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cultural vandal | by maryann johanson

on the stress of breaking all your habits and losing all your routines

If there’s one thing I couldn’t have predicted about my experience chucking my life in New York and hopping on a plane to London with little more than my laptop and some clothes, it would be… Well, it’s a whole bunch of little things… Well, it’s the absence of a whole bunch of little things all rolled into one. And how that absence impacted me, and is continuing to impact me.

I don’t think I really realized that I would be breaking every single habit in my life, and losing every single routine that defined it. Everything that gave my life structure was shattered, all at once, and is still slowly being rebuilt — and some of that rebuilding can’t even begin yet because many questions about just what the hell I’m doing with myself are still unanswered. It’s obvious in retrospect that this habit-breaking and routine-shattered would happen, but I think perhaps I didn’t anticipate it because I’ve never experienced anything like this before. The closest analogy I can make is when I first moved out of my parents house and into my own apartment at the age of 20: that was a huge change in my life… not just the being on my own for the first time, but the move from the suburbs to Manhattan brought its own new habits and routines that would not have come if, say, I’d moved out of my parents’ house and into an apartment the next suburban town over.
But even during that move, I was still working in the same job (as an editor at a decorating magazine), so I still had the day-to-day security of those routines and the company of those same people. Now, while I’m still running the same Web site, still posting the same daily and weekly features, how I’m doing that is different: where I sit with my laptop to surf and write, where I go to screenings, who I see at screenings, how I get to screenings, and so on. All new.

There’s a little subset of broken routines just in dealing with film publicists here in London. Everyone has been very nice, and it’s been great to hear from some of them that they already knew who I was when I introduced myself — it was cool to meet, at a screening, another critic who told me he was a fan! But trying to figure out who is handling what film is often a pain in the ass (it can be sometimes in New York, too, but at least there I know who to approach to begin asking, “Are you handling that movie?”) Trying to figure out what level of bugging the publicists is acceptable is worrying: one doesn’t want to be a problem child, but one doesn’t want to get overlooked and forgotten and miss a screening that really can’t be missed. I had had more than a decade of getting comfortable with the best ways to work with individual publicists in New York. I’m starting over from scratch here.

Now, I’ve never been a creature of rigid habit — I tend to form habits easily, but I also break them easily, too. And I’ve always hated routine, like that of going into the same office every day at the same time. But when we talk about being creatures of habit or hating routines, we’re talking about larger things than the tiny building blocks of everyday living, the thousand little patterns we subconsciously fall into that let us do some of the less important stuff on autopilot, leaving space in our heads for the more important stuff.

But this is just a tiny sampling of the things I’ve had to give serious conscious thought to over the past six weeks:

Where I shop. What I eat. When I eat. With whom I eat. How much time to leave to get anywhere and not be late. What train to take. How to pay for that train. Whether, when I get off the train, to take the tube or the bus or whether it’s faster to walk. Which cafes and coffeeshops are good for working in for hours. Which ones have accessible power outlets and which don’t. Which ones have free wifi and which don’t. What toothpaste I use. Which toothbrush I use. How I get mail. How I send mail. How I get online. How I clean my clothes. How I clean myself. Why there are two buttons for flushing the toilet. Where I sleep. How I sleep (duvets: cosy, but weird to me). The air in the room where I sleep. The sun that shines in the window in the morning (or doesn’t) where I sleep. How I look both ways when I cross the street (in reverse, then do it again to be sure I don’t get slammed by a big red bus). How I can’t get a decent bagel. How cream cheese is called soft cheese. How I can’t get half-and-half for my tea and coffee. That there is good hard cider on tap. That one must specify a crisps flavor. That some people call “dinner” or “supper” tea. How I pay for everything (do I use the British ATM card, and how is that account balance doing? should I use the American ATM card and take a hit on the foreign-currency transaction? should I use the U.S. credit card that doesn’t charge the foreign transaction fee, or the one that does? should I pay cash? can I count out the coins without embarrassing myself by having to look them over front and back to figure out if that’s a 10p or a 5p piece?) That some people are making assumptions about me when they hear my American accent. That I’m the stranger here.

I never could have predicted how stressful it is to have to think about absolutely everything you’re doing, and to make deliberate choices based on woefully incomplete information. It sounds silly even as I write it now: It’s not like I haven’t spent lots of time in England before, and it’s not even like I have to cope with a foreign language.

But of course it’s not the same as being a tourist on vacation. When you’re just visiting, it’s all charmingly odd and you’re just holding your breath waiting to get back to your reality. You’re not creating your new reality.

Ah, and I do know the coins by site now, so I can confidently scoop up some change and not embarrass myself getting my morning coffee. And I’ll say this: Thank god my brand of tampons is available here.

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