Like any big city, London conjures up certain images. When you picture it, you’re probably picturing Central London and its many landmarks. I knew of course that living in Kingston-Upon-Thames would be different, being situated right on the city’s south-western edge, but I still wanted access to the typical London lifestyle- a kaleidoscopic haze of underground trains, arcade markets, and ethnic enclaves.
London to me is a place constantly in motion, which is what I wanted. I wanted somewhere that would keep me young, keep me alert, that wouldn’t give me time to think. I’d had enough of the castrated peace of the countryside- enough to last several mediocre lifetimes, to be exact. I came here to do, not to think. There are other big cities in the U.K., but London is the only true “international city”, and I mentioned in my last blog post that it’s that internationalism that makes it so appealing to me. It’s not a city that I find aesthetically interesting like Budapest or New Orleans- in fact I find London kind of ugly and lacking in style. Maybe it’s just my hatred of brick buildings. But whatever the case, it wasn’t London that I wanted- it was the various things London had, on account of being so big.
Kingston-Upon-Thames doesn’t have too many of those things. But I can get in and out of Central London real easy. 20 minutes on the train and I’m in Waterloo, which I’ll always associate with that one guy getting sniped outside the W.H. Smith’s in the Bourne Ultimatum. The first time I made the trip was early in the semester, to meet George and Elizabeth. I mentioned in my blog post this summer, detailing their visit to Bristol, how I wanted to see them more often. This was a quick turnaround by our standards. Just over a month in fact. But a lot had happened since then that they wanted to hear about.
“Tell us everything,” Elizabeth demanded.
I told them the stories from my first few weeks of university- from the week one presentation to the impromptu outdoor rave– and gave colorful accounts of the friends I’d made so far. We chatted over poke bowls at Elizabeth’s recommendation, which was my first experience of Hawaiian cuisine. The rest of the day was spent rambling throughout Notting Hill and Kensington. George wanted to see the Design Museum, and as we made our way there, I remembered that we were very close to a Japanese garden I’d seen on Tik Tok.
The place, Kyoto Gardens, is hidden away in Holland Park. We stopped there to admire the scenery and take some pictures. I liked that the bustling city of London had these tranquil green spaces that people could access so easily. It reminded me of the little Japanese garden I’d been to on Margitsziget, right in the center of Budapest. As much as I wanted a big city as my permanent place of residence, I still appreciated the reprieve offered by some nice greenery. Going from being packed like sardines on the tube to the serene quiet of the garden within mere minutes felt very satisfying.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Design Museum. When I hear the word “design” I think of clothes for some reason, so my guess was that it was a museum devoted to fashion trends throughout the ages. But that’s not what it was at all. Design, as my roommate later told me, is literally everything- everything that’s made or produced in some way. My roommate, who for the purposes of confidentiality we will call Minako, is doing a Master’s in UX Design (which stands for User Experience Design, meaning digital products like apps and websites). Every product- from road signs to shuttlecocks, and sporks to iPhones- needs to be designed, whether it’s functional or aesthetic in nature.
The museum had almost everything that could be considered a product. There were PS2 controllers, old typewriters, transistor radios, watches, blenders, umbrellas, bicycles, mugs, briefcases, tennis balls, jeans, subway maps, lawn chairs, travel brochures, overcoats, and much, much more. It was really interesting. I saw the iPod I used to take with me everywhere between 2008-2012, and it was crazy to think it was now a museum piece. A quaint, “interim technology” that had been so integral to my life for a while before it disappeared into the sands of time as assuredly as the dodo. It made me feel old in a way I’d never had before.
I said my goodbyes with George and Elizabeth on the tube, sorry to part with them again, and headed back to the dorm where I watched the quarterfinals of The Holy Cup with some katsu curry I’d picked up at the local Kokoro.
As it turned out, the next turnaround was even shorter. Just two days later, Elizabeth swung by campus to get lunch with me on my break. I couldn’t get over how easily it all worked out. Elizabeth- who is American- had had an appointment in Croydon regarding her residency status. She doesn’t have a smartphone, so I was amazed at how effortlessly she had been able to get around London. I felt for sure our lunch date would hit a snag, but I got a text around 10:30am as I was in the middle of my marketing class that read “I’m in the library café.”
I was so excited that my best friend was just waiting for me downstairs. Class ended at 10:50am, and I rushed out of the building and over to the Town House. Sure enough, Elizabeth was right there in front of me, coolly sipping a latte and looking sophisticated and cosmopolitan, at ease with the world. After a warm embrace we walked leisurely to the Thames. Elizabeth told me how proud she was of me that I was settling in so well at KU. She said that after I had said goodbye to her and George two days ago, they had remarked that I seemed to be “in a good place”.
It was true that things had gone better than I expected, but I didn’t necessarily feel like I was thriving, or that I was especially different. But Elizabeth insisted that I appeared a lot more confident than usual, and that it made her happy to hear about all the new connections I’d made here. She wanted more details on my new friends- my two roommates, the people on my course, and the group I’d been hanging with since the first weekend. More than anyone else I’ve ever met, Elizabeth loves to listen. It’s so easy to talk to her, because she’s constantly engaged and always excited about everything I say. She encourages me to keep talking in a way that few people would, to spare no detail. She’s the ideal friend for a self-conscious or anxious person, not just because she’s such an attentive listener, but because she makes you feel like yourself when you’re around her. It’s the accumulation of positive affirmations in her body language, expressions, reactions, and feedback that make you feel interesting, confident, and important.
I took her to a little café on the water called Riverside Vegetaria, that I’d eaten at with a couple friends from the dorms a few days earlier. It’s quite a unique place. Sometimes you can hear Chakra healing chants and a light gong when you’re in there. Elizabeth and I sat on the patio since it was a nice day, and enjoyed the veggie goodness on offer. When we were finished, we went for a stroll along the riverside and took some selfies. It had actually been ages since we’d had a good picture of us together. I’d served as the photographer at Elizabeth and George’s wedding in 2017, but I hadn’t managed to arrange for a photo with them myself, which I regret. At the reception I was busy taking requests from all the guests and by the time I’d gotten through them all, everyone had headed off to dinner. Tired, I decided to get fucked up on Prosecco, by which point the opportunity seemed to have passed. It was a lovely evening nonetheless. So it was nice to get some cute photos together 4 years later at my new home. I’d love to show them, but doing so would violate my rules regarding privacy. Only my grizzled mug makes it on this site.
We came back to the Penrhyn Road campus and sat for a while in the courtyard beside the John Galsworthy Building, where I have most of my classes. It was tough saying goodbye to her again, but it made me immensely happy to have squeezed in a meetup with my best friend during a long day of classes. We had one last big hug before I turned away and returned to the new life waiting for me behind the glass doors.