An Italian goes back to London…

INTRODUCTION

If you’re looking for the photos, you can find them on Flickr or Facebook. They’re not really “works of art”, rather a visual collection of memories. This post, too, is very long for the same reason: I wrote it for myself more than anyone else, so I saw no reason to hold back. If you do want to give this a read… good luck!

FOREWORD

And so, after three years, I went back to London. Three years of craving and pining and looking for someone to share a room, and an adventure, with. Lots of things happened in the meantime, as may be inferred by my lack of posting here: things about work, things about my personal life, things about my family, things about friends (or alleged friends), and so on.

Then, at some point, I told myself: you know what? I’m going on my own.

I found a surprisingly good deal on a hotel, especially given its location (Kensington), services (breakfast and private bathroom) and ratings (8.5/10), and just booked it. It also came with free cancellation, so there was nothing to lose. The flight was a different story, as I waited too long due to some family issues and likely paid more than I could have, but such is life; there was no free cancellation on that, so I wanted to be sure that I would indeed be going.

I won’t deny that the weeks leading to the departure were an emotional rollercoaster. Had I made a huge mistake? Would I be fine? What about the impending Brexit? And how about all those people being stabbed in London making the news? Not to mention a never-ending list of other doubts, some silly and some less so, that just kept growing.

Time, however, has the interesting trait of not caring and not stopping, so the day finally came for me to get onto that aircraft. I’m not afraid of flying in the slightest: somewhat ironically, watching a million documentaries on plane crashes taught me a lot on how they work and removed any potential residual fear I might have had (which was pretty much none to begin with). If anything, I was more concerned about the boredom, but I managed to stay entertained by listening to music and tracking the plane’s position, speed and altitude via GPS. Well, what did you expect from a geek anyway?

DAY 1: March 18, 2019 (Monday)

The flight was fairly uneventful, and actually started with a chuckle. Ryanair’s recording on safety review at some point says “In the unlikely event of landing on water…”, which made me think: wait, would that still be called a landing, if it happened on water? A few minutes later, I found myself thinking “Let’s hope that the pilot flies this thing better than how he speaks English”, because his messages to passengers were little more than incomprehensible grumbles.

Linguistic musings aside, the moment we reached the edge of Belgium and started seeing the English Channel it dawned on me that I still hadn’t fully realized what I was doing or where I was; up to that point, everything had been a bit of a blur and I sort of felt detached from what was going on.

I will not go into details here about this, but it’s probably worth mentioning that I was subconsciously feeling a little guilty for taking this trip: those family issues I mentioned earlier were serious, and I had considered canceling everything. However, everyone involved insisted that I shouldn’t let it affect me, as I had planned all of this long before those problems first arose, and nobody would have an issue with me going. So I did leave, but it’s hard to pretend that nothing is wrong when, well, something is definitely wrong. End of the aside.

The landing at Stansted reminded me of what I had thought earlier: the pilot’s flying skills were, in the end, not much better than his English: we definitely touched down hard, though in his defense the weather wasn’t the greatest.

Anyway, after the infinite labyrinth that takes you from the gate to border control, I used the automated passport machine to let myself in, collected my luggage (and shared a few words with a few Italian high school students on a school trip there, lucky them), and went to board the Stansted Express, which is the train that goes straight into Central London.

I was still trying to get a grip on what was going on — I was in London! well, almost — when the train stopped at a place called Bishop’s Stortford, and the speaker croaked that we should get off the train and wait for the next one. Thankfully there was a woman (who, turns out, is originally from my same area but lives in London) who knew exactly how trains work there, and everyone just followed her onto another train, and then again onto another a few stations down. We eventually reached Liverpool Street station, and once I got past the gates, I looked around as the crowds rushed past me in all directions. It finally started to dawn on me: I was back there in London, and it was the beginning of my solo adventure; I felt a little bit like Bilbo at the beginning of the Hobbit, for those who have read it and know what I mean. Interestingly, in 2016 it also took me until I was out of the station to fully realize that it was all happening for real.

I walked before all the Oyster machines and finally found one that took notes in addition to coins and credit cards, and was happy to see that my old Oyster card worked just fine. I topped it up with the exact amount of a 7-day Travelcard, and off I went into the depths of the earth, or at least as deep as the platform for the Central line.

On the relatively long journey from Liverpool Street to Queensway, I was immediately reminded of why I love London. Anyone who’s read my previous recount knows exactly what I’m referring to, but to sum it up: it’s the diversity of its people. And literally next to me — we were holding onto the same pole — a girl started reading a book, which I assume was a novel, written in what looked like Cree or Ojibwe, or something like that. Unfortunately at the time I hadn’t gotten into my “London mode” yet (which makes me forget that I’m shy and lets me chat with random strangers), so I didn’t ask her what language it was. I’m still regretting it, being the language nerd that I am. If anyone is familiar with languages that look like Canadian Syllabics and are popular enough for publishers to print novels in them, please let me know.

Getting off — “alighting” — the train at Queensway was the first sign that I might have horrendously miscalculated distances. In my mind, I thought I would just have to cross the short side of Hyde Park into Kensington. What I had not considered was that it’s definitely longer than it looks, and it’s especially not the nicest thing to do when you’re carrying both a backpack and a suitcase. Moreover, halfway through — and right next to the entrance of Kensington Palace, a few steps from the statue of Queen Victoria — I received the bad news that the aforementioned family issues had come to the worst possible end; even though it was not unexpected in the slightest, it was a huge blow nevertheless. Just after I had resumed my walk to the hotel, a 3- or 4-year-old little girl fell off her bike, and started sobbing; by that time “London mode” had kicked in, because I turned to her mother and asked if she was okay, and said that it breaks my heart to hear a child cry (the girl was fine, by the way; only her ego was a little bruised from the fall, bless her heart.)

