I dreamt about London the way the nameless woman narrator in Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” dreamt about Manderley, a mansion owned by her husband, Maximilian de Winter.
Manderley was supposed to be her house, her place of comfort, and Maxim intended it to be when he married her. But the traces of Rebecca, Maxim’s beautiful first wife, was just too strong.
The big house never quite became a welcoming place for the nameless narrator of the book, a woman so mousy that du Maurier didn’t bother giving her a name of her own. Even though the narrator didn’t belong in Manderley, for her, the big house represents a promise, a possibility that her dream of happiness is on the verge of coming true. Yet it didn’t.
It has been two weeks since I came back from London.
For the past five years, I have been wanting to study, work, and live there, and I was finally given the chance to do exactly that.
Every time people described London as “cold and grey and wet”, I have always thought they were lazy for using the most cliched terms, until you experience the city for yourself and came to accept that cliché is just a reality too often stated and regurgitated until it lost its meaning.
When the plane descended and the clouds cleared up to reveal a city I’ve always dreamed of, the view was gloomy. All I saw was rows and squares of brick houses in drab and mossy green. The first sight of London evoked no feeling in me.
Yet I thought “just in case I want to remember this”, I took out my phone, pressed it against the plane’s window, and took several pictures to preserve “the exact moment I arrived in London”. The lousy pictures I took showed only muted brown, grey, green, and a bit of white.
Chills caught me by the time I stepped off the plane, but as soon as I was on the immigration queue, I was sweating. Halfway in the queue, I saw a small sign that said, if you’re here at this point of the queue, it would take 20 minutes for you to reach an immigration desk. But someone already scratched out the ’20 minutes’ part and wrote ‘FOREVER’ with a marker.
I wish I had taken a picture of that.
Once I reached a desk, the officer asked me what I was there for (a work training), where will I be staying (a hotel in Lancaster Gate), and where will my training take place (at the main office that I forgot the address of).
I was released within less than two minutes.
I found my backpack soon after. The tear in the fabric of the bag that I noticed only hours before I left for the airport has already gotten bigger. This trip must be the last time I use my 7 year-old bag. I carried all 13kg of it to the express train station that would take me to the city and to my hotel.
Once I emerged from the underground tunnel, I was faced with the coldness that made it difficult for me to walk and breathe while carrying my bag on my back. I took out my phone to check the temperature. It says 14 degree Celsius but feels like only half of it. I saw two people wearing gloves like it’s still the dead of winter.
But then I got to my hotel, to a small quaint cosy room in the basement level already available, already paid for, that included breakfast. It had a bathtub and a towel heater.
I put down my bag, charged my phone, took off my shoes, jumped onto the bed and lied down for awhile, and stared at the ceiling.
I got up again and started to unpack.
It was still 10.30 am on a Sunday and I am in a hotel room in London.
The next week, every colleague and new acquaintance in the city asked me enough times where I plan on visiting now that I’m here. But I figured London is enough on its own — all the books and films and TV series told me so — that I didn’t plan on (or maybe was just too lazy to think of) going someplace else.
My general impression of the city didn’t change much compared to the first day I arrived; I didn’t like London as much as I think I would the first two weeks that I was there.
Of course I went to the British Museum as soon as I have the chance — practically obligatory for anyone’s first trip to the city. I have never seen such an extensive collection on Assyrian civilisation in any other museums I’ve been to. I was in rapt. But overall, I was just tired.
Once, twelve years ago, my best friend and I were listening to Ella Fitzgerald singing “A Foggy Day”. We played it in an endless loop. She questioned its lyrics, “How can the British Museum lose its charm?”. Both of us expressed the same disbelief over how a place we both hadn’t yet seen — but was fully sure of its magnificence — could be capable of inciting boredom. But here I was, experiencing just that in my first time ever coming to London, right in front of the Elgin Marbles.
Maybe I came to this city too old.
Maybe if I was younger, less jaded, with some more wonder still left in me, less museum-ed out in Amsterdam or Paris or have never been to other, more faraway places, I would’ve appreciated this more.
Maybe I have been watching too many episodes of Cecile Emeke’s ‘Strolling’ web series, that I now realise all the remnants of glamour and beauty from old word civilisations in European cities comes from centuries of colonialisation, and now I no longer feel blindingly in awe of it now that I know its dark history.
As I walked around in the museum, I remembered how there are at least several countries trying to get some of these collections back by saying it belonged to them and their cultures, and that the British explorers and excavators (or are they ‘colonisers’?) took them in their expeditions.
