One of my favourite photos of myself as a kid is one with my dad. I’m about 2 years old, we’re standing in the middle of Trafalgar Square in London surrounded by pigeons and I’m tumbling back onto him while he holds onto me. I really like that picture because there’s something so tender about it; a child newly learning to walk, with her father there to guide her in case she falls.
I don’t remember that moment, but I know it happened because there’s a picture of it. I do remember the next time I was in London with my family. I was 8 years old, and my parents took my brother and I to Trafalgar Square to feed and play with the pigeons again. There are photos of that too, but I actually remember being there. That was 22 years ago.
I went back to London (for the first time as an adult) this year for a 10-hour layover on my way to Pakistan. I’ve had transits at Heathrow over the years, but I’ve never had enough time to go out into London and explore. This trip I had enough time, and I made sure to use it.
London is one of those big destination cities that a lot of people have either been to, or want to go to. Not only is it home to some of the world’s oldest institutions (banks, universities, museums), but England once ruled most of the world (I read that’s the reason the world map looks the way it does, to position Europe in the centre because England controlled trade, science, and pretty much anything else you can think of for hundreds of years).
As my train rolled into Paddington Station in central London, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought that I was going from one former British colony (Canada) to another former British colony (Pakistan) via Britain. It’s like I was in town paying my respects to the Queen and saying, “G’day Queen Mother, hope you’re enjoying your morning tea. Just wanted to swing by and say hello as I make my way around your kingdom.”
Colonization and colonialism are hot button topics nowadays, but truth be told, I’ve always felt that personally, I’ve benefitted from Pakistan having once been under British rule (well, technically it was India, but back then there was no Pakistan, so same difference I suppose). Because of the 250 year reign of the British monarchy there, we have cricket, and almost everyone in Pakistan and India can speak English. (Last year I was in Pakistan and a street vendor, who are very often illiterate, knew what a sweet potato was when I accidentally asked him for one in English instead of in Urdu.) It’s also why many first generation South-Asian immigrants better integrate into Western countries (as compared to African or Asian immigrants) since they’re familiar with the culture and can speak the dominant language (Wikipedia told me this). I’m sure for my great grandparents’ generation, living under British rule might have been unpleasant, but their suffering gave me a leg up in the global race to success.
Walking around Oxford Street in SoHo and Hyde Park, my thoughts slowly morphed into a different topic – World War II. As I saw those quintessential London black taxis driving around and tiny streets with low rise apartment buildings, it dawned on me that much of this was probably rebuilt after the war, considering how much London was bombed during that time. It’s not the first time I’ve had such thoughts while in Europe. I had similar sentiments about Amsterdam when I was there last year, and how horrible it must have been to be hiding out in a bunker while bombs were being thrown above you, hoping you didn’t die. The legacy of World War II is everywhere in Europe, and being physically present in the major cities there reminds me of the atrocities of the 20th century. Ironically India and Pakistan gained their independence from the British at the end of WW2, so there’s that.
Getting hungry and wanting to take a break from walking around in the sun, I decided to go to the food court in a place called Selfridges, and that’s when my thoughts about being in London took a turn for the personal (and emotional).
Selfridges was a high end department store (kind of like Nordstrom or Marks & Spencer). I sat at an artisanal sandwich cafe and saw people carrying shopping bags around, and after lunch I decided to check out the store for myself. It was fancy – security guards at all the exits, its own fish market and organic grocer, and products from the world’s biggest luxury brands (make-up, bags, shoes, gowns, the works).
Walking around the store, I got reminded of how, when I was younger, I had a whole wardrobe from Harrods that my parents bought for me whenever they’d be in London. I had dresses, shoes, tights, belts and handbags from the store the royal family was known to shop at. As a kid, Harrods was just another store, and the clothes I had from there were just more clothes I had. I didn’t understand the concept of high end purchases like those, mainly because everything I owned was high end. Of course I had this stuff because my family could afford it, but even then, it was quite something for a pre-teen to have access to such luxury goods and not even realize it. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say my parents spoiled me, but within reason. I don’t know how they managed to teach me to be classy and graceful without being arrogant and egotistical, but they pulled it off somehow.
