01 December 2004

The distance from Mexico City could be measured in centimetres.

By Jessica Fleischer in London
I like to look at the big picture before jumping into something. So for several months before I came to work on For A Change, I had a map of the world on my computer desktop, with London circled in red. The distance from Mexico City could be measured in centimetres. My new life would be reduced to the area inside the millimetre-wide circle.

You might expect that for someone from one of the biggest cities in the world, London wouldn’t be that impressive, but this city is full of so many superlatives that nothing I can write can do it justice.

When I first visited London, almost 10 years ago, I was impressed with the black cabs, the telephone boxes and all the historic tourist spots. The second time I came here, the pubs, secondhand bookshops, theatres and markets found a place in my heart. The next time, as a student, it was the parks that captured my emotions, these vast green areas that make London so much more liveable than Mexico City. This time I am keeping away from tourist places and trying to immerse myself in the day to day life of this eclectic city, full of magic and a powerful past. This time the little things are the ones that get to me.

In this city a Mexican Jewish person can find the perfect way to celebrate Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) and Mexican Independence Day, which coincided this year. The 300-year-old Bevis Marks Synagogue, near Liverpool Street Station, continued its services through both World Wars, the departure of the Jewish community from the neighbourhood, and the terrorist bombings of 1992 and 1993. The lovely building, illuminated by chandeliers, makes me feel closer to my roots. Not far away, the Mexican Embassy is entertaining about 500 people for Independence Day with tortilla, Mexican beer, tequila and a traditional Mariachi band. For a while I can forget my homesickness and pretend to be in Mexico.

My family comes from Suchowola, Poland, a small town that is considered to be the geographic centre of Europe. Of eight brothers, two made their way to London in the late 19th century, and one of them became the King’s tailor. One generation later, my greatgrandfather went to Mexico, but the distance never kept the family apart. Over the years, we have gone on visiting each other.

We’re not in a minority here: over 200 languages are spoken and more than 30 per cent of London’s population came here during the last three generations. We are welcome as long as we accept London’s conditions—the weather, high prices, the trains, tube and buses, queuing. Most difficult of all, Londoners drive on the wrong side of the road—necessitating peculiar ‘Look Left’ and ‘Look Right’ signs to stop foreigners being mown down on every corner.

I have always admired British women: Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Margaret Thatcher, the Brontë sisters, and Virginia Woolf. Her book, A Room of One’s Own, discusses why it is important for women to have their independence. Now, more than 70 years later, I read a Women’s Manifesto in The Guardian. Women are still expressing their needs and wants. They want a society in which women and men are equal partners at home, at work and in public life, and where issues like pay, rape convictions, political representation, childcare and the work-life balance are addressed.

And at the European Social Forum in October at Alexandra Palace the NGOs were making themselves heard—on everything from war and peace, democracy and human rights, to the environmental crisis. They seemed less concerned about their immediate environment: thousands of leaflets ended up on the floor; people smoked in restricted areas and left the water running in the bathroom.

When my father asked me what I liked most about London, I replied, ‘I love the fact that people in a hurry take the left side of the escalator and the others the right side’: a shock for someone from a disorganized and spontaneous culture like my own.

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