Posts Tagged With: Immigrants

My Favorite Place in London

No, it’s not a museum or a pub or a restaurant.

It’s my nail salon.

Getting my nails painted is one of my life’s great guilty pleasures: it is a bit of a wasteful way to spend money. It makes me feel pretty in a way that indicates perhaps my self-esteem is not as deeply-rooted as it should be.

Mani/pedis are the one thing you can get cheap in NYC. I liked to go sit in the great big massage chairs getting rolled and kneaded while an Asian lady worked away at my feet. There is something uncomfortable about it, but that’s where the guilt comes into the pleasure, right? New York nail salons work with anonymous, military precision. My nails always looked perfect: trimmed short and round, shiny with evenly-coated polish. I could sit under the hand dryers as long as I liked, and I rarely left with a smudge or a chip (sometimes I did. I’m a klutz.) The Asian ladies asked me to pay before my hands were painted, decreasing the chance of digital imperfection (see what I did there?).

None of that is my experience in London.

The salon I go to costs about as much for a manicure as the combo cost in New York – and it’s the cheapest place I have found. There are no massage chairs. The women never file my nails as short as I’d like (I ask them to go shorter three times and then have to give up and accept I’m going to have a lady nail). The polish is a little uneven and doesn’t extend all the way to the edge of my nails. And without fail they tell me the polish is dry and I’m smudged by the time I take out my wallet to pay.

Still, I love it.

First, the salon is called “Your Beautiful.” It’s on the sign that hangs outside, it’s embroidered on the girls’ aprons. As a deep lover of the English language and champion of its proper use, this should probably irritate me, but I find it endearing. The people who work there are from non-English speaking parts of Europe: Italy, Hungary, Poland. They speak two languages and I don’t, and if they don’t quite have their contractions down yet, I forgive them.

I sit in a plastic chair shaped like a hand: my butt is cupped in the palm, my back rests against the fingers – the nails of which are, of course, painted.

I could sit through my sessions in NYC and not be expected to make small talk, but here I am trying to embrace asking questions. These girls want to practice their English, and I need to practice talking to strangers without feeling terror. It’s a win-win. The Italian girl has painted my nails a few times. She told me she is from a small town where everyone is shocked that she moved to London. No one there can imagine a life more idyllic than that of the Italian countryside, but she wants to see the world.

She gets some words confused: “outside” and “upstairs” are hard for her to remember correctly, and sometimes she inverts them: “upside” and “outstairs.” She told me she was planning a barbeque for her day off; until she moved in, all her flatmates ate their meals alone in their individual rooms. Now she has created a friendly group dynamic where they share time together. I believe she has the power to do it. She is incredibly sweet and smiley. She always remembers me and says hello when I come in, even if she isn’t doing my nails.

There is another girl (I think she’s from Poland but I’m not sure) who does a lot of specialty nail work – the women who come in wanting two inch fang-like fingernails (when did this become popular? It’s totally creepster to me). She can freehand tiny intricate paintings on each individual nail, and call me sentimental, but I think she’s an artist. Anytime a person has a talent and can create beauty – even of the miniscule and ephemeral variety – I envy their joy at their own creativity. We should all be lucky enough to have the confidence to embrace our gifts.

It’s just a friendly, relaxed place, and I genuinely enjoy the time I spend there. It’s nothing fancy, but there is good energy, and I always leave smiling, smudged nails or not.

I wonder that this sweet Italian girl traveled so far from her home – in a country I personally love and can’t imagine wanting to leave – to do this rather menial job so graciously. Everybody wants to be somewhere else. I’m here as an immigrant too, right? I guess we all go to great lengths to make our dreams come true.

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Taking Taxis in London

When I arrived at Heathrow in September, with eight-five hundred bags and no place to live, a guy at a counter booked me into a hotel, and got me a shuttle to boot, cheaper than the cab I assumed I would need. I don’t really remember what the shuttle driver looked like, but I have this vision of him as Hal Holbrook in the old English man uniform: golf cap, cardigan, baggy trousers. In my jet-lagged memory he is smoking a pipe, but of course he didn’t smoke a pipe with a dozen bleary-eyed passengers swaying behind him, did he?

