I almost never talk about London but it is a big chapter of my life. I lived there for, in total, about two years. I walked the kilometres of its streets, indulged in its senses, breathed it, enjoyed it, loved it. Then I left, and with an exception of a short stint for an interview with Shell during my INSEAD year, did not come back until now, seven years after. A month ago, Louveteau and I went to London to celebrate his birthday. And just for the weekend in London, quoi. It was a good opportunity for me to reconnect with my memories of the British capital and to reflect on the aftermath of this city’s magic on me.
London has shaped me in many ways. The education I got there might not be the most relevant for my career (well, actually, you never know with education: something learnt a decade ago can suddenly come handy. Actually, that’s what usually happens.) However, the experiences I got there, the risks I took and the decisions I made, good and bad, affected many of my life choices. Maybe that’s why it seems very important to me to resurrect my time in London.
Writing this chapter took me some time. Impressions fade over years, memories are getting replaced sooner than we realize it. London, however, stays with me in many ways, more than I probably know of.
When addresses, places, shows and fireworks leave the memory, when things, once precious, are worn out and thrown away, something inside, something forged by the dialogue with the city, by its gifts and the sacrifices it demands, by its generosity, its history, its magic, – this intangible something stays.
So I took my time to go through my first notes about London from as far as seven years ago, to reconstruct my first impressions, feelings about London, to breathe in my past. To cherish it.
My story with London begins in Sicily. As everything in my life (and probably, in many other lives), it is a product of a combination of people and places, sometimes so unlikely that it seems almost random. I went to Sicily with my Finnish friend Heidi. It was supposed to be a one week girls’ vacation and, by a twist of luck and a light hand, as we say in Russian, of my friend Anastasia, turned into a two years’ romance. The leading character of this story lived in London, and after he visited me in Helsinki multiple times, I have finally accepted that I am a boring person who can’t even have a no-strings-attached summer affair, and grew into the idea of taking a plane to the unknown. Soon I landed in a new country. I did not know then that it was a beginning of a totally different romance: with London, independence and a feeling that everything you dream about is possible.
As it often happens with girls, guys and cities, my story with London proved to be more lasting than the relationship that brought me in it. I came back a year and a half later, on my own, to take a few summer courses at LSE, London School of Economics. I was initially going for (and was accepted to) an exchange semester at Queen’s Mary College to pump up my knowledge of law but let it go in favor of Paris. Except for the university name, I had no idea what I was going to do in Paris. I just felt strong enough to forego common sense for a dream. London made me strong enough to do so.
My story with London has two parts: somewhat Eastern and very Western. The first one turned out to be a year and a half of city hopping between Helsinki and London, the second lasted a little bit more than a summer. Both made me who I am today.
Part I: Hayfield Passage E1
All in all, I remember London as a city where everything is not like everywhere else, and at the same time it is like I want it to be (or so it seemed back then). In addition to the direction people drove, the national currency with unprintable signage, the double-deck buses and the absence of numbers on the houses, London was full of surprises, both pleasant ones and not so much.
I have discovered that the buildings on the same side of the street could have even and uneven numbers (which are hidden anyway. The number plate would have the street and the area code, for example, W1 for the first quarter to the west from the city center, EC for the East-Central quarter and E17 for the lands beyond a grasp of a tourist. The individual house number was only known to postman and to Google, and there was no way of finding something unless you already knew where it is.) EU residents still needed a visa to live in London, and were not entitled to Duty Free. The ceilings were usually low, windows small and narrow, with wooden shutters, which went up and let the warm air in, floor carpets were fixed with nails and had their own ecosystem living beneath for decades, toilet paper deteriorated from just looking at it, and all kinds of pipes left much to be desired. Tap water raised suspicion as well, even though it was officially recognized as drinkable.
