Monday, 3 July 2017

Norfolk/Suffolk, beaches/bikes

E and I take our bikes on the train, after work. Cycle to my parents through darkened streets, there for the weekend. 

The weather is grumbling, changeable, warm air, but scudding clouds, passages of sunshine, and no more than the threat of rain. We barbecue in the garden, two nights in a row. A herbivore's barbecue, golden corn and scarlet peppers, asparagus from the garden, and the first of the courgettes. On Saturday, plump, home grown artichokes, eaten the French way, boiled, leaves dipped in lemon juice and melted butter. 

The garden, full to bursting with roses, clematis.  A green-purple haze of lavender, artichokes, lupins in one of the vegetable patches. At the top of the garden, the raspberry and tayberry canes, dripping with red fruit. So many we can't eat them all. I layer them in mascarpone and scatter them with rose petals to make a Nigel Slater recipe from Tender II, steep them in Kilner jars with gin. 

We drive to the coast, the Suffolk coast, Walberswick, where we have been going since childhood. Families line the sea wall and estuary bridges with nets and lines of string, packets of bacon, each bucket beside them full of a seething mass of crabs, as we used to pass the time, years ago. Lunch in a pub garden, ominous skies above, local cider, and chips, salt and vinegar drenched. Finding a hollow in the dunes, settling there with books and blankets. The courageous among us braving the 'refreshing' (!) waters during a break in the clouds, jumping the waves, warming up after with a thermos of tea. Taste of salt on our skin for the rest of the afternoon. Dad, hidden behind the grasses, flying a kite. Sea holly, grey-blue-green and star like. Afterwards, a wander through the village, past the community noticeboard and tiny postbox, hollyhock filled front gardens, gooseberry and elderflower ice cream in hand, eaten from a tub with a plastic spoon.

Sunday. A 25 mile bike ride, along with hundreds of others. Bright yellow number cards, tied to handlebars. A mix of serious looking, Lycra clad participants (some cycling 50 miles, or 100), and those there for the fun of it, like us. Cycling down country lanes between bramble entwined hedgerows, crossing the odd A road. Enjoying the breeze, and even, oddly, the rare burst uphill (in a very flat East Anglia), legs burning, but feeling stronger and more capable than I had done this time last year, when I completed it on a rickety bike, before cycling to work and around London on a regular basis became the norm. The calm at the side of the field whilst one member of the group fixed a puncture, and I photographed poppies. 

Friday, 23 June 2017

Conversations with a self

I want to write something.

But you haven't written in so long. 

Better now than never.

Well it better be good then. A grand return. Sweeping and majestic, capturing all that has happened since you last wrote.

I'm not sure I can manage that.

You'll have to, it's not worth it otherwise.

I can't capture it all. The vastness of the changes. The votes and the outcomes, the subsequent actions taken (and not taken), the way the world seems to have swallowed a whole packet of crazy and be spewing it up again, relentlessly, carelessly. I can't even capture all of the micro, the year plus of being back in London, the long hours spent in a new job, the seemingly fleeting but joy-packed evenings and weekends rediscovering the city, and further afield, E at my side (or, more accurately, long legged as he is, always a few paces ahead).

Maybe I can just write the things that I know to be true.

That the outcome of the vote a year ago today still breaks my heart, though the rawness has lessened, as these things do.

That I feel like now more than ever I am struggling to make sense of the world, and my place in it.

That simultaneously, I am happier than I have ever been. Living under the same roof as E, building a home together. A home where our bikes rest tail to tail in the hallway each night, where taking the recycling out is a shared duty, where we try (and sometimes fail) to keep the basil plants on the kitchen windowsill green and perky. Being back in London, my city, my love. Closer to friends, to family, no longer the twice yearly frantic whirl of social calls, squeezing dear ones in for a snatched coffee and pleasantries. No longer being there just for the big ticket events of weddings, and Christmas, but also now for the little ones, the midweek suppers, the impromptu picnics in the park, the things that weave a friendship together, tighter.

That two nights ago we had an impromptu picnic in the park, celebrated the summer solstice on Primrose Hill. Took tablecloths to sit on and rhubarb gin to drink, a bag of ice and a mishmash of friends collected from university, work, Congo. Made a picnic of olives and Kettle Chips, pizzas collected from the place down the road, fat, glossy Kentish cherries for after. Watched as the sun set and the city lights came on. Grieved for this city, and all that it has been battered with these last few months, loved it unconditionally.

* * * *

A few other things:

Don't be fooled.

- Poignant photo essay here. ("Wednesday brought both the longest day of the year and the hottest June weather in four decades, a combination that seemed to intensify the strangeness of these times - when the hours feel precarious, and every morning brings fresh and unfathomable news...")

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.