It has been an interesting week in London. My first few days have been a reminder that travel is in many ways a selfish pursuit. Where we’ll stay, what we’ll eat, what we’ll do, where can we find Wi-Fi – these are the questions that make up part of each day.
Because we’re not on holiday exactly, this selfishness seems like an extravagance. I like working, I like volunteering, I like being there for our family, friends and community. But, as wildlife photographer Peter Langlands recently wrote on his Facebook page: “OK – skydiving or great whites – need a legal jolt outta my comfort zone.”
So here we are. Around the corner from Portobello Road Market in an inexpensive short-term room rental. With rubbish strewn across the front patio area, bicycles cluttering the entrance way, and a handwritten sign on the first landing admonishing us to keep the window locked at all times due to a recent burglary, we are definitely “outta” our comfort zone.
From our room window we can see the colourful marquees of the food vendors who set up each day. It seems like a Sisyphean task, but when we walk through on our way to coffee, the worn smiles and easy banter are contagious. It’s like watching the fair come to town.
It’s on the third morning that I twig that beyond the market and housetops we can also see the remains of Grenfell Tower. I have seen posters and graffiti around the neighbourhood, but only now put together how close we are in geographic terms. It brings a pit to my stomach and I consider what a horrible, inadequate feeling it would have been to have stood at this window on 14 June 2017. This is not my story to tell, but I realise we are visiting a city that is still in mourning and still grappling with how to address the system failures and the inequalities that led to such a tragedy.
One thing that surprises me is the friendliness of many of the people we meet. One of the women we’re house-sitting for later this month, who is originally from France, has had a similar experience. “Overall, Londoners are nice”, she says.
When I first arrived, I saw posters that read, “We’ll never turn our backs on rough sleepers – Mayor of London, Building a London for Everyone”. I know change can be slow, but I like being in a place where compassion and inclusivity are not only right, but also politically acceptable.
Back across the seas, there are similar sentiments with Aotearoa New Zealand planning to be the first in the world to measure its success against how it does socially, culturally and environmentally.
Last year was rough, “a pustule of a year, politically and personally” as The New Yorker writer Alexandra Schwartz recently wrote. But I am feeling hopeful for 2018.
In the meantime, Ken and I leave London for our first house-sitting job – two dogs and a rabbit – near Salisbury. It will be a chance to catch up on work for my patient clients, walk dogs, and go to Stonehenge with our eldest daughter, Haley, who is coming down from Edinburgh for a long weekend. It also will be an opportunity to figure out how to be both out of my comfort zone and contributing to a better planet – all while not knowing how good the Wi-Fi will be.
When not on her OE, Shelly Farr Biswell works as a communications consultant in New Zealand.