London, the city where I live, is the third most popular tourist destination in the world with over 18 million people coming to visit in 2015 alone. Any Londoner can tell you about the tourists, the reams and reams of people who flood the city(and its public transport systems!), every year, but few take the time to consider why they do it.
Until last Friday, I was one of those people; I too had little time for what London meant outside of my day to day life. London was where I lived, where I schooled and, I presumed, where I would end up working, but not much more. Last Friday, I was meant to be meeting some friends at the local pub but instead found myself indulging a sudden whim to take a stroll through London – that is the London of the tourist guidebooks not the side of the River I live on. So there I was, on the 7:45 train to Blackfriars, with no plan other than to… wander about a bit. What I noticed first, as I strolled along the banks of the Thames up towards Charing Cross and the Strand, was the people. As far as I could gauge, from the snippets of conversation I overheard, I walked for fifteen to twenty minutes without passing another native Londoner; I passed plenty of students and, obviously, plenty of tourists from a plethora of nationalities, ranging from the Steppe-lands of Eurasia to the savannas of Africa and everywhere else in between. The sheer volume of nationalities surprised me, though, in hindsight, it should not; taking a moment to think about it, the multitude of nationalities visiting London makes sense, I had just never thought about it.
The second thing I noticed – excuse my blasé attitude – was the sheer wonder people had towards, well, things; anything and everything was to be marveled at, a selfie opportunity around every corner: red phone boxes, red letter boxes, signs commemorating imperial happenings or, indeed, persons of imperial prominence; everything was extraordinary for these visitors, which, of course, should be the case on a good holiday. Yet I had never considered these things worth thinking of, let alone worth taking a selfie with; a red telephone box? Ridiculous!, why would anybody want a picture with, what is in effect, a portable toilet or shelter for the homeless, drunk, or both! However, on my nighttime jaunt I found myself looking at such things in a new light: A phone box, or letterbox, or Imperial inscription is worth thinking about and yes, our imperial legacy should not be blindly celebrated in some nationalistic nostalgia for past glory, and yes, we should find a better shelter for our homeless than letting them use phone boxes, but it is nice to notice our city; to care for the intricacies of the architecture and for the shared history of our people, and so many others, that an Imperial monument, like Cleopatra’s Needle, symbolises.
As I sat on the train home, having walked to the National Gallery and down past the Southbank Centre, I realised that I do not make the most of my city. I do not go to enough museums or theatre productions or exhibitions; I do not look up and admire the architecture or marvel at the little things, like postboxes. I realised that I take my city for granted, presuming such options will always be open to me. Today, I can get on a train and be at a museum, such as the British museum or National Gallery, within the hour and that is marvelous. However, you can never know what the future brings and, perhaps, tomorrow I may not be able to do that. Where you live, whether a small village or sprawling metropolis, has its unique areas, its charm, its own personality and I think it is important to notice these things and to care for them. In the rush of day-to-day life it is all so easy to focus on the nitty-gritty, to focus on the minutiae, the ups and downs, the struggles and worries that life brings, caught up with too much to do in too little time, but sometimes we need to just stop. Entertain that whim, you never know where it’ll take you, it might just change your perspective.