When I first arrived in London at the start of my trip, the skies were blue and clear. It was December but not too cold, I actually found the air clear and refreshing. I was staying in an old Georgian terrace house, on a street full of them, around the corner from Portobello Market. I would go down the street, stopping for a coffee or a chorizo roll a vendor was selling (delicious!). The market was buzzing with funky clothes stores and little cafes. Posters advertised Kurdish film festivals, and cool-sounding nightclub events, and new pop stars. A West Indian man dressed as Santa Claus was playing a steel drum.
At night I would ride on the second floor of a double decker bus -a novel sensation -into Oxford Street, through phantom-like neon Christmas decorations and thronging crowds, or stop at the internet cafe along the buzzing, late night Arab strip on Edgeware Road. I visited museums and parks and art galleries, and flicked through my Timeout listings guide: the options were endless. London seemed so vibrant, and yet also so cute – with its double decker buses and its red phone booths and its leafy squares. And it was so “happening”, everyone was here – like the centre of the universe. There were crowds everywhere radiating energy. I was hooked; and spent the rest of my trip in Europe looking forward to my return.
At the end of the honeymoon, I tagged along with Daisuke (who had a conference there) for another weekend. Arriving at London City Airport, I had to take the train into Hyde park, where we were staying. It was drizzling and grey and as the train glid over the Isle of Dogs and through the East End, my mood dropped. This was a whole different cityscape, one of carparks and warehouses and huger construction sites where the city was being ripped open and it seemed, clumsily stuck back together ; huge, drab housing blocks alternated with grim streets of Victorian tenements; hard-looking and mean, with not a twig of greenery in sight. Above them towered new, and hardly-more-appealing, fortress-like condo developments. Everyone on the train was wearing tracksuits and grim expressions It started to rain. We passed the huge, grotesque Milennium Dome – gargantuan, alien looking and hideous, glimpsed from the train through a frame of passing junk yards. I got off, lugging my heavy bags and tried to exit – only to be told that the ticket I’d purchased from the machine was somehow invalid. I was fined 20 pounds by a gaunt, sallow man with appalling teeth. I went to drown my sorrows with a large Pepsi and big Mac, standing under the harsh fluoroescent lighting of a handy McDonalds, and I looked around at the similarly depressed faces all around me, a United Nations of bad skin, all wolfing down their greasy burgers. Wow, I thought. London sucks.
I felt like the city had kicked me in the guts, or it was a huge soulless machine, utterly indifferent. One that would grind me down then spit me out.
And yet, by the end of the day – after a successful sightseeing foray to Southall (see below) – I was in love with London again. At its worst, I have no doubt London can be soul-destroying. Living in a shitty (yet overpriced) studio in one of those windwept, uncared for estates, commuting daily through surging crowds and shitty weather; just the thought depresses me. But there is something about London that saves it – a wild card. Perhaps it is randomness, and unpredictablity, and its huge variety. Its a city that give you anything if you care to look, and can knock you senseless if you let it. I get the sense that you can never “know” London, never get it cornered. There is so much bubbling away in its different corners, sometimes blissfully unaware of each other and more often colliding, and melding in new and unexpected ways, like experiments in a chemistry lab. For no city in the world perhaps has given so much; its music, its “look”, its humour (sometimes harsh, often gentle), its language … and there is always something new around the corner. London has an electricity all its own.
The one thing about London that struck me the hardest – whether in good neighborhoods or bad – was the babble of different languages, the swirl of people. Because EVERYONE is in London. As a Chinese-Australian friend and her Sri Lankan-Australian boyfriend had told me, its not a big deal where you come from in London, because everyone is from somewhere else. Literally, almost every person had a different accent; Italian, Pakistani, many I couldn’t trace. It has to be the most cosmopolitan city on Earth. All of Europe is here; they come from Gdansk and Kiev to work in shops, and fly in from Moscow and Dubai to buy up half of Kensington. They pour in on Easyjet, from Bergen or Madrid, to go shopping and see a show. Italians swarm over the Underground, and Scandinavians clog up Oxford Street, young children in tow. Twenty-somethings from Madrid/Lyon/Thessaloniki/Bucharest come to study English and work as waiters. Thrusting young professionals flock to Europe’s highest-paid jobs, in the City. The faces on the subway are black, brown, Mediterranean, veiled. I saw a platinum-blonde, punk Arab lesbian complaining loudly about her girl troubles, and stood behind a middle-aged woman in Boots in her fur-lined Winter hijab.
Of course there are communities from Britain’s former colonies; Indians and Jamaicans and Nigerians and Bangladeshis; but also ones I hadn’t expected; Vietnamese in Hackney, Moroccans in Ladbroke Grove, Congolese and Somalis in Haringey, Brazilians, Colombians and thousands and thousands of Poles.
Look at these language learning kits I spotted in a bookshop in Bayswater; Korean, fair enough, but Farsi and Zulu (!!!)
I loved that about London. It’s the new Babel.