I had planned on spending half a day in the British Museum, but after a little over an hour, I felt the urge to leave. My next place to go was a used bookstore off Russell Square. I was trying to find its location on the map through my phone, but its battery was only less than 10%. I’d started to charge my phone by the stairs near the main entrance of British Museum when a guy told me I can’t do that.
“There’s a Starbucks at the front of the museum, you know.”
Before he stopped me, I managed to get 33%.
After 20 minutes walk in the cold, I found the bookstore, Skoob, in the basement that was filled with secondhand books. I picked up Memoirs of Hadrian, Stella Gibbons’ My American, and Soul Mountain, but it was Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Darkthat caught me early on in her first paragraph.
It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I had ever known. It was almost being born again. The colours were different, the smells different, the feeling things gave you right down inside yourself was different. Not just the difference between heat, cold; light, darkness; purple, grey. But a difference in the way I was frightened and the way I was happy. I didn’t like England at first. I couldn’t get used to the cold.
It was her use of single colour (“purple, grey”) to compare Dominica—her birthplace in the tropics — and London, that made me buy the book.
As I started reading more of it in a chain coffee shop after lunch while waiting for my phone to fully charge, I identified with her experiencing London in the cold more and more. She fell ill with the fever and cough while alone; I did too, the first two days I was there.
She marvels about being “in England, and I’m in a nice, clean English room with all the dirt swept under the bed”. So did I.
The way she repeatedly worried about London’s “damn cold night” reminded me of the one night I had to walk 25 minutes to my hotel when the tube broke down while realising I’m coming down with the flu and feeling the increasing fear I might be unable to get up the next day because of the illness.
She wrote about the man who kept her, a financier who was attracted to her 18 year old self after she and her friend met with him and his friend on the street. My equivalent of it was activating Tinder to swipe for men in a new city simply because I was bored.
I noticed our differences too.
She was an 18 year old uprooted from her birth country, the only place she knew all her life, to somewhere foreign with a climate so unlike where she came from. She didn’t have anyone else other than a stepmother who would rather be rid of her, and has to depend her income on being a chorus girl and on checks from a man who provided for her.
In contrast, I was a 30-something year old woman with a steady job with the opportunity of a lifetime complete with accommodation and meals already paid for. Yet nearly everything I felt about London in my first week(s) — its lack of colour, its weather, its general unwelcomingness, our sense of alienation in it — Jean Rhys wrote it all in those pages of Voyage in the Dark.
And over the next few days, I bought three more used copies of her books wherever I could find them.
I had read about England ever since I could read — smaller meaner everything is never mind — this is London — hundreds thousands of white people white people rushing along and the dark houses all alike all stuck together — the streets like smooth shut-in ravines and the dark houses frowning down — oh I’m not going to like this place I’m not going to like this place I’m not going to like this place —
“Like, if you take out the major attraction places, British Museum, Big Ben, etc, it seems the only thing left to do in the city is to shop?” I expressed my theory, unconvincingly, to a Serbian construction worker I had met. He has lived in London for 12 years, now under a British passport.
He furrowed his brows at my question.
“What did you usually do in the city?” I simplified.
He took out his phone, typed words in his map application, and showed it to me.
“Go to Regent Park. And if you don’t like it, you talk to me.”
But it was just too cold, I didn’t plan on being or going or walking in any park. I passed by it when I was on the bus on the way to an art gallery with a free showing of Richard Avedon photos and Andy Warhol paintings. Even in cloudy grey, the park showed plenty of potential to be beautiful in the spring.
“Baby, where did you learn to speak English? You have a nice little accent and everything,” he asked me.
“In Indonesia, in school, through courses.”
“I’ve been here longer and I can’t speak like you.”
“Do you have English friends?” I don’t know why I asked him that.
“No, mostly friends from back home. The English are racists, you know, but I don’t care,” he said.
“But, without hearing you speak with that accent, would they know that you’re a foreigner? Just based on your facial features, because to me you just look… Caucasian. I wouldn’t know whether you’re a Serb or Eastern European.”
Again, he didn’t understand my question.
Some years ago, after reading Wide Sargasso Sea, I remembered reading about Jean Rhys and how most people had forgotten how foreign she was compared to an English person, that her experience, coming from Dominica with its rugged and harsh landscape into England’s general wetness and critical lack of sun, was vastly different — as if she came from another dimension.
I had seen photos of young and old Jean Rhys before and I couldn’t tell whether she looks less like a Caucasian person than the ‘average’ white English person. She did descended from a Creole background, but did that make her look noticeably different? And if she did, did that contribute to her feeling estranged and alone while in England?
