There is something liberating and strangely peaceful about moving to a place where you do not know a soul, and nobody knows you. People tell me that you can be whatever you like, then. Reinvent yourself – that all too trendy phrase. My experience, since moving to Norwich (where I got off the train not knowing anyone at all), last February, has not been so much of becoming a new me, as of starting to discover the original me.
Sadly, I cannot be “whatever I want to be”. What I want to be – or wish I were – is for ever eluding me, in spite of my efforts. Certainly, if I could mould my personality to my liking, I would have a different one from the one I am lumbered with. In London, Norwich or Brussels, it is still me. What I have found priceless, in a new city that still feels so strange, is the slow but steady discovery of who I am and what I want. I think it gets to a stage, when you spend too long in the same place, where your pattern of behaviour becomes one of reacting, rather than acting. If you spend too long somewhere, the inevitable repetition, or routine, of your daily life fixes you in a kind of mould. People get used to your pattern of behaviour and start making assumptions about you. Assumptions you do not want to disappoint for fear of losing your place on the social grid (better in a bad place than nowhere, right?). So you make sure you stick to your pattern. That, in turn, can stop you from meeting new people who could form a new and different opinion of you – and from altering your own opinion of yourself. Eventually, you are no longer sure if you are doing things because you want to do them or because it is part of what is expected of you – expectations you are actually working hard to maintain just as they are. It is a vicious circle that keeps going ‘round and ‘round. In a way, you become still. Motionless. You sprout roots which, over time, reach further into the soil, and become tangled around large rocks. Secure. Impossible to pull out unless you cut down the tree. Except that you are not a tree. You were born with legs, for walking. And, surely enough, you can sometimes lose track of what it is you really want and are (not that anyone really knows that one). Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello had a theory that we exist only in function of other people’s perception of us. Typically Pirandellian in its bleakness but he does have a noteworthy point there.
In a new city, you do not have the pressure of remembering the lines of your role. There is no one around you to pick up the cues, anyway, so you can devise a new script. There is no one to give any new acquaintances you make a potted biography of you by way of introduction, so your new acquaintances are given the rare freedom of making up their own minds about you, without outside influence. Similarly, you have the luxury of the same freedom. You can even start thinking differently about yourself. Oh, look – I had no idea I liked that. I didn't know I could do that. In a new city, where you have not yet fixed a routine, you walk more slowly, you look around, you allow yourself to hear new sounds rather than listen out for ones you expect.
Perhaps it is this state of reduced expectations (in the sense of preconceptions) that leaves room for surprise and awe. And I do not mean awe in the misused and abused sense that US and now British teenagers (and now, infuriatingly, so many adults) give it when they say that a film or pair of jeans is awesome (I could weep!). I mean the ability of being overwhelmed, swept off your feet by surprise before something that fills you with respect and wonder. I think for as long as you can feel awe, you are alive.
In a new city, since you do not have a road to follow, so you have to find new stones to build another one. So you can, once again, enjoy the creative process of building, with all the stress, hardship but also dreams and hopes that come with it.