London: A Reflection

One of ours, Emerson, wrote of London:

The best bribe which London offers to-day to the imagination, is, that, in such a vast variety of people and conditions, one can believe there is room for persons of romantic character to exist, and that the poet, the mystic, and the hero may hope to confront their counterparts.

I may not quite be poet, mystic, or hero, but a romantic person—or at least, according to one Charing Cross Road bookseller, a romantical person—I am indeed. So it is, of course, to London that my heart has always turned when questioned about ideal geographies. Of course, the flip side of Mr. Emerson’s remarks is the unspoken understanding that nowhere else can one, even one like me, really believe in her heart that there is room for my character elsewhere. It is with several decades accrued of this understanding of my makeup and relationship to the world that I headed off to London a few weeks ago.

I had been to London once before, oh-so-briefly (36 hours or so altogether) when I was a teenager, and my memory of the city had largely been blurred by books read and films watched. I was eager to reacquaint myself on my own terms. And I did. I strolled on the Embankment at 2:00 in the morning. I wore a glittering ballgown to the Royal Opera House—twice!—and saw some great actors perform roles bursting with desire and desperation, sometimes precious few feet away from me. I got vertigo at St. Paul’s. I sat in pubs favorite authors had written of hundreds of years ago that stand today and saw, if dimly, through their eyes awhile. I heard a bagpiper playing Vader’s March outside Westminster Cathedral. And I met dozens of people from all over, all of whom were in London because some dim but glowing dream had brought them to that greasy-bricked city of writers, statesmen, and lunatics.

Some things happened that were not on my terms, of course. I stayed much longer than intended due to my flight issues. I sometimes found myself howling with a foggy brain, poor sleep, nonexistent appetite, and even boredom. And of course, there was London Bridge & Borough Market.

But the thing about traveling alone is, you find yourself growing more resourceful. I solved my flight issues on my own and to my satisfaction, if not to my original plans. I worked through brain fog to read books and make plans and enjoy conversations. I found an unusual but effective sleep rhythm. I made the meals I did have the appetite to eat glorious. And I dealt with boredom by walking, talking to strangers, and diving into some of the neglected recesses of my mind and heart.

As for the terrorists, I watched how Londoners responded. I asked how people were feeling. I listened. I watched as each and every one of them said, “We’ve seen much worse than this, and they cannot stop us. We will not be frightened.” They drew together to support those hurt or those who’d suffered a loss. And they went on. It was a formidable showing of the human spirit, and of a city’s courage and unity. If I had not already been in love with London, that would have clinched it.

There are some trips one takes that ignite the mind. You find yourself having new ideas, brimming with inspiration, eager to get home and get to work on some novel, script, project. I can think of a trip to Costa Rica that fueled my only completed NaNoWriMo year; a trip to Disneyland that inspired the desire to work on a travel project that eventually morphed into this blog. These world-opening trips are why most people travel, and they’re exciting and renewing and fun.

There are other trips that ignite the soul, though. You find yourself filled up with love for what you’ve experienced, the people you’ve met, the way you’ve felt in a certain place, and your heart begins to break with the thought of leaving. Maybe you realize that there’s a piece of yourself that will always remain behind in the place you have to leave, a piece of yourself that had a moment or several moments of such unexpected and profound joy you know you’ll never replicate it. Maybe you had a moment of loving the way you see yourself in a new place so much that you begin to worry at the end of the thread that ties off the bound-up question, “What is missing in my normal life at home that I only feel this whole when I’m half a world away?” These trips are often less simple and fun, and often much harder to leave behind.

I’m not ashamed to say that I cried myself to sleep the night before I left London, though I’m at least a little abashed to admit that I am still shedding a few tears about it when I’m alone with my thoughts at home. Gratitude can be complicated.

It’s so rare that something we hang our hopes and fantasies upon turns out to be just as good, or even better, than we’d hoped. That we dream of a place in the world where we feel we must fit, just right, even when things are going wrong, and we arrive, and the key slides into the lock and opens the door with a satisfying snick. To know that what awaits us at home is so much love, but so much uncertainty, and so many years of enduring what feels like a bad fit of geography and a friendless wasteland, while what we are visiting is a brave new world that fits like an old slipper, a temporarily real dream—well, that was my sixteen days in London.

Dr. Johnson wrote,

You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.

There was a night I spent awake in London working out how to make it work. I told myself I’d call back the kitchen at the Savoy and inquire seriously about that job they so casually offered me. I’d search for flats to let. I’d dig up all my old fiction drafts and start revising for submission. I looked up pet immigration rules and tried to figure out which neighborhood Andres’ office would be in and examined work visas and considered how I would draft my resignation to graduate school and how long it might take to sell our house, our brand new house, the one we’ve never lived in, now that we’ve replaced the roof and chimney and are installing HVAC and ripping out the asbestos.

Even one as romantical as I can’t be so self-absorbed as to upend others’ lives that dramatically, to toss everything we’ve made together and drag them along to start over somewhere totally alien, just because I felt better there.

But London, city of desire, I’ll come back to you. Of that, you can be sure.

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