I find it difficult to write about my relationship with London. I’ve tried from time to time, but I always sound unduly pessimistic. Like someone who is lonely, friendless and disconnected from their city. None of which is exactly true. I love London. And I think that moving there two years ago was the best decision I ever made, one that transformed my life indisputably for the better.
But it is possible for something to be the best decision you ever made, and also be a decision that shakes everything you thought you knew you knew about yourself. It is possible to love a city and the people you have met there, and still not feel quite right about it. To still not particularly like the person you are when you are living there.
And so it is with me and London.
In Sydney, I knew who I was – or I thought I did, at any rate. I was an ENFP par excellence: sociable and excitable, a girl who talked easily to strangers, threw parties, and introduced friends to one another as a matter of hobby. I had my insecurities – plenty of them, really – but in my ability to make the best of any social situation I was confident and secure. This is who I was: someone who liked people, and whom people, for the most part, liked in return.
When I got to London, things were different. Oh, I had grand plans – of co-working spaces, and volunteer opportunities, and creative community, and all the myriad of awesome events listed in TimeOut London. In practice, not so much.
I joined a co-working space, but none of the people there seemed to talk to one another… and when they did open up after four months, I found they weren’t actually my type of people. I would go to events and would say hello the one person in the room I already knew, who would usually make polite conversation for a few minutes before turning back to someone they knew better, and I would sit awkwardly, nursing my drink and typing emails on my mobile phone. One time I went to an event for an organisation I thought I’d like to get involved with, circled the room once and left – too afraid to approach someone and start a conversation.
What is happening to me? I wondered. Am I turning into a different person? I stopped off at the supermarket for dumplings on the way home and spent couple of hours scouring the internet, wondering how I could both be the person I thought I was and also be this new person: one who was skittish and small and scared, who couldn’t talk to strangers and felt constantly, slightly but still awkwardly out of place.
There are a myriad of answers, of course. I picked the wrong co-working space. I had gone from a staffer back to a freelance writer – the right creative choice, but by nature a solitary profession – and those earliest days were unstable both in terms of my income, and in my confidence I could actually make the career change work. I had moved in with my boyfriend-now-husband, who has different social patterns and preferences to me, and who provided a handy go-to person to drag along to things on weekends. In Sydney, by comparison, I’d had institutions through which to meet people and make friends: school, university, Vibewire, various workplaces. And one of the reasons I had felt so at ease was because, wherever I went, I had a “harbour” or two or three to return to at any engagement whenever the situation became awkward. I had always felt shy in a room in which there was literally no one I already knew, and no low-pressure path by which to strike up a conversation.
And, it should be made clear, I’m only telling the bad side of the story here. I fell in love with the city immediately: its art galleries, its museums, its fashion, its parties and public transport system, its opportunities for career growth and for travel. And while I may have felt lonely, I was never truly friendless. I have met great people in London, most of whom I would never have had the opportunity to get to know if I hadn’t left Australia (even the Australians).
But I also think there is something about London itself. I think that different cities bring out different parts of us; and if I sound small and scared and slightly melancholy when I talk about London, perhaps that is because that’s how London makes me feel. However much I love its art galleries, theatre, and public transport system.
The contrast is particularly stark at the moment because I have spent the last three weeks in New York, a city that has always had a very different effect on me. When I first visited in 2006, I remember walking down Seventh Ave and being entranced by its energy. I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about people being used and exploited here – and certainly, as a city that attracts the highly ambitious, it does seem to have its share of faux-successful folks, more set on projecting an image than on actually living it – but after seven visits over the past six years, my overriding impression has been one of generosity.
I think of all the big time editors who agreed to meet with me, a 24-year-old journalist from Australia only a year and a half into her career, and gave their time for a “book” which, in retrospect, they clearly knew was never actually going to get published (I was 24 and didn’t even know how to write a book proposal). I think of the woman who, when she heard I was sleeping at a hostel, offered to hae me stay at her apartment instead. I think of the man who leant me his MOMA membership card and invited me out for Chinese and sing-alongs with his friends after an afternoon spent talking about the Spice Girls and Tony Blair. I think of the young editor I had just met who, after discovering it was my birthday later that week, decided she would organise a dinner that night to introduce me to her friends. I think of the writer who, five minutes into our conversation at a dinner organised by a mutual friend, told me she had visited my portfolio website and knew the perfect agent for me. And she was right.
These things just don’t happen in other places. Or at least, they don’t happen to me.
I haven’t experienced generosity of quite those proportions on this trip yet (although I was delighted when I told my editor an idea I had for my book, and she turned it into an idea ten times more wonderful in a matter of seconds), but it still feels different to how I’ve felt in long while.
And I am behaving differently, too. More spontaneous, more outgoing, more like the person I used to think I was. I like it. It feels like coming home; not in the sense of where I am, but in the sense of who I am. I feel as if, if I stayed here for a year, I could become part of a community. Whereas in London I feel like I’ll probably be an outsider until I’ve been there half a decade or more.
It may just be a honeymoon phase. There is little reason, technically, why I couldn’t be the same person I am in New York when I’m in London. I think I was edging towards it, actually, in the week or two before I flew out here, actually. Part of me fears that if I’m not vigilant, I will revert back to the patterns I have developed in London, even before I leave. And however much I may feel “at home” in NYC, the reality is it’s not going to be my home for a good while. At least another year, maybe two. But in the meantime, it’s a nice place to visit – and a place I will probably be visiting quite a bit, in the lead-up to and post launch date this time next year.