I first visited London as a 10-year-old. I was with my parents, my dad’s parents and my younger sister. Three generations of the family traveling together.
During our three month European trip (taken mainly during term-time – yes, New Zealand schools allow that!) we visited dozens of wonderful places but the city that made the biggest impression on me (besides York, perhaps) was London.
From the first time we emerged from Westminster tube station onto the London streets, looking up and seeing Big Ben, this city won me over. I don’t remember the rubbish, the summer that I still needed to wear a jacket for, the crowds. I remember the art galleries, the concert halls, the buildings. I remember the palace guards, the punks and the hundreds of different languages I would hear every day. I was fascinated by this city so unlike anything I’d ever experienced in New Zealand. And for years I would tell anyone who would listen that I was going to return to London one day.
It took more than a decade but, when I bought my one-way ticket to the UK late in 2007, I decided I would spend my first few days in London with a friend from university before heading off to find my new path. So for a few days London and I were re-united. London didn’t notice – for London doesn’t need to return my love – but I did. And now, of course, I’m back again – on a more permanent basis this time. This is an excerpt from an email I wrote home during that first brief return in 2008:
My friend and I went along the rest of Oxford St and along to Piccadilly. Then it hit me. Since the last journey to London when I was 10 and my obsession began, I had allowed it to be dulled by all of those people who had said to me ‘it’s just a big city’. I had lost some of that love for London that I had gained when I was here then.
Walking to Piccadilly, it hit me again and I had a lump in my throat. The red double decker buses, the most beautiful city architecture I have ever seen (we seem to think that for a building to be functional, it has to be modern but these streets are full of old buildings with big name shops that function perfectly and look gorgeous at the same time). And the people: there’s a stubbornness about people in London which is enhanced by the wonderful number of languages and cultures of people from other countries who have also come to make the city their home. The manner here is the “straight-talking, very little small-talk” that I can relate to. I bought a hairbrush (of course I forgot mine) from Boots – an oddly-named pharmacy chain on Oxford Street. The salesman didn’t ask how I was when I walked up to the counter because we both know he doesn’t care and I don’t much care how he is either. We’re not friends and chances are I’ll never see him again. He said ‘hello’ and asked if I wanted my purchase in a bag. That’s all I need. Anything else feels a bit false and a waste of time.
Then my friend and I hung out in Trafalgar Square – the square that has the lions. There was this beautiful yellow-ish light and children climbing all over these magnificent lions which have guarded Nelson standing on top of the column for so many years now. What history they must have seen.
We looked on the board near Leicester Square where the night’s West End shows are advertised with late-comer prices. There were people trying to sell tickets to Sound of Music and Grease as well. Then we caught the tube home. It was just before 5pm and already dark. It wasn’t warm but I don’t remember feeling frozen.
That’s about it for now. I miss you and the sunshine – but I love London and, in a strange way, it feels as if I have come home after many years. I always promised I would.
Sorry about any spelling mistakes – some keys on this keyboard are in different places to the ones at home!