Friday, February 8, 2013

What Does Everybody Have Against London?

There there, London. I still love you.

If only I could say the same for everybody else.

London has always had its share of detractors -- that's what it gets for being constantly damp and grey -- but lately, it seems, nobody is on its side. I'm always meeting expats from England who fled the capital and the cities around it seeking greener pastures and sunnier skies elsewhere. When I lived in Buenos Aires, I met more expats from London than any other city. Two months ago when I told the sister of a guy I used to date that I was leaving Bangkok and my immediate future would be a tale of one of two cities -- Melbourne, my on-off home for the last two years, or London, my favorite city for the past 18 -- she said it was kind of a no-brainer.

"Melbourne, of course," she said, looking at me as if I'd lost my mind for even making it a contest. And she's British!

I'm pretty sure the London-based cousins of my Iranian-Australian friend Leila would have said the same thing last night had I offered them a choice. As I've done for nearly 20 years whenever I meet anyone who lives in London or has lived in London, I immediately launched into the same old song after Leila introduced us, singing the praises of my favorite city, telling them how I'm still toying with the idea of moving there. They both gave me that old familiar look, the one that says, "Boy, do you have terrible taste in cities."

"Why would you want to live there?" one of them asked before listing all the familiar reasons not to: the weather, the people, the prices, the weather. The other suggested I stick to my new tentative plan and check out Berlin for a few months. He lived there for years before moving to London, and he said that although Berlin winters are blustery and cold (just dreadful, as I learned during my trip there in late 1995 -- I'm still not sure if I didn't warm up to Berlin because I couldn't get warm, or if it was because I didn't have anyone to guide me through the underground scene, and thus was unable to experience its hidden treasures/pleasures), the spring/summer months of May to August are as gorgeous in Berlin as they are anywhere in Europe.

Ah, perfection! That's around when I was thinking of embarking on Project Berlin, and up until that moment, I'd been concerned about the weather. I can't pinpoint exactly when it happened, but somewhere between New York City and last night, I turned from a winter bunny into a heat miser. Autumn had always been my favorite season in New York, a city that over the course of 15 years taught me to grin and bare frigid temperatures like a man (except for when I went to Germany), but after 10 consecutive months in hot and humid Bangkok, I've been having a difficult time dealing with a strangely cool summer in Melbourne. There always seems to be a slight chill in the shade during the day, and the jackets and scarfs and freaks come out at night.

"This is summer?" I've been asking Melburnians, who look at me like I've lost it. They're used to cold, erratic summer weather, and whenever the mercury rises above 30 degrees Celsius, all of them start complaining about the oppressive heat. Oppressive heat? On one of those supposed scorchers last week, I actually had to turn up the thermostat because I was freezing in my apartment.

As happening as Berlin is supposed to be at the moment, when my friend from the U.S. who moved there in April of last year recently told me that the one thing she's still adjusting to is the weather, it gave me pause. London was moving on up again. Then last night my friend Rob, who has been living in London for the last year, hating almost everything about it (except for its proximity to far more desirable European cities), dropped the other L word on me. He said that now that he's gotten used to the weather, he's actually begun to love London.

Not enough, though, to fully understand my ongoing fascination with it. "What do you like to do when you're in London?" he asked, before getting to the point: "Why do you love it so much?"

I'd been asked that question before, but never by someone who claimed to love it, too. I'd never really had to explain it to people who love it, too. It's like when I took my mother with me on a trip to London in 1997. As she looked out at the city below from the window of our hotel room, she turned to me and said, "I can really understand why you love it so much." My friend Dave had a similar reaction in 2004 when we met up in London for New Year's Eve.

If Rob now loved London, why did he have to ask why I do, too? Shouldn't he just automatically get it? Hadn't we touched on this at least once in the years we've known each other? Rather than responding to his question with a question, though, I decided to try to answer it. What surprised me even more than the original question, was that I had such a hard time coming up with an answer. When I first visited London in 1994, and during my two trips (at least) there per year in the decade that followed, before South America commanded my undivided attention from 2004 to 2010, there were always four things I enjoyed about London more than any other city.

First, I loved the nightlife. Some of my fondest London memories are of evenings spent at Heaven, G.A.Y., The End, The Edge, DTPM, all my haunts in the Old Compton Road area, and other bars and clubs in the West End and beyond. Then there was the shopping -- on Neal Street, King's Road and Kensington High Street, in particular. During those early trips to London I always came back with nearly a suitcase full of new clothes. When I left New York to move to Buenos Aires, clothing I'd bought in London, stuff I knew I'd never get rid of but wasn't quite ready to part with, took up a considerable portion of my storage space in Brooklyn.

Then there was the music -- and not just because so many of my favorite musical acts are from the UK. For me, London was synonymous with music. Where else in the world could you hear "One Day I'll Fly Away" by Randy Crawford or "The Love Inside" by Barbra Streisand on the radio in a taxi while riding home drunk in the wee hours? I heard so much amazing music for the first time in London, and I had the CDs to show for it. (Randy Crawford immediately became one of my favorite singers when the cab driver told me she was singing that sad, gorgeous song.)

