It has been a week and I’ve realized how much I’d forgotten about London. It’s all come rushing back. Something which has struck me is how the city seems to suffer from a persistent personality disorder. It doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It has many sides, all of them equally valid.
This great capital is leafy, polluted, beautiful, old, historical, seedy, squalid, tawdry, grimy, complex, intriguing, addictive, bohemian, cultural, artistic, ponderous, wild, etc. I could go on and on. There seems to be no end to London’s many sides.
In the last few days I have seen its extremes close up. There’s nothing quite so depressing as going to visit a local council office. It’s right up there with getting your tooth pulled in a Third World country without anesthetic. On Friday, still feeling jet lagged, I set off for Haringey’s youth and children’s centre to discuss getting a school place for my oldest child, who will be 6 in August.
The journey doesn’t start out well when I get lost in the thick, concrete forest that is Wood Green. If you know nothing about Wood Green, its name would give you the impression that it was a rather pleasant, verdant place. Far from it.
Wood Green should really be renamed Horrid Dream. It’s a vision of hell, I’m sure, if you think hell is a bunch of tacky shops strung together. There is also the local mall, a place that looks like it was constructed by an 80s heroin addict suffering from halluncinations. Even someone who loves shopping as much as I do can’t quite bring myself to go there – the place makes your heart contract.
Away from the tube, things get a little better. I pick my way through the wet pavements littered with garbage and find a place that I thought was Haringey’s adminstration building. It turns out to be connected with Haringey but not where I needed to be. So off I go again towards the tube and to my destination, a huge nonentity of a building with automatic doors that are being blocked by a couple of strollers and tired-looking mothers.
It’s shabby inside. Old chairs with their seams splitting sit by the entrance. A man who takes his job too seriously reprimands me for leaving the Raging Bull, who is fast asleep, in her stroller by a pillar.
‘What are you doing?’ he barks at me in a thick African accent.
‘She’s asleep and I thought I would leave her to rest where she is out of the way.’ I’m not relishing the prospect of pushing the stroller through a long, narrow line hemmed in by an elastic cordon.
‘You can’t leave her there.’
‘But I can see her from where I’m standing,’ I protest, feeling like he is calling my motherly judgement into question.
He proceeds to tell me that there are crazy and unpredictable people around here, any of which might try to whisk the Raging Bull away from right under my nose.
‘Where I come from,’ he continues, ‘children are looked after by everyone. But not here. Not the same here.’
So I’m ordered to sit down on a sofa next to my sleeping toddler. He’ll call me when it’s my turn to speak to someone behind the reception desk. This makes me feel uneasy. Everyone else is standing patiently, and I’m singled out like an invalid or someone too good to wait her turn in line.
When we leave the building I squeeze antibacterial gel on my hands. I imagine germs following me out to the street. The bus looks like a breeding ground. I’ve become so American again, I think.
On Sunday I find myself without kids. I take a long walk to my ballet class through some of central London. It’s not raining and the walk is enjoyable. It takes me a moment but I remember how London is interconnected. I stumble across a huge parade with people, all Italian, in Christian costumes enacting different scenes from the Bible. It’s totally surreal and unexpected. I get lost in the throng for a moment and the sun peeks out from behind its grey shroud.
This is what I loved about London – its unpredictability. I buy the Sunday paper and stroll to the shops near my new flat. This is the London I could get used to. Today, though, it rains all day and I feel pissed off with it again.