At LHR. Walked past a man whose cologne reminded me of early days with G. Cold morning walks from Fabian Road to Fulham Station. A peck on the cheek at Notting Hill Gate. Navy suit. Red tie. Black shoes. A smile. Butterflies. Warm hands. An evening on the couch in candlelit Shunt. Falling in love. – October 27, 2014 (notes from London)
During a two-day whirlwind business trip to London, I managed to escape for a few hours to visit my old neighborhood. I felt like my 26 year old self, a nervous energy pulsing through me as I walked past the familiar vintage record store at Notting Hill Gate Station. Sidewalks gum stained and grey, I rushed past the heat of fried chicken tenders wafting from the KFC I used to visit after very late nights out. The high street, grungier than I remember, was pretty in the way old books can be pretty after many years. A riff raff of shops old and new, soot stained window signs, the low hum of Sunday morning joggers.
There’s a reason why this little village inspired a movie. In my life it has inspired a whole universe of interweaving stories, many mine but also my friends’. The chance encounter. A foolish tryst. One life changing first date. Shelter for a broken heart. Girly brunches on lazy Sundays. Summer evening strolls along rainbow streets. Garden guitar melodies, wool sweater hugs, cigarette smoke swirling into the heavens. And dancing. Always there was dancing. In bars, in living rooms, on front steps – there was dancing.
Meandering down Pembridge Gardens enroute to Westbourne Grove, my breath caught in my throat. What beauty. I had walked this route to and from work everyday. Had it always been this gorgeous? The whitewashed estate buildings. The brightly painted doors. The way streets languidly curve at just the right angle to keep you guessing what lies around the corner. Had all of this really been mine? I berated myself for not having devoured it with more ferocity then. Hindsight, in this case, is 30/20.
My first flat was perpetually cold and smelled of old lady night cream. A cavernous junior one-bedroom, it witnessed my loneliness and pleasures, keeping secrets like a time capsule of dreams. The imposing ten foot windows whistled in the winter wind and on Friday nights drunk commuters screamed at each other on the street below. Sometimes the shouting would jar me awake with fear. Twice I thought to call the police, sure that someone had been stabbed. Often there were beggars. Always there were tourists. And just beneath the surface – wealth and glamour. Among the basement flats and council housing were lush gated gardens, posh montessori schools and glass encased penthouses barely perceptible from street view. It is a barrio of rockstars, executives, super models, students, expats, antiquarians and immigrants. And its little streets are as diverse as its residents.
My second flat was on the third floor of a walk-up above Mulberry Street Pizza. Just down the street is Khan’s – by far the best Indian restaurant west of Asia. Around the corner, a little foreign foods market where I bought noodles, fishsauce and pan de sal whenever I was overcome with homesickness. South of there, at Aphrodite Taverna, I channeled my inner Greek and hosted large Friday dinners with friends, friends-of-friends, and their friends. And just a few blocks north, at The Oak, I had my first taste of truffle (on pizza) while claiming bragging rights to discovering the cozy lounge upstairs. Further west, at The Lonsdale, C and I drank one miserable Monday away with shots of tequila and consequently spent the remainder of the evening teetering on sidewalk ledges willing ourselves to keep our dinners down. I threw my 27th birthday party there, less than a week before I packed it up for good to travel the world for a while. On Portobello, thousands visit the famous antique market each week often bypassing the treasure that is The Notting Hill Bookshop. Place of wanderlust, poetry and maps.
There’s something very special about coming back to a place and seeing it with new eyes. A beauty that was overlooked, and flaws too. Notting Hill feels more like home five years later than it ever did in my twenties. I was too busy swallowing London up to make a nest of this little neighborhood. Back then, I was just passing through. Today, it feels like a part of me will always live somewhere between Westbourne and Pembridge Gardens. The me that was too naive and impatient to appreciate its beauty. The me who assumed that my time in London would be a blip – off the record, unabashed, reckless. Little did I know that the city’s ghost would become an ever-present companion in my more settled life. Its apparitions transporting me with breathless nostalgia to the movie-like moments of my years as a Londoner.
Notting Hill will always be mine.
And me, hers.