You do not need to travel across the Globe, to experience culture shock. It can suddenly creep up on you where you least expect it. Just a few hours away from where you have spent the last eighteen years. Habit can turn on a sixpence, from stable friend to lurking enemy. Habit is an addiction with painful withdrawal symptoms.
Silly, superficial things are suddenly making your day-to-day life a misery.
A bed at odds with the shape and nightly movements of my body, from which I wake up far from ready to face another day of novelties. Sheets with an unfamiliar texture, that my skin rebels against. I have complained about my unyielding London futon for many years. Now, in this far better bed, my body suddenly whinges, “better the devil you know.” Habit.
The silence, at night. Listening out for the odd car, in the distance, longing for something to break the deafening quiet; for a lullaby of airplanes, road traffic or even the neighbours’ TV, to ease me to sleep. I remember that it was partly the constant London noise, that drove me away. Habit.
Shops closing at 5.30 p.m. I suppress a giggle when the sales assistant tells me. I stare. She is serious. I rush through my purchases, acting like the spoilt Londoner that I am, as though the early closing time is there with the sole purpose of inconveniencing me. Then I think, people here must enjoy longer evenings, and I might soon enjoy those, too. After all, late shopping can be a nuisance. A habit.
Strolling across town at 7.30 p.m. on a week night, and hearing my footsteps echoing on the pavement. I respond to the nod or smile of the few other passers by I encounter. The dim, yellow street lighting casts sadness over me. I long for the bright lights of Piccadilly and Soho. I am suddenly and unbearably homesick. Then I think, actually, how peaceful it feels to walk in a semi-deserted city, in the evening, and not have to be on alert, and not have to elbow my way through crowds. The dim yellow street lighting gives the Mediaeval buildings a soft golden tone. Golden enough to feed my imagination. I could get used to walking along these narrow streets, in the evenings, and dream. Another habit.
I slalom on the narrow pavement and overtake the other pedestrians. I have always walked very fast, and have little patience with people who advance slowly. I often fantasise about London’s Oxford Street pavement being divided into two lanes – one for dwindlers and ditherers, and the other for people who whizz, like myself. Around the corner, I practically collide head-on with another pedestrian. We both stop, though my feet practically screech on the cobbles. She smiles. “After you,” she says, gently. I find myself smiling back. “No, after you, please.” More smiles, and we continue along our opposite ways. What calm, nice people, I think. I drop my pace. Why rush? I am not late anywhere, and it is not like I am going to store the saved time anywhere, am I? It is just another habit.
In go to a church service. A solemn building, rich in history. I notice glances in my direction. I am the stranger, the new person. My clothes and body language must scream London. After the service, I am surrounded by people welcoming me, smiling, expressing hope that I might come again. The urban rat in me, used to being ignored, feels a little overwhelmed. The fact that I did not take Communion, this morning, has been noticed, noted and now remarked upon. Do I know that I am most welcome to go up for a blessing? I bite my tongue and refrain from asking if anyone at all was watching the vicar instead of me, because I sense not criticism but kindness around me. I smile, shake hands, and walk backwards towards the exit. I suddenly feel the urge to run, escape. I long for the anonymity of the Central London churches I frequent. The same churches where I so often feel so lonely, because I do not feel that I belong. There is no pleasing me. I could kick myself.
I need to get used this city’s kindness. It is a gentle city. A city where many street lights are put out at midnight. It is just a question of getting used to a new place and new ways.
I think I will stay a little longer and try to form new habits. I do not know if I can. But I think it is worth trying. After all, the city is proffering her hand to me.