When I was eight years old my family moved from the outskirts of London to a town in West Sussex called Worthing.
A year later my grandparents followed us, waving goodbye to the Fulham townhouse they had called home for the past fifty years.
I would ring up my nan (because this was in an era when using the house phone was – in a shocking twist – part of every day life) and I would ask her how she was.
Her reply was always the same, her thick Polish accent repeating either ‘Ah Hanulla, I am dying’ or ‘Ah Hanulla, I miss London you know.’
Always a joy as a kid to hear that your nan thinks she’s dying. (And spoiler, she didn’t die for at least another two decades.)
I never understood her responses back then. I was just chuffed to pieces that she had moved closer to me, that she had loved me and my siblings enough to follow us to the coast. I couldn’t see why she couldn’t possibly be happy with that decision or why she would miss London. She had the seaside here! But more importantly, she had us here! What else could she possibly want?
It’s only now, as I graduate more and more into the highly complex life of a proper ‘grown-up’ that I begin to understand her pain, and her longing for a place different to the one she was currently residing in.
You see, in leaving Fulham, she had not only left behind her home, she had left behind other family members, close friends, not-as-close friends, and all the people in between, the people you forget become ingrained in every day life: her hairdresser, the man in the corner shop who sold her milk and brandy, the woman in Ladbrokes her helped her place bets on horse racing, her neighbours who she’d chat in the street with as the sun went down, and so on and so on.
She had been stripped of her sense of community.
In the years following her departure from London, I remember being mortified when we’d go on a trip to the supermarket and I’d wander away from my nan, only to find her a few minutes later locked in a conversation with a complete stranger down the tinned vegetable aisle. It would only take a moment to realise the stranger she had pounced on was also Polish – she would hear the whispers of her native tongue and she would go running to find the source. She was constantly attempting to rebuild herself a new community, to make herself feel happier, and I guess, less like she was dying.
And whilst I am not living in a strange country desperate to discover people who understand me – both in language and life experience – I do now understand her unrelenting hunger to find people who she related to. People she could talk to about her day, share her worries and her hopes, people who made her feel less alone.
We live in an age where we are more connected to people than ever, we are ambushed by constant communication, be it the endless chitter chatter of our Instagram stories, or the ongoing updates from the 65753631 Whatsapp groups we have somehow ended up in.
The noise of others seems louder than it perhaps ever has, and yet… and yet… I feel like perhaps we are lonelier than ever before.
I understand her pain, her longing for physical contact and communication with the world around her. I don’t want the background noise of strangers misunderstanding each other’s tone and messages via social media, I don’t want the ‘hey, how are you?’ text messages once every three months to people I once saw every day, and I don’t want the best conversations of my day to happen without eye contact. I want the real deal. I want people around me. People sharing stories and feelings and emotions and ideas. I want to share tea and biscuits and home cooked meals. I want that kind of uplifting inner contentment from human contact that can’t easily be described, the kind which makes you feel satisfied, alive, healthy, at one with both yourself and the world.
I read a book recently (and please forgive me for completely forgetting which book it was or what it was even about) which mentioned at least three times that human are pack animals.
I run through that fact in my head at least once a day, and I remind myself of the way nature intended us to live. I remind myself that I am not crazy or broken for wanting a physical community around me – it is ingrained into my instincts by the very fact I am a human being.
But I don’t know where we go from here. I don’t know how we find the balance between digital communication and real-life communication. I don’t know how we go back to a place where we knew our next-door neighbours first names, where we made friends easily, where we helped each other and invited each other into our homes.
I just know I want that. I want people. I feel stronger, more me, more right, when I have taken in a good dose of human interaction.
Parenting becomes easier, dealing with cruel comments becomes easier, doing the chores becomes easier, existing somehow becomes easier. And I want an easy life, y’know?
I want a life that is enriched my people and I am on a mission to get it. Watch this space.