I have never spent so much time in a city. I am constantly aware of the presence of others when I walk on the street at all times of day. The streets are long and intersect in an endless web that seems to go on forever. It is inviting at first, creating endless possibilities in my mind. There is energy that feels like something extraordinary could happen at any moment. There are lights and signs for food, drink and entertainment elsewhere. Shows, shopping and travel gleam in the eyes of newcomers. Everything is accessible — to those who can afford it. After weeks of routine and exploration I find repetition that simulates peace. I take the same streets constituting an eight-minute walk from home to class.
Then I find out there is nowhere to hide. Solitude is not welcome in the city where the day is never done and work never ceases. Sounds from outside invade even the most closed and airtight spaces. Neighbours are present on all sides making themselves a part of your business. I try to take walks at night to feel at home and channel the tranquility of a simpler place. All I hear are sirens and cars flashing by. I feel the smoke of a thousand cigarettes burn my throat and eyes as I walk towards Brompton Cemetery. It is the one quiet place I have found where no one dares to yell or talk too loudly. They have locked the gates by the time I get there, but I can see the domed building in the centre and wish I could sit on the steps for a while by myself.
I see people suffer the effects of the city far worse than me. I see a man on the street one night as I am walking back from Notting Hill. His legs are wrapped in a dirty blanket and his back rests on a newspaper stand. He sits on a bed of Evening Standards from that day to stay dry. His hat is askew and his hands are buried in the pockets of his worn and faded black jacket. He looks at the ground with a blank expression, waiting for commuters to cross his path on the sidewalk. I realize I have passed him by before and remember that I haven’t given him a single penny. I reach in my pockets, knowing I have nothing but my keys and tube card. I dread passing and receiving a look of disappointment. He asks in a whisper as men and women stride by without a moment’s hesitation. I look at him and nod. An attempted apology and sympathy all in one, definitely not what he was hoping for.
I see men and women on the tube with packets of tissues and umbrellas they are trying to sell. They hold signs talking about their starving family and rarely speak. When they do speak, it is quiet and they never share eye contact. If they receive no response they move on or just stare ahead solemnly. Women sit outside of stations on cardboard with hoods and coffee cups. I am surprised by how many people I see on the streets walking home from internship gigs and night walks. I only have small change to give.
I hear the sound of hammers and drills on the roof as I wake up every morning. They have been working my building for about three weeks and there a no signs of completion in sight. The construction crew set up scaffolding outside of my window yesterday. I enjoy living here, but I am constantly reminded about the bitter realities of the city environment. I have it far better than many who live here, but I miss simple pleasures of home. I miss the sound of crickets, the quiet of a lazy afternoon with no obligations, complete dark and stillness at night, feeling clean after wandering in nature and seeing the faces of friends and family.