London is one of those cities that everyone loves. For hopeful travellers it’s a must-see destination, and many people I’ve met around the world get significantly excited when I say it’s my hometown.
“So you’re from London?”
“Yep, I was born there.”
“Oh! So you’re actually from London!”
“Yeah. Born and bred…”
But after living in South America for the last year, my intricate knowledge of my home city have taken a back seat. So much so that, when I touched down again on English soil three weeks ago, I had to deal with quite a bit of culture shock.
The problem with London
Arriving into Heathrow felt normal enough. I’d spent a grand total of thirty eight hours in transit since leaving Cusco in Peru, so I barely registered the green fields and small semi-detached houses that lined the motorway; more concentrated on fighting to keep my eyes from closing as I attempted to explain a year’s worth of travelling to my dad while he drove us back to south London.
Within days of being back, it seemed remarkable that I’d ever been away. Home life was immediately familiar: sleeping in a single bed at my dad’s house, a purring cat climbing into my lap at every available opportunity, eating a ridiculous amount of Marmite, bagels, English cheese and good bacon. It all seemed completely normal.
But London itself was a different story. With only three weeks to catch up with as many friends as possible, I found myself racing all over the city in an attempt to fit in with various people’s full time work schedules. And during this constant crisscrossing of London, I began to catch glimpses of this most famous of cities that, as a local, I’ve never noticed before. Almost as if I was seeing my home through the eyes of a tourist, and judging it the way any first time visitor would.
A lot of elements and details that were once familiar now seemed acutely foreign; and it just pushed home to me how much travelling has the ability to change you, and to open your eyes.
Time and time again.
#1. People in London are very self conscious
While waiting for a train on a crowded platform this week, I watched a woman playfully scrunch her hair, fling it maniacally over her shoulder then purse and pout her lips, either at an invisible admirer or at her reflection in the glass doors. It was about midday, and I wasn’t entirely sure why she was putting on such a show.
But it’s a common trait all over London. There’s something about this city that makes people incredibly concerned with how they look. Everywhere I go – waiting at the bus stop, sitting in bars and restaurants, pushing my way through crowds of shoppers in high street stores – I’ve noticed a huge number of women and men preening themselves and throwing out surreptitious glances to see if anybody’s watching.
Even the tourists are more self conscious – many carrying designer bags, wearing designer clothes and generally feeling smug that they’re fitting into the ‘real’ London vibe. Except in twenty-odd years I’ve never swanned about the Underground as if I was a fashion model.
Of course, this behaviour is very much present in South America too. But perhaps because it’s so much more blatant out there that I’m more readily able to accept it.
Plus because I’ve spent the last year studiously avoiding wearing make up and embracing the ‘natural look’ (ugh), being thrust back into a very appearance-conscious world again has made me feel suddenly more ashamed of my scattered spots and flushed cheeks. I’ve begun to care about how I look very quickly, and I don’t like that.
Surely an entire year of wearing a minimal selection of clothes and no make up should have more of a lasting impact than just a few weeks?
#2. London turns you into a hoarder
When you’re travelling, you suddenly revert to owning very little – and it can be both quite restricting and incredibly freeing.
And even though I’ve been living exceedingly minimally with thirteen kilos of possessions for the last year, it’s been frighteningly easy to lapse back into having so much stuff in London. Clothes, shoes, bags, miscellaneous possessions – part of me has no idea what to do with it all, but my greedy side has immediately embraced the long forgotten feeling of ownership.
For instance, I’m an unashamed bag hoarder, and over the years I’ve accumulated them from every place possible: leather handbags from Italy, cloth bags from India, embroidered purses from Morocco, and at least a couple from South America. And it makes me feel a little sick to realise that, in three weeks, I’ve been able to switch what bag I use every couple of days.
Then there’s been the sudden opportunity to repack, which has been both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I know what climates I’m going to be in for the next few months and so can pack accordingly – but on the other hand, I feel an immense pressure to get it exactly right. There have been so many trips to Boots pharmacy, electronic stores and various travel shops, stocking up on all the things I feel I missed from my initial pack last year, that ultimately I’m rather excited to just be back in South America again, where I’ll have to cope with whatever I’ve thrown haphazardly into my backpack.
#3. The whole world lives in London
The amount of people thronging London’s streets is bordering on the ridiculous. Everywhere you look there are crowds; at train stations, on the tube, glassy eyed shoppers wandering Oxford Street and Covent Garden. A few days ago I realised that at least a hundred people had passed me in the last minute, and yet I’d probably never see any of their faces ever again. And then my brain started to fizz.
But the over popularity of London also has a plus point I’d never been aware of before; there are a huge amount of Spanish speakers in this city. To the point where I’ve officially become a Spanish language stalker, and discreetly pause my music to eavesdrop on any Spanish conversation I accidentally overhear.
But in just three weeks I’ve also walked behind groups of Italian students, tried on clothes in dressing rooms with Greek families, heard flurries of Hindi in the supermarket and listened to languages I can’t even identify in every other aspect of my London life.
