When I moved to Dubai, I wrote in my Farewell to New York City post, "How long does it take in a new place before that feeling of disorientation and unfamiliarity evaporates, evolving into a feeling of casual ease and right-at-home?"
One year ago, we moved to London and I began my London Life, and in the case of this city, I can say that the feeling of disorientation dissipated within a few months, as I got lots of the bureaucratic stuff sorted out and was able to get into a rhythm and lifestyle that was instantly so enjoyable - - running, walks, commuting to work, knowing the stop to transfer on the Tube.
The familiarity is at about 75% now, with the map of the city getting a bit more clear in my mind's eye, and my ability to connect places on the mental map solidifying. The key, I have found, is to map out my own trails through the city so that they become embedded, so that the neural pathways of memory are better formed, rather than following James who knows it all so well, my beloved London ambassador.
I recently participated in a survey of expats and one of the questions asked when I felt that I was really a local. I answered that it was when I was able to confidently give directions to tourists. I could have also said that it has been when I've actually understood local pop culture references, e.g., a wry joke in a magazine about how amazing a certain franchise chain of pubs is reputed to be (it's most definitely not).
We have now moved out of our lovely Hampstead apartment, which we only had for our first year here, and we're looking ahead to our next North London village where we'll settle, explore and discover more quaint places. This is the city where we will be staying for now. And I love it. I love being here, and I love being here with James
The green spaces, particularly Hampstead Heath, which is absolutely one of my favourite places in London, so much so that we have anchored our lives to it, looking to stay in the surrounding neighbourhoods for the long-term. It brings instant healthiness to our lifestyle, allowing daily treks along its trails, with so much mind-clearing fresh air. Actually, life feels very healthy here in general, thanks to the inherent fitness of big city life that comes from brisk walks up and down Underground station stairwells, or in between platforms, or walks to various places nearby to get errands done, miles and miles and miles under foot.
The happy greeters in my London Life: DLR staff at Bank Station who chirp pleasant greetings during rush hour; the drycleaner; the florist.
I love the culture of books and bookstores, reading on my commute on the Tube. I have read so many amazing books lately!
The history, with the discovery of these London parish markers as a fun treasure hunt throughout the city (they're everywhere, seriously!).
Other small details: the camaraderie & chants at the Arsenal, the quiet calm of pub culture, seasons, birdsong, new chocolate bars (Curly Wurly, Revels, Minstrels, Lion Bar, Double Decker, Picnic, Walnut Whip), BBC, that one snow day, the firm rituals (knowing where to stand on escalators, cars braking sharply to let me cross at a zebra crossing), foxes, green parakeets, hot cross bun season at Easter, mince pie season at Christmas.
There are flowers everywhere, and not just blooming in the grass and gardens, but in every detail. (See all the photos in this post.)
So all in all, it's an amazing place to be and I'm having a fantastic time.
I will also acknowledge that there have been some interesting culture shocks that I hadn't expected. To settle into a city means to embed in the rituals and nuances, to get to know the tendencies of people with the watchful eye of an amateur anthropologist. In Dubai, I watched for these little details carefully, collecting the observations of Middle Eastern mentalities and the ways in which the class structure manifested in interactions. The ways in which local culture unfolded in bureaucratic interactions and day-to-day "taking care of business." The ways in which people from other countries interacted, and formed their own experience and bonds. What are the conversation patterns, the topics that gather everyone in chat at their desks each day, the prevailing attitudes, the right approaches to get things done.
So it goes as well with London, where I have been carefully watching and trying to suss out these subtleties. Because there have been a bunch of interactions and conversation modes in my time here that I have found totally perplexing (to be clear, not with anyone close to me, but with more distant acquaintances).
Like, I'm flummoxed by the jokester teasing that comes across as dry serious commentary. I've recently been reading an anthropological study of Englishness, from which I've learned that this banter is just a way to ease into conversations. The key is to keep the chat going, though I tend to just grin like a dope.
Or the "bonding by bitching" ritual, because I try to just deal & get on with things as opposed to the "Eeyorish tendency to indulge in a lot of therapeutic moaning about a problem rather than actually addressing it." Seriously, the most minor of infractions can end up being major topics with ongoing rehashing for entire days at work. But because I don't play my part in affirming the moaning, conversations quickly shut down around me and people act (as the study says) "frostily," "giv[ing] you this tight little smile" or using "piqued tones."
Note to self (again from the study): "You may as well give up the Pollyanna approach and enjoy a spot of quiet moaning. It doesn't really matter; the point is to communicate, to agree, to have something in common..." Oh London, I totally love everything about you... but that's not going to happen! :)