Friday, 25 March 2011

A Reminiscence of Proustian Proportions

I moved to London three years ago today. I hear people say the following sort of thing quite frequently, but it really is true that sometimes it feels like I’ve been here a lot longer than that, and sometimes it feels as though I stepped off the plane yesterday.

This may not be interesting to anyone other than myself (but hey, I’m not kidding myself I have hordes of ardent followers for a blog that’s about as ‘current’ as tea-cosies), but I remember my first day in London so vividly I could probably draw pictures of its various parts, zooming right into tiny details like the blonde hairs that grow on people’s knuckles. So, for this blog I’ll just pretend that I’m writing for the dedicated audience I know I will always have: myself (don’t worry, sometimes I’d prefer to watch something else, too. Sometimes I even have to tell myself to stop eating Maltesers and pay attention), even if only to tie a string around my memory for a time when it finally doesn’t feel like yesterday that all this began.


I remember the lady I met on the plane from Sydney so clearly that I’m certain I’d recognise her instantly if I passed her in the street. I guess it’s obvious why I remember her so well: because for me, getting on that plane was a momentous occasion. It was the final end point of the year-long drudgery of pouring 1.6 billion lattés, cappuccinos, flat whites and short blacks (incidentally, those last two options don’t really exist in Europe). I was probably ready to latch onto the first friendly face to express an interest in the life I was about to begin. On the other hand, maybe the God of Big Decisions (let’s call him Bernie) had sent her along specifically to make me feel better about moving to the other side of the world without any conception of what might happen to me after I arrived.

I doubt Carmen would remember me. For her, this was just a routine flight back to London; she was actually headed straight to the office as soon as she landed at Heathrow. But I remember her: she was middle-aged with warm eyes, mid-length wavy dark hair and she wore a bright blue blouse. She had a chirpy voice that went on and on like little bubbles in an unwatched pot, already chattering away on her mobile when she took her seat next to me, and still going at it with an aunt or grandmother or something when the plane was reversing out of its parking spot. When she finally hung up it seemed that her conversational appetite had not waned, because she immediately introduced herself (entrée), then asked me about myself (main) and then proceeded to calm my quaking nerves by reminding me that my future was a glorious unknown that I was free to craft in any way I wanted (dessert). After I’d stopped sniffling, I learned that she worked as a colour stylist. That is, it was her job to tell people what colours they should and should not wear to suit their complexions. She didn’t offer any free tips, but I do remember wondering whether she might be secretly judging my outfit, and would later scoff to her CSCs (Colour Stylist Colleagues, although – to be honest – I’m not sure many people can claim this as their profession. I was surprised even one person could do this full-time, and make a successful enough living from it to be able to afford trips to Sydney every few months. Maybe she just had a rich husband, or she owned a prize-winning dachshund) that someone with such pale skin shouldn’t wear so much black and white.

Wherever you are now, Carmen, thank you for being a bubbly reassurance to me on my flight from Sydney.

Covent Garden Imaginings

All I knew when I got on the tube at Heathrow was that I had to exit at Covent Garden. I saw it on the Piccadilly line tube map like a beacon: all the other names might as well have dropped off the map and into the hair of the people sitting beneath them; the only stop I cared about was Covent Garden.

Covent Garden! The beginning of my journey! The station out of which my life in London would sprout! The first place that up until that moment would only have been a name to me, but would soon be filled in like a paint-by-numbers picture as I came to learn what this ‘Covent Garden’ thing actually looked like!

Erm, Covent Garden turned out to be the wrong station. To be fair, my friend Pete (the one London acquaintance I had, who agreed to put me up for a few weeks until I’d found my feet) had told me that he lived there, and hadn’t provided further elucidation on that point. I’d sent him a message on the tube to let him know I was on my way, but it wasn’t until I was perched on my suitcase outside Covent Garden station, feeling the cold nibble my fingertips and watching the morning workers flounce confidently down the cobbled lanes and past the pristine, glass-fronted shops (I suspected, but did not yet believe, that one day I too might know where I was going in London, and might also afford some gloves to accompany me there) and cursing my luggage for preventing immediate exploration, that I finally received a response from him explaining that, actually, he lived closer to Warren Street or Goodge Street. Newborn to London as I was, I asked him which tube stations were closest to those streets, and he responded with a wink, ‘They are tube stations.’

Oops. Two mistakes already. What a good start.

