A Stranger in a Strange Land

Last week I was in London. Which is very strange to consider, when this week I am back in summery Sydney, back to work and job hunting and fighting university to confirm my graduation. Last week, I was in London, and felt utterly at peace, more content and at-home than I feel in my own city now.

Image(St. Paul’s Cathedral, personal photo)

This is partly, I’m sure, due to the general peace and contentment of being on holiday, where the stresses and troubles of everyday life seem impossibly far away and if you try, you can convince yourself you never have to go back to answering email and cleaning the kitchen and skipping breakfast to make it to work. But part of it, I know, was due simply to the fact that I was in London, and to me, London has always felt like a home. Like if I could be there forever, the email and cleaning and missed meals wouldn’t seem so bad.

Mostly everybody says they love London, in my experience. They love Big Ben or Hyde Park or the shopping, and I enjoy these touristy past times as much as the next traveller. But for me, the real joy of London lies in the streets, the cobbles and concrete, dodging through crowds, snippets of half-cuaght conversations, a melting pot of accents and languages. It’s in the rattle of underground cars, the colourful web of tube lines, the maze of tunnels and platforms and the polite voice telling you to mind the gap. It’s the not-quite-fresh breeze of the Thames, the crisp quiet of mornings before the commute, the sheen of light rain that turns pavements into mirrors, the glass and chrome growing from stone.

While I did my share of typically touristy things – a visit to the treasure room of the British library, something I’d never thought to do on my previous trips and well worth going out of my way for – I opted out of returning to the British Museum or riding the London Eye, choosing instead to load up my Oyster card and pound the pavement between tube stations. I made my way, west to east, across the City of Westminster. I have always preferred to see cities from the streets, amongst people and noise and movement. I am not immune to a spot of shopping – there is nothing quite like H&M in Australia, and I took the chance to stock up on knitwear – but, for the most part, my days were spent exploring, often with no goal in mind, happy to wander and stumble across stores and cafes and views worth immortalising on camera.

It was in these wanderings that I theorised there is a delicate difference between a tourist and a traveller. A tourist revels in the unfamiliar, delights in the foreignness of their surrounds. A traveller prefers to adapt, to try and blend in and enjoy a place as its own people might. Neither is necessarily superior to the other, but I know where I fall. Crossing Millennium Bridge with my headphones in and my discreet camera out, a small part of me was pretending, for a few days, that this is where I belonged. I wanted to be absorbed into the city, to be lost amongst Londoners, to never have to leave.

Maybe it’s because I never quite felt like I belonged in Australia. Maybe it’s because a bare half-a-generation ago, London was my family’s home. Maybe it’s because I prefer the grey cold and stone buildings, maybe I was drawn to the efficiency of the underground network, or maybe I’ve just watched too many BBC dramas and have horribly romanticised a city that, at its core, is not truly different from any other. But every time I leave London, I know it won’t be long before I return. I feel to comfortable there, too at peace, to never return.

Do not get me wrong – I am glad to be home. I sorely missed my own bed and my own bathroom, access to my full wardrobe of clean clothes and my own brand of tea. I missed odd things, like home made lasagne, my usual washing powder and Sydney tap water. I missed my dog. And the first weeks of my trip, through Arctic wilderness and Scandinavian cities, was a wonderful experience, an incredible trip I would not have traded for extra time in England’s capital. But, to me, London is special.

I’m sure, in a year, or two, or five, I will find myself there again, hopefully that time with an ancestry visa in hand and an unfixed return ticket, ready to submerge myself in that city like I’ve longed to for many years. I’m sure many native Londoners would think me insane, and to them I say I’m well aware of my own ridiculousness. But while I go about my days in Sydney, back in the familiar humdrum of home, my thoughts too often turn to my travels and the urge to go back only grows stronger.

In the meantime, I am grateful for my experiences abroad. For a time, at least, they make me appreciate home. When I see tourists excited to cross the Harbour Bridge on my train, or travellers taking selfies in Darling Harbour, I have a little more patience for them than I did before. These aren’t just people pouring awkwardly over maps and blocking my footpath – they’re explorers enjoying something new, something beautiful, as I was a week ago in London, and maybe, just maybe, one of them feels the same way about the city I am fortunate enough to, for the time being, call my home.