Ben Ward

Unsettling

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London

I wrote this post before I came back to the US, which was two weeks ago. I didn't find a moment to publish it before I flew, and when I got back it got harder to edit and maintain the correct tense, so it got stuck. It's not completely coherent, but sitting here now, adapting back into San Francisco, it captures something that is probably important to be able to refer to. So, here it is, published with its initial draft date.


I've not really settled on how to refer to my extended stay in England. I entertained “exile”, and amused myself a great deal with the #freebenward hashtag, but as I established a new routine in London it felt less and less appropriate, even in jest. I've lived here for two months, surrounded by friends, family, a stable workplace in which I'm quite productive, all the things you would ever really want in life. Yet this is an interim fallback; how very absurd.

Survival requires compliance. I could have spent the entirety of 2013 bitterly loathing the situation, resenting separation from friends, possessions, and conveniences. Acting out an impassioned sense of entitlement to what I would probably describe as “my regular life.” Not that I'm wrong to feel entitled to that particular, foundational aspect to my existence, but perhaps I've unreasonably associated it with a place. I love San Francisco but what kind of home is vulnerable to the whims of an unsympathetic bureaucracy?

Compliance means establishing routine. Settling in. Living in London, as I otherwise might under other circumstances. Not fretting over events outside of my control. It means finding comfort in these surroundings, and shedding the playful idea that you can go for weeks pretending to be a Londoner. After Christmas I needed my space, I needed to decompress. This year I did that in London.

Amusingly, I think I've given more directions to people on the street now than at any time when I lived in London prior.

There's a head start, of course, dropping back into an old place rather than somewhere genuinely strange. I wrote before of my friends taking me to all the new places, but it's more than just specific socialising. Knowing the underbelly of London puts you a world ahead. London is dense, and I remember how intimidated I was when David and I first moved there in 2007. Big, grey, seemingly impenetrable. But that only has to be broken down once, and now I come back, carrying a prepared awareness for my surroundings, fluent in the transport network (now better even than before, with the London Overground completed.)

I've survived this exile by embracing it, rather than pointlessly protesting. If I've seemed complicit, or lacking in urgency, it's because I am. It's not that I don't bear a sizeable grudge toward US immigration, but it's necessarily deferred for now.


Ben! Sorry, I'm bad with names I know you're in here every day.

Something I found quite interesting is the difference of settling anew into London with all of the social norms that I've developed since moving to the US. I'm not as insular or timid as I once was. Where once I'd stare at my feet, I'm more willing to converse. For sake of small example, the above quote is from the owner of the Coffeeworks Project café in Angel, where I've picked up a very nice flat white most mornings for the past three weeks. I'm only pretending to be a regular customer; I'm only pretending to live in London; (Though I am really the Foursquare mayor.) Anyway, there I am, making conversation with the strangers I see regularly. Certainly I didn't do that when I moved to London the first time, and I didn't do it when I first moved to San Francisco (and as a result, there are some very weird sustained social scenarios in SF, such as the way I don't really know anyone who works in Four Barrel by name.)

You may notice that I didn't name the owner of Coffeeworks? This social fluency still has room to improve.

Regardless. The past few weeks have been an accelerated experience of what it might be like to move again. To land somewhere and resume life with me, as I am now. It's something I enjoyed, and something that I need to repeat if I'm to make more of my time living aboard. What's more, this is real life. It's not pretend. You can't fake settling in somewhere over months.


Two weeks ago I got the news that USCIS had finished their additional processing. They were finally ready for me to send in my passport for a visa stamp. That process, then buying a plane ticket and returning to Cambridge to see my parents and collect my belongings, would take a few weeks. Suddenly all the settling evaporated. The precious routine replaced by a rush: A rush to see and show gratitude to the many friends in London who accommodated my unexpected stay; a rush to structure my work into a state that can sit on hold for four or five days without disrupting me or my team while I travel back over the holiday weekend; a rush because in settling into a London routine, I've ceased to treat London's various attractions with any urgency.

There's the feeling of relieved elation to be going back. Of course there is. But also unsettled discomfort. A conflict. It's a bit like when you have to get out of bed at 4am, even though its for something you really want. You want to go, you can't be late, but you crave another hour in bed too.

Leaving this time doesn't come with a fear of the unknown, and nor is there a fear of missing out in London. These months have reminded me to not regard San Francisco and London as two separate lives, but just some settings of the same. Years of returning to visit has demonstrated that I can keep the people and happenings of London at least in my peripheral vision when I'm in the US, too.

I think I understand a little more so-called digital nomadism. In a positive light, I've spent quality time with a different set of people, while doing my job. At the same time I've been burned for comfortably regarding San Francisco as my home. I would rather be motivated by the freedom of travel and embracing a worldly life, than by keeping affections for a wonderful city guarded out of fragile presence.

I don't know how well that will work. But I'm not sure how else I'm supposed to approach it for now. Such is it to be unsettled.

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