Yesterday it was three years since I first arrived in London. I wanted to celebrate, but instead I worked. To be fair, when I arrived in London it was the 1st of September, but only just. My flight got in about 11pm, and by the time I had picked up my bag and cleared customs it was pretty close to the end of the day. I suppose, technically, yesterday it was three years since I sat on a plane for hours and hours after a night 'sleeping' in JFK using my Macpac as a really dreadful pillow/mattress. I was so exhausted by the time I arrived at Heathrow, and terrified after the panicked warnings of an English friend I made in the States ("you're going to catch the tube?!?! You can't catch the tube by yourself at night! Especially not from the airport! That's where all the stabbings take place, night after night! All of them!!!") that I jumped in a black cab to get me to my hostel. That cab ride cost me £65, and if you imagine how my body tenses up and my heart beats fast and angrily at the idea of spending that on a cab now, when I'm gainfully employed full time, you can imagine how I felt about it three years ago, fairly close to penniless after three months in the States. A a point of comparison, my hostel was about £15 a night. I still wonder whether I'm the only backpacker to have ever stayed there who was deposited at their doorstep in a black cab.
That cab ride turned out to be worth it though. To begin with, the cab driver lived up to every expectation I had, fulfilling his obligations by being not only Cockney, but hating everyone. Including immigrants, so I, the new arrival, just shut up and listened with half an ear, my mind mostly considering the buildings and street signs I could see drifting past, stirring feelings of restless excitement in me as I recognised names and places from movies and books. Acton became Chiswick became Hammersmith, and I thrilled in my prior knowledge of these places (clearly, I needed to watch more glamorous movies and read more highbrow books).
I got to my hostel, a party sort of place in Russell Square, and staggered out and in, after having allowed the driver to relieve me of most of my wordly possessions as payment. Ignoring the party I went straight to my room and slept for the first time in several days, a deep, dreamless uninterrupted sleep that took me right through till about 11 the next morning, despite the best efforts of my fellow guests. Then awake, refreshed, relaxed, it was time for London.
I walked the streets the rest of the day, not because I was still scared of the tube, but because it's the only way to see things. I had no idea where I was going or why, but during my meanders I managed to stumble across Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, St Pauls, several bridges, and the Globe. I bought lunch from Pret, because, well, I had read about Pret in a book, and ate it in Green Park under the gloriously sunny sky, blissfully unaware that this was likely to be the last sunny day I saw for the next two years. I took my camera but took few photos, wanting to be a Londoner, not a tourist, wanting only to soak up my new home, familiarise myself as quickly as possible and settle in.
I fell in love with London that day. I was tired from travelling, I was exhausted after having been with other people 24/7 for the previous three months. 2 September 2006 was the day I realised how much I like being with myself, how much I like making things that I want happen, how much I suddenly felt capable of. Sitting on the grass in the sun, my mind felt clear and sharp, and my heart, recently damaged although not broken, charged with a new, self-inflicted happiness.
It's so easy to forget how I felt that day. London is a wood you can't see for the trees when you live an everyday life here, an amazing place that hides behind a veneer of dirt and rubbish and stabby children and homeless people. But the important part of that sentence is the beginning; despite everything, it is an amazing place, and I'm so glad I made this happen and made it my home. I'm also glad that flights out of London are cheap and frequent and reliable, that trains out of London exist (although are not cheap or frequent or reliable), and that I have my south-west London haven to hide in when London is just too much London, as only London can be.