A love letter to London

Sunday, October 27, 2013

As I began composing this blog post I was sitting in a cafe in Heathrow Airport, waiting for a delayed flight to take me back to Moscow.  I was at the end of a two week break, and not entirely filled with joy at the prospect of returning to Moscow.  This wasn't just due to the inevitable post-vacation blues.  I think it's also because of, well, it's because of LONDON.

Here's what happened. My flight home Canada was in two legs, with a ten hour layover at Heathrow.  At first I thought, "Ugh.  Ten hours in an airport?" And then I realised that ten hours was more than enough time to escape the airport and go into town.  So I made some plans and pre-booked a return ticket on the usurious-but-speedy Heathrow Express to Paddington.  The flight arrived very early so I was chugging into the station by about 8:15 on an overcast but warm Saturday morning.

Paddington Station is a good one.  It's been under refurbishment for a while now, and the high, arching Victorian roof has been festooned with scaffolding for ages.  But when I stepped off the train that Saturday morning there was no scaffolding in sight.  Just a lovely big Victorian English railway station in all its glory.


I don't mind telling you I paused for a moment and just drank it in and I was soooooo happy. It sounds like a phrase from a cheesy novel, but I can honestly say that my heart was full.  I strolled down the platform towards the exit and out into the street and though the sky was cloudy the temperature was warmer than it's been in Moscow for a while.  And because it was so early, the roads were quiet and the city was just waking up.  And then I realised that my path towards Oxford Street took me right along the northern edge of Hyde Park, so I walked through the park and by that time, despite being somewhat sleep-deprived, I was almost skipping with delight.  Also, I knew there was a bacon sandwich in my near future, which I enjoyed in a nice little caf, along with a proper cup of coffee and a real paper copy of the Saturday Telegraph and a side order of pleasant banter (in English!) with people at the other tables, and again I thought, "My cup runneth over."

I think there must be a sort of low grade level of stress that comes with living somewhere genuinely foreign.  Moscow isn't exactly the dark side of the moon; it's a real city with all amenities you'd expect: cappuccino and bank machines and Ikea and whatever.  But it's also definitely foreign.  The language is a big part of this - I'm sure if I was fluent I'd feel more at ease. (Aside: I can't imagine what it must be like for those colleagues of mine who haven't made the effort to learn Cyrillic.  They can't even read the signs in the Metro!  This lack of effort is inexplicable to me, and also slightly rude.)  But I also can't help but think that Russians in general aren't the type to banter jokingly with strangers at the next table in a cafĂ©. (Or produce a really good bacon sandwich for that matter, which anyone knows is a sign of a superior civilisation, religious dietary restrictions excepted of course.)  Whatever the reason, a weight that I didn't even realise had been there was lifted from my shoulders when I stepped off that train at Paddington.

After killing enough time at the cafe, I hit Selfridges for some quick Christmas shopping, then Fortnum & Mason, and then hopped on the tube to Brixton to visit my old house and have a nice cup of tea and a chat with the people there.  And then I hit Brixton Market for lunch with friends who made a special trip to meet me and there was fantastic food, and even better company, and though by that time I may have been delirious with lack of sleep, I was genuinely happy.

It was so nice to see you!

I came through London on my way back too - a three day stop to renew my Russian visa that allowed me even more time to soak in a bit of London.  On that occasion had another nice lunch in Brixton Market with a Canadian friend who was in town for a job interview.  She's at the end of an almost decade-long stint of work in a few different Arabian Gulf countries and when I told her my story about arriving at Paddington she said that after ten years in the dessert she is still, almost a year later, actively grateful to be places with greenery.  That was the phrase she used: actively grateful.  Like she'd suddenly realised what a privilege it is to be able to walk down a street full of trees, or through a park, or across a lush green lawn.  Green is her Paddington.

Canada was great too, of course.  I got to hang out with my niece, who is suddenly almost eight years old and going on thirteen and can sing along to all the lyrics of "Dynamite" and "What Makes You Beautiful" (which became the sound track to my vacation), and I learned how to make sticky toffee pudding, and I ate turkey.  Canada will always be capital-H Home for me.


It's the kind of home of home towns and home teams and family and personal history.  That will never change.  But I've realised that for me now, London is home too.  I was a little startled to think that I've been in London for more than three years now.  Astonishing.  It's flown past. (Except, perhaps for those three chilly months in Arsenal, which we will not speak of again.)

Astute Go Stay Work Play Readers know I'm overly fond of London.  I wouldn't have come and I wouldn't have stayed if I didn't love the place.  Of course lots of cities are great, though few ascend to the loftiest heights.  Paris springs to mind.  And I suppose New York too, though I've never been there. (But I'm going in the spring... Wahoo!).  But London?  I think London is special.  Maybe this is because it's figured so prominently in so much of the culture of the English-speaking world for so long.  See a play by Shakespeare, read "Oliver Twist" or "The Hound of the Baskervilles" or a thousand other books, even "Bridget Jones' Diary", watch a Royal Wedding or two, listen to the output from Abbey Road, see any one of hundreds of films and London is baked into your consciousness.  It becomes, without you realising it, an almost mythical place.  It occupies an area somewhere between real life on, say, the Canadian prairies, and Narnia, or Middle Earth, or Neverland (all the product of English authors).  It can be hard to believe its actually real.  I remember the first time I visited the city in 1988 when I was struck by the idea that if this was London, I couldn't really be there, or if I was there, it couldn't really be London.

Turns out it really is London

Now I live there, and I know it's really real, and London has lost a bit of its shine.  It's not all Tower Bridge and cozy pubs and afternoon tea.  It's also insane housing prices and dodgey side streets and dampness and buses on rail replacement service and a determinedly lingering class system and absolutely foul children on trains. (No really, could you possibly get your little brats to stop repeatedly shouting mockery at other passengers?  No?  Of course not.  Silly question.)

But I don't care.  I still get a buzz from London.  It feels more like SOMEWHERE than anywhere else I've been.  And now I've been away for a bit and had the inestimable pleasure of coming back.  And though it may lack the capital letter, London is, and I can't tell you how happy this makes me, home.

P.S. Brief update on The Life of Pam:  Work is busy - long hours during the week and now we're doing Saturdays as well.  We're due to deploy south to Sochi in a few weeks.  I'll keep up the blog when I can, but my supply of spare time and mental energy will run out eventually, so just take it as it comes.