London calls to me. London enraptures me. London ties my tongue—and my heart—up into knots.
It’s always been this way. For as long as I can remember, England has felt like the center of the universe, exerting a gravitational pull on me. Ever since I was a teenager, I have loved its writers, its musicians, its television shows and movies; I remember spending more than one moody afternoon staring up at my ceiling—BritRock blasting at top volume—completely convinced I had been born in the wrong country and ruing the day the Harrisons of Bristol decided to migrate westward across the Atlantic.
At the center of my obsession, was the city of London. A sprawling city full of art, music, literature, and a history so rich and deep, I could hardly fathom it. A city of soot and stories, cutting-edge culture, and the seat of urban civility. A million lifetimes could be had (and indeed, have been had!) within the city of London… was it too much to ask that I get to experience just one of them?
I have been lucky enough to have visited London three times prior to this trip; despite its lofty position in my mind, it never disappointed me, and my visits only served to make me love it more. It was every bit as electric and, I daresay, magical as I had dreamt it to be. For decades it has been my gold standard of cities, the one I rank all others against and that few have ever come close to toppling from its perch.
It wasn’t until I started to read travel blogs that I began to realize that my love affair with dear old London Town was horribly untrendy. So many well-traveled bloggers that I respected and admired dismissed the city as grey and uninspiring, as expensive and meh, as a place they didn’t care to ever revisit. Some even claimed to HATE London! It seemed that the more people saw of the world, the less favorably they looked upon London.
So, when we stepped onto our flight in Sri Lanka and set off into the skies with London as our final destination, I was a swirling cauldron of nerves and agitation. I’m normally a pretty easygoing flyer (let’s be honest, I just sleep for as much of every flight as is humanly possible), but I was a leg-jiggling, finger-drumming, heart-palpitating ball of worry as we soared back to a place I had always loved before. It had been nearly a decade since my last visit and I had seen and grown so much in those intervening years. With the pain of leaving Asia for the first time in nearly two years, would I find myself horribly let down by London this time? With this being Tony’s first trip ever to Europe, it felt like the stakes had never been higher. I desperately wanted him to love London as much as I had, but what if I proved to be the problem, not him?
Of the five senses, olfaction—that is, the sense of smell—is the one scientists most poorly understand. We know that parts of the brain that are involved in processing odors share deep-rooted neural connections with other parts of the brain that are involved in emotion and memory, which may be why smell is one of the strongest triggers for sense memory. You catch a whiff of cold autumn air and, all of a sudden, you are seven years old again getting ready for school. Or in my case, I head into the “loo” at the airport and, miraculously, I feel ten years younger, setting out on one of my first travel adventures. And in that moment, I know everything is going to be all right.
(And yes, I recognize just how unfairytale-like it is to rekindle my romance with London in a public toilet, but I’ll take what I can get.)
No disrespect to all those who have come before us and found themselves unmoved by England’s capital city—after all, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and all that—but I just don’t get the antipathy towards London. Far from feeling underwhelmed by the city, I spent our first day back in the western hemisphere, back in London, feeling absolutely gobsmacked and battling constant tidal waves of emotion. Most of the day was spent wandering the streets around central London simply soaking in surroundings. Everything was so beautiful, so storied, and so very very different. On some level, our first day in London can be categorized as my reverse culture shock climax as we goggled over everything from the sky-high prices to the totally different architecture to being able to read all the signs and eavesdrop on all the conversations taking place around us and be able to actually understand them (well, most of them… barring uses of Cockney Rhyming Slang or unintelligibly thick accents) to wondering where all the people were (yes, even on the Tube at rush hour) and being slightly unsettled by how pervasively quiet the city was. Maybe our transition once we officially arrived home 5 weeks later wasn’t nearly so alienating or rocky, due to the massive shock to the system that London was.