I finally got to the hotel, after spending a few minutes to catch my breath and join a grandfather and his little nephew in staring at a surprisingly chubby squirrel; I unpacked the basics, made sure everything in the room was in order, and made my way to High Street Kensington station, taking note of whatever I came across: sure, I had two phones with maps, but getting a sense of where you are is a very handy skill.

Once at the station, I realised that the famous Tube Map is slightly misleading: you would think that the Circle and District line cover most of the same route in Central London, but you cannot really hop onto the first one that comes along. Depending on your destination, you’re better off looking at the more detailed map on the platform, check on the sign which train is next (and where it goes, especially), and then make an informed decision. Not a big deal once you get the hang of it, but not as easy as taking the tube in Pimlico.

So onto the train I went, towards Piccadilly Circus: those screens are bright at night! I immediately went to the Lego store, which I had seen in a documentary (!), and chatted for a good fifteen minutes with one of the guys who work there; he was clearly really into Lego stuff because he told me in great detail how they had built the gigantic replicas in the shop: a Tube car, a Big Ben (“the only Big Ben that actually chimes every hour”, he added with pride, referring to renovation work in progress on the real one), and a whole skyline of London. We’re talking hundreds of hours of work by dozens of people, and hundreds of thousands of Lego bricks… for each single one of these things. I even saw a guy with a Lego ukulele, which was sadly not for sale.

After that, I went for a quick visit to the M&Ms store which is literally across the street from Lego, the only difference being that the M&Ms place extends downwards and you can smell the chocolate from outside the door.

I walked around, grabbed a bite, and headed back to Kensington. On my way to the hotel, I stopped at a Marks & Spencer to grab some snacks but had no idea that the “food hall” was on the underground floor, with a dedicated door. I just went in through the main door and looked for the stairs going down, bought some stuff and then just went back up. I must have looked quite weird, carrying biscuits and water bottles amidst mannequins wearing somewhat expensive clothes…

I giggled at the thought, and walked on to the hotel, taking everything in. I was in London; it was starting to feel real.

DAY 2: March 19, 2019 (Tuesday)

I got up early-ish, had some breakfast, and left early enough. I was going to walk, so I took my time to explore the area around the hotel and all the way to Exhibition Road in South Kensington. As I had planned, I walked through the Imperial College (and wondered what the big tower is for: perhaps they throw failing students off it?). As an aside, I was surprised at how many Asian students there were; I thought it was just a stereotype that they’re good at anything academic, but I suppose it’s actually true (this is ok to say, isn’t it? it’s a compliment, not an insult; you never know these days…) Anyway, I got to the museums early, so I just walked around and noticed that the National History Museum still attracts wild crowds, and getting in there is still a complicated ordeal. Meanwhile my own target, the Science Museum, was nowhere near as packed and I deliberately walked slowly through its doors; so much so that I actually stopped to chit-chat with one of the security guards at the entrance, then with one of the ladies at the donation counter (old £15 out of tender? no problem! donated to the museum, they’ll exchange them) and then with a very funny guy who was at one of the souvenir shops right at the beginning of the museum. His name is Lincoln and you can see him in the photos; we immediately bonded over 1990s video games, as I told him a little story about Sonic’s splash screen and how Italians mispronounce the name of the console (he had a good laugh at that).

The museum was lovely; a few things were different from my last visit, many remained the same. It was still great to go through, however, and I spent all morning in there. I then took the long pedestrian tunnel to South Kensington station (which is apparently appreciated by birds as well — it’s a very weird experience to have pigeons woosh past you in a confined space) and went to the British Museum. Another donation counter, another chat, only to discover after a while that the guy was Italian. I obviously didn’t see everything in there, and in fact at this point I was starting to feel quite tired: I hadn’t slept that great on the first night, and I had definitely underestimated both how many steps Tube stations generally have, and how crowded they get. There’s no “walking slow” in there: you just gotta move, mate.

After that I stopped at the Camera Museum, which I had visited three years ago, but this time I actually went downstairs to see the museum itself: a collection of cameras since the early days of photography, and a few cinema cameras as well. I was so in awe that I completely missed the bathroom door despite looking for it.

At the end, in part due to some light rain and in part due to being literally exhausted, I headed straight back to the hotel. I was so tired I fell asleep without even eating!

DAY 3: March 20, 2019 (Wednesday)

The night was pleasant and I definitely caught up on sleep, but had no time to lose: this was the only day I had something booked, and I just could not be late. I quickly had breakfast and left the hotel early enough that I entered the station at 8:52 (!), only to be sorely disappointed that some signalling issues had prevented all eastbound trains from going beyond Paddington — quite a big deal, considering that it’s literally the second station on both lines.

I considered going to Gloucester Square station and taking the Piccadilly line there, but I wasn’t sure whether it would just make things worse so I stayed there and hoped for the best, while people kept coming. By the time the train finally came, there were easily three hundred people on each platform. I took a mental note of where to get off (Embankment) and hoped it would go smoothly from that point on. My appointment was at 10:45 in front of the gate of the West Cemetery at Highgate for the tour, and it would take a while to get there. Planning ahead in detail really helped in this case: even though I was not (and am not) familiar with the layout of the Embankment station, I knew exactly what to look for: change to the Northern line, making sure it goes to High Barnet. That was easy enough, and I even took the time to film the display on the train when we went through Camden Town (which happens to be the best part of London according to a friend of mine, and what’s the point of going on holiday if you can’t make someone envy you a little bit?)

