In winter of 2014, I left the Eastern seaboard for a seven hour hop across the pond to glorious London. “London in February?” was the quizzical response from well-wishers to my extended mini-break, a three week vacation of spending time with friends and strolling around the city. London is fabulous at any time of year, even when it is damp and cold and rainy, which could just as well be the case in July.
I first visited London 18 years ago and didn’t find it to be anything remarkable. Staying in a subterranean youth hostel around the bend from St. Paul’s Cathedral in the financial district, which is eerily vacant on the weekend, I awoke in the middle of my first night there to shouting, faint rumblings that sounded like a distant riot, and someone relieving himself into the gutter, which was level with the window scenes from the aftermath of a football (soccer) match, I came to learn the next morning when I emerged from the traveler’s underground lair.
Since then, I have been returning to London regularly where I soon discovered a city very different from my initial impressions, a place that is full of unexpected delights. If you can bypass the major tourist traps and avoid fighting your way through Oxford and Regents streets, where the shopping hoards threaten to mow you down, London’s secret gems that are hiding in plain sight begin to reveal themselves. They reveal themselves in the artisan food stalls at the Maltby Street Market just down the road from Tower Bridge, as you look up to the sky across the Bond Street tube station and see St. Christopher’s place decorated with silver baubles, in the narrow lane of the Columbia flower market in Hackney that overflows with azaleas, in the West End’s tops end theater shows, in the eclectic clothing choices at Spitalfields market, at anything going at the Design Museum perched alongside the Thames, in the window of the tiny Ottolenghi restaurant off Westbourne Terrace where gooey hazelnut brownies beckon, and on the top floor of Harvey Nichols, where you can enjoy an elderflower cocktail.
As you wander through the city for a few hours, London herself is the tour guide, starting on the western front, leading you from the posh town homes in Notting Hill adorned with merengue-like crown molding through to Kensington Gardens, where the geese flock to children who delight in throwing them bread bits, past the families sitting on picnic blankets as the sun begins to dip; it is Sunday afternoon and they are not ready to head home. And that’s only one view. Another direction would have sent you onward slightly north through quaint Marylebone, skirting Regents Park, past the British Library, turning down into the eastern side of “The City” where London’s original wall from Roman times still standsand up again into hipster-laden Shoreditch. If you preferred to wander south from Hyde Park instead, you would pass through a rose garden, walk by Buckingham Palace and encounter more ducks waddling about in St. James’ Park until you hit Big Ben and Parliament, both awash in a golden sunset-drenched sheen. You could then venture across the Thames to the south bank, where street performers would serenade you en route to the Tate Modern, a converted power plant at the foot of the pedestrian Millennium bridge, which, when crossing the river again to the north bank, would place you at the foot of St. Paul’s, a stone’s throw from where I stayed that first night may moons ago.
London’s eclectic mix of both small delights and all things grandiose points to its essence one that balances the electric energy of a megacity with the space to allow for a slower, more contemplative, existence, much akin to what you would find in a village. Because, when you step back, London actually still is a conglomeration of tiny villages.
Perhaps London’s ability to cultivate slowness is best demonstrated by how it does leisure on the weekends, which it does very well (possibly a trait borrowed from its cousin, continental Europe). Or perhaps there is not as much racing around because London is just so massive, it is impossible to traverse quickly; it takes an hour just to get around anywhere. The view from the 72nd floor of the Shard, one of the city’s newest architectural additions that sits atop London Bridge train station, shows a cityscape that extends into infinity; you can’t detect the edges, it keeps going into the horizon. And yet, whiling the weekends away at the park, at friends’ home enjoying an all day Sunday roast, spending the afternoon at the pub or going on non-rushed jaunts to the museums with friends followed by a cup of tea are typical of what I do when there. And it’s not just because I’m on holiday, as they say. The expectations on time are somehow different there. Life feels less frenzied in what might first appear to be a frenzied city.
At the same time, the city is always pulsing with something to do, see, hear, and learn, bridging all things London with the wider world’s happenings. It is one of few major cities in which I have spent a significant amount of time where local flavor and identity truly coexist with global awareness and interconnectedness. London looks outward onto the world and is aware of its position as an international financial, cultural and political hub. Its designation as a major transit point makes it so that you can get a direct flight to just about any corner of the globe and its newspapers and TV programs feature stories from countries that never make the evening news on this side of the pond. And yet, it is nonchalant about its status as one of the most sought after cities in which to live it doesn’t need to tout its wares. It knows its desirability and makes room for all those that flock (and can afford) to live there. London is home to the artist, the banker, the diplomat, the entrepreneur, the immigrant, the small business owner, the mogul, the student, and the one whose lineage extends centuries back.
But I love London most because of the sheer diversity among its population given its melding and mixing of different nationalities, ethnicities, religions—and because it is a place where all forms of self-expression can flourish. I remember sitting in church in 2003 smack in the midst of the city, where to my left sat a Japanese student with a green Mohawk and to my right, a woman in African headdress and garb. This is a still a place where punk attire and hijabs brush past each other on the street, and neither one is perceived as being out of place.
I’ve often said that I leave a part of myself in London so that I can go back and visit her. When I first arrive, I always backtrack to my fondest spots in the city as an anchoring mechanism, where positive memories and inspirations come rushing back. Once I recover her, then I am grounded again and can begin to explore the city anew. In this way London remains the same, never changing but at the same time, always reinventing itself through its evolving architecture, public spaces, art, discourse, trends, and possibilities. It is a place where I, too can continue to evolve. I’m already planning my next trip.