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From London to Leiden


For most of the last decade, when people have asked me where I’m from, I’ve said “London”. Never mind that I wasn’t born there, didn’t grow up there, have few family links there and didn’t move there till I was 22. Forget the fact I vacillate wildly between Northern and Southern vowel sounds and sometimes have to get people to translate London slang for me. London was mine for the taking.

If anyone ever questioned my credentials as Darlington’s answer to Peggy Mitchell, I’d make the point that I’d always wanted to live in London. And what is home if not a deep sense of kinship and affinity, coupled with a total disavowal of the place you actually spent your formative years?

All this said, now that I’m no longer there, the London years are starting to look less like the defining chapter of my life and more like just a chapter. Maybe chapter 3 or 4 or something equally nondescript. A few key characters are introduced, and there are some solid descriptions of various tube lines, but it’s not the high point of the novel.

Right now, when people ask me where I’m from, I have the luxury of just saying “Britain”, because I’m not there anymore and nobody cares about the fine divisions.

I’m staying in Leiden, a university town in South Holland which thinking about it sounds uncannily like “London”. Perhaps, on some deep, dumb level, that’s why I was drawn to the place. Perhaps my rat brain felt that if I couldn’t handle London itself, I should go somewhere smaller and gentler with an almost identical name.

So it may be that I’m chasing London’s echo. Other than that, though, I’ve moved on. I was back there for a few days either side of Christmas, and felt one of those odd composite emotions you can’t quite define – a bit like how, when you mix together clashing colours, you’re left with a muddy brown. I love the place for sure and miss it to a degree, feeling wistful both for the good times I had there and for what it once represented to me. But I’m disillusioned with the city, and ready for something completely different.

Originally, the plan was to keep on travelling. I would fly down to Seville and Morocco after Christmas and wring as much warmth as I could from the coldest month of the year. After that, I’d head to Barcelona, double back to Lisbon, and then work my way East along the Med.

Needless to say, it hasn’t worked out that way. And I’m not too aggrieved about it, because the point of this trip was never to stick to an itinerary – it was more about taking a flying leap into the unknown. Also (and this is grounds for another post), I was fed up of hauling 40kg of luggage between Airbnbs.

So that brings me, I guess, to Leiden, a town that feels more ‘my place’ than anywhere else I visited. More so than Berlin, Budapest, Vienna, Prague. More so even than Amsterdam, 30 miles to the north, which is basically Leiden plus whooping stag parties plus uncrossable five-lane roads.

According to the man I’m living with, I shouldn’t tell people about Leiden, because you need to keep the PR to a minimum if you want to keep prices down. So perhaps I should reinforce the bad bits (quite a lot of pavement cyclists) instead of the good bits (Art Deco apartments, liberal attitudes, so much cheese). Trust me, the pavement cyclists are annoying.

As for this man I’m living with, I guess he counts as a good bit. Well, the best bit really. He’s someone I met two weeks into my travels, during the one time of my life in which I was actively trying to be single (isn’t that the rule?), and unlike me, he’s actually from London.

I’m planning on staying here for the foreseeable. In some languages, it’s grammatically impossible to talk about the future in a definitive way – you say “I’m going to do that God willing” rather than “I’m going to do that”, full stop. I kind of wish English was the same, so we didn’t run the risk of jinxing ourselves. All this said, my Eurostar ticket was one-way, and I’ve already started learning Dutch.

I guess it’s goodbye to London then. Pass on my unflagging lack of respect to Theresa May.


Categories: Travelling

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Abi Millar

British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands

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