The locals are what makes a place unique – and that is particularly true for London. The city is famous for being a melting pot of people of all ways of life. Different cultures mingle on the streets and on the tube, people from a variety of different backgrounds, jobs, income and heritage live door to door, new locals blend in with old locals and everybody finds their own little corner. In this feature I introduce you to three such old and new locals from London, who make London the fantastic city it is.
When I wrote a little text called I travel to escape reality I thought a lot about the reasons for why I travel. Important things like endless learning opportunities, broadening my horizon and escaping prejudices aside, meeting locals and making a connection with the local culture is a major reasons for why I hit the road again and again. My first multiple destination solo trip after this revelation should be an assignment for Travelettes leading me to London, York and Edinburgh, and while the core task of the trip was to test four locations of the same hostel group and discover the best of each town or neighbourhood in just 24 hours, I made it my personal goal to also connect to some locals.
In London I didn’t have to try hard to get into conversation with people. My assignment, the flashy camera and my weird hybrid Austrian-Scottish accent are enough to kindle encounters with all kinds of people. I’ve picked out three stories from London that stood out among the others and want to introduce you to these three locals who crossed my path.
Three London Local Stories
Louisa, owner of The Electric Elephant Cafe in Elephant & Castle
‘I never wanted to have my own business, and I definitely did not want my own cafe.’
But there she was, without a job and with a passion to cook. Louisa was offered the space of today’s Electric Elephant Cafe in 2008, because the people of the Pullens Yards Estate wanted to have a cafe in one of their yards and the little shop in Illife Yard was available.
I meet Louisa eight years later, in July 2016, to taste my way through the menu and learn more about her story. Quickly, our conversation fades off to the soaring housing prices and the pros and cons of gentrification. The area is not the same as it was when Louisa opened the Electric Elephant Cafe. Tall buildings are sprouting like mushrooms everywhere, opposite of the cafe towers a newly built apartment building and I can see more cranes in the sky.
But Elephant & Castle is also a multicultural neighbourhood and many students move to the student accommodation down the road. The eclectic mix of residents reflects in the mixed crowd of regulars at the Electric Elephant Cafe. ‘This is not a hipster joint – our cafe doesn’t look shabby chic because it’s trendy, but because we all have to make ends meet in London’, Louisa explains after she tells me that the majority of new cafes in London go out of business within the first year – often because they invest more in stylish interiors than a thoughtful menu or skilled staff. The Electric Elephant might not boast expensive interior design, but the atmosphere, the food and not at least Louisa draw people back again and again.
Yes, the food is why I came – and will return when I’m back in London next time. Although I am a vegetarian, I still like my full English breakfast, so I ordered the veggie version of it. Halloumi, fried egg, beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, hash browns, bubble & squeak and veggie sausages. With veggie ‘meat’ products it is always a gamble, but the sausages dished up by Louisa and her team are without a doubt the best I’ve ever tasted!
If you fancy a lazy Sunday afternoon in Elephant & Castle and Kennington with excellent food and great chat, I cannot recommend the Electric Elephant Cafe enough!
Emilio, hostel manager at Safestay London Holland Park
‘We’ll take great care of you – Emilio gives amazing massages.’
That’s the first thing I heard anybody say about Emilio – and after a day of lugging around a big backpack and a tote bag filled with my laptop and cameras, I almost wished they weren’t joking… Alas, the luxury hostel Safestay London Holland Park doesn’t offer a spa area, so I had to stick to my other method of relaxation on a holiday: find a pub and have a pint in the sun.
Emilio was quick to recommend a place called The Elephant & Castle – don’t be confused though, this pub is in Kensington, not in Elephant & Castle, and just a five minute walk from the hostel. While I sip my red ale and work on my tan, I wonder what it takes to work in a hostel – an awful lot of energy, I’m sure.
I meet Emilio again early on the next day. The breakfast room is super busy with a large group of US-American teenagers, even though it is just 8am on a Saturday morning. Emilio has to help out, because they hadn’t expected such a run on the breakfast buffet this early. Luckily he still finds time to chat with me for a while.
‘They literally offered me the job here at the new Holland Park hostel right after I had signed a contract to buy a house in walking distance to the original Safestay hostel in Elephant & Castle. The first time I came here, I was shocked. The building had great potential, but was in terrible condition.’ He still said yes, and has been commuting from Southwark to Holland Park a bit short of a year now.
Safestay Holland Park opened its doors in August 2015 and is one of two hostels the group operates in London. They also have locations in York & Edinburgh, which are all conveniently connected by the Virgin Trains East Coast route.
Mister X, owner of Falafel Zaki Zaki at Portobello Road Market
‘I’ve been thinking about expanding my business – Glasgow doesn’t have a real falafel place does it?’
While there are of course a number of falafel places in Glasgow, not one of those I tried so far were as good as the falafel at Falafel Zaki Zaki, a food stall at Portobello Road Market in Notting Hill. I stroll along the market on a Saturday afternoon, the best day to visit the area as the market is at its busiest.
I have just arrived in London by train and naturally I’m starving from the journey. I withstand the urge to eat at a tested and approved pizza joint called Arrancini, and place my trust in the market’s food stalls. It doesn’t take long and I lay my eyes on a big tasting plate filled with falafel in the hands of a smiling man. I try one and convinced by a man who is standing right beside the plate holder, I order a large falafel wrap with aubergines. It takes just a few minutes to prepare and toast the wrap, but in these minutes I get to know the owner of Falafel Zaki Zaki. Starved and a bit delirious I sadly didn’t catch his name properly… I’ll tell you his story anyway.
‘I’m a Swedish citizen, but I’m originally from Palestine and haven’t been able to see my family back there for years,’ he tells me while I wait for my wrap. I don’t know what to say. The results of the EU referendum have been hard to take for all European citizens who live and work in the UK, but what this man is facing is a repetition of history itself. The possibility of being driven out of the UK in the near future puts a bit of a downer on our conversation.
Luckily, our focus shifts to Scotland where 62% of the votes were in favour to remain in the EU and the general vibe is welcoming towards everybody regardless of nationality, race or religion. Maybe I should send him my 10 reasons to move to Scotland now, or maybe his self-defined gap in the market is enough for him to find his way up north soon!
Falafel Zaki Zaki has two food trucks in London, one in Portobello Road Market and one in Victoria Embankment Gardens, and the falafel are divine!
I’ve always wondered why people, realistically, moved to London – it couldn’t be the extortionate housing prices, the extremely hectic city life or the lack of ventilation in the tube stations, could it? Talking to people who do live here however, who made conscious choices about moving to London, opening businesses and taking jobs that force them to criss-cross the city, I learnt that there is more to it – and there are a lot of reasons why London is such an amazing city.
London is a mosaic of multi-cultural neighbourhoods with a demand of open spaces; it’s a bustling city with peaceful specs of green; it’s an opportunity for a new life. These stories from London have carved out a little spot in my heart and there it sits now, the city of London. I hope to see you again soon!
Have you been to London? What was your favourite experience, story or neighbourhood?
All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.