My Dad says that being a Londoner has nothing to do with where you’re born. He says that there are people who get off a jumbo jet at Heathrow, go through immigration waving any kind of passport, hop on the tube and by the time the train’s pulled into Piccadilly Circus they’ve become a Londoner.
– BEN AARONOVITCH, Moon over Soho
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Ever since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by the departures boards at airports. Isn’t it great to stand in front of that huge wall, listening to the clattering sound of letters changing – airplanes taking off – looking at all the endless possibilities of places to go? I remember standing here at Frankfurt airport seven years ago at the age of 13, staring at the departure time of a flight scheduled for London Heathrow, not knowing what to make of my parents’ choice of holiday trip. Back then, I was barely able to form a coherent sentence in English. The only thing I knew about the UK was that its capital is London, that there’s some strange place called “Islington”, and that British people were very enthusiastic about going there – according to my English book, at least. It’s funny how things have changed in the seven years between then and now.
Today, I’m standing in front of the departures board as a soon-to-be-graduate of English Literature and Culture, having visited the British Isles on many occasions, and mind – I’ve never been to Islington. Despite this obvious gap of education, I fell in love with Earl Grey, red telephone boxes, and dusty Victorian novels the second I first set foot on British soil. But never in my wildest dreams would I have dared to imagine that this unhealthy obsession I was quickly developing with the UK and London in particular would lead me down the road I now find myself walking on. To be honest, I’m still wondering if this is not a mistake the universe has yet to correct.
When I finally board the plane to London Heathrow at 11:43 am, I can almost hear the relieved sigh of my friends and family who have had to endeavour my endless monologues about how amazing London is over the past years. In fact, everyone who knows me has probably at some point rolled their eyes about my annoying love for everything British and my constant input in terms of “Did you know that Ding, dong, the witch is dead from the Wizard of OZ was on the Top 10 UK charts after Margaret Thatcher died?”
We take off at 12:23 o’clock and it eventually starts to dawn on me that this is really happening.
It is only roughly an hour later that we break through the cloud cover again and there it is in all its glorious beauty – London! The Thames is curling hundreds of feet beneath the plane through the city centre like a muddy snake and the reflection of the cloudy sky stares back at me from the glass façade of the infamous Shard. No matter how many times I’ll be visiting this city, its first sight from an airplane window never fails to take my breath away.
It feels a bit like coming home.
By the time I get on the tube, it’s well into the afternoon and anxiety has settled into the empty seat next to me. Doors open, “Mind the Gap” echoes from the platform speakers, people enter and exit in a blur of spring air and city dust. It suddenly hits me that I’m now on my own in everything that I do and all of a sudden, London feels strangely big and overwhelming for the first time in years.
After another hour of awkward eye-avoiding stares you only find on the tube, I exit the train at Finsbury Park station or as I like to call it: the arm wrecker. After having dragged my 20kg suitcase up what must have been hundereds of stairs – according to my arms – I’m throughly exhausted. But the odyssey continues by bus. Next stop: Stoke Newignton.
Stoke Newignton, in comparison to the roaring city centre, is a heaven of tranquility and peace and every street looks like the very design you’d expect to come up first in a Google search of “British stereotypical architecture”. In fact, the entire street of my temporary home looks like an incredibly lazy architect has copy-and-pasted the same house over and over again until there was no space left. If Hugh Grant steps out of one of these doors in the next fifteen minutes, it’ll be as British as it gets.
I end up carrying my suitcase up several flights of stairs (but that’s fine, I can’t feel my arms anymore, anyway) in what must be a two-storey house right out of a Victorian novel, and to my immense relief, it turns out to be the right one. When I lean against the door in exhaustion (no thanks to British architecture), I can’t believe that it was really just this morning that I woke up in our flat share in Mainz. This already feels like one of the longest days of my life.
Unpacking and familiarising myself with British receptacles and – oh dear God, the door locks – are next on my to-do-list for the rest of this Friday afternoon. Who knew that the British have turned locking doors into a science in itself? And some grocery shopping, too.
It is now past six o’clock (GMT) in the evening and while the city is getting ready for a wild night of partying and celebrating in the name of St. Patrick, I change into my pyjamas, huddle up on my bed, and try to wrap my mind around today’s events while trying to write this very first blog post. It still feels like a dream, completely surreal and unbelievable, and if this really turns out to be some kind of mistake, I just have to keep hoping that the universe won’t notice.
In the far distance, I can hear the faint sound of sirens and a small smile spreads on my lips. Welcome to London!