Every morning for the past week, I have woken with puffy bags under my eyes and small spots surfacing around my chin. And every year it takes a while for me to remember that the same thing happened last year. Every year I closely examine my unusually dull complexion and think "What the f-?" and every year I prod around my sinuses as though I can manually shove the excess fluid back to where it is meant to be.
This year the change in the weather has coincided with moving to a new area, and my symptoms were so severe that I wondered whether I needed any suitcases - the bags under my eyes were pretty extreme. I also wondered whether I was allergic to my new home, or simply just the area.
I wasn't expecting to move to this area. I am living in Tottenham, within a stone's throw of White Hart Lane overground station. The address might state 'Haringey', but it's definitely Tottenham. I was aiming for a more upmarket area, like Muswell Hill or Highgate or Crouch End. Instead, I am in da ghetto, innit.
If there is a good way to learn unconditional love, this has to be it. It is a poor area. The flat I live in is surrounded by Turkish families, unable to speak English, with children who are out on the streets at all hours. Everyone else is black. Or Polish. Or something else. Basically speaking, as a Single White Female, I am the ethnic minority. I am it. I am She. I stand out like a sore thumb. And it scared me at first.
The road to the station - Pretoria Road - is littered with small piles of glass from the side windows of cars, foolishly parked with something potentially removable on view. Young black men saunter up and down, their jeans hanging somewhere around their knees. The first couple of times I walked from the station late at night, I found myself in a rush to get through the front door, uncomfortable with following or being followed, trying rather impossibly to look invisible in my bright purple winter coat.
After the initial culture shock, I opened up. People are people. Everyone has their own story. Despite external appearances and behaviours, we are all human. I decided not to judge - to be friendly to everyone I met. To have no fear.
My first challenge was at the post office, at the front of the queue waiting for two young people to finish their individual transactions at the counter after a riveting conversation on chewing gum ("Yeah, I wanna pay my rent, a'ight? You can take eleven fifty from dis, yeah? Ana haf one pahnd fifty to pay in cash, innit. Oh, an den I want sum cash back, innit. You do dat, right?" Believe me dahlings when I tell you that this is such an education for me). A young (white) guy wearing a dodgy tracksuit was two behind me in the queue. And as the young couple sorted their finances, he got increasingly agitated.
Oo 'eck, I thought, it's all about to kick off. He was hopping from one foot to the other, looking at his watch and grumbling to himself. I opened my mind to the possibility that he had a medical issue which was best not revealed in public. But no. He pushed forwards and tapped me on the arm (RAPE!!! RAPE!!!) "Excuse me, sweet'art, can I go in front of you in the queue? Only I've got one of these" he lifted a trouser leg to reveal an electronic tag "and I need to get home really quick. I'm really sorry, but is that okay?"
Oh. I am mingling with common criminals now. Being in no rush myself, and given that he asked so politely, I allowed him to go first. He thanked me profusely as he left. Whatever he had done to earn the tag, he hadn't lost his manners. The old man behind me in the queue, instead of judging my posh, white, middle-classed (oh if only they knew) ass with a disapproving stare, smiled and raised his eyebrows: The youth of today.
And so I have found I have a choice, and that my attitude affects my experience. Smile, and they smile instantly back. It's not so hard to fit in.
All da same, when ah walk back from da station late at night, yeah, ah fink it's a good fing to be a bit more street - ya know wot ahm sayin'? Coz dey ain't gonna mess wiv me, innit, when ah looks like dis is ma patch, a'ight?