Last year, my niece, who was 11 at the time, said that all she wanted for Christmas was “a plane ticket to somewhere I’ve never been.” I’m a big fan of encouraging wanderlust, and I wanted to find a way to just hang out with her more. So I got it into my head that I wanted to go to Paris with her, then she asked if we could do London instead. (I think she didn’t want to endure my terrible French or have to do all the talking herself). I love London, and haven’t been here for a few years, and it was really “her” trip, so here we are.
I was 39 when she was born, and now she’s 5 inches taller than I am. Before we set off, she flew by herself from Ottawa to Toronto, alone on a plane for the first time. My sister sent me a photo of her strolling by herself down to the gate, and my heart swelled. So tall, so tiny, so brave.
I had worried a bit about spending so much time with her — she’s 12, I live and travel alone, for the most part. Would I be too adult-y, too fast, too bossy, impatient? But seeing this city through her first time eyes — re-opens me.
London was the first place I traveled to by myself, for a summer when I was 20 and doing a study abroad thing. I remember coming back wearing the first of many silvery swoopy scarves I’ve acquired over the decades, feeling so grown at navigating three countries — England, Ireland, Northern Ireland — and a passionately chaste romance on my own. The first time I tried to imagine — who would I be if I lived here? London is special for me that way, and I’ve been back many times. But I sit in that edge here between “this is my favourite coffee shop!” and “where is this again?” — not sure whether what I know is memory or the osmosis of popular culture.
So I’m here, with my niece, who is in the open edge between adult and goofy kid.
Too shy to name a topic for the poetry-buskers on the riverbank in Southwark, but completely delighted by the poems they tap out on their typewriters when I blurt out “pickles.” Thoughtful and perceptive enough to say “I like this painting — it makes me feel uncrowded” about the all-white room at the Tate Modern — and young enough to sit down with hyper happiness on a tiny light standard in front of the Tower of London, just like she sat on a curb when she was a toddler. Too shy to talk much to my friend A who met us in Brighton, but brave enough to let herself be flung into the air on the trapeze catapult. “I didn’t know it would go that HIGH!” she laughed.
We have no real agenda, and I find myself far more patient than I expected, pausing when she wants to take photos, pleased that she will do 12 or 14 km of tromping around in a day. Teaching her the joys of walking left on the escalators, not being a stand-righter, while genuinely marvelling with her at how LONG and DEEP and STEEP they are. We don’t HAVE to do… anything. But we find ourselves doing all the things, because we feel like it. On my own, I wander in cities, but I wander FAST. With her… I look around. And with her, I can eat twice at Wagamama (which I love), go to bed early, get up late.
In the middle, the best part? The subtle intimacy. M is not a demonstrative kid, and isn’t really a talker. But with this time together? She walks close to me, holds my arm or my hand when I don’t expect it, puts her arm around my shoulder, keeps stepping gently on my toe, pats my head. She trusts me that I’ll get her back home safely, even when we go the wrong way on the tube. The connections that come with time and ease.
I don’t know what I hoped for from this trip, but whatever it was, this is even better.