I booked a red-eye flight without any intention of sleeping through it. I’m glad it happened this way. I wrote down a few of my favorite things from the flight: The flight attendant drops her Rs beautifully as she says We’ll be arriving in London in under an hour. The M60 cuts through darkness like the neon lights of an arcade wall. The thick London fog crawls over the city, and it feels as if I’m looking down with my glasses off.
It is impossible to come to this place without some preconceived notion of what London is. Everybody has an opinion on the best of London, and yet, unique to this city, everybody’s opinion is different. Take the following:
Become best friends with a group of pubgoers, even if you don’t expect to see them ever again – a friendly retiree in a New Haven coffee shop
If you want to experience contemporary London, experience it in Hackney — it’s the one of the only relevant places these days. – a friend of a friend
Make sure to have high tea at the Ritz! – my financial aid officer at school
There is no shortage of one-liners that capture the city that Shakespeare and Wilde and Churchill once inhabited. My favorite so far comes from Peter Shaffer, who said, “If London is a watercolor, New York is an oil painting.” It’s never easy to compare two places, yet 36 hours into my semester abroad, I can’t think of a better analogy. Shaffer felt the softness of the people in this never-ending village. He picked up how this place is simultaneously swept up in motion and firmly rooted in tradition. Or maybe he, like me, was wondering why this place always looks soaking wet.
The quotation has special resonance for an American. Like a work of abstract art, London forces me to ask repeatedly: What exactly am I experiencing? So much of London is familiar, yet it demands an extra degree of thought. Take language, for example. Do I ask “can I get coins for this note?” instead of “can you break a twenty?” Will I ever start saying “rubbish” without laughing? I’m learning to just go for it, of course, but it’s impossible to ignore the subtle differences.
Nevertheless, these subtle differences produce more beautiful moments than awkward ones. Late this afternoon, I made the hour-long walk from school to my flat. I walked to the a grocery like I would in the United States and smiled when the gray-haired cashier told me, “Have a wonderful day, lovely.” I continued down Oxford Street to the sound of French and Arabic, different from the Spanish I hear in Chicago. Soon enough I entered High St. in Marylebone. The warm boutique lights and the cobblestone path were impossibly soft. My chest tightened in tender excitement. I wasn’t enchanted. I was seduced. After 36 hours, this is my London.
Xander Mitchell is a sophomore in Morse College spending his Spring 2017 semester in London. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.