Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

November 21, 2005. London.

Ive been in London for three days on the way back to the US from Malawi. I hesitate to say home from Malawi. Im not sure what home is any more, except that Im looking forward to being back in my van, on my own, not constrained by work or people around me.

I love London. I have always felt a tie to this city, since my earliest friend moved here with her family when she and I were six years old, and we visited them two years later. I always said I wanted to live in London, and Ive attributed my desire to travel to seeing my best friend head overseas when we were children. She's back in New York now, but Ive spent my life traveling.

London, to me, is a real, proper city. Its bustling, active, lively. You can walk where you want to go, or ride a bicycle or take a bus or the tube. Youd be made to drive a car, youd spent your life caught behind a line of double-decker buses and never see where you were going. Better to be sitting on the top of the bus when you get caught in that line of traffic, at least you have a view as you inch through the city.

Id like to live here, in a small studio above a street like the one Im in now. A street a few blocks long, with two bookshops, a hardware store, a couple of small groceries, a splendid white cat with one green eye and one blue, and several shops that offer sandwiches, kebabs, Cornish pasties, falafel, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and paper cups of strong tea. A pub at the corner, maybe a florist, a newsstand, a card shop where school children buy notebooks and pens. A community center offering computer classes, childcare, and afterschool programs for Bangladeshi youngsters. London is a mix of English, Bangladeshi, Caribbean, Arab, tourist, wealthy American bank executives who send their children to international schools.

On this street the buildings all have four floors; shops on the street and three levels of apartments above. Id like to have one on the top floor, with a window looking in the street and a bit of sunlight in the morning when the sky isnt too gray. Id have a little motorbike, the smallest kind they make, so I could explore all of London and perhaps get out of town from time to time. Id set up my desk by the window so I could watch the sky as I worked. Id drink tea from a sunny yellow mug and fill a big bowl on the kitchen table with bananas and mangos.

My image of London is a jumble of history, images of the present, too many novels, and too little reality. I think Highbury is a modest village sixteen miles from the city, which a foolish young man once rode in a day just to get a haircut. But Jane Austen has been dead almost two centuries and Frank Churchill never existed, and Highbury is just a part of the spreading city. Not even a

distant part. I want the bookshops all to be like 84 Charing Cross Road, even though I have no interest in antiquarian books and am only looking for quite ordinary used ones. I think in the Jewish neighborhoods Ill find Mordecai or Ezra Cohen living with a boisterous pawnbrokers family, instead of upper middle-class families in wealthy synagogues. I think pubs are charming cozy places selling wholesome comfort food, when in fact they are bars where Ill never go unless they ban smoking entirely. When I think of the Thames, I see Daniel Deronda rescuing a lost young woman about to end her life, and rowing her to safety with the Meyrick family in their modest house along the shore. As if I could ever even dream of living in a single-family house on the banks of the Thames if any still exist.

Perhaps someday Ill live in London and find a way to merge my fantasies with the reality. Perhaps in some way some of the fantasy is still real the bustling local streets not entirely wiped out by modern high-rises, the sandwich and pasty shops not entirely replaced by McDonalds or Starbucks even if falafel and kebabs have replaced fish and chips, the local bookshops not yet put out of business

by Borders, most of all the pedestrian and bicycles and buses and trains not replaced by cars, and the fabric of urban life still a reality.

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