Like many Londoners, I have often had ambiguous feelings towards London. On one hand, I love the vibrant energy of this city, the opportunities it offers and the space it seems to make for people from all over the world. On the other, I have been tired by its noise, the crowds packed into the sauna-like tube carriages and ridiculously high prices. I used to oscillate between this love-hate relationship with what has become a home away from home, until I realised I had choice.
It is easy to go through life feeling like things are being “done to” us. We hate the tasks we have to do at work, we get angry at the train delays that feel outside of our control or the responsibilities associates with looking after our families. I used to get mad at London in this manner, believing in my own narrative that here I was, stuck in the concrete jungle where everyone rushed through life, too busy working to care about another person. I believed that story as I lived in Stratford, next to a noisy street, surrounded by tall, grey buildings sadly dotting the cloudy sky. I believe that story most days, aside from the occasional visits to the Olympic park. And each time I went there, I was surprised not just by its beauty but at my own sense of surprise. It was so easy to forget that just a short walk from my flat I had this vast green space, that I could access whenever I wanted. The question was- why didn’t I?
Over the last year, I learnt a lot about London and myself. Discovering new areas near where I lived had challenged the story I was telling myself about my city and my life in general. Yes, London was busy and crowded with people who traded their values for money, but it was also a home to a wonderfully alternative types who valued freedom and connection beyond anything. The truth was that London had it all, it had space for everyone, for humanity in all its shades and colours. All I had to do was to open my eyes and really look around me.
On Saturday, after a delicious avocado on toast and a latte (for mere £3.20, which is by far the cheapest avocado on toast and coffee deal I’ve come across in central London) at Ginger and Mint, a vegan cafe and juice bar in Stratford International, it was time to explore the area. It was a hot, summer day and the world was filled with sunshine. Walking through the wonderfully green East Village, with its vast open spaces and lovely cafes enjoyed by young Londoners and families alike, I couldn’t help but feel that this is how life should be – close to nature and unhurried. Even though Stratford International was just minutes away from Kings Cross and busy Westfield shopping centre, it felt like being miles away from the city.
For just £2 I rented one of the Santander bikes from the Olympic park, and together with my husband, we went to explore the stunning nature around us. Past the barbecue area next to a small birch forest, we headed towards Here East with its independent cafes and restaurants. The river Lea, slowly passing through east London, was a home to boat houses. With the sun out, many of their inhabitants were out, tending to their herb gardens, sunbathing on the rooftops or setting up sun beds by the grass next to their mobile homes.
We carried on cycling next to the canal, past a forest, until we reached a breathtaking meadow. Looking at the vast open space of the Walthamstow Marshes, with the tall grass gently swaying to the whispers of the wind, it was hard to believe we were just 15 minutes away from one of London’s biggest shopping centres. It was for these contrasts that I liked this city – just a short walk could transport you into a completely different world. It was as if the UK’s capital wanted to remind us wherever we go, that in this world we’ve got the more and less fortunate, those who have different values than us, and people who don’t easily fall into any category. Just like in life, so in London you never knew what you’re going to find around the corner.
As we continued to cycle by the river, the air was sweetly scented with the essence of the summer flowers in bloom. Families, friends and couples were strolling by the river banks, lost in conversations or contemplating the world they were passing by. The aquatic London had a different pace of life, as if the people living on the boats have not only opted out of the traditional, consumerist lifestyle, but as if they had gone a step further and boycotted the time and its inevitable rush altogether.
After having cycled in the sun for a while, we decided to slow down too and we took a break at the Engine House by the gate of the Walthamstow Wetlands. By the picnic tables geese were resting while the swans continued their majestic journeys through the river alleys.
Having reach our destination, heading back home we decided to follow our instincts instead of the map. We chose countryside lanes and areas that tickled our curiosity, arriving, to our great surprise, at a riding school. I stood enchanted, looking at the horses grazing peacefully just a few meters from us. Tomorrow I would be going back to work, but they will still be there, majestic in their glory.
On the way back, we continued to admire astonishing views. I couldn’t believe just how green and relaxing London could be. But I shouldn’t have been surprised, I should have known about it all along, yet I have yet again fallen into the trap of a story I had been telling myself. Working long hours and rushing to and from work Monday to Friday, it was easy to believe that this hurried, busy reality was all there was to London. It was easy to get caught up the world of long hours, deadlines and responsibilities. On the weekend however, when I’ve finally chosen to slow down, I was reminded that there is also a different world out there. A greener, calmer London, which will carry on being there, regardless of how far away I got from it during the working week.
If my London could be anything I chose it to be, perhaps so could my life. I could choose if it had the sound of a busy street or that of a birdsong. If it was like the central line during rush hour or like a bicycle ride through the fields. I could choose to either follow in the footsteps of the many, or to be one of the few. It all depended on what I focused on, on what I chose to do with my time and whether I got caught up in life’s stresses or took it all in with a bit of humour. Perhaps in the busyness of life, I too, could opt out of the mainstream, and run away from the world of convention, choosing instead my own kind of reality.