To London Town, five years in

After three years of drafting, destroying what I’ve written and despairing, writing it again and repeating the process, I’ve cleaned up the first draft of my novel. It sat in a drawer for a while, waiting till I mull over the edits, growing as I jumped into NaNoWriMo last year to have better control over such a big creative project. It fluctuated with me, but I typed up the last word at the beginning of December last year. Though I wanted to share it with others, I was staggeringly insecure and kept on editing. Now, the first draft is on my desk, and I know it’s a continuation of a journey that started a long time ago. When exactly? The first time I told my Polish teacher I wanted to write? Or the first time I scribbled in my notebook and forced my cousin to take a look at it? The need to write was always there.

Without making this a once-upon-a-time genesis story: I dreamt up the plot ages ago. The year 2013 was coming to an end, and I went to bed early; in the morning, I had to make my way to a massive clothing store on Oxford Street I worked in at the time. My housemates giggled behind the thin walls at some TV show or a film – the Generation Rent knows that some characteristics of these old houses can be insufferable; one of the joys of sharing a house in London which I came to understand better every time I moved. A light sleeper, I kept on waking up, finally giving into the story that my mind constructed when I dozed off for a few hours. I’ve been there before: interestingly, the best ideas always seem to strike on the New Year’s Eve, and this time I had no time to repeat my past mistakes. Fairly confused, and too tired to grab my laptop, I picked up a phone and typed a simple outline into an app. It evolved since then, as it was a bunch of scrapped images featuring a mysterious character whose face probably reflected a person I looked at on the tube the day before. It was unrelated to me in any way so I had to back it up; as I researched, things amended themselves.

Finally, it felt like the right time: publishing it would be the ultimate dream, but the feeling of “I’ve done it” is the most precious outcome. When it comes to starting things, I’ve mastered the art; it’s always been a problem to carry on. This time, I finished something. It feels like a new era; a project I started and kept at it, completing it despite the breakdowns on the way.

Over eighty thousand words later, I wandered into a print shop to pick up a physical manuscript. I decided that I was cursed by my unbelievably short attention span these days, and I’d be better off printing it off and working on a copy away from a computer. Holding onto it, feeling all proud and writerly, I grabbed a coffee in a Pret nearby, because this is the thing that writers apparently do: they infuse themselves with caffeine. Basking in the sunshine, I was in Central London, a few steps away from the uni buildings that I spent three years in, completing my degree two years ago. Here I am, with a manuscript to check one more time, a stack of pages in my hands, in the city I always dreamed of.

It’s been five years since I arrived in the UK, and I’ll be securing my stay here in a few months – my life belongs to this bustling capital forever. I got a little nostalgic, cruising around Bond Street, smiling at the passers-by. A walk would be nice, I thought, for I hate coming home in the rush hour; I made it to Oxford Circus, then to Piccadilly, and then further down to Mayfair, looking at the mighty facades overlooking the streets, staring at the high-street shops. Look, Reserved, there it is. A Polish brand a working-class girl could never afford while I was still in Poland; it’d easily eat a third of my father’s pay if I decided to buy anything. H&M, bless the sales, cause I love me some fashion if I can afford it. Arket? Oh, it finally opened; I remember writing about it a few months ago, playing pretend with the magazine I co-founded like a seven-year-old who cut out pictures from magazines and collaged them along with her short notes. Hand on the pulse, trying to get to the places in the city I never thought of before. Jurassic Park in front of Hamleys, and soap bubbles floating around as always. Kate Spade – if I ever earn enough, I’d get myself a bag, I said ages ago; now, it makes me think of the founding designer, too. Central Picturehouse, the cinema of choice. Away we go, through the streets that are more important to me than details in the shop windows.

I thought about things as I walked, juggling my memories, and once again I repeated to myself that I love this city. I’m not afraid of sounding like a cheesy idiot; I’m an artist, after all, I’ve got a right to feel deeply like it’s written in some cosmic constitution, and I say: it’s a home I’ve been long looking for.

When things weren’t right four years ago, a lady who stopped me in the middle of the night on the Battersea Bridge (if you ever happen to stumble upon this, thank you!) took me with her for a cup of tea, listening patiently. She told me, “You’ve done a brave thing. You should be proud of yourself. If I can tell you something from my experience, I want to reassure you that it always gets better. You’ll find yourself, just hold on tight.”

Persistently awkward since 1994, holding on tight since 2013… but it eventually got a little better. Patience is a virtue, and as you grow up, you schedule things to anticipate them, which keeps you occupied. You wait for things as you get ready to go through ups and downs. I think of them as seasons, cause they feel like a perpetual cycle; it gets hopeless in the wintertime, but you know that spring waits somewhere around the corner. I’m still trying to define myself: as a writer, possibly as a filmmaker, and as a person in her twenties who has no slightest idea what she’s doing. There are things to fight; the imposter syndrome, the working-class shame of “never being enough” I’d internalised since forever – but there are solutions to problems buried deep within you if you open up and start working on them. You don’t have to replay them, you don’t have to reenact what you’ve already seen. You are who you are: a working-class chick from Radom, with tastes that range from cheesy to profound, and a head full of fears, worries and dreams, but you can learn.

My favourite customer, a regular that came into the cinema I worked in, a scriptwriter passionate about film and always suggesting the top picks to learn from, shared some advice over the counter, too. “Knock on the doors,” she repeated, “and when they don’t open immediately, stay stubborn. It’s waiting there for you, you just need to find your way in.”

And so I keep on knocking.

