On the penultimate day of 2015 I took a walk around London. I visited old haunts and all-time favourites in an attempt to re-acquaint myself with the city which I used to call home for 12 years of my life.
In spite of the cloudy drizzly weather, I had a good time, blending in and out of the heaving crowds. I retraced old routes I used to take through Camden Town, Covent Garden, Regent Street and Chinatown. I saw loads of amazing things in terms of art, architecture and shopping. Soon though I realised that what grabbed my attention the most were the people.
The big mass of people who streamed in and out of tube trains and double-decker busses, filled up to the brim markets and train stations, flowed in and out of coffee shops and restaurants and simply went about their daily lives without a second look to what was happening around them.
Having spent almost a year and a half in an Italian city of modest dimensions, I found it fascinating to watch this never-ending, dozens-of-people-thick crowd comprised of any dress code, grooming habits and personal convictions you can imagine.
Through the day, several faces and occurrences popped out at me from the crowd giving it individuality and defining its character. I observed them, as discreetly as I could, so as not to influence their natural behaviour and the flow of what was spontaneously happening in front of me. It was extremely interesting to see how this mass of people, generally characterised by its total lack of eye contact and jealously guarded personal space, expressed a mixture of human emotions – from subtle to strong.
I also found it quite unfathomable that I used to be part of this same crowd for so many years. A little cog in the immense, pulsating machine which clogs London’s streets on a daily basis. At the end of the day, tired of walking everywhere and taking it all in, I realised that it felt good to know that I didn’t have to do it again on the day after. I didn’t have to wake up early in the morning, catch my usual tube train to reach work on time and immerse myself in London stress again. It felt good to have been just an observer for a day, an outsider with license to see instead of feeling the obligation to belong and conform.
It was 9:40 in the morning and the queues at St. Albans‘ train station were coiling round and round in front of the ticket office. I joined in, steeling myself for a long wait, having been conditioned by the relaxed manner with which large queues are usually dealt with in Italy. To my surprise, this British queue was moving rather fast. Four or five cashiers were efficiently calling up the next client forward, so within two minutes max it was my turn.
I asked how much the return ticket to London was. The ticket office lady smiled politely and gave me the price. I asked how much the return ticket to London plus a day travelcard would be. The ticket office lady replied curtly, then immediately looked away and gripped the computer mouse with her right hand. I had a third question (and a fourth to be precise), but I clammed. She wasn’t smiling anymore and her whole body was jittering up and down with the nervous stomping of her right foot underneath.
I got it! I had asked too many questions and was delaying the queue behind me. I was testing the patience of the otherwise kind ticket office lady. People were used to being efficient. No delays, no chit-chat, you bought your ticket and you moved on. Anything else was an attempt to throw the system off-kilter.
I recognised it immediately. My first case of London stress. Gosh, I was still 40 minutes away from Central London and its effects were already visible. Like the feeling that time was flying so fast, that you had to be constantly on your toes to not let it slip. Like the conviction that you had to sell, sell, sell, work, work, work, excel, excel, excel non-stop. Like the overwhelming belief that you were so busy with so many important things waiting just on you to be accomplished that you could simply explode. So, I bought my ticket and off I went.
The train compartment was warm and clean. People were seating in the double and quadruple seats, immersed in their books, tapping on their phones and laptops and taking selfies with their friends. Long commuting hours every day make the English some of the most voracious readers on Earth. Most people often carry a book to read, book clubs are extremely popular pastime and by looking at the book covers around a train compartment or a tube train carriage, it is easy to know which books are topping the bestsellers lists.
It used to be the Harry Potter’s books, then ‘White Teeth’ came along and for a little while this was almost the only book I could glimpse being read on my daily journeys into Central London on the red Central line. And then I stopped paying attention to what other people were reading on the tube, as I started carrying my own book with me at all times.
So, people still read, I thought that morning on the fast train taking me into St. Pancras International. But they were also taking selfies. Lots of them. All through the day and in every possible setting (public transport, coffee shops, streets, museums) girls would toss their hair, hug a friend or a boyfriend, lift their free arm, carefully adjust the angle at which they were holding their smartphones, then pout or smile with a carefully measured twinkle in their eyes and – snap – it was all ready for Instagram.
It was all so well rehearsed that it was like a second nature to them. No-one cared about the deep crowds around them, about what other people would think. There was a moment to grab, an emotion to capture and then share with the social world. Snap!
On the train into Central London I found a quiet corner and started the journey simply staring through the window. Soon I caught a glimpse of the endless rows of family houses so typical for London. The streets curved and stretched for miles on end. Every family in their own little house with a small garden at the back. Just imagine a city of eight and a half million people, the vast majority of whom live in these individual homes. No wonder the city spreads on and on for miles and getting from one end of it to the other by car is often a journey lasting hours and requiring nerves of steel to deal with the complicated route and the frequent traffic jams.
Thank God for the very well organised public transport then! It costs a pretty penny to use the trains, the tube and the buses, but without them, life in London would almost grind to a halt, as the tube strikes I had had the bad luck to experience there clearly proved.
