When I lived in London for three years back in the late 90s, I reached a point where I spent most weekends trying to leave it. It was an expensive place to live and my salary didn’t allow me to take much advantage of all that London had to offer. (trans. I lived in a tiny shoebox of a flat and I couldn’t go to the cinema or theatre as often as I wanted.) I also craved more green spaces and fresh air than the excellent London squares and parks could offer. Which is why I now live in a house on the side of a hill in Wales, where both these things are in abundance.
But this doesn’t mean that I don’t still sometimes hanker after living in London, and I’ll grab any and every opportunity to go and spend some time there.
So on Wednesday morning I was up much earlier than is usual, all to spend a day in a city that fascinates and repels me at the same time. I’d managed to build in a couple of treats by booking to see a friend in a play that was in its last week and, the night before, I’d hastily arranged lunch with another friend. But the rest of the day was mine and I had no idea or fixed plans how I was going to spend it.
After lunch in Green Park with the friend from Uni, catching up on each other’s news while watching lunchtime workouts with personal trainers and the peeling off of office uniforms under the almost-warm Spring sunshine, I walked her back to her office and then had 6 whole hours to myself before the evening performance of the play.
So I walked. And stopped and took a photograph. And then walked some more. The same friend I’d had lunch with and I once went Inter-railing around Europe after we finished our final exams and we used to call this wandering around a city, stumbling. We’d find the tallest tower (open to the public) wherever we happened to be, climb up it and then look out over the city and decide where to go. Then we’d discard guidebooks and maps (until we got seriously lost and had little time in which to catch our next train) and just stumble, taking in the atmosphere of each European town or city we were in. It was a fun way to get a feel for a new place and often took us off the tourist trail and into our very own unique experience of a place. Admittedly, this wasn’t always the safest of options but sometimes you have to do things that scare you a little.
I still stumble to this day. I might read guidebooks and pour over maps before I go somewhere, especially if there is something in particular that I want to see, but generally I also allow for some “stumble time”, too. It has a lot going for it. And London is a fabulous place in which to stumble. There are many great things to see within a short distance of each other and cutting through the side streets or back streets or taking a street that runs parallel to a much busier or better known thoroughfare can often lead me to discover something magical and beautiful about the place I couldn’t wait to escape from all those years ago. It reminds me of what I love about it. I turn a corner and there is a park in a square or a house or a plaque or an unusual structure that makes me stop and smile, and just breathe. Everyone ought to try and find moments in their day for that.