Another thing I was aware of — kind of — was that the area just outside Archway station had changed since 2016, but I knew which buses I could take to avoid climbing the steep hill to Waterlow Park; the issue was finding the correct bus station, but they all had a display with real time information that made everything quite simple. Definitely a different experience compared to my own tiny hometown…

In the end I made it to the cemetery in time, indeed I got there earlier than planned and I was able to go for a brief stroll through the East Cemetery and peek at Karl Marx’s vandalized tomb. A worker there assured me that removing the paint was not going to be an issue, but they had to be careful with those high-pressure water pumps to avoid damaging the headstone further. Funny moment: when I arrived the lady in charge of the East cemetery for the day was speaking fluent German with a German tourist. When it was my turn, I put all my Duolingo efforts to good use and told her: “Mein Deutsch ist sehr schlecht…” and we both had a good laugh.

The West Cemetery tour was nothing short of amazing. Our guide was Mr. Peter Mills, a retired history teacher and now a volunteer at Highgate. He didn’t just give us a short recap about a few landmarks, but rather told us about the overall history of the cemetery from its inception to today, often sprinkling his recount with jokes; he made all visitors feel involved, to the point that by the end of the tour we all felt like we had gotten to know one another somewhat, just by sharing the story we had been told about that place we had gone to see. Before leaving, I had a chat with him: he truly is a great person. Mr. Mills, if you ever read this: thank you again for the wonderful tour.

On the way back through Waterlow Park, I came across a senior lady (Pam, short for Pamela) with a dog. From a distance, she told him to stop right there, and he did. I looked back and said “I wish my dog listened to me like that!” and before I knew it, we were having a conversation about her own teenage years in the area, how the cemetery was fully accessible at the time and kids just went to play in there, and she actually gave me more details about the young punks who went there on dares to steal things out of tombs (something our guide had mentioned). She added that sometimes those people came out of the cemetery carrying whole limbs of the deceased, obviously bone only: someone once brought out a whole hand when they couldn’t remove a ring from it, and then used it to shock everyone at a pub by placing it on the bar counter.

It was a completely random encounter, but it was lovely: she reminded me of both my paternal grandmother, the way she told her stories and the way she was genuinely curious to know about me; and my maternal grandmother, who had the same deep blue eyes as her. I hope that her grandchildren, if she has any, know how lucky they are to have a grandmother like that!

Once back in Central London, I spent some time walking around Oxford Street. I paid a mandatory visit to the Apple Store nearby (and discussed the lack of 3D Touch in the iPhone XR with an employee, because why not?) and then headed to the Photographers’ Gallery, which is located on a side street. The contrast between the crowds and shops of Oxford Street and the “industrial darkness”, for lack of a better term, of those smaller streets is striking, especially considering that they are literally attached to one another. The gallery was well worth the £5 entry fee: there are several exhibits going on at any given time, and the ones I found on the top floors were a painful but well needed punch in the stomach. One involved women’s rights, another was about one of the many wars in Africa, yet another was about an illegal political association in East Germany. I say “well needed” because too often we forget that photography is both a form of art that and a way of documenting reality the way it is, and as much as we’d like to think that everything is always peachy everywhere, the truth is that it seldom really is, at least not everywhere at the same time; and sometimes we do need a reality check, even if it makes us uneasy.

The other exhibits were less harsh on the soul, but no less interesting: I actually had a chance to chit-chat with a senior lady and fellow visitor about street photography in the 1960s, as we were both looking at images by Dave Heath. Something about them just caught my eye, but I was unable to pinpoint what it was; to this day I’m still not sure, but the lady suggested it may be that at the time photography was not as widespread as it is today. A valid point for sure, since nowadays we all carry a camera with us at all times; but there must be something else. I couldn’t help but wonder how those subjects must have felt, had they seen their own face in those photos: today many people take selfies all the time, but the moment they’re photographed by someone else, they suddenly stop liking their own looks. Something to think about.

DAY 4: March 21, 2019 (Thursday)

Big day! The one thing we had to skip three years ago was a trip to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, as it was out of the way and we had overplanned already. I decided to take it easy and kill two birds with one stone: since I had to take the DLR, I went to Tower Hill and explored that side of the City a little more. So I looked on the map for the old church of St. Dunstan in the East, of which only the walls remain, and walked towards it whilst keeping an eye on the map: it’s somewhat hidden, unless you know where to look.

On a bench in the garden of the church I met a man who was having a break from work, and my London mode kicked in: I said hello, and then added that even though we didn’t know each other, that place was just too nice not to be friendly to perfect strangers. He laughed and, while I changed lenses on my camera and snapped a few photos, we chatted a little. He told me about his work as an insurance agent, about how that area is essentially all insurance companies due to the proximity to the river (back in the day, cargo that traveled by ship was the big deal for insurance companies) and banks are all clustered farther inland, how he’s a second-generation immigrant but lived in that area of London all his life so he’s sort of used to the high prices, and so on. It was a very lovely chat, and once again I was reminded of why I love that city and its people. And yes, I know, it’s not all peaches and dandelions and so on, but hey, I come from a place where everyone looks the same, speaks the same, thinks the same, and we still manage to hate one another. Also, note to self: do talk to random people more often; at worst they’ll tell you off. (Heck, I wasn’t even stabbed in stabby-happy London so what’s the worst that can happen elsewhere?)

So I took a few photos of the old church, or whatever’s left of it anyway, but they weren’t as great as I had hoped. More specifically: I had absolutely no idea that there would be tours of that area, so it was a bit of a struggle to take pictures of the building. I generally do embrace having random people in the frame as fighting that is an exercise in futility, but this time I was really hoping I could get nice clean shots. Moreover, I had already left the hotel late and wasn’t sure how long it would take in Greenwich (and I had already decided not to stay for the Planetarium shows in the late afternoon), so I packed up and off to the DLR station I went… walking through the crowds at the Tower of London whilst chatting with my family over FaceTime and showing them a live view of my surroundings, because I’m all high-tech like that.