I could spend hours just browsing through the racks of Tower Records, HMV and Virgin Megastore in the Piccadilly Circus area and the HMV and Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street. More than anything else I ever did during my London excursions, walking around those giant big-chain music stores was the one thing that would make me pause and think, This is London. I always went home with a stack of new tunes that I couldn't buy anywhere in the U.S. (This was well before the digital-music age rendered imports as unnecessary as CDs.)

Finally, there was the theatre. I'd never been a big on Broadway, and in my 15 years in New York, I only went to a handful of shows, while I saw at least two on each of my trips to London. I got to see so many greats on the West End stage over the years, from Dame Maggie Smith (in Three Tall Women and The Lady in the Van -- not nearly as entertaining as her films) to Julie Christie (in Old Times -- the beginning of my ongoing obsession with her) to Ewan McGregor (in Little Malcolm and His Struggles Against the Eunuchs -- I was so close to the stage I could smell his cigarette smoke) to Kathleen Turner (in The Graduate -- I got her to sign my playbill afterwards).

I saw plays starring Macaulay Culkin and Irene Jacob (Madame Melville), Rupert Friend and Tamsin Greig (The Little Dog Laughed), Dame Diana Rigg (Who's Afraid of the Virginia Woolf and Suddenly, Last Summer), Kim Cattrall (Private Lives) and Patsy Kensit (See You Next Tuesday). It wasn't just about the shows and the actors whose names were above the title. Even the feeling of sitting in those grand theatres, staring up at the ornate decorative details and all that history, filled me with an indescribable wow.

But what a difference two decades can make. It's been three years since my last trip to London, and so much of what I used to love about it has become irrelevant. In my middle age, nightlife is no longer so important to me -- in my five weeks back in Melbourne, I've only been out past 11pm twice. I've gotten rid of most of the junk I bought in London over the years -- "junk" because I had to call 1-800-GOT-JUNK to come and haul it off for me when I moved out of the Brooklyn storage space -- and it's been ages since I've been able to stomach the idea of a day spent shopping.

Who goes to music stores anymore? The last time I was in London, in March of 2010, a few were still open for business, but I no longer care to own CDs and DVDs for the same reason I no longer care to own new clothing. They just drag me down and prevent me from traveling light through life -- and the world. I still love the idea of West End theatre, but since it's Oscar season, and I've been getting my fill of great film acting, stage acting just didn't come immediately to mind last night. And the last time I was in London, I missed the Academy Awards entirely for the first time in centuries -- it was the year of Sandra Bullock! -- because I couldn't find it on any of the British TV channels (of which there's an extreme paucity -- another reason not to love London). Maybe I still haven't forgiven London for that.

Hmm... Do I even still love London as much as I've been almost programmed to say I do over the years? Though from what I hear, it remains mostly the same (aside from the disappearing music stores), life has changed, and so have I. I'll have to plan another trip there soon to see how we get along now, but in the meantime, I probably won't be so surprised when I mention it and people turn up their noses.

"It's the kind of place that you hate at first, but after one year, you love it," Rob said last night, as if he had forgotten that he was talking to someone who already had a long history with the place. I argued that when he moved to London (for love), he already hated the city. I, on the other hand, already love it.

But how deep is my love at this point? Considering how much I've changed while London has remained mostly the same, maybe I wouldn't be entering London from such a different place than Rob did, which, if he is right, might lead me right back to love anyway. It could take up to one year, but despite the misgivings of all those expats and emigrants (from there and from elsewhere) who badmouth it, London may one day once again be unquestionably the city of my dreams.


Ridiculous Rob said...

Great read. I still stick by my question, although you're right, it's weird coming from a person who claims to love it. Normally with most cities, especially Buenos Aires, when people say they love it, I know exactly what they are talking about. However, there are SO many things to not like about London and SO many things to like at the same time. Any combination of those can affect how you feel about the city. For me it's the feeling of being able to do anything and everything, travel everywhere and live in a true world city. For some it's the art, for others its the drugs, and for some its the outdoor Saturday markets. Since its such an easy city to hate, I'm always dying to know why people who claim to love it actually do!

I think you should move here and try it out!

Jeremy Helligar said...

I forgot all about the outdoor Saturday (and Sunday) markets! I loved going to Portobello on Saturday and Camden on Sunday. But now that I hate shopping, I doubt either would appeal to me in quite the same way. There are other things I loved about London (the architecture, the history, the little packaged sandwiches), but you can get better versions of all that stuff in other cities.... It's interesting that you say there's so much to love and so much to hate about London. I've only heard you mention that weather. I've heard other people mention the people (they're worse in BA!), how expensive it is (like Melbourne!) and how spread out it is (like any "real" big city!). What else do you hate about it?