaped by successive waves of immigrants.
And my native guide steers me through this profusion of multicultural offerings to what I am given to understand is a pinnacle of culinary achievement, something the locals call an Eccles cake. It is indeed superb.
Meanwhile, pigeons are deprived of food in three languages.
Birds fare a bit better at a local park, where we find a moorhen sitting on its nest while water rails skulk through the weeds.
London does not generally advertise itself as a birding destination, but for birders such as my guide who happen to live there, it is of course just that.
But birds are a common, almost socially acceptable pursuit, so good tourist information is readily available. What if instead one happens to be obsessed with trees?
The trick is to find a guide who shares one’s obsessions.