Lessons From Living in London

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How do you make a new city your own? How do you turn it from a place you know as a tourist into a place you call home? How do you transform yourself from traveler to resident?

The things we notice when we visit cities are rarely the things we notice when we live in them, and so it was for me when I moved to North London and then West London from New York many years ago. (I have now moved back, which is a different story.)

I had been to London only perhaps a half-dozen times before I moved, and so I had lived in visitors' London: an intoxicating fairy tale of quirky architecture, treasure-filled museums, theater for every mood, exotic accents, stately parks, humorous food, royalty looming in the background and a subway system I could experience as amusing novelty rather than logistical necessity. Suddenly, all that went away, the days drew in, the autumn shadows fell, and London became instead about confronting the daily business of living: finding a decent grocery store and dealing with the impossibility of the gas company and learning to say rubbish bin instead of garbage can and having my shoes ruined by the rain.

New York dazzles with its energy; tourist London is that way, too, but the buzz dims quickly when you leave the center of town. While most people in New York live on top of one another in dense neighborhoods tightly packed together, in London they spread far into the distance, in discrete neighborhoods like Richmond and Bermondsey and Kennington, too many to know, each with its own High Street and its own iteration of the same stores: Boots the chain drugstore, Marks & Spencer the chain department store and Next the chain clothing store. Yet each neighborhood also has its own character.

I was lucky enough to sample two: first Islington, where I lived on a quiet little road around the corner from a bustling antiques market and the even more bustling Angel Tube stop. If I was in transition, so was Islington. Its dingy liquor stores, dreary sandwich shops and dodgy betting parlors were giving way to smart artisanal food shops featuring focaccia of the day and baked goods at $8 a go.

But my favorite shop has persevered: Steve Hatt's fishmonger, a family-run establishment full of siblings and parents and cousins. Perhaps the high point of my time in Islington, besides the time a duck came and hatched her brood in our back garden, was when I bought a piece of salmon that, according to the sign above it, had been caught by old Mr. Hatt himself -- the great-grandfather of the current crop of Hatts, I think.

Residents tend to feel more connected to their neighborhoods than to London as a whole, and because it can be an undertaking to travel to another part of town for a social occasion, geography starts to feel like destiny. So when I lived in Kensington, I got used to staying fairly close to home. This meant eating often at Jakob's, a homey little restaurant and takeout place on Gloucester Road that sold vegetable-centric dishes and salads. It meant visiting Itsu, in nearby Notting Hill, a high-concept Japanese restaurant where the sushi swirled past on a conveyor belt. Notting Hill also had two beautiful old movie theaters, the Gate and the Coronet, and all the charm of Greenwich Village, without the crowds (except when Portobello Market was in session, on Fridays and Saturdays).

There was my favorite clothing store on Kensington Church Street, which sold expensive but mercifully non-ill-fitting jeans, and then Ffiona's, where a wholesome meal with enticing meat dishes and fish and vegetables served family-style was served up by none other than Ffiona herself. We also had, on Gloucester Road, a Partridge's store that sold all the American foods I missed: Skippy peanut butter, Toll House chocolate chips, breakfast cereals consisting mostly of fluorescent marshmallows.

Three of the city's best museums for children -- the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert, and the Science Museum -- were short walks away, and in the park there was a cunning, pirate-themed playground dedicated to Diana, the late Princess of Wales, that my two girls loved when they were little.

We ventured farther afield, of course; we liked especially to take the children to St. Paul's Cathedral and then across the Millennium Bridge (the city's best walk, to my mind) and into the Tate Modern gallery, a spectacular building fashioned from a decommissioned power station on the south bank of the Thames. Once we all spontaneously responded to Olafur Eliasson's giant sun, positioned on a mirrored ceiling, by lying on the ground and basking, as if it we were at the beach.

We went to Shakespeare's Globe, a facsimile of the 16th-century theater, where seats are cheap and a spot on foot, for theatergoers known as groundlings, is even cheaper. For a day out we might go to Hampstead, a little town unto itself in North London with the wildest park in the city, a place to lose yourself amid the trees.

