Alex Galbinski sees a different side of London on a Shared City Tour
Despite it being after 11am, ordering a cappuccino was not frowned upon. And it was one of the nicest cappuccinos I’ve ever had – perhaps because I was in an authentic milieu, surrounded by smartly-dressed Italian gentlemen playing briscola. I was not in Italy, however, but in London; Clerkenwell to be precise.
I was on a SharedCity tour of ‘Little Italy’ and our guide – and SharedCity co-founder – Deborah Chatterjee, had just taken me and four others around the beautifully ornate St Peter’s Italian Church in Clerkenwell Road, which dates back to 1863 when it was the only church in Britain designed in the Roman basilican style.
Deborah, who is half-Italian and half-Indian, told us that Clerkenwell used to be the epicentre of the Italian community. Formerly a slum, with scenes reminiscent of Dickensian London, it had been packed with Italian immigrants – alongside their Jewish counterparts – who came to London from Italy in several waves, before many were able to move out to Soho and onto more suburban districts, including Southgate and Finchley.
Deborah then took us next door, to The Social club for coffee and pastries – including cannoli, sfogliatelle and cornetti – and a chat with the locals. We met Tony, its treasurer, who gave us some more insight into Italian immigration into London and to the club, which still holds confirmation and marriage classes and organises the biennial Under 21s ‘Olympic Games’ held at Trent Park,.
Caroline Bourne, Deborah’s friend and co-founder of SharedCity – whose strapline is ‘travel the world without leaving London’ – thought the tours would be a wonderful way to introduce people to the capital’s diverse communities.
Caroline, who is Jewish, was a private consultant in urban regeneration and worked with several communities in the East End, including Somali and Bengali groups, organising events and festivals.
“The penny dropped that there are so many communities in London that you don’t necessarily need to travel,” says Caroline, who took off around the world twice before she settled down to have two children.
“On my travels, I had visited mosques and temples and you get into other cultures and experiences. Even though I couldn’t travel anymore because I wasn’t so free, I was getting a similar type of fix by talking to people and learning about different cultures. I was getting invited into different people’s homes and mosques, sharing meals with them, which was lovely,” she explains.
“I realised that there were so many parts of London I don’t know and hadn’t experienced before, despite growing up here.”
Around two years ago, she and Deborah organised some smallish trips to test the water, and then a big family day when they visited a temple in Alperton. The pair now offer trips to ‘South India’, including a guided tour of a temple and samples of authentic street food, ‘Turkey’, ‘Italy’, ‘Norway and Finland’, ‘Brazil/Portugal’, multicultural London, Arabic London and Jewish London.
The Jewish tour involves a trip to a bagel bakery, bookshop and sampling of kosher food, with the option of a glatt kosher meal and a synagogue visit. Similarly, the optional extra on the Arabic London tour includes a visit to a mosque and the sampling of Middle Eastern delicacies.
Caroline – who describes herself as having a “traditionally Jewish” upbringing in Chigwell – admits that the mosque tours have even challenged her own understanding, when I ask her what she’s most proud of.
“My perceptions are completely changed and you can see other people’s preconceived ideas are changed as well and that’s really nice,” she says.
“Before I went into a mosque in London, I thought people wouldn’t be friendly, that I wouldn’t be accepted and that we’d hear things we didn’t like the sound of. But the people we met on the mosque tour have been the friendliest, warmest, kindest and open people we’ve met on all the tours.”
While there are, of course, other organised tours of London, Caroline says SharedCity’s ones are extremely immersive and believes there are no other tour companies specifically celebrating multicultural London.
“There are a number of Jewish walking tours and historic walking tours, but they don’t necessarily get to meet the communities they are visiting,” she says. ““With ours, you get under the skin of a community.”
Indeed, on the Turkish tour as an optional extra, you can choose to visit a steamy hammam, take a belly-dancing class or watch a performance and have a Turkish meal. On the Italian tour, you can take an Italian cookery lesson or have a home-cooked Italian meal, and you can visit a traditional Finnish sauna on the Norway/Finland tour.
Caroline, whose maternal grandparents lived in Israel and has family on her father’s side that date back to the 18th century in England, believes it is important to learn about other cultures.
“There are more than 300 languages spoken in London and if we don’t try to understand our neighbours, it means we’re segregated. It’s good to learn about different cultures so we can understand each other a bit better.”