My first day back in London is spent sleeping and walking the streets of Brixton in a similar catatonic state. I feel isolated being back home, and even more so in a part of town where the taste, smells and sounds of the streets are far from what I know. And yet, as I relax into the unenthusiastic rain of an early September day, there is something reassuring in the isolation; it confirms the feeling I already have. The pound coin feels too heavy, the London accents shock me, I practise what I’m going to say in case I’m not understood, I even fall for the classic mistake of looking the wrong way when I’m crossing the road.
Dried fish heads, stalls specialising in African fabric, tripe, reggae CDs, jerk chicken, the errant green aroma of smoke on a street corner, intricate hair designs and large gold earrings. London is my home, but I don’t belong here. It is lively on the streets; a sister lays her brother across her lap and tickles his belly. He giggles, and laughs louder when he sees that I am watching. A man sells me two packets of bin liners, and thanks me for my business as if he means it. A vendor slips a silver watch over the wrist of a new customer. Butchers joke with a young apprentice, as he wipes his hands on his blood stained overall.
I am white, I think, as I cross the street. I walk through Brixton Arcade, looking up at the signs and rooftops with the obvious unfamiliarity of a foreigner. I can easily spot another foreigner abroad, just by the frequency with which they look at the tops of buildings. When you live in a city for a while, you cease to see that buildings even have a top floor; all that exists is the street level, until you travel abroad and start looking up. But when you start looking up in your own city, you give yourself away as a cultural refugee.
As I come back to London after two years in Vancouver, Canada, I have the self-elected exile’s plight of rootlessness. What do I expect when I refuse to stay in one place for more than two years at a time? Whenever I move to a new city, I am anxious to try each restaurant, immerse myself in my surroundings, meet people, join clubs, be outdoors, and be open to whatever life offers me. I had mistaken London for a place that I know, but is all new. All possible.