Monday, 13 November 2017

From London with Love...

For longer than I can remember if anyone was complaining about London I would enthusiastically join the charge, gleefully reciting the laundry list of things which irritated me about the city. It was an intense and long-standing dislike formed when on my first solo visit, I hadn't quite figured out the rules of the tube system and due to excessive politeness had struggled to cross the sea of people on the platform to board the train, and only managed to jump on just as the doors closed. The result was that one leg and one arm were left flailing about outside the carriage, whilst the other half of me was tucked safely inside. This being one of my first experiences of London's transport system I started panic - would the train leave the station? Exactly how tight were those tunnels? Would I be cut in two?  Rather than coming forward to help I got a mix of quizzical looks and annoyed glares from the other passengers and after what felt like way too long, the doors were opened and I escaped the fate of being sawed in half. My cheeks burning with embarrassment I retreated into a corner of the carriage and firmly decided I would never, ever make this place my home. But life had other plans and dragged me back to the city kicking and screaming for work about a decade ago. This time I lasted six months - six months of hating my job and the city and feeling truly miserable - before again packing up and promising to never return.

But after a year away, I somehow again found myself drawn back to this city like a moth to a flame. And while I promised myself I would only stay a couple of years, life again had other plans and this year I found myself making a fairly monumental move (particularly for someone with permanently itchy feet) by actually choosing to set down roots here and buy my first home in London (more about that one in another post).

So what had changed?

The first shift came fairly early on, even before arriving for latest stint in the city - I made a decision, if I was going to live in London it may only be for a year or two, so it was time to make the most of all that was on offer and not wait for a plus one to do anything. And so I began working through an encyclopedia of activities - from dodgeball to dodgy dates, from dancing to my own beat at hip-hop classes to going on ghost walks, from going solo to see incredible theatre shows and music gigs, to getting Robert Downey Jnr's autograph at a film premiere, to eating my way around food markets and visiting quirky pop-up restaurants. I saw sides of the city I had never known existed and realised that this place is limitless grotto of offerings, a place where boredom is a distant memory. It is one of London's great selling points and if you're new to it yourself, probably the best way to start your love affair with the city.

Chelsea Flower Show

Leicester Square Film premiere with Robert Downey Jnr and Guy Ritchie

The second shift was that  London started to change me. Living here isn't easy - it's tough and exhausting and it drives you right to your limits and far beyond, which is why I can completely understand the wish to escape somewhere which offers a more relaxing existence. But it also shapes you in unexpected ways - I remain in essence myself (I still walk at a glacial pace and laugh freely and easily at every opportunity) but I'm also a lot tougher, more resilient, more self-confident and have honed the subtle art of not giving a f**k about what people think. Also surrounded by people who are proactively pursuing their dreams (whether that's to smash it in work, or run their own business or write a book or bag that dream job or travel the world) I'm inspired to push myself too, to see what I'm capable of and to quieten that negative internal chat which tries to tell you're not good enough or that you should dream a little smaller, or follow the same course in life as everyone else.

Wildlife in London parks

Comic Con London

Big Food Feastival

That leads on to the third shift which was meeting people who made the city feel like home. From knowing practically no-one when I arrived, I have been blessed over the years to have gathered together a wonderful and inspiring collection of friends from around the world, who are on hand to share a bottle of wine and set the world to rights, or provide a pep talk or a reality check as needed. In my first stint of living in London I was desperately lonely and would have given up a lot sooner if hadn't been for the kindness of one of my flatmates who took me under her wing and shared her own experiences which showed me things would get better. So if you've just landed in the city and feel like you'll never make friends here, 
believe me you will - over time you'll meet people through work, living situations, joining social groups etc. and soon enough find similar or indeed wildly different souls who you bond with and who become something of a surrogate family for you.

The effect of the changes above on my perception of London was so gradual that right up until last summer whilst I would have been kinder in my evaluation of the city I was still clear on it's flaws and was adamant that I would never choose to stay here long-term. Then the Brexit vote and the resulting fallout happened. Whilst I'm not going to get political, it honestly made me look at London through a whole different lens. I looked at it as somewhere where several million people of completely different means, nationalities, races, backgrounds and ideologies have come together in a beautifully chaotic social experiment. And by virtue of the fact there is so little homogeneity and there are so many people co-existing in the same place, there is as a result no one unifying code of conduct that everyone subscribes to, but despite all this it somehow still manages to work, not always perfectly, but in its own uniquely imperfect way. That sense of community may not look the same here as it does in other places but the way that ordinary people came out to support each other after the Grenfell Tower fire show that it is just as strong. Yes that means that you have to put up with that fella who decides the tube is the ideal place to cut his toenails, but he is just one of the characters make up the rich tapestry of this incredible place. This light bulb moment; this change in perception has meant that every day, ever daily commute I take has become this opportunity to get a snapshot into hundreds of different lives, each with their own story - it's genuinely fascinating!

And so this morning as I sat in my armchair in my little flat, with the fire on, nursing a mug of tea and listening to the rustling as the wind nudged the trees, tipping crisp yellow and brown Autumn leaves onto the ground, I felt overwhelmed with this sense, for the first time in forever, of a place feeling like home. Has London has suddenly become less polluted, hectic etc? No it's just as it has always been but it's just that I have finally come to appreciate it, warts and all. To quote Bridget Jones..........(London) I love you.....................just as you are.

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