London and I. 20 years later (well, almost)

There’s a funny moment in our lives (funny, both ha-ha and strange) when we realise that we have fallen for what we used to mock before. This Augenblick can only be interpreted as a journey from a carefree, fun-filled summer day to the crepuscular beauty of an autumn evening in no more than twenty-four hours. This is that moment in our lives when a “bolero”, a “fado” or a “tango” calls to a part of us that had hitherto lain hidden. Or dormant. Or unexplored. Or covered up by layers and layers of identity markers. Those markers we pick up from the shop we call life. There we are, little, hopping, skipping creatures, barely able to reach the dinner table, entering the shop stage right and many years later, exiting stage left, carrying with us multiple transformations, disguises and masks.

It is that time of the year when rain-soaked, dark-inked pavements trigger off feelings of nostalgia in me. This time around, a wet summer, combined with the early onset of autumn has unleashed a deluge of memories. Not just any memories, mind. In November it will be 20 years since I landed in the UK. To stay. To set down roots. To throw my lot in with the people of this country. But the question that has arisen in the last half decade is: have I succeeded?

Succeeded at what could be the swift response. Perhaps, I should rephrase that question: has it been a fulfilling life for me so far?

With the rain still hanging over the low-rise flats in my neck of the woods and weak sunrays spearing through eastbound, grey clouds, I recently pulled up just outside my house after another long bike ride around London. Whilst catching my breath back, I paused to ask myself that question: has my life been fulfilling so far? The short answer is yes, above all personally and professionally. The long one would be: it’s a work in progress (I haven’t even developed the immigrant’s usual love-hate relationship with their new home). It is easy to relocate to another place and not have a sense of belonging to it. I believe that the process of settling in another country is a two-way system: you give and take in equal measure. I looked at my bicycle and retraced my steps all the way back to that morning. It had caught me in east London interviewing a guy who can only be described as an essential part of the incredible, creative power this city has. The afternoon had seen me have my lunch in west London in a beautiful park; the dry grass a provocation to the gathering clouds. Trafalgar Square was a sight to cycle past, not a tourist stop. The downpour caught me not long after. It gave me time to think. Unlike running, when most of the time I listen to music, whenever I am pedalling my way around London my ears remain earphone-free. Instead I focus on the sounds of the city: the loud-revving car engines revealing impatient drivers, the voices (with their various accents), the beeping, the swearing, the muzak blaring out of cafes and restaurants, the R’n’B/reggae/rock/grime blasting out of open windows, the football chants, the soft, swishing sound of the closing doors of a double-decker, the whispered plea, “Can you spare some change, please?”

Part of the progress I have made in these 20 years is figuring out what the pattern of this city is. All cities have one, especially metropolises. Havana’s is laid-back, London is a rush-hour one, with a nowadays added screen-facing, neck-bent population. Another element in London’s pattern is how often it confounds expectations. Here is a city that is not afraid to wear its eccentricity on its sleeve. A city in which anyone can end up being bathed in nostalgia-scented memories by the power of a fado or a bolero.

London-based, Cuban writer. Author of “Cuban, Immigrant, and Londoner”, to be published by Austin Macauley. Has written for The Guardian and Prospect.

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