Saturday, 17 November 2018

London in Small Doses

I will never get tired of London, the British capital that is a foreign land to the rest of the country, but my feelings about it has always been that of ambivalence.

Whenever I visit, I am always drawn to the city's throbbing, thriving beat where everything seem to be happening at the same time. But every visit is unique - a discovery of a different street, a new perspective, a changed mind-set - that it always feel like I have been on a long journey away and became a different person because of it.

From my northern English city of Sheffield, it only takes two hours to reach St. Pancras International where a busy mix of travellers converge. During the autumn term break we found ourselves there.

How to spend 2 hours on the train.
We wanted Isaac to experience the big city because at five, he has become more aware of the many different countries there are in the world (thanks to FIFA World Cup 2018 and his visits to the Philippines, Spain and Germany earlier this year).
Isaac: "Is London another country?"
Daddy: "No, it's in England (but thinking, I won't believe it either)."
Our B&B was located in Hammersmith in west London, in an area that is as residential as it was touristy with a good mix of local shops, restaurants and cafes.

There was a public park close to us and we had lunch there on a Saturday because the sun was out and it was warm for November. There were many families about and Isaac ran around with the other children but very few of them spoke English. We wondered if they were tourists like us too or if this is really a representative of London's demographics where white English families have now become a minority. Would we ourselves be capable and attracted to bringing up children here?

We took the tube to go around and if Isaac would be asked what his favourite experience was, it would probably be that - running to catch the train in the underground, reading the Tube map and counting how many more stops before our destination.

On some of our underground journeys, we saw teenagers on smart uniforms with their younger siblings get on-board a busy train. The older ones were engaged in friendly banter, while their younger siblings read books. We marvelled then at how different life is for suburbanites like us where school can be easily reached on foot and then we pondered at where they would find themselves eventually. Having already made it to London where a lot of aspirational young Northerners would probably want to escape to, what more would they aspire for?

Trips to this city occasionally brings out my FOMO, that sickening niggling feeling that I am somehow missing out on life. It comes out when I see university students piling out of their prestigious universities working hard for their bright exciting futures. It peaks when I see smartly dressed women strutting out on the street as though they have conquered the world. London epitomizes youthful dreams and their successful realisations. Never mind that reality is more than that, with high costs of living, expensive rents and a competitive workforce that filters out the less ambitious.

We were one of those. London was our road not taken. Shortly after we got married, John had been shortlisted for a job interview at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in the most expensive part of London. We were excited at the idea but when he didn't get the job, we also breathed a sigh of relief. In another lifetime perhaps it would have been right for us.

On the day we arrived and after a short nap at the hotel, we took Isaac to the National History Museum to say hello to the famous roaring T-rex in the dinosaur exhibition. It was mid-afternoon when we got there and although it was still very busy, there were no longer any queues to get in.

Along with the dinosaurs, we saw an expansive collection of stuffed animals that got the little one asking questions but it was really the earthquake simulator and volcanic eruptions that he found most exciting.

The next day we took the Thames River cruise which gave us the river view of iconic images from this great city all the way to Greenwich.

In Greenwich we had lunch at the market where we met a man selling antiques who told us the story of his life and how he brought us his kids successfully. We didn't buy anything but we both gained a lot from the exchange.

We walked up the hill for an amazing view of the country's capital and on a sunny day, it was breath-taking.

We took the tube back to Hyde Park where we met my childhood friend Jaja, 21 years after we said goodbye on our elementary graduation. London is like that - a melting pot, a meeting place.

While walking along the Serpentine towards the Museums Quarter we caught up over the last two decades of our lives as though we only saw each other yesterday. It is always fascinating meeting old friends - the path of your life has made you a different person but they always remind you that you are still the same inside, and it makes you grateful.

We went to the V&A Museum to take part in the Mexican celebration of 'The Day of the Dead'. We danced to the beat of their lively music and took part in a conga line of happy people moving like a slithering snake. But Isaac was getting tired so our reunion was cut too short. We left Jaja to an exciting student life in London where she is doing a master's degree on the prestigious Goldsmiths with an invitation to visit our home in Sheffield.

The next day we went to Wembley, the home of England's football team, for a stadium tour. For a five-year-old boy whose heart flutters with anything football, this was heaven on earth. We took his photos with the jerseys worn by his footballing heroes and when reached the highlight of the tour - the walk outside the tunnel to greet the what would normally be an expectant crowd - he volunteered to lead our side. He seemed a bit too grown up then and even his daddy, another football-crazed male specie, couldn't help but feel emotional once we reached the pit.

Then it was home-bound in the afternoon with tube closures everywhere that it took us nearly an hour to get to St Pancras from Hammersmith. On the train back, we whizzed past the Midlands and then crossed the non-existent border to the North, where it is greener and the pace of life is a little bit slower. As the train slowed down to approach Sheffield train station, I felt glad to be back to my daily grind.

I will never get tired of London, but I will only take it one dose at a time.

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