Essays That I Wrote That No One Will Publish, Part XXXVI

The title is a bit of a misnomer, actually, because I did basically find a home for this, but then decided it wasn’t really a smart placement, for political reasons (how coy!)  But I decided I like some parts of it, so I figured you might too.  ENJOY!

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In the weeks leading up to our move from Brooklyn to London, I told anyone who asked (which was everyone) that I was not nervous one bit about relocating to a foreign country. What was there to be nervous about, I argued. Globalization had ensured that basically all major cities are the same, and in this one, they spoke English, to boot. If anything, it wasn’t going to be different enough, I worried privately. Perhaps we should have lobbied my husband’s company for Hong Kong, or Paris, or Sao Paolo.

But then, the moving debacle happened: about an hour before we were scheduled to move into our new apartment, the broker called us. Our landlady had had to return to Dubai on an emergency, and hadn’t been able to get all of our personal stuff out. Perhaps we could move it to a storage unit and send her the bill? Upon arrival, I surveyed the scene. Her personal stuff was everywhere: mothy wool sweaters packed into closets that we’d been promised would be cleaned out, children’s drawings stacked in cupboards, half-filled bottles of spices lining the shelves in the kitchen, a bucket of dirty water in the bathroom. The landlady herself was unresponsive, and when we expressed our concern to the agents they seemed eager to wash their hands of us, explaining that it wasn’t their job to do x or y (what it was their job to actually do, I have yet to fully understand.) The bottom line, we were told, is that there was nothing we could really do but pay to have her stuff moved out.

I’d dealt with my fair share of shady people throughout my adult life, realtors not least among them, and though the experience was never enjoyable, I had always been able to speak up for myself and then go on about my day. It’s understandable that a dismal start in a new home would throw anyone, but I was surprised by how totally powerless I felt in the situation. This sense of paralysis trickled down to even the most basic tasks, including those I was accustomed to and which I’d executed easily back home. For example, grocery shopping. Where was the nearest grocery store? Did I need to tip the person who packaged my groceries? For that matter, did one tip anyone here? If I bought a bunch of apples and found a human finger inside, could I take it back, or was there some secret British law that protected the apple farmer over the consumer? For that matter: what was an apple, and what was money? Too embarrassed to ask questions that would surely be seen as elementary, I found myself wandering aisles examining bottles of olive oil, wondering to myself if perhaps “olive oil” didn’t mean something completely different in England than it did at home. Because after all, if “I’ll move out my personal stuff” meant “Please watch over the leather handcuffs in my nightstand drawer” here (you read that correctly), then what fresh hell was this, anyway?

The pall began to shadow every aspect of my new life, and I spent increasingly more time aggravated with myself for being so thrown, for taking on this new persona that was so resigned in private and timid in public. I began to wonder whether or not I would have reacted the same way in New York. Would a spat with a landlord there, for example, have rendered me incapable of buying a book, or receiving a package, or finding the closest dry cleaner and actually bringing my clothes there? And that’s when it hit me that I had completely underestimated the sense of vertigo one develops after moving far away from home. I had expected to adapt seamlessly to this place, but I hadn’t given the place credit, or myself leeway for being human and, ergo, struggling with change. Even when your new city seems on the surface to be practically identical to your old one––a sprawling urban center with subways and Starbucks and beer-drinking yuppies––there are these tiny discrepancies, sometimes virtually unnoticeable, that can make you feel like you’re no longer the master of your domain, and not in the Seinfeld-ian sense (no one gets Seinfeld references in London, to add to the opportunities for miscommunication.) Your foundational knowledge begins to feel sieved, and your confidence can crumble as a result. And without a network of trusted resources, both human and bureaucratic, to help you navigate the new landscape, it’s easy to start to feel like you just can’t do anything, and couldn’t recruit any allies even if you wanted to, your cultural and linguistic fluency so desperately lacking. I remembered an essay I read some years ago by Olivia Laing, a Brit out of place in New York, on the way the socially adrift tend to become “less adept… at navigating social currents.” Upon re-reading, I nodded to no one.

I wish I could say that the epiphany renewed my tenacity in an instant, but I’m thinking that’s something that’s built up over time, with every bottle of olive oil purchased. But for the record, olive oil means the same thing basically everywhere, and leather handcuffs are never your responsibility.

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