“So where are you from?” asks the girl chopping up onions beside me. We’ve been preparing food in the companionable semi-silence of a small hostel kitchen for a good few minutes: it’s time to have the obligatory initial travellers conversation.
“Oh, I’m from London, in England. How about you?” I reply – and the girl’s curiosity is piqued. “Wow, that’s amazing!” she says. “Are you really from London? I love it there…”
Why is London such a popular place to travel to?
Growing up, I never really understood the significance of living in England’s capital city. Between school, part time jobs and a typical teenage lifestyle, I didn’t explore London much – and from the moment I turned eighteen and left school, I was constantly hungering for places farther afield. All those foreign cities and countries that I could head off to and explore were much more exciting than the dreary familiar streets of my home.
But the more I’ve travelled, the more I’ve realised that London is almost universally viewed as a kind of travellers’ mecca. When I’m abroad, most foreigners I meet will either eagerly offer up stories from when they visited, or tell me wistfully that they want to. Walking through central London is like a global microcosm: people of every ethnicity speaking dozens of languages, all united in taking breathless photos of Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, and every single red phone box possible.
For a born Londoner though, these places are supremely uninteresting. I’ve walked, driven, cycled and stumbled past all of the tourist-worthy sights in London so many hundreds of times that they blend into the background along with the black cabs and the grey pigeons. The streets of South East London, where I lived for eighteen years growing up, are overtly familiar – and less than a month after I came back to London I already felt stagnant, aching for new and unexplored places.
Not travelling anymore means that new sights, sounds and experiences aren’t laid out in front of you. Instead, you have to hunt for them. So what do you do when things get too familiar? Change your situation.
A first-time move across the river
Soon after I got back from South America, a friend living in East London mentioned that her flatmate was moving out. I jumped at the chance. A few weeks later, I packed up my stuff and crossed over the Thames so I could start a new chapter of my life in an area of my city that I’d barely seen before.
For those of you unfamiliar with East London’s reputation, here’s a brief intro. It’s a place filled with quintessential hipsters – think beards, braces, skinny jeans, oversized spectacles and tiny dogs. It has a penchant for quirky little cafes serving Monmouth coffee, open face sandwiches and imaginatively iced cronuts.
The streets are filled with cyclists, graphic designers, and people wearing asymmetrical clothing who may or may not attend fashion school. It’s not uncommon to stumble upon warehouse parties and pub lock-ins of an evening.
There are also more than a hundred different languages to be heard on the streets of East London. The borough of Hackney plays host to communities of Ghanaians, Bangladeshis, Kurds, Poles and Nigerians. It’s an area where Turkish barbers open up their businesses opposite Mexican taquerias, and where Hasidic Jewish families walk along streets that hide raucous Colombian indoor markets.
It’s where signs for Turkish social clubs hang above front doors sandwiched beside Spanish delicatessens, and where the smell of salted and dried fish heads mix with the pungent tang of freshly chopped mango.
My senses were heightened as soon as I arrived. Gone was the autopilot that I’d unhappily thought I had to succumb to; instead, I was able to see this new and unfamiliar area of London through my travelling eyes.
Realising that just because I’m grounded to one city for the time being doesn’t mean that I can’t explore the different cultures that are already established here too.
Finding the world in London
Luckily, it’s not just me who’s intent on travelling as much as possible without actually leaving London. Ed Hewitt, a fellow Londoner, has created an app called ‘World in London’ which offers people the chance to explore London specifically through cultural experiences from a myriad of different nationalities.
Think along the lines of a Japanese sushi making class, or a night of storytelling from a Sierra Leonian musician and speaker – or if that doesn’t tempt, there’s the chance to learn about Georgian wine, bathe in a Russian banya or tour an Iranian mosque and enjoy a 3 course Iranian meal plus a bit of shisha smoke.
Ed’s also offering walking and tasting tours around London, and in just a few hours of wandering I ended up learning a ton of hidden information about my new neighborhood.
There’s the unassuming looking church that used to be used by a Nazi reverend for blackshirts meetings; the hipster-friendly Dalston Eastern Curve café which sits on the site of a Turkish bath from the Victorian era; the Hackney Peace Mural that Ray Walker died before finishing in the 1970s, so his wife finished it instead.
There was also a large amount of Turkish gozleme that we bought from a food truck parked at the entrance to Ridley Road market, and snacked upon as we walked.
But my favourite stop by far was an old department store building in Seven Sisters. Completely inconspicuous from the outside, until I walk through the doors and discovered an indoor market that is the closest I’ve come to Colombia since I left in July.
A bit of Colombia in London
We pushed through jostling groups of Latinos as they gossiped outside hair salons, music shops, cafes and clothes stalls. I could hear bachata and salsa rhythms coming from black speakers hanging perilously above our heads and widescreen TVs propped up on fridges, showing scantily clad women in music videos.
It felt wonderfully familiar: the do-it-yourself, cobbled together attitude that reminds me so much of South America.
The strange part is that it felt so familiar to be speaking Spanish with Colombianos, ordering plates of chicharron and choosing between glasses of lulo, mora or guanabana juice – but then I had to check myself, and remember that I was in the middle of London with a group of wide eyed, non-Spanish-speaking London dwellers. They all said I looked ridiculously happy, and I was.
Why is East London so travel-inspiring to me?
I’ve always been a Londoner, but this part of my identity is resonating a lot more now that I’m living in the city for the long-term again. Discovering London feels different to arriving in another foreign city for the first time: here is a place that I simultaneously know explicitly and don’t know at all. I’m not just here for a few days, or a couple of months, either. London is home, and always will be in some sense, even if I spend the next two years here and then head out again.
It’s a shame that I’ve never looked at South London in the same way – but maybe I was never really aware of how diverse the area I grew up in was. It didn’t impact on my daily life as a child because travelling and the curiosity I had for different cultures hadn’t quite caught up with me then. But that’s OK: that part of the city is still there, whenever I choose to discover it again. For now, it’s all about the East, wandering through streets I’ve never seen before, and paying many more visits to Seven Sisters market to brush up on my Spanish.
And I’ve already booked myself an appointment at the Turkish hamam on Stoke Newington Road.