My city, my self

The clouds are lower in London. Their snugness comforts me—like the crispness of accents in nearby conversations, and the orange glow of the street lights. I feel a primal sense of belonging there that I get nowhere else. Comfort and anonymity in its endless crannies and cobbled streets, askew with history; in its pavements heaving with people from across the world, who I skirt with the earned irritation of a local; in the red buses and firefly-like yellow lights of taxis; in Hyde Park’s vivid grasses and tree shadows cast long by the low December sun. 

To grow up in a place is to leave traces—you brush against old selves whenever you return.

I took the Piccadilly line coming in from the airport on Boxing Day. As the first tube I used during early explorations of the city as a cautious teenage, its royal-blue trail on the map still gives me a sense of security, a point of reference among the tangles of red, yellow, brown, and black. When the train pulled into Hammersmith station—which I used to visit every day, commuting to and from my uptight girls’ school—I sensed my 12-year-old self waiting on the platform. As the doors hissed open, I watched her stand, self-consciously, next to her best friend with her loud rainbow-printed socks, big skirt, and platform shoes. 

The next day, body and brain heavy with jet lag, I took a bus past where my family used to live in a quiet cul-de-sac in the southwest. I filled my ears with Oasis’s crooning, snarly voices and melodic guitar riffs—Britpop is still the genre I most associate with pure, untainted feeling—and settled into 33’s cozy rumble. Unarticulated and inarticulable sweeps of desire and anxiety flowed over me; teenage flavors that felt strange, yet so familiar, to the 23-year-old I am now.

As a child, I knew London only as discrete islands of familiarity, connected by limited routes—certain stretches of pavement that were deemed safe, or views from the car window as I was shuttled from place to place. I felt at home in the sandy-colored bricks of my neighbourhood, the enclosed grounds of my schools, my best friend’s garden, or the park my parents dragged us to for walks on the weekend.

The map of my childhood self looked similar: a handful of identities I inhabited most easily, with only a vague sense of how they related to each other. The student, a hard working know-it-all who felt deeply validated by praise from teachers and peers. The controlling big sister. The horse-lover, who lost herself every weekend in long gallops through stubbly fields on her pony’s soft back. The Neopets fanatic, who created fantastical characters and avatars online to express those facets that didn’t seem to fit in day-to-day reality.

I began to venture to new parts of London as a teenager, invitations from friends nudging me into the unfamiliar. Destinations entered the repertoire: Central London. Camden. Brixton. Still, I always travelled from one place to another warily, without a sense of how these places fit together as a geographic whole. My mental map continued to have gaping holes; parental restrictions and my own fear preventing the aimless wandering that would help fill them.

As I saw more of the city I also stumbled upon novel parts of myself—like an awareness that my clothes could signal who I was, or wanted to be. A yearning for the artless confidence of those thin girls who smoked cigarettes, drank Bacardi Breezers, and cavorted with boys. An overwhelming awkwardness and anxiety in social situations, that I assumed I was alone in experiencing.

It’s hard, now, not to see the many parallels between the relationship I have with London, and the one I have with myself. On this most recent visit I walked with confidence and a sense of direction; able to easily and nimbly navigate the various tubes, buses, and streets. My iPhone didn’t work—no Google maps—but instead of feeling adrift, I trusted my wits and wander where my feet will take me. (Though I did make the occasional sheepish stop into a Starbucks for wi-fi). The wary, vigilant mindset ingrained into me by my worried father—that around any corner there could be a mugger—was still there, but I was able to put it in perspective. Fear no longer defined or limited me now that the city’s structure, and the people in it—their lives, their motivations—weren’t so mysterious.

Whenever I encountered remnants of my younger self, and felt them chafe uncomfortably, I tried to grasp and examine them; to find their connection to who I am now. My adolescent shaky self-esteem bubbled back up as I walked along Kensington High Street near my old school—a sense that I’d never be as beautiful or attractive as the waifish London girls—but I suddenly was able to see it as an old symptom of something I now recognize and try to embrace. My tendency to compare, to ruminate, to see the world in black-and-white, will always be a feature of my inherently reactive and anxious consciousness—but I can choose to override it. It felt healing to have a language and a framework to integrate those once-disconnected teenage experiences, to have them confirm the sense of who I am, rather than undermine it.

tubemap

To form a personal identity over time, we must grapple with the many factors that contribute to who we are: the DNA curled up in our cells, the cultures we bathe in, the personal experiences we accumulate. Certain aspects of our biology—like the physical locations of London’s palaces, bridges, and parks—are fixed. But the paths we take when we move between them; and our understanding of how they all fit together as a whole, evolves.

I’ve still barely scratched London’s surface—as cities go, it is particularly vast, dense, and complex. Every new corner reveals unseen stately terraces or colorful mews houses; new blue plaques tucked away among bricks and vines, signaling deep intellectual and artistic veins still waiting to be explored. But now, I have a framework. From Notting Hill to Kensington, Soho to Mayfair, Barnes to Sheen, I can navigate trusting intuition and curiosity rather than fear. Like my own skin, the city feels, more than ever, like home.

 

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