I went for a run as soon as I got the key to my room in London. The process of getting into my "exercise clothes" left a trail of destruction in my cramped living quarters for the next four days; I tore clothes and shoes, power cords and bottles of out of my suitcase in search of socks, my running shoes and a pair of bobby pins to tie my hair back. The entrance to my hotel looks out on Buckingham Palace's back gates; to the right is St. James Park, a sprawling expanse of green nestled among the bustling streets filled with expensive cars and double-decker buses and black cabs. I wove through the crush of evening commuters streaming down the sidewalks until the park burst into view, a riot of green grass and spring color. A pond in the middle, bordered by wild perennials and sobbing, weeping willows teemed with ducklings and geese with beet-red beaks and pure white swans. They floated along, oblivious to humanity slowly encroaching on them.
The park was mobbed with Whitehall Street workers leaving the office. Just out for a stroll after work: dressed to the nines, all unassailably cool. Some girl made opaque tights and Daisy Dukes look passable; even a man crouched against a gate with a squirrel on his arm seemed more at home in London than me.
But I kept running.
I maintained my stride, darting around two tourists wearing Velcro passport holders around their necks, past a lady with frizzy hair, a unibrow and a five-foot lens on her camera taking pictures of ducks. Fall Out Boy screamed into my headphones — just like home — as I made my way back down Buckingham Palace road, past sandwich takeaways, souvenir shops and a bright red post box, and into my hotel lobby.
Nathan, my favorite doorman, mouthed, "You all right?"
Which I know is just something English people say. I learned that from Jamie Oliver. Everything I need to know about London, I learned from Jamie Oliver. I smiled back at him, huffing and puffing all the way up to my room. The women who shared my elevator were proper and polite but obviously happy to have rooms on the first floor.
Back in my tiny room, I peeled off my running clothes and stepped into the palatial bathroom. It's nearly as big as the sleeping quarters, with pristine white tile floors, dark wooden fixtures and a shower the size of…a really big shower. No door or curtain, though, just a glass divider that spans about half the length of the tub. Very European.
I ran a bath. A bubble bath. It seemed like the thing to do after waking at 4:30 for an 8 a.m. flight, after going straight from Heathrow to Wisley Garden and walking around in the sun for four hours, after a two-mile run through a foreign city. I poured a tiny bottle of shower gel into the tub and watched the suds form; curls of steam rose from the water. The watered covered me completely, and the strain of the day's travels melted away. My feet played with the soap bubbles, my cherry-red toenails like shiny pieces of candy.
I luxuriated. It was the first time I'd really taken for myself in days.
I didn't doze off, but I rested the cushion of my messy bun against the wall and just…relaxed. I cracked the spine on a new paperback, taking in the start of a new story and the new rhythm of the writer's voice.
I went out to dinner later, around the corner from the hotel. I didn't feel bad that I wasn't out exploring the sights of London by night.
There will be time for sightseeing and museums and exploring. But for the time being: a little rest and some writing. I think I'm coming to realize that I don't travel like a tourist. And that's fine. Amazing, even.
I used to take side guilt trips when I hadn't done enough, but that all stopped in Paris. I think I'd rather just enjoy the one trip I've actually bought a plane ticket for.
So: Hello, London. Admit it: You missed me.
It's been a long time since we last saw each other. What, ten years? You showed me all your best museums; you showed me Harrod's and Benetton and French Connection, and I couldn't afford any of it. You showed me everything as best you could from the seat of my motor coach; you invited a group of well-to-do, barely-teenage white kids into your home, and we demanded pizza from Planet Hollywood, cheap seats at Miss Saigon and a chance at the newest Doc Martens after a day of Crown Jewels at the Tower of London.
I barely knew myself then; how could I expect you to understand what I wanted? I promise I'll be better this time. I'll peer back into the mews; I'll listen closer for the twinges of Cockney and Newcastle in your residents' accents. I'll talk to locals and ride the Tube and look up when I walk. I'll treat you like a real city, not some mystical place full of relics to be endlessly photographed.
I'll even get drunk with you, if you want. Let's try again.