It’s 3pm, Saturday, February 11th. I’m staring out of my living room window, one of four large panes of glass composing the walls of this parlour, and watching the people of Chelsea walk by. The weather is grey. Grey and cold, and although it’s not dark outside, one scarcely manages to make out any light. The bricks of the building across from me, directly in my view, are a tepid tan, peppered with darker rectangles, dreary, just like the dead winter tree clinging to life in its front yard. It snowed this morning. A fluffy, large petaled snow that drifted wankishly down from above. But snow doesn’t stick here. It’s just wet. I wonder sometimes if the ground ever tires of being constantly moist. Does the concrete hug the water like a soaking amphibian, or is it grumpy like an old woman in a leaky house, trying always to keep the wet out?
At least the plants love it.
And at least we have tea.
A big double decker, red-as-tomatoes bus flies by. It’s funny how much affinity I’ve come to develop for these big red toasters on wheels. In no other city where I’ve lived — New York, San Francisco — have I found such tender affection for a mode of public transportation. Yet every time I see one of these domed chariots, my reaction is what I can only describe as a child meeting their favorite cartoon (Clifford The Big Red Dog, anyone?) in real life. My subconscious jumps, “Yes! Hello Friend! You’ve come for me! Let’s get out of this weather!”
It really does come back to the weather. As a Californian, you wonder why the fuck weather talk is small talk. There simply isn’t much to say. Is it sunny? Yes. Was it sunny and cold? Yes. Was it the same as it was yesterday? Yes. Is it the same for you where you are, as where I am? Generally, yes (although San Francisco can be an exception.) Is Karl the Fog creeping in on your fun again? Yes, same as he does every fucking night. Is it raining? I wish.
My most recent stint in San Francisco lasted 3 years, starting in 2013. There was massive drought. I remember wishing that the sky would spare us some rain, so that the earth wouldn’t have to thirst. One winter, there was a huge storm warning, but all we got was some mist, a bunch of wind, and a few fallen tree limbs. Anytime rain appeared on our forecasts, people forgot how to drive and traffic became insufferable. Watching Californians react to rain was as comical as watching New Yorkers deal with a tiny earthquake in 2012 — we thought the apocalypse was coming, didn’t quite know what to do (did we have elementary school drills for this natural disaster? Do we rush to a doorway? Do we hide underneath our desks? Do we stay inside?). General confusion ensued. At least it was something to laugh at.
“Conserve Water” signs went up everywhere — airports, restaurants, offices. We took shorter showers. We tried to stop eating beef, pecans, and avocados (this last one proved to be rather impossible given our rampant love for tacos, burritos, poke bowls, and sushi.) We watched our reservoirs dry up and our lakes disappear. Tahoe was a wasteland of brown; Truckee was just a dirty old stone town with a stream pushing through it. The snowstormed whiteouts and powder sprays of Squaw’s Olympic days were gone.
In the UK, nobody gives a fuck how much water you’re using. Nevermind that the stuff gushing out of faucets is hard as lizard shit (if that lizard ate five centuries of limestone!) Any drop that dries leaves a white residue ring so obvious you would have sworn that a tiny Yayoi Kusama troll had invaded your flat in the middle of the night, whiteout marker in hand, to graffiti the shit out of your sink and glassware. You realise that one of the first appliances you must buy is an electric kettle, because no matter what time of year it is, all your body wants is tea. But if you’re using tap water to fill that kettle, within your first boil or two, you’ll find flat specs of some sort of opaque mineral floating at the bottom. Is this a fucking chemistry classroom, where you’re mixing for percipitate? No, that was supposed to be potable water. That you’re pouring, in cups and cups of Earl Grey and Peppermint tea, down your little throat. So you get a Brita filter. And now you only find the water dandruff at the bottom of your little kettle every 9 boils or so. It’s an improvement.
Did I mention it’s the middle of winter? There’s this thing here called SAD. It stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder. Can you believe the fucking acronym is SAD? (Genius scientists with a penchant for punny linguistics rejoice.) Because that’s what you feel — a mysterious, tired, sleepy sadness. It’s not quite a full on depression, because you don’t necessarily feel despair or bad about yourself; it’s just impossible to get out of bed. We live on earth, right? Where the fuck is the sun? You wake up and it’s this empty, draining gray. The sky feels like it’s right on top of you, like you’re in the basement of some depressing old house. Where are the colors orange, blue, yellow, and pink? It even smells gray. Even your bones want to retreat further within your body, and never leave the warmth of your bed. Where’s the godamn tea?
My coworkers have these little blue light lamps they use at their desks. Called SAD lamps, they’re supposed to help you replenish on the required light that we’re missing this time of year. You feel overly sensitive, but you’re not sure if it’s that time of the month, or your office mate really is that obnoxious, or if that guy who cut you off on your way into the elevator really thinks you’re a piece of shit. I mean, what about La La Land? Were Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone really that talented, or were you bawling Niagara Falls tears because you’re SAD? Did I mention I have a Vitamin D deficiency?