So, seated in the warm and cozy train running fast through Northern London, I was looking at the streets with identikit houses. The rooftops seemed blackened and dull, quite a few of the gardens were messy with anything from trampolines to old pieces of furniture and even mattresses strewn trough them.
I remembered how I used to find travelling through (some) of the suburbia into Central London quite the depressing experience. Unobstructed by high-rise buildings, there was a monotonous view of endless rows of houses all the way to the horizon. The stages of decay and abandon varied according to the post code. If the day was good, then the blue sky would somehow make it all a bit more bearable. Most often than not though it would be grey and drizzly, pressing hard down on the streets and making it all look very desolate.
As soon as the train neared Zone 1 the view would change. There would be glimpses of Tower Bridge, London Eye, Thames or Battersea Power Station depending on which direction I was travelling into Central London from. Powerful and historical buildings would come into focus. And then, on the stretch from London Bridge to Charing Cross, London would reveal itself to its absolute best – a centuries-old cathedral, world-class architecture, glass covered market hall, then the mighty river with its beautiful bridges, South Bank, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, it was almost too much to take it all in. So achingly powerful and mesmerising that I and the rest of the people around me on the train were able to forget the unsightly suburbs and remind ourselves why we loved living in London after all.
You see, London has the cunning ability to make you feel special for living within its large perimetre. It gives you so many options, so many things to potentially explore, that whilst you are there, nothing else on Earth feels worthy of a second glance.
You almost feel sorry for the people who have to live in a less grand place with much less things to do and discover on a daily basis. And then everything you get to see and experience outside of London gets compared to whatever you have become accustomed to in your life there.
I remember, after spending several years in London, I found cities like the Italian Verona small and not very exciting. There was a Roman amphitheatre, an old castle and some other things, yes, but nothing that you couldn’t visit in two days and then move forward. Unlike London, where there was something new to discover every single day of the week and then some.
So, yes, I see it now how London made me jaded. Made me fussy and exacting. At times, it made me feel like I could simply ask in that special tone which is half an order, half an indignation, to speak to the manager and things would be done exactly the way I wanted them. But then, the cracks started to appear and the longer I lived there, the wider they became.
Like the fact that among all those eight and a half million people London could be at times a searingly lonely place. Like the fact that most people lived their lives by the book – the book being a diary where every event and every occurrence had been marked several months (and even years) in advance. Like the fact that it was suffocating to have to deal with huge crowds and huge traffic jams all the time. Like the fact that property prices were getting unachievable and children in London seemed to grow too fast learning all there is to know about life and how to live it and manipulate it rather young. Like the fact that it was so easy to lose one’s identity there and start following the marketing blurb which is constantly levied on everyone through advertising campaigns, holidays which have been turned into occasions to shop and the media constantly telling you about the latest must-haves.
I knew people who had the whole year (holidays, occasions, drinks with friends) planned in advance in their diaries. I had friends setting up a date with whom required precision planning weeks ahead. I used to buy tickets for exhibitions months before the actual day of visiting them. And from my window, as a freelancer, every day I could see the early morning commuters, all bleary-eyed, clutching a large cup of coffee in hand and waiting at the same spot day after day for the train to arrive. Trained by many years of commuting, they knew exactly where the train would stop along the platform and would position themselves right where the doors of the carriages would open, so as to ensure a quick and smooth boarding and, hopefully, getting a place inside.
All these memories, long forgotten and suppressed, came flooding back, as I was looking over London’s morning rooftops and the train was nearing St. Pancras International station.
From my quiet corner I looked around the carriage. A man opposite me was reading a Japanese book, two Polish girls in front of me were chatting and snapped a selfie or two. A sternly-looking lady was tapping emails on her tiny laptop. It was very quiet. Everyone was in their own bubble and would not acknowledge the rest of the people with eye contact.
This lack of eye contact is very typical of London. It used to be the thing which absolutely freaked me out during my first months there in 2001. Coming from a culture where people look at each other, where women would often give you an all-over appraisal trying to deduct where you got your jacket or your boots from, this complete lack of eye engagement in the British capital made me feel very unsettled initially. Like I was invisible. Like no-one cared about me in this huge and often confusing place.
Lack of eye contact was especially evident on the tube, where people are sandwiched together in a small space, enduring rush hour conditions almost all through the day. So, open staring or eye engaging could be interpreted in a myriad of wrong ways. Instead, people close into themselves, focus on a book, a free newspaper or on the advertisements conveniently located above everybody’s heads. Failing all these, people quickly developed the ability to simply stare in space, at no-one and nothing in particular, completely detached from the strangers right under their nose.
So, I quickly got used to all that and with time discovered that this apparent lack of eye contact, this apparent lack of shoving and pushing, this ability to maintain one’s personal space as a tiny inviolable bubble no matter how crammed the carriage was otherwise, made Central London able to function as a civilised place. I started to take comfort in it and I mastered the vacant look just like a native.
Just then, my train pulled in St. Pancras International, where – under the magnificent glass roof – I joined several thousand other people and blended in the crowd on my way to re-acquaint myself with London and its people.