London- Don’t Meet Your Heroes

All right folks, back to your regularly-scheduled programming. (Will return to dismantling capitalism in two ticks.)

On my three week solo international journey (aka my TWSIJ), I visited London for the first time.

I was torn between giddiness and apprehension.

For most of my life, I had been exploring a different version of London, a London captured in pages. A London made up of “Neverwhere” and “1984”, where around any corner you could run into Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. This London breathed soot, it caught on fire, it was peopled by beggars, orphans, detectives and queens.

I came to London expecting my expectations to be dashed.

And I was right, or partially right, and partially wrong.

London doesn’t fit. It doesn’t fit within its physical boundaries, sprawling and stretching out along the Thames, constantly hungry for the next suburb and the next. It doesn’t fit in any sort of category. You can try to compare it to other cities (One person I talked to attempted to say it was like to New York. I stopped paying attention after that), but inevitably such comparisons fall flat. And London doesn’t fit on a page.

I walked through London as much as I could. One because I was able to do so, two because I hate spending money, and three because I find walking through cities to be the best way to get to know them. Their real identities, not just the face they put on to attract tourists.

My second day, I walked from the neighborhood I was staying in eastern London all the way to Buckingham Palace. As I walked, I watched the faces around me change: from blue collar workers, women in hijabs or in niqabs, babies pushed about in prams, to the land where white men walk with cell phones attached to their ears, barking and cursing, to the tourist-trod stones where every few seconds someone (sometimes me) had to stop for a selfie. I watched as the architecture mirrored this transformation: from brick tenements up to shining skyscrapers falling away to pristine limestone where decisions were made for the rest of the city, the rest of the country, the lives of the many dependent on the thoughts of a few.

I tried to feel how I felt.

It wasn’t disappointment, per se, disappointment I had expected, it was more akin to acceptance and curiosity. I knew that the place I had read about my whole life, could never be the multitude of ideas and worlds it had inspired. It could only be whatever it was, and that was the city I wanted to get to know. The place where people live and breathe.

So, in my wandering I came to separate my thoughts on the city from my thoughts on the writers from the city. These writers, as it turned out, were the real reason I was so eager to visit. I wanted to see the ground they had walked and the places they had described.

I was here for the London that had produced the writers who impacted me, those who had touched the life of a little girl growing up in rural Indiana. They had no idea that I existed, and still they changed the course of my existence.

That was the London I had grown to love. The London of words and ideas, loosely based on a physical place. And it was beautiful to see the places I heard described so many times. To walk down Baker Street and through Regents Park. To take the Tube for the first time. But in my reading and my bookstore visits and my ooing and ahing over the houses of Orwell and J.M. Barrie, in my enjoyment of the city as it is now, occupied by those who live there in 2018, I realized that I wanted more than the physical city, and more than a ghost city of writers.

I wanted to create such a world of my own. I wanted someday to inspire people to come, of all places, to Indiana or to Chicago or to Oakland, the places that are near and dear to my heart. I realized that it wasn’t enough for me to meet my heroes, I wanted to become them as well.

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