I learn within a few days that London is not meant to be pretty city. Oh sure there are parts of it that are pretty, very pretty, in fact—but unlike Paris, London does not exist to be pretty. London is loud and gritty, and spreads across the Thames, spreading far and wide. Maps are deceiving here. What is two fingers away may take an hour to walk. It reminds me of New York in that way—mismatched buildings of brick next to sleek modern apartments, modernity shoved into history—except for the fact that New York is straight and linear and navigating it becomes second-nature. I don’t know enough about the history of how London was built but the streets turn into each other, they disappear, they bend in ways that you wouldn’t think they would.
There are pretty buildings, there are ugly ones, there are ones that are decrepit and stink of urine, and ones that are sleek and shiny.
Our AirBnB is in a hip part of the city and people are clubbing from Wednesday till Saturday night. When the sun finally goes down, the noise starts up.
We go to many of the typical tourist destinations at first. We’ve seen them before, in passing, but we want to do them properly—or rather, our loose version of properly. We shuffle through the streets, trying to herd everyone in one line because we don’t have cell service, we only have one key, we can’t get lost, Tatiana and Mommy want to take pictures, Tesla and Tata stop to read the historical description on the side of this boat, I want coffee, we call each other’s names, we snap, we sit down and eat. The food is not good. It’s not bad either. It does its job.
We get a second key and things are a bit easier. We split up. I see museums. I love museums, I love walking along history, I love reading every little plaque and learning more about things that I never thought I would want to learn more about, even if I only retain so much after the fact.
When Austin shows up, we wander the museums together and I get to spout fact after fact.
When he leaves, I wander alone, my voice a little softer since no one is listening.
There are a lot of birds in St. James’ Park and Tatiana and Mommy and I watch one as it swims around and brings back sticks to its nest, its mate resting on the floating pile of branches. It’s hotter than I thought it would be. I packed for a rainy London, a foggy London. I got sun and blue skies.
We do the touristy stuff first, especially when Austin is here because he has a list and that list has Stonehenge and he and I take a train to Salisbury. The English countryside rolls past us. We take the train and we take a bus and we take another bus and we wait in line and there is Stonehenge. The people are so crowded around the signs that I cannot read them properly and my audio guide does not work.
Still, I hold my breath when I see it.
By this time, we stop doing the typical tourist stuff (except for museums on my end; I love museums) and my dad finds coffee shops and bookstores and my mother looks up markets and plans day trips and my sister plans her day around where to eat and where to take good photos and my brother tags along through it all.
There are always people on the street, no matter what time, no matter where we go—Brits, Americans, French people, Germans, punks, hipsters, street performers who do a good job, street performers wearing knock-off costumes. Always busy, always loud, sirens, cars that don’t slow down, tourists who take up the whole sidewalk, locals who brush past, rowdy lads, polished business people.
Austin leaves. It is quieter now, I am spending less money now. My voice is softer now.
We go on a walking tour, my dad, my sister, and me and I am scared because I was the one who looked it up, who persuaded them to go on it. The reviews said many of the places mentioned (it’s a tour about rock n’ roll in London) do not exist anymore, but the guides are good and charismatic and knowledgeable.
The reviews are right. Our guide is short and a bit older than my dad and has curly hair, a big nose, and a loud, loud voice. He tells us stories, he shows us pictures, and when it finishes everyone claps and we can tell he is touched. Some of the pictures are his own, some of the stories he saw in person. He tells it to people for a living and they listen and they clap.
My dad likes the tour; my sister wanted more pictures.
We go to museums, stare at portraits that look right back at us, look at old Egyptian mummies, listen to a tower of radios always out of sync.
There are lots of people, everywhere we go, I am swallowed by them as we walk. It makes me feel small, but in a good sort of way.
We fight; we always do. We fight, but we make up, we split up, we drink coffee, we make plans, we play cards.
I worry about things that will not happen for days, will not happen for weeks, will not happen for months. My heart is always pounding, always caught in my chest.
There is a painting I want to see, the only thing left that I really wanted to see and I am scared that when I see it, it won’t be like I imagined and that heavy feeling in my chest will not go away and when I read the plaque, everything I thought about it will be wrong and nothing will feel right.
There are a lot of things I thought that ended up being wrong—the weather for one, a bright sun, blue skies. It is louder than I thought it would be. The feeling of enchantment I had the last time I was in this city has faded. There are still things I stumble upon that make me smile in wonder, in enchantment, but as I walk the roads I’ve trekked across these past few weeks, I smile a different sort of smile. I no longer look at the buildings and feel my heart pound in excitement, in wonder.
I look at the buildings and I smile because I recognize them. I know where the street musicians I like will be, when that one performer will show up, when the noises from the pub downstairs will fade, when the Underground station we use will swell up with people and when it will fade out.