Rubbing shoulders (and elbows if need be, for I am seasoned now) with tourists and Londoners on Regent Street, I pondered over all the things I’ve experienced here. After such a long time, I just flick through the precious snapshots of moments which are dear to me. And there’s a multitude of these, flying up to the surface like the bubbles of oxygen in the endless stream of people. There’s a soul in the city, and we talked about this once in a writing workshop: the leylines, the history, the energy of the place. And for all I know, my soul has been captivated by it.

When I first arrived, someone else’s stories of glory made me feel like I had nothing to show for – no life experience for a nineteen-year-old from the middle of nowhere, that is. Fast-forward five years, and I know I do; what I bring to the table, and what happened to me matters.

I think of the first time my friend took me to Waterstones, a shop that I had no idea about. “Wait, okay, so you’ve been here for a month and you haven’t been to Waterstones. You’re studying English now. You’ll be reading a lot. You need to know what Waterstones is!” The first books I read in English, a strange combo of Douglas Coupland’s novel titled after the Smiths track and a biography of the Beatles. Chatting with security guards in Shoreditch when you showed up too early for something just this once. Endless energy drinks in the library, late at night, a fuel to get that textual analysis right. Last-minute changes to stories you wanted to submit. Frustration over grades; “I’m not capable of a first” like it defined me. Ambition built up by your companion; “actually, let’s do it” when somebody tells you that no one ever got a first in the module, you dive in and bring it back up like a proof of value.  These countless times I trailed into the lectures late because of trains – Oxford Circus crowds in the morning that are tough to handle when nothing helps you. Hangouts with friends in the cafes a few steps away from the BBC building, pointing fingers at it and convincing each other that’d be the greatest workplace to end up in. The first time I saw the Christmas lights and the decorations in Debenhams, even if I unpacked decorations for two days before and I wanted to postpone December until it felt right. A club in Piccadilly I got hopelessly drunk in, crying in KFC afterwards because of some guy I’m not even in touch with anymore. Such a London thing to do! Making it to Abbey Road, and taking a picture there trying to reassure myself that I can follow in the footsteps of my idols. The chip choices after midnight, a food epiphany concluded with drenching potatoes with mayo that felt like a discovery of a first-class delicacy. And burger sauce, why did nobody ever tell me about burger sauce?! “More sauce, please” ever since. Cigarettes smoked with friends, growing into a nasty habit that started compensating for everything with time. Yoga on a glass floor in Tower Bridge – don’t look down, but breathe and let it all go. Theatre shows, gigs, museums that I started to go to when I saved up some pocket money. Shutting the cinema down for the night while getting ready for a night out after work, because everyone knows that it’s only getting started after eleven. Snacking on taramasalata and bread while finding a Hollywood Road in Fulham that allegedly led to Hawaii (please don’t ask). A staff screening of Spongebob that no one paid attention to, and napping in the cinema seat, the screen all to myself, because I was too tired to go back home – note to self: it’s uncomfortable, don’t do it again. Singing Christmas carols on the street in Kennington, Silent Night in two languages at once, making a Christmas turkey out of a chicken. Backing up a friend in the Chelsea and Kensington Hospital after midnight to help her clear her mind, and seeing her relieved afterwards. Coming back from a music festival and boarding the wrong train back to London, ending up in Paddington like a lost teddy bear we all know, and finding my way to Richmond by falling asleep on every bus I boarded, then cracking the public transport (I got myself Citymapper since, and much less of the city feels unknown, from the south to the west to the north to the east) and throwing myself on the fresh sheets as soon as I got home. Celebrating the graduation of the older friends from the music academy; one of them came out to us that night, and we went around Soho to find a place to talk over beers, cheering him on. Searching for night buses, taking off my heels, walking barefoot after a long night, my mate cackling, “You’re a proper Londoner now, no discussion!” Plotting the world takeover with a friend, when she finished work and my last seminar of the day was over, wondering how to start a project of importance to both of us. Crashing birthday parties with your besties in Clapham. Camden at night. The neon-drenched café in Walthamstow. Discussing poetry that I scribbled without much ability to convey what I thought in Polish, learning to express myself in a second language, a word at a time. Finally, my own graduation that I skipped, because I worked in three places and was too broke to rent a gown; my wise older colleague and my Chelsea grandmother in a way, who was concerned I wasn’t going, telling me that if I changed my mind, she’d stand in for my parents and celebrate with me because I was a good kid that needed to be proud of all the books I read and then told her about. The travels and the returns, grinning at the border because I was home, enriched with a few experiences more. The first serious job, two years of trying out a new craft that I was never sure of being able to master – not that I ever did, but I sketch and play with Photoshop even if I constantly feel like an imposter. Two years of writing on the side and hoping for the best. Fumbling through my twenties and learning all along.

There’s so much more to this. It could make a memoir, a pithy compendium dedicated to an immigrant, that girl who’s stood in Victoria station looking around right now, and maybe it will, one day. It ain’t Flaneuse, and I’m not James Joyce with his Dubliners; I’d be a fool to assure my self-importance like that. But I can finish that novel. I can try to tell more stories, and maybe there’ll be the right time for mine.

If you know me, or if you happen to follow me on social media, you know that London Appreciation Posts™ are my regular staple. But every time, it’s an ode to the city that shaped me: I embrace the weird things, the scary things, the wonderful things about it. And day after day, it strikes me that it broadened my tastes, made me wiser, more independent, more open-minded, a little more confident. And in the future, it’ll help me grow, combat my insecurities, get to where I’ve always wanted to be.

To London Town, ladies and gentlemen.

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