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.
After a decade of cramped quarters in London, I have travelled over to Italy for one month to ‘work on my novel’. Well not exactly, aside from a few letters and postcards, but you get the idea. On moving to Oltrarno, an artisan district in Florence, I am now adjusting to the concept of space.
I have become so accustomed to living in a box that I feel lost just walking down the corridor. Like I actually have to walk to retrieve my phone if I leave it on the kitchen table. Is this how normal, moderately successful people live? If so, I’m staying in Europe for as long as it remains feasible to do so.
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.
All I want to do is make connections with people. Join up the unspoken sighs we privately share and express them vividly in my own language. Like when I ordered a ‘wee’ bottle at the theatre and spoke to a barista about the respective softening of our Scottish accents.
A wee, friendly conversation might be a normal everyday occurrence in any other city, but in London this felt like an epiphany. For a few minutes, I experienced a kindred sense of belonging I hadn’t felt in years. All she did was ask me which part of Scotland I was from.
Stonehaven? Is that right? I’m fae Barrhead myself. Softly spoken and yet miles apart, a celebration of commonality by a cash till.
Sitting amongst the cheery chatter of keyboards in north London, I wonder why I’m so fixated on matters outwith my control. My mind rattles around like a broken trolley, swerving and spiraling in different directions. I feel like I don’t make any decisions of my own.
Juggling two books and a barren phone, I wake up earlier now and go on the tube. Reading about an outsider artist from Chicago and the perils of hypervigilance, I rattle past 1930s suburbs in the sunshine. Its a non-linear journey with no tangible end in sight.
Alas, change is always partial and always by degree. Like what did people do in offices before they sent emails to one another? I need to be far grander in my ambitions than merely taking up space. I want to live passionately and make huge, spectacular mistakes.
Nothing will change unless I make mistakes.
Don’t feel guilty. What most people don’t understand is that they are characters to someone else, that there are layers. We get so caught up in just one, that we don’t allow people to grow and change. We stick them in boxes immediately, and if you’re not writing it’s fine. I’ve never had someone discover my blog, although I’m sure if they did, there would be hell to pay.
Keep writing – you could go somewhere
Jane is one of my forgotten acquaintances, a waif thin blonde poet from Los Angeles who randomly emailed me in 2004. She was an enigma in many ways. I never really knew the girl behind the haze of poetic messages, but we both shared a love of confessional writing. I particularly loved getting emails from her at 5am. The wonders of millennium technology was still remarkable back in 2004.
Looking back I find it amazing that someone so young could be so warm and insightful about the realities of life. How is this even possible? She was barely even twenty when she wrote this.
I don’t think either of us had any real sense of each other IRL. We were complete strangers in that respect. Our correspondence was a weird abstract friendship that could only have flourished online.
I don’t recognise myself reading my old emails. I barely write at all now. You run out of things to say, or come to the realisation that everything you want to say has been written by somebody else.
It’s the fear that stops you from writing, the fear of someone you know or might meet will judge you without them realising, there are layers upon layers that make me unrecognisable to that person.
And if you ever wrote about them, there would be hell to pay.
Typecast again after another audition, I looked powerful and resolute as I caught myself in the mirror. I was the man for all things. You can trust a man in a suit. He has authority and purpose.
A blonde Russian beauty made eyes with me at Bank station; a petite Indian business woman looked twice at Moorgate, and a man in his early thirties asked me directions to Aldgate East.
It was a power trip compared to my life in trainers. But the suit betrayed what I was really thinking. I don’t know what I’m doing here. Living in the centre of the empire and dressing up like I’m a king.
Earlier today I spotted a man standing on the tube watching a film on his laptop. My headphones were jammed full of noise candy at the time, listening to sweet, sweet songs I don’t even like. This endless thirst for distraction is never ending.
Sometimes I fear we consume so many stories that we don’t take part in any of our own. Have you seen it yet? Don’t say anything, I’m only on episode four…Come home, throw open a picture book and close the door.