Over the past week or so I have found myself increasingly frustrated by my inability to find anything in our new flat. Coupled with the equally annoying fact that I get so distracted by every new task that needs doing around here that I forget what my initial task was in the first place. So that means half drunk cups of tea everywhere, leaving the washing in the machine for far too long as its been forgotten and half put-away clothes abandoned in favour of reshuffling the book case or putting up a few more pictures.
We have been in the new house for about 6 weeks or so, and although almost everything is unpacked or at least put away in the cellar for dealing with ‘later’ I am still feeling totally out of whack with my surroundings. I cannot find the extra toothpaste I know I bought, my beloved black Jigsaw skirt is nowhere to be found and I seem to have lost at least 3 pairs of shoes. We are dealing with new sets of problems like the washing machine that unplugs itself and next door’s builders taking liberties by using our garden as a thoroughfare when we’re not around.
Then there’s the neighbourhood. I don’t know the local hairdresser or dry cleaners. I have no idea where the best place is to buy coffee or decent bread. The bus numbers are unfamiliar and last night I ended up in Hertfordshire because I got on the wrong train – which I only noticed had happened in that we started whizzing past actual countryside. The non stopping service does not mess around. We were past the north circular in about 5 seconds and I was texting R to say I may have to find a premier inn for the night. In my running gear. And not very much charge on my phone. Not a fun Tuesday.
Although none of these things are insurmountable, feeling unsettled as well as anxious about not knowing where THINGS ARE is exhausting. I am getting nostalgic for the mad hatter crack-head on Portobello road and all the bonkers dog walkers who would stop to greet Stella. My lovely hairdresser and the wonderful cakes as Coffee Plant. I am not nostalgic for our mental neighbours though. In that area, Willesden wins hands down. And we have a garden now (even if it is being invaded by a ladder or two).
Nevertheless I am surprised how out of kilter I am given the number of times I have moved in London (9 times in 11 years and counting). Surely I should be a dab hand at this? And yes I was in Portobello Road for 6 years so some upheaval was to be expected, but living there was never permanent. In fact nothing has ever felt permanent. London has always been such a transitional city for me that its only now that I am knocking on my mid-30s that I am beginning to think about roots and home and what that means. What that might look like long term.
When I first moved to London getting my bearings was more than just what tube to get and where Tesco was. It was figuring out the cultural currency and the politics, understanding the jokes and references to childhood shows and D-list celebs. I didn’t really understand a lot of the phrasing. Having a butchers, going for a Ruby, not being arsed, bollocks, innit, mash up…. And my favourite ‘smashing the granny out of it‘. I picked them up and used them incorrectly leading to many a raised eyebrow and snigger, but mainly good natured piss taking. I started saying ‘yeah’ instead of ‘ya’.
After ten years I began to consider myself something of a Londoner, mainly as I finally found Only Fools & Horses funny. I got hooked and detoxed off of East Enders. I knew who Ant & Dec were. I could wax lyrical about a heat wave that peaked at 19 degrees Celsius and genuinely bemoan the fact that it is indeed raining again even though that is what it does. Fairly often. I know that Shoreditch is no longer cool.
But is it home? Not sure. I still refer to Jo’burg as home, even though the house I grew up in has long since been sold and my friends and family all live in houses that I do not know like the back of my hand. In my head I can re-trace every each inch of our family home in the northern suburbs and can see in my mind’s eye with perfect clarity exactly how it was before I left ‘for a year’. The wooden stairs up to the study, the framed museum posters on the walls, the sound of the children shrieking in playground of the school across the road, the heavy garage doors that had a trick to close them. Nothing romantic. Just the day to day sounds of the house.
Now, the street names have changed, the neighbourhoods have developed. The lay of the land is not the same. The last time I drove alone in Jo’burg I panicked as I couldn’t remember the main arteries in and out of the city and got completely turned around. My pride wouldn’t allow me to ask directions for a good half an hour while I wasted petrol and sanity. Eventually I got over myself and pulled into a petrol station and asked how to get where I was going. Thankfully South Africans are friendly and helpful as a rule. ‘SJOE! But you are very far away from that place! You need to go straight straight straight for at least twenty minute and then quick quick left by the second robots.’ I left with an accurately drawn map and vowed to get a SatNav next time. I drive home with tears stinging my eyes, feeling humbled and lost in my own city. It just wasn’t mine any more.
But everything has changed. What once once out of bounds and only know to the cool kids, is now mainstream. There are new buildings changing the skyline so that my memories do not match the reality of the silhouetted sky. What I imagine home to be like is a collage of fragmented memory and second hand stories. I have no contextual hooks to hang it on. I can’t navigate the place in my head. A few visits every couple of years for a fortnight will not bridge the gap and in that respect it feels less tangible, less real, and almost unattainable. To rely on memory alone is dangerous, its fickle and flawed so what I remember I need to approach with caution. Its flecked with too much nostalgia to be trusted and I need to add more real time experience to balance it out.
So here in Willesden we are setting up camp for now. I am spending more time exploring the neighbourhood and surrounding areas. Getting my bearings. I am inviting friends over, its a quick way to make things feel grounded. I totally see the point of house warmings, you fill the place with love and it immediately feels less alien. Sharing memories and linking back in with the ones that are my foundations here. The ones who didn’t laugh when I pronounced everything wrong and thought Alan Partridge was an actual real person. Well, no . They did laugh, a lot. But they still speak to me.
I’m not sure I can make peace with being torn between two cities and I’m sure this is going to be a recurring theme on this blog as its something I find I mull over a lot. Particularly when running and that’s usually when the Big Stuff surfaces! No easy solution, but if anyone has any wise words of wisdom I am all ears!
In the meantime at least I have a nice view