I’ve been asked a lot about my experience in London. How is the city? What do you think of Londoners? Well, those are difficult questions, and I’m not going to answer them. Instead, I’ll tell you my story of London.
After a 12 hour flight from LAX, I got off the plane, went through customs within 10 minutes (which always took me more than an hour in the U.S.), and stepped into the lobby of Heathrow. I had watched Love Actually on the plane for two hours. I was disappointed. There was nothing special about Heathrow; it was just an airport.
A cab driver was waiting for me outside the luggage area. I followed him to the cab, and I went directly to the right side of the car, puzzled seeing a steering wheel there. The driver kept talking in a strong non-British accent while driving scarily fast on London’s narrow highway. And all of a sudden, the old houses and narrow streets of London showed up.
I lived with a Malaysian couple and a Taiwanese girl. Through my window, I could see a beautiful row of traditional London apartments. My landlord showed me around the community. It was an Arabic area. People spoke languages I didn’t understand. Restaurants sold kebabs. Tables selling SIM cards looked suspicious. One strong feeling occurred to me: there is no Londoner in London.
London Underground was amazing. The system almost covered every corner of the city. The train came every 10-15 minutes, and every 2 minutes during the rush hours. Usually you could find a seat if you wanted to, even at the busiest times, but a typical Londoner stood in the train with the newspaper in his hand. It was a skill to fold your paper nicely and quickly on a moving train. I learned to do that after a week. When I’m asked about Londoners, it’s always the first image that comes to my mind.
I preferred to take a bus if I was not in a hurry. When taking the Tube, the city was a combination of spots, but when taking the bus, the city flew in front of me. I loved to go to the second floor of the bus, sit in the front row if possible, watch people walking on the streets, and see the rain dropping on the window. No one read on the bus. There were too many sights to see through the window.
After I got to know more streets by travelling on the bus, I started to walk. London was “walkable”. Two of my favorite routes were from Chinatown to Paddington via Hyde Park, and from Southwark to San Paul via Millennium Bridge. The night before I left London, I walked along the Thames from Embankment to Big Ben, and I finally felt London was my city. Knowing the streets in a city is important for me, and walking is no doubt the best way to understand the streets.
Seeing the Sights
My feeling about “no Londoner in London” didn’t fade away in the first few days. It actually grew even stronger after I visited Westminster Abbey and the British Museum. I met many more people from Europe, Asia, and America than people born in this country. I was not surprised to see tourists from all around the world, because there were so many to see in London: Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Hyde Park, Abbey Road, and numerous free museums and gallerias. Can you imagine seeing Van Gogh’s Sunflowers for free? Londoners can. Everyone can find his/her places to visit in London. I stayed in London for two months and went out almost every weekend for sightseeing. When I left, there were still many names not checked on my list.
Earning One’s Keep
Working at a children’s charity allowed me to witness another side of London. Like all the large cities in the world, many people came to London for a better life, but not all of them could achieve their dreams. Adults could survive by working harder and lowering their living standards, but their children’s lives could be true miseries.
It was a privilege to work with people who love and care about those children. I worked with some famous people in London. Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of our company, was a lovely personality. Damien Hirst, who I assumed a phyco after I visited the Tate Modern, turned out to be really friendly to children. The working experience made London a three-dimensional city.
Putting on a Show
I finally met Londoners when I went to different shows. I went to the Royal Opera House to watch ballet; stood in the Globe Theatre to watch Henry V; sat in the Palace Theatre to watch Singin’ in the Rain. Shows are a habit of Londoners. They get off work, go to Pret to grab some food, and step into a theater to enjoy a good musical. That was called “life”. This became one of my standards to recognize a Londoner: they enjoy shows.
I was told London people were not nice, but people were nice to me. Conversations could start anywhere. I talked with cab drivers, restaurants workers, Chelsea staffs, Tower of London guards, artists at the Royal Academy, sports fans in pubs. And one time, a fellow tried to pick me up!
It was very different being in London for two weeks than working there for two months. I learned exactly where on the platform I should stand for a faster change of lines. I could fold my paper properly in the moving train. I looked up to the right directions for traffic. I walked from Chinatown back to Paddington without a map. I drank different beers in more than 10 pubs. I watched several soccer games and one rugby match. I cheered for students in the Royal Ballet School. I became a part of the city.
Who is a Londoner? Here is my definition: you read a paper on the Tube; you talk about the weather; you enjoy the shows and sports; you buy something from TESCO; you walk on the streets in the summer night at least once.
Do you need to love this city? No. But you live a vibrant life here. If you are tired of London, you’re tired of life. That is true.
*All subtitles are from Craig Taylor’s book Londoners.