I have been to London two times before. It’s not a lot in my well-travelled circles, some of my friends know London really well, some know it enough to feel nostalgia for it, and I haven’t even gotten close to finding a single London secret. The fact is: London has always felt inaccessible to me, in an odd way. Intimidating. The sky grey, the accents clipped. Not cheerful.
Of course, when my dad and I went, it was February. No one likes anyone in February in this part of the world. We’d just come from a conference he was doing in Paris, a quick stop in London to see my uncle and aunt and cousins. It was cold. It was rainy. We stayed in, mostly. I bought a large wool coat from Next (where is that coat?) on sale in a basement somewhere. There was a very tourist-y shop selling all sorts of dinky things (Beatles posters, Keep Calm And Carry On thingummies) and I bought my friend a mug featuring—weirdly—Elvis Presley. It said “The King Lives” and when you poured hot liquid into it, it said, “The King Lives In My Heart.” [We bought presents for each other in those days, whenever we travelled abroad. It was a nice tradition, I should bring it back. But you know, you get most things in India now, what is so special about anything I pack up from here, apart from the fact that I bought it in Germany? Oh sure, the odd fridge magnet here and there, but remember when your friends travelled and brought you, oh, I don’t know: cute tops or travel hair dryers, or colourful bandaids?]
Anyway London did not leave a very deep and lasting impression on me that first time. Not like my first time in another English speaking metropolis: New York. Now, I loved New York, the last and only time I’ve been there, age 18, freshly graduated from high school. New York was busy and loud, but seemed oddly, more open to holding me within it than London ever did. I did a lot of touristy things in New York, and I did them alone too, because I was staying with a cousin who lived outside the city on a college campus. I walked down the streets like a cliche of every character in one of those “I’ve moved to New York City and I’m ready to conquer it!” movies.
Why am I suddenly going on about London? We’re visiting for a few weeks at the end of this month. My time in the Schengen area is almost up, so we’re extending a little by going to the UK in the middle. (BUT! My visa woes are ALMOST OVER! Finally got an appointment for early November so by next year Germany and I can make it official.)
(Our last house guests for this month arrive tomorrow, and after they go, it’s a quick round of pack and also prepare the cat sitter for everything, which reminds me, we have still not gotten a vet in our area, because knock on wood, the cats are pretty healthy, but I feel like it would be a good idea to register with one before we go in case of emergency so I think we’ll sling Olga into a cage and trot on down the road to where I saw a vet’s office.) (Don’t worry, I also checked out the Google reviews, and this person has great recommendations. The only negative feedback is “they’re too busy!” or “they don’t speak English!” both of which don’t have a bearing on how they are as vets, you know?) (I found a cat sitter off this Facebook group called “Dog & Cat Sitting Berlin” where people who miss their pets often are happy to stay with animals for a few weeks for that Pet Experience. A Facebook group is also how I made two friends here, so you see, it is still useful for something, though my feed has long stopped giving me life updates of friends and not-really-friends-but-added-on-Facebook-so-long-ago-I-can-no-longer-unfriend-them and instead is serving me exclusively weirder and weirder “crafts” videos. Like it started out okay, the crafts were normal, but then one day I watched this whole video about a woman who split her skirt when she bent down and her colleague came and said “Don’t worry I’ll fix it” but then the woman takes off her blazer and the colleague is like “phew! You stink!” and gives her a makeover using scissors and an umbrella, while saying, “I’m doing high fashion” and all this while, the boss, who is just ONE DESK AWAY, keeps saying, “Hurry up for the meeting!” and she’s like, “One sec!” and finally she emerges, cut up skirt and umbrella top and everything, and he’s like, “You look nice, were you wearing that this morning?” and she smiles and gives a thumbs up to her scissor wielding colleague. And now I’m exclusively seeing videos about cement being poured on plastic bottles to create… something.)
But I’m not just visiting London, we will be staying with friends in different parts of the country, however I’d like for London to be the majority of the trip. K is organising it, he spent many years living there as a teenager and then later as a grown up, so this is really his holiday and I’m just going along for the ride. (If you live in London and want to hang out at some point, let me know!) I’m even looking forward to it, it’s going to be strange to be in an English speaking foreign country after so long, like, you know, I’ll understand all the street signs! And the announcements! And the understanding will be a little odd! (As I was telling my friend G who was visiting last week: I like that I can’t understand most German, because then it just becomes white noise, the sounds outside, the people I walk past, the supermarket etc. I have to actively switch on my brain to have a conversation in German, whereas in England, I’ll have to switch it off so I’m not pricking up my ears at every overheard conversation. But don’t you like eavesdropping you’re thinking, and sure, sure I do, but it also makes me extremely judgy.) Also England on the whole is so much more expensive than Berlin (I mean, hotels here are expensive but otherwise eating and drinking is as expensive as Delhi, and sometimes cheaper. Okay, Delhi is a ridiculously expensive city, the prices make me cry, but after crying all these years when friends go to fancy bars and restaurants, Berlin prices don’t make me bat an eyelid. London is like double that. I Googled “budget bars in London” and all the lists were “here’s where you can get cocktails for 10 pounds” and I’m like “EXCUSE ME? TEN pounds? That is NINE HUNDRED AND SIXTY SIX rupees. Call that a budget drink?” By contrast, in Berlin on average, you’d pay about 300-400 rupees for a glass of wine, 200-300 for a beer and 500-700 for a cocktail.)
