Starting a new life in London, as a parent, requires a lot of physicality. The first year was all about the endurance of my legs, my shoulders and arms. My new life felt like a triathlon practice. At night, my muscles hurt; I had cramps in my calves. I couldn’t stretch properly in bed, because I shared it with both of my children. I needed regular massage, like an athlete, or a ballerina. I was neither; I was only a mother, a nobody, really, yet I was everybody and everything to my children, which was taxing, but left no time for sadness, for thoughts, except for the most basic thoughts of acquiring new facts and tools for survival.
We were living in a service apartment high above the polluted, noisy Sloane Street. Un-rooted we hung in the garage-smelling air pierced by shouts in languages we couldn’t understand, above boutiques and double-deckers stuck in traffic.
‘How do I meet people in London?’ I wondered, switching on the TV, regularly, first thing in the morning. ‘How do I meet the kind of people I want to become friends with?’
According to the morning TV, the government here always issued warnings. Black Ice, for example. Black Ice!!! – in a red triangle, in black letters across the screen, followed by black exclamation marks, yes, plural, yes three of them. I thought that Black Ice was a politically correct, 21st century’s name for Black Death. It was just slippery pavements.
‘Yellow warning for rain!’
‘No, actually, We Are In Drought!’
‘Meningitis C! In London’s parks’ playgrounds!’
But after a true horror, like the attacks of July 7th, everyone was supposed to carry on as normal.
We came to London in 2005 because of my husband’s job. ‘Only one year,’ he said. ‘Maybe a year and a half, possibly two.’
I was still breastfeeding my daughter. My son had just turned 7. Back home he’d only be starting school, but here he was placed in year 3. He didn’t speak any English and had no concept of math except addition and some subtraction, so after his first day of school he told me that, in London, five-times-two wasn’t seven, as I’d taught him, but ten, according to his math teacher. ‘Oh, boy,’ I thought, ‘it’s good we’ll be here only for a year.’
‘Don’t worry about maths,’ I told him. ‘You just learn some English, baby.’
But we’re still here, and it’s 2014. This kind of return-self-delusion probably happens to most people who come to London for only a year, possibly two. How can this city stand it? Because everyone has to obey its rules. As simple as that. The realisation that I only had to obey the rules and nobody would violate my rights kept me going; it made up for the initial lack of friends and babysitters.
I loved the pedestrian crossings where a pedestrian really was the king; I loved the queuing. I loved young English boys with their easily blushing cheeks, broad rowing-team shoulders, and hair neatly combed and parted from left to right. They always let me go first, made way for me, and silently got up from seats in public places, for me.
Apparently, they also liked adventure. And many times, their young lives were ended prematurely because of this love for adventure. Same with young English girls. They were too fearless, foolishly un-paranoid (and not properly dressed for this climate). It seemed that even motherhood couldn’t make them paranoid. I didn’t understand them. They had everything – why risk it? But that was the point.
I, who had come from a country torn apart by the late 20th century civil war and genocide, I hated adventure. Before that war, our childhoods were basking in the warmth of community, true – we were the product of Mediterranean spirit and the hands-on Mother-state – but there was always the sniff of cruelty in the air. Why, even the snowballs that were thrown at us, girls, used to have stones or glass hidden in them. Fortunately, it rarely snowed in my hometown. But, like with animals: everything unusual made our young males go wild. So now, change gives me migraine. I love routine.
I was surprised to find out that people considered me brave for diving into a life where, at first, everything I’d achieved thus far would be erased; and then I’d have to create again, from scratch, in another country, with small children and a mad genius for husband.