I had come to London to cover the first week at Wimbledon and though I had been to the city many times before, it was my first time staying in an apartment. For about the price of a mid-range hotel, I found a lovely one-bedroom apartment on the third floor of a classic Georgian style London walkup on Flipkey.
When I turned up at the doorstep of my flat in Nevern Square in London’s Earl’s Court neighborhood, I was soaking wet and I smelled like a sewer rat. I had tripped over a mooring post while walking along Regent’s Canal, near the Camden Lock market, and watched helplessly as my bag, carrying my DSLR camera and iPhone, plopped into the water and began to drift away, like a rubber ducky coasting over Niagara Falls. I dove into the murky water with all my clothes on in the hopes of salvaging my precious cargo and emerged soaking wet and a little smelly. As I bounded up the stairs at 2 Nevern Square, I felt quite pleased with the fact that I was checking into an apartment with a washing machine, rather than a hotel room.
A young man named Steve welcomed me into my new home for the week, a gorgeous one-bedroom apartment in a quintessential London neighborhood just steps from a picture perfect green sanctuary and a tube stop, and explained how to work all the unfamiliar equipment and appliances. As soon as he left, I wished I’d written down his instructions, but as I stripped my wet clothes off and fussed with the washing machine, I felt that odd sense of accomplishment in figuring out how things worked in another country.
It took me some time to figure out how to lock and unlock the door to the apartment, but once I had it down pat, I loved the act of crouching down to double bolt the second lock, which was bizarrely located about six inches off the ground. And I adored the tall windows and high ceilings in the apartment and the odd collection of signs and notices in the first floor common area- “No Free Newspapers, Please!” was my favorite.
I am not a nosy person but one of the things that I liked about living in this apartment was having the opportunity to imagine who lived there. Some of their cabinets and closets were discreetly sealed off from public view but their book collection was displayed prominently and when I saw titles by Noam Chomsky, Jane Austen and Niall Ferguson on the shelves, I felt like I almost knew the owner.
Steve gave me a local iPhone to use as part of the typical package that goes with the apartment. I had seen this in the advertisement but it didn’t register since I have my own iPhone. But since mine was on the fritz, the free loaner was like manna from heaven. The apartment came with toiletries, a box of chocolates and some tea, plus an iPhone app that contained recommendations for local restaurants and businesses.
Every night on my way home from Wimbledon, I stopped off at a pub at the top of my street called Earl’s Court Tavern for a pint of beer and a bit of conversation. When people I met asked where I was staying and I was able to reply, “In a flat just on the square there,” I felt legit. I was not a tourist, you see.
On my last morning in London, a soft, golden light bathed the rain soaked streets in a pink, ethereal glow that made my imminent departure all the more difficult to swallow. I had just discovered a second supermarket just steps from the apartment, another pub that looked inviting and a kebab shop I wanted to become a regular at. Was it time to go home already? My iPhone and camera had spent 4 days soaking in piles of rice inside zip lock bags, a common cure for water damage. It cured my camera but not the phone.
I lost a phone in London but what I gained was this: a sense of what it’s like to live like a Londoner, if only for a week.
Dave Seminara is a journalist and former diplomat based in Chicago who contributes to The New York Times, Outside, ESPN, and a wide variety of other publications and sites. Follow him on Twitter at @DaveSem