I wake up to the sound of roosters at the break of dawn. It is my favourite sound of the day. Everybody hears them yet nobody knows where they live.
Lying on the mattress floor, I await the roaring hiss of trams outside my front window. I love their rickety groove in the mornings. How they rattle, twist and graft their way through the dust.
If you arrive in the right place in life, the promise of summer is a joy to behold.
Listening to the rattling grooves of the trams outside, I occupy a shared space with a graffiti artist, DJ and television producer. Three amigos with curly black hair. Spinning tunes and spilled wine until their hearts run out of beats.
A grungy heap of sorrow with doe eyes asked me for some money tonight. She needed somewhere to stay. The girl must have been in her late teens or early twenties; the night’s shadow made it impossible to say.
When no is else is around, strangers become humans and harder to ignore. More often than not, the roar of city life render the most vulnerable into a passing blur.
Frost was biting my cheeks and the girl looked desperate for warmth. I had been at the cinema and was walking home along an empty concrete aisle to my friend’s apartment in Stepney Green.
I began shuffling in my pockets and found some loose change. I didn’t even know I was carrying any. Embarrassed by the meagre amount, I gave her about 37p and said that was “all I had on me” and she replied “I’ll take anything you have”. I was lying to her. My wallet was burning with greed.
As she walked across the road, I felt a pang of self-disgust and put a tenner in her hand. Her eyes widened in astonishment and she said “God bless you” in a soft cockney accent and I felt horrible for not giving it to her earlier.
The cruelty of London hit me as I entered the landing. How many times do you just walk away like I did? Say nothing or pretend you have no money on you. I couldn’t stop crying as I stepped inside the kitchen. Switching the lights on, the artificial heat smothered my cheeks and my phone vibrated with an emoji smile.
Looking out the window towards the city, I realised I should do more for people. Kindness is all we have when God wrought to make this world so sad.
Living in Florence, I feel isolated and cocooned from reality. In the urban metropolitan sense of the word I mean – delayed trains, surly commuters and existential terror threats. Occasionally, I miss the culture and entertainment of London. It’s easier to strike up a conversation with randoms and hope that someone cares.
Falling into limbo along the Arno valley, where God meets science and the leaves never fall. My errands are gorgeous and I have the luxury of getting bored. Buying mundane items or attending a movie underneath a sea of light, I am aesthetically richer than ever before.
Watching kingfishers hunting alongside canoeists massaging their perfect bodies. I cross bridges where Nazi munitions once roared and couples in bubble coats take meticulously framed photos. Even with the luxury of time, I can’t stop taking identikit pictures of stars and stripes and Romanesque facades.
Sometimes I wish I appeared in more photographs. Taking pictures of churches and statues, I often feel life is passing me by without anyone noticing. I have no reference of my time here beyond these words.
I don’t know how others find it so easy but this longing never goes away. I came here with good intentions, walking to the supermarket on a winter’s morning, where the wind never blows and nothing seems to stick.
Even when I have no pressing desire to see anything, I always go for a walk along the Arno at lunchtime. Tank up on sunlight and watch the terrible beauty roar down the valley. You can walk for pleasure here. Florence is one of the few towns whose name has an abstract quality and it means ‘taste and fine workmanship’.
Wrapped up in a woollen scarf and a paper thin jacket, I walk past antique workshops and impenetrable doors with iron horse rings. There is an aloofness to this sweeping symphony of stone.The Renaissance facades and Protestant-esque churches are designed to keep people out. Florence feels immaculately defensive to anyone walking on the perimeter of her doors.
As the days grow colder, the visitor numbers thin out and I have a winter countdown of my own. Excited and worried about the year ahead, I walk back along the river, trying to catch a sunbeam with my bare hands once more.
One morning a vicious buzzing sensation awoke me from my laptop. It had never gone off before. I mean why would anyone ring my door? Nobody knows that I live here and those who do would call me first. My visitor was a handsome lanky man in a 1920’s prohibition style coat and he immediately addressed me in incomprehensible Italian.
“Non capisco. Non parlo Italiano, mi dispiace signor.”
“Okay, sorry to bother you, what are you doing here? Are you on holiday or is this a safe house?”
Somewhat perplexed by his ‘safe house’ line of questioning, I muttered something about AirBnb and he appeared satisfied with my answer. The door slammed shut. Is that what my invisible neighbours are thinking? That I’m a fugitive on the run. Returning to my desk, I began to think they may have a point.
From soaring lust in cocktail bars, to biblical tempests rinsing Ponte Vecchio to tears, I felt an earthquake rumble underneath the Arno. I want something pure and tangible to take place before I leave here. Reading news articles about Italy being smashed back to the Stone Age, I shudder to think what might have happened if the tremors had crept further north.
Going local in Oltrarno, with its mustard hues and pine green shutters, I love spotting antique workshops, cheese bistros and incomprehensible wine libraries full of dark dreamy bottles. I’ve been living on the south side of Florence and wake up to the sound of church bells every morning. I hope to stay here until New Year.
