Some years ago, I had been spending quite a bit of time in the Pimlico district of London, just south of Victoria. Well, I had been a permanent resident there for 18 months or so after my return from my backpacking year, bunking with an indulgent college friend; and I'd been a frequent visitor for a few years prior to that.
One bright sunny morning, a cute young German girl - probably a backpacker herself - accosted me on the street and asked, "Are you well-known around here?"
An odd question to ask a stranger! But I quickly realised that she probably meant to ask whether I knew the area well. Indeed, she was seeking directions to the nearest laundromat.
I couldn't help thinking, though, that by now, within this narrow web of streets, I probably was becoming known by sight to quite a lot of people. And in a few of my most regular haunts - the excellent Marmaris kebab house, the Indian corner shop where I made most of my small grocery purchases, the Spread Eagle pub where I played pool at least a couple of times a week - there were people who knew me by name. And I found that cosily reassuring.
I've never felt quite such a sense of 'home' with Beijing - probably because my 'territory' here is far more spread out (although I spend 90% of my time within the area of 4 or 6 city blocks I can readily walk to, even that is much bigger than Pimlico; and I do also range further afield, out east to Sanlitun, Sanyuan Qiao, Chaoyang Park, or Lido, or north-west to Wudaokou, and sometimes even to the more distant 'burbs like Caochangdi and Shuangjing). Another likely reason is the fact that there's such a terrible air of impermanence about everything: favourite bars and restaurants are often forced to relocate or close down altogether within a few years, and the expat community itself is in a state of constant flux.
Even with this much wider geographical range and a dwindling circle of friends, though, Beijing is the kind of place where you do tend to bump into people you know very frequently. When I first got back here 4 or 5 weeks ago, I didn't go out much at first, didn't announce my return to very many people, was trying to keep a 'low profile'. And yet, within my first few days in the city, I had run into (in a variety of locations)..... my old pool-playing mate Ben the Jerry, musician buddies Fluffy and Dan the Man, local bar owner Jeff Ji (not in his bar, just walking down the street), and a raft of other people. So much for my plan of living in seclusion for a while!!
Hmm, this post title sounds like a cue for a song, doesn't it?