Food in the grocery stores was totally different from what I knew, and the choice was endless. The houses were like no other in any other city I visited up to this point. For example, the house at Hayfield Passage E1, which became my first residence in London, had a wicket and a narrow staircase that lead upstairs, to the porch. Inside, there was a marble corridor with apartment doors, then some common door again, another flight of stairs leading up, this time to a small green yard, then another door to the apartment and, finally, in the apartment itself, there was some entrance space, for a lack of a more precise word, and other stairs to the rooms and other marvels of civilization. In general, with the exception of several posh streets, like Oxford and Regent, most of the buildings of central residential areas of W1, EC, E1 and N1 rarely raise to more than four floors. They would, however, have a small porch, white wooden shutters and, often, a hidden cute green courtyard.
It was refreshing to be in a cosmopolitan city. To me, London was a European version of New York. Or, more precisely, it seemed to be what New York was some good hundred years ago: the center of stock trade, culture, research, innovation. Since then, it has slowed down and now lagged behind (I clearly preferred New York). However, the narrow streets, two-three floor mansions, tea rooms, impeccably dressed cute old people with their cutely dressed dogs (or cats, which could often be seen walking in London parks on a leash) still convey the charm and old time attraction of London. So does the unbeatable British accent, which infects every living thing once it settles in London (and which so many foreign living things unsuccessfully fake).
Talking about foreign living things, I have quickly found out, to my delight, that the notion of “local population” included representatives of all nations, British being hardly a third. At 25, London to me was a capital of the world, with a place for everyone. You could be coming from anywhere in the world, and it was normal. After Sweden and Finland, it was liberating: for once, no one was torturing me by the questions about the Second World War (Finnish hot topic number one) and didn’t probe around the real role of Medvedev in Russian politics (an international hot topic). London, at last, gave me something I thought was lost for me: a sense of belonging.
All the diverse people of London were subject to some common moods. I called them London vibes. For example, to quickly undress up to T-shirts and shorts with the first rays of spring sunlight at 12 C and, radiating the sunshine in a smile, to cheerfully march in hawaianas. I have discovered hawaianas in London (to my delight) and could not help but noticing that everyone around was wearing them, regardless of age, income and other pieces of clothing chosen on that day.
The feeling of the world capital grew stronger at the choice of a place for lunch or dinner. Unlike Paris or Rome, the national cuisine in London did not even claim to be present among the gastronomic delights of other countries, and my stomach was cheerfully growling at the sight of Italian restaurants, French patisseries, Chinese-Vietnamese cafes and sushi in all possible combinations, ranging from the take out in Wasabi chain up to the Michelin’s Nobu. In addition, multiple cafes were offering (and still are, by the way) fruit salads of all sizes in eat-in and to-go versions, dried goodies and a wide arrange of all possible healthy bites.
I was absolutely delighted to find at least three chains with superb (or so I thought then) coffee to go. I have always been passionate about exploring cities by foot and walked endless kilometers of impressions everywhere I lived. I started taking coffee with me on these walks long before it became a mass motion. My native city had no cafes serving a coffee to go then. Helsinki had one, Roberts’ Coffee. With three chains, London has quickly become my coffee paradise. Alcohol, however, was posing some challenges. While the best bars, restaurants and clubs displayed quite a decent assortment, more earthy places, such as nice ambient cafes (which are in some places, like Hyde Park, are more expensive than the before mentioned high-end restaurants) only offer local wines, which I found, even with my loose Russian standards with regards to wine at the time, absolutely undrinkable. Plus local beer, which English could drink by liters any time of the day.
Clubs in London could be as different as the restaurants. Lost somewhere around Old Street, “Plastic People” played monthly sets by an Afro-American DJ, who was absolutely rocking the house by some home-made trans music. Just a few blocks away from it, in W1, a properly luxurious club, where Kate Moss and prince Harry were usual visitors, was lurking in the posh night.
