Much of our lives are experienced alone. How strange then to realise that cities respond to this aloneness in different ways.
Now back in London for a few weeks – bereft of The Baby, The Wife and also The Dog – I am surprised at how unwelcoming this city, my city, is to the one without the two.
It’s not overt or aggressive – there have been no altercations or open rudeness. But there is a definite suspicion that surrounds me and an unease that defines every interaction: an unspoken question-mark that seems to hover over me even in bastions of solitude such as the coffee shop, the cinema, the museum or the park.
Has it always been there, here? Though the feeling is definitely familiar, perhaps I’m only able to quantify it now because my time in Tel-Aviv has allowed me to view London with an outsider’s eyes. Perhaps it is naiveté, but had I to guess, I would have supposed that the larger, more populous and heterogenous city would be the more accepting, but the opposite seems true. In London, much of life is to be experienced in private: grief, joy – even children – all to be locked away in the confines of a limited group. All that should remain visible are the anodyne vessels (never singular), crucial to the smooth-running of the town. Minimal friction between constituent parts.
London in macro has no time for individual stories, and so someone standing alone (bereft of companionship, of conversation, of an easily identifiable current purpose) threatens to demand a relationship beyond the please, the thank-you, the sorry.
Maybe that’s all London’s famous politeness is: the avoidance of extraneous humanity.
Tel-Aviv is the polar opposite. It is a rambunctious city that heaves along in fits and starts, propelled onwards by its interactions and a continuous, mutual, and many-sided explosion of minute relationships. The solo is welcomed, enveloped, even celebrated and rather than precluding inclusion in society’s activities, being alone dictates participation. It’s exhausting, but it also removes the stigma from the uncertain and drags the lone individual from the shadows and into the light.
There are consequences of this systemic openness. I have never seen pain so public, nor chronic isolation and vulnerability so visible as in Tel-Aviv, and I have never been made to feel more awkward in daily life. But I have also never felt so un-judged, so comfortable irrespective of circumstance, so free to just do, to just be. And whereas the pangs of uncertainty that I am now feeling here in the city of my birth, tripped off by loneliness, can spiral – invisibly – out of control, in Tel-Aviv they are kept in check by the brazen – and sometimes infuriating – inquisitiveness of its people.
There is something incredibly life-affirming in visibility.