« It is difficult to speak adequately or justly of London. It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable, or cheerful, or easy, or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent. »
« — How do you feel about leaving?
— I don’t realise. »
And so I went on and on and on with pretty much every guest at my leaving drinks. It was true, it just felt like a great little party with people I love, not « the goodbyes ». Then it was Monday, the sky was blue and I was taking Antoine back to St. Pancras for the 26th and last time in just over two years. Then I realised. Eight days later I’d be on the same train between Liverpool Street and St. Pancras, leaving London after six years and three months. I started getting emotional. Just like « I don’t realise » had been my routine answer the past couple of months, « No bucket list » was my motto: I would not endeavor to go back to every place I loved one last time. I’d come back to London quite regularly after all, and there was no reason to make a big deal out of this. That same Monday train stopped at the Barbican though, and I realised I was probably not going to go back to the Barbican anytime soon. I held Antoine’s hand a little tighter.
It’s funny how you can feel sad under blue skies – it’s funny what you can do for love.
How can I feel nothing about leaving London after such a long time? I can’t. I feel. It’s a lot of joy, a hint of sadness, quite the right amount of melancholia, that bitter and blissful mix of happiness and sorrow. At this stage, London has been where I’ve spent most of my « grown-up life ».
Just to avoid any doubt, I’m super duper happy about the next chapter, about moving to Lyon, about living with Antoine. It’s just that so much has happened since April 2010. So many people, so many emotions, so many places, so many memories, so many steps.
I have vivid memories of Sunday 25 April 2010. My first day in London after my Godmother took me for a touristy (birth)day trip in December 1997. I was shadowing the tour manager I was going to replace at Akram Khan Company, and in-between Belgium and Luxembourg we had a couple of days in London. I was going to stop by the office on the Monday to sign my contract (I was only starting the job a month later, on 24th May). Géraldine was away but had kindly lent me her room in Baron’s Court. On that Sunday, I took the tube to Central London and decided to walk all the way to the office in Angel, stopping by Sadler’s Wells, for I knew that was the dance theatre the company would perform at the following days. What I didn’t know was the amount of hours I’d spend in that theatre the following six years, backstage or in the auditorium, the number of amazing shows I’d see and the countless memories I’d make.
I kept walking to see where the office was, then on to Shoreditch. Steve had recommended the George & Dragon as one of the best gay bars in London. I took a deep breath in, and ventured inside. The deep breath was for the fact that I was on my own – I don’t think I’d ever been to a bar on my own. I stood by the counter a long, long time, before feeling brave (drunk) enough to go and speak to a little group of boys – I guess they seemed the nicest. That’s how I met Osian, who would become one of my George partners in crime when I’d come back to London for good a month later. Through Osian I met Thomas. And at the George I also met Olivier, and Bruno and Thierry; and I have taken literally everybody there – up till its sad closure five and a half years later, last November, after the most epic night.
Andoni gave me the best piece of advice when I came back for real in May: « East London is becoming the place to be. » Oh yes it was. Without any clue of what I was doing, I found a room in a cute little house on Mapledene Road, right next to London Fields. I would not leave London Fields until August 2016. Well, that’s a bit of a lie. I was constantly « on tour » between September 2010 and May 2012, and when we were back in London for just a couple of nights, sometimes a full week if we were lucky, I had to crash at friends’. It started in Hoxton with Olivier’s kind offer, and I met Queen Sandrine. They had to move out in 2011 and my next flat crashing was in Clapton at Fabiana’s. When the tour temporarily stopped for the Olympics in the summer of 2012, I officially moved in with Sandrine in her Silesia Buildings flat. Second « real » London home and back to London Fields. We had to leave early 2013, and Princess Alex joined us – we thought we wouldn’t find anything, but ended up in the great Ment House flat we would live in together for three and a half years. Quite an achievement on a London scale. And it was London Fields again.
I progressively became that annoying East London boy who would barely ever leave his beloved neighbourhood.
It actually took me a while to love you, London. Too big, too expensive, too impersonal, too transitional. But as I said, I was barely here the first couple of years. When I finally settled down properly, oh boy did I start to love you.
So many people, so many emotions, so many places, so many memories, so many steps. So many visitors too. Smile and wave!
That first summer in 2010, someone was visiting from France every weekend, and I was doing the same East London tour every weekend! Then I met Céline in Crawley, and built something quite exceptional with her, over the years. Then Charles settled down here for over two years, and it was such a blessing to have my best friend so close for the first time in years. It’s not all about the French though. I had an eventful date with Andy W in October 2010, and he became a close friend. I then met Alex and Andy R in his garden and the rest is (red trunks) history. The great Adam(s) and Pete, too. London has been quite a wonderful ladies’ life for me, actually: what would have I done without the inspiring, comforting and enlightening presence of Géraldine, Sandrine, Céline, Alex and darling Sonia?
London, you’ve embodied more than 2,200 days of gin and burgers and pizzas, from Saponara to Franco Manca. There have been so many pints, so many gigs and musicals, so many late night talks on the Ment House sofa, and Beck Road feasts. There’s been Downton, Joiners’, the festivals, the pubs, the parks. Oh and the rooftops! Flowers! Foxes! There has been British politics, British creativity, British politeness. The East London gas holders will remain, our Saturday strolls on Broadway Market too, no matter how many tourists invade the hood. We will still go to XXL, try some Whitstable oysters by the Neptune’s, and drown our hot summer sorrow in the Heath. We shall keep cycling the beauties of London Town upside down, inside out, along the canal, for the many years to come. For as long as hearts awake, as long as they dance and as long as they dream, summer may pass, but London will remain.
In the meantime, Antoine showed up, conquered you (and me) from Primrose Hill, and took me away. And I am very glad he did. London, your love has set me free, and I shall come back. You have transformed me in the best possible way. No doubt I will hate you and love you a lot longer. Be good, and let me embrace you one more time.
So do I realise now? A tiny bit more, but not fully. There has been a lot of goodbyes the last few days, but I’ve tried to keep them as natural as possible. A dinner, a show, a catch-up on the Highgate sofa, the last couple of pints on the deck at Pub on the Park.
Pete was as amazing as ever on Saturday for my final dinner at Beck Road. I said goodbye to him. On Sunday though, I was walking down Broadway Market in a glimpse of sun, and saw him leaving La Bouche, on his way home. He did not see me. I was just another passer-by, someone London had adopted some time ago, and had now released, free to go. I was already gone somehow. The sun kept caressing the busy street, the buzzing shops and the hipstering hipsters. I was already gone somehow – but London remained.