Saturday, 31 July 2010

That was as far as I could go

Past may be a foreign country, but what if it is a foreign country within a foreign country? Imagine you happen to change your life thoroughly, and you decide to take a huge risk; and then the risk happens to be worth it. I guess then everyone live happily ever after? Not necessarily. When I came to London already as a “girlfriend”, with a plan set that we will visit each other month by month, it felt doubly like having a new start in life. No dry knowledge on England, no studies or reading, made me prepared enough to feel familiar. Suddenly the language I thought I know very well seemed utterly foreign; the conversations blurred, the small details were running away. Used to master and control the reality around me I felt suddenly lost.

I’m not sure how it had started; I was irritatingly impatient, asking questions about everything and losing my temper 50 times a day. O’s stories all seemed rather elusive. Sometimes I wasn’t even asking and the stories were coming out, sometimes I wanted to ask, very, very much, but was too shy to do it or was afraid of his reaction. And when I was listening I had a feeling that a lot stays in between, somehow lost, dressed in lighthearted statements that may cover something of much more heaviness. I realized that even with all the details the stories wouldn’t seem any more real or true to me because this is how memory works. He insisted he was not nostalgic about his past. So can one become nostalgic about the places someone else seems nostalgic about?

Yes, very much so. The fact that we knew each other before from writing paradoxically didn’t help much, because it was a bit one way – I was reading his blog, thinking that in this way I will know things better, but the more I knew, the more lost I felt. Words were alienating me from the experiences I couldn’t share, as if, despite this is how we’ve met each other, internet wasn’t this mystic space of meta-community, or of real sharing. Going from ethereal space of the internet into the real places before I was only reading about was suddenly a bit shocking. Language creates its own reality, that doesn’t have to relate to the flesh and blood reality. Places about which we read don’t necessarily have to really exist. And the detailed descriptions of the places O likes only made me realize more that I’m a stranger to all this.

The knowledge came to me through walking: views, smells, tastes, proven to be much more telling than stories. Already highly mediated through what I’ve read and what I was told, I was trying to forget all that knowledge and subjugate to the sheer specificity of the place. Which, given the aesthetics of the places O was taking me has already become a part of certain cultural industry, could easily transform in its parody. Luckily it didn’t. it seems that the aura, or some kind of black energy may emerge even when we resist it.

London is a mystery to me, a mystery that I know won’t reveal itself any time soon, it will only get worse. I was warned: there’s no chance to fully get to know this city, even after many years. This is probably a part of the charm I should accept and drown myself into rather than feel anxious about. But mixed emotions is my specialty, so I couldn’t resist that.

The irregular rhythm of my visits didn’t help much in getting any stable opinion of a city, which I’m getting to know from a very characteristic perspective, the South East. We live in Greenwich – well, not exactly Greenwich, O would say he lives in Westcombe Park, but the sheer sounding of “Greenwich Peninsula”, a half insular, half land-ish dimension of this piece of ground appeals more to my imagination. In my mind we live in a strange, joli-laid, beautiful-ugly place, which transcends the real official borders of Greenwich, where the park is a wilderness, river is a sea and the fortress of Canary Wharf, the financial centre built on the Isle of Dogs (sic!) is a somber citadel. It is simply a place, where you can be pretty sure you will stumble upon something uncanny. I can imagine that every day I could find there something that would be suitable for this new site, collecting haunted curiosities.

Greenwich, apt to its name is a space with lots of greenery, that is being suddenly interrupted by industrial trash and pollution. Where classic beauty of Wren’s Royal Naval Hospital clashes with the futurism of Millenium Dome area, and where the splendours of the royal park is a neighbour to the ordinariness of Blackheath. No wonder, we are in London, after all. Finally and metaphysically enough, it’s a “zero point of time”, as it were, a Greenwich Meridian space, with the elegant silhouette of the observatory, interestingly used by Conrad in his Secret Agent as a symbolic place of modern terrorism, where an anarchist revolution is to be started and a perfect place to embody “perverse unreason”, as Conrad described it, which “has its own logical processes”. His story was based on a real event of a French anarchist, who was carrying explosives, that accidentally detonated around Observatory:

“But that outrage could not be laid hold of mentally in any sort of way, so that one remained faced by the fact of a man blown to bits for nothing even most remotely resembling an idea, anarchistic or other. As to the outer wall of the Observatory it did not show as much as the faintest crack. I pointed all this out to my friend who remained silent for a while and then remarked in his characteristically casual and omniscient manner: "Oh, that fellow was half an idiot. His sister committed suicide afterwards."