Now, the DLR is an interesting thing. It’s a somewhat separate train system that serves the Docklands area in East London, and all trains are fully automated. The problem is that there are no barriers like in Tube stations, and the Oyster card validators are sort of out of the way, and you can just walk past them. For whatever reason, I was sure I had read somewhere that it wasn’t necessary to touch in if you had a Travelcard (in hindsight: why would I even think that?) so I just went onto the platform and boarded the train, waiting for it to being its journey to win the East. Before it actually started moving I finally started having doubts on the whole ordeal, so I spoke with a security person and asked what I should do: after all, I could still run to the Oyster machine and back, at worst I’d have taken the next train. He used his portable reader to scan my Oyster card, saw that I had a Travelcard, asked me where I was going, and told me it was fine as it was within the zones I had paid for. Fair enough then, off to Greenwich (changing at Shadwell)!

The first thing you notice when you get out of the Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich station (I’m not making it up, that is the actual name of the station) is, well, Cutty Sark. It’s the last surviving tea clipper and it’s been turned into a museum, and boy is it huge. I’m sure that if you’re used to, say, cruise ships you wouldn’t have my same reaction, but I was surprised at its sheer size. There’s even a sculpture of a sailor climbing up one of the masts, and that really helps get a sense of the scale. I walked past the ship and spent some time near the pier, just enjoying the view, despite the grey weather. Right across the river there’s the Isle of Dogs, which in recent years has turned into a hub for all sorts of companies, but also retains an interesting residential side; looking west, central London shines in all its beauty. It truly is a sight, and the feeling is frankly hard to describe. You can tell that you’re not in the middle of the confusion of everyday central London, but you also feel — it really is a strong and discernible feeling — like you’re just a train ride away from one of the most diverse metropoleis (look, Greek plurals!) on this planet. And yet it’s different from being at Archway/Highgate, in yet more inexplicable ways. Greenwich, I would later learn just by walking through it, was both grown and nurtured to be what it is now; as the economy of the Docklands district changed in the last few decades, it had to reinvent itself and the DLR, I think, was instrumental in preventing the whole area from falling prey to decadence; the key to revitalizing any area, indeed, is connecting it logistically with its surroundings. And yet, despite doing all of that and greatly succeeding at it, Greenwich really managed to retain a sense of its own history, even more so than other parts of London; or at least that’s the impression I got.

On my way to the Observatory, I went through Greenwich Market as suggested by a friend (hi Vicki!) and I have to say that it was well worth it. Aside from the inevitable street food section, there were all sorts of things on sale: handmade dresses, movie posters, books, and a million different artistic products. I wound up buying an old book about psychology, and… a vintage camera. It wasn’t planned and I was just staring in awe at them as I normally do when I come across anything photo-related, asked for the price, and when the seller said “ten pounds”, well, could I say no? Once out of the market I walked past a shop that sold vintage maps; I went in for a peek and jokingly asked the owners if it was okay to just look around as I had no money left, and one of them said: “Anyone can come in and look at anything and talk about anything, except Brexit”. And, of course, we then spent twenty minutes talking about Brexit.

After that and a not-so-encouraging “good luck climbing that hill”, I finally reached Greenwich Park and made my way to the Observatory. The good luck wish proved to make a lot of sense: the climb doesn’t look like much, and certainly the fact that it’s in a park makes it more pleasant than it would otherwise be, but it is still quite the climb. The view from the top however is wonderful: the Isle of Dogs shines even in gloomy weather, with the Queen’s House (a museum with maritime exhibits, despite the name) getting beautifully in the way.

The Observatory was also very interesting — I had no idea that there were three meridian lines marked — and the Great Equatorial Telescope in particular was a treat, for a nerd like me. I managed to fulfill a long-time dream of mine: taking a photo of me straddling the Prime Meridian, which after all is just the geek version of pretending to hold the Tower of Pisa (thank you, unknown fellow tourist who actually snapped the photo, for not running away with my phone). The camera obscura also left me gasping in nerdy giddiness: nothing that I didn’t know or that I hadn’t experimented with on my own ever since elementary school, but I had never seen one at that scale: it’s literally like entering a giant camera. On a sunny day, that must be absolutely glorious.

Unfortunately it was getting late, so I made a point to visit the astronomy part of the complex another time, and walked my way back to the station, but not before stopping at a souvenir shop for a few things and a chat with two Indian guys (one of the few first-generation immigrants I came across, most are second-generation). Again, I didn’t touch in with my Oyster card and just hopped onto the train, and went all the way to the Bank station. Thence took The Drain (i.e. the City and Waterloo line), which was not-so-surprisingly packed with well-dressed professionals going home after a tough (?) day working in high-end offices, and when we finally reached Waterloo I realized I had a problem. How could I touch out if I had never touched in? Thankfully, I explained the situation to one of the TfL people and, after pointing out that her colleague at Tower Hamlet should indeed have told me to touch in, she let me out so I could do so there. To this day, my Oyster statement for the week has no trace of me ever taking the DLR; bummer. But off into Waterloo I went, on a long-planned mission…

Now, those who know me well are all too familiar with this, because it kind of turned into a minor meme amongst my circle of friends. During my 2016 trip, I had been looking for a UK-only toothpaste called Euthymol and decided to peek at the Boots at Waterloo station, which is pretty big, to see if they had it; meanwhile my friend rested on a bench somewhere in the station, so he didn’t see this first-hand. I didn’t find what I was looking for, but I spoke with an incredibly kind (and yes, pretty) sales assistant, who took a random tourist’s odd search for an unuusual toothpaste incredibly to heart: we even looked it up on the Boots website and she suggested that I may order it and have it delivered to the hotel, for instance. Since my return home three years ago I had been joking I would look for her again; after all, I did remember her name (I’ll just call her “S” here). And so I did.

