Four years in London

“As foreigners we can ignore all those implicit obligations which are not in the law but in the general way of behaving.” Michel Foucault, “An Ethics of Pleasure,” in Foucault Live (372).

The freedom I felt when I first moved to London was the freedom of not being known, the freedom of not being understood – either in clumsy schematic terms (the way people think they can read people they don’t know) or with laser-sharp acuity (class, region, town, origin, accent, slang, education). I floated around London those first few weeks, in love with where I was and how I could interact with people. Nobody knew who I was, culturally speaking, and it felt outstanding.

It retrospect, though, that time was full of painful moments. I remember inviting people I’d just met to a housewarming party. One couple in particular made such able, gentle conversation that I wanted them at our housewarming party more than any others. One was an artist and the other was an academic. How nice, I thought. This is like the West Coast, not New York. (I’d just moved from New York, where bursts of kindness are common but friendliness is typically seen an alien.) People are far friendlier than their reputations in London, I thought.

But then none of them came to our housewarming party, and in time it became clear that nobody invites people they’ve just met to their housewarming parties. Inevitably, I feel some shame now when I think about that encounter and a few others like it. I was not behaving like a Londoner.

What happens when we stop being fully foreign? The freedom to ignore implicit obligations – or the freedom to not even know that they exist – disappears when people decide to stay for a while, or for good, in a new place. When people stop being foreigners and become immigrants or expats – the choice between the two determined by what is legally and culturally possible as well as personality among a host of other things – implicit obligations can no longer be ignored.

And by the point at which they can't be ignored, the vexed, bruised foreigner-turned-resident will probably have developed a different mindset. She will have learned to avoid the gaze of their next-door neighbour in the morning; he will have felt, authentically felt, the horrors of queue-barging. The resident will have become, possibly without perceiving it, a different person.

Recently I ran into the artist-academic couple in the very same pub where we’d first met, at a get-together hosted by the same mutual friend who first brought us together. It took me a few minutes to recognize them. A flash of annoyance, a memory of rejection passed through me – nothing big enough to spoil a nice evening of conversation. And then, as the evening went on, that feeling dissipated without me even realizing it. Later, after I’d made it home, I understood why. With the advantage of four years of living in London, with the benefit of cultural context,  I was able to come to the conclusion that they weren’t my kind of people at all.