Perhaps it is because a most autumnal mix of elements have converged upon this mid-October weekend— chilled sunshine, cranberry colored leaves that fly into my wool scarf, dinners of root vegetables and lunches of squash soups — but I am finally, gradually, beginning to settle into my life here.
I am now a South London girl. I live on a quiet street called Lulworth Road in Nunhead, a place that until last week I had never heard of but am now starting to embrace.
My neighbors aren’t the cool kids I imagined; Carol lives in the flat below. She’s a 60s+, London good ol’ girl, who sounds and hacks like she’s accidentally left her head in the fireplace all her life. She owns a Staffordshire terrier puppy named Blue. Most mornings I hear their familial banter: Blue’s barks and Carol’s congestion. Carol also thinks chubbing-up is a synonym for locking the door. She hangs out with Phil, the Indonesian guy who lives next door. “There’s just one thing you need to know about me,” Phil said from behind his fence, his eyes redder than the most hardcore stoners I know. “When I play my music, I play my music.” I found out what Phil meant the next night when reggae pulsed so loud I had to go outside to make a phone call.
Nunhead took me by surprise. There’s nothing posh about it (not even nearby, lovely Dulwich can influence the area), and living here has forced me to quickly take my ideas and memories about London off the ornate pedestal in my mind. Don’t get me wrong; London is quite a special place, but “place” is relative. Columbia is quite special, and Kansas City is too.
I was spoiled this summer, living in a silent woods. The noise of Central and the grime are difficult to accept. After a week of no hot water, the boiler was finally repaired. I took a long-awaited shower, and afterwards, when I ran a swab around my inner ear, the wax came out black. My snot is black too. My lungs crave a tree-filled green, but my inhaler does the job for now.
Life outside of Central London, though, is quiet. The soundless route home from Nunhead Station is scattered with murmurs emerging from the off-license and the protective barks of pitbulls. I get nervous and walk with the four keys I use to open my door pointing outward. In weak moments, I think about buying a small bottle of aerosol hairspray because carrying mace is illegal. But I also know that if the streets were loud, I’d feel the same way. I remember being nervous in Columbia, and acknowledge that the night changes any walk home, not just my 5-minute journey to Lulworth Road. Things will get better, but at the moment I am envious of the 10-year olds who strut like they own the neighborhood and possess the street smarts of legendary mafia members.
The kitchen window frames a dark green vista, and at night, the train that runs to and from Nunhead silently snakes its way up and over the horizon. Connected train carriages a darker shade of black than the midnight sky encase amber rectangles of light that run every 15 minutes but never make a sound.
Besides my classes, everywhere I’d like to go is about a mile away, and on these rare, rainless days, I walk briskly down Queens Road, past the chicken shops, fishmongers and unisex salons, continuing toward Peckham High Street, where I walk by the post office I got lost three times trying to find, and then onto Camberwell, where I can order a soy latte at the South London Gallery and check my e-mail. Although Ragtag/Uprise will never be replicated, the café called No. 67 in South London Gallery is as close as I’ve gotten to finding a non-library venue for working. The food and coffee is comparable to my stateside favorites, and instead of watching a movie, I can walk through Tatiana Trouvé’s exhibition of subtle sculptures and architectural paintings.
The excellent people-watching affords me ample opportunities to be distracted, but on sunny afternoons I would much rather take a long time to get a little bit done than fashion a chair out of blankets in my seatless Nunhead flat. Things will come together. I should probably be a little more patient. And, you know, have a little faith.
A friend told me that no matter who or where you are, everyone goes through certain stages of culture shock. He said it was perfectly normal for me to feel as homesick as I do. “It will get better,” he assured me. As the days creep by (this week has whirred past) I am no less overwhelmed by my life here, but the uncertainty that has constantly run through my mind is slowly moving away from “What have I done?” to “What shall I do today?” I am happy to have a little enthusiasm on my side.