I went back to the same Boots and looked for her upstairs, where she worked three years ago. I actually did buy something I needed and on my way out I asked the cashier whether S still worked there, but she had no idea as she had only begun there just a few weeks before. Somewhat disappointed, I decided to inquire downstairs. Another sales assistant I was asked whether I was sure of the name, and then directed to someone in the cosmetics department with a very similar name to S. And guess what? For three years I had the wrong the name by one letter, and most importantly, there she was! She didn’t immediately recognize me (who can blame her? I’m one of a million tourists she sees daily) but the toothpaste thing did ring a bell. We chit-chatted for a few minutes — her colleagues looking and smiling, who knows what they must have talked about afterwards — and I made a point to go back next time I’m in London. Maybe we’ll see each other again, maybe not; till then, we have no way to get in touch with each other. How’s that for a romantic comedy, eh?

Having accomplished my long-planned mission (and admittedly with a stupid grin on my face), I pretty much got lost inside the station. I had to take the Jubilee line, whose platform is literally on the other side of the station from where the other Tube lines are, but I wasn’t really sure about that until I finally crossed the whole area: I kept following the signs, but with all that crowd I could have easily gone the wrong way despite my best efforts. At this point I’m not even sure where I changed lines, but I did make it to the hotel in the end. What a day.

DAY 5: March 22, 2019 (Friday)

At this point I had almost done all I had planned to do, so I took it easy.

I went back to Piccadilly Circus to visit Body Worlds London, one of the few permanent Body Worlds exhibits about the human body. They showcase actual bodies that have been treated in such a way — I won’t get into the details but you can read about it online — that they essentially become museum pieces. It is a little creepy but it’s not disgusting in the slightest, and believe me, I’m as squeamish as it gets. Even kids go and visit it, and indeed the lady at the counter suggested that I may want to go back a little later as an elementary school group had just gotten in.

I seized the opportunity to go back to the Lego store nearby, as I had to get a little souvenir for my cousin that I hadn’t bought on the first night, and once I was there I ended up spending some time chatting with a girl who works there. It obviously started about Lego, but it quickly derailed towards how I feel about London. I had written about this in my recap from my other trip, so I won’t repeat myself, but long story short: I love how diverse and different the people are. And before me stood the prime example of that: this girl and I had absolutely nothing in common, in theory. She was clearly Middle Eastern in looks, her skin definitely darker than mine, wearing a veil (a hijab, I think), her name clearly Arabic (she was surprised when I knew what it meant! perks of being a language nerd, I reckon?), and had lived in London all her life as a second-generation immigrant. My opposite in a million ways, and yet there we were, sharing similarities and differences and enjoying every moment of it despite, and because, of that. Interestingly, when I was about to leave I offered to shake her hand and she politely declined.

I went back to the corpses thing (hey, it’s a fun way to call that!), paid, put my bag in the locker, and enjoyed the ride. And I really mean that, it was quite the ride. They give you an audio guide that either starts playing segments on its own as it detects you walking around, or you aim it at some specimen whilst pressing a button and off it goes. The exhibit is not the largest, though they did an admirable job with the audio guides and, if you were to listen to absolutely everything, you’d likely spend several hours in there; moreover, even though the entry price is objectively a little high, it does seem justified when you think about how much it must cost to keep it up. Not only the procedure to procure new specimens, which they show in a video, is incredibly complicated and likely very expensive, but each individual display case must be kept under strict environmental conditions to ensure that the specimens themselves don’t wear out. But is it worth it? Absolutely. It’s insightful in a way that’s genuinely difficult to express in words. It’s not just a medical exhibit; it’s not only about science. It’s more about what makes us human, in a very direct and literal way. Still fresh on the bad family news I had received earlier in the week, and still postponing my own mourning until I’d be back home, the exhibit was enlightening and a concrete reminder to take better care of ourselves while we can, if at all possible. When I returned the audio guide, the lady at the door asked me what I thought of the whole thing; the only way I could put it was: it was the most spiritual thing for an atheist like me.

After that, the day took a lighter turn. I went to Quinto Bookshop, which I made a point to visit to every single time I’ll be in London; walked through Chinatown, where a “massage girl” who was standing on the door of her business saw me looking towards her general direction and immediately tried to lure me into whatever service she was really offering; and later on I went to Denmark Street, which — thanks Mario — is chock-full of musical instrument shops. I visited several, chatting with owners and trying anything I could get my hands on, including synths and pianos that I cannot afford. Mostly, however, I just walked around and took everything in. Still central London, still crowded, but in a different way. Yet another side of London. Yet another reason to love it.

DAY 6: March 23, 2019 (Saturday)

Another big day! Not just because London would host the People’s Vote march, but because I would finally be meeting a friend of over seven years, Natasha, who in her own words is aiming “world domination of construction”; she’s got quite a few titles after her name and has worked on quite a few really big construction projects. So was I intimidated? Nah. (Yes.)

The plan was that we’d meet at Blackfriars, and then we’d just walk around. Tasha is well acquainted with that area of London, having worked there for a while, and suggested it would be a good way for me to see a side of London that normally goes unnoticed: this is where lots of people go on workdays, but turns into a desert at nights and on weekends.

And so we walked, and talked, and joked and laughed, and all the while I took photos. We went through St. Paul’s, Smithfield, Farringdon, all the way to King’s Cross, exploring areas that very visibly showed the wonderful contrast of old and new buildings that makes London the city that it is. We came across a few oddities, such as a glass of wine mysteriously left by someone next to a phone booth, and I learned that Southwark is not pronounced the way you’d think it is; a few heads turned when I loudly said “No way! Your language makes no sense!” (It’s pronounced Suth-ark; no, I have no idea why. Blame the French maybe?)

We ultimately boarded the same southbound Thameslink train — not the Tube for once! — but I got off at London Bridge station to follow her suggestion about Borough Market, while she went back south. It was truly a lovely morning and, since I know she’s reading this, I want to thank her again for it. I hope that the photos I took of the places she helped me discover do them at least a little justice!

