Unlearning London: Can I Do It?

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The plane broke through the clouds on a day that felt—in my New York mind—like the night, circling over wet green fields that edged the near-endless red sea of brick and road and people. We land and I stand, ready to pass out, grumbling too much to appreciate what this really means. But at customs, instead of lining up in the inch-moving maze of alien arrivals like I’ve done every time I’ve come before now, I get to join the other European Nationals, holding up my shiny new Irish passport to the scanner. Oh, right. And it hits me this isn’t the start to a new trip.

This is life now, if I want it to be.

And that’s hard to really envision. London has always been both familiar and foreign to me. I lived on its outskirts when I was five, and since then I’ve always associated it with the big big city, the size of which you can’t in Canada. When I was twelve, going to the high-stone halls of Hampton Court Palace and to witness where old fat Henry VIII slept and ate, along with the British Museum and its endless stolen collections, kicked off my love of history. At Twenty it welcomed me to Europe for my exchange, and the exhilaration began. It’s played a major influence, then, during so many shifts in my life.

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But I’ve always interacted with it in limited ways, and so the city itself—this massive city with its infinite, brick lane sprawl—was always outside my grasp. At the end of my exchange, I saw London as Paris’s colder brother, the one that’ll charge you a kidney to ride across the city, that cares only for money and is willing to knock down its history in favor of “progress.” For a kid that had just lived the last four months in a Belle Epoque fantasy—wandering Paris’s streets and dreaming of Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, and Zola—that last offense was unforgivable. But then, my antipathy was created in Paris; I never got back during exchange, and “hey, wait a minute, didn’t I like London when I was there?” Everything had gotten confused, and I didn’t know what to think of the city anymore. Had I ever known it at all?

The ten days I spent there this time, I tried to rectify that. On day number ten, I walked from Victoria bridge, through Kensington towards Bloomsbury, hitting up Buckingham, the National Gallery, Soho, and the British Museum—by the end of it, I’d checked off probably half of Trip Advisor’s top ten for the place. And it’s the only day I did any real touristing; I rushed across the west end, realizing, “oh yeah, I probably should have hit up some museums before now, huh.” But what I did instead over those ten days was get a closer glimpse at the real city.

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And it’s like getting to explore a new place entirely. Four years ago, what attracted me most to the city was the city: the electric, dizzying swirl of the area congregating along the river—the Shard, the west end, Piccadilly’s wannabe Times Square circuit. Back then, a city of 13 million people was a watermark.

Cut to four years and the world’s most-populated continent later, and the three 30 million + cities I’d been to (not to mention China’s general 1 billion), made London feel, well, like a bit of a small town. And it’s that town-vibe that hooked me. Take a double-decker through winding, contradictory lanes, and it’s like passing through an endless village—the local pub, the park, the quirky neighbors; the red post box, the supermarket, the narrow homes with their red doors and tiny back gardens. After living through 18 months of glass towers that breaks life and families into units, London’s sprawl became, in its own quiet way, amazing.

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It made me feel like this was a city of a million nooks and crannies, where the best places are never the ones you can find on your first stroll through. I found that to be true in so many ways, whether that was in finding the best parks (all in East London), pubs (the canals), or parties (my personal favorite being in the abandoned construction lot). And of course it’s ridiculous to say best when I spent ten days there: I saw enough to believe there’s even better stuff around the corner, somewhere. I hadn’t even scratched the surface.

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Notting Hill Carnival is a great example. I’m cutting through Hyde Park on a gorgeous August day, where couples and young families splay out out on the grass while dogs chase pigeons—London on a Sunday, as I know it. But reaching the northern fences, a vibration travels through the ground, and the houses are all boarded up like they’re preparing for the blitz; turn a corner, and I hit a wall of teeming, paint-covered people. Trucks roll down the streets blaring eardrum-bursting Caribbean beats, followed by near-naked dancers.

