How quickly a seven hour flight transforms your perspective, completely; the food tastes different, the people look different, dressed differently than what you are used to. The sky is gray beyond belief, there is a chill of disbelief in the air… you are not in Florida anymore.
London has always been one of my favorite cities to get lost.
When you grow up reading Enid Blyton (Noddy, Famous Five or Secret Seven), you grow up with the monochromatic British life, imbued with mystery and read “bobbly” cars, without knowing that London can be any different.
My parents bought us the British Monopoly when we were kids and it was one of our most treasured board games of our time. When you play London Monopoly, the names of the streets, Mayfair and Park Lane, Oxford or Regent Street remain embedded in your memory forever.
This great mishmash of culture, contrast, audacity of freedom, all mingled with a smell of curry and fish ‘n chips. The red double-decker buses or phone boxes (fewer than before, now, because of cellphones) are permanent parts of your memory of London.
I was fifteen when I first visited London; never had I left Bangladesh before taking this transcontinental trip. In 1982, after just taking my 10th grade exams, almost by fluke, we arrived in London. It was a summer vacation. I was going to the land of Cliff Richards because, “Everybody has a Summer holiday.”
From the first day, London was a city of mystery and familiarity, grand sensibility and pure nonchalant fun. The Monopoly pieces come alive as you walk from street to street. Every corner of the city has some sort of question mark. Bow Street didn’t have any orange (like the game). And yes, the London Tube! How can you not stop at Kings Church station or ride the Jubilee Line.
The native of England never make eye contact; as if looking at you would be extremely rude. But if you speak to them, they are extremely polite and invariably helpful. The traffic, on their twisty, narrow streets, actually stops when you step on a zebra crossing.
Someone told me that there are over two hundred nationalities living in London. The city is not massive; it’s congested. Living conditions, in the smaller townships are nothing grand (relative to the US). But those who live here, would, probably, detest living anywhere else. Where else could they get cloudy contrasts with the congruence of life’s colors (or should I spell colours) throughout the year?
I have been in London at least eight times since my first time; every time I am amazed by the view of the Tower Bridge (which btw is not the London Bridge) or the Big Ben. I have always found something new, something fun, something nostalgic and something eclectic. Samosas or Sushi… you can get whatever you want, right by the train station.
Today, when I walk by the dirty, brown Thames, with my family on my side, I watch my fourteen year old, headphones in her ear, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, oblivious of the environment around her, saying “cheeseday of my life” (not a pleasant expression) to everything she sees. I was just a year older when I first came to London. I remember the Pink Floyd and Beatles vinyl records I bought; they were precious to me. I remember going to Harrod’s and affording nothing at all.
I enjoyed my first big Mac and real milkshake in London. Enjoyed one of the best Tandoori dish, went to Madame Tussaud’s and Hyde Park for Shakespeare on the Green. Enjoying a waffle or ice-cream in Covent Garden or just dropping by for a beer. They do serve chilled beer…you have to ask for it.
The Buckingham Palace always looks somber, gray and morbid. But you always wonder that there is real royalty living inside (powerful or not)! Trafalgar Square or Piccadilly Circus is still just as vibrant with life and you can just walk around for hours just intermingling yourself with the cacophony in the air. The taxis in London still look odd and bulky and you wonder why you don’t see autos like that anywhere else in the world.
In the 1990s, I remember meeting a cousin at a London tube station, who subsequently died very young. I remember the first and last warm beer I had with him at an English pub! Once, on a different trip, a famous Bangladeshi journalist gave me a tour of BBC Bangla, which for many in Bangladesh, was one of the few sources of independent voice, under many years of military propaganda.
Sulman Rushdie, in Imaginary Homelands, talks about memories as little broken mirror pieces. Suddenly you find a piece here or there and a gush of memory comes back to you. Even though you may never put them all together and your reflection never looks the same, again.
My pieces of broken glass are strewn around London like Monopoly pieces. As a gateway back to Bangladesh my college summer holidays, every corner I step into connects me with my adolescence and transition to adulthood someway.
As we are ready to take off for another land, at Heathrow’s Terminal 3, at the central waiting area, I hear someone call out my name in Bangla. A friend, who I grew up with as a child, but have not seen for over twenty years! We exchange pleasantries and our families meet for a brief few minutes and then we move forward in our journeys in life.
Only in London, my past gets connected with my present in a chaotic, coincidental way, knowing that there are no “Grand Plans”…just memories in transition, like Monopoly pieces.