London, December 2008
I grew up in Sussex just an hour away from the capital, but the journey on the train was always so expensive that the only opportunities I had to experience life in the big city were when my parents would take me to watch sport. My Dad and I used to lose our voices singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at the Twickenham rugby ‘Sevens’ each spring, and bring fleeces and flasks to watch cricket at Lord’s or the Oval every summer. My Mum took me to the Olympia horse show in the Christmas holidays. Until I was fifteen I must have thought that the city was just a collection of sports grounds.
The real London is still a mystery to me. I look forward to going there for days beforehand, and arriving through the gates at Victoria train station always feels like a treat. Grabbing a quick cappuccino and a burned bagel at the station alongside dozens of suave commuters has become a shallow ritual – urban props for a country boy who wants to fit in.
Now I admire the city for its diversity – from the East End to the West End, from Downing Street to Brick Lane, Canary Wharf to houses older than the Industrial Revolution; Nigerians to New Zealanders, Poles to Pakistanis, bankers and brickies, rabbis and rastas, chavs and sloanes, heroes and villains. London is Europe’s most vivid cultural collage.
After a year away from home I had missed British people. We have quirks and manners that set us apart from other Europeans. We are surrounded by variety but easily pleased; we have a high quality of life but we never stop complaining; our humour is stone cold but our hearts are warm. Two months in England put me back in touch with these quirks: a man was so distraught that he couldn’t give me directions to where I wanted to go that he continued to apologise as cold December rain tumbled onto his head. When I had ten pence too little to pay for a book, the lady in the shop gave it to me anyway. A friend of mine told me that she had a wonderful time studying in France last year before spending an hour describing everything that went wrong.
London is a place where, if you were lost without a map, you could work out what part of it you were in just by listening to people speak; the capital is home to more accents than post codes, spoken by mates, fellas, geezers, chaps and bruvs. Then to get to where you wanted to go you could take a trip on the underground – the choob – which was designed to be as complicated as possible but then plastered with more polite instructions than any passenger could know what to do with. It could only be English.
I went to London soon after I got home from Ukraine, to see friends who had I studied with in Russia three years ago. Most of them who didn’t already live in the capital had moved there after university: Jamie (who came to Kyiv just before I left) and Ellie are both working on PhDs; Chiara is dabbling in physics; Louise is studying law; Emma is working for a travel company that organises gap years and school trips. Chris is working as an editor for the Moscow Times but had come home for a month.
We reminisced: about the Christmas day that we spent together in Moscow, watching the snow fall upwards from our hotel room near Izmailovsky market and ice-skating in Gorky Park; about the play that we had acted in at our language school; about the days when our student loans paid for extravagant nights in bizarre nightclubs and work finished before 3 in the afternoon.
Memories of Yaroslavl where we had all met become more distant with each reunion, but as we perched on stools at a Polish bar in Holborn we swapped stories about what we had been doing with our lives since then as if we were still classmates. As Louise and I cradled our bottles of Lech lager, we got to talking about landladies: one of mine had organised for me to be kicked into a concussion and mugged – hers was planning to visit her house soon. The stature of the stories evened out when she revealed that her parents have recently moved to Sandringham in Norfolk and that her landlady is now the Queen.
When there became too many of us to fit around a table in the bar we walked a few blocks to a hotel, ordered some more drinks in the foyer and melted into luxurious leather armchairs. I met Ellie’s friend Chris, who also studied Russian, and an Iranian man named Bob. That night I stayed at Jamie’s flat in King’s Cross. When I couldn’t sleep I stepped onto his balcony to look at the London Eye, illuminated in the distance like a five pence piece floating on top of the Thames.
The next day I went for walk, from St. Pancras to Camden to Oxford Street. A stroll in London always helps to massage my imagination. Central London’s buildings are clean and impressive: its confident architecture clears your head as you walk along its wide streets.
I stopped at a Caffe Nero on Tottenham Court Road, and listened to Russian music as I watched the people walking past the cafe window. With Yulia Savicheva, Dolphin and Band’eros for company, the Russian and English-speaking parts of me were united over a cup of coffee. It was my second reunion in as many days.
I kept walking until the evening. Oxford Street in the build up to Christmas is one of London’s many treats: gold and green festive lights adorned the windows of Debenhams department store, and more decorations above the street threw light on to the people below. The pavements were packed with shoppers balancing bags and umbrellas in their hands. The shimmering streets and holiday mood combined to create an atmosphere that can be found only in British towns and for only one week each year. They are street scenes as beautiful as anything I have seen on my travels.
The next week I returned to Kyiv, but my friends’ stories made me appreciate that my Ukrainian lifestyle is too attritional and lonely to last forever. For all my admiration for Slavic culture, I admire the steps my friends have taken – and envy their relaxed shoulders – even more. It is almost time for the country boy to find out whether he really could fit in there, or whether he is just seduced by the burned bagels.
I had been thinking about which changes to make in my life since the autumn. Shopping on Oxford Street distracted me from those thoughts, but I stumbled across a metaphor for them while searching for a winter coat. Although trying on coats is less fretful than trying on new lives, I rejected them for similar reasons: this one is too expensive; I don’t feel comfortable in this one; this one isn’t built to last; this one is too grey; there is no room for my notepad in this one.
I bought a coat which would see me through another Ukrainian winter but which belongs in London.