One of the things that most impressed me about London was its size. I remember seeing it from the plane window for the first time: it started more than ten minutes before landing and was stretching by the endless canvas of forests, fields, lakes and castles, spreading out by the chess board of houses, mystifying by the road-formed “8”s and oozing respect. I have never seen cities that big, Moscow and Seoul seemed much more compact. I remember my first London metro ride, from Heathrow home. It took me then one hour forty (I remember being surprised that a metro ride can take that long). Half of the way the train was running above the ground, like in Helsinki (and very much unlike Russia where going under ground takes good three minutes). The seat rows were placed one in front of the other, like in my home country. I remember coming out of metro, at last, and breathing London for the first time. To me, it smelled like Voronezh, the city of my summer holidays. Voronezh and London are located on the same latitude, and London was as warm, as green and making me feel at home by the same trees (I guess, they are called Lombardy poplars).
Being objectively very big, subjectively London often felt small and cozy. It was not a kind of a city that impresses by amplitude: not as magnificent as Rome and by far not as impressive as strict Paris, but there was something imperceptible that made it mine and that made it home. Walking my endless get-to-know you kilometers in London, I did not stop at every corner, startled by its beauty, I was not impressed by the size of its buildings. However, it felt great to be there.
Everything was incredible and at the same time like it was supposed to be: relaxed smiling people, brightly green grass and the city’s air: sparkling with energy, celebrating today with champagne and promising a summer-like tomorrow.
Some places were symbolic of optimism to me. For some reason, most of them were food related. Finsbury Square, where I was eating my first London take-away sushi on my first day here. Michelin-starred Nobu, where I remember being swept away, after having been already swapped away by “Mamma Mia”, a great touching musical, getting full room for more than ten years in a row and the only of London musicals never in the half price tickets booths.
London was also very green. After limestone Paris (which was my favorite city in the world already then, and even London, with its size and its trees, could do nothing to replace it from my heart), the most green city for me was Barcelona. London easily beat it, not only by the sheer number of trees, gardens, parks and flower-beds in the middle of the roads, but also by its shade of green, so bright that it seems photoshoped.
London was confirming some of my expectations and shifting others. St Paul’s, familiar to me from the English texts of school excursions in my native St Petersburg and now making me think about home and about St Isaac’s, turning out to be even more beautiful than I pictured it. Sunday markets, which have revolutionized my idea of markets. There is no such thing as a great market in Russia. At least in my view, market was a messy, loud and cheap alternative to traditional stores, a place which no normal person would ever consider having a choice. At some point of Russian turbulent history of the 90s we did not have such a choice, and Troitsky Market in St Petersburg is still one of the most toxic memories that I have about my native city. In London, I have soon discovered Bricklane, Spitafields and Camden Town. All of them boiled down to fireworks of taste impressions, food from everywhere in the world, from Australia to Brasil, laid out on the counter, stringed on the wood sticks, hot in huge boilers, and smelling amazing on the grill. There was a special place for food at every market, closer to the exit or to the street, with courtyards for having it. And everything was very, very clean. I never got to like the markets, even in London, even later, when I was living at Portobello Road, but I never think of them the same since then.
I first came to London during the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008. The crisis took jobs of two million people. Yet London still had the air of financial realm, and it still was fascinating. For the first time in my life I felt like something very small which was a part of something very big, and it was captivating. At the same time, a lot of Londoners were completely immune to the magic of the city’s possibilities. They were doing some really interesting things: with pleasure and, apparently, voluntarily, working with difficult kids (and getting thank you flowers from them); inventing clothes; painting white canvas a few meters by a few meters size from a paint can; drawing graffiti, which were being sold a couple of years later at the auctions for millions pounds… London was the place where many dreams were coming true. And, last but not least, London had a river and it had bridges, which made it finally mine. For some reason, having a river in the city I live in is really important to me: neither sea nor ocean have the same “domestic” effect on me. I was contentedly smiling every time I was looking at Thames.
