I have mixed feelings about London. The first time I visited London was as an extended stopover on my way to India. I bought a tourist bus pass and proceeded to hop on and hop off at as many famous sites as I had time for. I visited streets straight off a Monopoly board, saw the skyline that I had seen on so many television programmes, and photographed the buildings and signs that I had seen in a thousand magazines. But I felt lonely and alone in what felt like such a soul-less and impersonal city. It was brash and expensive, and felt polluted. I felt a million miles away from fresh air and openness, and I left a few days later unimpressed and wondering what all the fuss was about.
One of my best friends moved down to London after graduating from university, and the first time I visited her down there, I was pleasantly surprised by how different London felt on that occasion. It could be argued that this time I saw the real London, not the tourist traps, but regardless, I could see why my friend liked being there. My friend was at work when I arrived so I had the whole day to myself, so I made my way to what to this day is still my absolute favourite museum of all time, the Natural History Museum. At the time, the special exhibit on the ground floor was all about dinosaurs, and this mesmerised me, as did pretty much everything in the entire building. I arrived early in the morning, and as it was, I had to rush the last couple of floors in order to get round everything by the time of closure. The last time that had happened to me was in Le Louvre in Paris. My friend at that time lived in Bethnal Green in east London, and this felt a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre. We spent the weekend exploring her local neighbourhood and visiting markets, and I left with a whole new regard for the city.
A year later and I found myself back visiting my friend whilst coming down for a couple of job interviews. My partner at the time thought he would need to move there for work, and I reluctantly agreed to suss out the job market. My friend by this point was living in Hillingdon near Heathrow Airport. Amusingly, she worked at the exact same hospital that I had been taken to after my disastrous flight home from Delhi. Living in west London this time, it was another opportunity to experience a different side of the city, and again I felt so displaced from the heaving city centre that lay a train ride away. Aside from the job interviews, I had arranged to catch up with some of the people that I hiked to Macchu Picchu with earlier that year. We ate out near Covent Garden and went to a few bars which were so packed that we could barely breath let alone move in. After meeting up with my other friends we headed to a comedy night that took place on a boat moored up on the river Thames. It was eye-opening to experience night life in the city centre and the hustle and bustle of so many people as well as the long drawn out mission to get home at the end of the night marred the experience for me. It reminded me slightly of what I had disliked about the place on my very first visit.
In between these trips, and since the last trip, London has meant just one thing to me: an international transit centre that in equal measures opens up the world to me and signifies that home is within reach. Living most of my life in Scotland, I regularly had to take a domestic flight to Heathrow airport to connect to a world of international travel. I have been a repeat visitor to all 5 terminals of that airport, and have whiled away many hours waiting for connecting flights. I love looking out the plane window on the approach to Heathrow, swinging over the city centre to follow the river Thames upstream on final approach. I love spotting the city’s famous structures as we soar overhead, and I know that upon landing, I am either a step closer to an adventure or a step closer to home. After I moved to New Zealand nearly 3 years ago, I made a surprise trip back to Glasgow for Christmas, nearly 1 year after I had left, and reaching London filled me with such excitement for the final leg of my transit round the world. In no other airport have I spent so much of my life as Heathrow, and it has played such an important part of my life. Living as I do at the far side of the world, I cannot get home to Scotland without transiting through, and being both the welcoming arms to my homeland and the foot that kicks me out the open door, London will always be bittersweet to me. I love it and I hate it all at the same time.