Going to Stay

LONDON — When I arrived here this summer, I expected to experience the same degree of culture shock I felt when I moved from California to Boston. I had been to Europe before, but never for very long and always on vacation. Coming home would let me process what I had seen, situating my experiences comfortably among the memories of my past travels. With a deepening grin, I would tell my friends and relatives that Barcelona, where I once spent four days in high school, was my favorite city. For years, I have resisted returning to Barcelona because part of me wants to preserve that idyllic image. But I have few memories of the week I spent in London as an eight year old, so when I moved seven weeks ago into a room 20 minutes south of Waterloo, I felt a blankness stretch before me, full of terrifying possibility like a painter’s white canvas. Quietly, I waited for the alienating shocks of another culture’s customs pushing against my own. They never came, and not because I had prepared myself beforehand. I hadn’t. I wanted the experience of being in London to wash over me with all its natural undulations, like the push and pull of a gentle tide. Unlike visiting, living somewhere demands a distinct kind of acculturation. It is an open-minded kind of tourism, an accepting stance toward unfamiliar expressions and the way people interact in the street, an openness to new subway maps and the way strange currency feels in your hand. You let these things enter your mind and you let them stay there, living with them as fixtures of life instead of quaint cultural differences that can be easily massaged into memories over a transatlantic flight. Leaving home means abandoning small, enduring, everyday memories like particular street corners or the sibilant rattle of pine needles shaken by the wind off the San Francisco Bay. When I moved to Boston, folding the new streets and sounds into my daily life made me feel even farther away from home than I already felt, but it only took me a few days here to memorize and embrace the regular features of my walk to work: the cracks in the tiled sidewalk, the passing of the 201 bus that no one ever rides, the house with the bright blue door just before the final street crossing. They were all new to me, but of course they had always been waiting here. Not for me, though. Just waiting.

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I assumed the identity of a South Londoner almost immediately after I arrived. To live south of the Thames is to live in an area of London where the rough edges haven’t yet been washed over by the beautification projects of richer boroughs like Westminster. It means living farther from recognizable places like Trafalgar Square, the West End, and Covent Garden, and closer to areas with their own sense of place, a conviction that they matter despite spotty tube access. To Londoners, the South Bank is a destination, somewhere to go for culture—the Tate Modern, the National Theatre, the Globe, and Borough Market. No one ever talks about the North Bank. That’s just the rest of London. This conviction feels nothing like the inferiority complexes of other places where I’ve lived: San Francisco to L.A., Boston to New York, Brooklyn to Manhattan. Rather, it feels like a separate identity abiding amicably with the others that surround it. Being a South Londoner is like being any stripe of European. That sense of allegiance to your chosen identity—and the prejudices that go along with it—comes with a measured, respectful appreciation for the others with whom you live: the Germans and Turks, the Frenchmen and Greeks, the Spaniards, the Portuguese—even football fans from Manchester. I say that identity is chosen because in Europe culture feels so fluid. Becoming a New Yorker or a Bostonian, for me, would require a change in attitude, the way I think, the way I experience the world. And slowly, those cities have begun to change me. But for most Europeans it seems that cultures can be assumed and discarded easily, so long as you studiously devote yourself to absorbing your new culture’s habits and quirks. An Austrian woman I met had spent so much of her life abroad that, besides a faint wisp of an accent, she barley seemed Austrian at all. She came to the U.K. to marry an Englishman, and when the two split up she stayed in London, not considering herself English but not grasping at her Austrian heritage either. She calls herself a Londoner, not in contrast to Parisians or the Viennese, but because at night she returns to a flat in South London, because the white cliffs of Dover, however oddly, signal her homecoming, because the street names she recognizes, the restaurants she knows, the pubs she frequents on Friday nights, they are all in London, and they are all hers.

* * *

Three weeks after I arrived in England, I visited the Normandy coast of France. As I walked along the beaches and through small seaside towns, slipping between the locals at weekday markets and asking for baguettes and rounds of Camembert in horrible broken French, some whisper of French culture began to make its way into me. The street signs became familiar even if I barely understood the words they bore. I knew roughly where Rouen and Paris were in relation to where I was staying. French dining habits—bread whenever possible, cheese before dessert—gained an air of familiarity. French culture didn’t feel familiar or homey, but I could easily imagine myself amidst it without feeling squeezed to the outside. Leaving France and returning to London was no great transition at all. There was nothing I had to do to become a Londoner for two months or an ersatz Frenchman for a week, no alternate persona I had to assert. Nothing would have made me any different. No matter how many museums I walk through or tube maps I read, I am, indelibly, an American in Europe. Even though my American instincts tell me to, I cannot assimilate myself into European culture. Difference is too regular here, too prized. But still, when I walk along the South Bank or eat from farmers’ stalls at Borough Market, I meet the eyes of hundreds of Londoners and some flash of recognition seems to pass between us. I don’t feel that I am one of them or that they have accepted me despite my foreign origins. They look at me, and then move their eyes down or to the side, to the same streets, another café, the other side of the river. They’re not so different than me, I think. Maybe they’re just visiting, too, visiting to stay. I think to ask them why they’ve come here, where they’re from, what their names are, what they do—all of it, every question I could ever ask. But then their eyes float away, and I keep walking. I return to art galleries, museums, oyster bars and pizzerias, little pubs on cobblestone streets. These are my places. And after a while, the faces here start to look the same, the pints come laced with the same foam, the same bitter warmth, and I can imagine the next back road I’ll take to find a pub off the beaten path. Living here means a certain amount of predictability. Not only does a loose routine provide stability, it constructs a worldview, a way of seeing the city. After a while, one of the things on my mind as I explore a city is what I’ve inevitably missed, and, if I’ve left any mark behind, where I’ve left it. What frowning person has stopped on his way to work to think about the way the blue lights outside the Royal Festival Hall glinted sharply in my night eyes? These are people that I’ll never see again, or worse—faces left unnoticed as I passed them in the street, unnoticed even as they noticed me. There are thousands of them, millions, the innumerable lives that course around me, away from me, rich and unknowable, city lives, Londoners. —Kyle L. K. McAuley ’09, a Crimson arts editor, is a Literature concentrator in Leverett House.