Saturday, 20 February 2016

On returning

It's only been a week but already...

I was reminded of those words when I'd been in Kinshasa a week, way back in February 2013, and here they are again, with me on the flipside. 

To land, smack bang in the middle of a freezing February, has been the strangest thing. Blue skies and frost, or grey skies and drizzle, but always the frigid air, the dry skin, the inability to get warm, despite the heating and the hotwater bottles, the layers of clothing. 

There have been moments wondering whether perhaps Kinshasa was just some pineapple-scented, DEET-misted dream. And then the thought comes that maybe this, now, is the dream, visions of a life I once had but no longer, everything the same, almost, and yet...different. Familiar faces that tap me on the shoulder in the canteen, or pass me near the lifts, exclaim at me being here, my hair longer, swaddled in winter coat and scarves, plural. A new office building since I left, so that despite those familiar faces, it is as though I am the new girl at school again, not knowing how the printers work, or where the toilets are, or in which bin to deposit my banana skin. There are former Kinshasa colleagues too, who preceded me in the return to London, and I bump into them at the tea point, or coming out of meeting rooms, and I start at how, Wizard-of-Oz-like, these known faces are transplanted to a different world. 

I wander the supermarkets in a daze, marveling at the abundance of fresh green vegetables, the strawberries in February, the tiny cartons of chocolate coconut mylk. Mylk doesn't exist where I am from. At lunchtime it is worse, do I have the vegetarian sushi, the quinoa + feta + edamame salad, the roasted tomato soup? Tottenham Court Road Station is gleaming and new and I do not recognise it. There is wifi on tube platforms, and it seems they have put the trailers back to after the adverts again at the cinema. I can no longer remember which stations are on which branch of the Northern Line, and the double decker buses are entirely different creatures than their predecessors, sleeker, more shiny. 

This dream, it isn't unpleasant. To much choice, perhaps, not enough time in people's diaries, yes, household-admin heavy at the start, definitely, as I re-navigate utility bills and internet providers, where to put the dishwasher salt in the machine. But there are bookshops in this dream, and purple-sprouting broccoli, and I can walk and walk wherever I want to go. Were it not for the fact that I would, just for a moment, like to wake up in my southern-hemisphere room, air-con thrumming in the background, mosquito net draped around, to give E, warm and sleepy beside me, a kiss, I would be very happy to stay here indeed. 

For now, I am here, and he is there, and, just as I threw myself into Kinshasa life, I am throwing myself back into London. There has been cinema and Columbia Road flower market, a pop-up ceramic museum and Drink Shop Do cups of tea, dosas at my favourite South Indian, an excellent play. I have re-paid my subs to the Shoreditch Sisters, my beloved WI of old. I've joined a book group and Blook Club (which might, I hear you say, be too much on the reading front - but with all the tube travel instead of the Kinshasa car I have read a book already this week, so I am definitely up for the challenge). Next week there is late night at the Museum of London tattoo exhibition, Hamlet in Peckham, a play about fertility performed in the Waterloo railway arches (and an alternative Ceilidh there later that week too), and a night of perfume and alcohol as represented in modernist literature. 

Hello London, I've missed you. 

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Oh hai there

I’m still here. 

It has been months since I have written I know, but here I am. Life has continued. A cool and overcast dry season followed by a rainy season of hot, sticky, days and only marginally cooler nights. A tapestry of BBQs and pool parties, mosquito bites and new scratches on the car, unwanted work deadlines and welcome holidays. Dear friends have left, and new additions to Kinshasa arrived in the continual ebb and flow of ex pat life here. Rainbow chard and basil have thrived on the balcony, the tomato plants by contrast have caught some sort of leaf disease and withered and died. My passion fruit vine has had its first season fruiting. 

What else to say? That I have been here over two years now. That in the last few months of 2013, over a year ago now, the 7 year relationship with M ended. Distance and difference and time zones. That I didn’t write about it then, because, how to?

