I was so glad I decided to arrive Paris’ Gare du Nord for my train departure to London 90 minutes early. My intent was to leisurely grab a coffee and a bite amongst the traveling humans in the space; I didn’t expect I would need to stand in a chaotic line for more than an hour to navigate through passport control.
Before being allowed on the island, the immigration agent asked me the most questions I had ever been asked in all of my travels to Europe, ever. As she flipped through the stamped pages that now make up more than half of my American passport, she asked me: “Why are you going to the UK?” My response: “For my first ever visit to London, as a tourist”. She proceeded with five more questions, culminating in this tricky one: “When is the last time you have been home?” To myself: “Define home?”… I thought it better to actually respond with: “I was last home the morning of January 29th.” Another passport stamp ensued.
To be completely transparent: I was extremely intimidated by London.
My anxiousness about visiting this megalopolis had begun several weeks before, during the trip’s planning phase. I had reached out to a few kindred spirits to inquire about recommendations on where to stay to get a good feel of the city. Answers had varied from:
“You definitely want to experience different vibes: stay in Southbank for the weekend then move to Shoreditch”…
..“If you want hipster = Hackney; posh = Fulham; yummy-yummy (excuse me, what’s yummy-yummy?!) = Wimbledon / Richmond; grunge = Camden; central = Southbank / Elephant & Castle; Afro-British = Peckham* *note: this area is a bit dodge”…
…“I live in Clerkenwell but I’m too new to the city myself to be trusted with recommendations just yet”.
I started to think that London had to be kinda like New York City: a city I have visited more times than I can either count or recall, where I still don’t have a good grasp of the neighborhoods, where I feel like you have to be a local to be “in the know”, where I often still feel intimidated.
On several attempts, I had spent hours comparing these notes against maps and the available inventory of AirBnBs in my budget. In fact, I spent more time looking for a flat in London than anywhere else. On every attempt, I quickly became overwhelmed trying to figure out these neighborhoods’ beginning and ending. I also eventually concluded that London is really expensive. Kinda like New York City. In the end, I gave up and I decided to use my hard-earned points to book the Hilton Metropole – a “free”, clean bed on the Tube would do for my first visit. Upon checking into the hotel, I couldn’t help but compare: kinda like the New York City’s Midtown Hilton, pre-room renovations: big and full of conference-goers and tourists.
On the other hand, I was hopeful that visiting England would bring me a certain level of comfort at this point in my journey, specifically because of the language. I was going back to an English-speaking country and after all the different languages I had heard until this point, I hypothesized that perhaps navigating this maze in my second language would be easier than expected.
In reality, it wasn’t even five minutes after I stepped outside of London’s St. Pancras rail station that I started to feel London’s cognitive load on me: I felt like my whole world was turned upside down.
First of all, it was sunny, which delightfully caught me off guard. Isn’t London’s weather known to be somewhat undesirable? Then, the navigational challenges: my first experience getting picked up in an Uber waiting on the wrong side of the street; my subsequent observations of driving on the other side of the road; looking right before left before crossing the street; locating the right bus stop to go in the right direction; unintentionally walking against the pedestrian flow on the streets and opening doors with my right hand, undoubtedly running into people exiting. Even after three full days in London, I am not sure I was even starting to get used to it. I was always in the way, I sensed.
It wasn’t just these geospatial challenges: it was also different electric plugs than the rest of Europe; different directions for the on/off switches; different currency to calculate; and frankly, a different English. English is to England as to American is to the United States. It’s practically a distinct language.
After eagerly stepping outside my hotel on Friday to enjoy a long walk through Hyde Park in the last of the week’s sunlight, I met my old colleague and friend Gustav and his mate Will for dinner. Outside of a few former IBM colleagues, my familiarity with English people was very limited. In the business context, I had never observed a disparity in our communications. As soon as Gustav and Will started to recount stories of their days growing up in Henley-on-Thames, their history through the years, their common interests and experiences shared over many weekends in London, my understanding of English, a language I feel I practically master after nearly 26 years in the United States, started to be challenged. I attentively listened and enjoyed their gregarious exchanges, but frankly, I just didn’t comprehend a lot of their narrative. And I was ok with it: I was along for the ride on this island. Happy to be in the presence of kindred spirits, to connect with like-minded human beings.
As intimidated as I was, London paradoxically brought me the most volume of intimacy of any city so far. After dinner, Gustav and Will treated me to a nighttime walking tour of London that was one of the highlights of my visit. We landed at Katzenjammers, a Bavarian style Bierhall. I had ironically come all the way to London to end up in a typical and somewhat comforting German establishment. Life puts you where you need to be.
On Sunday, Gustav’s brother Harry joined our trio. Will, co-founder and owner of Fieldings Game & Country, a heritage-based fine dining business, prepared us a delicious brunch. We shared this gourmet meal and our love of mayonnaise before heading to nearby Kew Gardens, London’s Royal Botanical Gardens, where the British proudly display their keenness for horticulture.
During a long walk on another sunny afternoon in London, we weaved through the park’s majestic grounds, lingering at the magnificent orchid festival and Rebecca Louise Law’s spectacular dried flower display called Life in Death. I was informed that all of the different kind of trees in the world, including the oldest one, are naturally in London and reminded once again that no matter how hard I try, I speak American. Yes I do.
I had tea with Marianne, a wonderfully smart and inspiring woman I met at CES in Las Vegas in January who trekked into town from the suburbs on a gloomy afternoon to join me in Primrose Hill at the Ivy Café. We engaged in a deep, culturally inspired conversation about life in London and the United States and shared some of our love for working in the automotive industry.
I had dinner and drinks with Sarah, a University of lululemon crew member, recently expatriated to the island, chasing a fantastic career in commercial real estate. We had a delicious meal at a traditional yet modern (and affordable, thanks to happy hour!) English pub, discussing family, relationships, career, and being an American in London. For a moment, I felt normal.
I got dressed up and headed to the city center for an interview. I left feeling grateful for being “wanted” professionally. More to come on this topic!
I met with some more former IBM colleagues for drinks at super cool Gordons Wine Bar. We picked right back up where we left off and I rejoiced in their successful progress in and outside of IBM. I also gratefully recalled the greatest gift I got from IBM: lifelong connections to remarkable human beings who get and appreciate my uniqueness because of our shared experiences at Big Blue, and now beyond.
I went on some “classical” London walks: Buckingham Palace, Westminster Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, London House of Parliament, Big Ben, 10 Downing Street, London Tower & Bridge and Trafalgar Square. In this city, seemingly center of the world, I felt a strong connection to Canada.
In the end, I found that, kinda like New York City, London is a place I will have to return to over and over in order to fully appreciate and understand it’s magnitude, grandeur, complexities and culture. I also found that I am really thankful for these Londoners. We will meet again…