It’s not until you move away that you realise how utterly bizarre the place you grew up is and how different life is elsewhere. Unless you choose to live in some kind of bubble, surrounded by people of your own kind, your brain will be rebooted. Which can only be a good thing.
The one aspect I have been struggling with the most since I moved here, and this is painfully cliched, is the food.
When mum’s food is not around anymore, it’s every man for himself. In the absence of a kitchen and even a fridge, I lead a sort of eat as you go lifestyle. Making my trips to the corner shop are more frequent than I would like.
Down at my local shop, the Algerian man behind the counter has already developed a sardonic rapport with me. As I walk in, he gives me a military salute, a scornful grin, and calls me “boss”. He’s always keen to talk about girls. Now and then, as I approach the counter to pay, he pulls his phone out and shows me pictures of different women – presumably people that he’s been dating, his trophies. They’re all ridiculously voluptuous figures with filled lips and tight dresses. I try very hard to seem impressed.
I struggle to find enough ingredients to make a meal in most shops, especially if they’re corner shops, and this one is no exception. As I walk past never-ending aisles of crisps, sweets, and chocolates, the cultural differences between the UK and where I come from become very apparent. Food does not seem to be a priority for people here. It seems to me that I come from a world where food is the reason people live, whereas in this country people eat merely as means of survival.
Back home, society revolves around lunch and dinner times – everybody schedules their day around these. Telephones stop ringing and it is considered rude to call anyone at lunchtime. Shops and banks close for a couple of hours for lunch and reopen later. The world stops all of a sudden, mid-way through the day, and everyone sits down and eats. Hot meals. On plates. With cutlery.
I remember vividly how the hours between 2 pm and 4 pm of any given day felt when I was a kid. It was like a big sleepy cloud fell over the city. All shops were closed, the streets went so quiet that, if I stuck my head out of the window, I could hear a symphony of faint snoring coming from all directions – the sound of the whole neighbourhood’s siesta time.
My family was no exception. At lunchtime, at 2 pm, we would all sit at the kitchen table to eat, rarely saying anything to each other, and always with the TV news on. My brothers would finish first. They would get up and, without saying a word, retreat to their bedrooms. My dad would take an hour or more to finish eating so he would always be the last to leave the table. He would then go to the living room and almost immediately fall asleep to the gentle sights and sounds of the cycle race on the television, like the Tour of France. There was always some cycling race on TV around that time. That’s why I will always associate that sport with that sleepy time right after lunch, to the point that, to this day, catching any of it on TV will almost guarantee to make me yawn immediately.
My mum of course would be left in the kitchen to do the washing up. Then, at around 4.30 pm, the world would wake up from that blissful estate of reverie. Activity resumed for everybody. Everyone went back to work, and us kids back to school until 6.30 pm or 7 pm. Everybody would be back at the table promptly by 8 or 9 pm for dinner (some families even later) and repeat the whole procedure.
That sort of lifestyle would be unthinkable here. Food doesn’t seem to play such a pivotal role in people’s daily lives. For lunch, people buy “meal deals” in supermarkets, which consist of cold sandwiches and bags of crisps. There’s hardly anywhere to have dinner past a certain time of the evening. Booze, which back home is always accompanied by free snacks if you’re in a bar, is consumed here in much larger quantities and on empty stomachs. I was offered olives in a pub recently, which I gladly accepted, without realizing that I was expected to pay for them. These cultural differences stunned me at first and still frustrate me, but I have had no choice but to embrace them.
Not having a kitchen in the staff house doesn’t help satiate my continuous appetite. The alternative to microwave meals, cold sandwiches, and plain bread is to walk ten minutes down the road to the Hotel’s Staff canteen where we can eat for free. We are strongly advised by the management to eat there as if they like to keep an eye on us even on our days off.
At the canteen, they will most likely be serving, of course, a chicken dish. It’s chicken every day here. Chicken curry, chicken stew, chicken and chips, chicken and rice, chicken burgers, fried chicken, chicken on pasta. Sad lumps of meat rest dismally under the heat lamps, on a counter so greasy you can see your face on it. If there’s too much leftover food, it is served later in the day or the next day, until it’s finished or until the chicken turns green.