That 2014 saw the start of a new relationship, begun under Kinshasa skies, on river trips on the vast Congo, a Bombo Lemene camping weekend, flickering firelight and plunging into cold fast flowing water, begun from a shared loved of pineapple, a shared sense of awe and wonder when stood in front of the Zongo waterfall, spray drenched.

That 2014 was the year of the trip to India for V and A's wedding, and two trips to South Africa. An early summer return to the UK for a wedding, and a Christmas one. That it was the year I first went to the East of DRC, to Bukavu and Goma. That my sister came to stay, and it was the very best thing having her here, showing her my life rather than just telling her about it. That in 2015 so far I have been to Mbandaka in Equateur Province and, just this last weekend, driven through Bas Congo to the DRC coast, magnificent, and more beautiful than expected.

I have photos a plenty, and words too, those these latter still flying piecemeal round my head. So I will try to get them down, fill the gaps. 

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The Strangest Circumstances

In January, I stumbled upon this quote*: 

"Sometimes you meet someone, and it’s so clear that the two of you on some level belong together. As lovers, or as friends, or as family, or as something entirely different, you just work, whether you understand one another, or you’re in love, or you’re partners in crime. You meet these people throughout your life, out of nowhere, under the strangest circumstances, and they help you feel alive. I don’t know if that makes me believe in coincidence, or fate, or sheer blind luck, but it definitely makes me believe in something."

It resonated, because I have felt this with so many of the people here. That we get each other, that we are on the same wavelength.

People who will, on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday, at 10pm, say yes to a game of pool and drive with you to the other end of town, for whiskey sodas and 80s music, the bright green of the pool table, the crack and scatter of balls. Who will make papier mache pig pinatas with you, whilst watching Mad Men. Who share the belief that there are few things in life that aren't improved by the addition of pineapple. Who on the day that the office air-con breaks down, and there is no running water, will jump in the car with you at lunchtime to go eat salted caramel ice cream, blackcurrant sorbet. Who will mirror dance in the reflection of the sliding doors, to Shakira, full blast, hair swinging, hips shaking. People for whom Graceland is also the album to be driving down African roads listening too. Who also get excited by the blue and orange lizards that do press-ups in the car park, by 3D Lion King, by the way the lightning zig-zags violently across the sky. Who will ask their families for inflatable pool animals for Christmas so we can have an entire menagerie on river trips. Who will go on the swings with you, gladly, and not think you are strange for asking, not think it is strange to still love the feeling of kicking higher and higher into the air, despite no longer being seven. Who will dance like crazy things, until 4 in the morning, but equally make you chocolate brownies and do a puzzle with you on your darn-it-fell-on-a-Sunday birthday, whilst drinking copious amounts of tea. 

Sometimes this amazes me. That it takes going halfway round the world to find these people. That when you share stories, of London, of your life back then, you realise you were all existing in the same spaces, without knowing it. Orbiting, circling, but never coming into contact, until now, here, in this place of hot heat, and violent rainstorms. That E and I both think longingly sometimes of Dotori in Finsbury Park, specifically, that umami-sweet-salt salad dressing. That M and I can recall exactly the cold, fresh hit of the Hampstead Ponds. That E and R lived for a time a stone’s throw from where I grew up, Chalk Farm, and remember ice cream from Marine Ices, walking with a cone to the top of Primrose Hill, sweetness melting onto your fingers. The others too, who I knew in London, but didn't really know fully, properly, until we all found ourselves here. 

That it wasn't whilst browsing the postcards in the Tate Modern gift shop, or whilst topping up drinks in plastic cups at a mutual friend's house party that I met these people.

Rather that it was only here, in this bonkers, brilliant, often frustrating, but never-a-dull-moment place that we have all come together, found each other. Friends, yes. But also a family, of sorts. 

*On Pinterest, so I don't know where it came from I'm afraid

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

One year

A year here. 

Over a year. 

I arrived 16th February 2013, and now it is March, 2014.  Everyone says this, so to say it again is a cliche, but I don't know where the time has gone. 

