Lost in London: A returning Briton's struggle to navigate her ‘home’ city

Navigating any place is a skill, and without practicing you lose it. But what happens when you no longer know how to "do" the city you come from?

Big Ben and Westminster Bridge, London, UK. Getty Images
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"How was home?" everyone asks with a smile when you return from that summer trip back to the motherland. Their eyes scan you in search of a satisfied sparkle, and there is a pause as they wait for the gushing to pour from your lips. But then you answer: "It was awful."

I had been excited before my trip – I hadn't visited London for three years. I listened to David Bowie and The Jam, anything that reminded me of home, a tear rolling down my cheek and my heart ready to burst with love for my city. London was calling, it was my paradise, and I couldn't wait to step off that plane and into my comfort zone.  

But on my first day, it became apparent that in my absence I had completely forgotten how to London. Heading out to meet an old friend, I donned a slinky outfit and fancy new shoes and breezed through the door without a care in the world.

Londoner Liz Cookman is an assistant foreign editor at The National. Courtesy Liz Cookman

Yet by the time I had found said friend an hour later than I was supposed to have arrived, I was limping after having slipped in the rain. Both my feet were wrapped in bandages because the relentless wet had caused my stupid new shoes to rub right through my skin and every part of me was soaked because a passing car had driven a puddle into my face in a disgusting dirty-water tsunami.

London was a dangerous beast and I no longer knew how to ride it. And no matter how much lipstick I reapplied, I could not get my mouth to feel normal again after gritty road water had made its way in.

I wasn't sure I was ready to become someone who can't London

I spent the rest of the afternoon shivering, my blow dry a distant memory and mascara streaking down my face, remembering why I had only ever worn very practical clothing in my past life. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wanted to go home. Only I was supposed to be there. This feeling has a name – it’s called reverse culture shock. It’s the psychological and emotional stress caused by returning home, compounded by the fact that it is supposed to be easy.

When you move somewhere new, you become accustomed to another way of life without realising it. The side of the road people drive on, the sounds that the lifts make and the clothes you wear are all part of our routine. There are patterns to the way we communicate with the world around us that become so well worn they are invisible. This familiarity and predictability is a big part of what makes somewhere home – and London was at once both of these things to me, and neither.

Navigating any place is a skill, and without practising you lose it. Over the course of my trip I had run-ins with ticket machines. I got on the wrong tubes. I got stuck in central London at night because I no longer had Uber. I was cold almost every day and even though I had a suitcase full of clothes, every item seemed wrong there.

I felt isolated, exhausted and overwhelmed. Family and friends expect you to be the same and interact with their environment the way they do, and they don't really want to hear about your new one. The distance makes you see things and people in a new light.

While everyone changes and identities evolve, trips home are a rare reminder, for better or worse, of the person you used to be versus the one you have become. But my home city had always been such a big part of who I am, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to become someone who can’t London.

But on my last day, arriving at Heathrow mega early for my flight in sensible shoes and warm layers – the only correct attire for a British summer – I realised that practise really does make perfect. So I packed a change of warm weather clothes in my carry-on bag and braced myself for the return to my other home and another bout of culture shock.