I had promised myself this trip to London would be different. I had promised myself I wouldn’t do what I always did in London. That I would try new things, meet new people, go to new places. And it would seem I have failed miserably.
I didn’t venture out of Kensington and Chelsea once. I remained within the confines of the royal borough, that bastion of poshness and crassness in equal measure.
I saw them all.
I saw the Russians and the Kazakhs. Stepping out of Rolls Royces with tinted windows, looking like caricatures of themselves. Pencil-thin women decked out in the lifeless skin of every animal. Men with faces that seemed like the product of time and erosion rather than birth. You couldn’t tell the bodyguards from the oligarchs. I saw the Arabs, in their ill-fitting Armani outfits and outdated Ed Hardy caps. I saw them with the earphones to their mobiles wrapped around their face, calling their friends to meet them at Rouge by Harrods. I saw their Swarovski-encrusted matt black Lamborghni Overcompensatos.
I saw the statuesque Norwegian guys with blonde quiffs no one else could pull off. Decked out in outfits that would make the preppiest of New England croquet players hug their trust fund in fear. I actually saw one guy in blue suede loafers, green shorts, a pink polo and a salmon blazer and Wayfarers. And he actually looked cool. “Damn you Scandinavians!”, I thought to myself, as I shook my fist skywards. I could never wear that. I’d look like I’d fallen through the closet at a Ralph Lauren outlet store. And failed to get out.
I saw the Frenchies around South Ken station, which is undoubtedly the most French part of the world outside of Saint Germain. Each one of them impeccably dressed and carrying a scooter helmet under their arm. Their Gallic accents making everyone swoon. The picture ruined only by the fact that they’re all derivatives traders.
I saw the locals. The few remaining Brits who still populate the area. Tories with quadruple-barrelled names. For some reason I have yet to comprehend, all the men are named Hugo and appear to have just finished a Polo match, and had time to kill a couple of foxes on the way home. The girls are all called Jemimah and do interior design for their It girl friends.
So I wandered through Chelsea, feeling like the least European man in the universe every time I caught a glimpse of myself in a store window. At one point I felt my hefty beard would start resenting my shame at being dark and hairy, and unilaterally leave my body and start singing “Oh, I come from a land, from a far away place where camel caravans roam”.
It was unseasonably sunny all weekend. And everyone was as excited as you might expect a population deprived of sun for 364 days a year to be. The parks were an ocean of paleness and factor 100 sun block. I tried to explain to everyone that I didn’t really care about the sun, that I’ve been in a shirt since last summer in Beirut, I wanted to see a gallery or a museum or something. But no one even feigned to listen to me.
So we grabbed jugs of Pimm’s and rested on whatever patch of sun we could find. I think I may have consumed my bodyweight in Pimm’s last weekend.
One interesting event we managed to drag ourselves to was a debate at Kensington Town Hall with Julian Assange about whistleblowers. As I waited for my friends to arrive, I sat on a bench facing the public library. The very same library I used to look forward to browsing through every weekend as a kid. I was an immeasurably nerdy child, and deserved all the teasing I got at the Lycee on Cromwell Road. But sitting there, in front of that library that provided me with so many of my first books, made me happy.
The debate itself was a thing of beauty. Points were defended passionately and eloquently. Those who were not eloquent were eloquently torn to pieces by those who were. There was wry, inappropriate humour. There was wit and intelligence. There was basically Englishness all round. And it was comforting.
Later that day, I walked passed Queens Gate Terrace, where I grew up. I stared up at my childhood home. Drunk on Pimm’s, political debate and nostalgia, I just stood there, for no reason whatsoever. Looking up at the window where my father’s study used to be. Where I used to crack the spine of his books. Where I used to riffle through his stack of Sunday papers until I found the Funday Times. Where we used to watch John Wayne movies on Channel Four on Sunday evenings. Where I had my first sip of Black Label.
And in that moment I realized I didn’t care that I hadn’t done anything new this time around. I didn’t care I hadn’t found some new hipster haunt in Hoxton.
I was happy to have seen familiar faces, some of whom I’ve known since I was too young to remember. I was happy nothing had changed. I was happy the Eurotrash were still ridiculous. I was happy the students at the Royal College Music still lugged around their cellos on the Tube. I was happy the grass in Hyde Park was still uncomfortable and frayed and wet.
I didn’t feel I missed London. I didn’t feel I wanted to live there again at this point in my life.
But I was happy nothing had changed, and that I was home.