“Cities were always like people, showing their varying personalities to the traveler. Depending on the city and on the traveler, there might begin a mutual love, or dislike, friendship, or enmity. Where one city will rise a certain individual to glory, it will destroy another who is not suited to its personality. Only through travel can we know where we belong or not, where we are loved and where we are rejected.”
― Roman Payne, Cities & Countries
“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”
― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
London is more than I could ever explain.
For me, it is one of those places that felt this vague way, and, over time, after I left, became more and more distinct until it crystallized into something I can explain.
These are the visual textures of London that I fell in love with: glass and steel, brick and stone, wrought iron, green and yellow and red and yellow and green, grey skies, green trees.
London smells like rain and hot pavement.
London sounds like sirens, car horns, and the subtle hum of pedestrians and automobiles.
London feels like the sway of a tube car, the drizzling rain that starts on the walk home, the burn of city air in my lungs.
But I feel these only in snapshots, mental pictures of London that I loved, like Trafalger Square in the rain, or an old brown cathedral squeezed between two blue modern skyscrapers, or standing on top of Primrose Hill in the evening gulping air, or crossing the road when the walking light is not on because I know that the traffic light will stay red.
I loved English breakfast, I loved walking confidently through the city to work, I loved ordering a pint of IPA, I loved the Grouplove concert, I loved the tube when it was almost empty, I loved the art and the architecture and Regents Park and the constant activity available.
I loved so much about London, but not London itself. It was unforgettable and it was distinct, but I wouldn’t live there again.
I think that is because London is filled with sharp edges. Even in the parks, my only natural oasis, you could always see the teeth of surrounding buildings.
It, like many other cities, could swallow you whole. I would walk for hours and no one would smile at me, no one would make eye contact. Crowds of people hurrying, hurrying, hurrying in all directions, focused on their tasks and on their days. I would stand and watch as crowds of people, all of those lives, as they ebbed around each other, all part of one organism but barely brushing one another individually. Most of the time there was a lack of connection in London that I hated vehemently. I liked to watch and think of all of those best friends, lovers, enemies, and mentors that would never meet, but would push past each other on the street.
I have said for a long time that big cities are not my environment. Although I would like to say that I hated it, and confirm what I thought before I even left home, I cannot manage it truthfully. The thing is, I didn’t love London, but I certainly didn’t hate it. London didn’t welcome me, but it didn’t reject me either. I think that another version of who I am could have thrived there, instead, it was like that lovely dress that doesn’t fit quite right when you try it on. It was beautiful, but not beautiful on me.
There is not much more I can say about London other than, ‘I lived there, and it was lovely’. Everything else gets muddled and tangled with my nostalgia for my own snapshot moments.
So, London. Yes, I lived there, and it was lovely.