My morning began on one of the platforms at Haywards Heath train station, my head bopping to the Romanian pop music I had downloaded especially the night before and my hands cradling an enormous cup of coffee from the railway café. This year adrenaline has often felt like a hand around my throat, but before a trip to London it sits comfortably in my chest.
I was going to London to meet an old friend. I met Cat at university; we both studied in the modern languages department at Exeter but our paths only crossed at the beginning of our fourth year, after we returned from studying abroad. We were asked to talk at a lecture for sixth form students at one of the university's open days: Cat talked enthusiastically about her year in Cordoba, Spain; I mumbled about my many mishaps in Russia, which probably didn't give the impression of undergraduates that our professors were counting on.
Later, Cat and I would meet after dinner in the cafeteria at our hall of residence to distract each other from revision for final exams. Since we graduated she had been working as a manager in a hotel in Bristol. We
have developed a twenty-first century friendship, using Facebook to swap advice and gossip. Her perspective has done me the world of good. We shared so many details of a nervous, exhausting year that upon meeting in person we didn't have to ask each other what was new.
London's ethnic make-up is drastically different to that of any other town in southern England. The city's population is predominantly non-white. British culture is being adapted or diluted (depending on which newspaper you read) by immigrants from the Middle East, Africa and southern Asia, who bring with them myriad languages and faiths - although their sons and daughters who were born in London are as English in their accents and tastes as I am. This assimilation is visible: as an Arab lady helps her young son on to an underground escalator at Victoria, I notice the contrast between her chador
and the boy's designer dungarees.
Many people have reacted aggressively to the change in England's identity in the last two decades, but London is mostly a harmonious city. In its central districts, people treat passers-by without scrutiny, but always stop to give directions to visitors.
We take the underground to
St. Paul's Cathedral. I was looking forward to seeing the view of central London from the top, but the price of the entry ticket put us off. Later, when making plans for New Year, I would find out that it is cheaper to fly from Stansted to Warsaw than to get inside the cathedral. As our sightseeing stalls, our conversation gains momentum: as we chat frenetically on the Millennium Bridge outside St. Paul's I try to take my woolly hat and camera out of my bag too fast and almost chuck both of them into the Thames.
From the Millennium Bridge we walk to Tower Bridge, and then stroll along the other side of the river. In Westminster, protestors camp on a lawn near the Houses of Parliament and chant slogans about withdrawing British troops from Afghanistan; as clammy November rain starts to fall, some of them use their placards as umbrellas.
The holiday lights in London were already switched on, but the chaotic, generous atmosphere that makes it such a treat to spend time on Oxford Street in December had not yet formed. Instead, the scene seemed out of synch: people were holding briefcases instead of shopping
bags; red buses splashed dirty puddles up at pedestrians. People were talking about Top Gear instead of Christmas. It felt like watching an orchestra rehearse, knowing that you would have to leave before the concert began.
We take the tube back to Victoria, share another hug and promise that another two and a half years wouldn't elapse before we meet again. I had spoken more English in seven hours with Cat than I had in the previous two months put together.
On the train back to Sussex I am the only passenger in the carriage who is not going home from work. I put my headphones on and return to my Romanian pop. Some people take laptops out of their bags and continue with reports or emails; others half-heartedly peruse The Evening Standard or The Daily Telegraph; a couple rest their heads in the nook between the backs of their chairs and the window and close their eyes. A man with a silver beard loosens his red silk tie before pouring one of his two cans of Stella Artois lager into an empty Starbucks coffee cup and closing the lid.
One day I will learn to appreciate
London's culture, beyond the worn-out notions that it is simply multicultural, picturesque and expensive. The city suits me, and I could live there. But then, I was saying that last November.
- You can find more of my writing and photography on my journal
, including a photo gallery from Brighton
and more photos of London
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