You know the show, Cheers? The popular American pub that boasted knowing everyone’s name. That’s how it was for me where I used to live in the states. I lived in the same apartment for four years in a small suburban part of south Austin where I could go anywhere and know someone. While I would go for a run, friends would even honk or wave at me out of recognition. Odds are, I couldn’t leave the house without a casual conversation about the weather.
Then of course, with work, I knew everyone I worked with and saw them on a daily basis for several hours each day. I was surrounded by individuals who not only knew my name, but knew basic information that could carry on a conversation at any given moment.
I’m not a total introvert, but there were those days where I wouldn’t leave the apartment all day just because I didn’t want to get dressed up or even put a stitch of make-up on because Murphy’s Law states, the day you don’t fix your hair is the day you run into someone you know.
So, I got very good at racing through grocery stores and running in the early, early mornings just to avoid the need for small talk. When you run into someone you know, it’s polite to say hello and ask how they are doing, no matter how short on time you are. It’s being a good friend.
In August of 2013, Jeff and I moved in together, and I left my south Austin neighborhood to move far north Austin–another world! I had mixed feelings about the move–not because I didn’t want to move in with my then fiance, but because I was leaving my comfort zone where people knew me. But I would think about that term: comfort zone. Was it really comfortable? There were a few times I would drive around the parking lots of nearby grocery stores to see if I knew any cars to be prepared to run into someone and strike up conversation.
But moving to the north side was a great trial run for moving to another country where not only did no one know my name, no one cared.
It may seem silly to enjoy the prospect of being invisible, especially when I came from a place that had an incredible family of friends. But since no one knew me here, Jeff and I could both recreate our personalities and throw any semblance of a comfort zone in the English channel.
It took me a while to get used to the notion that every face I passed on the sidewalk or sit next to on the tube would forget my image in a matter of seconds or not bat an eye of recognition. I could step out in sweat pants with my hair in a mess and no one would care. In fact, I would be still more presentable than others at that rate.
With this new-found freedom, I started to evolve. I started volunteering to be a part of a tea demonstration at The British Museum, I shopped for clothes I had always wanted to wear but didn’t want to have to explain the change in style, I started conversations with perfect strangers and asking questions I wanted answers to, and I’ve restarted my career in a very public and extroverted industry. What a great chance to reinvent myself.
I have recently started taking some evening classes at the Met Film School in order to make friends, network, and learn the British film business side. Every session, I surprise myself with how many questions I ask or conversations I start. If you know me personally, you know me as someone who doesn’t speak up or voice my opinion. Well, when I’m in a room full of people who don’t know who I am, it is so freeing to be able to shed the inhibitions.
The other night is a perfect example. We had a class on documentary filmmaking and producing. The gentleman teaching was talking to us about his projects and ways to go about pitching. When he showed us his trailer for his next film, I challenged him. I don’t mean antagonize but rather I asked questions that I would not have asked before like: why did you film it this way if you’re clearly only showing one perspective, is this not bias and unethical?
Never in a zillion years would I have challenged a teacher or mentor on his work. But I think a lot of it is–this man will not see me ever again so what do I care if I get as much information out of him as I can. I am learning to be a stronger filmmaker, aren’t I? And if, on the off chance we do meet again and he remembers me, he can recall the girl who asked challenging or stupid questions.
Everything about this move has been about the next step. Where will we be next year? Where will we be in three years? Since our time is temporary and short, there is no excuse to waste this opportunity and not experience or ask. There’s no harm in it, and I don’t know why I was so scared of it all this time.
Jeff gets teased for being the brash and direct American. When he would come home and tell me what he would say or the circumstance, I would agree and wonder how the British got along without the to-the-point business we’re used to.
People in London are so focused on their space and tasks, they can’t be bothered to make small talk. If they do, it’s only because they are stuck in the same space as you for more than ten seconds and you’re not surrounded by dozens of other sweaty tube riders. You are not expected to plaster a false smile on your face when you make eye contact with someone only because with as many people walking, riding, or standing near you, who has the time to make the effort?
It sounds ridiculous, but it’s also quite freeing. No one really cares when you answer the obligatory question, “how are you?” but over here, no one even makes the effort to ask, so why worry about having to come up with a response?
On the other side of the coin, though, it is very lonely. There were days where I would go hours without speaking to another human being. I would pounce on Jeff when he came home with a zillion questions about his day, and all he wanted to do was come home to silence. I can’t just call up my sister for dinner or run around the park with a friend. Even the people at my new job are in their own world unable to really accept me yet, so socializing is a challenge.
When people ask me how I’m liking London, I keep saying it’s an adjustment. Not the weather or the transportation, but the human interaction. I can live with the human traffic jams and second-hand smoke, but the lack of camaraderie and my comfort zone is a different thing entirely. You never realize how much you need that life raft once it’s gone.