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Seeing the 'real' London

By Brendan Francis Newnam, Special to CNN
Rioters have damaged neighborhoods across London.
Rioters have damaged neighborhoods across London.
  • Riots in London highlight how tourism often only skims a place's surface
  • Fun spots to visit are often entwined with a more complicated reality
  • Really getting to know a place's culture takes more than a drop-in trip

Brendan Francis Newnam hosts a national public radio show called The Dinner Party Download produced by American Public Media. He's the author of travel column "The State I'm In." Follow him on Twitter @bnewnam.

(CNN) -- "F*** Columbus! Rodney King discovered America!"

I remember seeing that scrawled in graffiti years ago. The idea being that it took a video camera, an act of brutality and subsequent riots to show the world that Los Angeles wasn't just palm trees and fake breasts.

Instead, it's a real place with heaps of dysfunction just like anywhere else. That Rodney King quote came to mind when I fired up my laptop last night to file a completed column on London only to find that there were riots in London -- a place I had visited just last week.

Of course London in 2011 is much different than Los Angeles in 1992, but both events started around the police's treatment of minorities and, less importantly, both events can tell us something about the limits of travel. (My second reaction to the news was "There goes the article I spent the last couple of days working on!")

Who wants to read about London as a travel destination when every TV screen in the world is showing burned-out buildings and double-decker buses on fire? More importantly, how did I not know this was happening? Well, I'll tell you.

After spending a whirlwind half-day in London town last week, I spent the next six days on an island in the Adriatic, swimming, sleeping and doing what one is supposed to do on vacation -- disconnecting my brain from the 24/7 media onslaught.

Cameron vows tough action against riots

London residents fed up with rioters

We all need a periodic break from reality and I was overdue. Sure, I'd peek at the baseball standings when I'd come across a Herald Tribune at a café, but then I'd put my sunglasses back on and think about what I wasn't going to do next.

It felt good, but escaping the world has its drawbacks: One, you can get a distorted idea of what life is like (it's not all beer and cappuccinos); and two, when you return, you can find that things have changed. Like London bursting into riots.

While I was hitting the beach, police were battling protesters and looters in London and beyond. A restaurant in the East End Shoreditch neighborhood that I had written about for this week was set on fire, according to some reports.

The area was once predominantly working class. It has become home to the laptop and haircut set. Its pubs are becoming "gastropubs."

Its low-income housing is being bought by high-income citizens. Its curry shops and tobacco stands are becoming boutique shops and handsome eateries. All of this trendy hustle and bustle has prompted writers like me to visit the area and write about it -- thus nudging it away from being just a neighborhood and closer to being a "destination."

And amidst the myriad ironies that accompany a neighborhood in its transition from edgy to upscale, none is more irresistible than the temptation to perceive it as "emerging" or the 'real' (insert city here).

Well, as the riots demonstrate, these neighborhoods emerged long before they were "emerging," and to know what's "really" happening someplace requires more than a quick visit.

Travel has the ability to stun one into a state of optimism and magnanimity -- "Look at how they do things here!" "How inspiring!" "How charming!" After all, you're just passing through, you're not paying rent or looking for work.

And if you don't push yourself, you'll only see what places want you to see: Buckingham Palace, Harrods, afternoon tea with clotted cream. But even when you think you are getting off the beaten path -- to a trendy neighborhood in East London, say -- you're not getting the full picture.

No matter how much research you do beforehand, without repeated visits and a genuine connection with a cross-section of locals, most visits are just a survey of the surface. It's like a shallow, short-term relationship, or in this instance for me, a one-night stand -- you're not around long enough to get a true sense of the place. If you were it wouldn't all be pleasant.

Initially, I'd planned on writing about the marvelous creamed gin martinis I had at the Worship Street Whistling Shop -- a revivalist cocktail bar in Shoreditch. I was going to talk about the unfussy atmosphere at St. John Bread and Wine where I tasted a menagerie of British creatures from ox heart to venison pie.

These are beautiful places that exist in the East London and they are worth knowing. They represent the part of travel that inspires us and shows us the world in which we want to live.

But the headlines remind us they are entwined with a more complicated reality. They show us a darker side of the world in which we live.

Put them together and you have the "real" London.

The views expressed in this column are solely those of Brendan Francis Newnam.