How things become normal. 

That here, Orion lies on his side, as though resting in the hot night air. That milk is either UHT or powdered. That Larium and radio check Wednesdays, and femme-de-menage Tuesdays, Thursdays, have become the routine, along with locking your car doors automatically on entry and visiting three different supermarkets just to get the ingredients for a G&T. That fruit is orange or yellow or white. Papaya, mango, passion fruit, banana, pineapple, star fruit, mangosteen, lychee. That I don't know what films are out in the cinema, or when the next season of Homeland will start. That I get most of my popular culture updates through a Whatsapp group with my university friends. That looking out of the office window I can sometimes see multi-coloured lizards doing press-ups on tree branches, red yellow orange blue, the bright, garish colours of a child's paintbox. That occasionally there is a gecko in my fruit bowl, wide eyed among the wrinkly skinned passion fruit. That the heat becomes welcome, so that the entire time I was in England over Christmas I thought about the feel of the sun on my skin, and missed it, terribly. That I can tell now when a storm is coming, when the air presses down around you, to the point that the only possible release can be rain. 

It has been a crazy, tumble, helter-skelter of a year, full of music and dancing, of meeting new people and experiencing new things. Full of sunshine and pineapples and brightly coloured fabric and swimming in rivers and learning the French subjunctive. And without wanting to get all sentimental on you, or too rose tinted, because honestly the itch-like-hell mosquito bites will never, ever be a good thing, and the bonkers road traffic, whilst amusing for the Instagram photos, is more than a little stressful in reality, all in all it has been really rather wonderful. 

Monday, 20 January 2014

Written in November

I wrote this in November.

Recently, these things:

Tying up bunting on a veranda, sheets of rain. On a horizontal cross piece between two vertical wooden supports, the tiny mummified skeleton of a bat. White bones, remnants of red brown fur.

The stick of the white kitchen tiles against my back as I watch the girl from Benin mix crepe batter in her too-warm kitchen. Watch her open sachets of vanilla sugar, zest a lime. 

A boat, noisy, the spray of water, the smell of petrol. And the speed, fast, so fast, so that with the sky above and the sky reflected on the river below, and the upwards angle of the boat itself, it feels like we’re flying. The way home, one motor not working, the craft low in the water, and slower than before. The setting sun, everything pink and gold, burnished, beautiful.

An ant bite, on my right thigh, that is painful, and hot to the touch, like a burn.

All these things. And this – that a cream envelope with a blue stamp can land on your desk. Inside, a thick card, embossed with the image of a tandem bicycle, two names and a save the date. On the reverse, handwritten in blue ink, two more names, mine and his, 'Dear B --- & M ---, hope you can make it'. A wave of sadness then. At what was, but no longer is.

For days the heat building and building, unbearable. Until yesterday, after work, the air cool, the sky bruise-coloured, yellow, grey, deep blue. A storm coming. Today we woke to grey skies, rain, seemingly endless.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Autumn from afar

Somewhere, it is autumn. Somewhere, the leaves are turning, russet, gold. Not here. Here there is only dry season, and wet. Rainy season now, and the hot days and dramatic storms that come with it. The flame trees are in bloom. Sometimes, driving to work, I glimpse one of them, mistake the blazing orange flowers above 
for autumn leaves in their final moments of glory before fall. Feel a twinge of sadness that I am missing my favourite season. California dreaming in reverse. 


This time last year we drove to Wales for a long weekend. Left London one Friday lunchtime, my little red car packed with waterproofs and walking boots, wellingtons, tins of flapjack and brownies. M and I taking turns driving, The National on the stereo. Crossing rivers and counties, eating jelly babies. 

We arrived first. Drove down the sweeping drive, house, creeper covered, sandy stoned, breathtaking in the setting sun before us. Found our way to the converted stable block at the rear where we would be staying. Had time to explore the many rooms, quirky bedrooms, bathrooms with views of sheep fields, huge living room, huge kitchen. Had time to light a fire and pour a whiskey before the others arrived, university friends travelling from London, Oxford, South Wales, a dozen of us in total.

And then, the most perfect autumn weekend. An escape from the city, an escape from the lists and planning and French grammar exercises that had already crept into my life only a few weeks after having accepted the job in DRC. 

Mulled wine. Charades by firelight, and wink murder. Pumpkin carving. Communal cooking, bangers and mash, chilli beans, Full English. Toast with K's homemade raspberry jam. Bananagrams on the vast dining room table. Rambling country walks down leaf strewn lanes and alongside babbling rivers, through mud and over stiles. Exploring the garden, getting lost in the beech maze. Buying eggs from the farm shop, and the last of the rainbow chard. Plucking blackberries from hedgerows. Waking early, before the rest of the house, leaving M warm in bed, pulling on boots and slipping out the door to the first of the morning sunlight, leaves still frosted on the lawn. The stillness, the silence. The cold air with each intake of breath. The red of the Virginia creeper, the maple, golden beech and oak. Tiny mushrooms growing in tree stumps. A bright red and green gypsy caravan parked by two red tractors. The walled kitchen garden with late cornflowers and lupins, apples ripe on trees. 


A couple of bits of housekeeping:

1) A big, belated and cross-continental thank you to Hannah Seeds and Stitches for her very lovely mention a few of posts back. Truly, truly, made my day, and sorry I haven't thanked you until now. 

2) My posts are sporadic, even more so now that I am all the way in Africa, with internet that even at the best of times is not speedy, so I have now got a 'subscribe' option - top right - which should mean you get a nice little email straight to your inbox every time that I post.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013


The relentless tumble of life here, and suddenly it is September, and I have been here over six months, and it is starting, slowly, tentatively, in a two steps forward with the occasional lurch backward kind of way, to feel like home. Not fully, I still yearn for London, a dull longing that I am not sure will ever go away, and there are people I miss always, at times painfully so.

The week in August when I received news of a friend's engagement, a relationship begun on the green lawns of Cambridge, now to be life. An advance email with the news, before Facebook filtered it to impersonality. I was grateful for that at least. The same week, the news of another friend getting their dream job, the one they've been working towards for as long as I've known them. The sadness of knowing that you aren't there to celebrate either occasion, to raise a glass and punch the air and grin and grin and grin. Instead there is the moon, low and full and red above the water tower, the throb of cicadas and frogs to fill the night and the heavy weight of distance. 

The evening when a Congolese colleague, asks me if I like it here, if I am happy, I say, Oui, mais c' ne connais pas le mot en francais...'bittersweet'. Because I am here, here, in a courtyard in Africa, under an avocado tree, eating river fish and fried plantain, cassava leaves, to the light of candles in the growing darkness, but I am so, so, far from home.

A low point, a few weeks ago, just before going on leave to New York. The thought of being torn between two places for the next three years suddenly seeming like too much. S, a friend and colleague, says to me well, you could always quit, go back to London

As though that is an option. 

To leave here.

To leave the bats which dip and swoop over the red clay tennis courts, catching the insects drawn to the floodlit expanse. The moths as big as my hand which flap in confusion under these artificial moons.

To leave river sunsets. To leave the tumble of bougainvillea over whitewashed walls, or orange trumpet flowered creepers on telegraph poles.

To leave nights dancing and dancing on flashing dancefloors until the early hours. Crawling into bed at 5am, exhausted, utterly, but happy, unquestionably.

To leave hand painted advertisements, dusty roads. Rainfall heavy and sudden.

The work which can be undeniably hard, challenging, frustrating at times, but also ultimately absorbing, fascinating, satisfying. 

Hummingbirds in the office car park, jewel bright blurs between red flowers.

Mangoes, fallen from trees, smashed to an orange, fragrant pulp on the running circuit tarmac.  

No, it hadn't even crossed my mind. To consider leaving here already.

This is just the beginning.