The first time I visited London, I did not know what to do or where to go. I guessed blindly and took the District Line hoping to end up somewhere and then transferred to the Northern Line, but once I found London Bridge to be nothing but a concrete slab, I grew disheartened. I am a remarkably bad tourist, and I never plan out my days in Town. I wait for adventure to find me; after all, this is what we have been taught by films. Head to a foreign city and all your problems will be solved. The life of boredom will be over as soon as you hit the streets of London. This is, of course, a pile of Hollywood-perpetrated lies.
The second time I visited London, I realized that on conversion, I was paying roughly $7 each one way journey on the Tube. I should have invested in an Oyster Card but that’s for people who frequent London, and I did not want to be that sort of person. I paid the hefty price and jumped on, heading in the wrong direction. A ten minute journey took an hour, and in the silence of the crowded Tube, where eye-contact is taboo, I decided I hated London and would only come back to Town when it was absolutely necessary.
It was necessary in March. Exhausted from a week’s worth of tears, I went to London, took the lonely Underground journeys and arrived at the American Consulate where I signed over my rights to my uncle to handle my recently deceased mother’s estate. Having taken the trouble to come up to Town, I spent the day in this city that I barely knew and decidedly did not like. I visited the National Gallery and ate on the steps of Trafalgar Square. It was nice, a novel thought in my feelings toward London.
London is grey and dull and lacks the vibrancy of continental European cities, but it is a city that demands nothing from me. I can turn down streets, unnoticed. I can look at my boots on the Tube, willing myself not to cry, and know that the man across from me isn’t staring at me. He rather read The Guardian. My business is not his concern. There is a delight in being in a foreign city and remaining anonymous.
The summer came, and the Underground warmed with human sweat. The rapid trains swept by, blowing my summer skirts, and I am certain that as I climbed the 193 steps in Covent Garden, lucky Londoners were treated to a view of my pants. I took the Northern Line to Embankment and transferred to the Circle Line to Victoria, overheated and tipsy and a little sad that he hadn’t kissed me. We walked along the South Bank, and we chattered on about Radiohead and Hemingway, each hoping that with enough words we could hide our own fears and insecurities. He writes songs, and I write stories, but each of us felt the pressure to write the scene perfectly, to have a climatic romantic moment as he lit my cigarette outside of the pub, apologizing that he had sat on the pack of Camels. Nothing happened, we hugged good-bye, and I promised to come back to Town in the fall.
I know a small piece of London. I have what I like to think of as my café in Notting Hill, and I can manage the Underground journey from Lancaster Gate to Oxford Circus; it’s Central Line, also known as the red one. I am trying to carve out the tiniest place for myself. I once enjoyed my invisibility in this city, but I cannot love a place if my aim is to hide amongst its masses.
I am not invisible to him. I came back in the fall, and we ran to Waterloo, merry and drunk and dizzy with newfound romance. Is this the Hollywood moment that I had earlier dismissed? The sentimental bullshit that we were both too self-aware and wary of in the summer months, both too Holden Caulfield in our opinions of the sort of thing, to embrace. There are other lovers in London tonight; we do not count ourselves as unique, sitting on the platform, waiting impatiently for the last train home. But, it’s not just some couple we’re passing by on the street wondering who they might be and how they might have met; this time the story matters to us because it is about us.
Now, I take the Underground with him. And, yes, I have my own Oyster Card. I have surrendered and invested. We start at Island Gardens and take the DLR until Canary Wharf and change to the Jubilee. He’s always shy to take my hand except as we run through the Underground stations; he holds it firm. He’s afraid that I, the non-native Londoner, will get lost in the crowds otherwise. After twenty-five years of living in London, he knows all the exit points, so he carefully chooses where we sit on the train in order to have the best access to jump off. We strive for a “Golden Run”, to hop off one train and get on the next one just as it is arriving at the platform.
We read when we ride the Underground together, afraid to disturb others with our talking. Or, sometimes, we sit next to each other and stare at our reflections in the window, and we smile noting the differences in our appearances and considering how we look as a couple. We don’t take many photos together so this is our opportunity to observe how we look together, to see our happiness reflected. We notice other couples too, but we are content with us. Other times, we sit quiet as I push my cuticles back, passive-aggressive and in a mood. The doors open, we’re told to mind the gap, and I walk in front of him letting him absorb into the crowd. He never loses me. He tells me to stop at a bench, and we talk and we wait for the next train.
I have left London. I now live in Paris, a city that I loved at first sight. But, it is a fleeting love. Paris is a beautiful, shallow woman existing to be petted and complimented and to seduce. She lacks the substance of her uglier, sturdier sister, London.
I learn to take the Metro alone. I hop barriers at Saint Michel, racing to catch RER B to Gare du Nord. I sit next to vomit from the night before, but it is the only seat left at 6 o’clock, and I am too weary to think much of it. Paris may be a beautiful woman but she is a beautiful woman who shits herself everywhere without concern. The pungent smell of urine penetrates the dank tunnels, and all you can do is forget to notice and read your book. Eye contact is not forbidden on the Metro, but it is not recommended for one’s own safety. I clutch my purse and tune out the accordion-playing beggar. There is flavor, but I miss silence.
He comes to Paris, and this time I take his hand, telling him this way, this way. I place my head on his shoulder, his head falls against mine. Another city, another subway system, anonymous except to each other.