I absolutely love cycling to and from work in London but it is on those occasions, usually early in the morning or late at night, when I get to see the beauty of the very old mixed in with the lit-up new against a spectacular natural backdrop, that I am really reminded of what a privilege it is to live here. Whether it’s a yellow pink sunrise or full moon against black sky, London glitters under the spotlight of beautiful natural illumination and sings a melodic tune of rich history, unique character and vibrant diversity.
I’ve been in London for nearly four years now and unfortunately it often seems to me less than extraordinary. I am thankful for having settled in so quickly and for being able to call London my ‘home’, however I don’t want to get to a point during my time here, however long that shall be, where I think of London as ‘normal’. Currently I’m reading a book called ‘Neverwhere’ by Neil Gaiman, which takes place in fictional London Below and I can’t help but smile with pride as I read about the familiar tube stations and areas of my now-home. My response is the same when I see films set in the Capital or when I read those silly online lists about the funny, frustrating and lovely things ‘all Londoners’ can identify with.
When I first got here, I had to consider which neighbourhood to live in. Would I join the herd by moving to South West London, where an influx of South Africans over the years has led to South African shops, South African food sections in local shops, South African-owned pubs and restaurants and the daily experience of walking past South African accents? Or would I do what some others do and purposefully move far away, since I have moved countries after all? I visited house shares in the South West and one in Highbury and Islington. Although I was dangerously close to going for the latter, they found someone else and I subsequently ended up in the tiniest box room in South West London for next to nothing (in terms of London rent that is). Now, I’m proud to call South West London my home. Granted, I hear the South African accent every day, occasionally run into familiar faces from school or university days and often visit South-African owned pubs, but I love these frequent reminders of home. And ultimately, my London experience has definitely been more English than it has South African.
I have fallen in love with the English way of life. It’s not only the different traditions that I have come to love. More than that, it’s something in the air, an almost tangible buzz. For me, this atmosphere is a result of a combination of elements, moods and emotions.
I’m someone who is quite easily affected by the weather and the details of nature. I often marvel at the beauty of it, whether it’s a warm summer’s day or a wet, chilly night. It can be the lazy sun as it wakes in the morning or its wide awake version as it burns in the sky on those beautiful summer days. It’s the moon as it shines in the night’s sky, changing in size and brightness from one day to the next. It’s the changing shades of the leaves, healthy green in the Spring and burnt orange in the Autumn. It’s the varying sound of rain, from the soft drizzle on the surface of your umbrella to the sound of heavy drops splashing on the ground outside and lulling you to sleep.
Before moving to the UK, I was warned about the weather but I never would have imagined how it becomes a part of your ever day life until I lived here. The BBC weather website is one of my most used – it determines what I’ll wear in the morning, how I’ll pack my bag and how it will affect my plans that evening. The weather here is small talk’s most popular theme, and the most natural direction to take any conversation during those awkward silences. It can be both the most common complaint and the source of most joy. And so when I think about the things of this country that add a spring to my step and cause a thrill of anticipation within me, it’s often the weather that sets the scene.
I arrived in London in the month of February and was quickly introduced to the winter season. I remember my arrival like it was yesterday – sitting upright in the train travelling from Heathrow airport to Paddington Station, staring out the raindrop-streaked window at huge dark clouds hanging over rows of quaint flats lined up one after the other, separated now and then by train stations, lush green parks and retail spaces. I’d only ever been to the UK once before, when I was nine, so my memories of the place weren’t very reliable. Rather, my first few glimpses of London made me think of the grey scenes depicted in Enid Blytons’ Malory Towers of my childhood or Harry Potter of my teenage years. Such day-to-day sights were, of course, nothing new to established Londoners, and many a public transport user’s unhappy disposition, seemingly due to the weather, quickly became apparent. I’ve always had a certain fondness about grey days, however, and the simple joy I find in the rain has bought my friends much amusement. But I suppose, when it’s such a common occurrence – which it wasn’t in sunny Africa – then it can often be rather annoying, especially when it hampers transport and plans.
Both of my brothers live in London too – another reason settling in came quick and easy. A few weeks into my visit, I met up with them and one of their friends told expressed how much she was looking forward to summer. “There’s no place like London in the summer,” she said with obvious excitement.
And so I waited in anticipation. In winter, I couldn’t believe how long darkness lingered into the morning, and how quickly it returned hours later. In summer, I couldn’t believe how early the sun rose and how late it began its decline. At that point, I was working in Farringdon. I remember walking from the tube station to my office, the sun firmly in place high in the sky having risen hours earlier, men and women atop their Boris bikes clad both in business suits and casual clothes and smiles all-around. People were practically skipping with delight. And it was certainly infectious.
Having always taken the sun for granted, I began to see just what a difference it made to people’s lives, and mine. Feeling the warmth of the sun against my back at lunchtime, or as I lie in the park, or merely walking from one place to another, is now one of my most favourite weather-related feelings. That summer, though it was said to be the coldest in 18 years, to me was wonderful, and bought me new appreciation for summer and sun.
That year also brought about my first UK Christmas, and I realised that Christmas in the UK was an event you spent months preparing for, and that Christmas spirit, along with the mulled wine and hot cider, added warmth and excitement to chilly evenings. It wasn’t a white Christmas, but it did snow that winter. And what delight I found in the crunch my wellies made against the snow as I left the house a quiet Saturday morning, wrapped in layers, to photograph my first glimpses of London boasting a fresh white coat.
This week signalled a stark change in the weather. Although I only have three others to compare it to, I do think we’ve had a glorious summer. And now, though I’ll miss the long days, summer sun and infectious happy attitudes, the beginning of winter causes shivers inside – and not just the cold kind – as I look towards the pre-Christmas months with their colourful lights and wintery festivals, the possibility of snow (I missed it last year) and pulling out the ‘ol winter wear.