This is a love letter. Love at first sight, I might add.
I remember one foggy afternoon, walking out of Heathrow Airport for about 10 minutes and staring at the line of cabs there, arranged the wrong way, and wishing I had more time to visit and get to know you, London.
Then, more than a year later, I took another trip home through London, when I realized that a smaller European airline is offering direct flights from London to my hometown. I was in for a great surprise! Who knew that there are not two, but four airports serving London? Yes, there are: Heathrow, Gatwick, Standsted and Luton. But guess what? The transit system, one of the most efficient I’ve seen in my life so far, covers them as well, when combined with trains. Anyway, I digress.
I landed in London’s Gatwick airport one overcast morning in September. Having had made a friend in Vancouver while waiting for the security control, I met with her again after collecting my small pink piece of luggage. It was good to see a friendly (albeit new) face. After picking up my train ticket, I stayed around a bit helping my friend out. And then she was off, being picked up by the hotel shuttle, then I was on my own in London. Well, not exactly, as I was still in Gatwick train station, but still, my adventure began! I had a breakfast sandwich with an English sausage (what else?) and a cup of English tea with milk (what else?), then I waited calmly for the rush hour to die down a bit, especially because (lucky me!) something happened with the trains that morning and instead of having 5 platforms going through Gatwick, there were only two now. It took a bit of accommodating, a few questions here and there, but in the end I found myself sitting on the train to Luton Airport, along with other Londoners going about their daily lives.
I recognized Europe at once: the houses all huddled together as opposed to the open (wasted?) spaces in North America; the century-old brick buildings mixed in with the new buildings in a graceful way; the well-dressed people who value a nice suit and a classic haircut; the wedding bands on people’s ring fingers showing that commitment is an important part of life. In all, I felt quite at home right away.
(On a different note, I know myself quite well by now, so I can say with a fair certainty that I was actually looking for a new home, never having felt that Vancouver will be the place I live my whole life from now on. I flirted with US cities, but the only one I found attractive was Seattle, which is basically the US version of Vancouver. And to go back to the East Coast again for Chicago, Boston, or Washington, which I only know from movies and TV series, is just not in my future. So I guess I was actually looking for my next home.)
Anyhow, because of the disruption, the train ride took a bit longer than I expected, I was a bit tired by the time I got to Luton, so I grabbed a Starbucks decaf latte and my book (The Martian, by Andy Weir) and eventually fell asleep for 20 minutes or so in the lounge. Luton is a very small and not welcoming airport, but I was on my way home, so I didn’t care much.
Exactly 20 days later, I flew back from Romania to Luton again, it was late at night and, once again, the airport was not at all welcoming. But I was in London, finally to stay for a couple of days, so I bought a bus ticket to Finchley Road, where I had to find a tube station (South Hampstead) and then take the tube to Rayners Lane. Everything went smoothly, from buying a ticket to figuring out where I need to go. People on the tube were very friendly, although it was a bit lonely at that time of the night (11 pm). I then took a cab from Rayners Lane to Penny’s mom’s house on Merlin Avenue (magic, right?), and here I was, hugging Penny’s mom and being welcomed in her home with a cup of (what else?) English tea. I fell in love with English tea right away. There is something I didn’t appreciate before, but learnt to in London: adding milk to your PG Tips tea. Lovely. A staple of London life.
First full day in London. It was grey and sombre, but who cared? I was in London! Ready to embark on an adventure by myself, to take the tube downtown, and roam the streets of London. Unfortunately, another transit mishap forced me into a bus first, then a tube downtown. I had a bit of breakfast, then I was off to the British Museum, one of the most thrilling and exciting experiences I had there. Hours and hours of history lessons, from ancient Egypt and Greece and Rome, to modern day currencies, and so many other things that will be there for me next time around. Because there will be a next time around, of that I am sure. I had a sandwich for lunch, buying it in a supermarket where all London downtown workers seem to have gathered, and then I was off to Buckingham Palace, then Big Ben, then the London Eye. What a magical experience! The weather was on my side and I was able to see all of London! What a treat! I went back home and phoned Adela, a Romanian friend I had in London, and made plans to see her the next day. I spent another night and morning drinking English tea with Penny’s mom and talking until early hours of the morning. Londoners (or maybe just those of Greek origin) are very welcoming people.
Day number two. I met Adela at the Waterloo train station and we went together to have a cup of tea next to Madame Tussauds, then entered the magical land of wax figures and took tons of pictures. We then headed off to Covent Garden, a very quaint and relaxed area downtown, then had sushi for lunch/dinner, took the double-decker, and promised her I will return for another visit. And, who knows, maybe I’ll return for a longer stay.
The night, once again, turned into a long conversation with my host over several cups of English tea, then we both started packing, me for home, and her for Japan, and we went to bed only to wake a couple of hours later and take the tube to Gatwick to get home.
My stay in London, albeit short, was memorable. And I thank you, dear London, for being hospitable to me and allowing me to dream that, at some point, I might call myself a Londoner.