Right after getting off the train, I was welcomed by the ever-present Shard, this time much closer than I thought it would be. That thing is huge, I literally stared at it for a few long seconds before catching my bearings.

Finding Borough Market was not difficult at all, indeed all I had to do was follow the crowd uphill. As with most markets (did anyone say Camden?), it was incredibly crowded, so I didn’t really take many photos. I did however go through all of it, and I admit I was surprised. I thought it was just another market, but this one is pretty much all about food, and I really mean it: not only you can find booths selling literally any kind of cuisine you can think of, but they even sell fresh vegetables and fruit in crates.

Before going to my final destination for the day, the Clink, I decided to take a detour and effectively go back towards the station I had come from, but this time on the other side. I just had to get close to the Shard to get a better idea of just how big that thing was, considering that it was easily seen all the way from Greenwich. So I walked past the medical branch of the King’s College of London (I regretfully decided to just keep going and make a note to visit those museums on my next trip) and got closer and closer to this giant, steep pyramid of steel and glass. It’s an odd feeling, because the street leading to it isn’t that large, and the Shard itself isn’t that wide either; it’s the height that’s hard to comprehend, especially if you’re standing right next to it. To put thing in perspective, it’s about 300 meters high; and my hometown is about 300 meters above sea level. Alright, admittedly that’s not exactly an easy-to-imagine perspective, but it’s insane. That’s a third of a kilometer, but vertically. It’s… tall. It’s really tall. And, frankly, a little scary too. And what’s the best way to approach the uneasiness given by a ridiculously tall building? Why, walk right through it of course: there’s a little tunnel that leads back to the main street and goes right underneath the Shard, and it’s also surprisingly cold.

So I finally walked towards the area known as the Liberty of the Clink (Liberty being the legal term for an area whose control was not the king’s; see, it was an educational trip after all), which is yet another place where old and new meet in a peculiar mish-mash. The Clink museum is actually the old prison itself, or at least part of it. It’s clearly been set up to be an attraction for visitors now, but it’s quite informative: there are lots of explanations about everything, though the audio recordings that are meant to give a sense of reality (especially the screams) quickly get old. That said, there’s a lot to learn about: not just about the prison itself, but also about the history of London and, as a bonus, about methods of torture. Some things are definitely creepy, such as the detached heads stuck on poles or the mummified fake corpse in a cage with a crow happily eating one of its eyeballs, but it’s not scary; indeed, there were a couple of families with children and the kids were having a blast. One of them even attempted to tie up his father on a restraining chair, much to the amusement of his mother. It is however shocking how many of the prison’s inmates were jailed for religious reasons; for a long time England was torn between Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism, with the rule of law often following whichever belief the current monarch held at a given time. Perhaps that is why so few people follow any religion in the UK at this point: people just grew tired.

Before heading back to the hotel, I took some time to enjoy the view from Bankside, with St. Peter’s cupola barely peeking from behind the tall buildings of the City, almost like a kid standing on its toes; and from Southwark Bridge, especially when looking east: yet another reminder of old and new together, with the Shard and the Walkie Talkie and other skyscrapers on both banks of the Thames, yet connected by a railway bridge leading to the old Cannon Street station building. The sky was clearing up as I noticed two trains on the bridge traveling towards each other: almost a symbol of how everything, in London, eventually comes together.

On the way back, I saw many people on the Tube carrying EU stickers and flags. They had been at the march, and a middle-aged couple seemed particularly proud of the turnout. I must have stared at him a little too long (he had the funniest hat) and he offered me some almonds he was snacking on! I was about to reach my destination so we only chatted for a short while, but it was an interesting bonding moment.

DAY 7: March 24, 2019 (Sunday)

As I had planned a long time ago, I saved the best for last. Those who know me are well aware that Covent Garden is the part of London that I like the most (or at least it was until I discovered Greenwich… tough choice there!), so I decided to go on the very last day. That way, had the trip gone badly, it would have been at least something to look forward to; and had it gone well, it would have been the icing on the cake. Either way, it would be the freshest memory and deliberately bring on a wave of nostalgia. What can I say, I like playing tricks on myself.

So off to Gloucester Square station I went once again, this time without worrying about changing lines: it was all Piccadilly. The weather had improved quite a bit, and the walk to the station was already ripe with a sense of longing. I snapped photos I knew I wouldn’t post anywhere or show anyone, just to linger a few more seconds and give myself time to make more memories. I paid attention to the sounds, the smells, the people. Sunday mornings in Kensington are lazy, but the streets grew busier as I approached the Tube station.

I didn’t go straight to Covent Garden; instead, I got off at Leicester Square and walked my way there, whilst talking on the phone with Stefania, a very dear friend of mind with whom I share a passion for London. I had been around that area several times during the week, so it felt somewhat familiar by then. Along the way I came across discarded signs from the big march from the day before.

I was going to go to the Apple Market, obviously, but I was determined to stick to my plan of having no plans, so I first explored all the alleys and narrow streets and passageways I could find. Getting lost is difficult in the age of GPS, but it can still be done with a little effort and a tiny bit of luck. And so I discovered signs on walls, statues, odd juxtapositions of bricks and concrete, more testaments of old-time history and modern-day rush hours, all into one. Locals and tourists, visitors and residents. People buying, people selling, people looking; people tired and people energized; people dreaming: me.

