I finally made it to London, and I am cozily ensconced in my sister’s room. Well, ok, not quite cozily. We’re under several blankets, wearing sweaters and we are still cold. We’ve kept the curtains drawn all day because, although it has made the room unpleasantly cave-like and dim, it was that or allow the tall single-paned windows to let in even more cold.
London is famous for being dreary and grey when it’s cloudy, which is often. After all most cities take on a grey quality on a cloudy day. But even when the sun creeps through those famous London clouds, it doesn’t seem to ever quite melt the grey from the atmosphere. It’s almost as though there is a greyness to the air itself, a damp everywhere that seems to diffuse light and experience to a duller shade.
When I leave London, my memory of this place becomes automatically faded and under-exposed. Although the city is not composed solely of grey stones, when I think of it and the time I have spent here, I recall the buildings as grey, the streets as grey, even the parks as a shade of grey.
But on a sunny day London can suddenly be transformed into Technicolor, like Dorothy landing in Oz – bright red bricks and telephone booths, sparkly river, lush green grass framed by a bright blue sky. But how is all that vibrancy so muted most of the time, such that I barely remember it’s there?
This morning my sister had to pick up a prescription at a pharmacy and a sweet, yet feisty old lady with short curly white and grey hair, one dark yellow tooth, a bit of a mustache and a friendly quick wit, asked her where she was from. My sister said California and the woman asked her dubiously, “And you came HERE?” She raised her eyebrows and laughed like my sister must be mad. But she looked almost proud of being from a place she classified as miserable.
Last month my friend Jacob used the fact that he was from California to get through British customs. No he didn’t have a departing ticket, visas for the next places on his supposed travel itinerary, not much money and no job at that moment, but he told them he obviously had no reason to want stay in England any longer than a few days as he was from California. This was good enough evidence for the official and they stamped his passport and let him on through.
English people always seem a bit confused as to what the appeal of their island is. Ok maybe if you’re from Poland or Russia – but California? They have the same look on their face that I imagine they had back so long ago when Romans invaded, the same incredulous question – Really? Are you quite sure you’ve thought this through?
In London you never forget you are on an island because you feel the water all around you. Maybe you don’t see it – maybe you are on Oxford Street surrounded by cars and buses and people and shops and fashion and money – but you still can almost feel the crashing of grey waves on a grey shore not too far off along a vicious, cold coast.
The real problem is not the cold, but the damp – because damp cold is the most insidious sort. It doesn’t matter what you wear – it will find a way to seep through your clothes, nestling in, absorbed through your skin till it reaches bone. And once it gets that deep, layer upon layer of blankets can’t fix it, can’t warm you up quite enough. The chill remains.
Apparently this is a place that is so damp that slugs live indoors. Two of our friends had one such slug resident in their house. They could never find it, but knew he was there because every morning his trail was left across the hall or the living room or a window. He was apparently quite comfortable.
There is also a direct inverse to the cold and damp – for example the interior spaces of pubs that are generally dim, but infused with warm browns and reds and yellows, everything that stands in contrast to the grey outside. London gives me that feeling of being a place that can be so warm and comforting if you can find your way inside.
And I can’t explain it – I arrive in London and feel a rush. There’s something exciting about the city. It’s grey, damp, cold and miserable, yet it is also contains a vibrant, energetic, ordered chaos. I don’t quite know what I think about this city. I can’t quite come to terms with it. Yes, it’s appealing – I really like the feeling of it here – but I can’t figure out why!