London Musings Vol. III: On not mixing well.

You know that saying about oil and water?  It’s true.  Put them in a covered jar and shake.  The oil will separate.  It will find itself again.  It will not get lost in the water.  It will not drown.  It will rise up.

Allow me to ramble a bit.

I needed a bathing suit.

Firstly, I realize this is weird – it’s not April, it’s September.  But I’ve decided to give up jogging for the winter and start swimming because Le Puy has this beautiful new public swimming pool and because I have a terrible phobia of running once the ground’s gone icy owing to that injury I wrote about in my last post.  Still with me?  Good.

So I needed a bathing suit.  The problem of course, is that it’s late September in London and finding a bathing suit swimming costume is not an easy endeavor by any stretch of the imagination.  Off to Oxford Circus I went.

For anyone unfamiliar with London Town, let me explain:  Oxford Circus is the shopoholic’s equivalent of a highway underpass.  That is to say, it’s where they go to get high.  There are approximately one million shops along this street, from Bangladeshi sari shops to High Street chain stores to haute couture.  One can buy Swarovski crystals or sweatshop-produced luggage or perfume or a cheap dress or a very expensive one, indeed.  It is also home to a very large Marks & Spencers, from whence I sought to find a suit – which I did.

I do not hate shopping.  Particularly when I’ve got a little money and a lot of time and a really good girlfriend with both of those things as well, it is something I love to do.  It’s not the buying I like as much as touching the fabrics of dresses I can’t afford while we chat about life and love in little snippits…miniature conversations about quite deep things that ebb and wane like the tide of the ocean.  I like pointing to something I think is gawdy and overpriced while she shows me things that are stunning and perfect and only rarely in our size or price range.

When I want to have a trip like that, I do not go to Oxford Circus.  This was not that kind of a trip.  Oxford Circus is, in fact, a madhouse.  It is like the busiest malls at Christmas time.  It’s like the first day of the twice-per-year soldes in France. It is manic.  There are swarms of people flooding the streets and the shops seemingly all day every day.  Yesterday was no different.

I arrived with a sense of purpose, but it was trying.  Somehow when I’m in Manila, I feel exhilarated weaving in and out of the crowd.  Here, it’s just…different.  Having finished my mission, I headed toward the station, where several dozen people stood at its entrance, unable to enter until the crowd inside died down a bit.  It’s how they manage the flow of foot traffic here in the tube stations.  It makes good sense.

But standing there, with at least 150 people pressed together, exhausted from their day at work while more piled up behind us, while still others endeavored to get past, while two men on either side shouted at us to take the Evening Standard, a random hand jutting out from the crowd to take one off of them every 3 or 4 seconds, I began counting my breaths.  I looked down because up was too much.  As we made our way into the station, like so many cows prodded by our own needs to get here and be there and leave and come and follow and lead, my heart rate went down a little – still not back to normal – and I made my way onto the platform.

The train was packed as per its usual at rush hour, but arriving at the next stop, quite a lot of people got off, while others took their place.  I was standing between the seats and one opened up.  My feet weren’t tired – I’d not been on them all day rushing from one thing to the next, but I remembered how that felt.  I looked up and the first pair of eyes to catch mine belonged to a pretty woman of about my age with dark hair and freckles I generally associate with Scottish folks.  I offered her the seat my position gave me privilege to take, and the look of relief in her eyes brought a lump to my throat.

She took the seat, reached into her black purse and removed one black ballerina slipper from it, leaned down and changed out of her black high-heeled number and into the flat, bringing the former to her purse and removing the latter’s partner to do the same justice to her weary other foot.  And then she sat, staring into the dead space in front of her, as you do on London transport during rush hour, her shoulders hunched, her brow furrowed, but not with stress – with sadness.  There was a longness about her that broke my heart.

I relate this episode in my series of musings on this city with which I’ve had such a tough relationship because, like my last post and the one before it, I’ve again been reminded how well and truly incompatible we are.

The human condition fascinates me, drives me, debilitates me, eases and exacerbates my existential pain all the time.  I realize there’s something extraordinarily narcissitic about intuitive empathy, but it is among the many neuroses that make me who I am.  In my professional life, it has at times facilitated my career and at others led to my dismissal.  In my personal life, it has enabled me to develop friendships with people I count as family.  Friendships that have spanned decades and continents and have helped me find strength when I thought I had none left.  It has also been a determining factor in many friendships I’ve lost.

I’m emotional.  Sometimes too much so.  Not for everybody.  Not for everywhere.

But I am, quite simply, too emotional for this town.

I remember once, on a drunken evening of commiseration over the difficult life that is London, our dear friend D, who no longer lives here but did for more than a decade, was trying to help me to “get” this city.  He concurred that it was hard (as so many so often will).  But he likened it to a tamable beast.  A monumental obstacle that, once learned, once overcome, is empowering and exciting and invigorating.

In this town, we know people who work with homeless young people, people who work with at-risk children, people who work with disadvantaged families and women fleeing domestic violence.  We know artists and creators, people driven to improve their communities, people at once intoxicated by life and profoundly in control of it (or at least they’re great at looking like they are).  Some of them love it – they’ve bought their homes here, they’re raising their families here.  Others struggle, waiting for the opportunity to begin the next incarnation of their lives.  But they keep moving.  They keep doing.  And they do it with a hell of a lot more grace than I ever did.  They amaze me.

Once, on a particularly difficult day many years ago, a waiter in a restaurant where I’d gone to eat alone said, “You can’t live in London without learning about yourself.  For some of us, that’s really scary.”

Today my friend A, who will soon leave London after many, many years here, said this: “I’ve grown so much here.”

We’re leaving tomorrow, and I’m exhausted.  I’ve spent the past two weeks reminded that for all the struggle, for all those incredibly difficult days and weeks and months and years, so did I.

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8 thoughts on “London Musings Vol. III: On not mixing well.

  1. Wonderfully, beautifully, emotional.

  2. maxzografos says:

    i love your piece, and associate. One thing i’ve learned in my years in London is to avoid the tube, lest it make me feel sorry about my life and depress me. Also I’ve learned to avoid Oxford Street. I never go there, unless I really really have to. Went the other day for the Apple Store for example.
    My sister felt about London almost the same way you do. Hope you feel so much better when back in Le Puis!

  3. t.dot says:

    love this, ann. so much going on in that busy jam-packed world of yours! keep smiling and regrouping. love reading you 😉

  4. colgore says:

    I think you navigate the world with grace! Just look at your words. It’s always those frustrating, maddening, challenging places or experiences that help us grow. I’m glad that you at least made a little peace with the city in the end. You’re a strong lady.

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