But maybe that’s why the British are so damn polite. That guy who cut you off on your way into the elevator? Actually probably didn’t happen. Everybody queues. There are spats of street remarks, but they’re infrequent, even from construction workers. In New York or San Francisco, a girl can’t get past a few of these neon-vested, steel-toed booted men without some leering glances and a few harassing whistles or words. It’s just a way of life. You avoid those streets. Here, they carefully sneak a glance at you, then look away, and don’t dare to say a thing. Is it manners, or is it repression?
Which brings me to the word, “proper.” (Americans, when is the last time you used this word?) Here, you do things “properly.” You order tea at a somewhat nice restaurant where the leaves are loose, and it’s served in a pot, and you get about 5 different utensils that you’ve never seen before. One is a mini handheld colander, which comes accompanied with its own, perfectly fitted little holder. Imagine what Scuttle and Ariel would have to say about this dinglehopper — silver hairnet debris blocker (?). You place it over your tea cup, which is always served with a saucer, strain your tea through it, then you put it back in its little pocket. The way it fits perfectly in its holder is delightful. The sounds are delightful. Your pinky starts to go up.
You’re having a meal with a group of American friends in a restaurant, and you start to let loose, get rowdy, and god forbid, get LOUD. “Oh, how American!” are the passive-aggressive stares you’ll get from the truly British around you. What they’re actually saying is, “How expressive! Can’t you see we’re trying to have a decently quiet conversation over here? How rude! How inconsiderate! This isn’t the space for that! What type of behavior is this?”
You meet a British bloke at a pub and you notice he’s wearing a somewhat awkward but serious pinky ring. You recognize these from your boarding school friends in the states, but it takes you awhile to really grasp the depth of this little ornament. Was it an Eton ring? Is he an Oxford boy? How much wealth has been in his family, and for how long? You don’t really know what that kind of generational privilege and wealth looks or feels like. There are distinct social and socio-economic circles in Britain, and you’re an outsider.
Your one British friend (we have to use this distinction “friend” loosely, since the closeness with which you’d use this for a fellow American is quite different) is starting a new job. He’s wondering, like many of us, what to wear on his first day. But his primary concern is, “How much wealth do I show?” At first, you aren’t sure what he means. Then you realise that there are so many subtle cues — in tailoring, suiting cuts, materials, jewelry (watches, rings), and other parts of his presentation — that will place him safely in the “right” social circle at work. His coven will then be able to identify and welcome him. It’s just the sort of old society structure, replete with invisible rules, that would drive an American (and a first generation immigrant at that) insane! It’s at once fascinating, icky, scary (how does one even try to fit in?), and bewildering. And okay, let’s not forget about members clubs. When you first move here, your closest approximation is Soho House (“cool” people! A rooftop pool in NY summer!). You soon realise how many there are (which one do I choose?), that they actually serve a utility (beautiful, comforting spaces, events, gyms), that you sort of want to “belong” (human instinct), they’re not that expensive, and maybe they’re not that douchey. It’s sort of like how Burning Man grows on you (first month in SF: Slap me if I ever say I’m going. 3 months in: What? You get to do WHAT there? You found WHAT in the middle of the desert? 6 months in: WHERE CAN I GET A TICKET?) So, do you invest in belonging to a social layer? My jury’s still out.
Ok, we need to talk about alcohol. Maybe it’s the weather, or the insanely creative and excellent cocktail programs here, but people are drinking, all the time. A random Tuesday night at the local pub will see men go through 5 pints of beer per hour. On the weekends, Soho is littered with outdoor urinals (like a music festival) so that men who have imbibed too much don’t piss on the streets. There’s no judgment. And just as your body craves tea, your body craves beer, wine, gin, and whisky. On cold days, pubs will advertise “warm beers” to entice you in. Warm beers! It’s a tonic.
Along with all this drinking, comes the visits to the loo. British loos, no matter how divey the bar, all seem to come with a real door. None of these plastic semi-dividers we have in the states, where you can peer through a slit and see someone doing their business. No, in the UK, each stall is a proper room, and in general each lock is visible from the outside so you can tell if the toilet is in use. Privacy is supreme, although one time I got “locked” in a stall-room at work and realised there would be no way to climb out (over / under.) Being trapped in one of these poo-rooms is probably anyone’s worst nightmare. But at least it’s discrete.
You know what’s amazing though? Not being gouged on groceries. Let me run you through an example. I go to Tesco today (like a Gristedes, or a lesser Safeway), and picked up: hummus, tortilla chips, gluten free crackers, gluten free crumpets, a bag of 5 sweet potatoes, and a pint of yogurt. How much would this cost in the states? $20? $30? It was £10 (or about $12.50) Now Tesco isn’t Marks & Spencer or Waitrose (nicer grocery stores), but I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than around £30 for a grocery haul here, ever. And I’m buying fresh / organic meats and fish, tons of fresh veggies (and many are precut / prepared — I have yet to use my vegetable peeler!), fruits, chermoula, household goods (paper towels, washing sponges) and whatever else tickles my fancy. The olive oil is cheap and excellent. My trauma of being price gouged by American grocery stores is constantly pulling my face into a “wow” when I checkout, and the total is about ⅓ or ½ of what I expected. And the produce is GREAT. And portions are perfect for one or two. It’s blissful.
