Friday, December 03, 2004


london, originally uploaded by azurenath.

If I was in a bar, and someone asked me to graphically represent my transition from Belgium to London on a cocktail napkin, I’d scribble out the cell-reproduction diagram we first learned in ninth-grade biology. Wherein one pod splits into two, which split into four components, and then eight, and soon all hell’s broken loose, an orgy, bedlam. Except that, according to my dim memory, cells that reproduce in this way are exact replicas of each other, whereas my pods right now are in violent opposition, possibly on the verge of a fantastic implosion.

My time in Belgium had a pleasant monotonous quality about it: days talking to artisans, nights partying with Amélie. But when I moved to London I was so anxious about not having enough to do that I snatched desperately at every offered opportunity and now find myself trying to balance three jobs, two homes, and (surprisingly!) more than one friend in London. The other night as I was hurrying to meet people from Lecce in Notting Hill, the clouds parted like stage curtains and a perfect full moon shone down, a spotlight impossible to ignore. There was a time this summer when I saw the moon constantly enough to trace its progress, but the last time I’d noticed the moon, I realized with a shock, was the last time it’d been full. Funny how quickly we transition. Funny how fast we forget.

I’ve taken two positions here; one at a highly reputed British cheesemonger's, and one selling oils, vinegars and spirits at Selfridge’s. For the first I wear rubber boots, a clean face, and a canvas apron; for the second, head-to-toe black, makeup, an expressly bought black leather belt, and a subservient simper.

My first home is the warm and impish dwelling of a distant relative’s in Hackney, an elegant euphemism for ‘the ghetto.’ “Ooh!” Alisha said brightly when I told her the area code. “Murder Mile!” My second is the posh and brightly scrubbed South Kensington pad of an American family for whom I occasionally house-sit; their landlord is the Duke of Wellington. I asked the youngest son for directions to the video store. “Go right, once you leave the front door,” he said, pouring cereal into his bowl. “When you get to Chanel, turn left.”

You know, neither congestion nor commotion ever bothered me before; I’m a city girl born, bred, and proud of it. But after having savored the small-town atmosphere in Lecce and the countryside of the Ardennes, sometimes the dirt and smoke and bustle get to me; sometimes even the glitzy, glossy side of city life overwhelms. On my breaks at Selfridge’s I tear out of the polished glass doors, flee the constrictive cheer of the five interwoven pop melodies all blaring at once, the glitter, the fluorescent lights, the jingle of cash, the contrived saccharine “With what may I help you this evening, madam?” I sit panting on a fire hydrant, inhaling bus exhaust, feet tingling, hair tingling, brain dead. A tangle of people swirls around, shopping bags and briefcases coiled to their wrists. They file insouciantly, tin soldiers marching before a backdrop that upstages them: “Feed Your Addiction,” garishly scrawled, an ad for a new mall.

I participate in the façade, obviously. Am a cog in the Capitalist Machine, and a hardworking, effective one; I’ve been the highest seller most of the days I’ve worked. It may be my tendency, with which you’re all familiar, to chat up anything that moves/breathes. But it probably helps that I’m the only person for whom English is a first language. Young service-class London is an underworld I’m working on figuring out. The girls I work with are Polish and Bulgarian; elsewhere I hear Italian as well. Our managers are French. The janitors are, I think, South American, but they pull their caps down and don’t answer hellos or even holas. Let me emphasize. No one is English. English people can get better jobs somewhere else, I suppose. (The cheesemonger’s is different. But we’re paid over two dollars more per hour.) Young aliens can’t get work visas unless they’re enrolled students. School is expensive. Opening a bank account is impossible without proof of address in London, like an electricity bill, but no one seems to know how you pay an electricity bill without a bank account. And of course there are people like the guy with whom I interviewed for a cook’s job when I first decided I wanted to move to London. “We’re looking for someone to cook for us because all the food in London is prepared by immigrants. And you know how dirty those people are.”

I rebel against The Machine, if shiftily. “Crappuccino Cream Liqueur,” I write on one bottle and put it on display. After shifts I nick a piece of exotic fruit from the grandiose display next to our concession to munch thoughtfully on my way home. Exercises in futility, I know. But satisfying anyhow, in a really (really) petty way. I’ll write more about my other job in a future post. Am knackered, as they say.


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