London, one of my friends here recently declared, is where dreams go to die. I beg to differ – for me, it has been where my dreams have come true in ways better than I could ever have imagined – but there’s no denying that it can be a tough city. For some, the pressures are financial: high costs of living (although lower than Sydney or Melbourne, I would argue) and a lousy job market. For others, it’s the seemingly endless winters.
For me, the challenge has been social: finding a place where I fit in, and fostering intimacies that are on par with those I built up over my previous X years of young adulthood in Australia.
My first six months here, I was plagued by anxiety. I’d go out often: to literary nights, on “friend dates”, to meet ups – one night, I even went clubbing at Camden alone, one night when Mr Musings was out of town to give a talk. Some of these worked spectacularly (the “friend dates”, for instance, which were wonderfully well judged by everyone who set us up), some weren’t worth my while (the meet ups, which too often seemed to be full of people who didn’t meet the community’s self-described criteria). But too often, I’d find myself exiting the Tube station, heart beating rapidly, knowing that once again I would be walking into a room where I knew almost no one. Where those I did know would have scores of others they wanted to talk to more than me, and where I would be an outsider.
Almost two years later, I no longer burst into palpitations every time I leave the Tube. Intellectually, I know I have plenty of friends here, a fact that becomes resplendent every time I organise a dinner or a picnic or realise it’s been HOW long since I saw person X.
But there is still a sense of loneliness that comes from not being part of a community. The thing I miss most about Sydney is not my individual friends (who increasingly scatter themselves around the globe), but that feeling of walking into an event or gathering and already knowing, if not everybody, then at least 20% of the room. More if it’s a house party.
London, for me, just hasn’t been like that. Or at least, it isn’t yet. It’s not that people are unfriendly, so much as it is that my friendships are separate, discrete.
There is this niggling part of the expat brain (or at least of this expat’s brain), that can’t help but wonder, “Have I fucked this up?” In plonking myself on the other side of the globe to most of the people who love me, have I necessarily diluted their love, whilst being inevitably locked out of the pre-existing intimacies of whatever new places I visit?
Much of the problem is internal, in my tendency to romanticise other people’s intimacies (perhaps a consequence of feeling like a genuine misfit when I was a kid). Other people get gooey over pictures of small children or perfect home decor. It’s photographs of friends sharing lunch, working on projects, or laying in the grass that tug at my heart strings. Even other people’s Twitter exchanges can render me wistful. Which is funny, because again, intellectually, I know that I’ve been fortunate enough to have had some of the most magical friendships around. And I also know from experience that that kind of intensely intertwined filial community can get nasty. Or at least messy.
Last week, I said goodbye to one a friend who has been one of my closest companions here in London. It was a surprisingly unemotional event, given the tone of this post. We agreed that saying “goodbye” would be too sad, concluding instead as “I’ll see you in December” – when I’ll be spending a few days in his home city. Nothing is forever, not even goodbyes.
And perhaps that’s the lesson, when it comes to what shapes friendships might take in a world/subculture/era in which it feels like everyone is constantly coming and going. Make the most of your time together for as long as your paths cross, and operate on the assumption that at some point they’ll cross again (even if they don’t, it’s still a much nicer thought).
And as they merge and depart again across time and continents, it will build into something beautiful. Just like it did with all those (or at least some of those) those people I met back in Sydney when I was 18, 19, 20.