As for other household items, I am only slightly embarrassed to admit that it took me about a week to figure out where to buy a blowdryer (you can’t just plug in the one you brought from the states!), 3 months to figure out where to buy a vacuum cleaner (there’s no Bed Bath & Beyond here! Had to go for either John Lewis or Argos), and I still haven’t figured out if I’m willing to pay more than £50 for a toaster oven. My cooktop is an induction hob, which means I had to get induction cookware, and have no idea if they’ll work on a normal gas / electric stove (anybody know the answer to this one?) It took me far too long to change the lightbulb in the mini chandelier in my living room (they don’t screw, they hook in!), and much too much confusion to figure out how to work my combo washer and dryer, which is installed next to the oven in my kitchen (I am constantly dropping my panties on the kitchen floor!), and which still turns my jeans out of the dryer cycle looking like a wrangled wrinkled mess. God, I miss American dryers.
Life started to drastically improve after I acquired an electric blanket, and accepted the fact that your heat is on about 9 months out of the year. At first I was traveling too much (every weekend!). This is too easy to do when the cost of an entire weekend away is at times cheaper or on par with the cost of staying in London and going out. Now I’ve found a balance, and a yoga practice (the yoga teachers in London are no joke!). The food served at the standard restaurant in London is sublime, and with great wine at £3–6/glass and included gratuity and tax, you are constantly surprised at how low your bill is. Art and culture abound and are accessible (both in location and price), and interaction with foreigners / international cultures is the norm. You meet people with incredible global backgrounds. For example, one coworker has an Austrian father, a Thai mother who grew up in the Netherlands, so she grew up in Switzerland and Hong Kong, and speaks Thai, Dutch, Chinese, German, and Swiss. Best of all, any American you meet here is pretty much awesome. We tend to self select for international curiosity, and that makes us all pretty cool.
At first, you can’t get enough of the British accent, and you hope that maybe some of it will slip into yours and you’ll go home with a fun souvenir. But after awhile, one day, you’ll be getting tea in the office and hear a gaggle of British girls chatting about their weekends, and want to shoot them in the face. You call a customer service number and the gal on the other end of the line has such a thick British accent that you can’t help feeling like she’s not very bright, and you can’t understand a single thing she’s saying. You go on business trips in Spain or Poland, and you realise how much your American accent is appreciated, and you’re told how much easier you are to understand. Hell, one day, you even start feeling a genuine sense of pride of being American, and having American values. You realise that being open, optimistic, expressive, friendly, easy-going, and proactive are not just your personality, they’re the American personality. You start to love your countrymen a little more.
It’s an unexpected realisation and transition. There are some days when you miss home like crazy, and other days where you’re nervous you may never want to move back. Creating a life in a new place, any new place, is a study on how our environment affects us and changes us. We think we’re in control, but actually, the cultural and physical features of the world around us are constantly applying a subtle pressure on our subconscious. We’re like the rocks on a sea cliff, daily being pounded by the unbreaking water, until one day we realise our assumptions and preferences have simply shifted. Our edges have been smoothed. We fit in.
The pummeling waters of San Francisco taught me to think big. To be hopeful, loving, optimistic, ambitious, innovative, caring, rebellious, and inventive. London has taught me to think wider. To be more intentional, creative, fearless, focused, effective, free, competent, and curious. Maybe it’s my 30s, what I’ve accomplished in my career, or the fact that I can do a headstand now, but I feel more confident. I feel less shame than ever before. And that allows me to be more vulnerable.
We don’t always have the luxury of choosing where we will live next, by whom and how we’ll be influenced, and we often can’t predict what those effects will be. But I solemnly believe that plucking yourself out of your web (support network) every ~5 years is a catalyst for growth and intentional living. The hardest part about this is being able to find and build a community in every new place. But if we can do this, the entire earth can become our home. Like Hansel and Gretel, we can leave crumbs of love (people we love) in various place throughout the world. My second year at Burning Man, I looked at the Burner Map and realised that no matter where on the playa I was, there was always a friend a few beats away, should I need shelter or water, or a hug. The earth isn’t much different. Moving to London has meant that I’ve been able to light up more parts in the world where I can stop for a respite, a shared meal, or a hug. It’s a different sort of conquering. And it makes me feel like I belong. In fact, we all belong. We belong to the earth, and to each other.
Now it’s time to pop open a package of chorizo I brought back from Spain, put on the kettle for another cuppa tea, and start making my way towards that Saturday night wine bar.