London: "It's not the walls that make the city"
Being a tourist in London over the December festive period feels like staying on the Love Actually film set for a few days or acting as an extra in one of the Sherlock episodes. It is all shiny lights and wreaths hanging on brightly-painted front doors, winter coats and brisk walks in public parks, dashing into cosy pubs for a pint or to tell your loved ones how much you really care.
It’s roast dinners and shopping sales, the distant wailing of ambulance and police sirens, parliamentary buildings and clock towers, red double-decker buses and black taxi cabs rushing by.
London is a city transformed from the hustle bustle of everyday life to a ‘crazied’ end-of-year hustle bustle with a spring in its step. It is commercial Christmas on steroids; bright red reindeer jumpers, Winter Wonderland markets and mini Santa Claus decorations climbing up apartment-block windows.
As a young 20-something on a gap year in London, I thought it the least friendly of spots; impersonal and pretty grey. I never had much money, I didn’t do enough sightseeing and was inevitably working some dull jobs. No one looked anyone else in the eye, especially on the Underground. I learned to keep my mouth shut on the train just a few days into my months of daily commuting after trying to engage a gentleman about an article he was reading in the morning tabloid. “We don’t talk to one another here, darlin’!” he quipped. I was horrified.
But perhaps I was just too young to know what to look for, and he was just a grumpy old man. Because as much as London is about its majestic buildings steeped in historical significance, world-class (free) museums, theatre shows and iconic views of the Thames, it is people who live there that add a fire to its belly, graffiti to its streets and soul to its music scene.
It is thanks to this diverse population that millions of tourists flock to this great city year upon year to experience the almost incomprehensible mélange of languages and cultures, artwork and cuisines from around the world.
But I have got to tell you, I was not wrong about the grey. And there aren’t too many hours of sunlight in wintertime. But for the rest, London certainly deserved another chance. My second welcome to the United Kingdom was starkly different to my first. Perhaps it was simply a sprinkle of Christmas spirit but the immigration officer seemed delighted to see my parents and I, even commenting on my father’s deer stalker hat (how very Sherlock).
It was on Christmas Eve that we met John on the Underground. The train was rather empty and he obviously needed someone to talk to. Just a few stops later, we knew that he didn’t like the idea of chopping down a perfectly healthy fir tree to decorate his living room, so he had bought a baby fir tree in a pot instead. He was off to his mother’s home in the countryside to plant it.
“I’ve been told to bring no Christmas presents this year, so I’ll plant this tree instead. Enjoy your time in London, I will be seeing you again, maybe in South Africa,” John said as he got off the train somewhere on the Central line carrying his mini fir.
On a rather late return from central London one night, my travel card wouldn’t work, and the bus driver let me have my ride home for free. On that very same bus trip, we met a rather inebriated but delightful man dressed in bright purple who worked at the world-famous musical production “Wicked”. He regaled us with several anecdotes, many of which we couldn’t quite make out.
At Paddington Station, the 30p fee to use the washroom facilities was waived during the Christmas period. While strolling through Greenwich Village one morning, we spotted a family walking their dogs. One was wearing a large pair of red reindeer antlers.
At the formal royal residence aptly named Queen’s House, one of the museum volunteers spent a good twenty minutes telling me some extraordinarily interesting pieces of information about the animatronic head of Queen Elizabeth I on display, her eyes trained on the well-known Armada portrait painted in 1588. It was fascinating.
On our last day, we waited at the bus stop with our luggage. An elderly woman dressed in a tweed jacket and pushing her walking aid got onto the same bus and when she’d found a seat, she asked me if it was the end of our time in London. She had a magnificent mop of white hair and a twinkle in her eye. She only went one stop on the route.
As she struggled off the bus, she turned to us all and said, “I hope you’ve had a wonderful time with us in London! All the best for the journey home.”
During those ten days of walking London flat, I took thousands of photographs of the splendid markets, the Christmas lights, museum exhibitions, the river and canals, statues, churches, the cobble-stone streets, red telephone booths and postboxes, quaint pub entrances, sport stadiums and West End theatres.
But what has stayed with me most are the pictures I did not take; the warm feeling of central heating as you come in from the cold, the vibrant colours, the first sip from the coffee flask on a park bench, bounding dogs on the green grass, the laughter of loved ones, the flood of memories from my youth, and the crazy wonderful strangers who happened across my path.
*This post is dedicated to Tristan and Lauren who made this unforgettable London experience possible.