|Day 5: Crisis Point
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
By the end of the day, I have determined that if you wait until you feel completely well to do anything in London, you won't leave the house between October and March. At least one in three of the people I saw on the bus today had either a hacking cough or a runny nose. This made me feel better about sitting in my own little corner, snuffling.|
In the morning, I have my customary battle with fear. I am overwhelmed. I don't know what to do. There are too many choices. After an hour of this, during which I shower, get exceedingly gothed up – wearing extreme clothing and makeup is almost like putting on armor – and change my mind five or six times about what I'm going to do. Museum? Shopping? Art gallery? Although I am technically now a resident, I feel more like a tourist, and a scared and lonesome one at that. I've nearly given up and decided to burrow back in when I open the Lonely Planet guide and see their suggested walking tours. I settle on the walk along the south bank of the Thames.
Once I'm just a few hundred yards from the tourist-ridden Westminster Bridge, the crowd abruptly evaporates. I read the T.S. Eliot quotes embedded in the walkway, browse the used book stands, spend a few minutes watching a street performer turn himself silver. I peep into the Oxo Tower flower shop, and yearn to buy a floating plant. I am only deterred by the thought of having to carry the damn thing all the way back to Camden. Mental note to return with sherpa in tow. I turn down Southwark Street past the Globe Theatre in the hopes of visiting the Borough Food Market, but apparently, it only operates at weekends. I am a little disappointed, but I spot a sign for the "Bramah's Tea and Coffee Museum" and follow that. The place has a tea shop in front, so I settle down for a pot and a sandwich. I decide not to go into the museum because I want to bring Marco here to see the World's Largest Teapot, and the Cup and Saucer Display. Instead, I write letters with a pen I've borrowed from the front counter. I sneeze on the hand holding the pen. After I'm done eating, I go to the toilets to wash the pen. I give it back apologetically. The waitresses laugh. I decide to leave when I see a group of Japanese tourists have decided to film a teapot. They spend quite a while on it. As far as I can see, the teapot isn't doing anything.
During my tea break, it has begun to rain. I decide to continue with the walk; what are umbrellas for, anyway? I pass a pub called "The Elusive Camel." I stare at it for a while. It doesn't dissolve in the rain. I stop many times along the Tower Bridge, to admire the view and to marvel at the graffiti, which is written in many languages and spans years. I am mildly surprised when some of the tourists decide to take pictures of me rather than of the sights they can see from the bridge.
I take a bus home that goes the long way through East London (Hackney, a not so nice area) and North London (Clapton, a very nice area, also quite Jewish). I get home and eat a small salad and some leftovers. My frustration with being alone marches around inside me. Marco calls and tells me he's leaving work (at 7:45 pm!) and is going to work out before he comes home. I tell him this is fine. I tell myself this is fine, I don't need to have him around constantly, and besides, I feel like I've been far too clingy with him since I arrived. As I sit and think about it, I realize that this is because he is the only person here whose phone number I know. I can't get onto the internet, because he didn't set up DSL before I arrived, otherwise I could use LiveJournal to share my mobile number and meet up with some of my LJ friends here. I have no job, so I'm without stimulus except for that which I provide for myself – which, by the way, is one of the reasons I've come to think that people make themselves go to work, even to jobs they hate and where they are underpaid and humiliated. It's actually easier to default to dragging yourself to an office five days a week, nine hours a day than it is to try and occupy yourself for those forty hours.
Anyway, I have no job, so I have no workmates to invite me out to dinner or drinks, as Marco does. I don't know my way around the city very well, so I don't feel too comfortable walking around alone at night. Sure, I know a few survival tricks. Don't appear visibly incapacitated (drunk, high). Walk confidently. Memorize your route so you don't have to pull out a map. Carry your wallet and keys directly on your person, not in a purse. However, where the hell am I going to go? I can read Time Out reviews until my eyes glaze over but they won't necessarily lead me to a cool bar or club. And besides, I don't want to go by myself. I want company. I want to have a real life conversation with someone who isn't my boyfriend, and I have no medium by which to contact anyone who might be an amicable companion for such a venture.
Suddenly, it occurs to me that it is completely reasonable for me to feel isolated and lonely. And I get very, very pissed off about it. I call Marco's mobile. He doesn't answer. I write him a scathing text message, delete it, write another, delete it, and finally manage one that conveys the right undertones of icy fury. He calls me when he gets out of the gym. I can no longer veil my rage. I work myself up into a dancing froth until he arrives, and then I let him have it. He is apologetic and loving. He tells me, to my surprise, that I have been doing really well. He spent an entire day watching cricket on TV during one of his first weekends here because he couldn't be bothered to try to leave the house. I feel glad that we don't have a TV. I am mollified and ashamed of my outburst. I also feel a lot better. Marco tells me he's texted Janelle, an American friend of ours from his work, and asked her to meet us for drinks. We go to a Caribbean restaurant on the high street and eat spicy Jamaican food and drink mysterious blue rum cocktails and talk. Janelle has been in London for a year. She is gorgeous – half black and half Asian – and somewhat reserved. About halfway through dinner, I have come to understand that she is still rather lonely.
Although the culture shock has worn off for her and for Marco, it is evident that the feeling of being swallowed by a large and frightening and somewhat unfriendly place cannot easily be shaken. It isn't that the city lacks for things to do. Plays, films, restaurants, parties, concerts, clubs, pubs, bars, there's something on every corner, and the quality of the available entertainment is generally pretty high. It is just that either you attend functions with people you already know, or you don't go at all. Certainly you don't go there to meet strangers, even if there are 7.2 million of them around. In general, the people you might strike up random conversations with aren't terribly chatty. The bus drivers are sealed unsmilingly behind thick plastic windows. The checkers at the market want you to lob your groceries into bags and get out of the way. The waitstaff at most of the restaurants, bars and clubs aren't English, and a lot of them don't speak it very well. I have seen a great many men giving me the eye, but none of them speak to me, and if they did, I would probably instinctively rebuff them. I am, after all, a woman walking alone.
Lest you think that I'm whining, let me add a caveat. I think you encounter these qualities in almost any large Western city. It's as if people adopt a certain unseeing gruffness to buffer themselves against the sheer number of other people that they see every day. I don't think it's unnatural or unique to London. When you have become an established resident of the city, you don't even notice it any more – you're too busy doing it yourself, so you can conserve your emotional energy for your friends. However, when you don't have any friends yet, it becomes difficult not to see this collective and deliberate blindness as an impenetrable wall with you stuck on the wrong side.