London is no respecter of time. Five years have flashed by, until I am now left with the final page of my calendar where the red inky crosses are getting closer to my final departure date. I will return to Northern Ireland, perhaps never to return to a place I had always dreamt of living.
Growing up in Belfast, my family made infrequent trips to the city and I was allowed to explore alone from a young age. Then riding the tube alone seemed exciting, every stop seemed to signify a beautiful monument or park as I wandered aimlessly. Long before I had discovered the reality of zone 4 on a rainy Saturday night. The relentless rush of the city appeared exotic compared to the slower pace of Belfast. I didn’t even care that I returned home in a thin layer of grime, it was somewhere I was sure I would live one day.
The fascination continued into my adulthood. I eventually arrived at the age of 23. I navigated job interviews and ruthless estate agents, eventually settling into a haphazard routine. On evening jogs, I would sidestep broken glass and look up and see the splendour of the Southbank lit up at night. The contrast was always there. At times I would walk in a trance, pinching myself that this city was my playground, at other times there was a clawing loneliness as I felt isolated and overwhelmed in a city that never stops to check if you are feeling ok.
The world comes to London. Within a few tube stops, there are thriving Caribbean, French, Indian, Portuguese, Chinese communities. My eyes have been opened to new food and culture without having to leave the central line. It is hard to define the consummate Londoner. It’s impossible. The cockney kings and queens of the past have been replaced by a curious global citizen that defines the transient nature of the city.
You may change living here. You can become hardened and supicious when encountering strangers. Or find it hard to travel anywhere without comparing it as an inferior version of London. Try to avoid both of these things if at all possible.
I want to remember some of the happiest years of my life. Friendships from university and school were solidified and I made new ones from all over the world. Flats across the city became open house parties every weekends, an excuse was never needed. There were new people to meet and better still, places to explore. Art galleries, French films you don’t really understand, theatres,football teams to adopt and night buses to navigate. I loved to get lost, wandering in new neighbourhoods, seeing things for the first and last time, ready to explore somewhere different the next weekend armed with stories for the office on Monday.
At times, I wrote in my diary that London had lost its lustre. A clumsy sentence perhaps, but it just meant that I was exhausted. Exhausted from long hours at work, navigating and battling suffocating crowds on the street and underground, before eventually getting home to rest. Thankfully, these entries were infrequent. A week of frustration would normally give way to one of endless possibilities and opportunities that were only possible in the greatest city to be young, London. I am thankful I had the opportunity to be part of it.