It’s like being born again. With no artifice. No fanfare. The howl of burning rubber and the muffled sound of a flight attendant announce the start of a new chapter. I’ve shelved the previous one, twenty years of cute, harmless little events. None of that really matters at this point. There’s a new world, a new life ahead of me now.
The idea of moving to London came out of the blue. It was casually suggested to me by my brother one day during lunch and I decided by the time I left the table. I had just finished my basic studies and had no idea what to do next. All I cared for was making music, writing, and drawing. I wasn’t thinking about the future, which to me seemed vague and out of focus. I didn’t know how to make it more concrete. Back then the choices seemed limited to being a University dropout or joining the dole queue, neither of which were particularly appealing.
I was excited to break free and see the world. I was chasing something in a romantic, idealistic way – I longed for long drives past rolling hills and valleys, honey sunsets and starry nights. I imagined myself embarking on an epic train journey. But, at the same time, not the kind that involved backpacks and a bunk bed in a smelly youth hostel.
It wasn’t just nature and open skies what I had in mind. The big city offered its own form of wildlife, and that was the most appealing option of all. I was awed by the wilderness of London even since before moving here. I could sense its unseen influence upon me, the centripetal pull towards its centre, the strong life of the vast city magnetising me even from afar. The mysteries of the urban jungle; the noise, the chaos. The late night walks with music and fast food and neon lights flashing in the starless sky. The big city offers liberation, possibility, thrilling uncertainty. It opens up the door to chance – all of these otherwise far-fetched options and unlikely directions are instead right here for you.
I had never been to London before, and yet moving here felt no different than moving around the furniture in my room. As if nothing happened, I’m now kneeling on a dirty mattress in my tiny bedsit room, in the Staff House, right in the middle of Notting Hill. I meditate, or at least I pretend to. A hairy teenage monk with acne scars that are still sore. So far, London hasn’t quite been what I imagined but, for the time being, I’m enjoying just going through the motions.
I’ve plunged headfirst into this new life. There is a great deal of improvisation, and I’m finding my way around through dimly lit places. I’m also mastering a new language, both literally and metaphorically. I can’t have a conversation with anyone yet. I’ve thrown myself into the current of self-reliance and, so far, I think I’m doing ok.
There’s been no transition period. There was no planning ahead. I simply obeyed an exciting and perhaps foolish blind urge. Two weeks ago I was sat on my childhood bed playing guitar, my only responsibilities being to keep my bedroom more or less tidy and to be back home in time for lunch with my parents, no later than 2pm. Now I’m standing in the lobby of a central London hotel pushing around the suitcases of strange, rich people, the kind that I’ve only ever seen in movies before. But somehow I don’t feel misplaced in any way.
I don’t know how different my experience really is compared to others. I mean, of course everyone here in the Staff House turned up in London one day with a suitcase, like me. However, the reasons that brought them here in the first place is probably different. I’m not really here out of financial need. I guess you could say that I wanted to see something new. I’m on a personal and spiritual quest, trying to understand the world around me and find my place in it.
Sometimes I try to explain this to some of my fellow housemates, but they don’t seem to understand it at all. I don’t really know if I do either. I suspect they resent me a bit me for that reason. I’m by far the youngest tenant in the house. Most of the other tenants are 20 or 30 years older than me, grown adults who live by themselves in box rooms with barely the means to make a hot meal. Most are still here because they’re stuck in one way or the other. Some have even partners and children abroad who rely on a stable income. The hotel offers steady work and an affordable roof to their staff and, if you don’t mind the complete lack of mod cons, it’s not that bad of a deal.
The Staff House is like a small Tower of Babel dressed in a Regency dress. Spaniards, Italians, Poles, Algerians, Argentines, Hungarians, Romanians, Cubans al live under this roof. All expatriates. Catholics, Jews, Muslims, atheists, Freemasons. Housekeepers, handy men, porters, cooks. Unique people, talented people, most with a story to tell. Adventurers, fugitives, explorers, expert acupuncturists, masseurs, stamp collectors, one-eyed jockeys, quiet ex-cons, midnight bookies.
And yet, none of these people seem to regard London as their home. Even if they’ve been living here for 10 or 20 odd years. It appears as if no one is born here or plans to retire here. London is a new chapter, perhaps the gist of the story, but not where it ends. It’s a machine that gives you an opportunity, the chance to get back on your feet, forge an experience and then move on. You always move on. Most people’s goal is to make money fast and escape the grind. Whatever the reasons are, I feel like everyone is on their way somewhere, maybe on their way home, be that a state of mind or a physical place, or both.
