by Rachele Salvini
David Bowie died on January 10, 2016, two days after I moved to London. In the eighteen months since he was diagnosed with liver cancer, he recorded Blackstar, knowing it was his last album. It’s a great piece of music: death on vinyl. His voice a hiss. Every song a farewell gift. Light years away from “The London Boys,” the B-side of his first single, a song about a boy leaving home to move to London. He does drugs, wears flashy clothes, takes on shitty jobs. He’ll do whatever, as long as he can be a London Boy.
I listened to Bowie’s last album in my new, minuscule room in Stratford. It was an ugly and overpriced apartment in a dirty neighborhood, but it didn’t matter: I was there to write.
Bowie’s death and his last album were my first memories of London. They paved the way for my whole stay: a load of bollocks in a glorious city.
The first time I walked to University of Westminster, where I would spend the next year getting my master’s degree in Creative Writing, I spent hours losing myself in the chaos of the city. The stores of Oxford Street were filled with hundreds of Bowies. It was part of London’s tribute—mannequins wearing flame red wigs, the famous flashlight shimmering across their faces. Around my university, buses barely stopped to let people in and out; the streets exploded with things to see, and in the middle of all that, all these mannequins towered over one of the most important streets in the world. They were dressed like Ziggy Stardust to commemorate the loss of one of London’s finest citizens.
Between all the Ziggies, I saw myself in the reflection of the windows: me, a twenty-two-year-old girl from Italy, falling into the sweaty pit of London during the Brexit campaign, determined to get a master’s degree in Creative Writing in English, a language that wasn’t—and maybe would never be—mine. I didn’t like what I saw in the windows. Like Bowie, I wanted to be one of the London Boys. I wanted to be a Londoner.
Most European migrants choose London as their destination. It’s not hard to imagine why. The majority of us have learned at least a little bit of English in school, so the language barrier is less shocking than it would be if we moved to, say, Berlin or Oslo. But why not other English or Irish cities? Why not Liverpool, Manchester, Edinburgh, Dublin, Cork? The truth is, everyone wants to be a Londoner. London is where things happen. It would be the Capital of Europe, if British people didn’t decide that Europe wasn’t good enough for them after all. I moved to London in 2016, breathing in the full stink of the Brexit campaign. I was honored to be in a city where history was being made, but at the time, I didn’t know that it wouldn’t be made in my favor.
Still, I didn’t really “need” to move to London in the traditional sense. I didn’t lose my job back in Italy; I didn’t have a tragic history of joblessness like many other fellow Italian citizens.
But I wanted to write in English, the language of my favorite literature, my favorite music, my favorite movies. I wanted to learn how to write and speak it more than anything else. Before seeing London, I didn’t even care about where I was moving; it might as well be a small town in Wales.
Wondering why I wanted to speak and write in a language that wasn’t mine is like asking myself why I wanted to speak and write in the first place. It’s like asking why someone wants to learn how to play and write music, how to paint, how to draw. English was simply a way of communicating what I was drawn to. I could write a whole dissertation about the reasons why people decide to write in languages other than their own.
I could go ahead and argue that my desire was due to the unhealthy effect of American and British cultural colonialism and imperialism. It’s possible. So many languages in Europe—languages that are complex and ever-changing—have been altered by the catchiness of English words. In Italy, we have started saying “meeting” instead of “appuntamento,” “food” instead of “cibo.” English words sound cooler, and we use them instead of using our own words. Italy embraced American and British culture. Something in my brain decided that I needed to go a bit further. I didn’t just want to learn English; I wanted to write stories and novels in English. I didn’t want to simply embrace English; I wanted to own it and manipulate it into words I could put on paper. That’s why I moved to London. University of Westminster was the only university starting in January, and I wanted to go as soon as possible, after finishing my bachelor’s in September. I didn’t want to waste time.
There was something about being an aspiring writer in London that made me feel like I was onto something. I volunteered at a literary agency; I walked around and wrote about the city, the vibe, the people I saw. Our professors were incredibly successful authors who had published something like ten books apiece, with big international publishers like Penguin. They taught our classes for two hours a week, and then they went back to live their fancy writer’s lives. I wanted to be them. I was the only international student in the class, and my professors and classmates always embraced my poorly-written stories and poems; they didn’t care about my grammar errors and my bad sentence structure.
