As I was walking along Shoreditch High Street last Saturday I realized that I wouldn’t be writing any more ‘trip to London’ posts. No, it’s not because I decided that I wouldn’t return — far from it, in fact. This familiar, yet unfamiliar, route made me realize that I can’t truly travel in London anymore. I will never arrive in the city in the same haze of excitement and confusion that I found myself in upon landing in Copenhagen. Going to a grocery store won’t elicit the same squeals of delight that emerged when I saw tofu in Germany. London has become exactly what I wanted so badly for it to be when I first saw the city nearly seven (!!) years ago: normal.
Maps of London aren’t divided into places that I have and haven’t visited. Rather, each map divides itself up into places that are and aren’t in my London. Some have changed and some are shockingly similar. When I arrived at Paddington in September to find that my beloved Paul had been turned into a Patisserie Valerie, I was gutted. Yet walking along Southwark Embankment is a wave of nostalgia. There’s the hotel I stayed in before I went to Bristol to begin university and, if you take the district or circle lines from Paddington and change for a west bound central line at Notting Hill Gate, taking that to Holland Park, you’ll arrive at the hotel I stayed at while I toured the country in the search of the perfect uni (it also happens to be the place in which I first saw Eurovision). Don’t get me started about the jubilee/central line change over at Bond Street station. London has changed a lot since I arrived as a tourist, but for me the biggest change is that I now have an intimate knowledge of the city, along with an oyster card.
Thinking back to my first trip makes me squirm. It’s like clicking back through your old Facebook photos. You get an amused kick out of the early images — dissing your hair to save face — but are relieved you when reach the recent ones, newly confident that you have improved in the interim. I can trace these photos as I trace my relationship with London, moving from what did I know about the city to a more nuanced understanding. What takes a city from being a place that you visit with starry eyes to being a place you know intimately, to the point where a map is an accessory not a necessity? Was there any moment in which my relationship with the city turned?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. Like any place you meet in your adolescence, it’s filled with the emotions of that time. Talking with people who studied abroad there — who have an old address as proof they know the city — makes me combative. I’m all too eager to prove that I too have a little slice of the city to call my own. They’ll tell me about their favorite location of Pizza Express — it’s usually the one in Knightsbridge, though what they were doing there they can never seem to explain — and I retaliate with the itinerary of my 20th birthday. Should the discussion turn to our respective relationships with England, I could talk the day and night away. It never does. Most people who fall in London do precisely that, fall in love with London. I, however, didn’t.
I’m writing this on a train, watching the English countryside speed by. I’ve made the journey from London to Bristol countless times, but each time the beauty outside my little window strikes me anew. You can keep your three-month relationship with the city. I’ll have my dysfunctional going-on seven-year relationship with the country.
My relationship with London is hard to pin down. I don’t have places I always go to. My memories are as intertwined with big tourist sites as they are with spots off the beaten path. I only just went to Borough Market last Saturday. Yet there is a piece of London that will always and forever be mine. Regardless of whether or not I have had, or will have, an address there.
Do you have an ineffable relationship to a certain city? Which one?