“It’s a nice place. Come on, you’ll like it.”
I’d spent the previous 30 minutes primping in our bedroom on the third floor of a row house my husband and I had rented for part of the summer in London. It was the first time I’d felt excited all week, as I hadn’t had many opportunities to speak to another adult.
I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly sociable person, but conversely, I take a kind of perverse delight in people’s incredulous reactions when they hear me described as an introvert. My lone wolf phases are usually more of a luxury than an affliction. I choose when to bow in and when to bow out. After turning down an invitation to slog through the “witching hour” at home with my boys there is a personal giddiness that comes from entering the dark hours of being alone. I surround myself with my bookshelves, my computer, and quiet.
As a teenager I behaved the same way, but was often frustrated because I didn’t feel that I had a group of tightly-woven friendships that other girls did. Lost in the adolescent murkiness of comprehending feelings and actions, I often translated my self-exile as being a result of being unwanted. Later, as an adult, I learned that people’s perceptions of me were vastly different than the half-shrouded mirror in which I had seen myself. Where I had seen fearful inabilities, others had seen self-assurance, sometimes to the point of haughtiness.
Coming to London was like revisiting that blinded teenage vision of myself. My isolation was coloring my view of everyday, menial events. People love London. They marvel at the number of parks and the way everyone seems born with the kind of wit Americans beg for. But all I could see was grime and rudeness—perhaps to cover my inadequacies in connecting with the unique humanness of the culture.
After a week of working at home and wandering the neighborhood in search of a friendly face, I’d decided to try a change of scenery. On this day I’d trudged across the city to the British Library, expecting to find a physical example of the nation’s literary prowess. My vision dimmed considerably when I exited St. Pancras station and found myself stepping over more of the dingy paper wisps, discarded cups and mush that may or may not have been related to excrement that seemed to lay in thin layers over sidewalks everywhere. I was so preoccupied that I walked past the library three times before realizing where it was.
Blog posts had lauded the library for being the perfect place for nomadic freelance writers in need of Wi-Fi to settle in for a few hours of good work. The internet connection was supposed to be consistent and there would be plenty of places to sit. It turned out to be the third time that “strong” British connectivity had failed me, as I kept getting kicked off of the network while uploading photos or even simple Word documents to the cloud connections I share with clients and editors.
The place was packed. By the time I arrived the only place to sit and plug in was a bench against a wall that was about as comfortable as a jagged, weather-darkened board. The upside was that I had a perfect view of the towering glass wall that encased wise and luxuriant leather volumes that had been retired for display. The view made the fact that it took three hours to produce a 400-word article only slightly more bearable.
Finally, with a sore tailbone and fatigued of the uncertain glances tossed my way each time I uttered a four-letter word at the computer screen, I picked my way back across the litter and back to the train station. But there was a problem with the District Line. If I travelled back the way I’d come it would take close to two hours to get back. After figuring out an alternate route I felt like a triumphant new city dweller.
I was not allowed to earn the satisfaction of figuring my way out of a London Problem. Once on the right train, on the right track, a signal failed. Naturally the failure occurred a mere four stops from mine. It was sweltering outside, with no air conditioning inside. And why on earth would a window be open in the train car that I occupied?
After a stifling 15-minutes of non-movement peppered with useless updates from the conductor, we were informed that the train had been cleared to go through the broken signal, and that we shouldn’t worry when we felt a jolt as we took off, followed by a constant shimmy as we made our way to the next station at the pace of an ant on sun-baked sand. I texted my husband that I was getting off of that damn train at the next stop and hiring a car to take me the rest of the way home. For once he didn’t seem to mind my excess, especially when I informed him of the teeth-clenching scream of train brakes that reached my ears shortly after the train left me on the platform. The next day that section of the Tube was closed, and remained so through the weekend.
I was deflated. I was exhausted. I felt like a wet pool towel that a gleeful child had flippantly tossed onto a low-hanging tree branch that was now swaying, abandoned, in the pale winds of an impending storm. When we arrived in England I didn’t have much in the way of expectations, but this was nothing like the scene I’d vaguely anticipated.
When I arrived home sweaty, musty, dazed and annoyed, all I could think about was cleaning myself up to go with my husband to the cute Thai bistro around the corner. I made individual dinners for our boys that would induce the least amount of whining. I covered them in kisses, thanked our sitter and then retreated up the narrow slope of stairs to make myself look less like a forlorn soot-dweller and more like a glowing, engaging companion. We would sit in the cool breeze and sip wine and laugh at the weird newness of our days. I wanted to restore my hope and fresh view of a summer in London with the people I love the most, and I wanted to do it in a setting that felt fun and sanitary.
“Can I take you to my place instead?” my husband asked as we carefully ambled down the stairs that’d I’d fallen down four times in the past week.
I wrinkled my nose in response. “His” place was in the same neighborhood as the tiny office that his sales manager had been allowed to pick out while his boss—my husband—was traveling in California. The interior of the office building was upbeat and modern in a Google-tech kind of way. The exterior faced an alley where scantily-clad women blew cigarette smoke into the strollers carrying their newborns. There was more trash than around St. Pancras and more people who were bored enough to entertain themselves with trouble. I couldn’t imagine that a restaurant located in such a place could be considered “nice.” But, since we wouldn’t have the chance to sit across from each other for another week, I gave in.
When we entered the dark-paneled gastropub and took our seats by a window I felt a sense of submission toward our view of an overflowing trash bin and the vitriolic faces of teenagers passing a flask back and forth amongst themselves as they strode past. I felt myself descending further into a funky fog that I still didn’t realize was of my own making.
After a weekend away with some of my husband’s friends I started to see clearly again. It’s hard to scowl when munching hummus in a flower garden while children play nearby in a tent made of sheets blowing dreamily in the breeze. I returned to London full of dread in anticipation of another week of disengagement, so I did something out of the ordinary. I sent an email to a writer whom I’d never met. It’s not the kind of thing that I do—sending emails to complete strangers with little or no context behind them. I ended up going to a reading she was hosting and then treated myself to dinner. After spending some time amongst people while forcing myself to converse rather than retreat, the veil lifted a little. By the time I was walking through Mayfair to find some food, I’d forgotten to narrow my eyes and pout at the litter and tourists. Instead of darkly sulking into the bowl of risotto before me at the tiny bistro where I settled, I observed the groups and couples around me and relaxed. I even managed to get onto the crowded train from Green Park Station and smile through the hot crush of fellow commuters.
Creating connections in a foreign city usually has a predetermined set of circumstances. A tourist visiting for a week or two doesn’t generally worry about work or everyday tasks, and someone who is moving in for the long term has schools and clubs with which to make connections. Setting up camp in a state of limbo between the two was a lesson in tenacity that added extra weight to my husband’s lighthearted, “It’s a nice place. Come on, you’ll like it!” Maybe I needed a little extra weight in my life. Perhaps it will give me the strength to mean it when I say I can handle anything.