I’m on the train from Edinburgh to London and I can’t stop checking my backpack to make sure I have my passport and plane ticket to Italy. I’ll be in London for a few days to visit my family and see the city before flying into Milan, where I’ll bounce around until I have to be back in Edinburgh for when the term starts up in early January. My excitement for traveling alone is muddied only by a persistent anxiety. Consequently, I’m ready to confiscate any mobile phone with a tacky ring tone. Every sound is amplified, every movement excessive.
London is massive—just massive. More people live in London then in the whole of Scotland and I have a clear sense of this the moment I leave Kings Cross Station for the Underground. Taxis, red double-deckers, and cars congest the roads; prams, shopping bags, and people overflow the sidewalks, spilling out onto the intersections. Big stone buildings with decorative black iron terraces line the streets, looking important and dignified. The city is incredible; it’s smart and energetic and has all this grandeur without being grandiose.
I meet up with my family at a hotel in the Bayswater area, near Paddington Station. My mother and brother are completely knocked out by jet lag, so I decide to take a long walk through the paths of Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. The pigeons are out and about; the air is sharp and cold. Past the Italian fountains, ducks with oily green heads and prominent gold beaks wave patterns in the pond, their heads poking out of the water like ornate door handles. Swans coast effortlessly across the water beyond the Serpentine Gallery, judging passing runners in leggings. At sunset my hands are growing numb. I see three strips of orange-pink oil paint hang in the sky, gathering thick at the edge of the horizon.
I’m sprawled out on the concrete floor of Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern, staring up at myself on the large mirrored ceiling hundreds of meters above my head. Some kids toward the back of the hall are spelling out ‘FUCK’ with their bodies and there is a group of five middle-aged men far to my left shaping out a star with their legs. Turbine Hall houses The Weather Project, an installation by Olafur Eliasson ; it is a huge, open industrial space kept dark with the exception of a large semicircular yellow light—a sun within a stone’s throw. Hot mist moves above, making the mirrors appear to ripple with heat. Everyone is basking in the glow like lunatic sunbathers confined to the set of a Fritz Lang film. High up on the mirror, I look like a mirage trembling in the heat even though it’s freezing lying on the concrete. I lose myself and start making a snow angel.
There is a skeleton on the upper floor of the British Museum that looks like the turkey leftovers I see every time I open the refrigerator door in the days following Thanksgiving. It’s doubled up on a basketwork coffin from Tarkhan, Egypt, and dates back to 2950 BC. Desert conditions preserve remains pretty well.
Floating from room to room, the objects, materials, and origins read like a list poem—jar broach bracelet—limestone sandstone bloodstone schist—Greece Rome Minoa Mesopotamia. The British Museum is mind-blowing; the amount of fascinating things they have there is incomprehensible. I spend an entire afternoon there and never even make it through a third of the collections. Though I’m well aware that most of the stuff there was at one time or another nicked from its respective country, I can say that at the very least the British Museum is taking top-notch care of it. Set in temperature- and light-controlled glass barriers, all the treasures are safe from people who would spring at the chance to cradle a calcite Cycladic sculpture, pluck a medieval lyre, and wield a Celtic sword. Yes: people like me.
There’s too much to see in London, too much to do. There are also too many people. On the streets, fighting my way through the crowds—I can’t fathom having to do this everyday. I don’t want to have to strategize how to get to the other side of the street or dodge old women with umbrellas like medieval ball flails in the rain. But when I’m looking down on it all while drinking tea in an upstairs used-bookstore café on Charing Cross Road, I understand why so many people choose to live here, which is why I have to figure out a way to come back and perhaps live here for a bit or even indefinitely. I’m up for trying both.
In a few days I depart for Italy. Although the anxiety hasn’t left me, the excitement is elbowing its way back to the middle of my chest enough that I can feel it when I breathe. There’s no set schedule for Italy; however, I do plan to be in Florence by Christmas. Everything will be closed so I figure I’ll wake up and take a walk around the city at its least busiest moments. But beyond that I have no agenda—just a ticket to Milan, a rail pass to any three cities, a big book to read, and a lot of time on my hands.