This old gentleman loved driving his shuttle and talking to the tourists aboard, pointing out the sights. Driving from West London into the City, there aren’t really many sights: neutered motorway, exhausted, dark brick row-houses. It was raining, an appropriate baptism for my rebirth into British life, but there was even less to see as water streamed down the windows in defiance of the semiotics of “drop.” As we drove through Chiswick, our driver told us not to pronounce the “w.” He pointed out the Mercedes headquarters. We passed a pub as we honed in on the western edge of London proper (near the West Kensington Tube; I started my painful reckoning with London’s geography a week later when I returned to this intersection to look at a flat). The pub was called the Famous Three Kings. He made us guess which three it referred to, and told us one was Elvis. I don’t think that was true.

We drove through central London, dropping various passengers at various hotels. As we puttered along the northern border of Hyde Park, I knew we were close to my undergrad housing on Edgeware Road. Out the window artists sold their wares against the park fence, huddling under tarps, deflecting the blood-letting-ish streams of rain from their paintings. Finally Marble Arch rose to our right and the Odeon cinema on the left and I had such a strange feeling of familiar and unfamiliar rubbing elbows in a way that was bound to produce an Indian burn.

The driver mentioned to someone directly behind him that the “Arabs” had taken over Edgeware Road recently, and he didn’t seem too happy about it. Later, when it was just me and him, and he motioned me forward so he could chatter and entertain me the final few minutes to my hotel, I didn’t mention that when I lived on Edgeware Road a decade ago, it was already full of fluorescently-lit shwarma shacks with their spinning spits of meat, as well as more elegant Lebanese restaurants. The guys running the front desk of our student flat building, who always smiled at me as I passed, were certainly “Arab.” I told the driver why I was in London, to study, to travel, and he wished me well, helping me lug my eight-five hundred suitcases through the sepia puddles and up my hotel’s eleven unnecessary steps.

Several days later, admitting defeat in my magic plan to magically find a magical flat, I switched hotels for the duration of the search. Apparently I wasn’t going to avoid that monstrously expensive taxi ride after all. It wasn’t a proper black cab, either, not the quintessential London taxi experience, but just a car, a compact silver everyday car with a reasonably sized trunk.

My journey west to east across the city continued with those eight-five hundred weary bags, concluding at a small hotel in Walthamstow, all the at the end (or the beginning?) of the light blue Victoria Line in Zone 3 – but I had a private bathroom. This time my driver was a thirty-something Iranian dressed in business casual: white button down shirt with rolled-up sleeves, black pants. The same questions came up: why was I in London, what was I studying.

I asked him about himself; his English was excellent but not quite inflected with Britishness, despite the twelve years he had spent in the country. He had intended to stay for five, to study finance, but the economy had collapsed. He warned me to be careful or I’d find myself with a mortgage, as if mortgages were insidious grass-covered pits hidden throughout the city, something I might fall into unawares and find myself trapped for life.

He had friends who were doctors, and he claimed even they couldn’t save money in London. He drove the taxi part-time while also working at a gym; he wanted to become a personal trainer. We reinvent ourselves, then reinvent ourselves again.

As we continued east, far beyond the edges of everything I had ever seen of this urban sprawl, the Olympic Stadium loomed up on the right. It gave me a little thrill; Michael Phelps and the Fab Five still danced like sugar plums in my memory. But no, no, the stadium was a mistake too. My driver didn’t understand why “they” had built it here, in this part of East London, where no one comes. People don’t even go to all the casinos in East London; they prefer betting on dog fights.

I didn’t say that the gentrification “they” were hoping to attract around the stadium probably didn’t include him anyway.

He lived on Edgeware Road. He hated it there.

He dropped me off just around the corner from the hotel’s entrance, and helped me carry my eighty-five hundred bags to the door. I was once again hunched over against an implacable rain. My luggage begged me now to stay still, to unpack, to lighten their load. But not yet. For all our journeying, we still weren’t home.

I was hopeful that we would find one soon. A home. But my drivers had me wondering: the first, a native, cheerful, proud to show off his city. He was born here, he owned this town, he would never not have that deep sense of confidence inherent in belonging. The second, an immigrant, hoping for a better opportunity, a new life, a rebirth. Like me. After twelve years he still didn’t feel like he was home.

I wondered (I still wonder) if I ever would either. But still I dream. I burn myself to ashes and wait for something new to rise.

Categories: London | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

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