The first time I landed at Gatwick, there was only one stamp in my passport. I’d moved to Ireland less than a month before and London was my first trip.
That day, I walked 19 miles because I was scared of the Underground and didn’t know the bus routes.
Over three days, I rode the London Eye, heard Big Ben, crossed Tower Bridge, and visited the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum, where a security guard questioned if I was over 18 when searching my bag. I was 22.
The whole experience felt surreal. Watching the Changing of the Guards, it felt more like I was on a film set than at an actual palace. Eating fish and chips in Trafalgar Square while double-decker buses circled roundabouts felt magical. The Thames…well, the Thames was still an ugly brown, but it was thrilling to see it rush underneath the stone bridge.
It’s been two years since that trip. Now I can navigate the tube without a second thought and I’ve hit every major tourist destination. I’ve even seen The Parent Trap house.
The last time I was in London, I was also alone. I was there for less than an hour, just catching a bus to Luton Airport. The time before that, I’d been getting a bus from Heathrow. Back one trip further, Luton again.
Each time my National Express coach travels through London, arriving and leaving Victoria Station, I stop reading and watch the city pass through windows usually streaked by raindrops. I live just hours way now, in Norwich, but I don’t make it to the city much; I’m on a poor student’s budget.
I’ve no idea what it cost me to visit London the first time. I would have paid anything to get there, to the city that felt mythical. If I’d been living in Norwich two years ago, I would have been in London every weekend.
Now I won’t even splurge an extra £10 on a bus ticket to spend the day wandering the land of royals and writers, visiting the free museums or perusing Camden Market.
No longer unattainable, London has ceased to seem a destination, now just a stopping point to where I’m going.
I can’t tell stories about ‘the time I was in London’ anymore without specifying which time. There’s the time I saw my first show in the West End, Wicked at the Apollo Victoria. The time I spent New Years on Westminster Bridge. The time I danced in The World’s End and almost got stranded in Camden. The time I went for free and stayed in a swanky hotel, work paying for everything during the conference.
I can track lapsing time based on my trips to London now. When I ride through it, I think of the things I’ve accomplished since the last time. This city that used to seem so out of reach is commonplace now; I question if I’ve stopped appreciating it the way I should.
It worries me that in two years filled with travel, I may have lost some of the awe that was my constant companion. I am not as intimidated by huge cities and historic sites as I was when I first moved to Europe. That’s an odd thing to unpack.
I love how comfortable I feel now, how capable I am of navigating and communicating in foreign settings. It opens new opportunities. But I almost feel jaded; after my friends and I spent an entire day in Florence’s art museums, we joked that we’d reached “art saturation” and could no longer fully appreciate how amazing each piece was on its own. For the last two years, I have tried to visit as many places in Europe as possible. I hope I didn’t go too fast, under-appreciating each city as its own experience.