London grew outward over the years, by happenstance more than design, and so it feels more improvised and less coherent than New York. The current mayor, Boris Johnson, whose baroque speaking style, gaffe-prone behavior and rumpled blond appearance have made him Britain's most recognizable politician, has done as much as anyone to bring some unity to the city (the Olympics helped, too).

But if New Yorkers think of themselves as a group of people standing together against the world ("We're New Yorkers, and we are tough," each New York mayor says after each disaster), Londoners wear their urban identities more lightly, living in the city but not necessarily of it. They tend to belong to where they're from, not where they are. I never stopped feeling like an impostor, a New Yorker disguised in a sensible English raincoat. Even the most familiar things -- Trafalgar Square; the food hall at Harvey Nichols; the best bookstore in the city, Hatchard's on Piccadilly -- felt at a remove, my participation provisional, my conversation in quotation marks.

The natives' reticence, and the prevalence of small buildings instead of high-rise apartment complexes, promote a feeling of self-containment, even isolation. In New York you live in one another's pockets and in one another's faces; your business is their business. In London, people keep themselves to themselves, as the expression goes, and this can feel either liberating or lonely.

I could stroll the paths at Kensington Gardens, or jog past the statue of Prince Albert all the way to Hyde Park, and have only the most glancing interaction with another human being, even though those places were full of them. So I spent a lot of time lost in thought. It was freeing to feel so anonymous, so unfettered -- but sometimes it made the heart feel a little empty.

And I got lost all the time. The city's layout is crazy, as if designed by a drunken alien with a wry sense of humor. I wandered around with my A-Z street map book, wondering which direction I was going in and wishing that the old, strew-breadcrumbs-in-your-wake trick applied to metropolitan areas. Once I spent 45 minutes trying to get from South Kensington to Sloane Square, becoming hopelessly misaligned before I realized I had somehow circled back and was on the same street I started from. The only recourse: jump into a taxi. Once I was stopped by a man in Soho who asked where we were, and desperately pointed at his map. Unfortunately, it was a map of Brussels.

Things you learn as a resident: the Tube, the world's oldest subway system, is full of jolly announcements exhorting you to "mind the gap" and to not leave your personal belongings unattended, but doesn't go everywhere; don't expect, for instance, to travel to Putney or Richmond, without being prepared to walk a great distance to your destination.

Many places (restaurants, dry cleaners) don't deliver, and shopkeepers are either oleaginously sycophantic or icily contemptuous. I could not have been much older than 35 when I suddenly became known as "madam," and no one says "madam" with more disdain than a 20-year-old working at Topshop, where, unfortunately, my teenage daughters loved to shop for clothes that would have looked more appropriate on prostitutes.

An inch of snow causes chaos, shutting down traffic across the city. Most stores close by 7; large stores, including Whole Foods (yes, they have come to London) and your local Sainsbury's supermarket, are open for just six hours on Sundays. It is hard to find a good salad bar, though some areas -- around big train stations, in Chinatown -- are filled with serendipitous food shops. When using an escalator, stand to the right but walk on the left. We say "mall" to rhyme with "paul;" they say it to rhyme with "pal."

Harrods is fit only for tourists and the wives of foreign commodities magnates, and the statue of Princess Diana and Dodi al-Fayed downstairs is creepy. Go instead to the shops down Kensington Park Road in Notting Hill, or along the narrow streets of Seven Dials in Covent Garden, or to the crazy stalls of the outdoor market in Camden Town.

Stay away from Buckingham Palace when the changing of the guard takes place at midday -- it wreaks havoc on the traffic and they won't let you cross the street. See as much Shakespeare as you can in the West End, but also at the Globe and in little experimental places like the Print Room, a minute gem of a theater in Notting Hill.

Try not to read The Daily Mail, with its mean stories about immigrants and its lurid pictures of celebrities who have gained or lost weight; read Private Eye magazine, and soon you will delight in its very English cleverness. Learn that there are as many meanings for the word "sorry" as there are hours in the day.

Finally, when you leave the house, dress in layers so that you can add and subtract items according to the vicissitudes of the weather. Get detailed directions, or make your smartphone your friend, so that you do not get lost. And wherever you go, always take an umbrella.

Sarah Lyall, formerly a New York Times correspondent in London, is now a writer at large based in New York.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 19, 2013 2:00 PM


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