In London, I feel as if I have shrunk.
I walked everywhere hunched to avoid bumping into people, still I bumped into them anyway. My shoulders started to feel sore from scrunching up most of the time to fit myself in the city’s limited space. I was a walking personification of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech about society teaching girls to shrink themselves and make themselves smaller. London huddled me.
In all the three weeks I was there, I very rarely remember a moment of stillness while being in public places. I couldn’t just stand and be relaxed. Instead I had to stay alert all the time and ready to move at every second because someone is almost always trying to squeeze through between me, a table or a chair, and the small spaces in between.
London is a bad place to be for someone whose New Year’s resolution is trying to say ‘sorry’ less — as I mistakenly thought that ‘sorry’ would soften my stance from being seen as ‘intrusive’ and ‘rude’ and ‘impolite’ in claiming more of my space in this world. Instead, I had reverted into something even worse, an automatic sorry-saying machine after endlessly colliding into people when trying to trudge through and fit myself within centimetres of spaces.
In almost every meal in restaurants and coffee shops I was in, I have to sit so close to the tables next to me, I can hear entire conversations. Once it was between two women in their 40s and 50s discussing about trying to find a candidate for a vacant position in the field of fashion that they were in.
“Even when they have good academic scores, just get rid of those who has IELTS speaking score of below 7. Get those who are 8, or 9, because you don’t know whether they’ll be able to speak correctly. That way you’ll get rid a lot of the stacks real quickly,” one of them said.
The next day, I met a Romanian concierge who had only lived for five months in London. He’s been working graveyard shifts to save up money to take a master’s degree in neuropsychology. I asked him whether it was difficult to get his job.
“Mostly, if they only look at my CV, they see my name, they see where I’m from, and they would think I don’t speak English well. Or even if I did, they’d assumed I’d have a heavy accent,” he said.
Both of our English sounds faux-American, as we both learned English the same way; through 90’s American sitcoms and series. His has more fluidity as he seemed to think directly in the language, compared to my way of first forming words in Indonesian and then translating it, stutteringly, into English.
It wasn’t just my shoulders and body shrinking, it was my tongue and mind as well. Other than my speeches became halted, I began to have a difficulty in listening — an ability that I initially thought as my second strongest suit in comprehending English, right after reading.
One night, I went to the Prince Charles Cinema to see “Carol” — the ultimate film about blossoming into who you really are by acknowledging what you want out of life against society’s expectation.
I was ecstatic over the simple possibility of being able to bring beer in a plastic cup into the theatre and sipping it in the dark. As I sat down, I remembered I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast and it was 6 pm. My head was lighter than usual, and some sips of beer got me. When the film started and the characters began to talk, mild panic creeped in as I realised there would not be any subtitles throughout the film, and I have to focus in using whatever concentration I have left to listen to the dialogue to make any sense of it.
I’m pretty sure I failed.
After a while I got used to England and I liked it all right; I got used to everything except the cold and that the towns we went to always looked so exactly alike.
I sat outside in the cold to drink beer with a French guy who works in sales for a soft drink brand. The indoor sitting of the pub was full because there was an Arsenal game on. He told me he was about to take a second job in secret because he rarely did anything in his first one and no one checked whether he actually did his work.
I told him the best thing about sitting outside in the cold was that the beer never gets warm as it would back home. We parted ways and never heard from each other again.
“This is officially still winter, you know,” a Pakistani guy who works in finance said to me when we met over hot coffee, this time indoors. I said yes to his offer to meet because he was correct in narrowing down my nationality (“You must be either Indonesian or Malaysian.”).
Entering my third week, after experiencing nonstop coldness, I have already developed a sense for specific London misfortune — such as when it was sunny outside but you have to go to work, and the whole weekend thoroughly wet and cloudy.
Just as Jean Rhys was always thinking about Dominica where it was sunny and warm, I was thinking of how impatient I am to go back to Jakarta, to no longer be reduced into a bud, to being activated and expanded by the sun, to unfurl in the spaces that allow distance from you to another.
“Hey good morning, ready for that new day? Started well?”
The message sent through Tinder was blinking on my phone. It was from a guy who matched with me. He was a bald, bearded, light-skinned black guy whose name was spelled in the French way. In four of his photos, he was always half-smiling by pulling a bit of each corner of his lips just enough to make him look sweet instead of sneering. By most standards, he is very likely to be considered cute.
I won’t start work until 3 pm so I had time to talk to him.