Since I settled in my Airbnb apartment, I’ve developed a huge respect for Tuscan architecture and design. I could spend all day taking pictures of studded Renaissance doors, with their symmetrical beauty and iron grandeur. Unlike in Venice, where even sea peasants are afforded glimpses of diamond chandeliers and fresco ceilings, you’ll gain no such insight in Florence.
From the gated communities in the suburban hills, to the brown medieval palaces in the city centre, Florence’s stony gates are drawn high. There is an overriding sense of secrecy in the medieval courtyards, an intellectual pride that goes back centuries. Like everything else in life, this only makes me want more.
As the autumnal leaves continue to fall along the Arno, visitors keep on arriving and much to my dismay, the December rental prices keep on rising.
Everyone I’ve met here has either been an architect, fashion designer or a florist. Florence is the intellectual and artistic capital of Italy. I didn’t anticipate just how literate and well-educated local people would be. Nobody seems to cares what I do for a living, but they are individually and collectively more interested on why am I here. How long are you staying here?
For that is the big question I am struggling to answer.
City Road has a godlike spectacle after dark. Nothing ever stays still even at the strike of midnight. It has grown astronomically since I first arrived in 2008. You feel simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted just staring at the traffic.
Walking home amongst glass pyramids and pelican cranes, cycle couriers whistle past me to deliver restaurant food at breakneck speed. Food app riders fascinate me. The push, tug and hurry of modern on-demand consumerism. With their branded helmets and lime green cagoules, a new urban tribe has emerged – a brushstroke of ambition in a globalised world.
Before the skyscrapers were built, I remember Daniela and I moving here and feeling like we had both made it. Sure, the bathroom was a bit rough and the kitchen underwhelmingly small, but this could work. It was my first major foothold in London and after making a series of choices, I won’t be going back.
Freelancing in people pubs, you become convinced that London is the only place that matters. I’ve done this before when I moved to Venice and returned six months later with a thirst for knowledge. How I missed terrifying blitz of technology and energy.
Uneasy jitters are settling in now. I hope I’ve made the right decision. Shifting all my boxes next door and leaving home once again without a key.
With only three weeks left for me in Hoxton, I finally bought a studio desk in a textile factory. Arriving everyday like a laptop camel in my shorts, I love the counter-culture cliche of having my own office. Like the many regrets you have when time is running out, I wish I had done this years ago. To physically and cognitively separate my work, life and playtime into different components.
Creaking back to the mid-twentieth century, the factory will probably be demolished in 18 months time. Hackney Road is prime real estate location for developers. A debilitated aisle of pre-war housing and cheap grocery stories that connects Shoreditch with Bethnal Green.
The Hackney factory is owned by a picture frame business that no longer makes anything. They import all their goods from China. By virtue of abandoning manufacturing, Studio X was born and I bought my desk space from two Spanish artists with dark chocolate beards.
Like everyone else in the studio, the Spaniards make entertainment for a living. They produce a boutique fashion magazine that has an initial distribution run of 4,000 copies. To boost their income, they sub-let their remaining studio space to freelancers such as myself. I paid £140 a month for a desk and sit alongside a Hackney fashion stylist and her three minions:
- a ginger anorexic doll
- dim-witted posh girl
- a blonde street urchin in a baseball cap
Jackie sources expensive clothes for a Radio 1 DJ with a glorious 1970s afro. Attending photo shoots for most of the day, she delegates the hard graft to her interns, who scurry around London collecting wares on behalf of her DJ client. When I compare it to the soul destroying office jobs I did at a similar age, I am glad they are going down a non-conformist path.
Make do and mend and ignore the naysayers.
One of the benefits of working independently is the freedom to have absurd flat viewings. Like this morning when a muscly tattooed Polish chef, who couldn’t speak a distinguishable word of English, and his Irish brother-in-law came round to see my flat.
Standing together in Greg’s old bedsit, an austere collection of second-hand furniture and sunlight, I politely explained my role and responsibilities. My lips were parroting the same old lines, a puffing collection of melancholy sighs and amusing asides.
Has it really come to this?
With his industrial strength tattoos and rock warrior attire, I instinctively felt Marius’s future lay elsewhere. A skittish energy filled the room as he sat down, like a naughty child entering a doctor’s waiting room without any toys.
Immediately detecting my unease, the Irish chaperone gave bizarre assurances on how ‘sweet and clean’ his brother-in-law was. That he would be a great flatmate and I would barely notice him at all.
‘You seem like a good bloke Daniel, we just need to get him settled for a month before we find something more permanent.’
Marius’s painted biceps became more pervasive as he nodded along with his mentor’s sermon. At this point I began to feel sorry for the guy, like he was being auctioned off to anyone desperate enough to take him.
‘What a great place Daniel’s place has here…wouldn’t it be great to live so close to the canal?’
We then all shook hands at the front door and promised to get in touch the following morning to confirm. Of course, none of us did. Flat viewings oscillate from white lies to abject desperation in my experience. A mini-series of half-truths and lips sharpened from making judgements.