If you have ever moved to another city, another country, or another continent for any extended period of time, gentle reader, then you know that the first few days you spend there are some of the most vivid memories you will take away from that place. You may of course forget some of the later things that happened once you settled in, and began to see the place as your home. However this is why I want to encourage those of my readers who are going to be living somewhere far from home for awhile, to make an effort to write down their experiences and observations now, in order to be able to draw upon them later.
Reading my updates on Facebook this morning I had a bit of a shock, realizing how quickly time seems to pass. A good friend from here in the States had just arrived in London to begin a year of graduate school there, and I saw the news that he had safely arrived at Heathrow posted in my timeline. It suddenly dawned on me that it was 15 years ago, in September of 1997, that I moved to London for the first time. I could not help but sigh a little, as I thought about what my friend would be experiencing, as this was his first time ever in London.
To give you some context about what Britain was like at the time when I first went to live there, I arrived exactly one week after Princess Diana’s funeral on September 7, 1997. The Labour MP Tony Blair had only been Prime Minister for four months, after decades of Tory government under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and the most popular British musical act at the time was The Spice Girls, who had only released their debut album in the U.S. earlier that year. The Queen Mother was still going strong, mobile phones were seemingly all made by Nokia and about the size of a television remote control, and internet was exclusively of the dial-up variety (and very, very slow.)
As weird as it may sound, I can remember my entire first day in London on September 13, 1997, as if it were yesterday. If you recall the expression of “having your wits about you,” I would say not only did I have all of mine about me, but they were firing on all cylinders. Everything was new and interesting, and there was this strange sense of having landed on another planet. For although the language was the same, many details of everyday life were handled completely differently.
For example, once my cab had dropped me off at my halls of residence on Regent’s Park – no Heathrow Express to Paddington in those days – I decided to see how long the walk was from there to where I would be studying, close to Piccadilly. I remember looking at the words painted on the asphalt at intersections as I made my way through the car park and around the side of the building, which read, “Look Right” or “Look Left”. I did not quite understand what they were for, until I started walking down Portland Place, and crossed an intersection without looking in the direction indicated. As I did so a car came whizzing past honking its horn at me, and I had a near-miss with getting flattened within minutes of arriving in London. From then on, I was quite careful to read what was on the ground before I stepped onto it.
Feeling a bit shaken and deciding I had better calm myself and call home, after a couple of blocks I spotted the BBC and All Souls Langham Place, both of which I knew from a lifetime of watching British television shows. Across the street were three red telephone boxes in a row, standing at the side of a rather grandiose Victorian building, which I later came to learn was the Langham Hotel. I chose one and made a telephone call to my parents, waking them up at about 5:00 a.m. Eastern to let them know that I was there and safe.
They were happy to hear from me, particularly my Father who is more the Anglophile of the two, and as I looked about from inside the phone box describing what I saw, I spotted a cafe across the road and down a little ways. I told them I would head there to get some caffeine and try to call them again later, after I had done some exploring. I could not have known it at the time, but later I ended up spending many, many hours in that Italian cafe/deli, using it as a place to study and write, and to meet up with friends, since it was centrally located but not a major tourist draw.
However rather than ordering their – excellent, as it later turned out – coffee, I must admit I bought a bottle of Snapple Iced Tea imported from the U.S. It was warm, and the thought that I would be able to have American iced tea despite being far from home was rather encouraging. As I continued down Regent Street sipping my beverage, I passed a news agent’s – which again, as time went on I would come to patronize regularly for magazines and for postcards – and noticed that they had that day’s New York Times for sale. I realized that although I was in a different country and a different culture, there would still be plenty of things from home to keep me connected to the other side of the pond.
That was the beginning of a wonderful day, which included visiting my school and running into some of my classmates who were also figuring out the lay of the land; visiting what would come to be my parish in Mayfair for the first time; having my first gin and tonic in London at The Marlborough Head just north of Grosvenor Square; and coming back to my residence to find that a friend from high school was in town from Cambridge, and would be returning later that evening to meet up and go to dinner. This is not a testament to any particularly astounding powers of memory on my part, mind you, but just an inkling of how much of an impact that first day in London had on my memory. It is something I still treasure.
And if for some reason I should forget all of this, thank goodness I had the sense to keep a journal during both of my stints living in London. It runs to many volumes, and though I must confess I have not sat down and cracked open these books in years, I do know they are there if I ever want to do so. Perhaps with the realization of this anniversary, it might be a good time to revisit them, and recall some of the things I experienced, but have forgotten with the passage of time.
In the end that was the one piece advice I emailed to my friend today: that he makes sure to keep a journal for the year he will be living in Blighty. No one knows what the future holds, and whether his experience will be as rewarding as mine, but having these memories to draw upon undoubtedly makes your life, and your understanding of the world in which you live, much richer. Whether the city is London, Vienna, or Poughkeepsie, take the time now to write about what your impressions and thoughts are, so that you can relive those experiences later.
Phone boxes at the side of The Langham Hotel
Langham Place, London W1