Bruno goes to the canteen every day even on his days off. Giuseppe goes occasionally. I never do. I refuse to set foot at work unless I’m meant to. So when it comes to fixing my meals, I just get by with what I find in the shops. By now I’m used to having just one meal a day. Occasionally I leave shops in frustration, unable to find anything I want to eat.
Some late evenings I walk a few minutes down the road where there would often be a man selling hot dogs outside the Notting Hill Arts Club. After my hot dog, I see the world with new eyes. I walk down the streets of Notting Hill feeling a new man, light as a bird, and I’m suddenly filled with enough energy to walk for hours.
It’s Friday night and there’s a buzzing vibe in the street. Young couples emerge from the basement of the Arts Club wearing bright coloured clothes. The bouncer at the door checks someone’s ID with a machine attached to the wall. An older couple walks past them in a hurry, and they seem to be arguing as they are swallowed out of sight by the tube entrance. A man leaning against a huge pile of unwanted copies of Evening Standard smokes a cigarette. A tourist looks at his paper map and then looks up and around him, whilst his wife stands patiently by his side. A small crowd exits the nearby Coronet Cinema by one of the side doors. Outside the Churchill Arms on Kensington Church St, suited men with loosened ties and pink faces are drinking and laughing loudly.
If I ever believed myself to be a writer or a storyteller of some kind, I now do not doubt that I am one. And the best thing about it is – I don’t even have to put a single word down. I just walk around and observe, and I know that, at least for now, that’s all I have to do. I threw myself into the abyss of this city of 9 million people, not knowing anyone here, not really knowing what I’m doing, and barely being able to let myself be understood. But I know there’s a story on the making and even getting a greasy hot dog off some man in the street is way more memorable than anything I could be doing back home.
I walk around a lot. If I’m off work on a weekend, I put flares and my brightest paisley shirt on and go around the corner to Portobello, where I march up and down the road for all the tourists to see. Sometimes someone asks to get their picture taken with me. I unhurriedly browse the record stalls and the bookstalls and say hello to everybody, posing as some kind of local character, which perhaps I am.
Other days I head down to Brick Lane where I feel more like an outsider and therefore I adopt a more observant stance. Barely any tourists seem to know about Spitalfields and Brick Lane, which are frequented by what seems to me true young Londoners. The market consists mostly of cool independent record and second-hand bookstalls, vintage clothes, bric-a-brac, and cheap street food. The souvenir crap that dominates most of the south end of Portobello market is nowhere to be seen – here people seem to come for the vibe, to try some cool clothes, and to buy a rare record or browse old books.
These places are big celebrations of weirdness and creatives, especially on weekends. Unbelievably looking girls come out of every direction. Colourful eccentrics parade up and down the market, individuals of all ages representing every kind of urban tribe. Buskers play in every corner. Rastafarians wander around smoking big fat spliffs saying hello to people. A man wearing a 1940s style zoot suit and a hat walks in a hurry. A girl with purple hair carries a hairless cat. Queer couples hold hands.
I have never seen anything like it. I come from a world where no one can dress or behave in the way they wish to. Any display of eccentricity, however small, will be noticed, commented on or mocked. In Art school, this was a little different but even then people didn’t really let loose. They would still behave or present themselves in a somewhat self-restrained way.
Here, anything goes and no one cares. And maybe for that reason a point is being missed. Eccentricity becomes almost banal. I am still, however, so fascinated by this world. So much that I sometimes sit down on the pavement and observe everyone as they pass by. I wonder about their lives, where are they coming from, what do they do and where are they heading. They are, almost certainly, not bedsit people.
I start the long walk back home across London with the image of these individuals parading in my mind. I wonder how you meet these people. I imagine they are students or have real jobs or exciting creative projects. They probably live with friends in house shares full of books and records and character. In any case, this is the London that I sort of imagined when I came here and for the first time, I am getting a taste of it. It’s not so much that I want to be like them – I suppose what I long for is a circle. Be part of a scene.
I decided to go out more. I haven’t gone out to a club yet and I think it’s time. But where do you even start, when you don’t anyone and have no idea of where to go? Well, I thought I might as well begin locally. Tomorrow night I’m heading to the only place I know. It’s just across the road from my bedsit. It’s called the Notting Hill Arts Club.