LONDON — I’m standing on the Underground platform waiting for my Northern line train to arrive to get me home after a long day of work. Headphones in my ears, long wool coat, knee high boots and mini skirt – I’ve adopted the London look quite alright.
The train is two minutes late and everyone is up in arms. In London, people are always in a hurry to get somewhere. When it finally arrives, we cram ourselves onto the train, backpacks, umbrellas, grocery bags and all, packed in tightly just like sardines in a can, and we're on our way.
It’s these little day-to-day moments that make me smile. They’re a gentle reminder of a dream of a life abroad, in my favourite city in the world, that came to fruition.
I’ve always had a crush on London. As a little girl, I’d play teatime with my sister, pinky up, sipping imaginary Earl Grey from my plastic teacup. British accents made me giggle, the history was absolutely riveting and, well, I grew up at the height of Spice Girls fandom.
James Bond. Love Actually. Notting Hill. It was never the plot line of these movies that had me wrapped around their fingers — it was the scenes spanning over quintessential London landmarks that made my heart skip a beat.
Above: Carmen, second from left, has encountered many new friends in London.
I had visited countless times, wandered through Camden Town and Borough Market, signed up for the Yeoman Warder’s tour around the Tower of London, and filled my days with stops at my favourite neighbourhoods, Covent Garden and Angel, my face looking just like the heart eyes emoji on my
iPhone every step of the way.
London was always calling but it took me awhile to work up the courage to take the plunge — or rather hop across the pond permanently.
And now that I’m five years into my life here, I’m so glad I did.
Above: Enjoying London's many culinary delights is something Carmen enjoys.
Sightseeing in London is truly never-ending. Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Check. The London Eye, Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge. Check, check, check. Hyde Park, the Tate Modern, Piccadilly Circus. Well, you get the idea. London is a candy land of sorts for travellers who want a taste of history, culture and adventure, and on any budget to boot.
But when I pulled back the curtains, away from the hustle and bustle of the tourism, I learned that London is bursting at the seams with personality.
West London is home to Chelsea and Kensington, the department store Harrods — it’s in this part of town that you can buy a handbag that costs as much as a Toyota Corolla. If you want to dress to the nines for a night on the town, this is the borough to head over to.
Skip across town to East London and you’ll find the likes of Shoreditch, Brick Lane and Columbia Road Flower Mar- ket. Think street art from the likes of Banksy and Nathan Bowen, incredible cuisine from all corners of the world from rustic hole-inthe-wall restaurants, and moustached hipsters brewing your coffee or mixing your cocktail, depending on what time of day you’re there.
Above: Touring London's many art exhibitions consumes much of Carmen's time.
I hang my hat in South London. While the east is often diplomatically labelled as “edgy,” some parts of the south are called just plain “rough.” There’s Peckham, Clapham and Brixton, all artsy neighbourhoods undergoing massive gentrification as old meets new. The rent is cheap, the people are friendly, and the High Street has everything you need from yoga studios to trendy restaurants and tiny theatres.
And the North is a mishmash of the affluent, the working class and everything in between. Pop your head out from the Underground in West Hampstead and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to the English countryside.
Think big sprawling homes (Jamie Oliver, Liam Gallagher and Ricky Gervais all own properties here), quaint little cafes and yummy mummies in pairs dressed in full athleisure pushing their luxury prams.
It’s got another amazing perk: so much green space – Regent’s Park, Primrose Hill and Hampstead Heath are enormous with stunning views of the city.
I love every corner and quirk of London. I’ve downed whiskey sours in a speakeasy in Shoreditch, dined on scones, jam and clotted cream from atop the British Museum (a must-do for locals and visitors alike — it offers a stunning bird’s-eye view of museum artefacts), lost my voice screaming at football and rugby games, and had my wallet stolen at the pub after a few too many pints with coworkers — another Londoner rite of passage.
Above: Everywhere you look in the British capital, art looks back.
Every Londoner complains about this city we’ve each chosen to call home but, speaking with candour, we all love life here.
As Samuel Johnson, an English writer and poet, so succinctly said: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
He’s spot on. It was hard to see this world city grind to a halt during the pandemic. Storefronts, restaurants and pubs all shuttered their windows. From Canary Wharf to Fleet Street and London Bridge, workers all took their laptops and chargers home and didn’t return for a year.
But London is experiencing her renaissance now and it’s wonderful. There’s excitement over the small things: friends catching up over dinner in Seven Dials, the queue returning at Selfridges on Oxford St., watching the football game in the coziest pub over a full Sunday roast.
My friends and family from home are slowly returning to visit and I love their itineraries:
“Can we stand outside the pub and drink a pint of beer?” one asks. Yes, I can make that happen.
“Can we eat fish and chips wrapped in newspaper by the Thames?” I know exactly where to take you for that.
“Will we see the Queen if we head over to Buckingham Palace?” Definitely, no.
And with my sister’s recent visit, I’ve realized I’ve come full circle – sipping Earl Grey tea with a bit of milk and two cubes of sugar, with a smattering of finger sandwiches, dainty cakes and pastries. It’s better than I ever imagined as a child.
I’ve peeled back all the layers to this city and now I can feel London’s beating heart.