In my imagination as a child, London was a place of romance and glamour. I visited a few times as a child, usually only for a day or two, on school trips to the Natural History museum or the Planetarium, but it wasn’t until I reached my teenage years and began to think seriously about leaving home that it really began to appeal to me. Whenever I thought about where I’d want to live, somewhere full of opportunities and excitement, I thought of London.
After finishing university and starting a brief career in the film industry it made perfect sense to move there, so I crashed on a friend’s floor for about a week until I found a place to rent. This was a house in Plaistow in the East End, which I shared with another dodgy lodger and a pleasant but troubled landlord. After just over a year there I managed to hook back up with a friend from university and a couple of her friends, and we shared a place first in Gypsy Hill (lovely house, but a boring and remote part of town) and then Peckham (more lively and better connected to the centre).
During the four years I lived there (1996-2000) work was thin on the ground, so apart from occasional months when I had some spare cash to splash, I was rarely wealthy enough to take advantage of much of the dizzying array of temptations and distractions available. Nevertheless it was a stimulating and fascinating place to be, and not working at least gave me plenty of time to explore – I remember regularly making epic bicycle trips across town (back when I was young and relatively fit).
Visiting London again this year, several things struck me. Firstly the change in my own circumstances – now I have the money to enjoy all that London has to offer, but finding the time (and wondering what to do with our three kids) is another matter. I could probably happily spend an entire trip just visiting old haunts; places where I used to live/work/hang out. One thing I noticed is how different the people look in London. Compared to Brussels they’re more visually interesting. Maybe because London is bigger and has been a multicultural melting pot for longer, people seem more willing to express themselves, either in terms of cultural identity or just as a fashion statement, in strong, distinctive ways.
I also find myself comparing London to Brussels in ways which weigh in Brussels’ favour. London is a far more expensive city, its size can be a disadvantage as it takes so long to get anywhere, the transport system’s pretty creaky. On the other hand that size and variety makes it that much more vibrant and exciting. But I’m happy to take it in small doses these days. In fact, of all the places I’ve lived in, I usually end up thinking that they’re great places to visit for a few days but that I’m happy to be living permanently in Brussels.
There’s no place like home…