The most horrible thing about being anywhere abroad is that you just can’t shake off the habit of constantly looking over your shoulder, no matter what time of day or night. That you can’t digest to your core the feeling that it’s really alright. It is: that you’re a female and walking alone on city roads somewhere a million miles from home; or bussing, or on the tube. And no-one cares. What you’re doing, where you’re headed. The sheer anonymity layered with complete freedom. And security.
Since travelling has become the metaphor for all of this rolled together — I’m not quite sure what the one word for it would be (or would there even be one word for that feeling), let me jump to the end right at the start by saying I hate coming back.
Anonymity, peace and the physical freedom to exist in one’s space all end on the flight one takes back. No matter where one goes. You don’t even have to reach your country to know you’re back. In this particular instance, it was a case of being back from good old London. The city that almost about everyone who likes to travel has been to, once or habitually.
For myself it was a combination of both, and neither, since I was revisiting (after many visits in the past) after a couple of decades or so. So London was familiar yet uncharted territory, comfy yet exciting. It presented the unspeakable thrill of rediscovering a favourite childhood haunt. And the immeasurable charm of finding not much had changed.
The city thrums to its own frantic pace, to the beat of the underground system, or so I like to believe. So much has been written about this much-adored megalopolis, that really, one would be pretty much bored at just the sight of what is yet another travelogue on it. And one can tick all the right boxes and write a piece on all the right places, annotating Big Ben, St Paul’s, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, and a museum or two or three, and be done with it. But that is not the way to discover the best cities the world has to offer. You have to find your own London.
And I did so. While I was at it, I did all the correct touristy things too — get lost on a bus (all the way to the other end of town), take a billion photographs, walk endlessly in the rain, take wrong tubes, plan endlessly and then end up doing something else out there. All this and much more.
Music, art, literary pursuit, or perhaps theatre? Or just Oxford Street, ad infinitum. There really is far, far more to do and see than you will ever have time for. Unless you don’t mind missing out on a lot of what is out there beyond your doorstep, in which case there does exist the possibility of having a laid-back holiday too.
Not for the likes of me though, north to south, east to west, the zones of London beckoned, and I was happy to oblige. From the beautifully verdant, hedgerow-lined, Hampstead Heath area of North London where I was staying, across the city and back I zigzagged paths.
If it was Camden Town one day, then it had to be the Thames Embankment another, the Victoria & Albert Museum, Petticoat Lane, Notting Hill, Chelsea, Kew Gardens, the gorgeous Kenwood House, Covent Garden, the National Museum, Southall, Green Park…or another place from the long list I was ticking off.
Still, my hosts insisted, after I’d burned a hole into one of my sneakers, you haven’t seen enough or done enough yet. The parts of town meld into one another, but there are so many Londons within London that you could be forgiven for not discovering even half of them on one trip.
You could even be forgiven for being unable to ignore the disparities. I could take the very desi Southall as example. Southall revisited was a shocking revelation. And not in a good way. This is Ichra or Anarkali bang in west London. You find here everything you find in those bazaars back home, and of the same quality. The restaurant where we randomly chose to sit and eat could be in Nowshera or Kharian for all I could see, down to the state of its restrooms. The many eateries lining the commercial roads were indistinguishable, really, mostly unkempt and shabby. This, then, was one London I did not wish to return to.
And then so many more that I do wish to keep returning to. There are museums to soak in, parks and gardens to lose yourself in, markets to visit, exhibitions to view, castles and palaces to see, and along the way the company of random strangers chanced upon.
There was the sexagenarian gent I got talking to outside a little cafe on Portobello road, who seemed to delight in making calculated guesses about people he’d never set eyes on before. So he tried to guess my past, and future too, while telling me his father had served in pre-partition India. Ah, the small world of a shared past. They do get rather surprised when you say you’re from Pakistan; there was the American tourist I met in Stonehenge who said “you’re very lucky,” after enquiring where I was from. Um, lucky to be visiting Stonehenge, lucky to be a Pakistani globetrotter…I thought it better to not probe further.
The rolling greens of Wiltshire nestling Stonehenge make for an idyllic drive on a sunny day. But then, you can head off in any direction from London, if, like me you have an insatiable appetite for the ethereally charming English countryside. Cobham, Weybridge, Harpenden, Bray and Adderbury — sleepy little towns and villages located an hour or two’s drive from London in the surrounding counties of Surrey, Hertfordshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire — are but a few of those places untouched by time. Best only compared to a summer’s day…Sonnet 18. This, after all, is the land that has spawned some of the world’s best literary classics and poetry in English.
A great deal of the charm when we travel lies in the fact that the world is your oyster, to peel away layer after layer of a city’s history, allure, and what makes it tick. The underground, for London, I said earlier.
But more than everything else is the fact that here, all historical perspectives are everywhere around you — you could be looking at the oldest signs of construction in the city — the Roman wall built around ‘Londinium’ (ye olde London!) dating to the late 2nd century, or you could be looking at the Shard. Completed in 2012, the edgy Shard, at 309 metres is the highest building in the European Union.
It’s all out there. You can choose any London you want. I’d like mine with some more sunshine and less rain next time.