Somehow I worked out that the Northern Line (punctuated with both Warren and Goodge Streets) didn’t run through Covent Garden, so I got directions to nearby Leicester Square and continued on my way. I remember feeling very foolish wheeling my two massive bags down Long Acre, but I’ve since discovered that it’s pretty much only in London’s outskirts where suitcases are a rare species: in central London they’re as ubiquitous as pigeons. Even at midnight on a Saturday in Soho you’ll see someone trundling luggage along. At Spitalfields Market on a Sunday morning a little one will bump into your ankle as a woman tries to find an eccentric last-minute gift for her cousin Yuras before heading back to Minsk. Come to think of it, the sound of wheels clunking along the pavement outside of my bedroom window reminds me of London almost as much as the sound of foreign language conversations interrupted by a tube driver’s loud but incomprehensible announcement. It is a transitory place.

McDonald’s Porridge

I chose to get off at Warren Street, but I’m still not entirely sure why I settled on this stop rather than Goodge Street. Pete was in a meeting and couldn’t come to collect me straight away, so all I can think is that:

(a) I must have been in dire need of coffee
(b) Maybe I thought that ‘Goodge’ sounded petite, whereas ‘Warren’ sounded relatively expansive, so I’d be more likely to find a coffee shop near a ‘Warren’ than a ‘Goodge’

I’m pretty sure point (a) was right, but point (b) was definitely wrong. Warren Street actually had nothing around it apart from that golden-arched familiarity I could visit anywhere in the world: McDonald’s.

From my experience pouring 1.6 billion lattés, cappuccinos, flat whites and short blacks I had developed (and still retain) snooty standards when it comes to coffee, so I opted for a £1 cup of McPorridge rather than a £1 cup of McSwill and hauled my luggage up to a brightly coloured cube seat. By this stage I had been awake for well over 35 hours straight, so my eyes felt like two golf balls that had been rolled in salt, doused in petrol and then teased repeatedly with a faulty lighter. I sat there downing this sugary concoction, willing my eyes to stay open, and blinking out of the window for the one and only face I could hope to recognise here.

Just as I was beginning to hallucinate that all the cars driving by were actually beds on wheels with covers of different colours, I finally saw Pete trotting across the road towards me. I must have been fading fast at this point, because I remember nothing of our reunion. All I remember is that when we made it to the ex-council block of flats installed right next to the BT Tower, he announced, ‘This is me, unfortunately’ (a line I’ve proceeded to use when introducing people to almost everywhere I’ve lived in London). I also remember that…

Tea Makes Everything Better

You’re right, Katy. As soon as we made it inside, we dumped my suitcases near the front door and Pete turned to me and asked, ‘Cup of tea?’ Never in my life had I been so happy to hear this question. It was almost as if he’d asked me if I’d like to be introduced to John Cleese, because he just so happened to be sitting in the living room with a plate full of freshly baked white chocolate, raspberry and macadamia nut cookies. Just like Sir Cleese (with or without the cookies), tea perks you up after any situation. Pete poured me some tea, my fingers came back to life, and the clouds behind my eyes lifted briefly so I could take a good look around at…

The Flat that Hygiene Forgot

My second Proustian post painted a pretty petrifying picture of Pete’s place. In hindsight, however, this so-called ‘flat that hygiene forgot’ was probably nicer than most of the London flats I have consciously chosen to live in (a certain Whitechapel lodging with brawling squatters for neighbours springs to mind). It was sort of unkempt, I guess, but most flats housing groups of 20-30 year olds in London show the way people in this age bracket tend to regress to a pre-evolutionary state while living here. My flat-cleanliness-ometre was probably far higher than it should have been in any case, seeing as I’d also just moved from a place where we had to coax the house to an immaculate state before leaving it for a few hours, lest any potential burglars cast judgment on our apparently unsightly standard of living.

It had a big living room with black leather couches, two shoebox-sized bedrooms, one larger bedroom where the dish-hoarding somnambulant and winner of Flat 225’s ‘Sloven of the Month’ medal lived, a poky little kitchen with blue cupboards, and a mould-ceilinged bathroom with the first light-switch-on-a-string I had ever encountered. On the table in the kitchen there was also a basil plant I killed through neglect while Pete was in Canada. After he specifically asked me to water it, too. Sorry about that.

Topshop and Carnaby Street

The best thing about living on Clipstone Street (W1W, for all of you Londoners out there. What a postcode!) was its proximity to pretty much everything. Once I’d downed my tea and taken a little nap, Pete led me down the posh Fitzrovia streets, around a corner and then straight into the Topshop’s flagship Oxford St store. On any other occasion I may have tried to convince Pete to just leave me there for a few days, but on this particular day I said to myself, ‘You may like those white 60s go-go boots now, but will they keep you warm when you’re sleeping under a bridge because you couldn’t find a job? Hmmm. Yes. I mean, No.’ So we left and continued on to Carnaby Street, stopping to have a pub lunch that cost about as much as I’d saved through not buying those boots.

