As much as I love London I am often besieged by powerful moments of melodrama where I imagine myself running off into the sunset and moving, lock stock and barrel, to another country, preferably somewhere hot and exotic and with little semblance to the city that I love/hate/love/hate/love/hate.
My relationship with London is a bit like a love affair with drugs or junk food or your first ever obsession: it makes you feel so good that you are literally soaring but it also has the tendency to drop you from a great height, leaving you feeling worthless, small, an insignificant little speck.
I was born in London but didn’t live here until my twenties. More than ten years later it feels like home. Sometimes the sense of familiarity and belonging is so strong, so powerful that it leaves me a little breathless and I wonder if I will ever be able to escape its grasp. I say ‘escape’ as if I am being kept prisoner like Rapunzel in a concrete tower, but nobody is holding me here against my will.
I love London for many reasons. I love the old, gentrified buildings, the graffiti, the multi-ethnicity, the constant source of things to do, the fact that you can eat any type of food: pad thai, cream teas, dhansak curries, soya lattes, wheat free brownies, sushi, dim sum, samosas, dolma, roast dinners. I love London for its dirty nights out and its summer park days. The walks on the Heath, the drinks in Soho, the coffees on Portobello; the house parties that end at 8 am.
The things I hate: January, February, March, the cold, the rain, the ugly concrete architecture, the rudeness, the anger (angry bus conductors, angry drivers, angry people waiting in queues), the traffic wardens, the surveillance cameras that seem to watch our every move.
But…I love where I live in west London. The sense of community here is really strong; the kids play out on the street, the adults talk and often invite each other in for cups of tea. Everybody looks out for one another. I know this isn’t normal; the last place I lived, the neighbours didn’t even look at each other. Of course once you venture away from my street, it’s not all jelly and ice cream. This is still London. At the mini market nearby there are thirty strong gangs hanging about. They like to throw bottles at each other and occasionally stick a knife in when they feel the need. Unsurprisingly, I don’t want my children growing up in the midst of all this angst and teenage strife but if not here, then where?
When I was little, one of my father’s favourite topics of conversation began with the question: 'If there was a plane waiting to take you anywhere in the world, where would you go?' As children and later as adults we would play this game with feverish anticipation. It fed my imagination, my wanderlust. My parents are modern nomads, gypsies my husband calls them, because they have spent their lives going to and fro, occasionally settling down for a bit but always to moving on to somewhere else, to something better (or sometimes worse) but always something new. My husband is fascinated by this life in perpetual motion. What drives them? Do they never get tired of travelling, of living out of a suitcase? Of course they do, I see it in their weariness, in their frustration at misplacing things between ‘here’ and ‘there’. But ultimately the downside is justified by the huge rewards: a life of permanent sunshine (no melancholic Februaries for them), the chance to explore, to reinvent, to experience things outside the norm.
I can’t remember the answers I gave to my father's question over the years. Right now I would feel torn to give a straight response… there are so many places I want to visit, countries and cities I have only been able to dream about since I became a mother and took up permanent residence in London: Tokyo, China, Mexico, the Greek Islands, the Grand Canyon, the northern beaches of Brazil…
I was lucky to travel a lot as a child, the memories of these journeys still flash through my dreams and thoughts: the mayhem of Bombay’s shantytowns, the sight of barbecued grasshoppers in Bangkok, the smell of jasmine in Bangalore. As a teenager and then as an adult I carried on making these journeys, first with friends and then on my own. I spent months backpacking around South America and because I spoke Spanish and looked the part, people often mistook me for a local. I rarely felt like an outsider. This journey was the pivotal moment in my life; it changed everything. Now, whenever I feel low or confused or unconfident, I remember the charged sense of adventure and gustiness from that time and I tell myself that I can do anything…
Would I go back to South America? Well yes, in a flash, but would I live there? I wonder if I could cope with the stress of being the only bilingual person in the family. Would my husband and children learn the language with ease or would they flounder under the pressure? I have witnessed first hand what can happen in such a scenario: my father never learnt to speak Spanish and so my mother became his translator.
I have imagined living in other places… Australia, Goa… I romanticise about what life would be like. But is that all it is, a wishful fantasy? I am full of admiration for people that take off and begin a new life somewhere else, their courage and confidence is inspiring. It is never easy leaving ‘home’, your comfort zone; homesickness is a haunting wound and I have been injured by it often… I spent most of my childhood feeling homesick for one place or another. But now I have no regrets, I’m glad we moved and travelled and started anew. It made me adventurous, resilient, spirited.
I hope my children get the chance to feel this way too. I also know that I will never properly fall out of love with London. Like a beloved ex lover, it will always remain cherished. So, until my wanderlust finally takes me somewhere else for good, all that remains is to keep dreaming about far-flung places. In that spirit, I'd like to know: if you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?