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London is transformed. A playground turns into a war-zone, where the stoned out or too-trashed lie, groaning, across the pebbles; walls, into urinals; the streets, into a club. It’s so much work to dance in this dense knot and pull of human bodies—bouncing to the beat while chugging the ciders we’ve brought along—that sometimes it’s hard to tell if I’m even having fun. But then a sixty year old lady pushes out of her apartment in a green sequined dress right as “Don’t Stop Till you Get Enough” comes on, and as her hips sway and her arms sweep across us like a Disco queen blessing her subjects, everyone in the crowd screams with joy—she dances, we hop to the same beat. It’s exhilarating.

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I’ve never known London like this. But is there a better symbol for modern, international London than a Caribbean festival capable of tearing this middle-class neighborhood up from the inside, and making something more beautiful in the process? Probably not. And that’s the London I’m dying to get to know.

 

The Art of Living

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Okay great, so you spent a great 10 days there, and now comes the big now what? Are ten days of going along canals and trying pints at the different pubs, served on wooden tables by the water, really enough to give you a true idea of what living here would be like? Or do you just want this so badly to be a thing you’re not really looking at the reality of the prospect?

It’s really hard to separate what I genuinely love about the city from the greater, overarching idea of London. The total amount of time I’ve read various “Living in London” blog posts or clickbait articles is possibly greater than how much time I’ve actually spent in the city. As the first industrial city, and my first city-city, it’s always been to me the place everything flows through, where energy is moving and the future is now. You see a tube map, you think highly controlled insanity; the logo for Herrod’s or Bond Clothing, and a level of metropolitan high-brow Canada will never have. The double-deckers, stone churches in the rain, the high-rises along the river. These symbols have become entrenched in my mind, and I can’t remove the real city from them.

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But maybe living off an idea isn’t a bad thing. After all, if London really is just a string of villages extending out forever, then in some ways that idea of London, along with its tube system, is what connects those villages. Everyone who comes to London and sacrifices comfort, clean air, affording things, and basically any other factor on the livability index, comes—I have to assume—because there’s something about the idea of London that sucks them in. Like New York, there’s a weight to the name alone; I live, or I lived in London to start off your introduction at any cocktail party, and there, you’re immediately cool.

Is that all a sham? Would London’s gritty-classy veneer eventually fall away, and then start to drive me crazy? It’s almost impossible to tell until I actually do it; until I have to battle the tube crowds during rush hour, huddle in the corner of some shady guardianship apartment with a leaking roof, or brave the endless drizzle of most months of the year. Because I’ve never tackled a challenge like this before, and that’s exciting and terrifying in equal measures.

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I was wrestling with these thoughts a lot while I was there, but now that I can look back, after Paris, I can appreciate something about the place:

It started the first night, when my aunt, perched on Muswell Hill, the highest livable neighborhood in the center, showed me the expanse of east London from her balcony. The orange glow of distant streetlights looked like stars, and a feeling of excitement bubbled in my chest, from being in a place that felt, against all expectations, completely new. I remembered feeling like this the first few months in Paris as well (Tokyo too), and whenever I looked back on all the amazing times that came after that, that feeling is almost like a promise. Of bigger things to come.

I didn’t get that feeling when I went back to Paris, where I was smothered by memories, both my own and those of the old city. The tales of the two cities are deeply interlinked: the dual capitals of European commerce and art for the past four hundred years, they were the first industrial cities. But where Paris always looks to the past, incorporating innovation into the surrounding area (look at the new shopping complex at Les Halles), London is more in favor of knocking it all down in favor of this breathless run forward. Paris was perfect for me then, I couldn’t do it another time. Does that mean it’s time to hop across the pond?

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And so that last day exploring the tourist sites was unique for another reason too: it was the only time these past ten days I really thought about history. Victoria sat in a stone chair in front of her old palace while little colonized babies from all corners of the world hold up the banner of her empire. Fuck that. That’s not London anymore.

It’s the modern look that so captivated me this time: standing on Franks, a rooftop bar made out of an old parking garage, the ridge of glass towers in the distance captivated me because they looked so new. There was the Shard, St Paul’s, and even glimpses of the Millennium Eye and London Bridge, but I was looking out on a new city. It took ten days to unlearn everything I knew about the place, and here I was, standing at ground zero.

Is it time to really know it?

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