My love affair with London began about 13 years ago, when I came for a visit with my mother who was doing a Master’s degree as a distance learner. At 13 years old she put an outstanding amount of faith in me that I would be alright trudging around London on my own for a few hours a day during her handful of meetings and lectures. I have two very distinct memories of roaming around the streets of the city on my own: one is the pleasure of discovering Waterstone’s, the bookstore, and the second is of the British Museum and its breathtaking, Beauty-and-the-Beast-styled library (really, Google image search: British Museum Library!). The little bookworm in me was in heaven and as a child of Beatles’ fans and an adolescent of the Harry Potter-era, coming to London was like coming to the mothership of British fanfare and culture. The chocolates, crooked houses, and funky shaped coins were only a few shades of magic away from a real-life wizarding world. I remember finding the narrow streets and old townhouses quirky and beautiful; the double-decker buses fun and charming; and Buckingham Palace a thing of fairy tales. Even then, despite being a rather fussy eater, food was fascinating to me. My mother and I would comb the supermarket for fun, foreign treats to try… we gorged ourselves on niftily named chocolates (the “Yorkie! Just for boys”), goofy-looking pudding packets, and the British classic: baked beans on toast (still a favorite!).
When a childhood friend of mine did a semester abroad in London nearly 7 years later, I leaped at the chance to crash her dorm for a few months, taking advantage of a leftover VISA from our family’s move to Oxford a few years prior. Despite having just spent nearly 2 years living in the remote jungles of Costa Rica, the brick and steel streets of London didn’t put me off and spit me out, rather they swallowed me whole. I rediscovered my love for the quirky city quite quickly and found myself a Londoner at last. I waitressed at a gastro pub owned by Gordon Ramsay and loved nothing more than to spend my days off wandering the city streets, discovering new pubs and cocktail hours, pop-up art openings, mini street markets, and odd bits of history at every corner. I became fascinated by London’s Underground, aka the Tube, which was celebrating its 150th anniversary at the time; it is the world’s first underground metro system and carries 1.5 billion travelers a year (a wonderful place for people-watching)! I also discovered the existence of 40 “ghost stations” that were either built and never opened or shut down from lack of use; I would often find myself staring intently out of the darkened tube windows as we sped through tunnels, trying to spot a “ghost station”, a relic of the past (I’ve seen a couple now!).
London gave me this pathway into the past that I’ve not experienced in other places I have lived; I am not a history enthusiast, but the city sparked a small one inside of me. At the same time, globalization, internationalism, and simply modern culture meant that you could be anyone you wanted on any given day of the week. One night I’d be at an underground rave club until 7am, the next I would be sipping tea with scones and clotted cream wearing my “Sunday best”, a week later I would be walking a red carpet movie premier after Jim Carrey and Colin Firth. I would meet an Australian friend for a picnic lunch in a sunny park or test my taste buds on authentic Indian curries with my South African friends on infamous Brick Lane. I was a barmaid, a mystery shopper, and a live-in nanny; I was thoughtlessly leaving behind an American accent and any desire to live the American dream. At one point, between houses, I was slumming it in a cheap hostel where each room hosted 30 bunks, and at another I was living in Westminster, merely a few streets over from the Abbey, Big Ben, and Parliament. I saw Amy Winehouse at the only kosher restaurant in Central London and heard Alicia Keys sing a live charity concert in the hall outside my front door. Some days, I’m sure, the gloomy London skies caught up with me and my heart would cry out for the beauty of the beaches in Costa Rica, the rich greens of the jungle, and the strength of the tropical sun… but really, I loved my London life.
It’s been about 6 years since my year in London, and I still feel the pull on my heart strings whenever my plane comes in to land on English soil. Many friends I’ve had here have left, but I still visit the lovely family that I nannied for and a couple of friends who are lingering around. Every time I visit, I see things that are familiar to me and things that are new. The skyline has changed dramatically with the addition of, typical of the British, bizarrely named buildings: the Cheese Grater, the Walkie Talkie, and the Shard. But Borough market still has some of the best fresh focaccia bread and farm cheese stands that I remember from years ago and the Twinings’ store has hardly changed since its establishment in 1703! Like years ago, I pick a few locations to visit, or errands to run, and then I wander the streets in between, sometimes finding flower markets and beautiful gardens I never knew existed, or else stumbling onto a street that I suddenly remember similarly stumbling onto six years ago. I’m as excited by the new discoveries as I am about the rediscoveries.
This past visit, I had the pleasure of meeting an old school friend from my time in Oxford, who was surprised to find out that I didn’t hate the place (there was an unpleasant break-up with a high school boyfriend and a hard time fitting into 2 different grades as a transfer student from the US). I pondered her surprise and thought about all the reasons I might not like it in the UK, but I found few that held much weight… instead, what came to me, were all the reasons I love it, and I felt my heart swell with some (potentially, and probably, misplaced) pride for having lived in what I believe is one of the most phenomenal cities in the world. I may not have lived here for long, but England is as much a part of my upbringing as Guam, or Chicago, or my birth-place (Massachusetts), if not the biggest part. I was fifteen when I moved here; in many ways, I grew up here.
I do find it amusing that I can be enamored by two completely polar environments. The slow-paced, lackadaisical, nature-loving life of tropical Latino and islander cultures versus the high-fashion-centered, hustle and bustle concrete jungle of a city like London. I know how well the beach life suits me, I’m not a marine biologist for nothing! But when I land in London, it’s as if something switches on inside of me… I hear my vowels soften and lengthen into that of a slight English accent and I cahn nhot turn it ohff. I’m almost embarrassed, but no one comments on my “fake English accent”, so perhaps it’s really real, something innate within me? My natural walking pace that many Floridians, Costa Ricans, and other beach-bum types with whom I affiliate (okay, let’s not forget my brothers) complain about being too fast, is suddenly in sync with the crowd. I hop off the tube one quiet evening, one man 10 paces ahead of me, a couple 10 paces behind, and we head down the same street… the couple never comes close to overtaking me but doesn’t lag behind either, similarly the man ahead of me remains equidistant until one of us turns off the road… we are all walking the exact same pace. Perhaps, I have found “my people” after all? Haha!
I think about this odd split-life I’ve lead and believe it’s very much a result of being a product of my parents. My father is an outdoorsy guy, who prefers peaceful hillsides and beautiful beaches to crowded cities, whereas my mother relishes in the hustle of busy markets, negotiating with cabbies, and the endless entertainment of city life. I seemed to have absorbed both these preferences, which to say the least, makes life interesting, if not a tad complicated. Throw these confusing feelings in with a nomadic lifestyle and I can pretty much envision myself settling down… nowhere? Well, only time will tell! Right now, I’m off to enjoy a few more cities (I was on the plane to Tel Aviv as I wrote this) before my big adventure back to nature and two years of a remote, rural life on a Filipino island. Perhaps one day I’ll be ready to call London my permanent home, perhaps the Philippines will awaken another beast inside of me, perhaps some other place (city or country?) will steal my heart away for good… In the meantime, my journey continues, and I’m enjoying every minute of it! Until next time 😀