I’ve been fortunate to have visited London many times in my life. In the space of 16 years, I probably went about 8 times. The last of those times was 2007, and this Easter, we had a family holiday there – which was an awesome and valuable experience that I’ve been reflecting on recently.
The major difference, for me, was the change of dynamics. In most of the previous times, I went as the youngest of my family. Now, for the very first time, I went as a husband and father – meaning that the experience wasn’t just about me having a holiday. It was also different because, with my parents getting older – my father in particular – it was strange for me to have to take more responsibility for logistical matters, and be more careful and alert about making sure that things weren’t lost or misplaced.
This time, too, was the first visit in the age of smartphones – where quick Internet access is at your fingertips (LTE in many places – which is still relatively rare in South Africa). You no longer need to plan your routes and do research on paper long before. TripAdvisor, Google Maps, and an awesome London Underground app make it easy to find out about places, and find them, very quickly. For example, you would never know that, just 2 blocks off Oxford Street, there’s a little masjid nestled amid the restaurants and shops.
But many aspects of the place felt familiar to me, because I’d experienced them so many times before: the gloomy weather; the constricted way that the houses were tiny, identical, and cramped into the streets – like the inhabitants of this city having their lives literally boxed into these miserable little physical spaces. The feeling that there seem to be more foreigners than Brits. That everyone was really polite – even complete strangers who would accidentally bump you on the street.
It was encouraging to see so many Muslims in the city – many dressed modern, but not afraid of ‘looking’ Muslim (wearing hijab or a beard – though beards seem to be a fashion at the moment for non-Muslims). We saw an unusual number of orthodox Jews as well (instantly recognisable by their clothing and sideburns), out in the parks, spending family time together. It was nice to see, because I haven’t noticed much of that back home much: i.e. people of another religion, in traditional religious garb, out and about like that in large numbers. The political issues between Muslims and Jews are so heated and divisive, yet these simple experiences showed the ‘other side’ in a completely different light – as normal, family people – like us – just living life.
Materialism and commercialism is still rampant, with advertising at every corner – though in many instances, paper-based posters have been upgraded to huge digital displays (something that wouldn’t work in South Africa, given our country’s electricity supply perils). I took special notice of the style of language in those ads as well as the newspapers – such as the Metro, which is free on the Tube.
Oxford Street was still busy as ever, and major chain stores like H&M, HMV, Marks & Spencer, Harrods and Tesco still seem to dominate the commercial landscape of the city.
It’s not about me
For me, the tourist attractions weren’t that interesting. Yes, I’d seen them before – but even so, I think the main reason I didn’t feel awe was that my focus was on my kids. For us as parents, we had to take care of them all the time – carting them on and off trains and busses (which becomes routine very quickly), running around after the toddler (she’s a few months short of 2 years old), and trying creative ways to make things seem exciting for them.
I wasn’t trying to enjoy this trip as a tourist, and didn’t go there for shopping either. I wanted this to be a period of happiness for my kids – letting them have fun, creating happy memories, and experiencing the excitement of a foreign land. And for me, I took more pleasure in seeing them happy – rather than any excitement I should have felt by visiting these world famous places.
The older one (5 and a half years old) will probably remember all of this, while the younger one won’t – but we have hundreds of pictures and videos for them to view when they’re older. It was enough, for me, that they enjoyed themselves. The toddler, especially, had a ball, with her happiness and cuteness lifting everyone’s spirits and making experiences joyful. (There was a lot of stress too, of course – but for me the good outweighs the difficulty.)
What I realised, a number of times, was that the best things in life really are free. The kids enjoyed simple pleasures, like playing in the parks, more than the (insanely) expensive outings like the London Eye and Thames River boat ride. (An exception, though, was Legoland in Windsor – which was a pain to get to, but worth it for the awesome time the kids had.)
Perspective, and positive change
The most valuable part of the trip, for me, was the change in environment. With life and work staying routine for years and years, it’s so easy to get into a mental rut – stagnation and dullness which isn’t even broken by short trips away for weekends. I’ve felt that way for a long time, having not been out of the country since Hajj 4 years ago.
So, being in a very different place, with such an wide array of cultures and people, and a fast-paced life that’s not very similar to Slaapstad (a nickname for Cape Town) – it helped to refresh my mind from the lull I was in. I took it as an opportunity to break one of my most time-consuming addictions, and feel – well, hope – that as I move forward, I can take positives from this trip and make beneficial changes that will help hold me over until the next time, God-willing, I’m afforded an opportunity to visit some far-off destination.
It’s always different when you come back home and see the places that are ‘normal’. Things feel different, yet familiar, and it takes a little while for your mind to adjust to the reality that the time away was just a break from the norm. If I needed an extra push in that direction, I got it the very next day, when stage 2 loadshedding was implemented.
Welcome home ;)