So I wrote. I got immensely inspired from just learning about the city, breathing in the culture, seeing bands in pubs. The exercises in class spoke of London’s popular culture and political turmoil; once we were asked to go through tabloids, spot some news that we liked and write a ten-minute play about it. I wrote a piece about Liam Gallagher having the audacity to call his son Lennon, because he thought Oasis was a better band than the Beatles.
London culture was still deeply impacted by “Cool Britannia,” the era in the ’90s when British music, literature, film, art, and fashion were inspired by the Swinging London of the ’60s. Oasis, Blur, Spice Girls, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Notting Hill, Trainspotting, Damien Hirst, Alexander McQueen, Princess Diana, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell—just some of the people and things that happened in barely a decade of British cultural history. I loved British aesthetics, music above all; you could pick any decade since the ’50s, and you would find something exceptional that the Brits did then. Beatles. Stones. Pink Floyd. Zeppelin. Bowie. Sex Pistols. Clash. Queen. Depeche Mode. Arctic Monkeys. Gorillaz. Just to name a few, in chronological order.
I read so much about these bands. I wanted to roam the streets of London with no purpose, stop in front of Buckingham Palace and flip off the Queen with Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols. I wanted to smoke pot in a park in Camden Town with the Clash, and walk across Abbey Road with John, Paul, George, and Ringo. I wanted my writing to ooze this culture. My stories set in London had to be pop. They had to come alive with references and lyrics and gigs, just like London did. I read up about British fashion and culture, about mods and teddy boys. I bought skinny jeans, plaid scarves, and leather paddock boots, the style in fashion. I wore a long grey coat and tied the belt around my waist, like stunning young professionals did when they stepped off the tube to go work at advertisement agencies and fashion magazines. Flawless straight hair, perfect manicures, lines of tiny earrings dangling from their ears. They looked like London was their place.
I learnt the drill in less than two months. I started walking around like I had a purpose, avoided looking up at the Big Ben or down at the Thames or at the squirrels running around Green Park. I got pissed when clumps of Italian tourists got in my way. I became the kid from London who drank pints at the pub with her mates and knew what a Sunday roast was, but was too cool to have it. Sundays are for hangovers and Bloody Marys, not overpriced and mediocre lunches surrounded by tourists. I never had a typical Sunday roast, just out of principle.
Like Bowie said, I wanted to become one of the London Boys. I was mad for it. I knew this phrase wasn’t from London; Liam and Noel Gallagher from Oasis used it all the time in their slurred Manchester accent. “Mad for it.” To be over-excited about something. That’s what I was when I moved to London. Mad for it all. London threw stuff at me constantly in a tornado of history and culture.
There was always something in my brain that kept telling me that I didn’t belong at all. I knew I wasn’t one of Bowie’s London Boys. I knew it when one of my British roommates got drunk and told me and the other Italian roommates to go back to our country. I knew it when I sat on the train on my way to class and flipped through the free tube tabloids. Brexit was happening. British people didn’t like European immigrants that much.
I knew that I wasn’t a Londoner when I went out with my classmates and couldn’t afford to pay for rounds of beers. I knew it when I went to The Scotch of St. James with a couple of mates and all I could wonder was, how did I get here. It was an exclusive nightclub hidden in an alley between Piccadilly and Green Park. We had called their manager and told them that we were students who needed to do research on The Beatles, and we were miraculously let in.
The Beatles had their own table at the bar. The legend says that when the Fab Four came in, whoever was sitting at their table had to get up and leave. The Stones and The Who used to hang out there all the time in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s a very dark nightclub; you can barely see what’s happening around you. The only light comes from the candles on the tables and the green neon under the counter. I’m assuming it’s because people like Kate Moss, Keira Knightley, and other celebrities are regulars, and they don’t want to be harassed.
I felt special and invisible and ill-suited at the same time, because there I was, my broke, ordinary ass surrounded by extremely attractive and well-dressed people. I was just my usual piece-of-shit self, widening my eyes at the bartender when I heard the price of my watered-down gin and tonic. I would have drunk beer, but they didn’t serve it, and like the bad Italian I was, I didn’t like wine. I doubt they served it either.
My drink wasn’t even that good. We sat there, squinting to watch the cool people around us, like we were tourists—the opposite of London Boys. I had managed to get into Cool Britannia, the bar where rock stars used to hang, and I was completely out of place. But that’s how I felt in London all the time: special and invisible. Which is why I started to think of home.