When I reached the Apple Market, I learned that some artists don’t like having photos of their stuff taken out of fear that someone will copy them; the age-old question of sharing one’s craft secret is everywhere, it seems. And I exchanged a few words with a woman who was selling handmade handbags: she just sold them and didn’t make them, she quickly pointed out, as I took photos with her permission. Talks about the handbags quickly derailed, once again, towards more personal topics, in part due to her accent that I hadn’t immediately recognized. Turns out that she was Slovakian and, like all immigrants who have been in the UK for quite a while, was a little concerned about Brexit. While we talked and we somehow wound up discussing whether anyone around there sold flower seeds to bring back to my mom, I wondered how much longer I’d be in my “London mode”. It must have been a nice chat for both, however, because when I said goodbye she said “Hug?” and hugged me. Quite a difference from my previous encounter without a handshake! But then again, that’s just the beauty of London…

And what’s Covent Garden without its street performers? Not that they’re not everywhere — a few days before I had come across a guy singing opera arias at the top of his lungs inside some Tube station — but it doesn’t get more traditional than in Covent Garden. A man who goes by the name of “Dr Philistine” and whose tagline is “Born on a rope” treated bystanders to a show that was half physical skills, half comedy. At that point I had virtually run out of cash so, in addition to giving him my last-ever pound coin (which he appreciated!), I snapped a few photos of him with the promise of spamming the heck out of his act. If you do happen to come across him somewhere, go see him because you’re in for some good laughs.

I then went to see what the fuss was about Neal’s Yard, a highly recommended yet incredibly tiny area between a few buildings in the neighborhood. A lovely place, I must admit, but once again it’s just not the kind of place you want to go to on a weekend, as it’s just too crowded. It was nothing like the photos I had seen online, and taking my own pictures was an exercise in patience and creative framing. Still, it’s worth passing through.

I decided to go towards Trafalgar Square; it wasn’t planned, but this was the day of random choices, so why not? Besides, I had never seen the area between where I was and where I was going, so it was a good excuse to explore it and, once again, make more memories. It was my last day, after all.

You can actually feel the city change around you as you walk towards Charing Cross and the Thames, but it’s hard to explain how. It’s not just the buildings becoming bigger and, in a sense, more aristocratic and intimidating; after all, Kensington is full of embassies and big-name hotels and you do see people dressed in ways that seem out of time (and not in a cosplayer kind of way). As I said before, it almost feels like you’re walking through history, something that no city is devoid of, but that London truly succeeded at making a part of its very fabric, more so than any other place. Trafalgar Square definitely embodies all of that: aside from the fact that I had honestly never realized just how big the statue of Admiral Nelson is — if you look up from the lions at its base, you lose all sense of perspective — the more recent works of art on the corners of the square are apparently replaced and renewed every few years: the infamous skeleton horse we saw in 2016 was no more, replaced by… I’m not even sure, honestly, because I was too busy looking at the sheer variety of humanity that surrounded me and that just escaped my mind. Even street performing takes on a different meaning at Trafalgar Square: in addition to artists painting on the pavement and all the people doing the “standing on a pole” illusion, there was a guy playing chess with strangers for £1. And all around, tourists of literally every color, culture and origin took photos, or rested, or walked, or watched, or stared. There were two people, in particular, who caught my eye: a guy who couldn’t possibly be any more goth, and a girl who looked like she had just teleported from Tokyo, complete with pastel pink petticoat and whatnot.

As I looked around and snapped photos of the Canadian embassy (I had no idea it was there and at this point any excuse was perfectly reasonable to take photos), I noticed the London Eye in the distance. A split second later, I was on my way towards it. Hey, it was my last day, and I was determined to make the most of it.

When I reached Embankment, a landmark that for some reason I found quite peculiar during my earlier trip, I hopped onto the Jubilee bridge for some more photos, including a selfie. I’m not one who posts many photos of himself (I just don’t think I’m an interesting subject) but my “London mode” at that point had reached the level of “who cares”. I looked a little worn out, but went ahead with it anyway and immediately blessed the internet with an image of me with the London Eye in the background. The sun was starting to get tired as well, so I made my way towards Westminster; after all, I knew I had to spend the evening packing so I did need to get some energy aside. But when I got in front of the Big Ben and walked through the crowd, I realized I was literally within walking distance from the area just in front of the Houses of Parliament that I had seen on TV pretty much every day following the Brexit ordeal. How could I pass the opportunity to go and get a peek of the behind the scenes operations?

And so I walked there, while a Scottish guy in a kilt played the same tune on a bagpipe over and over — an interesting approach to the Brexit protests —, and passed the empty “studios” that TV and radio stations set up there. I found myself staring in wild amazement at the sheer size of the Victoria Tower (it’s all about Queen Victoria, isn’t it?), which is the biggest part of the Houses of Parliament. I’m absolutely serious: that thing is so huge that I spent more time than I’m willing to admit just staring at it. The Shard may be big, but the Victoria Tower is massive. No photos, videos or scale model do any justice to its size: you just have to be there in person, look up, and be amazed. Right next to it, interestingly, a small European Union flag from the march of the previous day had gotten stuck through the branches of a nearby tree; the contrast with the huge Union Jack flag on top of the tower was merciless, yet the fact that they were so close was definitely interesting.

Lost in these thoughts of symbolism, I went back to the station and ultimately to the hotel; I kept walking slowly and looking at everything, making more memories and taking more photos than I can possibly write about or post here. It was all coming to an end, and it felt bittersweet. My ploy to deliberately implant nostalgia into my head had worked… and probably a little too well.

At the hotel, a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory on ITV kept me company while I reluctantly packed and tried to figure out how to stash all the stuff I had bought into my suitcase. It had gotten over 2 kg heavier than it had been on the way there!

DAY 8: March 25, 2019 (Monday)

And so it really, ultimately, came to an end. After a quick breakfast, a final look at the room to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything (without which I would have left my slippers there) and a painless check-out experience, I called up an Uber and a Bulgarian driver took me to Liverpool Street. It took almost an hour to cover just a few miles, but then again that’s how Central London is, and why people prefer the Tube… unless they have a heavy luggage like I did. I did however end up passing in front of Buckingham Palace and snapping a photo, so I guess I could call it an unexpected tour. Once at the station, I quickly found my train and kept myself busy on the way to the airport, even exchanging a couple smiley drawings with a random someone via AirDrop.