Midnight Panic

When I went to bed that night in strange room with shadowy London swirling around outside my door, I felt a cold and intense sense of doubt. Nothing bad had happened throughout the day, but I assume the full impact of cutting myself adrift was starting to hit. The only person I knew in this entire country was Pete, someone I’d hung around with for a couple of days as he backpacked around Australia with his boyfriend, and who happened to be leaving for a holiday to Canada in two days.

As I often do when I’m feeling emotional, I pulled out a big pick-axe and started digging myself even further into the cave by putting on the wrist-slashingest songs I could think of. All my favourite songs in a minor key. Anything slow, soft and melancholy.

I’d told myself before I left that I wanted it to be hard. I had told myself that I wanted it to be difficult and I wanted to cry and feel miserable because the harder it was, the better it would be for me in the end. I would have no one to help me out of this situation but myself, and if I got through it, I would know that whatever I achieved was due entirely to my own efforts.

I now felt very naïve for having made this declaration, even if it was only to myself. It’s all very well to be so valiant from a distance, I thought, but now the time has come and you’re lying alone in a shoebox-sized bedroom in this grey, freezing country, with no one to comfort you but Thom Yorke. Alright, alright, I know I could have made a better musical selection. Ol’ Thom may understand what you’re feeling, but he isn’t like John Cleese with a plate of biscuits: he’s not someone you should be turning to when you’re trying to feel better, especially when he’s howling out such ominous lyrics as ‘I can’t do this alone.’

I wondered whether I had really meant it. Like Proust’s array of bedrooms that morph and sweep around him as he sleeps, all sorts of silly thoughts started pushing themselves into my head. Long curly strings of sentences such as: I want to go home, why on Earth did I come here, how pathetic would it be for me to turn around and go straight back? but I can’t go back now because it would be so embarrassing, I’ll have to stay if only to save face, oh you stupid girl, if you were craving a change and wanted to build a life for yourself away from everyone else, why did you need to move to the other side of the world for that? why couldn’t you have just moved to Melbourne? 712.35 kilometres is already quite a long way, but if it absolutely had to be another country, why not New Zealand?! Aussies and Kiwis proclaim their distinct national identities constantly! if it was cultural difference you were after, you should have popped next-door to learn te reo Māori and become a tā moko tattooist…

I ended up asking my Mum to call me, and she did, but somehow I could feel how far away she was. I’m tempted to say that the phone line was bad, but I don’t remember that being the case. As far as I remember she sounded clear and close enough. It was just something about the coldness outside, the sensory overload of Oxford Street, my chequered carry-on bag sitting calmly by the side of the bed. I was definitely here. And she was definitely not. Of course I wasn’t afraid that something was going to happen to me, but I guess what I was coming to realise was that if something did happen, there would be literally no one around to give a shit.

So there you have it. That’s how I fell asleep on my first night in London: with regretful sentences and thoughts of disaster on my mind. Apart from a select few, I think I’ve kept this last fact to myself for the past three years. Everyone who’s ever walked with me past Covent Garden station has been regaled with the edge-of-your-seat tale of my arrival (I got off at the wrong station! Oh, the plot twists just keep coming!), but I suppose I never wanted to admit to anyone that my closing thoughts on my first day in London were about how quickly I might be able to leave it.

Obviously I didn’t leave it. I stayed, and those regretful sentences and disastrous thoughts were good enough to relocate themselves somewhere up near Dalston. I don’t go there, so I probably won’t ever run into them again.

I’ll try not to get too sentimental about all this (as if I haven’t been too sentimental already), but it has been a sunny, rainy, hopeful, hopeless, uplifting, depressing, enlightening, confusing, black, white, hungry, full, turbulent, smooth-sailing, spontaneous, constrained, tiring and energising three years. I’ve grown more than toenails when you don’t pay attention to them underneath your socks all winter.

This may even be the year I decide to move on...


Julien said...

For some reasons, I believe that your next "first day in a new city" will be far more easier...

(not the least reason being that I'll be in charge of it - and I already have a couple ideas about what I'm going to take you through on the very first hours of our new life. It will imply fantastic music, wind in your hair, and a lot of sparkles in our eyes - don't thank me, Brussels is alive and wants you against her chest, she will do all the job, I'll simply put you two in relation !)

Sarah said...

Something tells me I won't cry myself to sleep or listen to Radiohead on my first night in town, either. Instead I'll be singing and laughing and playing the Monkey Island theme song on my ukulele... ;)