The London Syndrome, or how I fell in love with a city I used to dislike

After the inviting suburbs, the city was just tall buildings of glass and steel.Oh, here’s another Starbucks. We stepped out of the bus somewhere near Baker Street on a small lane shaded by thick trees and something about the city didn’t feel new to me. It felt… Ordinary. Boring, maybe. The houses nearby were dull and nonchalant about this allegedly wondrous place they stood in. This city had been built up to me as a mystery, a mythical destination, a bright beam of light like the ancient Alexandria. They promised I would love it.
I was in London for the first time, and I left it at the end of the day perplexed and slightly irritated that I hadn’t found the meaning of life in the busy streets around Piccadilly Circus.
In 2009 I spent three weeks on a language course in Oxford, and the course included two day trips to London. Like I said, my expectations had been built up by all of the people who’d told me they’d been to London or that they’d simply love┬áto go, and by all that Union Jack memorabilia that still, somehow, is not just a passing fad. Both of those day trips were heavily focused on sightseeing. Now, I do like sightseeing. I love seeing the landmarks that have previously only been familiar to me through pictures in elementary school text books and other people’s holiday photos because they give me that certain reassurance that I actually am in this place, it’s real. And I can’t deny it, 15-year-old me had a blast posing with Oscar Wilde and Steven Spielberg at Madam Tussaud’s (and probably would still, six years later. Have they added Ryan Gosling yet?) I had two fun days with some newly-made friends and I thoroughly enjoyed myself, but afterwards I got back on the bus and drove away rather unimpressed. Oxford had lured me right in with colourful buildings and colleges with spikes on top. London, compared to that, was ordinary.

Chinatown

I returned to London four years later on a trip a friend and I had booked on a whim, and as I happily testified my love for Primark by buying all of their clothes, and enjoying nice, touristy walks along the Thames, I searched for anything that could turn me around for this city. I am not one to say never say never – I was almost desperate to give London a second chance, especially knowing how much everyone else seemed to adore it, and I was convinced I had just spent too little time there on the first go. After a day or two I realised, though, that my relationship with London wasn’t any better. I looked at the masses of tourists taking selfies in front of Big Ben (which I did, too, naturally), looked at the rush at the shops in Oxford Street, glanced around trying to find the good old English charm in the buildings around me but couldn’t. I thought London was lacking personality but had too much in greyness, hastiness and human coldness. (It didn’t help that our hostel was terrible.) I left London with an ‘oh well’ kiss good-bye, and thought I was through with it, and would only step foot in the city again in order to reach other places in the UK.

Little Venice
near Romford
near Little Venice

On my travels I met heaps of Londoners, and most of the time gave them the cheeky ‘oh, I hate London!’ introduction. Some of them agreed with me; most, I think, did not. It didn’t bother me too much to come up that strongly – I am prone to use exaggeration as a form of narrative, if I can, so I’m not too scared of the word ‘hate’ and I was throwing it around quite nonchalantly. The truth is, I guess, that I didn’t really harbour such hostility towards London. The city had just left me so thoroughly unimpressed and a little cold inside that I didn’t think itr deserved much of my sympathy.

In the August of 2014 I met Ben in a hostel in Tallinn. I had to bite my tongue when he introduced himself as Ben from London so that I wouldn’t blurt out something awkward about Big Ben, which I was sure he had already heard a thousand times before. As the story goes, a week later I had booked up a flight to travel to see him in his natural habitat in late September. He was amused by my distrust towards London and promised to make me love the city. I remember laughing. ‘No, never.’ Little did I know that when you fall for an English boy, you get England with him.

near the Houses of Parliament
Shoreditch

It has been over a year since that first visit I have, if my calculations are correct, flown to London half a dozen times. To be fair, I mostly spend time around Ben’s hoods in Romford, but I usually made sure to get a chance to go to the city as well if I had time. That first weekend he took me to Greenwich, and as we climbed the hill and turned back to watch London covered in thin, subtle mist, I had to reluctantly agree that maybe the city wasn’t all bad.

The last time I visited just about a month ago I felt a strange, familiar itch when I was planning my packing. It was the nervous giggles you get when you book a flight to a new and exciting destination… Or maybe it was that blush that you get just before a second date. The feeling lingered on me peculiarly. Could it be… That I was falling in love with the city? I was surprised but I didn’t try to push the thought aside. I thought about it and smiled when I thought about the walks I had planned for my day or two in the city center. I pictured London, and I could smell it in my nose. That moment I knew I was lost to the city.

Shoreditch

I guess I had had it coming for a while, but London had seduced me so discreetly that I never even knew how it happened before it was too late. Ben laughed when I confessed to him that I was, in fact, rather looking forward to coming over this time. But the city is cunning, and I could not expect this to happen. It charms you with little hidden lanes, pubs with lush baskets of flowers hanging by the door side, fashion that sticks to the eye, cheap Muslim markets that sell mangoes two for a quid and over-priced craft markets that make me want to buy shiny trinkets I never even knew I needed. There’s the Rosetta stone in British Museum, which made me well up with translator tears. There’s that little pancake shop by big Ben that stood there six years ago and that stood there still some weeks ago. There’s the station names that start to become as familair as the stop names on your regular bus route at home. The city takes you piece by piece and pushes in little shards of Shoreditch, or Camden, or Maida Vale, and it infects you in the sweetest possible way. London has more layers than the 2D pictures on the map, and as you start peeling away, you become more and more intrigued. I think letting a city capture you this way is almost like Stockholm syndrome. Or should I say, London Syndrome.

near Spitalfields Markets
Shoreditch
Maida Vale
As intelligent beings we have the wonderful opportunity to reimagine ourselves and our views of the world as much as we need to. Sometimes even adjusting them is enough. It is hard to let go of things you used to believe, because opinions become a part of you and that way a part of your identity. I would not say that hating on London was anything that made me who I am or was, but it was as valid an opinion as any other, and of course when one belief – even if as small as this one – crumbles, we start to slightly doubt our other views. Other people might question your views, too, when you suddenly go around chanting your love for London when you’ve previously been known as the girl-who-hates-London. No one likes to feel insecure in their own skin, and admitting you might have been wrong is hard even in little things.
Brick Lane

Maybe part of the reason we are so scared to try things we once disliked is because we’re worried we might actually like it the second time around – or, in my case, like the ninth time around. We have it so ingrained in our heads that once we have put something on the black list, it should stay there for good. Of course I’m not saying it’s not OK to dislike things – if you tried something and you didn’t like it, that’s cool. No one has to be the fan of everything. What I mean is maybe we should be more open to give more chances to things we have developed a distaste for. They say you have to eat a food thirty times to like it, and it happened with me and onions, and it happened with me and London. So why not?

2009, 2013 and 2015 and still not one good facial expression with the Big B…

Have you ever had to change your opinion on a city? Would you go back to a place you hated?

ps. All the pictures in this post, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from this most recent trip. Yeah, I went to see Big Ben. It was glorious.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *