Let me start this by saying that I really do like London. I've lived here for quite a few years now and it is the only other city apart from Lagos that I look upon as 'home'. But..
Visiting London as a tourist was exciting. I'm sure it still is exciting for the thousands of tourists who clog up the streets during the summer months, seemingly under the impression that everybody they see around them is a tourist too just like they are. It was with this same excitement that I arrived in London years ago when I came to live here. But I was not a tourist this time, and it didn't take long for me to realise that not everyone I saw was as excited as I was.
It was in the spring and the flowers were in bloom. The air was crisp, and being fresh from dusty Lagos I thought the air smelt sweet. Then there was the fact that it seemed as if there was a giant air conditioner cooling the whole city. It was my first morning, a Saturday. And when I stepped out unto the street I was very excited. However, it struck me that the pavement was empty although it was obvious that every house on this street had occupants, since on each side of the road was a row of cars parked tightly together. So I was relieved to see that in the distance walking towards me was the figure of a man, although it was as yet impossible to make out the details of his appearance. Anyway, there was someone out here and I wasn't alone, so I quickened my step, walking towards this person who by now I saw was an older man with the olive skin of the people from the Mediterranean. I fixed my gaze on him, smiling, with the expectation that I would greet him as we approached each other. He was looking straight ahead, walking slowly, as of someone completely lost in thought. As we drew closer I could see that he was not looking at me at all, in fact it was as if he did not even notice that there was a person on the same pavement as he was.
My conditioning having lived most of my life until then in the congenial social conditions of African society, caused me to walk up to him and say the most pleasant "Good morning.." that I could muster, a broad smile on my face. The reaction I got was startling. First of all, it was as if he wasn't sure if I had said something to him. He turned his head towards me and when he was no longer in doubt that I had in fact spoken to him, the uncertain expression on his face changed to surprise. He was a much older man and in my culture one must always defer to the elders. So I greeted him again, bowing my head a little this time. Looking up at him, I saw that what was surprise had now changed to shock and then alarm. Then finally he looked at me in the the way you would regard an insect that suddenly appeared on your living room wall, saying not a word to me. His step had faltered only momentarily, and he just carried on walking as if I did not even exist. I slunk away, hurt and slightly confused..
Looking back now, I have tried to imagine what might have been going on in his mind at that moment. Probably those stories he'd read in the papers about knife-wielding black youths who rob elderly ladies in the street. It took this experience for me to learn that in London, you did not just walk up to random strangers and say hello. It seems to me that having been here all these years, I too have acquired a certain frostiness and become a bit like the Londoners who were here before me. I'm no longer as warm and amiable as I used to be.
I was out today doing my rounds from office to court and back and I made a conscious decision to make a note each time I saw someone smile. London is a very overcrowded city, thus you're guaranteed to encounter hundreds, even thousands of people in the City on a weekday. Of the very many people I saw, not one single one of them was smiling. I have heard people comment on how unfriendly London can be, and I regret to say that I will have to concur. The British famously refer to their aloofness as 'the British reserve', and they have set the tone for the rest of us who come here to join them. People hardly even talk to each other and the result is that understanding between individuals and communities is thwarted.