Part II : Portobello Road W11 1LA
I came back to London for London (and for LSE, because I was sure that the second Masters’ was my last degree and I wanted to do it right). After half a year of having given up my Helsinki place at Castreninkatu and living at the city’s most prestigious address which never felt mine, I had home again. It was small, it was temporary, but it was mine. A Finnish girl Mirka, a friend of a friend, left London for the summer and sub-rented her apartment (or, more precisely, her part of the apartment) to me. Theoretically, I had a flatmate, a trader from City (and maybe even Russian, judging by his name). He was coming home around 2 am and leaving by 6, we almost never crossed and I was only reminded about his presence by occasional changes at the kitchen we both shared.
This time in London I was absolutely happy. Delight was my constant state of being. I wanted to kiss every pebble, to take picture of every building, I was smiling to everyone, even to the mysterious people on the ground floor of my building who spoke no English. I was sleeping maximum five hours per day and walking kilometers by foot.
I was living in Notting Hill, the part of Western London I did not know so well. Notting Hill was all about three-storeyed doll houses, villas, stashed in the bushes of green, and former stables, renovated into neat, painted in the colors of the rainbow, brick houses. Every second building there was a pub, a restaurant or a coffee shop, everything was somewhat miniature, homelike and very welcoming. Every third was a designer shop (of absolutely everything), an antique- or a bookstore. Notting Hill was very much like Chelsea, but much more relaxed. I could go out without a makeup, in hawaianas, with a ponytail, sit at any cafe and feel good about it. The sushi place across my house was giving away sushi they did not sell during the day, for free. Unlike my previous London address in the East, the neighbours here knew each other very well: a sentiment, reinforced by regular BBQs at the common closed backyard with flowers, and were leaving each other cats and keys when on vacation. London summer heat meant that many were keeping their entrance doors open (the common house entrance door was still locked by a separate key), and with some time, experiments and caution, I have started doing the same.
Getting more of my personal space in London raised my comfort bar. First thing I bought in Sainsbury’s after settling in was a disinfecting hands gel: for some reason, now I always felt like washing my hands in London. Something was equally irking in me at the sight of nailed-to-floor-half-a-century-old carpets of an unidentifiable color. Living in Notting Hill also introduced the reverse side of this postcard picture place: garbage treatment. Most of the Notting Hill houses are old, which means they were build too long ago to leave space for the system of garbage containers adopted by humanity at a later stage of development. What it means for now is that the garbage collectors are passing by Notting Hill several times on certain days at night, and the residents were supposed to leave (in theory treated) garbage bags right on the street, again during limited after-dawn hours, not to disturb the pretty public view. What seems a pretty straightforward way on paper did not work so well in the real life. People confused the days and the hours (or maybe the summer garbage stink in a small apartment outweighed possible offense of the public premises), did not care so much about the garbage treatment, and often the juicy obscure garbage bags were left unattended on the streets for days under the summer heat. So I had some minor sanitary concerns.
Some other things emerged about London that I did not notice there during my relationship time there. A few years in the city, beyond my initial fascination with it and on my own, I have quickly realized that many things in London were temporary. Jobs, housing, relations. None of these were good enough to maintain for a long time yet ok to keep for a couple of years, usually to take advantage of London’s best in Europe economics, with all the career possibilities it was offering. The pressures of these career possibilities were usually too high to enjoy even that for a long time, so the usual frame of thinking in London was along the lines of “I will do it for a couple of years and then we will see”. It was a city of singles, for singles, and to be enjoyed as long as you were single, not burdened by a family with all the needs of space, safety and a green lawn for the kids to play at. So no one really invested in their temporary situations. Everyone I knew at the time was renting, no one has bought a single piece of furniture for all the time they were in London (at least, a first-hand one), no one was planning to settle and everyone was, you know, available for possibilities.
At the same time, as never before, I saw London as a galaxy of possibilities and chances, vibrant with possible future scenarios, as tangible that I felt I could grasp them in the air. Every closed door opened another one, bankruptcy of some companies gave raise to new startups and, eventually, new business models, the cinema was running movies which would become available in Russia, France and Italy in a couple of months, and people were going out without a reason regardless of the day of the week.
