On the joys of being a perpetual tourist in your hometown
Author Chris Wright Illustration Michael Byers
Recently, a woman with a Russian accent approached me in London’s West End and asked for directions to Covent Garden. “Go straight down there,” I said, pointing in the opposite direction of Covent Garden. “Walk as far as you can, then take a left and keep going.” God only knows where she ended up. I looked at a map later, and my best guess is Bury St. Edmunds.
This would have been a pretty funny practical joke, except it wasn’t. The simple truth is, I got my compass points in a twist, as I almost always do when trying to find my way around London. Is East Barnet in the north or the south of the city? Or the east? And what about Herne Hill? Is that even a place? Is it a song?
This navigational ineptitude might seem odd, given the fact that I grew up in London, but I have an excuse. Until a few years ago I lived in Spain, and before that I lived in Dubai, and before that I lived in Boston. In fact, I had spent my entire adult life—almost 30 years—as an expat. Then I came home and discovered that I didn’t know where Hornchurch is.
I’ll probably never have to go to Hornchurch, but I do have to go to other places. The other day, I had to go to the Holborn tube station, in the seething midday heat, with a couple of American friends in tow. About 45 minutes into our five-block trek, my friends were openly questioning our route, which had twice led us around the perimeter of the British Museum. In the end, I had to stop and ask an elderly Sikh gentleman, who pointed at Holborn tube station and said, “There.”
There is, however, an upside to my situation, which is that I get to experience my hometown as if I were a foreigner—or, at the very least, someone who’s been
hit on the head with an anvil. Either way, my journeys tend to feel more like excursions than chores, which is more than I can say for the majority of my fellow Londoners.
There are times when, looking at the people around me on the Number 11 bus—which goes past the Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross and St. Paul’s Cathedral—I wonder if there isn’t a stigma attached to looking out the window. There’s a kind of formality in the way these passengers study their devices, as if to do otherwise would mark them as a bunch of naïfs.
Me, I celebrate my naïf-ness. I have no shame. Every time the 11 passes Big Ben, I crane my neck to see the top. I take pictures of the doorways on Fleet Street, gaze dreamily at the Royal Courts of Justice. Or I’ll just jump off and walk the rest of the way, see what happens. Usually, what happens is that I get lost. And that’s OK, because sometimes you’ll be looking for one thing and find another. Sometimes you need to walk around a building a couple of times to realize that, hey, there’s a big stone lion sitting there!
This is how it’s been since I got back, like a permanent holiday (albeit one that requires I go to work). I’ve even started to venture farther afield. The other day I took my kid to St. Albans, a small city about 25 miles outside London, where we found a glorious cathedral, parts of which date back to 1077. But the truly extraordinary moments occur here in London, when, having taken a left instead of a right, I’ll encounter a building or a park and half-remember a dream—or not a dream: an experience.
This happened to me recently, as I walked past a shabby little courtyard on the Old Brompton Road in West
London, not far from where I grew up. I knew this place. I used to play in this courtyard with … ooh … Simon! We would have been about 7 years old. He lived alone with his dad, who never smiled. I walked into the yard, and there it was, my friend’s kitchen window, and right then I was rocked by the collision of memory and chance. To be fair, I didn’t really like Simon that much, but that window still made me cry.
I don’t want to get precious here, but there did seem to be something profound about this, peering at strange surroundings through a veil of familiarity, as if my day had been plotted by Ian McEwan. In any event, I wanted more, and I spent the rest of the afternoon roaming around childhood haunts, places I knew and didn’t know, trying to hold on to the delicious ache of Simon’s Courtyard—which would make a good title for one of McEwan’s books.
The lyricism of the occasion was diminished somewhat by the journey home, which wasn’t really a journey home at all. This time, my convolutions took me deeper into an area that promised a different kind of surprise, the kind that appears out of an alley and takes your phone. Taxi!
As we drove through the dark toward North London, I stopped looking out the window and started looking at Google Maps. I was interested in the route we were taking, the decisions that led us to bypass this street in favor of that, to cut left when we could have cut right. The driver definitely seemed to know what he was doing, and for a moment I sort of envied him that.
Ink Global international editor, U.S., CHRIS WRIGHT is toying with the idea of launching his own London tour company, to be called Where Are We?