journal — sixteen
On heimats and the city
I’m trying something a little different this week: focusing on one thing, in three parts: my confused relationship with London.
i — friday night
Bundled into a late, cold train from Frome to Paddington, the author & illustrator Nora Krug introduced me to heimat — a German word without a direct English translation. It’s a place that feels like home; where one may feel safe; where one identifies with because they know it intimately, borne from an individual mindset whether they’ve visited or not. Losing one's heimat, or the fear of that occurring presents, as heimweh — nostalgia, homesickness.
I spent seven years in London, with a brief Bristol-intermission in the middle, based in Stockwell, Brixton, Elephant & Castle, then Fulham. London, I thought, must be my heimat. & for the first time since I collected my bag of cashew nuts & keyboard from work (Covent Garden, March 2020), two jobs and nearly three years ago, I was returning.
Despite calling ahead to say it would be a late arrival, the hotel — near Lancaster Gate — acted surprised to see us. The plug-in radiator turned the room to a sauna to combat the freeze outside. Every inch of the walls was covered in something: TV, vents, headboard, framed photos of London, switches, mirrors. The dark hid it all. We gave in to sleep.
ii — saturday
up; shower; out; breakfast at GAIL’s (no more scrambled eggs on sourdough, avocado instead); walk to Oxford Circus through the outskirts of Hyde Park; take a right on Regent Street; shops closed; quiet roads; shortcut 1 or 2 or 3 to Piccadilly; Hatchards (brief hello to evergreen staff, don’t buy anything, feel sad to not work for a bookshop anymore & that booksellers are so sorely underpaid); Waterstones Piccadilly; Soho; Foyles TCR, Seven Dials; Covent Garden; crowds; cancel table booking for steak in Marylebone because too far a walk; Chinatown; Leicester Square; spend two hours looking for table nearby but all booked on this festive weekend, obviously; irritated; settle on a place; frustrated; all hot chocolate options closed or sold out; again settle on Pret; Buckingham Palace; feet in pain & thighs chafing (wrong pants) — 25km walked; Big Ben; sneak in & out of pub to pee; Thames; Southbank festive market & expensive, stale churros; BFI shop; film to relax? no; hobble to Foyles TCR to browse; pretend to browse; Tube from TCR to Lancaster Gate; walk to hotel; hear England score a penalty on walk back; see them miss another when we get back; order KFC — half the order’s missing; watch last two-thirds of Murder on the Orient Express; (spoliers!) turns out that everyone, therefore no one, killed the guy; shower; black.
A series of impulses.
I’d run this day before.
iii — sunday morning
The chafe between my thighs and the tight, bruised sole of my right foot caused a wide-gaited hobble by the end of the previous day —but that wouldn’t stop me. Around 6am, determined to make the most of this trip, I slipped out of the dark hotel room into the illuminated streets, hopped on a bus to Oxford Circus, then walked the same streets as I’d done the previous day.
Dawn Chorus by Thom Yorke (of Radiohead) came to mind, then my headphones, for a reason that wasn’t immediately apparent other than: when I last lived in London, I listened to this on repeat, right before I left.
back up the cul-de-sac
come on, do your worst
you've quit your job again
& your train of thought
please let me know
when you've had enough
of the white light
of the dawn chorus
if you could do it all again
you don't know how much
pronto pronto, moshi mosh
come on, chop chop
if you could do it all again
yeah, without a second thought
I don't like leaving
the door shut
I think I missed something
but I'm not sure what
To me, it’s a song of accepting one’s fate to repeat the same mistakes — after all, something may have been missed, and if we hurry it might be different this time. When I’ve dissected my life into its component parts in the past — here is body, my food and exercise, and over here is career, where I decide how I might like to spend 40 hours each week — things like relationships & soul/spirit & home always felt odd as things to ‘achieve’. They’re states of being. In the process of thinking through & writing all of the above, though, I landed on a sense that maybe, for those kinds of things, it’s about creating a few questions you can ask yourself occasionally.
Where is/are my heimat/s, for example?
Is London one? Piccadilly, Leicester Square, Soho, Seven Dials, Covent Garden. Southbank didn’t feature this morning, but did back then, too. Galleries. Bookshops. Why? I can’t explain it. It’s magnetism. I used to think, in my seven years in the city, that a heatmap of my walking would show these streets as glowing red-hot.
It felt frantic being there — like Poirot’s death by multiple murderers, none were exactly responsible but all, collectively, burnt me out. I thought about how London is always being built, never finished. I thought about the particular joy of having an adult playground to run around in, the peculiarity of feeling trapped by unbounded freedom. I considered all the signs exclaiming that clubs were open until 3am yet I couldn’t find a fucking cup of coffee at 7am — the early bird, here, is told that the worm is sadly unavailable each morning, as it was out on a bender the night before and might turn up around midday. I settled at Ole + Steen, which opens at 8am, but the doors didn’t open until about 8.15am.
I love it here, I thought. I want to make it work. This must be a heimat, because being away and thinking about the place makes me feel homesick, heimweh, but I cannot go back to the frantic marching around, getting nowhere. It needs to be on my terms. It needs to become a friendship.
On the train from Paddington to Frome, I saw fresh, white, new snow.
I’d recommend the following.
Heimat: A German Family Album by Nora Krug — Recommended recently on my trip to Mr B’s, borrowed from my local library, this has so far been a fantastic example of illustrated, scrapbook storytelling.
Analog Sea Review — ‘this award-winning & universally-praised journal aims to represent a community of writers & artists wishing to maintain contemplative life in the digital age.’ (You have to literally write them a letter to communicate.)