Before coming to London in January for a semester, most of my opinions of London were based on ‘90s romantic comedies. In fact, I have watched a young, tongue-tied Hugh Grant fall in love with a pretty brunette in London so many times, that I half expected him to greet me at Heathrow International Airport as seen in Love Actually. Spoiler alert, it did not happen, and thus love, actually, is not all around. From sheepish travel bookstore owner Hugh Grant in Notting Hill to young, heartthrob Prime Minister Hugh Grant in Love Actually to painfully shy and perpetual wedding attendee Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral, I was pretty sure London was just one big Hugh Grant movie and this semester I got to be a supporting cast member.
So, because I couldn’t let Hugh down, I spent my first few weeks visiting every major British rom-com landmark. I was on a time-traveling tour back to the golden age of rom coms. I perused secondhand books in the pastel, picturesque wonderland of Notting Hill like American Anna Scott in Notting Hill, I explored Harrods, primped and made-up with holiday decorations, and waited far too long for gift-wrapping like Alan Rickman in Love Actually, and even attended mass in a British Cathedral (though it was neither a wedding or a funeral, it was as close as I could get to the plot points of Four Weddings and a Funeral).
Though these cinematic masterpieces (before you scoff, lest I remind you that Four Weddings and a Funeral received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture?) were a useful springboard for experiencing London, ultimately I took not being greeted by Hugh Grant at each location as a sign that I needed to create my own London experience. The classic 1999 film may have brought me to Notting Hill, but the charming beauty and quiet vibrance is what brought me back. Just as the movie shows, Notting Hill is a quiet community in West London best known for its narrow, colorful houses and quaint shops. On weekends, the city comes alive for a market held on the main road, Portobello Road. Stalls carrying everything from records to books to antique tea sets to some of the best falafel I’ve ever consumed line the two-mile road. White tents are set up above the antiques and vintage goods, shielding them from the always present threat of rainfall, and lying just below the pastel blues and cotton candy pinks of the houses that rise along the skyline behind them.
After a month in London, there is one thing that I have learned for sure: Londoners do not take markets lightly. Rain or shine (though mostly rain), people from all over the United Kingdom and the world come out to street markets for their diverse array of food and goods. Though there are countless markets around London, what makes Notting Hill’s special is the vintage goods and character of the vendors. Notting Hill used to be a hub for the ’70s British rock and roll scene and there is still a poignant sense of this history and culture that lies in the streets. Behind the picturesque, almost movie-set looking view of suburbia the colorful houses present lie shops commemorating the music history and cultural revolution that the town played a part in. Street art litters the walls a few blocks past the Easter egg-looking homes — a graffiti outline of Amelia Earhart stares boldly at you with “Courage has no gender” scribbled underneath, two Virgin Marys embrace each other in a religious and politically charged depiction. All this speaks to the inner tension in Notting Hill. Past the manicured, perfectly painted doors lies evidence of the clamor, spontaneity and instability of ‘70s rock and roll.
To me, Notting Hill was the beautiful wonderland tailor-made for love stories between beautiful bookish people, but after visiting I learned it was so much more than just the Notting Hill Bookshop. It’s where contemporary arts and culture meets Victorian townhomes, where the old greets the new, and where the locals welcome the travelers.
Anna Scott may have come to Notting Hill to ask a boy to love her, but I came as a girl standing in front of a whole city asking to be a part of it.
So will Notting Hill and I live happily ever after like Anna Scott and William Thacker? Well, let’s just say I have a lot more London to explore before we can be exclusive, so stay tuned.