Entry #6: Notting Hill
Two weeks ago, we celebrated Bank Holiday, which occurs precisely three times a year in the UK. Traditionally, banks close for a day to do some trading and catch up with accounts though nowadays, this is usually squeezed into normal working hours and most employees everywhere get a day off. These long weekends become a great excuse for getaway trips, time spent with family, and getting hammered with friends.
In August, bank holiday coincidentally falls on the same day as Notting Hill Carnival.
Notting Hill Carnival is the world’s largest street festival and attracts over two and a half million people each year. The jubilant event celebrates Caribbean tradition and history with a colorful parade accompanied by steel bands and floats mounted with massive sound systems playing calypso. People dance through the streets and blow their whistles; some are dressed in carnival costume while others are covered in glitter.
There are stalls with delicious Caribbean food: curried goat, jerk chicken, and fried plantain. But there is also broken glass everywhere and silver gas canisters on the floor. Police stand coolly next to a group of young white women inhaling laughing gas, and occasionally stop to pat down a young black men in search of a knife. It is a strange atmosphere - exciting, but altogether on edge.
London has the second largest immigrant population next to New York City. At first glance, this may seem like a multicultural city to live in and therefore, inclusive. On the other hand, one might think that this extreme diversity leads to controversy and conflict.
I grew up in Slovenia, our population is two million people - that’s nearly all of the people who go to Notting Hill Carnival in one country. The stereotypical Slovene is white, Catholic, always on time and most likely, a sports enthusiast.
My class had a maximum of twenty-five people from elementary school to middle school. I used to see the same people on the bus every morning on my way to and from the music academy. I would often see my neighbors in the city, doing mundane activities like buying groceries and sometimes more personal things like going on a date with another neighbor. I mean, I still go to the same hairdresser since I was seven.
But there were and still are identity clashes. There exists discrimination amongst Slovenes, whether you are from the city, the coast, or the mountains. But especially after the fall of Yugoslavia in the 90s, mixed Balkan nationalities felt like strapping on a detonator and giving the remote to someone else. In my case, I am American, Slovene and Serbian. I consider my parents to be political revolutionists because they thought why don’t we combine capitalism and communism to see what we get.
In Slovenia, I was never Slovene enough, in Serbia I was an “amerikenjac” which literally translates to an American donkey, and in America, no one could ever guess what state I was from. Luckily in London, I am Canadian.
Still it took a while to adjust to this city. Initially when I moved here, I was shocked. Suddenly, everything became impersonal; every interaction was transient. You wouldn’t run into the same person twice, even if you lived one door down from each other, and yet, everyone was oh-so-polite, it hardly ever felt genuine. It was weird, feeling both isolated and liberated. I was a stranger in a city full of strangers.
This is my fifth year in London and I have come to learn that things are only as impersonal as you make them. I now run into university friends in the city, have a local pub and know the bartenders’ names, dodge seeing my ex when walking in neighboring parks, and say hello to the same homeless man every day before work.
The reality is that despite its cosmopolitanism, London is made up of small communities and intricate, long-standing relationships similar to that of a small town. It is full of gossip and feuds, just on a larger scale.
It was back in the 1950s when Notting Hill saw a dip in rent prices, drawing in many Carribbean immigrants. Unfortunately, this expenditure included dealing with racial tyranny and exploitation. During this period, Notting Hill Carnival was created. The intention was to enable British West Indian communities in this area and throughout the city to feel at home.
The festival continues to stand as a symbol of solidarity, further highlighting black diasporic and black British culture, but the Caribbean community has significantly decreased and the area has gone back to being populated by its former white majority.
Notting Hill is actually best known for its large gorgeous Victorian townhouses, stucco-fronted pillar porches, and private garden squares. Walk along its meandering roads and you can sink into its affluence. On Saturdays, the main attraction is Portobello Road Market, which caters to the world’s largest antiques and collectibles. The streets are buzzing with noise, tourists come to haggle and camera buffs click away, capturing the crowd. The question this raises in my mind is, why do we create these in and out groups in the first place? Who and what are we trying to protect?
A few weeks ago I binge watched Netflix’s new docu series, The Family, and If you haven’t jumped on that bandwagon, the show is part conspiracy theory, part terrifying reality. Journalist Jeff Sharlet takes a look at the secret international organization of politicians (i.e. old white wealthy men) using faith as a cover-up to make allies for capital gain. In 2016, liberal newspaper, The Guardian, ran a powerful print campaign with typographic posters, one of which included the fabulous sentence:
If you don’t have friends in high places, you don’t mind seeing them fall.
The Family shows quite the opposite, having friends in high places takes you to higher places you couldn’t reach without them. The concept of “brotherhood” depicted in The Family shows how unity can act as both an incredible and fascinating force that unites people of different race and culture as well as a terribly toxic marriage between people regardless of where they come from. Friendships between politicians and criminals can move policies, reform societal beliefs and alter the organization of society itself.
I cannot help but wonder what would happen if we applied this same idea of unity and friendship, but instead of using Christ as a blanket to cover up larger truths about ourselves, we all agreed to just find common ground in basic equality? Let’s make social equality our new God. I know it doesn’t sound as sexy to sell, but I am sure some copywriter out there will find a way!
In addition, it's fair to say that news organizations like The Guardian are suppose to put a lens on these friendships and look for greater motives. Who is putting a lens to ours? Don’t our ordinary friendships in life make-up the very fabric of the society we live in? And if you are truly the sum of the five people closest to you, it might be worth asking yourself, how do you pick your friends and who picks you? Which friendships are built solely on trust, loyalty and support? Which ones are based on something else, and why?
Before moving to Slovenia, I lived in Chicago where some of my most fondest childhood memories were formed. My best friend was Jewish and I spent more time at her house than my own. We were both in love with the same boy, an absolute hillbilly from Texas. Amongst many wonderful memories created there, I distinctly remember going on the public bus with her for the first time. We sat next to a group of Hispanic women and their children, and never before had I felt so conscious of the color of my skin. Children don’t create a pecking order of who they will play with after school unless told or shown otherwise. I didn’t feel we were different, but I knew our experiences were. I wasn’t like my friend, she wasn’t like me and neither of us were like the kids we were sitting with.
Friendship is taxing and in our callous world, vital. It is at the core of change, and perhaps understanding why we systematically reject some people and accept others as our friends, we can move in the right direction towards dismantling social injustice. Our way of upbringing and family history may well permeate into the way we view the world, but our culture is also broken and taking social cues from it and the people around us is a little bit like playing Russian roulette. Someone is going to get hurt. So, why do we naturally prescribe to this way of thinking when logically no one benefits? Where we come from does not necessarily define who we are and who we might become.
At the same time, there is true heartbreak in friendships that fall apart and a real joy in friends feel will stay a lifetime. Regardless of cultural differences, a good friend is often seen as being self-sufficient enough to never need support, but also loyal and devoted enough to provide help for others when they ask for it. And doesn’t that sound terrible? When a senator can ask help from a drug lord, but a friend who might be struggling with an alcohol problem never will.
In my creative writing workshops, I was constantly asked to simplify my characters - make them come from one city, with one type of cultural background. I rebuffed: I was not taught a language that reduces complex experiences. What a disservice it is to ourselves to be part of this subtle, sinister way of looking at people and their stories.
This might be exactly why the friends we chose and the ones who are entrusted upon us in our lives are important - we carry their stories with us.
* For the friends who: dance with me, laugh with me, travel with me, listen to me ramble on for hours, cook delicious meals with me, give me hugs, show up to my flat with sangria because they know I need it, cry with me when they see me cry, pick me up from the airport, proofread my posts before I publish them, collaborate with me creatively, push me to work harder on myself, call me when something terrible happens and need my comfort, share beautiful moments in their life like having their first child, and live miles, and miles away but still call me for my birthday - I love you and thank you.