I sort of found myself in London without having really planned it, but I don’t feel quite that way about the city yet. I don’t feel like needing a home per se, and I personally don’t have any sense of belonging to anyone or to my home country – at least not yet. I also don’t think much about the future. I’m here to try give myself fully to London, embrace London, and be a part of it as much as to make it a part of me.
Perhaps this key difference is what makes it difficult to build true friendships in the house, except with Bruno, the only person I’ve met so far doesn’t imagine himself living anywhere else other than London. And just like him, I increasingly find myself trying to avoid the other tenants. The first few days were ok. Pleasantries were shared on the stairs and along the narrow corridors. I had the impression that most tenants liked the novelty of a fresh-faced new arrival from friendly Spain.
But that initial, easy friendliness soon has now taken a more complex dynamic. It takes a certain kind energy to interact with some of these guys. There are a few other veterans besides Bruno, and you can easily tell who. Sometimes I see them, just as I suspect they seem me, as creatures from another planet.
The odder types, some of whom were especially friendly when I arrived, are less so now, to the point that they barely acknowledge me. One man is a particularly unnerving presence. I see him around work, but I can’t work out what his job is. I’ve never heard him speak or seen him interact with anyone in the Staff House, but every other night on my way to my bedroom I see him using the downstairs payphone. As I walk past him, I hear him speak very quietly into the handset in an unknown language.
“What a lunatic!”, Bruno told me the other night, choking with laughter. “That thing isn’t even hooked up!”.
There are other odd, silent men in the house. One of them, Jonas – who had lived here for years – was recently evicted following a bizarre incident. Jonas did nightshifts at the hotel, where he worked as a handyman. He was very short, dressed casually but very neatly, his t-shirts were always immaculately ironed and tucked in. He had neatly trimmed short hair and his pale skin was pock marked with acne scars. Two ghastly little eyes, devoid of any emotion or expression, were buried deep in his face.
He must have been in his late 40s, but somehow looked 20 years younger. He was really just a quiet, strange man who had been living in the smallest room of the Staff House for at least a decade. I learned recently that he hadn’t spoken to anyone for at least a couple of years prior to my arrival.
At first, I didn’t sense anything particularly threatening about Jonas, But I had noticed his tendency to conclude our conversations with an eerie parting comment, like “let’s be grateful for still being alive”, or “see you later… if there is a later”.
He turned up at my doorstep a couple of times, for no particular reason. I would open the door and find him there, standing on the doorway, staring blankly into the distance, one side of his face dimly lit, enhancing his acne scars. “Just checking that you’re okay”. One time he came to borrow a corkscrew, which he returned a couple of days later. That seemingly small gesture seemed to make a big impact on him. Every day, for the following couple of weeks, he would mention it in conversation. “Oh, and by the way, thank you for the corkscrew that one time”.
I soon found myself trying to avoid Jonas at work and in the House, even checking the window before going out to make sure the coast was clear. Seeing him – a small, erect figure marching down our dead end street in a very straight line, head fixed, staring blankly ahead, barely blinking – was enough to justify my avoidance tactics.
As the handyman of the hotel, Jonas owned copies of all the room keys, including those of the Staff House. Apparently, he’d become obsessed with one of the new housekeepers, a cheerful Polish girl who’d moved to the House a few weeks earlier. Jonas wasted no time in asking her on a date and didn’t respond well when she rebuffed his advances, escalating his pursuit and changing his shifts to coincide with hers so they’d walk home together.
A formal complaint to the hotel’s management followed, but Jonas’ exit was sealed by a final climactic event. One evening after finishing work, the housekeeper opened the door to her bedroom to find him sitting on her bed, carefully folding and tidying her underwear, which he had seemingly removed from her bedside table and spread across her bed.
Jonas was almost immediately sacked and thrown out of the Staff House. The housekeeper decided to leave. Bruno, who had detested Jonas for years, delighted in his expulsion and, accompanied by music, microwaveable dishes and cheap incense, the event is still a reliable topic of conversation and laughter during our late night sessions.
To be fair to my fellow inmates, Jonas’ case is the most extreme example of troubling behaviour I’ve so far encountered in the house. According to Bruno, who’s been here longer than anyone, Jonas’ is the first tenant to have been evicted for behaviour of this kind.
There are a few other odd, reclusive characters here with strange but ultimately harmless habits – Bruno being one of them – but, as far as odd behaviour goes, my favourite, without a doubt, is Giuseppe. The one and only Giuseppe.