From here on out, the rest of my time in London was spent thinking back on my childhood as I walked around the city and each new landmark brought up a new memory and realization from the deep recesses of my mind. I walked past the UCL campus and thought of my older cousin from my dad’s side who went to school there and now lives in London. I emailed him twice about wanting to see him on this layover, but he never replied, probably because things have been strained with that part of the family ever since my dad died. I haven’t seen or talked to any of my cousins from my dad’s side in over 5 years, which is crazy because we hung out with them all the time when we were younger and lived in Pakistan. We were closer to them than we were to our mom’s side of the family.
The more I walked around, the more I remembered. I walked past an ATM and remembered the time (when I was 8) that my dad got robbed just as he took his British Pound bills from a currency exchange in London. Some guy just came out of nowhere and grabbed all the bills my dad had just received from the cashier behind the counter and ran off before any of us fully grasped what had happened. A police officer came and took our statement, and by the end of the night my dad was already laughing about the whole thing, knowing he was never going to see that money again. He had a very “it wasn’t meant to be” attitude about the whole thing, and my mother shared in that too. They didn’t fret over it, and told their friends back home the story as a comedy rather than a tragedy. I think that’s where my attitude about money also stems from – it comes and goes, no point thinking about it too much.
I few years ago I realized I didn’t want to visit certain cities I had travelled to with my family as a kid, mainly Paris, London, and the islands of Hawaii. It’s hard for me to describe just how magical and surreal those vacations were for me (I was between the ages of 6-10 when we made those trips and remember them quite well). I knew that going back to them as an adult would tarnish the idea I have of them in my mind from my childhood. I felt there was credence to this thought because being in London, I didn’t see it as enigmatically as it was preserved in my memory. I saw it as just another metropolitan city with traffic, occasional litter, noise and lots of people. Seeing things “as they are” doesn’t always turn out to be all that great.
I consciously avoided going to any of the places I had been to with my family – Buckingham Palace, London Bridge, Big Ben, and of course Trafalgar Square (last thing I wanted to see was a dirty square with homeless people hanging out all around). I charted my day around the city to strategically avoid all the landmarks I wanted to keep preserved in my mind, and when I accidentally came upon Madame Tussauds, I hurriedly walked past and crossed the street.
When I went to Madame Tussauds with my family, I didn’t remember the long lines or the noisy entrance. I remember being shit scared in the Dark Ages section of the museum – severed wax heads on stakes, the recorded sounds of people being burned alive in pits of fire, and the amber lights bouncing off my father’s face as we walked through the dungeons and torture chambers. I didn’t want to see people rubbing Nicki Minaj’s wax ass as they posed for pictures, or took selfies with Trump’s statue.
Instead, I went to the Sherlock Holmes Museum, checked out the School of Life’s store, walked around Hyde Park and visited Marble Arch (as recommended by a friend). I wanted to see London as an adult for myself, not write over the memories I have of it from when I was a child. I went to a couple of hipster cafes and found out warm porridge is a pretty popular item on the menu at most establishments. I checked out book stores and walked around Camden Town. Instead of Big Ben, I went to King’s Cross and gazed upon St. Pancras clock tower while weaving through a farmer’s market in front of the underground. I forged new memories, and kept the old ones safe.
I like to think my inner mind palace is like Paddington Station, a perfect mesh of old and new world. The building, the structure that houses the metro is old and well-preserved, but the trains and technology that run in it are new and modern.
Or maybe I’m just a sad 30-year old woman who likes to live in the past and hasn’t managed to move on from experiences she had more than 20 years ago.
Heading back to Heathrow on the Airport Express, my mind was consumed with all these thoughts and memories, and with them came emotions of a melancholic nature. Not wanting to be that girl crying on the tube, I tried to divert my thoughts, and that’s when Dr. Seuss’ words rang in my ears:
“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
But that just made me want to cry even more.