It’s funny how the mind can play tricks on you. What’s stranger perhaps is how dependant we are on our minds to create a logical, structured understanding of our surroundings in order to become oriented. If we can change how we process information, or if we actively choose to acknowledge or apply a different meaning to something other than its common, accepted definition, given enough time we can literally redefine our surroundings. It makes one (who watches BSG) think of the Cylon’s ability to project—to literally create a different perception of their location to wherever they choose to be. It implies a certain amount of psychological escapism, I suppose, to try and change your surroundings by imagining you are somewhere else. But what if you’re not doing it on purpose?
Lately, I keep thinking I’m in New York. Not to any extreme—I don’t wake up thinking I live in Brooklyn around Park Slope (it would explain all the trees I live near), plan to hop on the subway to get to the island and wander around downtown somewhere, looking to satiate a hankering for a hot dog (“Mmmmm…hot dog…”). But there are moments I’ll be walking down a certain street in the center of London, and it will remind me of New York so much that for a moment or a little bit more I will forget that I’m on this side of the proverbial pond. It happened the other day on Dean Street—I was hunting around for the Soho Theatre to catch a play with my friends Lisa and Ronan, and I suddenly felt like I was somewhere around the Lower West Side. It confused me for a second or two, and though I shook it off rather quickly, something still lingered.
I’ve been missing New York in the strangest ways recently. London doesn’t seem to move quite fast enough, and maneuvering the sidewalks is a joke—it’s like people don’t know how to walk here. I still haven’t found a good bagel. I’d like to go out for a drink with someone at 10PM, and not worry about there being no room in the bar, or the fact that it’s going to close in half-an-hour. I miss travel after midnight that doesn’t involve buses. I dislike reading the New Yorker online, but can’t afford to buy imported copies of it, thus negating the joy I get out of the process of reading the magazine—carrying it around in your bag all week, folding it in half so you can read it column by column, getting residual ink on your hands, tearing out cartoons and poems and saving them for journals or bulletin boards or refrigerator doors. In the same vein, I bought the International Herald Tribune the other day because I missed the New York Times’s typeface. Yes: the typeface.
These things seem small, I know, but they are those parts of your everyday experience, the items and actions that beget living habits, that make you feel at home. I am, after ten months, still looking for New York in London. It must be said, the two cities are more similar than they are dissimilar. Both are extremely “international,” have tons of cultural offerings, etc. But still, there is something completely different in the air in London (::insert joke about Thames fumes here::), and I think it has something to do with the layout of the city. New York is a city built on top of itself, with buildings so tall and dense that at some locations you can’t see the next block over from the ground. Sometimes you’ll go for hours and not see the sun. Aside from the financial district, this sort of layout of structures seems far less frequent in London, and the city therefore, aided by its watery bisection, feels more open and spread out. New York towers over you and creates secrets as it looms; London is public and open and available. You can easily feel anonymous in any large city, but in New York you can almost feel anonymous even to yourself. While that can be lonely, there’s also something safe in that, a specific kind of detachment that I had come to know during my sojourn there, and one I cannot seem to replicate here. I don’t know quite why I seek to find this security of solitude, especially as one who is so often lonely, but I do, and London doesn’t cut it the same way.
Now, it must be said: I am far more anonymous in London than I am in New York, if we’re just going on the basis of the number of people I’m acquainted with out of the total population of either city. But London, with its open air and visible sunlight (when there is sunlight), seems to receive me more as a friend than New York did. You can’t lose yourself in the architecture here, perhaps because so much of it is largely historic. Maybe the only way to lose yourself in this city is not to the corners of the unknown, but instead, to the past. To really grasp London, you have to let yourself be transported, daily, back generations or decades, and being young myself (and young to this city), I still perhaps don’t have the experience enough to fully comprehend that.
The musings about these cities and what each has to offer is a topic not new to me or to the returning readers of this blog. It again surfaces as I begin my last couple months of my dissertation work, and my fellow immigrants are discussing their futures. Some seem set on eventually returning to their country of origin, but many of us are looking to be here long term. I’ve started talking to some other American ex-pats, and the UK visa process keeps coming up in discussion. Most of us are confused by what we have to do, or are daunted by it, or frustrated already. Others look at it like a crap shoot—we’ll try for it and figure the odds as best we can, but in the end know that we have less control over the dice than we’d like and we’ll just have to see what we end up with. To call back to BSG again: “Sometimes you have to roll the hard six.” But even if my visa does come through, the question that really lies at the heart of this is: what would I have to discover about London to really make it feel like a home? Or on the other hand, what would I have to be prepared to perceive about London to have it show me these things?
I had a strange run in with a man the other week, who drunkenly engaged me in very pleasant (albeit repetitive) conversation when I was running late to see Lament for Medea at the Arcola. We had ended up on a bus together, and he reminded me (over and over) that if I loved London, it would love me right back. When I went to get off the bus, he gave me a twenty pound note to take a cab to the theatre so I wouldn’t have to wait for the Overground. He kissed my hand as he did it. If that’s London loving me, London is kind of creepy. But at least he’s looking out and taking care of me on some level. On a kind of weird, creepy level, but yeah.*
Now if he could just serve me up a good bagel, I’d move right in.
*(For the record the guy was actually really nice and not at all inappropriate as we spoke, and I do believe the gesture came from a genuine place. He said someone had helped him when he was younger and that someday I’d do the same thing for someone else. Dear God, I hated Pay it Forward, but now it looks like I’ve made a bargain I’ll have to fulfill someday. That’s alright—but I’ll try to be sober when I do it.)