A first time visitor to London may be entranced by it; a reaction befitting a city that over its two thousand years of history, has been researched, dissected, served as a muse so many times, that the visitor likely brought a perspective to view the city with.
After a year in London, that visitor who evolved to a resident may be perplexed by its rules. Everything free has been explored and there is no money to be hedonistic like everyone else, for the money has been spent on rent and transport. This despair may be dispelled by the friendships and connections forged in that year gone. However, realization may dawn on that visitor-resident, that there are five airports in this city, over three hundred railways stations, all serving as studies in how people come and go, treating London as though it came with a personalized use by date. Unlike the freedom that came with being just a visitor, the daily life of a young working resident may seem ruthless. Everyone is in a rush, the tube stinks of puke, the shower is leaking, there are too many hipster joints and everyone reeks of success. Respite may be found on the weekends, in becoming a tourist again, but that calm disappears on Sunday night, with the prospect of another week of a big city’s realities.
After some years of living here and getting accustomed to those ‘London’ ways, that resident may be overwhelmed by the city’s perpetual opportunities to indulge oneself. Feel like trying some Georgian cuisine? Drink a Turkish coffee whilst listening to some Hungarian Electronic Jazz? Enjoy a foreign film in an Embassy? Meet people from countries you didn’t know existed? Practise a new language? Enjoy the world’s best culture for less than a tenner? Visit the New Tate and experience contemporary modern art in real-time as the building oversees some high rise curtain less apartments and the inmates present themselves to public scrutiny? Don’t know what you feel like? A pub and beer lie in wait at the end of every street. You could get some brunch the next day and visit the Buddhist temple for some meditation to make some mind space for new adventures.
As a walker friendly city, London offers free classes in reading the signs of modern society – those bankers made a lot of money except that one in the corner of the bar that looks like he lost out, that couple that was distant but is now close, that couple that seems close but is at the brink of a break up, that ‘minted’ mum who is thinking about shopping at designer shops in Chelsea, that teenager just got fired today, that homeless man is waiting for the girl inside the café to bring out the thrash.
People at times dress the same and expose their secrets by it – the women who wear sneakers have high heels in their bags, the men who wear sneakers have been running and haven’t had a shower. For a city that allows so much freedom of expression and choice, there is curiosity in the comfort its residents seem to take in consuming like each other.
A few years later, that resident may be fortunate enough to learn how to break the shackles off those realities and see London anew, every day. There is no dearth of experiences or enjoyment, even in daily life, with or without money. The seasons change visibly in the city’s parks and squares, a hill round the corner offers views on transforming skylines, the annual ‘Open House’ event even offers the opportunities to delve into how the city works – how it avoids floods with the Thames Barrier, how an area recycles majority of its waste, how the rich and successful meet at secret societies, examples of research groups that reconstruct entire cathedrals on software because they wanted to see what it would look like.
London has the power to move you. At dawn, as streets lie empty, the last of the night revellers are taking black cabs home, and the Thames begins to catch the first light; at dusk as the streetlights come on in the city’s parks; at night, when the moon hangs low over Canary Wharf. Coming back here from other places may even be refreshing. The tube is still there. People don’t give each other a second glance or if they do, it is with the understanding of having have had some kind of common London experience in the past.
London is equal parts kind and indifferent to its visitors. It is harsher towards its residents. To surpass the boundaries of a visitor-tourist, you must learn the rules and your ways around them. So you learn how to operate with others and independently. How to wait two minutes extra to get a seat in public transport. How not to get upset by train delays. How to enjoy commuting. How to stay fascinated but not choose every opportunity that comes your way. How not to compare yourself with others. How to let go when you are in queue 1690 to get tickets for the Radiohead gig. The discovery of Off-peak travel and quiet zones. Keeping to the left and moving right. Not stopping in Zone 1. Walking fast in the financial districts. Walking slowly in Westminster. Being accepting of the fact that every human, tree, plant, bird, animal that passes through London changes the energy and flow of it in some way and you are but one part of it.
London is being disrupted and forced into flux with every passing day. Perhaps for this reason, there is strength to be found in old spaces like St Paul’s Cathedral. You, who have lived in this city, and are compelled to stop in your tracks every time you pass by, may despair that those first visitors don’t stop and observe enough, that those residents are too self-absorbed in their consumerism to appreciate this apparent immortality in a city and life of transience. But, there is always the likelihood that you were mistaken. For all around the cathedral, there may still be a sizable number of people, who aren’t looking at their phones or taking selfies, but up ahead or into the distance as though lulled into a frame of mind transcending this city, its surroundings or even you.