I don’t write much, or even take photos much in London.
It’s partly due to the fact that I am no longer alone–Psychic Roommate is with me now en route to Avignon–but also partly because I’m not a tourist here. Not quite, anyway.
It’s weird, that. How does one play this cool? It’s strange, mostly because the last time I was here I wasn’t a visitor (not a short-term visitor anyhow), but moreover, I’m sort of playing hostess this time around. Me, a hostess, of a city I lived in for 4 months. Psychic Roommate wants to do a Best of London thing, but she also wants JJ’s Best Hits of London as well. It’s a little hard to balance. I’ve forgotten so many things. And so many other little things have changed.
They’ve added public bicycles for hire now. Ingenious! Pay a few quid, rent a bike, cycle to your next location, then drop it off. I wish New York had something like this, which is silly considering I actually own a bike. A cute retro-style red one-speed, with a basket and a bell. I own a bike I am too afraid to ride, if I’m honest. It isn’t as though I’m afraid of biking as a concept; it’s more I’m terrified of biking in New York City. But to be fair, I imagine I would be equally terrified of biking in London.
Another little change I’ve noticed, or perhaps I wasn’t perceptive enough the first time around, is that everything is in 24 hour time. I don’t necessarily mind 24 hour time–I know the rest of Europe’s been using it for ages–but I could swear that six years ago, people were still using AM and PM and that the imperial system was still in use when it came to distances and weight. (Maybe not weight; that might have been kilograms. And stone.) The British may be more twisted up about the imperial vs. metric system than we are: beer and cider still come in pints, road signs are still given in yards and miles, but the height of a building is given in meters. Or metres, as they would spell it.
But I don’t think on it too hard. The first day back in London, after all, is to show Psychic Roommate a bit of my London. My prevailing memories of this time (what little I can recall through the haze of alcohol and the first blissful blush of first love) was wandering quite a bit of the city on foot, meandering from one art gallery to the next, rushing from one play to another. I pick theatre. I suppose I could have picked art, as the museums are free in London, but after having glutted myself on the visual wonder that is Austria, I decide a bit of stageplay would be nice. After all, a play very nearly did herald my arrival into this city.
But it starts out with walking, as it should. We wake up that morning, grab a bit of breakfast from the common room downstairs. The free breakfast is terrible, the absolute worst of all the hostels I’ve stayed in: toast, butter, cornflakes, and weak tea. Vienna, naturally, had the best–complete with a machine that dispensed mélange. I make jokes about the bland awfulness of English food often, but really, this takes the cake.
We make our meandering way down from Russell Square through Bloomsbury, Covent Garden, and make our way down to Westminster and the river, but not before stopping at Trafalgar Square. It’s suspiciously quiet, although I do suppose it is 10AM on a Tuesday morning. I point out the National Portrait Gallery as we wander down Charing Cross Road, and then suggest we climb the lions at the foot of Nelson’s column. I used to come down and have a bit of lunch sitting in this exact spot, looking at this exact view. The climbing is a bit harder and taller than I remember it being, there’s a ship in a giant glass bottle on the fourth plinth. The last time I was here, it was a hideously ugly pregnant woman’s torso.
It is a typically English day: grey, a little damp, with a constant threat of rain hanging over our heads that the weather never quite makes good on. From Trafalgar Square we head towards Westminster–to the Abbey, to the Houses of Parliament, to Big Ben. I never had much occasion to set foot here, so I’m less familiar with the area, but seeing it through fresh eyes, I realise this is probably what people think of when they think of “London”: as an image, as an idea.
Here are all the recognisable landmarks, Georgian and Victorian buildings, here you pass a yeoman warder, beautifully paved streets, broad avenues, men in sharp pinstriped suits and hats, etc. There’s a hint of pomp and circumstance here, a whiff of the royal presence, the exciting tingle you get when you look at Old Things. Psychic Roommate and I look at the exterior of Westminster Abbey while she debates whether or not it’s worth the £15 to get in. (I’ve already seen the interior.) In the end, we drift away and crossing Westminster Bridge to get to the south bank.
We buy tickets for a play called The Kitchen on the Olivier Stage at the National Theatre. The last show I saw here, on this stage, was Coram Boy, vastly different production. Later that night, Psychic Roommate and I will return and she will succumb (against her will) to the inexorable pull of jet lag while I try to put together a coherent thesis about post-war Britain. The play is good, but very British, in ways that wouldn’t have been obvious to me six years ago. But I suppose that’s what studying abroad was good for–for writing papers and analysis about British culture and the idea of “Britishness”.
After tickets are bought, we wander into the Globe. I’ve never actually set foot inside the Globe, as funny as that sounds. I’m not a huge Shakespeare buff, as surprising as that might sound. I think he’s a phenomenal writer, but when it comes to my knowledge of the literary canon, my strengths were ever with the 19th century British novel, as well as the novel of manners. Class, I think; I’ve always been fascinated by class. On the other hand, you have Shakespeare and J.K. Rowling: writers for the populace, concerned more with entertainment, and sometimes just a little too clever for their own good. I’ve read and enjoyed them, but my nerdy passions lie elsewhere.
In the end, we buy Yard tickets to see Doctor Faustus, a play I’ve read but never seen performed. To my surprise, Arthur Darvill is billed as playing Mephistopheles and this is turning out to the be the most Doctor Who-filled trip to London ever without having planned it. (And we haven’t even gone to the Doctor Who Experience yet!) But that’s all right; I am a geek after all, and it seems only fitting that geek gifts drop into my lap like this while I visit my home away from home away from home. (Three degrees removed from California, but nevertheless, home.)
We have brunch with Lou Reed Girlfriend in Soho, wander through the Egyptian rooms at the British Museum, go down to the National Theatre, and before long, the night is over. Early for a New Yorker, but about right for Londoner. It is 10PM, or 22:00, and I’m knackered. It feels a bit strange though, coming home to a hostel. Strange a little bit sad. I’m simply another transient here, and beneath my nostalgia, there’s a niggle of resentment growing. But what, I don’t discover until I am home-home again, after all is said and done.
- Day 0.5: In An Aeroplane Over The Sea :: More arriving in London photos
- Day One: I Am Not Fortune’s Fool :: More first impression photos here
- Theatre Review: Much Ado About Nothing
- Day Two: Oxford, the Kingdom of Make-Believe :: More Oxford photos here
- Day Three: Verloren :: More first day Vienna photos here
- Day Four: City of Music, City of My Heart :: More second day Vienna photos here
- Day Five: Like Being in a Fairytale :: More Salzburg photos here
- Day Six: What is An American Sandwich?