Perhaps being an obvious foreigner for so long in South America makes me more aware of it now, but I’ve never been so acutely aware of London’s diversity before. Not just people from all over the world living here, but active communities of those nationalities springing up.
So even though hearing so much English all the time is a bit of a shock, I know I can still usually find some Spanish if I listen out for it. Although it does make me dangerously tempted to strike up conversation with total strangers, purely on the pretext of showing off my mediocre Spanish skills.
#4. Londoners need their own space – and politeness dictates you can’t disturb it
Sadly, London is cold. And I don’t just mean the brutal January weather, either. Its people are renowned for having the most frosty of dispositions, which can easily make a tourist feel rather uncomfortable.
Long ago I fell into the habit of smiling profusely at strangers when travelling as a means of breaking the ice, and it’s now an intrinsic part of my behaviour. It can work wonders when abroad (particularly with children) but I can’t do it in London. There’s no point.
I was sitting on the Tube opposite a middle aged couple, when the man stretched out his leg and accidentally brushed the tip of my boot with his shoe. I mean brushed – the two shoes barely made contact, and I didn’t feel a thing – but the shock and embarrassment on his face was unavoidable.
“Oh, I’m very sorry,” he muttered, averting my gaze. Presumably thinking I was about to glower at him and switch seats for the very indecency of accidentally touching my foot.
The London Underground is filled with people staring pointedly down at their iPhones, Kindles and newspapers. You can’t so much as knock a stranger’s elbow when pushing onto the Tube without engaging in an immediate apologetic exchange – and much of that apology is actually for disturbing that person’s personal space. (If you’ve ever tried to strike up conversation on public transport in London, you’ll know how serious this interruption can be. We Londoners value our personal space like nothing else.)
Of course, the moment there’s any kind of disturbance to the London transport system, like a delay or a strike (ie a 48 hour Tube strike during my last two days in the city. Cheers, guys), everybody starts chattering about the situation and any progress in either overly jovial or increasingly dramatic tones, like we’re all the best of friends.
And speaking of transport…
#5. London transport requires time, dedication and patience
My dad’s house is in an area of London that’s particularly lacking in transport links. To reach the nearest train station requires a ten minute bus ride; and once I’ve caught said train I still need to ride the Tube in order to get further into the city.
Needless to say, I haven’t enjoyed the sudden need to allot myself an hour of transit time to get anywhere.
But I’ve noticed further issues with having to use so much public transport. Firstly, it’s hugely overpriced – a weekly travelcard for zones 1 and 2 costs £31 – and secondly, it makes London absolutely exhausting.
I watched a man fall asleep standing up while waiting for the train. I spot numerous tourists catching a quick nap in between stations. And when I finish dinner or drinks with friends at 11pm and it’s raining outside, I know it’s going to be at least an hour of train/tube/bus journeys to eventually get back home.
It’s made me much more resolved to get myself a bicycle when I eventually find myself back in London. Although that would also require a lot of cycling practice on closed roads first. And probably a very sturdy helmet.
An inability to settle
There’s a bigger problem at stake than just London culture shock, though. I’m secretly worried I’m on the path to feeling like I don’t belong here – or anywhere, in fact. I’ve always loved London: even when I came back after a year spent studying in San Francisco, or six months travelling around Asia, I was happy to be home.
So what is it about a year in South America that’s changed my perceptions so drastically?
Firstly, I think a year spent in a starkly different environment than you were raised in is always going to make an impact. It’s one of the reasons we travel, after all: to learn, change and grow from exposure to something different.
But secondly, this impromptu trip back home was never destined to be normal. Instead of slowly settling back into the London lifestyle, I’ve been on a time limit, never allowing myself to properly get into a routine, and constantly thinking about South America. My three weeks in London was also always going to be about seeing my friends rather than the city itself. Having the unexpected opportunity to enjoy copious lunches in cafes and dinners in quirky restaurants, drinks in bars and cups of tea around a very familiar kitchen table is something I’ve absolutely adored.
London itself, however? Not so much. Maybe I need more than a few weeks to get into the swing of London again – or maybe I need to know I’ll be hanging around for a lot longer.
Besides, it’s ok to get swept up in crowds from time to time. And looking at the overly made-up faces peering out from underneath umbrellas, looking terrified about the never ending rain and the danger of melting mascara, it’s made me realise I really don’t care about my spots like I once did. I care more about my friends and my family, and enjoying a few weeks of my cat falling asleep curled up into my shoulder every night.
It’s also been unexpectedly lovely to notice the differences in London in a way I’ve never known. I’ve spotted businessmen in black suits with bright red scarves; a street cleaner singing as he sweeps up leaves on a wet London street; a smily face drawn in the dust of a bus door. I’ve caught the happiness in a Big Issue seller’s voice when I stop to chat and buy a magazine in the middle of the Covent Garden crowds. I’ve been amazed at the girl from South Korea who knows nobody in a central London pub and can barely speak English, but strikes up conversation at the bar regardless.
These last three weeks, I’ve started seeing London the way that non locals do. Seeing it from a different viewpoint to the way I did before leaving for South America.
And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.