I lived in London on two separate occasions at the beginning of the millennium. Both times were in North London, zone 2 on the tube map.
There’s something about the air in London that’s different from the air in my native Finland. I’m not talking about pollution, although maybe that was one factor. There was something magical and invigorating about the air that made me want to live there forever, in spite of the millions of people cramming into the same small space to enjoy the same amenities and to go to the same nightclub.
I loved London because it was full of history, full of the future, and full of life, not like Helsinki with its tiny population of half a million. I loved the busy railway stations like Kings Cross St. Pancras, and the crowded coffee shops, and the pubs that were so chock-full after five that most of the punters had to stand outside on the pavement with their pint glasses, laughing and chattering in their pinstripe suits, but no one was bothered since it was London and even standing up was exhilarating.
I worked first as a barmaid and later on as a coffee girl. I didn’t exactly love my jobs, but there was a great attraction to being a part of the hustle and bustle, one of the people cramming on to the tube and changing onto Circle line from the Northern line, minding the ever-threatening gap.
Oh, and the British high street, one of the biggest of which was Oxford Street, which paints a red line across the city with all those double-decker buses going slower than the pedestrians most of the time. I once nearly got run over by one since I was so fresh from Finland that I looked the wrong way when crossing.
In the pub where I worked, we served exceedingly fatty food with low nutritional value and extra trans fats thrown in. I wouldn’t touch it now, but then it was delicious. My favorite was a tuna melt; half a baguette with tuna and loads of cheese melted on top. On a good day that was my lunch, accompanied by a half pint of Carling, kindly provided by one of the customers. “And one fer yerself!” they’d say, and I didn’t want to be rude and refuse.
Everyone badmouths British food, but unjustly. The Walker’s salt and vinegar crisps are possibly the most addictive thing in the world. There’s the ever-present tea, always served with milk, and of course Marmite. You haven’t lived if you haven’t had Marmite on toast. It tastes like badly burnt porridge that’s been left in the rain, mixed with dirt and then scooped in a jar, but gradually you learn to enjoy it until it becomes an obsession and you have to Marmite on everything.
London has some of the best museums in the world, and the best thing is that most of them are free of charge. That was why even I, a lowly barmaid, could visit them frequently. A few hours in the National Gallery were like being injected with beauty. I would tour the British Museum and stare at the Elgin marbles, the fierce statues of Shiva, the mesmerizing Egyptian tombs and feel like London connected all the worlds in its colonial cauldron and I was right there, in the midst of it all.
The parks in London are marvelous. I sometimes walked out on Hampstead Heath, which was fairly close to where I lived. I always thought I would once live in one of the scenic houses next to it, going out to walk my dog in the park every day. It was to be my writer’s cottage, but alas, it never happened. Perhaps once I’m retired.
On my last night in London, I went to a flamenco club with a Spanish co-worker. We ate some tapas, had vino rojo and I even went as far as showing off my flamenco skills on stage (which I don’t have, but they applauded me anyhow, since the Spanish are such an easy-going lot). Later we walked all across Regent’s Park and climbed up to Primrose Hill. We sat there for hours, talking and watching the sun come up over the city.
London, I miss you so.