“Are you from an exotic island?” he asked me.
“Haha, what is ‘exotic’? Well, I guess Indonesia is ‘exotic’. Were you born and raised in London?”
“I’m from a French-speaking ‘exotic’ island called Martinique.”
We covered some of the basics — what we do for a living (he’s a web designer), the shortness of my stay (“When are you coming back?”), the paradox of living in the big city surrounded by people but difficult in developing good friendship (his words) — and our mutual attraction.
“But your stay is so short. Can I see you? What time do you get off work?”
“11.15 pm,” I said.
“Nice, we can meet up later then after you finish. I’ll be in Leicester Square.”
Later that night, after work, I asked my driver to drop me off near Piccadilly Circus instead of to my hotel. Right before I got off the car, he asked me, “Are you sure? Will you be okay?”
I had developed another bout of cough in my last week, but this time it was more because of allergy from the cold instead of the flu. And I was coughing nonstop when we reached Piccadilly Circus. I wasn’t sure that meeting yet another new person (three days before I had to leave a city that I wasn’t sure I’ll be returning to) was a good idea, but I assured the driver I will be okay.
I looked at the map on my phone to walk several hundred metres to Tiger Tiger, a place my date called a “pub”. But when I got there, I realised it was a nightclub. I had on a navy pants, a Dr Martens-lookalike ankle boots, and underneath my thick jacket and shawl, I wore a plaid flannel shirt and a black shirt, casual and underdressed for a club.
“Are you Isyana?” said a tall guy who approached me, smiling. He looked exactly as handsome as he was in the photos.
There was a long queue outside the club and no one was getting in. He talked to the bouncer, asking if we can get in without the queue, and after asking one supervisor, the bouncer said yes. They asked for my passport to scan it.
Almost everyone inside was noticeably younger and dressier. After storing our jackets and bags in the cloakroom, we went to get beers. ‘Hotline Bling’ was playing and I thought how ridiculous everyone was, the men especially, for trying to imitate Drake’s dance moves in the video.
He asked whether I know how to salsa, but outside of my dance cardio class, I’ve haven’t actually danced in public in at least a decade. And most importantly, I was also scared to do it in front of such a hot guy who ‘super-liked’ me. At least that’s what the app told me.
We sat and talked about Martinique and Indonesia and the possibility that these places, respectively foreign to each of us, might have similarities (tropics, beaches, spicy food). We also asked each other about our statuses, sharing enough information to get the flirtations going.
“Do you mind if we go in there to look for my friends? They’re also here,” he said while pointing to the main dance floor.
We walked in and walked out again after 5 minutes because we couldn’t find them, all the while he held my hand in trying to move through a crowded room. I bumped into so many people that I lost count, but I didn’t bother saying sorry even once.
We stopped and stood in one quiet corner trying to reconnect the halted conversation when a familiar intro to a song started playing.
It was Rihanna’s ‘Work’.
There are plenty of songs that activate you, electrifying you into feeling alive.
When I first heard it at the end of January this year, I made a wish to get the chance to dance to it during one of my gym classes because of how exuberant the song made me feel. I wished for it even more after I saw the video as I stood at a street corner in the cold to finish watching all 7 minutes of it when it was just released, before going down to the tube station and lost my phone signal.
You’ve walked through most of life looking plump and dowdy and mousy that in the eyes of men you’ve turned invisible. It became something you’re so used to, you no longer take it as an offence when men saw past you but looked at and listened and reckoned other women seriously. But then you watched ‘Work’ and Rihanna showed you that the most important gaze in the room toward her reflection in the mirror was her own.
That night, life handed me a much better situation than what I was hoping for; I was on the dance floor, with a nice-looking guy who is smiling ever so sweetly and saying, “Oh you liked this, don’t you? Everyone likes this.”
If some minutes ago I had qualms about dancing with him, it was gone now. Despite being in a crowded club, we were at an empty corner where there was no one trying to pass through.
The moment Rihanna drawls out the lyric, “You know I dealt with you the niiiicest,” I had turned into something slinkier and more sensuous than my usual stiff self. Slowly, I spun around, wiggled my hips, moved my shoulders backward and forward, while also being nuzzled, held, and kissed.
By the time Drake delivered the line, “You need to get done done done with work and come over,” I cackled at the aptness of it with my situation.
Hearing ‘Work’ being played out loud in a club, instead of the usual solitary listen through an earphone, and dancing to it might be my new favourite life memory. Probably it won’t be everything or turned into anything at all but at that moment it was quite something.
I unfurled. I let loose. I bloomed.