In her second Elleswhere column about life as an expat New Zealander in London, Elle Hunt writes about seeing the city through the eyes of people who are just passing through.
I am at an indoor market in Brixton. I have never been to this market before, though it is held every week, about a half-hour walk from my house. After a year in London I now go between work, home and the places I’ve already been to.
I need to get out more, I think. I haven’t even been to the V&A.
The reason for this break in routine is my New Zealand friend is visiting. There is always a New Zealand friend visiting. My London friends think I make them up to get out of seeing them on the weekend. “That’s right, your New Zealand friend is here,” they say in tones heavy with scepticism.
They don’t believe that a country of so few people could have such a high proportion “passing through London and keep to catch up for a drink if you’re around”.
The problem is finding places to take them, with home, work, and the places I’ve already been to easily ticked off in a half-day.
Twice now I have led visiting New Zealand friends through inner-city back streets, feigning easy authority as though I’d deemed residential Marylebone a must-see for their 48 hours in one of the world’s great cities.
“John Lennon lived there for three months while recording the White Album,” I say, pointing at the blue ‘historical site’ plaque, heavily implying that that alone should justify the 45-minute Tube journey.
We usually end up at Pret. I’ve still not found anything in London that impresses New Zealanders more than Pret, not even the house where John Lennon lived for three months while recording the White Album. If the plan for Julia’s visit had been left up to me, we’d be at Pret right now.
But she has more than one New Zealand friend in London. As Niki plans to return to New Zealand one day, her time here seems finite, so she has made an effort to explore the city. I don’t plan to return to New Zealand so will end up there after years in London, never having been to the V&A.
Niki decided a daily itinerary for Julia’s stay with an elaborate system of Post-It notes. I have been to more new places in the last week with the two of them than I have in the previous six months. This expansion of my world has made me feel like anything is possible, so I have worn a headscarf to the market.
“I like your headscarf,” says Julia, mildly surprised, when I join her and Niki. They have just been in Notting Hill, where Alexa Chung passed them on the street. Julia, known to feel an affinity with Alexa Chung, is in high spirits. “It was a sign,” she says decisively.
Niki and I immediately agree. We are in tacit agreement that we want Julia to move to London, and an Alexa Chung sighting is a major coup. I wonder how much Niki paid her.
It certainly sounds as if Niki has pulled out all the stops in the past 24 hours, from Julia’s retelling: the historic old-man’s pub where the party ramped up after closing; on to the 24-hour club, where there was no sexual harassment; then watching the sun come up from a bridge over the Thames.
I’m impressed. I would live in Niki’s London. People like Pret’s healthy fast food at affordable prices but they don’t move across oceans for it.
Julia is leaving London tomorrow, so this is our last chance to sell her on what could be her new life. Like most structures described as “pop-up”, the market is eye-wateringly expensive. We wander aimlessly, demonstrating the nice things you can buy, the cool people who come here, not buying anything, not talking to any of them.
We come across a stand for Tuatara beer and nudge each other, delighted to have come across so explicit a reminder of how far we’ve come. All three of us look hard at the young woman behind the counter because one of us must know her.
Niki does, from school. Julia and I hang back as they talk for a while then Niki rejoins us. She is put out. The woman, only months into her London move, had flung herself over the counter: “Does it get any easier?”
I look at Niki askance. Julia must not know that London can be anything other than iconic nights and organic celebrity sightings. But Niki is preoccupied. The young woman hadn’t remembered her. “I taught her theatre sports,” she grumbles.
I try to remember where the nearest Pret is. To close the deal.
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