I’ve said before that despite all our traveling, the rush of finding myself somewhere new and so completely different to where we just were has yet to wear off, and I often find that I can move my body across oceans and timezones far faster than my mind can keep up. At times on this trip, we have found ourselves places that are so extremely different from the lives we had created for ourselves and the world we had fabricated in our minds and experiences back in the west, it hardly seemed possible they could exist in the same plane of reality. Sometimes we would watch a movie or a tv show and I would have to remind myself that the places depicted actually existed in real life. I wondered how someone who has grown up in a Himalayan mountain town or a speck of a village smack dab in the middle of rice fields would feel if they were suddenly transplanted into the bustling metropolises that we take for granted. Arriving in London, I think I got a sense of confounding and discombobulating the transition from east to west truly can be.
We walked our legs off that first day, with our friend Maddy (met while traveling in Thailand!) acting as tour guide, ushering us from Oxford Circus through the seedy side streets of SoHo into the cleanest China Town we had seen in nearly two years and over to famous Picadilly Circus. Then it was down to mighty Trafalgar Square and a stroll along the Mall to Buckingham Palace before having a wander through St James’s Park. We rounded out the day with pints of ale and then followed the Thames back to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, where we sat on a bench and I reeled, until the encroaching chill of evening forced us back home to our friends’, Kat & Alex (ALSO met while traveling in Thailand), flat. We should have been tired when we arrived home—indeed, we were exhausted—and yet I lay in bed wide-eyed late into the night, utterly unable to fall asleep without all the din and clattering that had become a lullaby during our time in Asia. The streets were absolutely silent, and the old house had long ago finished settling, so it felt like we were lying in a vacuum where sound just ceases to exist. The night was SO QUIET I was totally unnerved; I admit—we were in London for 9 days, and I never got used to the quiet.
Being back in London, I felt all the emotions that travel brings: I rode crests of giddy excitement and exaltation that dipped every so often into shock and disbelief that slammed into me with the force of a double-decker bus. Every so often, I would have to just stop, take a deep breath, and remind myself that this was really happening. Nine years since my last visit, I had found my way back to London.
Maybe it’s true that we never get over our first loves, but if my latest visit taught me anything, it’s that no matter how much I grow and change, London seems more than capable of keeping pace with me. Each time I visit, I’m different, but the way I approach the city changes too, and it’s never let me down yet. I had forgotten just how viscerally I love this city, how it fills my head with dreams of a different life that I wanted so much but wasn’t mine to live. So this time, we played pretend for a week, making it our priority to get a taste for local life and catch up with friends rather than focusing too much on pricey attractions (though, of course, we had to enjoy the occasional “touristy” diversion). We were able to just enjoy being with amazing friends in a great city where wandering around and getting lost is often the greatest adventure, where every block and every building has a story, and—after so much time away from this part of the world—even the mundane day-to-day of life feels anything but.
It doesn’t matter that London is horribly expensive and we never witnessed two days of sunshine in a row while we were there, the persistent pitter-patter of a drizzle a constant companion matching the rhythm of my own feet along the pavement. I don’t care that at the end of a day out on the town, I’d blow my nose and turn the tissue black, or that a single ride on the Tube costs more than a whole day of eating in Thailand, and the old trains rattle and clatter along their tracks so slowly yet so loudly, it is nigh impossible to carry on a conversation with a fellow passenger and you arrive at your destination with your hearing now ever so slightly muffled. The sky may be perennially grey, but even still, it seems to make for a dramatic backdrop against a drop dead gorgeous city all the same.
The truth is simply this: I love London and I suspect I always will. I’ve seen so much more of the world than I had as a girl, locked up in her room reading Jane Austen and singing along to Oasis dreaming of this city across the ocean, and yet I still fall to my knees before London because it is now, as it ever was and ever will be, capital-G Great. My love for the city is unending and unconditional, but then isn’t that the way great loves are meant to be?
Tell Us: Have you ever been to London? If so, did you fall into the Love it or Hate it camp? What is your favorite Great city of the world?