A rental van, rented family members and a day spent in the steamy polluted airs of South London. My post-Austria life crammed into boxes, bags and crates. My new home in the organic oasis of East Dulwich echoed emptily as my brother and I lifted furniture up the narrow stairways and along the hall. I loved Austria. That shouldn’t be a past tense as I love it still. I think I left a little part of my heart along with my ski equipment in my friend’s basement, but let’s not talk about Austrians and basements. Let’s file away countries and histories in the drawer of this desk. The view out the window has changed and maybe so has the person looking at it. I haven’t written prose in so long, it seems like I’m just one hyperbole and metaphor after another today. Excuse the cheese, i’m selling dairy-free cakes and organic coffee for a living now.
Here I am. The big city. The bright lights. Post-graduate education. It’s all falling into place…right? A luke-warm welcome was offered by this city, the city which I used to call my own. It’s been five years since I wasted week nights and weekends outside the Underworld, The Verge, the LA2. Things have changed and it ain’t just the venues! I spent the last two years telling kids how big this city is, how more people live here than in the entirety of Austria. Here I am, surrounded by people, but I’m still feeling a little lonely. Certain things have become apparent during my various journeys to visit friends who live in the same city as me. A train, a tube and a bus at the cost of five pounds is what it takes to stop at a friend’s house for dinner. An hour-long journey to grab a beer with a mate. Meetings planned weeks in advance to fit around the gargantuan demands of a London diary. Nothing seems impromptu. No local bike riding buddies, no hiking trips, no afternoon tea. A simple night out becomes a mathematical nightmare – which bus numbers go there? Which ones are 24hours service? What time do we have to leave to be home before 4am? HOW much is going to cost? Then there was the night I was woken up by the ringing of my phone… I had a moment of confusion when I felt cold glass against my face and unfamiliar sounds reverberating in my head. I looked up and saw foreign place names being announced on the screen on the upper deck of a London bus. Scrabbling off, I found myself on an abandoned road at 4.30am in Forest Hill, deepest South East London and not a place I wanted to be at that hour. As I crossed the road and sat at the bus stop to wait half an hour for the night bus to come back the other way, a drunk guy in a tracksuit lay passed out on the bench. I woke him up when the bus came and he said he would stay the night there because he had no money. I didn’t give him any…I’m a Londoner now and a bus fare is nearly half my hourly wage. A three hour journey home from a friend’s house party, a party which I left at a reasonable hour, becomes a lonesome cross-country expedition of epic proportions. Is this what I signed up for?
Does this whinging mean it’s all bad? London is a cesspit and I am doomed to be swallowed whole? Well, no. There’s been the days spent drinking cider and wandering around the Tate, hours hunched over a desk in the rammed university library placing hold orders on books that ten other people are also trying to get hold of. There’s been the pleasure of punk shows back in my life, except I don’t really know the faces any more. There’s been vegetarian feasts, movie nights, wonderful trips to Brighton and opportunities to see my family. I have many new friends from university and feel motivated to learn. These are good things. I just think after being the alien for a couple of years, I forgot that to London I am just another wanderer. Coming back expecting the city to open its arms to me rather than shrug and belch and turn away. A little mistake on my part and perhaps a symptom of arrogance…or deluded importance…or excitement about coming ‘home’.
So, I’m doing an MA. It’s stolen my soul a little bit because free time seems like a concept that I shelved in a dusty cupboard under some stairs, which will only get dug out at christmas and public holidays…Oh wait, we have the lowest number of public holidays in Europe, so scrap that. I digress. The MA: Pseudo-intellectual conversations, real intellectual conversations, insurmountable piles of reading, a vegetarian café on campus and countless new faces to remember and love. My parents, while being many wonderful things, are not rich. This means academic grants, savings and part-time employment has been the name of the game. Within of a day of moving into my new place I had a job lined up a local bakery selling organic and gluten-free products to the Dulwich hoards. Nestled amongst bewildering take-aways and a cobbler, it draws customers from all over. Most customers appear to be pregnant, which indicates this is either a lovely place to live, or we’re putting something in the dough. I leave work caked in flour and coffee and I smell like hot milk. My hair is plastered to my head by a wonderful mix of smoothies and mayonnaise, but hey, at least the dishwasher gives me a free steam facial. Aside from the early mornings and massive pay drop from my last line of work, bakery life is not so bad. Olive bread, rosemary loaf, pumpernickel, spelt, fruit loaf, poppyseed bloomer, multigrain…You name it and it’s going in the basket on my Amsterdamer along with an organic smoothie and envelope of tips.
Recently we’ve started building fires in the old fireplace and getting tips from ex-Brownie leaders on maximum flamage. The pyromania, a side effect of this new interest, helps wile away the hours buried beneath stacks of cakes and pies. The smell of bread, the scent of coffee, the aroma of burning wood filling the air each time the door blows open and closed. It’s not so bad. Another benefit to the job is getting to know the local characters, like the man who gave us his fire poker and then looked mildly embarrassed when I saw him talking to himself at the train station, or the guy who comes in wearing his bike helmet with halogen lights blinding me while he stops to have a chat, or even the lonely divorcee who savours a green tea and polenta cake for hours as he tells me about his troubles. What about the sounds? I am taking a whole module on sound and music this semester, so let’s not forget the auditory experience of the South East. Buses thundering past, sirens screaming, drunks stumbling past our house at all hours, the ‘crazy man’ who sits in the street all day with a can of Strongbow K shouting incomprehensible nonsense, the sound of coffee beans grinding, the ding of Oyster cards being validated, laughing, moaning, street talk, posh talk, accents, baby talk, religious talk, blasphemous talk… it’s all there.
After a few months, when I come out of my house, I’m not always swallowed by the people and the din of the city, I can make out faces and places of things that seem familiar. I may not have friends within biking distance of my house, but perhaps the view outside the window isn’t so bad after all.