I hate the part where I look like a tourist. It’s like I’m doing a waltz – walking five feet in one direction, then back seven in the other, before pirouetting back to an angle slightly off from the first, trying now, finally, to stride forward as authoritatively and nonchalantly as possible.
I want to tell everyone as they pass, scowling at me as I stop dead in front of them: no, no, I live here! I’m not a tourist! I’m just…new. Give me a little bit of time and I’ll put away my laminated Streetwise map, I won’t stare for a full five minutes at an intersection of four roads, desperate for some sort of street sign indicating where I am, I will stop my hesitant pauses in front of untried restaurants. I’ll turn automatically in the correct direction when I step off the Tube train to get to my connection, rather than becoming a mid-river island, forcing streams of commuters around me as I contemplate which way to go.
Give me another month. Then I’ll know. I’ll be one of you.
But for now, I’m awkward. I’m tentative. I’m foreign, and everything is foreign to me. There’s no grid to follow in London, I’m just a mouse in a maze.
On the other hand, once I lift my eyes out of the map, I keep looking up, up, up. Tourists are always looking, right and left, forward and backward, absorbing, noticing, wondering at everything. This whole British world is new to me, and I’m seeing things people who tread these streets every day don’t see. The Tube seats are upholstered. They have arm rests. The signs guiding one out of stations lead to the “Way Out” instead of the “exit.” What makes the “American Dry Cleaning Company” American? At the supermarket you can get your “flu jab” – a violently whimsical name, much preferable to a “shot.” Milk is “skimmed” instead of “skim” – and really, doesn’t that make more sense? But keeping my eggs unrefrigerated does freak me out a little – I know my mom will freak out even more. Why do all pubs have an immediately recognizable architectural style? Who decided on that? There are bookie/betting joints on every other street. I guess they like their gambling over here. The Holiday Inn has bellhops in top hats. Why are there so many people drunk between 4-5pm on a weekday?
You can see so much from the upper deck of a big red bus.
London looks oldish and a little worn out, everything is straight-laced and stiff-upper-lippy and yes I’m projecting and romanticizing, but I’m also noticing.
And there is the paradox.
I long for the day I feel comfortable saying, “I live here.” When I can confidently offer directions to those still carrying their laminated maps.
But oh bittersweet because on that day, the world around me will be less shiny, less conspicuous to my overfamiliar eyes. My thoughts will be somewhere else while my feet move over the London pavement, my vision blurred by my inner world, no longer aware of the outer mingling worlds of Edward, Victoria, Gherkin pickle.
And that’s kind of a shame. That’s the price you pay to belong.
As I add streets and neighborhoods and shops to the labyrinth growing in my mind’s eye, London becomes more mine. And at the same time I’m losing it.
It’s like any romance…as I get more comfortable it becomes less sparkly. My heart will palpitate less. I won’t have the giddy butteflies.
I’ll stop shaving my legs every time I go out.
But I will have a sense of stability. Comfort. Belonging.
It’s a tradeoff. The initial bloom fades. But in its place there’s a sturdy tree, to shelter and feed me. And build a tree house that is a place of my very own.