I reached Stansted in advance, but that was fine; I wouldn’t have been able to do much  in London anyway, and I didn’t want to risk it in case any other train failures led to delays. I dropped my bag at the counter, where an Italian Ryanair employee was surprised to hear that my hometown is also the capital city of its province (!), and just spent some time roaming the shops… which also meant buying two big bags of M&Ms and some Haribo candy, because hey, how else do you address sadness?

The flight was uneventful, mostly because I slept — no idea if I snored, but nobody woke me up, so — and the first thing I saw when I got into the airport terminal and waited for my suitcase was that the coffee and beverage machine had an “Out of order” handwritten label. Ah, home sweet home!

EPILOGUE

Even more so than in 2016, this trip meant a lot to me on multiple levels. All the concerns I had before leaving (and trust me, I had many) turned out to be nothing more than unnecessary worrying. There is no need to delve deeply into details here, but I was able to prove more than one thing to myself; things that I will put to good use from now on.

Being alone wasn’t difficult: I know that it scares the heck out of many people, but I am perfectly fine with my own company and, to tell the truth, there are positives to not having to compromise with anyone but yourself: you can go back if you decide you want to investigate something further, you can spend as much time as you want waiting for the perfect shop, and so on. On the other hand, something was indeed amiss: my love for London is such that, especially as I get to know it better and better, it felt like a waste not to be able to share it with someone else.

Clearly, the successful outcome of this trip — despite the constant thought in the back of my mind about the family issues at home — was in good measure given by the fact that I had no issues with communication whatsoever. Had I gone to Paris, for instance, things would have been different, with or without my trademark overplanning. (But then again, why go to Paris when you can go to London?)

One big difference compared to the 2016 trip was that, this time, I came back with something extra, something that was not in my suitcase and that Ryanair couldn’t charge for even if they wanted to: the confidence to do it all over again. Not just London, actually: there are other places on my bucket list, however London will certainly be seeing me again, more than once.

And yes, I’ve already started planning my next trip back there…

ADDENDUM

Following my own tradition, during my trip I took notes of things I saw that felt interesting to me. In no particular order:

  • The people of London are truly a wonderful array of randomness: from the old man wearing giant white Beats headphones together with a formal dress, to the pensioner reading Jane Eyre on the train, you are bound to see all sorts of things.
  • Catching bits of conversations on the Tube is fun, because it’s just as random: I heard people talking about the Eurostar, cabaret shows, upcoming holidays, school projects, and of course Brexit.
  • So many people are wearing The North Face jackets. SO MANY. I have no idea why.
  • Everyone is holding something in their hands. Be it a phone, a bottle of water, a shop’s bag, an electronic cigarette, some fruit, or anything else really, it’s rare to see someone with empty hands.
  • The Tube escalators require people to stand on the right, so the left half can be used by those in a rush to walk past. The Tube staircases and corridors, on the other hand (no pun intended), are complete anarchy. You occasionally come across signs that say “Keep left”, but it’s extremely inconsistent and there are spots where swarms of people cross and mix.
  • If you have to stop anywhere to do anything, such as looking at a map, for the love of all that’s holy do get as close to a wall as possible and don’t stand in the way. People will hate you if you don’t, and some will even if you do.
  • The two points above lead to saying and hearing “sorry”, “excuse me” and “thank you” more times than your brain can handle; at some point it just becomes automatic mumbling.
  • Only the Victoria line, from what I could tell, announces which side the doors will open. I wonder if it’s because adding that to the other lines would require re-recording everything, or just using a different voice. You can still tell, however, because Tube regulars will start shifting their position towards the door before reaching their station.
  • Before I got into the Royal Observatory, I saw a worker start a diesel engine just to charge his phone. Talk about saving the planet…
  • One evening, an Asian lady lost her balance on the Tube and hit me relatively hard. I must have made a very funny face, because two Indian girls next to me just couldn’t stop laughing. No idea if they talked about it because, well, I don’t speak Hindi, but they kept giggling.
  • Offices and houses for rent generally carry a sign that says “To let”. Every single time I saw that, I couldn’t help but feel like wanting to add an “i” in that space. Only once I saw a sign that said “For rent”, and wondered if someone had indeed defaced the other one so they decided to chag.
  • “Massage girls” in Chinatown will try to lure tourists into their businesses. I’ve been there. I mean, not inside the “massage” place, but the luring attempt was made on me.
  • Someone walking through the corridor in a building with lots of wood in it gives Italians a not-so-pleasant memories of an earthquake, as the wobbling transfers all over the floor.
  • When people asked me where I was from, they were all surprised to hear that I’m Italian. “You sound American”, they would say. At first it sort of surprised me, then I just embraced it. As long as they didn’t hate me like they do with “them bloody Yanks”…
  • With the Tube, people tend to stand in the middle of the platform; this leads to the ridiculous consequence of having trains whose middle cars are overcrowded, while the first and last cars are almost empty. The Circle line trains, which have no doors between the cars, somewhat alleviate the situation as people can move around freely. The recordings do point out when a station’s platform is too short, so those in the first or last cars can move accordingly.
  • Every single time you look up, you’re bound to see at least one plane. Not surprising for a city served by six airports, but still unusual for me.
  • People in England complain about the weather just like Italians do. The moment the sun comes out after a week of gloomy weather, someone will either say that it’s cold in the shade but pleasant in the sun, or vice versa.
  • Street lamps in Westminster are numbered, presumably for easier identification in case of malfunctions, or just to identify places.
  • A phone without a compass makes using maps on foot extremely difficult. I managed to get lost while looking at the map, as I used my better phone to talk to my family while walking. I had never appreciated digital compasses before then!