Tuesday, 21 June 2011

When London Tires...

So I’m moving countries again. After three years, five flat moves, two jobs, twenty two countries visited, one sister moving in, the same sister moving out, far too many awful coffees and far too few blog updates, I’m off to a place where I am certain to feel woefully inadequate with this one clunky language I carry around with me.

Surprisingly, I’m not feeling very pre-emptively nostalgic about leaving London, whereas usually around this time I would be running my fingers along stair banisters saying, ‘This is the last time my hand will touch this place’, lingering by the kettle as it shudders while it boils, thinking, ‘Maybe this is the last cup of tea you will make for me’, analysing the patterns on the curtains wondering if I’ll remember how they looked a few years from now, and generally trying to squeeze as much sentimental value as I possibly can from an IKEA lamp.

Maybe it’s because I’m not moving to the other side of the world this time, or maybe it’s because I feel like I’m actually ready to leave this city. A lot of people will probably fling that famous old quote at me: ‘When one is tired of London, one is tired of life’, but to me that quote (sorry Dr Johnson. I do love your Dictionary though!) erroneously makes it seem as though you have a choice about how you feel with regards to London, rather than the other way around. Let’s just put it this way: I’m not tired of London; London has tired me. Of course sometimes London has made me feel energetic and jubilant, but on the whole the relentlessness of the place has brought on a limescale-like fatigue. It’s white, persistent and flakes of it come out in my tea.

I don’t want to make out like London has somehow rendered me powerless, or that the way people feel can sometimes be completely independent of their surroundings, but I do think that London’s treadmill continuousness and its full-to-overflowing population means that it’s capable of calling up certain reactions and behaviours within you that start to stick after a while.

So I am ready to go, but as the subtitle of this blog should probably be “Written by Sarah the Sentimentalist”, I thought I’d look backwards for a bit before looking forwards, and remember some of the things I will miss and some of the things I will not miss about this city.

Things I will miss about London:

  • Unexpected moments of kindness and hilarity in cramped conditions. Once, on a typically sardine-packed peak hour tube from Edgware Road to Baker Street, I found myself nose-to-nose with a white-haired gentleman in a tweed coat who had obviously been out of the ‘tube scene’ for quite a while (if he’d ever been in it to begin with). As usual in the morning crush, the sardines were silent. The only sounds were newspaper pages turning and the occasional muffled cough. It is quite typical for trains at Edgware Road to sit on the platform for a few minutes before continuing, and after a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, the white-haired man waggled his eyebrows at me and piped up, ‘Well isn’t this lovely? They’ll be bringing the tea round in a minute!’
  • The grandness. Say what you like about London in comparison to other European cities, but when you come from Australia, London will always bowl you over with its vast supply of extravagant buildings. I look up less frequently these days, but the sweeping curve of Regent Street with all its glowing expensive shops, the orange blush of the Houses of Parliament by night, the long streets of identical white terrace houses, the blocky architectural experiments jutting out along the Thames: all of these are just so… grand. Sometimes I like grandness over simplicity. Only when I’m visiting, however. I couldn’t maintain grandness myself.
  • The spectacle of life going on: rain, hail or shine. No matter what time of day you venture out in London, or where you might go, other people will always be around. I’m pretty sure that even if you walked down a back alley in Streatham at 4:30am, you would bump into a bunch of freegans going for the same dumpster you had your eye on. I’ve caught buses from side streets in Zone 4 at 3:00 on Tuesday mornings, taken strolls in Maida Vale at midnight and gotten up at 5:00 to catch the first tube from Whitechapel, and there were always people around, getting on with it. It’s somehow comforting to see the swirl of life continue at all hours of day.
  • Speaking of which, I generally love those very early or very late times of day in London when you get to see the city emptied of all the hurry and all the haughtiness and all the brouhaha. People smile at you in the street when they pass you at 5:30am. They do not do the same at 5:30pm.
  • Brick Lane. You entranced me on my first visit, and I think I will always love you. Just don’t let any Café Neros or Zaras open on you. Please. Stay just the way you are, for as long as you possibly can.

 Things I will not miss about London

  • The drudgery of life going on: rain, hail or shine. Yes, it’s an interesting paradox: some of the things I love about London are also the things that I hate about it. It fluctuates. So even though sometimes it’s comforting seeing people milling about even in the small hours of the morning, sometimes you don’t want to see anybody at all. Sometimes you want this city to yourself. You want to walk around and pretend like you’re in The Day of the Triffids or something: London is deserted, you’re the only one to see all the sleeping buildings, and you can twirl all the way down Pall Mall with no one to stop you. Even if you don’t want the centre of town all to yourself, sometimes you just want your own little space. Unless you go home to your thimble-sized bedroom in your sewing-box-sized flat, you will never have that here.
  • The way that London turns you into one of those people you once laughed at. When I first arrived here, I thought it was hilarious when I saw people running for the tube: sprinting down corridors, knocking down infants and risking their fingers and torsos to wrench themselves between the rapidly closing tube doors. It was like a sad version of Indiana Jones or something: City Hero and the Race to the Office. Now, however, I have grown to learn that tubes are a little like traffic lights. Just as when you hit one red light you tend to hit them all, when you miss one tube you tend to miss them all. Run for the tube, however, and it’s like getting green lights all the way. I’ve also come to learn that the ‘2 minutes’ countdown on the display boards is not a perfectly precise Swiss 2 minutes. It’s a grossly underexaggerated London 2 minutes, lasting anywhere between 5 minutes and 10. And you see? London is a place that makes you feel that waiting 10 minutes for a train is the absolute height of public transportation incompetence. And you see? It all makes sense because if you have to wait 10 minutes for a train, you won’t fit onto it when it arrives! That’s how it works. In the beginning it all seems absurd, but in the end, you see why people in cities must become absurd in order to function.

My last blog was about my first day in London. When I arrived, I had nowhere to live, no job, no friends, and no idea. Now I have all of those things (well, let’s not get carried away. I have an idea, but it’s only about a gerbil and a packet of skittles), but somehow I’m ready to start all over again. This time I already have somewhere to live, someone to love, a handful of friends and my gerbil + skittles idea, so we’ll see how I go…


Natty said...

Good luck with the move! It sounds a little less romantic than when you moved to London and stepped into the unknown, but sounds like an adventure nonetheless!

Linds said...

This is a fantastic sum-up of the London experience - couldn't have said it better myself! Glad we'll be on the same continent again, in the same language situation boat (it's a bit of a tipsy boat, but the seats are strangely comfortable...)