Several days later: I stopped writing this newsletter halfway through, and then my friends arrived, and so I have been in a whirlwind. However, this morning, a free morning before we have to go select a new faucet for our kitchen sink—the old one broke unceremoniously—I have some time. Not clarity of thought, mind. My brain is full of things that are unrelated to each other, but the only way sometimes to get any writing done is to pick your way through a blizzard of thoughts.
Anyway, England. London. The last time I was there was in 2010, under very different circumstances. I was dating this man, and he had just asked me to marry him. I don’t think I loved him, and there were several moments in our relationship where I actually paused and thought, “Wait, why am I doing this?” And yet, I stuck with that relationship for three years. THREE YEARS. We fought constantly, I was frequently sad. Even now, looking back, I can’t remember good times. There must have been surely, some periods, when I felt light hearted and full of love? But all I remember is walking on eggshells, any moment could set off a fight, any nice afternoon with other people could so quickly turn cold as soon as we were alone. But when he asked me to marry him, I thought, wearily, “Why not?” I only remembered this later, mind you. In the moment, I performed every single thing one is supposed to perform when they get engaged. I waved my ring around (we chose it together, a thin ring with tiny diamonds in a circle, so pretty. But I remember the salesman who sold it to us saying, “There’s a good return policy.” And at the time I thought that was so crass, how can you say, “There’s a good return policy” to a couple starting on a new journey? But maybe he saw something in our faces, or his at least, because by now I had bought entirely into the fiction that this was all extremely delightful for me) I had a small engagement party, I told everyone, my mum started thinking about venues, you know, the whole shebang.
I was pretending so hard, I had no idea how I actually felt. I would’ve married him too, probably unhappily, maybe had a baby to “fix” things, maybe be divorced by now, but stuck to him forever because of the child? There but for the grace of god and so on. I had no self-preservation instincts at this point, everything that was happening felt like it was happening to me, like I had no choice but to drift.
Example: we are staying in his parents house a little outside London. I’ve come to make a long visit so they can get to know me since we’re, like, getting married. Halfway through this, he tells me, “Whenever I think of getting married, I feel sick.” Are we broken up? Our engagement certainly is. No one has filled in his family, and I feel too far away from mine to say anything. A healthy person would pack a bag and leave. One of my closest friends had just gotten married and lived in a flat in London. My uncle and aunt live there. I could have gone anywhere, I could have chosen myself, instead of holding on to whatever tattered remnants remained of our relationship. I told myself I was being loyal, but I think I was so isolated at this point, I truly felt like this was normal. You went on a holiday engaged, you became unengaged, but the relationship still existed? And for some reason, ending the relationship was the ultimate betrayal? I didn’t want to make a fuss.
This is turning out not to be about England at all, but you know how sometimes when you are unhappy or uncomfortable somewhere, it becomes what you feel about the place? We did do a lot those two months: Brighton and Cornwall. Too few trips up to London for my liking, but his mother and I did make a trip to Hampton Court. I met people I wouldn’t normally have met, and did things I wouldn’t normally have done. And then I went home to Bombay and six (SIX!) months later, finally called it quits. My mother had to come to Bombay and physically extricate me, because I was still stuck, unable to leave, and dying as I stayed. I was done with England. I had no desire to visit again. It was cold. It was unhappy. It was hostile.
But now here I am, returning. Twelve years have passed since I was that young woman, twelve excellent formative years. Of course, this time I’m travelling with K, and we are home no matter where we are, but also, I’m forty. I’ve been places, I’ve done things. No one can intimidate me again without expecting pushback.
There was one night in England, where I lay there, wide awake and lonelier than I’d ever been before or since, and I thought, “I’d rather be single than have to keep doing this.”
Why am I writing this, I thought just now, and then I realised. I’m writing this for you, if you need a sign that things get better, that you can come out on the other side, happier and healthier and undamaged, consider this that sign.
Of course, there’s a chance that all of you are extremely happy and healthy people already who have been to London multiple times, in which case, please send me tips.
If you liked this newsletter please buy me a coffee! It would be nice to make some money because my book edits are going very slowly *sobs in writer’s block*
LINKS I LIKED (& ONE I WROTE)
In my sometimes-funny sometimes-column for the Economic Times about service industries in Germany vs India.
The best death scenes from classical literature to pop culture is such a fun list.
Using dog walking to learn French. (I wonder if this would work in German.)
The dystopia of Sao Paolo.
Have a great week!
Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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