Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Culture shock

I just got back yesterday from a fast and furious weekend (out Friday afternoon, back Monday morning) in London, working with a group of bodyworkers and therapists. It's a while since I was in London, though I spent a lot of years living and working there and know it pretty well. But oh boy, did I struggle with it this time ...

It all began pretty well, with an on time flight and a quick and easy train ride on the Stansted Express. With a bit of time in hand, I decided to make a pilgrimage to one of my favourite bookshops, Watkins Books. Great bookshop, crap location: in a small alley just off Charing Cross Road, and right by Leicester Square tube. Mistake. Sardines and strap-hanging in the tube I can cope with; I even managed not to disgrace myself with my ignorance of how to use my new Oyster Card. The West End crowds, however, were another story. From the moment I emerged from the underground, I was swept up into a gigantic and frantic crowd of people, all trying to get somewhere I didn't want to go. It was impossible to counter the current. I felt claustrophobic, disorientated. Everybody seemed to have an impossible number of carrier bags (crise? What crise???) or, worse, a pull-along suitcase - yes, my legs have the bruises to prove it - and the vast majority seemed interested only in pursuing their chosen course, utterly oblivious to the presence of other persons, who were simply pushed out of the way. I'm really not trying to offend anyone here and I'm sorry if you're a Londoner, but it was horrendous, shocking: as the French would say, hallucinant.

After an hour of this I wanted to cry and after two I wanted to come home. It was that bad. It continued to be That Bad, too, as I made my way up towards north London to join my group; I felt increasingly invisible, irrelevant, dispensable. I wasn't a person but a thing, an object. I was a grockle, a fish out of water. I wondered how people who live there cope without becoming depressed or homicidal: the noise, the lack of space, the all-encompassing concrete-ness, the traffic, the sheer number of people, the lack of politesse or just basic respect for others' needs and personhood. I guess you just have to close down, to put a wall around you, to grow a thick skin, to put yourself first. And there, of course, is the rub.

I did have a great weekend, working with some great people - one of whom was (and I almost wrote 'also' here!) French, another was also an emigrant, having moved to live and work in Ibiza. But clearly, with four more such weekends coming up over the next 15 months, I need a creative strategy, and one that isn't of the thick-skin-growing 'if you can't beat 'em join 'em' variety because that's just not me. So, any city dwellers out there got advice for a Pyrenean neo-paysanne?


Unknown said...

Love that word hallucinant. Can be a bit like that in Liverpool and Manchester city centres too! One of the lovely things about working on this brand is the escapism we can feel here in the office when we take a glimpse into the life of expats. How about take your own pull-along suitcase next time, then you have something to sit on in the tube!

Kalba Meadows said...

Yes, it's a great word, isn't it? But, you know, although it may not seem like it from where you are the life we immigrants (I don't like, and therefore don't use, the word expat because it doesn't seem in any way to reflect who I am) lead is not an escapist one. Living in France, as indeed in any country, has its own challenges; we've not come here to escape anything or for a rose-tinted fluffy existence, but to lead an ordinary life, struggling with the same things that French-born people struggle with: bureaucracy, work, frustration with our political leaders, high social charges .... and all the rest. I'm not in any way trying to offend anyone here, but there can sometimes be an incredibly stereotyped view of what an 'expat' (sic) life is about: enjoying endless leisure time, entertaining and being entertained, wafting around between Michelin starred restaurants, G & Ts round the pool ... and that can be kind of frustrating for those of us - and we are many - simply getting our heads down to get on with life. Yes, we have a beautiful environment to do it in, but make no bones about it, we're not on permaholiday; we live here, warts and all!