If you’ve been reading my blogs for a while, you may have seen me write about this before (sorry to repeat myself). This time of year I can’t help but note the date and think back. After three years it’s habitual. Berlin, my brother’s wedding, then my husband and I off to dreamy York, then the volcanic ash cloud, then a week stranded in London.
Many parts of that trip went into a short story I wrote later. Watching the news nearly constantly. Planning to be there a week, a month, more. Rationing everything. Living on tiny cereal boxes and bread from the gas station. People sleeping in the airport, carving out their miniature societies. Bonding in our hotel lobby with other stranded travelers. Taking two trips into town, making our peace with the city we’d somehow come to blame for the whole thing.
For the longest time it was as if York and London were people to transfer our feelings upon. York was first, and loved because it was still vacation. It was everything I’d wanted after growing up hearing my mother’s stories about England. When the volcano began erupting, my husband and I were relaxing in the leafy back garden of a café, drinking tea and eating scones with jam and clotted cream. Blissfully unaware. Even as we watched the ash cloud unfurl on the news, it didn’t seem that bad. It’d sort itself out soon. We were sitting in a cozy B&B and we were surrounded by history and strong tea and people eating ice cream in the park. In York, everything would be fine.
London, by contrast, was complicated. We were unprepared for it in almost every way imaginable. I think it took me a full year to stop resenting that city. But there were good things I could identify even then, and especially now. Visiting the house where my mother lived at age 18. Getting my picture taken next to the sign for one of Doris Lessing’s old streets, while one resident of said street looked on in confusion. One of the best pizzas I’ve ever eaten, and digesting it beside The Serpentine. An hour in the National Gallery. The very touristy double-decker bus tour that was actually a lot of fun.
And there were smaller things, too, the kind of things that I didn’t like at the time, or didn’t think I’d ever miss. Like how familiar we became with our particular portion of the Piccadilly Line. Or often-heard TV commercial jingles. That all the bus shelters had area maps, so we never were truly lost.
Maybe it’s because of this: There were people much worse off than we were, and it certainly wasn’t causing anyone back home to lose any sleep, but for me, at the time, it was major. It was important and at times very unsettling, and it was something I needed to make sense of. So when things became familiar, when we found ourselves making yet another Tube trip to Heathrow, or remembering the time of day Top Gear came on, it helped a little bit. In York we were most definitely tourists, but in London we found a strange normalcy. And when your home is an entire ocean away, your return date unknown, normalcy is welcomed. The more banal the better.
“My” London was a disjointed, mostly boring London, but after three years I’ve more than made my peace with it. I miss it now. I miss the people sprawled on the steps of the National Gallery, their faces lifted to the sun. I miss the tour bus driver who joked that we were about to “pass the Duchy on the left-hand side.” I miss the little fragments of the city I could have explored in another time, under a clearer sky.