My first British short story was a piece of shit inspired by Everything That You’ve Come to Expect, the second album by The Last Shadow Puppets, a side project of Miles Kane with Alex Turner from Arctic Monkeys. They promoted the album with a UK tour in the first months of 2016. The two London dates were immediately sold out, so a classmate and I travelled all the way to Brighton, a small town on the southern coast of the United Kingdom.
I brought a copy of the piece of shit story with me, carefully printed and tucked in a brown envelope. As bad as it was, it was also one of my first works of fiction in English, the first “British” one. It was set in a vegan restaurant in London. The narrator was a pissed-off waiter who’s sick of all the idleness of London’s rich, young hipsters. It was unoriginally called “The Bad Habit,” just like my favorite song from The Last Shadow Puppets’ album.
I don’t know what I hoped to gain when I threw the envelope onstage at the concert. I was so proud of that story, of the way I thought I had successfully depicted British culture, British aesthetics, the authentic British-ness of a working-class guy thrown into the empty, elitist world of hip London, with its overpriced drinks and restaurants and all the attractive people wearing the same clothes—the long grey coats, the belts tied around the waist, the paddock boots, the skinny jeans, the plaid scarves.
After I threw the envelope at the feet of the band members, one of the roadies caught it and tossed it somewhere offstage. “They’ll read it,” my classmate said after the concert, when we grabbed a pint at the pub behind the venue. We were surrounded by people who looked like us: long hair, leather jackets, skinny jeans. I felt like such a crook. This was Brighton, and the same people I both disliked and wanted to resemble were there, listening to my same music, drinking the same IPAs.
One of the staff members of the venue was at the table behind us. “Yeah, mate,” he was telling his friend. “That guy from the Arctic Monkeys said that he was too good to do a sound check. What a bloody prick. Who does he think he is? Liam Gallagher?”
I looked down at my pint and drank. Someone who thought he was too good to do a sound check would not read my story.
Before the concert, we had walked around Brighton’s seafront, the pebbles squeaking under our feet. We got fish and chips from a food truck and sat on the beach. The Atlantic Ocean didn’t look like the green Mediterranean Sea I was used to. It was grey, flat, too cold for my feet to sink in.
Italians in London are loud and complain more than anything. They complain about how overpriced Nutella is, how bad coffee is. They complain about the lack of fresh produce; they complain about the lack of dolce vita. They complain about a lifestyle that makes your coffee to-go, while in Italy it doesn’t matter if you’re in a hurry; you have to drink your coffee at the counter and leave the used mug when you’re done.
I missed the sea more than anything. I missed being able to smell the ocean when I opened the window; I missed the wind on my face. Libeccio was a kinder wind than the one blowing in London. Back home the air smelled like algae and was salty on my cheeks. The wind in London messed up my hair and made my bones shake.
Sometimes, when I knew that I was never going to be a Londoner, I missed my friends and my family. I missed my dog barking in the yard, the low bushes of the Mediterranean scrub, the dark earth crumbling under my heels when I went on walks around my house. Stratford, the area of East London where I lived, was mostly made of shopping centers; the apartments were ugly and dirty. I would constantly find trash and poop and chicken bones on the stairs, and the walls smelled of human and animal pee.
Now, don’t take me as a crybaby. When I moved to Stratford, the music geek in me was stoked. Damon Albarn, singer of Blur and Gorillaz, grew up in Leyton, just a few steps from where I lived. During one of my first strolls around Stratford, I bumped into a pub, The Cart and Horses, where Iron Maiden formed and started playing. It was this small British pub with wooden walls, tiny windows, and a shit-ton of Iron Maiden memorabilia—guitars, vinyl records, pieces of clothing. The beers were all named after Iron Maiden albums: Brave New World, Dance of Death. The members of the bands playing on weekends were Iron Maiden nostalgic fans—year-old men sporting long hair and leather vests.
After I arrived in Stratford, it didn’t matter that it was all dull and dirty and ugly. It was exactly like Bowie said about being a London: to let myself down would be a disgrace.
What was so bad about being an Italian bird who was proud of her heritage and culture and was in London to get a degree in writing? Obviously nothing. Still, some Brits wanted my people and many others to get the fuck out of their country.
I didn’t get it as bad as others. I am white—privileged, even in the midst of the Brexit campaign. Still, the more I read articles and opinions about the UK leaving the European Union to make the immigration process harder for people from poorer European countries, the more I was proud of my heritage, my food, my coffee, my body shape, my curly hair, my clothes, my relatively relaxed attitude towards life. In the Brexiting United Kingdom I felt like I was supposed to be more Italian, the most I could be.
This started when I had to do an internship as a requirement for my degree. I worked at a video production company in Central London, a few steps away from Oxford Street. One of our clients was the Daily Express, a famous right-wing tabloid journal. I had to write scripts for the videos that they aired on their social media pages—mostly short, accessible breakdowns of upcoming political and cultural events. I had to do research, select high-quality pictures, respect copy rights, write in grammatically sound English. I was terrified, but it was an honor.
At the end of my internship, a couple of weeks before the referendum, the company had to film a debate between Labour MP Chuka Umunna, Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, and Nigel Farage, the famous leader of UKIP, a despicable right-wing populist party on the front lines of the Brexit campaign. I assisted the crew as they shot and broadcasted the debate at the top of the Daily Express headquarters building. I mostly took coats, moved chairs, and brought coffee, but as my nametag hit my chest at every step I felt like I was one of those cool, young professionals getting off the tube to go to work. I was in London, in a building and in a city where history was being made. I looked at Nigel Farage, this guy I had seen on the TV so many times, smoking on the balcony of the building. I mean, I hated him—he was probably the number one piece of shit in Britain who wanted my people out of the country—but I felt like I was doing something meaningful, something that made me worth being there.
I was dying to go on the balcony and eavesdrop on him talking to journalists and members of his entourage while looking down at the Thames, but I didn’t want my superiors to see me wasting time. I wasn’t being paid, but it was the last day of my internship, and my superiors had said that I could have unlimited refreshments at the end of the day. They made promises of glowing recommendation letters, and I wanted to show my worth.
When the debate started, I felt like I could finally relax. Unless one of the cameramen needed something from me, I could just watch. There weren’t any chairs left, so I leaned against a wall. Nigel Farage sat there, his legs comfortably spread, talking about border control, EU migrants stealing jobs from Brits, EU migrants daring to ask for public services like everyone else. The debate became hard to watch. I kept my eyes on the floor.
“Is it their country, or is it Britain?” I heard at some point. I don’t remember much else.
No one put a gun against my right temple and said, “move to England, bitch.” I had a family at home. I could have stayed in Italy, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t have the same reasons as my roommates or many other European migrants. But like them, I worked in London, lived in London, and knew what it meant to be surrounded by people who could smile politely and then vote for you to get the fuck out of their country.
At the end of the debate, when I was done working, I went to the refreshment counter. I poured myself a glass of red wine, the only drink left, and sat down after grabbing a shrimp sandwich. This older woman came over. “Good job setting this up,” she said, fixing herself a drink. She looked like one of those ladies with pearl jewelry and fancy hats you see at horse races.
“Thank you,” I replied.
“Where are you from?” she asked, probably hearing my accent.
“Oh,” she said. She paused, looking at me. It was a weird pause. “Bet that red wine isn’t as good as the ones you have at home.”
I wanted to tell her that I didn’t even like wine. I preferred gin, pints of beer, the noise of thick glasses clanking, the scent of the sweaty carpet and stale wood I had only ever smelled in British pubs. I didn’t say any of that.
Before my internship and my first semester were over, I realized that my masters wouldn’t be enough. I wanted to go even farther away from home. I had studied the birth of Creative Writing as an academic subject in America; I had read about the prestige of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, devoured Raymond Carver’s reflections on writing and teaching writing. I wanted to be a writer and a teacher of creative writing, just like my professors in London. My advisor encouraged me to apply to PhD programs in the United States. On our last meeting about my thesis, he told me to write about London from the point of view of an outsider. An Italian citizen during the Brexit campaign. “Consider your identity as an asset rather than a weakness,” he said. He ingrained this line in my memory. I had never heard the word “asset” before. It became one of my favorites.
I needed money to apply to PhD programs in the US, so I really needed a job after my internship. I was hired by My Italian Living, an Italian furniture company. My boss, a guy from the North of Italy, owned an Italian restaurant in Central London, a hair salon in Piccadilly Circus, and this company that sold Italian designer furnishing online to British and American customers. I was hired as a web content writer, but it was clear from the beginning that I’d basically be his assistant for everything —sales, accounting, customer service. On the side I wrote stupid shit for the website, along the lines of “this sofa is really comfy.”
My desk was in the staircase of the hair salon, Harry Potter style. I wrote copy, answered the phone, and replied to emails with the noise of hair dryers blasting in my ears along with my boss’s loud voice as he made small talk with customers. He was a dick. Lean, conventionally attractive, with super long, straight, Tarzan hair. He hated my curly hair. He always said, “just do something about it.” He encouraged me to apply my nail-polish “better.” He would tell me stuff like, “the new hair model is not a stunner, just an ordinary girl, like you.” He would tell me that, if I ever had a choice, I should always try to do business with men, because “women are always on their period.” I choked back my tears multiple times, my nails shaking as they hit the keyboard of my computer.
I hated him, but I needed the money. I felt guilty for all the support I was getting from my parents, and the rent for my room was no joke, nor was the tube pass or the food. I worked for him for months, and I hated every single second of it. I started eating a lot. It was my way to feel better about myself, even if then I’d feel guilty and look at myself and understand why my boss found me so repulsive that he didn’t even hold back to say it.
I had thought that being hired by an Italian person would have made me feel more at home after Brexit. We were the people that Brits didn’t want. But that wasn’t the case, either; my boss was a piece of human toilet paper just like any other Brit who could have the privilege to discard people like me. The real difference was not between Brits and Italians; it was between people that could afford to treat others like shit, and those who couldn’t afford to retort.
I didn’t want to go home, because that would have meant that I had failed, but I also didn’t want to stay, and the option of staying in London forever, going to my 9 to 5 job every day, trying to write a novel in the meantime, was revolting to me. I started to resent all the beauty London offered me. The price to pay was too high.
Then one day, as I was stuffing my face with a sandwich at Pret à Manger during my lunch break, I got an email from Oklahoma State University. They had accepted me into their PhD program, and offered me funding. I remember the taste of caramelized onions, the way I started crying with joy as I bought myself a celebratory cappuccino, and then the feeling of heading back to My Italian Living’s “office.” For the first time I walked in like I really had a purpose.
“I’m moving to America,” I told my boss as soon as I walked in. He was straightening a customer’s hair. I spoke in English so she would understand. “I got a job at a University. I quit.”
On the day I knew I would move to America I think that my boss vaguely respected me for the first time. Everyone, even a scummy boss, likes a good quitting moment.
Just a couple of weeks before moving back to Italy, I was on my way home from work and the hem of my skirt got stuck in the escalator of the tube station. I tried to grab it and untangle it, but the escalator just kept eating my skirt like a string of licorice. I was doing my best to hold it back, but couldn’t. My panties were already in sight. People went up and down the escalator, as if nothing was happening, and they just avoided me. They walked past me. I was so embarrassed. “Help,” I said to no one in particular. “Help,” I begged.
Eventually, I ripped the skirt off before I would have to get on the train and walk home in my panties. I made a few steps, my face on fire, the skirt hanging like a torn limb. Then a guy approached me on the platform. “I’m sorry I didn’t offer to help, but I’m also kind of glad I didn’t,” he said, an idiotic smile on his face.
I was really fucking done with London.
The summer before moving to Oklahoma, Gorillaz was playing at Dreamland, a beautiful fun fair park in Margate, on the east coast of England.
Here’s something I still love about London: the inspiration, the music, the culture, the aesthetic. I still love when I hear someone speaking cockney. I still love British music much more than American music. I love the way British English looks on paper. I look at the American spelling of realize and I cringe—something in my brain screams that it should be realise. I still say that I can’t be arsed to do things. I still want to be a London Boy. It seemed appropriate to end my London life with a gig, like I did when I threw my first British story on stage at The Last Shadow Puppets’ concert. My London life was coming to a close.
It was one of the best concerts of my life. I was incredibly relieved, and not just because I was done with London. I knew that I was becoming who I wanted to be. I was never going to be one of the London Boys, and I was fine with it. But maybe I was one of the London Boys after all. I had lived in London when David Bowie had died and Ziggy Stardust mannequins had appeared all over Oxford Street. I had lived in London during the blizzard of the Brexit campaign. That must have made me a part of the London crew for a while, right?
Whatever life-changing epiphany I was having as Gorillaz played, I was so happy that I didn’t even care when this guy next to me puked in a plastic cup and then tossed it all over the crowd. Damon Albarn ran all over the stage and I kept dancing, the smell of puke in my nostrils, probably bits of it in my hair. Appropriately, I bid my farewell to England.
Rachele is an Italian woman based in the United States, where she is doing her PhD in English and Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University. She spent most of her life in Italy, and she writes both in English and Italian. Her work in English has been published or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Moon City Review, and others.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 8 · June 2022
Header image by Avaaz.