At times, I could not understand my feelings London and its attitude to me. My life at Portobello Road W11 1LA was a lot like a coin flipped into the air: I threw it towards the blue summer sky, caught my breath and, cautious not to flap my eyelashes too loudly, was waiting for what life had for me. It was somewhat unsettling and very, very exciting at the same time. Life to me was made of open doors, and I could touch every door handle and make a step into the future. Everything was possible.
In many ways, my time in London was a time of making choices. Moving to Helsinki came to me in a form of a phone call from a friend offering co-ownership of the company and life abroad. That was easy. Coming to London was more of a decision. So was staying there and coming back for studies, once the initial reason of being there became irrelevant. If Helsinki showed me that life can surprise, enthuse and that living abroad gives new meaning to old things, that dreams (in this case, about exploring the world) come true, London taught me that sometimes you have a choice between two equally good options, two fantastic cities, two possibilities, two lives worth living. Choosing exchange period for my Masters’ became much more than deciding where to spend six months. By large, it was a choice between sensible (building on my law background to get a practical, universally applied degree in London) and emotional (going to Paris, the city where I did not even know what I could study but something inside me sang at the idea). Oh well, I have never been good with sensible decisions.
One of the most London things for me are taxi drivers. Apologies, black cab drivers (because black cab driver is like no other, and it apparently takes a lot of time, money, determination and some God’s will to become one). Taxi drivers were telling me people’s stories, a lot of them. About a tube strike, which started because two of the train drivers were laid off: one of them had opened the train doors on the wrong side, and people leaving the train were two seconds from being killed by the train coming from the opposite direction. Another train driver was caught (and camera recorded) playing football while on a six months’ paid medical leave. About the other tube workers, paid a little bit short to those working in City. About a girl who was doing some very basic job among an army of people working for some pop star. Once the star fired up, let her current manager go and told the girl that she was the manager going forward. The star was Madonna. The girl, after having worked for her for ten years, has a several million dollars’ house at one of London’s best addresses. Now she gave a birth to a baby and switched to manage one band, “I am not sure if you have heard about it”, Pet Shop Boys.
London taxi drivers added my story to their people’s lives library: about life in Helsinki, parents in South Korea, best friends in Vienna and Rome, Sicilian boyfriend in London and my own company at 23. To tell to the next passenger that the world is full of wonders and you can come across all of them in London.
Visit A Girl with Geography: about that page for other Chapters.
P.S. As a post scriptum to this chapter, I am sharing some of my most favorite London whereabouts: places I loved when living there, places I was going to every day, places that made London what it is to me. All of them exist today and I really hope, all will exist tomorrow.
- Babylon Beach and Blanket, Notting Hill: pre-dinner drinks place, so perfect that sometimes I would cancel the dinner and just stay there.
- The Ledbury, Notting Hill: probably the only reason to finally move from Babylon’s. One of the best restaurants in Europe which mixes up all the best that Europe has to offer in a classic, New York-posh set up. A must in London.
- Granger & Co, Notting Hill: one of the top two brunch places. They don’t accept table reservations, so you come, wait, wait, wait, fume (I am being a little bit dramatic here, the usual waiting time is about 30 min), then enter, get a table and fall in love. Next Saturday you are there as well.
- 202, Notting Hill: another one of the top two brunch places. 202 is mostly known for its modern blend of food, retail and fashion (with a rustic touch) but ok, interiors are trending and fading out but great brunch places hold hearts forever.
- Pizzaro, Borough: they say it is Spanish, but even if it is, that’s London Spanish. Tapas are still there (and so is Iberico ham) but half of the menu is made up by the things you already know and love from other geographies. Equally great for an evening with friends or for a date.
- The Table Café, South Bank: another great brunch place (you see by now that I am big on brunch places but then, that’s London). Special because of the open air courtyard and somewhat original twist of the brunch classics. Literally everything is good.