A block on and she found herself on Charing Cross Road, then in an enormous cobblestoned piazza. A small cafe was open on the corner, and she sat at a table and spread out her newspapers.
‘I’m lost,’ she said to the young woman who wiped the table down.
‘I wouldn’t think so,’ she drawled, pointing out the window. ‘That’s Covent Garden.’
‘Covent Garden,’ she thought to herself. ‘I’m in Covent Garden.’ And she felt full and foolish, both at the same time.
Anna Quindlen’s book about her lifelong love for London and for the books that tell London’s story has been a favourite of mine since I received it as a birthday gift nearly seven years ago. I have carried it with me from one home to the next and pulled it out to read excerpts whenever I was feeling particularly homesick for this great city in which I had never truly lived.
Now that I’m here – really here, living ordinary life in London (and surrounding areas) – I still have moments of delight. Moments of wonder. Moments of feeling full and foolish at the same time, just like Anna did on her first trip to London at the start of her book.
Sometimes going into London for the day feels commonplace. “Oh, I’m just heading in to spend some time at Senate House Library.” No big deal. Just going into central London for the day to wander my favourite streets and visit places that are my own, mine because I have a reason to be there. I’m not just a tourist. A small part of this city now belongs to me.
This square, for example, is my base for visits to my library in central London. It was also the base for my study abroad trip back in my undergraduate days. And it has also been used as a filming location for Sherlock, one of my favourite British television shows.
Sometimes I walk down the street in London and simply watch the line of buildings. Or the cobblestones beneath my feet (because there are many of them in this city). I notice the little things that make this London. The brightly-colored pubs, the red buses, the red and blue Underground signs around every corner…
And I turn down odd alleys, and follow signs, and stop to read the plaques at the base of each statue I pass. Because sometimes you find a dragon that marks the boundary of the old City of London.
And sometimes you find a shop full of your favourite tea. And sometimes you find quiet courtyards full of brick and age.
And other times I arrive in London and plant myself in the center of the tourism. I sit and eat a sandwich in Trafalgar Square, listening to the music from the buskers in front of the National Gallery.
Or I find a way to be a part of the world premiere of the new – and final – Hobbit film, wandering Leicester Square for hours with my flatmate, watching the building of the barricades, blowing into our hands to warm them, and asking security guard after security guard where we can go to watch the fun. (If you’re lucky, you’ll overhear a conversation that tells you exactly how to snag one of the last spots around for watching the stage.)
And sometimes I find a balance. I spend an hour sitting by the window at Starbucks, chatting with a friend about life and love and learning. And we browse table after table of used books under the Waterloo Bridge on the South Bank, and buy German paper stars from a young man behind a counter. And we walk along the river for what feels like hours, watching the people and the water and admiring old churches and palaces and ships.
And on that same day, we pay to ride the London Eye all the way around, even though it rained that morning and our pictures won’t be perfect. And we brave the crowds to cross the Tower Bridge over to the Tower of London so we can see the World War I poppies before they are taken down.
This is my London. This mix of quiet delight and noisy tourism. This winding path between everyday streets of ordinariness and lanes filled with wonder and magic and the glory of the London that I learned to love from books. And after several months and many trips into the city, I agree with Samuel Johnson:
To be tired of London is to be tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford.