Staycations in the London summer

The Billfold, June 2015. Original article

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 12.18.33Staycations in the London summer
I woke up by myself today in my little flat in Hackney. My husband is away for work, so I slept past 10 o’clock which I never do unless I’m alone. As much as I like company, I’m very good at being by myself, especially in London. Last weekend I meant to go to a neighbourhood book festival but ended up roaming around all day until it was dark, even though this is June, the lightest month.

Something like that might have happened again today, but my best friend K text me, wanting to meet for coffee. I said yes despite having to rush, because there’s never too much time to spend with K. I took the Overground to Whitechapel, which all of a sudden has plenty of good coffee, the calling card of an “up and coming” neighbourhood. K and I talked for an hour and I decide to walk home, taking the meandering route through the backstreets.

London is full of concrete, but I’ve never seen a major city that’s this green. There are trees and flowers everywhere, drooping over the brick walls and onto the pavements. This city is a very pretty boy right now. It’s been muggy lately but it’s warm, and before long you’re sweating under grey cloud. London is tough in the winter, but for six months over the summer, there’s nothing you can do to get me to leave the city. Right now, London is better than anything I can imagine.

*

“I’m an unrepentant Londoner, and the places that have chosen me – because I think it’s that way round: places choose you, rather than vice versa – have already done so. I think you only have room for two or three serious affairs of place in a lifetime, just as you only have emotional space for two or three serious love affairs,” said the writer Will Self.

I first read this a few years ago and I keep coming back to it. Familiarity isn’t enough to love a place, as I was familiar with the village I grew up in but it never felt anything like this. I’ve lived in London for 12 years now – it wasn’t love at first sight because this city is hard on newcomers, but if you stick it out, this place will reward you. I always say it takes two years to get on good terms with London, and it took me even longer to love it, maybe six years. That’s nothing like my experience of ever falling in love with a person, but make no mistake: London is it for me.

Most of the time it’s nice but nothing unusual, and then suddenly it’ll come over me: I’ll be walking along and I’ll look up and I realise that damn, I love this city. If I’m on a bus crossing the Thames, it’s bound to happen. Often though, it happens during the moments when London’s not so shiny, when I’m distracted or thrown off course. London has a knack for keeping you in that in-between space: a little hot, a little cold, leaving you guessing what’s coming.

Like the other night when I was out with my friend G. We just wanted to leave the house for beers, but suddenly we were wrists deep in barbecue sauce because that’s what Hackney is like now: cocktails and ribs. It was too cool to be wearing shorts down by the canal but we walked along anyway, shivering in the early London summer. Because isn’t this the best part? It’s so light, so much summer still to come.

*

I have a list in my head of things I want to do this summer, during the annual London staycation when I won’t leave the city. I want to go see Agnes Martin at the Tate Modern, and the summer exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art. I want go out to the Thames Barrier Park – this is the city’s flood barrier and a work of art. I haven’t been there in years as it’s a bit out of the way, but I want to go with my husband and a bottle of prosecco. I want to try this cocktail bar in Soho with my new friend R, and talk about work the whole time because sometimes that’s the best.

I saw a picture on Instagram from the Nunhead Reservoir recently, which apparently has amazing views of the city, a rare find in a shallow dish like London. I’ve never been to Nunhead. A few years ago, I went cycling up past the Hackney Marshes with the then-boyfriend who got me to finally buy a bicycle, and I’ve been wanting to go again ever since. There’s a grotty pub up the River Lea where you can get lunch, and even though the food won’t be great it won’t matter.

Sometimes though, the best way to go see the sights is having guests from out of town. When my mother visited recently we went to the London Transport Museum, which is brilliant: it chronicles the history of the Tube so it’s part trainset playground, but it’s also partially an archive of functional graphic design. Away from the rush hour, the Underground is a treat to explore, even after all these years – each line a different pattern of colours, each station a different style. I passed through Baker Street station the other day, on the platform that was part of the very first Tube line. The light wells are still streaming daylight down onto the platform.

I got out at Paddington, just onto the canal, which in West London is the same water that runs past my house in East London. It’s funny – I always tell people the key to London is to find your neighbourhood, that’s how the city will start making sense to you. I once spent three months not leaving Hackney, which would be easy to do again – like when I get Vietnamese on Kingsland Road with my friend C and we order the same things every time. There’s so much more to London than the patch where I live, but there’s a reason why I live here.

*

Last weekend I met up with K again, we walked along the canal up past London Fields, taking the long back around to my house. It’s quiet on the roads around here, away from the main stretch where the buses run. Heavy with green and flowers, and all the beautiful yellow-brick victorian terrace houses we can’t afford to live in. Then we came across this odd building made from corrugated iron plates, sticking out like a sore thumb in the row of pretty houses. It’s the Sight of Eternal Life church, said the internet, thought to be the oldest surviving “Tin Tabernacle” in the world. I took a photo and we walked on, but that’s the best part, I think: finding a piece of curiosity in a place I’ve lived for years, but somehow it’s something I’ve never noticed.

I took my mother on a long walk along the canal too when she was here, spending a whole day away from the London she knows from the pictures. Down past the canal locks and up through the market, into the park and down through the quiet back roads – I’ve walked this route so many times, and looked up to think, so many times, how much I love this city. Almost everything big that’s ever happened to me has happened in London. I know I keep saying things are the best, but there’s always something else about London that’s the best. Now how’s that for a love affair.

Physical thrill

This Recording, May 2015. Original article.

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 15.10.00In which we don’t believe in perfect
Physical thrill

There’s only a strip of canal visible across the courtyard, but that bit of canal is everything. I’m sitting at my new kitchen table with my laptop, looking up occasionally at the water: you can see the canal boats docked down there, and the ducks swimming by. Grown-up life is working out pretty well so far, I think, even though this flat that we bought is the tiniest thing. There’s no room for anything in here, meaning my husband and I are now committed to minimalism by default. But when we were looking for a place to live it soon became obvious: there’s no place like home. I wanted to go back to East London more than I wanted space, and when we found this tiny place in the perfect spot there was no turning back. Because who needs space when you’re living in the city? Everything you need is right there, outside.

I’ve been living in my new place for two weeks now, and I have to say it: I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy. Maybe when I got married, on a whim to a man I barely knew – I felt ecstatic then, the closest thing I’ve felt to a sober high. Maybe that time I went to San Francisco for a month by myself, when my jetlag would wake me early and I’d walk the streets for hours with a delirious craving for silence and forward motion I’ve never experienced before nor since. These thing stand out as the happiest I’ve been, and now this: living in my new place.

I didn’t expect to feel like this. I don’t really understand why it’s happening either – although I do know it’s not about nesting, and it’s not about ownership. I have no strong feelings about permanence. It may not even be about moving back to East London, I’m surprise to find. While the weeks dragged on as we waited to move, time slowing down until four whole months had gone by, then all I could think about was moving back across town. East London is where this city started making sense to me, it’s where my life started making sense, I guess. I left East London for good reasons, thinking it would become part of the past, like most things do once you leave. But not this time – I missed my old patch like a lost limb.

So I thought the excitement of moving would be all about coming back to my old neighbourhood, but it seems I was wrong. Because now that I’m in my new house, all I can think about is being alone. I love living with my husband, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that after staying with family for nearly four months while waiting to move into this place, being alone feels like a drug. My husband leaves for work and I sit down to work at the kitchen table, and hours go by when all I can do is revel in the aloneness. I’m drinking it in with a desperate thirst only an introvert can understand. I’m just sitting here, quietly, and it’s a physical thrill.

Being truly, gloriously alone doesn’t mean closing the door for a while – it means having no one else in the house with you. It means, at least for me, having no music playing, just the window open and the hum of the city in the distance. A plant needs watering. I get up from my chair and wander into the bedroom, over to the kitchen, over to the sofa, and back to the computer again. I work for a while. The afternoon sun crawls across the floor, filling up the room. A text message buzzes. My husband will be back soon, and we’ll have some dinner together. In the meantime it’s just me here, by myself, surrounded by the city. I don’t believe in perfect, but if I did, this would be it.

The little daylight

This Recording, February 2015. Original article.

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The little daylight

I got on the plane – you always get on the plane in the end. I went to Norway thinking I could always go back to the city early if it got to be too much: the cold, the dark, the silence. I do that now, whenever I leave London: I tell myself I can go back early. Twelve years of living in the Big Smoke and it keeps getting better, or maybe I’m just getting greedier for it? For years my habit has been to always have a plane ticket waiting to take me somewhere, but lately the date of departure approaches and I don’t really want to go. London is gritty, demanding and thrilling, and the constant noise has been a backdrop to every significant thing in my life.

It’s been several days since I came to Norway now, I couldn’t really say; Scandinavian days are so short in winter. Sunset came at 3.45pm today, six and a half hours after the sunrise. Then, once the sun has disappeared, the sky seems to stay blue forever. It’s partially because it’s cold, minus 12°C today, rendering each intake of breath sharp and the air sparkling clear. I lived here for 18 years, but I don’t really remember much about winter. Until I got here a few days ago I’d forgot how the long, slow dark feels so dense once you’re in it, like being in a submarine at the bottom of the sea. The daylight is small, in length and in intensity, like there’s a light somewhere just around the bend but it doesn’t quite stretch far enough to fill up the sky.

As cold as Norway may get in the winter, I was never cold when I lived here. I’m not cold this time either, even after a week of relatively mild frost in London that nevertheless felt like a severe and personal form of punishment. The difference is that Norway expects the cold, so people accept it and prepare for it, not like the English style of remaining in denial while shivering in thin coats in drafty rooms, wondering what’s happened to the air. In Norway, you dress like a polar explorer, with double wool down the arms and legs and insulated shoes. The tricks for managing cold weather is slowly resurfacing from my subconscious, where it’s been buried all these years I’ve been away.

I don’t usually go to Norway in the winter anymore but I this year I’m between houses, so I figured my mother’s place in this small Norwegian town would be a nice place to be technically homeless. I was right: it’s peaceful and plentiful here, even in the cold. Everywhere you go is a warm room with ice on the windows. There are no distractions here, but somehow I’m still finding the hours slipping away, and suddenly the front door clicks open as my mother comes home from work. The town is sleepy under the snow covering the streets, the gardens and the porches. The roads are empty as people retreat to their wood-heated houses at night, red-cheeked from frost with hair static from wooly hats.

The night comes so early and I never quite get a grasp on the day before it slips away. The novelty of the dim light distracts me from the things I need to do, as I work in the warmth looking out at the cold, where the disappearing blue light is reflected by the snow. The whole world feels quiet here. I love London more than any place I’ve ever been, I adore the rush and the noise, and I keep thinking this silence will start to bore me soon. But for now I’m just wandering around, from the table to the tea kettle to the bed and back, revelling in the little daylight. Life feels simple here, in the way it always does when you spend time in a place that’s not your home. I was born here but it never felt quite right, in ways that had nothing to do with the light or the temperature.

Now that I’m a visitor it’s okay, it’s even a treat to spend a few days being someone I’m not. There’s a luxury in allowing myself to enjoy the dark and the cold, just for a little while. So I’m just going to sit here, watching the constant changes of the light, drinking in the silence with a thirst that won’t last for long, but right now it feels endless.

Body Talk

This Recording, December 2014. Original article.

Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 12.35.41In which we live outside of memory
Body talk
I never remember Decembers once they are gone. I walk through the days knowing I’ll forget them, that all the detail will fade, except for the feeling of stretching towards the light as it’s disappearing fast. This happens every year like clockwork, marking the seasons. My body is heavy with sleep and my brain is committing nothing to memory, like each day is a polaroid that gets thrown away.

It’s an odd feeling, being in the middle of a moment I know won’t stick. In the narrative of my life, it’s an anomaly: I’m living outside of my memory. I watched a TED talk once about the conflict between the self that experiences, and the self that remembers; how most of the time we choose things in service of our memories, even though the experiencing self may be having a different opinion in the moment. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, especially the question posed at the end: If you were going on a trip, would you choose differently if you knew you’d remember nothing afterwards?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is sometimes called winter depression, but I’m not actually unhappy. I used to be at this time of year, but getting older has fixed a lot. Now, the fog that sets in for the two darkest months is just a physical thing. Sometimes it feels like jetlag, or like having been woken up in the middle of the night. A sunlamp keeps me above water as I do the things I know to help: sleep at night, be awake during the day, go outside, eat properly, exercise. I don’t know what it says about me that I’m surprised: clean living seems to be the solution to almost everything.

People change all the time, I know that, but only if they really want to, or if something big happens. I don’t know which of the two are at work, but somehow the winter fog feels a little different this year. Card-carrying introvert that I am, I’m shocked to discover I’m becoming outgoing, all of a sudden drawn to people, to dinners, drinks, texting, even phone calls. I’ve always needed a lot of time by myself, becoming restless and unsettled if I didn’t get it, and normally, winter tends to bring out the worst elements in me. Still, this year, something is happening. It’s as dark as ever but somehow, change seems possible.

I keep waiting for my solitary nature to assert itself, but this isn’t about my head. Winter was has always been a whole-body experience, and this year it seems the body I live in wants to go out, talk to people, and get another drink on the rocks. Maybe my body is simply taking advantage of this moment outside of memory, realising this is a holiday I won’t remember after it’s over. This is just for the experience. But unless I remember it, is this really happening? A feeling is bubbling up, it’s small but it’s there, and I’m hoping maybe it will be stronger than the waking sleep. Maybe this is a momentary reprieve, or maybe it’s a fundamental change, I don’t know. All I know is that it feels so physical.

Creature of habit: A story of food, marriage, and ginger beer

The Toast, November 2014. Original article

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Creature of habit: A story of food, marriage, and ginger beer

Having no one to help carry grocery bags home, that was the worst part of breaking up with my boyfriend of nearly five years. Or should I say, that was the worst part as far as I can remember it now, an eternity later. All the other stuff about breaking up with the first person I ever loved was pretty much as you’d expect, in all the shades of hellishness. But it’s not really the sleeping alone that gets you, because you are ready for that one. It’s that second it takes to remember that you can no longer just text them when something funny happens. It’s the first time at the grocery shop, when everything’s bagged up and you realise there’s no one there to help you carry.

I got the hang of solo grocery shopping eventually: buy what you need, but never more than two bags’ worth. Or if you don’t need that much, throw in a couple of non-perishables to fill up the bags, to save having to haul that weight later. Pasta and tomato sauce featured heavily for many years. There was that period of lots of hummus with bread, preferably white crust. There was one week where I lived mostly on prawn crackers, which ended sharply after they made me sick, literally. Lots of Chinese food, later Vietnamese, then Thai. All kinds of fruit, as it requires no preparation. I rarely cooked – nothing decent anyway, as I associated food preparation with couplehood: roasted meats, creamy curries, grilled fish with spicy rice. Still, I ate something at almost every meal, and my weight stayed within an average range without much fluctuation. Occasionally I’d wrap a salmon fillet in foil with some leek, pretending for a moment I was a grown up who ate proper meals. But I couldn’t fool myself for long, as I secretly wished for that three-course-meal chewing gum that Willy Wonka gave to Violet Beauregarde. I mean, it would be so much easier.

If this sounds sad, that’s not the way it felt. I was preoccupied with other things, and just didn’t think about food very much. Ok, that week of prawn crackers was a low point, I’ll admit. But most of the time my mind was simply elsewhere as I added pesto to my pasta and ate it hurriedly, while getting ready to go out. Food was fuel, or a layer to go under the alcohol, which I only drank in moderate amounts anyway. Except for that one year when I accidentally gave up booze altogether, something I never planned for but all of a sudden I looked back and realised it had been a teetotal year.

Instead, I developed a slight addiction to Maltesers that year. That’s the chocolate with the malt honeycomb centre, which popped so pleasingly in the mouth as the chocolate melted. I’d get a small packet every day, not trusting myself with the cheaper-by-the-pound bigger pack in the house. I only managed to break the addiction by going on a three-week trip to Portugal, which turned out to be a Maltesers-free space. Something similar happened a couple of years later with Maynards winegums, the release from which I owe to a month in Australia. I am, would seem, a creature of habit.

But there’s always some substance, some particular flavour or texture, that manages to slip through and take hold. My latest thing is this particular ginger beer, made by Bundaberg. The non-alcoholic drink is sold in a stubby brown bottle with a old-school pull-off cap, and while it’s not uncommon around my parts it can be tricky to find. It comes in packs of four at the big grocery shop near my house, but lately they haven’t had it in stock. I scour the aisle nervously every time I go there, hoping it will be there this time, but the ginger drought continues. Each time I check the label signalling its place on the shelf hasn’t been removed, but it seems that someone is playing a trick.

It was my birthday recently, and my husband me asked what I wanted to do. After thinking about it I realised that what I really wanted was to get in the car and go for a drive, to see if we could find some of that Bundaberg. It was sunny, as it always is on my birthday, and we drove with the windows open through back roads into leafy neighborhoods, the kinds that may appreciate a fancy bottle of ginger beer. Not that it was really about the ginger beer anymore. Still, we were rewarded with four packs; I’m drinking each bottle slowly, and once they’re gone I probably won’t buy any more. Not because they are too heavy to carry, or too hard to find, as marriage fixed those problems. Not marriage in itself, I should add, as it wouldn’t work with just anyone, but marriage to the right person, that fixed a lot.

Having a car to bring groceries home in, that’s one of the best things about getting married. Or should I say, that’s the best part out of the things I anticipated, especially as it’s so rare to meet someone who owns a car in this city. All the other stuff about getting married to someone you love more than anyone was pretty much as you’d expect, in all the shades of amazingness. Because it’s not sleeping in the same bed as someone else that gets you, as you are ready for that one. It’s the first time at the grocery shop, where you can get a trolley and not a basket, and you can get anything you want because you know that when everything’s bagged up, it’s not just you anymore. There’s someone there to cook with: tomato soups, peanut butter fudge, a whole grilled chicken. You no longer have to carry all the bags yourself.

Brunost: The brown cheese of Norway

Suitcase Magazine, 2014. Original article.

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Once upon a time in Norway: The story of Brunost, a dairy rogue

What does Brunost taste like? It’s definitely a cheese, but it looks a bit like fudge and tastes a lot like caramel too. In any case, you should definitely try some if you come across it in a fancy deli, or just go to Norway, where the stuff is everywhere. In fact, the Norwegians are all over their weird cheese to the point if you’re at someone’s house for breakfast, you’ll find two kinds of cheese as standard: white and brown.

Brunost means “brown cheese”, but it’s available in plenty of shades, ranging from the dark, strong goat’s milk cheese to the light, mild variety made from cow’s milk. It all started with a milkmaid named Anne Hov, a true dairy rebel who made proper Brunost for the first time back in 1863. Anne was looking after the animals at her parents’ summer barn in Gudbrandsdalen, where she’d been making some regular white cheese when she thought to do something scandalous: she added cream to the whey. Boiling down the whey to make a sweet brown spread wasn’t uncommon, but cream was precious goods, usually saved for making butter.

Luckily for Anne her gamble worked out, as people liked her cheese. After perfecting her recipe, she started selling her invention, naming it Gudbrandsdal cheese. At 88, Anne received official recognition by the King of Norway for her discovery of one of the most distinctive and best-loved staples of the Norwegian breakfast table. Brunost is great on bread with butter, usually eaten without any other toppings because of the intense flavour. Norwegian cafés will often serve an open-faced sandwich with Brunost, or offer it with waffles. This is another Norwegian café staple: patrons are often given the choice between strawberry jam and sour cream, or Brunost for their waffles. Don’t put it under the grill though as it really doesn’t melt well, but if cooked in cream it makes a great sauce for meat or potato balls.

Norwegians are proud of their Brunost, which inspires patriotism at home and is usually the first thing to go in the suitcase for Norwegians who live abroad. While Norway is the only country in the world that makes whey cheese at scale, purists will point out that Brunost isn’t technically cheese, as this term is reserved for curd products. In any case, the brown stuff makes a great souvenir for those less keen on troll keyrings or road signs warning of elk.

And the historic whey cheese, the poor one they used to make before Anne Hov thought to add cream? It developed as well, and is now available as a paler, more spreadable sandwich topping popular with Norwegian kids: Prim. As Norwegian refer to Brunost generically as “goat’s cheese”, you’ll have to remember to specify if you want white goat’s cheese brought back from the shop, as the default is brown. In fact, if you don’t specify the variety you’ll probably get Anne’s Gudbrandsdal cheese, which still remains the most popular of all the Brunost varieties. That’s one clever milkmaid.

A London Particular

This Recording, June 2014. Original article.

Screen Shot 2014-06-12 at 14.56.45A London Particular
I know what it’s like to live in a place where nothing ever happens, and West London is nothing like that. I know what it’s like to live in a place where you can’t choose your friends because there are only 300 souls in the village and no public transport, and this is certainly nothing like that. There’s a Tube station ten minutes up the road from my flat, and the world is just there. But it’s not East London.

The window in my old bedroom in Hackney, out East, would open onto the tiny, overgrown garden nestled in between the two rows of terrace houses. There were birds and chattering neighbours and the faraway hum of traffic; I’d lie on my bed, which was exactly the same height as the windowsill, with my head out the open window. The feeling was one of a secret patch of quiet. My current living room in Isleworth, out West, has a window wall with a door that opens out to a terrace, which would be nice if only there wasn’t so much traffic.

It takes me an hour to get to Soho now from the Isleworth flat, straight on the Piccadilly Line, crammed in with the crowds from the airport. The quickest way to get into Soho from my Hackney house was to walk down to Dalston Kingsland and get the Overground, and the city was there in half hour flat, via Highbury & Islington. My favourite route though, was to walk to the bus stop on Newington Green, which was about the same distance from the house but took you into a completely different part of the city. The leafy backroads were quiet, surrounded by houses made from that yellow brick you see all over East London. Always so much green, so many flowers.

I moved to West London for a good reason, for the only reason I’d ever have even considered it. The man I married has always lived this end of town, first for being a child here and second for working here. Before we really knew each other I expected the hour-and-a-half trek between our houses, between our London villages, to eventually become too big of an obstacle, but as it turned out, not his time. Marriage is different. Actually, let me rephrase that: marriage means that the relationship is different. It wouldn’t work with just anyone.

Because everything else about getting married has been great, but this West London thing … I thought I’d get over it, but I’m not. I’m really not, I know it’s bratty but I can’t help it. I remind myself that this really isn’t that bad, that none of the issues are actually problems, but still, I can’t shift the feeling that this is all wrong. West London is too slick; I miss the grit. This nostalgia is unusual for me, as I’ve lived in ten houses in London before this one and I’ve never felt homesick for any one of them. I even left a whole country once and never looked back: once I’ve left, that’s it. But as it turned out, not his time.

This is England, and nowhere else is this humid. It’s never more noticeable than when I get off an airplane, having spent time somewhere invariably drier; the humidity descends like a second skin the moment you step onto the jetway. The constant mugginess makes the city feel raw in the winter and sticky in the summer, exaggerating the natural direction of the temperatures. The icy fog seeps into your bones in the winter; it’s a London particular, rough and punishing. In the summer the damp heat does the same, but it’s mellow, reminding is why we love the city the way that we do.

East London is not that far away. And West London is really not that different. But home is a feeling.