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. 

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

The View from Car Windows

I haven't been using puddles, but instead, the view from car windows. Snippets of a city and the surrounding countryside, taken on my camera phone as they move past the glass. 

The bright blue and yellow taxi buses, rust spotted. 

Goats in car boots, on the roof rack of minibuses. Men with entire newsagents balanced on their heads, or fifty dozen eggs. At traffic lights, people selling giant wall maps, anatomically correct diagrams of the human body, dog leashes with no dogs, others selling dogs with no leashes. Once, a monkey, another time, a tiny terrapin, suspended on a string. Packets and packets of tissues, waved energetically in front of your windscreen whilst stuck at a red light. Roadside pepinieres, rows of plants grown in plastic bags, hibiscus and baby palms, gardenia and cactus. Vehicles overloaded with all manner of things, people, firewood, bundles of cassava leaves. Potholes and road sweepers, piles of dust. Trees made from exhaust pipes. 

Monday, 15 July 2013


About a week in from being back in Kinshasa, still feeling glum at how very far I was away from my beloved London, I found myself at the Institut Francais one early evening after work. Found myself in a white walled room, bare save for the photographs on the walls, an exhibition of the work of photographer Kiripi Katembo.

Photographs of Kinshasa reflected in puddles, a mirrored city of blue and pink skies, floating rubbish. Beautiful somehow, despite the litter. And I don't know if it was the art, or the evening light, or the inventiveness, in a city where it is mostly frowned upon to take photographs and in some places downright forbidden, of using puddles to capture your images, but I went away a little bit more light-hearted than before.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

In the Past Two Months

Part I

M came to stay. Suitcase loaded full of chocolate and almonds and pesto and all the things you can't get out here, or can but only for stupidly crazy imported prices (oh, First World problems). The initial bizareness of my new life and old life suddenly sharing the same sphere, replaced within a few days by how normal it felt. Camping trips, trips to see the Bonobos, breakfast on the balcony, afternoons by the pool, making pizza from scratch. When he left the flat suddenly felt empty, in a way it hadn't before, when there had only been me, before it had known his presence. He is now in Vancouver, with a new job, and once again we are across two continents, miles apart, Skype conversations at unsociable hours, mind always half on the next holiday, the next time we see each other.


Part II

I went back to England. It was glorious. Jam-packed and all over the place - Norfolk, London, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, more London (lots of London), but truly glorious. Time spent with family, with friends, with M. Walking and walking and walking through the city. Museum trips in the middle of the day, Soho restaurants at night, holidaying in my home town, fully enjoying it and appreciating it.

And now I am back, have been since the start of June. Post holiday blues of the worst kind, a crippling homesickness for London the entire first week back. The prospect of three years here suddenly daunting, when before it wasn't, or at least not so much.


Part III

But, but.

I have been back three weeks now, and homesickness fades, like all things.

You slip back into routines, reacquaint yourself with the things that were good about your new life here, before you were reminded of fresh milk and salad and drivers who pay attention to the Highway Code.

Reacquaint yourself with setting suns the pink-orange of a not yet warmed up street-light, with the frogs who lurch sideways away from your approach as you arrive home after dark, with the neatly stacked piles of oranges and papaya, pyramids of increasing ripeness, carefully constructed by the fruit sellers at the side of the road.

You begin to live again like this is for the long haul and not just a passing phase, plant squash and nasturtiums and feel glad that the basil flourished under the care of the friends who stopped by to water the plants while you were gone. Sign up for French lessons, because if there is one thing you definitely want from these three years it is to be actually good at French and not just passable. Hang some more of the pictures that have been leaning against walls since week 8 when you unpacked. Fight the urge to just.stay.home. watching box sets, instead make yourself put on insect repellent and a nice dress, head to the Kinshasa Jazz Festival. Until somewhere, at some point, in between the neon green laser show and the beautiful, if lyrically inaccurate, rendition of Rolling in the Deep, it becomes ok to be back here again.


Wednesday, 24 April 2013


I say yes to everything. 

Salsa classes, circuits sessions, Downton Abbey evenings, Mexican brunches, rooftop parties, housewarmings of people I've only met once before, historical film groups, quiz nights, impromptu river trips, fabric shopping, a visit to the stables, Bocce matches, French film screenings, poker nights. 

Tennis tournaments, even though I haven't played for over ten years, never had any hand eye coordination in the first place, even though I cannot serve. A trip to the golf course driving range, though the lack of hand eye coordination applies to this too. The after party of the trophy tour of the UEFA cup, despite the fact I'm not into football, that the presence football big names is lost on me.

Barbecues of friends, barbecues of friends of friends, suddenly no invitation is too far removed, no event is too random. Because how else, all alone in a new city, country, continent, do you meet people, make friends, build yourself a life? Certainly not by sitting at home with the Game of Thrones box set, though there's been plenty of that too. And slowly, slowly, as the days and weeks go by, I think it is working.