“Walk straight down the road, and you come to a nice little pub…”
The beginning of most of the responses I received on asking for directions in London. London is a big city. It is an endless sprawl of white, terraced houses and centuries old red-brick buildings with a generous sprouting of towers here and there. And parks. Lots of parks. Parks in which I could see myself ten years down the line, unwinding after a day spent in a cab, calculating which of the twenty-one Gloucester Roads to take, before the well-meaning driver decided to lunge down a random side-street for no apparent reason. That’s the thing about cab-drivers in London – they are extremely polite, friendly, and safe. However what’s slightly (only slightly, mind you) odd, is their absolute reluctance to admit that they don’t know the direction to your location. Hear the overtly casual chuckle in their voice once they finally have it figured out, and you’ll know why it’s said that the British have certain idiosyncrasies which you come to accept with time.
For instance, you don’t talk on the tube. You don’t talk on the tube when you need to ask what the next station is in case you’ve missed the previous one; you don’t talk on the tube if your fellow passenger’s bag occupies more of your lap than his; you don’t talk on the tube if you’re about to die. And while in the tube, you certainly do not have the ultimate luxury of making small talk. As a foreigner I had a hard time, nearly choking myself on occasion, trying not to laugh at the hilarity of the dumb silence. But it’s a different world above altogether. Londoners love conversation once they’re out of the bowels of the earth. Although a reserved sort, most of them love to chat you up about the most unusual and insignificant of things, such as seats on the London Eye and bacon sandwiches. And the weather. Always, the weather.
Perhaps it was these very peculiarities that made me feel the way I did about London. The way the parks looked like places I could come back to. The other side of the planet, a different timezone, the very people whose ancestors had colonised my country. Yet geography and history faded into oblivion as I waited at the bus-stop in Knightsbridge. During my weeklong stay, I had turned a hundred identical street-corners, walked a hundred alleys – alleys which promised quiet and shadows, alleys in which you missed a lover; alleys, also, which reminded you that you were enough on your own. Enough to read London in Blyton and Dickens, and enough to explore it all by yourself with a little help from strangers and Harry Beck of the London Underground Map repute.
London was unique in the way it functioned as a metropolis. In a foreign city, you’d expect to experience a constant dissonance from ‘home’, and/or the fear of missing out. Never having had a home-base in twenty years, the first was out of the question for me.
But London, a city bubbling over with history and art, never made me choose between the Tower Bridge and Portobello Market. There was an air of familiarity in getting treacle pudding from the cafe across the street; a sense of accomplishment in figuring out which Eastbound train to board. And the final triumph of childlike glee came at being asked for directions to Westbourne Terrace. In seven odd days, London had a made a home out of itself. It was the most satisfying blend of heritage and modernity, of vinyls and headphones, headphones patiently waiting at a traffic light with no cars in sight. It was a blend of silver rain and silver sunshine. In seven odd days, London made me want to stay, and that was enough.
Vagabonding ft. Chai
Ramblings from the life of an insomniac Lit major living by Stevenson’s aphorism: “The great affair is to move”, and trying to make sense of life and its squiggles.