On June 21st, 2007, I found myself in London walking sleep-deprived and jet-lagged through Hyde Park and the Kensington Gardens with two friends from high school. We had just graduated a few weeks before and were greeting England for the first time (and my only time so far) at the beginning of what would be a month-long tour.
Leaving Salt Lake City at 8 AM and arriving in London by 9 AM the next day was an exhausting journey. The atmosphere of the city was warmer than I had expected, sunnier than advertised, and felt more livable than I had assumed. Before then, most of my travel had extended to the Northwest of the United States or to vacation destinations – places that only conjure beach idling or thrill rides instead of real life – but London instantly felt lived in. This wasn’t a travel spot with a purpose of entertaining me. The subways were filled with commuters in between work, busy on their flip phones or ignoring others around them. The streets were full of people hustling to their next destination, and shop workers had no reason to assume we were only visiting – except maybe to make note of our American accents. This was someplace foreign that no longer felt foreign. More than that, I could feasibly see myself living there. I could feel safe there.
One London landmark our group visited that I hadn’t envisioned beforehand – such as the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, the British Museum, or other staple tourist places was the London Eye, which was built “as part of a competition to design a landmark for the new millennium,” and funded by British Airways. I had never even heard of this imposing ferris wheel fully-named the “Coca-Cola London Eye” – although if anyone other than the owners called it that I would be both surprised and annoyed at the distinction.
The London Eye is directly on the famed River Thames, just across the water from the Parliament and the Big Ben clocktower. The Eye is 135 meters tall (almost 450 feet) and takes 30 minutes to do one full rotation. You can rent your very own capsule, depending on your budget, but normal attendance means walking straight on to the constant movement of the Eye, and seeing the city from an entirely new perspective. There are guides and more provided to distract or enrich attendees – audio explanations and histories of what you may see as you circle the city. Various scents pumped into the capsules even pepper the moments to offer it a more tactile experience.
What I remember most is struggling to get a photo through the rounded glass without a glare or a reflection. I remember trying to not let my fear of heights get the better of me as I inched nervously closer to the rounded see-through edges. I remember one of my friends already getting on my nerves and thinking it would be a long trip if all they did was complain. More than the added ambient smell of London history, I remember seeing a city spread before me I had dreamed of going to my whole life. Up until that point – we had boarded near dusk after a terrible meal at a restaurant called Wagamama – the city had felt breakneck. Being on a group tour meant not taking time for yourself. Wanting to delve deeper into personal interests was less of an option, but instead meant going with the herd mentality, and trying to find morsels for your mind along the way.
In my research into the consrtuction and story of the London Eye, I came across a remarkable art-related event, a reading series, that took place this past summer – a week off and eight years after I had been there. The topic: 32 current adopted lovers of London relating histories of 32 influential adopted Londoners throughout time. Subjects ranged from the expected Shakespeare and Dickens lecture, to the celebrity culture Laurence Olivier and Freddie Mercury. The event was sold-out and offered an engaging series of topics in a unique and ever-moving venue from leading authors, writers, teachers, and more.
Standing in a gently-rotating egg-shaped capsule in the center of London gave me a reprieve. Watching raindrops form on the outside of the glass, I was able to refocus on what sprawled before me – the landmarks I knew to look for thanks to television and guide books – such as St. Paul’s Cathedral. But the London Eye allowed me to discover even more pieces of history along the ride, and also to reflect on how much past has been created and shared by such a unique structure. If I’m lucky, maybe some day I too can adopt London in my lifetime. I already know I want to.
You can also read more on my European explorations in a recent BACKWORDS Blog piece, “Moments in Place.”