October 4, 2009

Foreigner (not the band)

Today I traveled a few bus stops north of where I live to check out Church Street (Stoke Newington) - an area rumored to have a lot of boutique and vintage shops, record stores etc. My favorite was a curbside venture run out of a shoddy storage shed, with items strewn across the sidewalk. Two scruffy men sell furniture, movies, books, electronics, anything really. I almost bought a pirated copy of the movie "9" for three pounds (five bucks). The film is playing in America but doesn't come here 'til next month. They assured me the dvd quality is good - no shaky handy cam versions. But I passed.

Church Street runs west into Stoke Newtington Road, a busier area with loads of shops and markets -  a lot of them catering to the apparent local Turkish residents. I walked South on this road for a while and peered down alleys and streets and into Turkish run shops with Turkish families and patrons. In one little private alley I saw a bunch of older Muslim men pacing slowly. It was a glimpse into a whole different world - what appeared to be a little haven or pocket of culture that stands in sharp contrast to the surrounding city. It looked so peaceful there, but felt so foreign to me. So thick with a way of living I know nothing about. London defines diversity. And I've been in similar business districts around town and I hear there are Muslim or other ethnic neighborhoods that make a westerner feel entirely out of place. But this was my first glimpse of that.

I walked further down the street and lurked at a bus stop studying maps and trying to find a route back to my neighborhood. I was done exploring and felt a little lost and wanted to get back to a familiar area. At the bus stop I overheard a girl in her early twenties talking on the phone who appeared to be the same ethnicity as the other locals, but she was modern and hip and clearly British born. She was talking about a friend of hers who's apparently making money from internet porn, and she seemed excited about how easy it was to make cash that way. "All you have to do it sign up online and make a list of things you're willing to do. She says you can make a lot of money." I thought about that little alley just up the road with devout Muslim men. Their little haven is probably intended in part to cut off the negative influences of western culture, which dominates the world just outside their windows - even in a business district that caters to their culture. I'm sure some of them 'lose' their own daughters to it.

An older lady finally pointed me in the right direction and I walked ten minutes to a bus stop and caught a ride back to my neighborhood, which turned out to be one stop away. For the past couple weeks I've become accustomed to my little area and haven't explored the surrounding neighborhoods much. I'm cozy here in Newington Green. I know where it is on the map, where to get groceries and midnight snacks and a bunch of places to eat. But it felt foreign again this afternoon as I walked from the bus, through the park, back to my room. I felt lost just a few streets from here, like I was in a different city! This neighborhood, this building and even this room don't feel like the same place anymore in the context of the surrounding areas that are blocks away. London is massive and sprawling and diverse in such a way that it feels unknowable. I think my assumptions and perceptions will be frequently challenged. It's naive to think that any part of it will ever feel like "my city" or neighborhood. Of course I've only been here a month, and I've spent the past decade in a small, dramatically less diverse town.  I still rarely know what to expect here in London - even a few streets away - and that's exciting.


  1. a whole new world yeah? a whole new place you never knew? hang ten.

  2. Ditto to pretty much everything you just, except taking place New York City (i'm sure there some girl, on some corner, talking about internet porn).

    People do say the two towns are alike. I must see this Londontown for myself!