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Lessons From Living in London

Andrew Testa for The New York Times

The Millennium Bridge.

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Published: October 18, 2013    89 Comments

How do you make a new city your own? How do you turn it from a place you know as a tourist into a place you call home? How do you transform yourself from traveler to resident?

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Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Ffiona’s restaurant.

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The things we notice when we visit cities are rarely the things we notice when we live in them, and so it was for me when I moved to North London and then West London from New York many years ago. (I have now moved back, which is a different story.)

I had been to London only perhaps a half-dozen times before I moved, and so I had lived in visitors’ London: an intoxicating fairy tale of quirky architecture, treasure-filled museums, theater for every mood, exotic accents, stately parks, humorous food, royalty looming in the background and a subway system I could experience as amusing novelty rather than logistical necessity. Suddenly, all that went away, the days drew in, the autumn shadows fell, and London became instead about confronting the daily business of living: finding a decent grocery store and dealing with the impossibility of the gas company and learning to say rubbish bin instead of garbage can and having my shoes ruined by the rain.

New York dazzles with its energy; tourist London is that way, too, but the buzz dims quickly when you leave the center of town. While most people in New York live on top of one another in dense neighborhoods tightly packed together, in London they spread far into the distance, in discrete neighborhoods like Richmond and Bermondsey and Kennington, too many to know, each with its own High Street and its own iteration of the same stores: Boots the chain drugstore, Marks & Spencer the chain department store and Next the chain clothing store. Yet each neighborhood also has its own character.

I was lucky enough to sample two: first Islington, where I lived on a quiet little road around the corner from a bustling antiques market and the even more bustling Angel Tube stop. If I was in transition, so was Islington. Its dingy liquor stores, dreary sandwich shops and dodgy betting parlors were giving way to smart artisanal food shops featuring focaccia of the day and baked goods at $8 a go.

But my favorite shop has persevered: Steve Hatt’s fishmonger, a family-run establishment full of siblings and parents and cousins. Perhaps the high point of my time in Islington, besides the time a duck came and hatched her brood in our back garden, was when I bought a piece of salmon that, according to the sign above it, had been caught by old Mr. Hatt himself — the great-grandfather of the current crop of Hatts, I think.

Residents tend to feel more connected to their neighborhoods than to London as a whole, and because it can be an undertaking to travel to another part of town for a social occasion, geography starts to feel like destiny. So when I lived in Kensington, I got used to staying fairly close to home. This meant eating often at Jakob’s, a homey little restaurant and takeout place on Gloucester Road that sold vegetable-centric dishes and salads. It meant visiting Itsu, in nearby Notting Hill, a high-concept Japanese restaurant where the sushi swirled past on a conveyor belt. Notting Hill also had two beautiful old movie theaters, the Gate and the Coronet, and all the charm of Greenwich Village, without the crowds (except when Portobello Market was in session, on Fridays and Saturdays).

There was my favorite clothing store on Kensington Church Street, which sold expensive but mercifully non-ill-fitting jeans, and then Ffiona’s, where a wholesome meal with enticing meat dishes and fish and vegetables served family-style was served up by none other than Ffiona herself. We also had, on Gloucester Road, a Partridge’s store that sold all the American foods I missed: Skippy peanut butter, Toll House chocolate chips, breakfast cereals consisting mostly of fluorescent marshmallows.

Three of the city’s best museums for children — the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert, and the Science Museum — were short walks away, and in the park there was a cunning, pirate-themed playground dedicated to Diana, the late Princess of Wales, that my two girls loved when they were little.

We ventured farther afield, of course; we liked especially to take the children to St. Paul’s Cathedral and then across the Millennium Bridge (the city’s best walk, to my mind) and into the Tate Modern gallery, a spectacular building fashioned from a decommissioned power station on the south bank of the Thames. Once we all spontaneously responded to Olafur Eliasson’s giant sun, positioned on a mirrored ceiling, by lying on the ground and basking, as if it we were at the beach.

We went to Shakespeare’s Globe, a facsimile of the 16th-century theater, where seats are cheap and a spot on foot, for theatergoers known as groundlings, is even cheaper. For a day out we might go to Hampstead, a little town unto itself in North London with the wildest park in the city, a place to lose yourself amid the trees.

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