Exactly one month ago I came to London by car. “You’re crazy”, my friends said, “driving all the way here, and worse – moving to Britain after Brexit!”. These four weeks, thinking about it now, have passed by in a heartbeat. While the first two were dominated by sightseeing, settling down, and getting a grip on London living, I am now in my second week of studies and still, well, sightseeing, settling down and getting a grip on London living.
London kind of ran over me, despite all the time I had to prepare for it. I guess, for a city like London, there is no such thing as “preparing for it”. London is like this massive, endless carousel you can either hitch a ride on, or take your distance from. If you choose the first option, you will be shaken and jostled: by its pace, its leisureliness in certain aspects, by the prices, the impressions, the different cultural landscape, the diversity, by the completely different way of life.
It probably takes a while to get adjusted to all of this. Probably. But maybe it is also impossible to get used to it entirely: it will always be disorientating and confusing, never offering the possibility of sitting back and enjoying one’s achievements. You either endure this way of life and learn to live with this uncertainty, or you eventually disembark.
I live in Peckham, South-East London. An area that wasn’t really the best address to move to a few years back. “Pretty much suicidal”, in the words of someone who moved abroad 15 years ago. Nowadays Peckham is partially gentrified, but obviously worlds apart from the magnificent architecture and powerful atmosphere of somewhere like Westminster. Peckham is rather calm and green, almost rural, with its small high street providing everything you need: a grocery shop, a butcher, a typical cafe serving English breakfasts, a few good pubs as well as restaurants, and a handful of lovely shops. I can actually walk there in less than five minutes. Then there is the more lively area around Peckham Rye Station, where trendy cafes are scattered among the exotic atmosphere of African shops and the scent of freshly roasted coffee meets raw meat. Countless barbers take care of the large African community; hairs dot the floor among pallets laden with all the fresh fruit sold here.
At night, when the pubs are closed, it is not unlikely to meet foxes. Huge foxes, that are a plague here, but that I find so magical and exceptional, like hardly anything else in London. There is so much going on here that at the beginning I was confused: how safe am I here? Incidentally, my phone is missing, but I am pretty sure I lost it myself. I recall having pulled it out and staring at it lost in thought, trying to figure out where to go – people kept approaching me, but not because of the phone, but to ask “Hey, are you lost?”.
There is no chance of getting properly lost in Peckham, it’s too small and easy to navigate around. Is this still London? I tend to forget. But whenever I look up north and there are no buildings obscuring my view I am reminded: there’s the Shard, looking down from all the way up there, a constant reminder that the homely atmosphere of Peckham is deceptive. Peckham is part of something bigger, of something bigger that I tend to forget when walking around. To me it is reassuring to know that the buzz of central London is at a certain distance, whilst also knowing that I could dive right into it if I wanted.
Now that I have been here for four weeks I feel quite settled in Peckham. But whenever I get onto the Overground and disembark a few minutes later, right in the hustle of central London, everything comes back again: the unknown, the disorientation, the question-marks. It’s a hustle that is intoxicating, it manages to make me marvel every time, and I only realise how exhausting it is when I get back home. It’s a similar feeling to the buzzing sound in your ears when you leave a club. Of course, in some ways even the sightseeing becomes a routine, and thanks to Google Maps navigating is easier than ever before, so in general I already feel quite at home. But there are still always moments like last night.
After wandering around the Tate Modern for two hours in the evening, I left the building to catch a bus to Dalston. A few metres further I found myself crossing the Millennium Bridge, with the mighty Tate behind me, surrounded by the Thames, and all the small glittering lights from the office buildings where people were still working. In front of me stood the lit-up St. Paul’s Cathedral. And then it hit me: I am in London. I suddenly felt very small and at the same moment sensed this huge city – with its millions of streets, pubs, and people – take a deep breath, pulsate, and stretch to its full extent around me.
My phone might be lost somewhere in London’s underworld, swept away in the hustle and bustle. But even when I am lost from time to time I still feel like I am exactly where I should be. And this might be what’s so magical about London.