Funnily enough, that was – the park, the hill, the observatory – my very first acquaintance with Greenwich, when I went for a walk there, last Summer. That was as far as I could go not knowing any inhabitant who could take my by the hand and take somewhere more interesting.

Greenwich is not a proper suburbia, it used to be a town, a port, wit a rich history. Not until the end of 19th century it has become a proper part of London. One can feel the independence of this place, that still didn’t assimilate. Being there, I tend not to assimilate too and stick to the place. As a person who spent all her life in a Eastern Bloc concrete city, I crave water: and here I am, gazing at the Thames, that starts to look like a sea. Sitting at the Cutty Sark pub and drinking my pint, I stare at the water, imagining the whole microcosm of the lives lead here. I listen to people. Different on the weekdays, different on the weekends. On the weekdays, in the work hours especially, I like to imagine, that people like me come there: temporarily out of place, in suspension, as if on vacation. If only for an hour or two. I imagine the conversations, not just trying overhear them. I plot the criminal stories. I gaze at the incredible, fantastical figures of gas holders, I scan silos that are to be demolished, one by one. I look at the ancient Woolwich ferry, planning a trip. I imagine one day everything here will be drowning, naturally (won't be calling JG Ballard here, oh no), but Greenwich already looks like it has regressed to some ancient geologic period, after reemerging from the deluge of some sorts in a degraded form, whose the shiny, cold, metallic and ruthless opposite shore of Canary Wharf is also a part of.

Not domesticated

For a short while I thought I want to have an “esthetic” blog, in which I could write/put pictures of my current interests/fascinations, but that proved to be a bummer. I didn’t really feel this, I wasn’t engaging, and first of all I felt that my English wasn’t good enough, and I was too chimerical. And too lazy. First of all I was too lazy.

I’m still a lazy and very melancholic person, but between January, when I last put any “content” to this blog and the present moment, an important thing had happened. This, among other things, makes me to commute a lot to London, where my boyfriend lives. This experience, of staying for weeks in a place that is so different from Warsaw, where I live, turned out to be very intense and highly transformative. For the first time I was somewhere else than home that wasn’t just a place of my vacation; yes, it was a space of temporary existence, but also with certain traces of “stability”; but it wasn’t a place of actually “living” either, because it remains undecided whether we’ll be living together and I still didn’t make a decision of moving from Poland. But exactly because of that, of London being this space infinitely “in between”, a place of non-decision about what it exactly means to me, a non-place of staying and non-staying, of living that is not entirely a “living”, made this experience so powerful. I don’t know for how long I will (or rather we will) continue this mode of being, but the longer it happens, the more it occurs to transform both spaces: my sense of Warsaw and my sense of London – as two intersecting, hybrid spaces of domesticating.

While staying in London, I also discovered, to what extent the space I’m in determines my way of being and thinking. This space being South East London, precisely – Greenwich and few other places, that constitute it. Gradually over the last few months we’ve been exploring this space together. Owen’s impressions can be found on his fantastic blog here. As I was reading his impressions of places I thought I knew so well, they suddenly seemed strangely foreign to me. Little by little it was clarifying for me, that the curious impressions I was collecting over my visits in London also start to constitute certain whole, that is revealing itself for me. What will hopefully follow on this blog will be a very modest try on telling the bits of this ongoing, hybrid, sometimes alienating, sometimes fascinating experience of the attempts to domesticate/get to know/intellectually colonize a space that still remains quite obscure and foreign, but already with traces of familiarity to it.