The full flight on Air Canada was a whole different story and as I went to board my National Express coach from Heathrow to Victoria station, I was well looking forward to at least one hour of sleep. But when the jostling of the bus woke me at one point from dozing, a street sign for Kensington caught my attention and shook me further from any sleep-induced stupor: Royal Borough of Chelsea and Kensington.
Kensington – only a stone’s throw from Chelsea, my beloved neighborhood from two years ago. The bus made its way through Earl’s Court and I immediately recognized the streets we passed along, the Tube station and the NatWest bank and the As Greek As It Gets restaurant I always thought of trying. We were soon crossing King’s Road and the Somerfield’s supermarket and just when I thought the nostalgia couldn’t grow any stronger, the driver turned left along the Thames and there it was: my flat, the very door leading into our building just a few steps away. Suddenly it was the 16th of August, 2008, and Kim, Emily and myself were being driven down Blantyre Street by a crazy Scotsman named Matt McAlister and shown up to the fourth floor of a brick tower called World’s End Estate and handing over an obscene amount of money to secure a flat we’d then share for the next six months. It all came rushing back, all the old streets, all our old haunts – and all this after no night’s sleep!
When I booked my coach, I hadn’t realized a harmless five-pound ticket would include a trip down memory lane. In the taxi from Victoria to my hostel in Swiss Cottage, I tried to pin down what exactly I was feeling. It kept bugging me, not being able to name this “I’m happy to be here but still feel a bit off” emotion, until I realized: this is the feeling of coming home. Of being gone and returning after a long absence only to find so much unchanged. The taxi driver asked if I’d been here before.
“Yes,” I said, telling him when and why. “It looks the same, too,” I added, as we circled around an entrance to Hyde Park.
“Never changes much,” he said, a little too morosely for my liking.
Even my loyalty card for Boots pharmacy still works – of course the address on file is wrong, but when the sales attendant asked if I had a card, I could look in my wallet and say that yes, as a matter of fact, I do.
The funny thing is feeling this way in a place like London, somewhere explicitly not my hometown. What’s even more bizarre is the speed of the transition back. As I walked the streets of Swiss Cottage yesterday afternoon, getting a phone from Carphone Warehouse and signing up for the same TalkMobile pay-as-you-go plan I’d used before, I said to myself, “This is all too quick.” One minute I’m with my family in the suburbs of Suffolk, Virginia, the next I’m in London again, seemingly picking up everything where I left off. Everything the great travel writers lament about air travel came to mind – the artificial swiftness of it, the way it fails to afford you any serious amount of time to process your journey.
As we left the plane and walked through Terminal 3, I looked around and saw her keeping up with me. “Sorry, she said, “I’m just following you, I have no idea where I’m going.” I smiled and told her it wasn’t a problem. We queued up at Immigration together and talked about her plans to travel throughout the semester. It’s tempting to say too much in such situations – everyone deserves a chance to find things out on their own – so I told her only things I wished people had told me sooner – the one-pound seats on MegaBus if you book early enough, the hidden costs that make RyanAir’s unbelievable fares a little more believable. “Thank you so much,” she said as we parted ways later on, “You were such a helpful friend to meet!”
This morning, after a lovely (and might I add, free!) breakfast in the hostel, a full email inbox was there to greet me. Not only well-wishes from home but also notes from friends here in London – “old” friends from my last time here, from “new-old” friends – people I knew in New Zealand who are crazily now here – and even new friends, people I’ve “met” this summer via email through Kingston’s student-to-student noticeboard but can now meet in person. So despite the strangeness of returning to a place in which I’ve already spent a significant amount of time, I am grateful as ever for the network of people I’ve met – and I use that word implying none of the awful corporate connotations associated with it. Perhaps “web” is more fitting, stressing instead the idea of connections following you wherever you are, expanding more and more the further you go.
And now with two weeks in front of me before work and school start, I’m not sure what exactly I’ll do with myself – but I suppose there are worse places to have too much time on one’s hands, right? What I do know is that the panic of last week (don’t worry, there’s a post coming soon on this) is now replaced by peace.
A quiet, confident peace that says this, my friend, is right where you’re meant to be…