This is what I know about London: I’ve been there twice. The first was a layover, where my dad and I, with 18 hours to spare before hopping on a flight to Prague, stopped into a British pub. We ate fish and chips. We drank Guinness; I wrinkled my nose. We smoked cigarettes and popped into the loo and felt quintessentially, contentedly British. The pub was near Victoria Station. The pub was the British experience, packaged neatly for tourists who might wander in to eat fish and chips and smoke cigarettes (“they’re called fags!” I whispered to my father, urgently) and use the loo. I didn’t know this then. This is what I know about London: On my second trip to London, it rained. It rained until the tube station flooded, leaving me stranded at a cybercafé on the outskirts of the city. It rained until the steps at the cybercafé flooded, turning into a waterfall that gushed downwards, threateningly, towards the naked computer wires at my feet. When the tube started working again, I took it to the bus station, where I caught a bus to Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, it didn’t rain as much, and when it did, I was stranded in not a cybercafé, but a coffee shop of a different variety altogether.
This is what I know about London: when Zack, my boyfriend of four years, decided to apply to graduate school there, it was words on a page. It was smiling faces on a website and funny accents in a new student video. The surprise wasn’t that he got in, but that it was a real place that he could say yes to, and we could go. We could click buttons on Kayak and end up with British Airways flights. He could send off a check and receive confirmation that, in the year 2014, he would graduate, ostensibly a master of something.
This is what I know about London: these are the things that are normal there:
- Taxi cabs that look like chic town cars
- Eating Cadbury Cream Eggs year round
- Hopping on a quick flight for a weekend jaunt to Sicily or Santorini
- Pronouncing things so that they inevitably sound lilting and lovely, even if the topic at hand is the opposite of. Try making a British person say, “I’ve cheated on you with your sister” or “You have an inoperable tumor” or “They’re expanding the sanitation plant next door” and try not to close your eyes and sigh with content.
This is what I know about London: the Olympics are there. Whenever I’ve been near a television, I’ve craned my head, trying to see not the amazing feats of athleticism, but the inspirational filler shots: the London Bridge, the Eye, the wide pan of the city skyline. In the same way, I perk up when I see pictures of celebrities “caught on the scene” in Notting Hill or Soho, trim brick houses and wrought iron gates peeking out behind them. “Ah,” I think, as my eyes and brain seek context and recognition, “There it is.”
This is what I know about London: It terrifies me. It renders me stumbling and stupid; it is the first place I’ve moved with no detailed level of prior knowledge. I can’t tell you what neighborhood is the best for shopping, what neighborhood the best bars are in, what neighborhood I might get murdered but probably not. I have two images in my head: that of the bar, and that of the café. These two things do not a new life make (although, as a writer, I may be closer than most).
This is what I know about London: nothing, really, but I’ll know soon enough. It’s followed readily by---not yet. Not yet is the part that sounds best, that tastes best as it hangs like a swimmer on a starting block, ready to dive off the tip of my tongue. For now, I’m content to wait, to float in the tantalizing possibility of expectations. That’s the best thing about the future, isn’t it? Nothing’s happened yet, so anything can.