I’ve lived on my street for four and a half years. That’s quite a long time by London standards. We moved house two years ago but literally just a few doors down. If I crane out of my window I can still see our old place. I don’t like the curtains they’ve put up but hey, we can’t all be exhibitionists.
As I drove the ten minute drive home from my best friend’s flat on Tuesday night it suddenly dawned on me how exceptionally lucky I am. I’d just spent an evening shovelling fajitas into my gob and snuggling under a blanket to tell tales about boys with my very best mate, just as we did when we were 14. Nothing had changed, except we were now talking about bosses rather than teachers and we were slagging off the gym rather than PE. It could have been 2002. And I’d like to think it could be 2032 too.
I’ve only driven to Katie’s a handful of times since she moved there as we usually meet out, so I’d put the sat nav on to guide me home. Half way through the journey I realised I hadn’t looked up at it once and I felt a wave of giddiness come over me. Do I know these roads now? Is this home?
I tried to pinpoint when I first felt “at home” in this part of the world, because for a long time I definitely didn’t. I used to painfully agonise about this lack of belonging. The fact that I was in a great apartment in a fantastic neighbourhood with a bloke I loved made me feel particularly ungrateful. “Some people don’t even have hot water!”, I’d tell myself through guilty tears. I had “no right to complain”.
But I would, of course.
“I’ll never make any local friends”
“I’ll never recognise anyone in the street”
“This will always be somewhere I just live at the moment rather than somewhere I call home”
“I’ll never have a dog”. (Okay perhaps that one is unrelated, but for a while I was convinced that having a dog would help me bond with my postcode).
Not long after I moved up here, my family moved 150 miles or so away from where I grew up. This only played to my ability to over-dramatise. “London’s not my real home and my real home isn’t my real home any more either”. (Cue incessant wailing whilst my then boyfriend – now husband – ponders what he’s let himself in for by agreeing to love me).
I remember speaking to my mum perhaps 18 months after they moved and she said she was still finding it hard that she could go shopping in her new “home town” and still not recognise a single face. My parents had lived in the same village for nearly 25 years. They, like me, were used to recognising EVERYBODY in the Sainsbury’s car park. Going to the market on a Thursday was like a five hour epic as you’d constantly have to stop to chat. As children my sister and I would actively avoid going because we knew it would take so long.
“Who is that woman? How do you know that old lady? Do you even know that man’s name? Please don’t stop to talk to any more people. No don’t chat to her as well! Why aren’t we at home eating crisp sandwiches yet?”
And the connections were always vague, “oh she used to come to my Step class in 1995” or “I have no idea who he was to be honest but I recognised his labrador”. But it was all wonderfully familiar, like watching an episode of Friends for the four hundredth time but still wanting to sit there til the end.
I was convinced I would never have that here. It’s LONDON for god’s sake. Eight and a half million people live here. 300 languages are spoken. There’s more than one secondary school and there’s more than one lady who’s only ever seen pushing a bike, but never riding it.
Slowly but surely though, it has become my home. Not the whole great sprawling city, but this little corner of SW6.
I do recognise people in the shops. I may not know who they are further than the back stories I’ve invented in my head, but the familiarity of their faces is still re-assuring.
I know the names of my neighbours. Not all of them, but some.
I sign petitions about local issues and get excited by ladies with clipboards, because I genuinely care about sewers and transport links.
We buy sweets for trick or treaters at Halloween and I know the kids that come to the door.
I’ve always considered myself a country girl at heart, but towards the end of Christmas I was dying to get back here. Not just for the peace and quiet of my own space, but for everything London. As we headed into Chiswick from the M4 I felt this real “oooooooh we’re home” excitement. I never thought I could feel at home amongst tall blocks of cement and yet there I was, giddy about giant billboards and bus lanes.
I think the fact that I work from home definitely compounded my problems in the beginning. I didn’t have “work mates” who might invite me out on the way home. I could have joined some sort of local club I suppose, but I didn’t want to. I was worried it seemed desperate. (And, ya know, I’d rather be moaning about having no local mates than dare to look desperate).
My husband has lived in this neighbourhood for 15 years, so this was very much just my issue. He didn’t grow up here but he has a good handful of life-long friends living within ten minutes of us. With time they have of course become our friends rather than just his. This definitely helped me.
I think spending more time on our doorstep has helped foster my love for this little corner of London too. I’ve lived and worked in various boroughs for more than a decade now so I do know London well, but I’ve felt more of a sense of belonging since spending more time locally. I’m not saying you should ignore the endless awesome things there are to do in a gigantic sprawling city, but by exploring all the local restaurants and shops rather than defaulting to going to Westfield/Soho I’ve definitely fallen more in love with the immediate area I live in. It’s hard to get me out of it actually.
Having my best childhood friend move nearby has definitely made the biggest difference though. It’s easily one of the greatest things that has ever happened. Being able to meet up briefly, without it being “a big thing” planned weeks in advance is positively luxurious.
There’s no real point to this post I suppose, other than to perhaps re-assure anyone who feels like they don’t “belong” in a new part of town that it does get better. It doesn’t happen overnight, but one day there will be this sense that everything has fallen into place. Whether it’s a waiter knowing your name, not having to check the parking restrictions on a random street or simply recognising a cat on your walk home.
I wish I had some more tips to share as I know how horrible it is to feel out of place where you live. But I really do think that time is the main factor. In hindsight perhaps I should have joined some clubs to accelerate the process but hey, I didn’t. (What can I say? I really really didn’t want to play netball). I did think about organising some sort of meet-up dinner for women in the area who felt similarly, but I never got around to it. (Quelle surprise). I still think it might be a good idea though.
Having friends and family to stay helped. I loved (and still do love) showing off local places to out-of-towners. I often think you don’t appreciate something until you’re ramming it down a tourist’s throat, so to speak.
And then the massive community that is THE INTERNET was also a huge help. There are always people to talk to on Twitter (ask any work-from-homer how important Twitter is and you’ll have them gushing for hours) and local blogs and news sites have been fabulous for getting ideas for things to do and places to visit.
I still, in time, want to live closer to family. I want a garden (IMAGINE HAVING A GARDEN) and I’ve spent so long saying that we’ll eventually live in Cheshire that I’ve come to believe it as gospel now.
We’ll be here for at least the next five years though. Probably longer. But that doesn’t scare me any more.
There’s no place like home, after all. And home is right here.