Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Not so Rum and Raisin after all...

For those of you who have been following this blog as closely as a dog’s eyes follow a piece of camembert cheese from the cutting board to the cracker (or for those of you who are so technologically savvy you can perform the impossible feat of scrolling down), you will know that in Paris I felt sort of ‘out of place’. I was a Bubble-o-Bill in a land of Rum and Raisin Gelato.

Once in Brussels I was expecting more of the same. I thought I would meet some Tiramisu or possibly Pistachio flavoured people, so it came as a surprise that my Couchsurfing host turned out to be what the French might call ‘une Bulle-de-Guillaume’*.

It only took a quick scan of his bookshelf for me to realise that, although we’re all made in different factories with different ingredients and different lazy managers who sometimes put strawberry labels on people who are clearly double-chocolate-fudge crunch, deep down, we’re all made out of ice-cream.

This analogy is rapidly falling off the rails, so I will stop. Julien’s bookshelf was full of all my favourite books (only with French titles like Sur la Route) and I had only been there an hour before we were listening to John Coltrane and quoting Monty Python sketches. If I had known that it was possible to say ‘This parrot is definitely deceased!’ to a Frenchman and have them laugh and throw in ‘I’m Brian and so is my wife’, I may have found the people in those Parisian cafés a little less impenetrable.

Julien (who also has a blog, as all of my new friends seem to do (if you speak French you can access it here: http://www.oeuillet.be/)) and his girlfriend Salomé took me to second-hand bookstores, introduced me to French comics (Arthur De Pins is a new favourite), led me around the Tin-Tin bedecked streets of Brussels, had tea and philosophical discussions with me in a tiny pub off the Grand Place, and let me indulge in one of my favourite foreign destinations: the supermarket!

But the icing on this tub of ice-cream was a discovery I made in their flat on the first night I arrived. Attached to their tiny baby-blue TV was an object out of my own childhood: an integral part of my upbringing: the source of my renowned ability to jump over turtles and collect coins with my head: a Super Nintendo. And, if it wasn’t already enough that they owned this grey box of dreams, they also had the game that I probably spent more time on than my honours thesis: Mario Kart.

And so it was that in a little flat above a Brazilian shop in central Brussels, I played 26 rounds of Mario Kart battle-mode with a Monty-Python loving Frenchman.

At the risk of sounding like a marketing ponce for Couchsurfing, I am happy that there is a website out there that can put you in touch with people like this.

We called it a draw at 13-13 (apologies for the bad photo quality).

A more traditional Brussels image.

*many thanks to my personal translating service, JMRAK, for providing this one.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Instead of travel tales, some nonsense about a rebellious paver...

Around the corner from my house there is a piece of pavement. It looks just like any other paver* in this area: grey and rectangular, with a black smudge of old gum on its back. But this paver is different. This paver uses its ‘ordinary’ looks to disguise a mischievous temperament. This paver is tired of being stepped upon and has discovered a way to wreak revenge.

He enjoys doing it (you can tell from the bricky ‘kerplunk’ of his laugh) because it is both immediately destructive and yet so ‘tiny’ an irritation that the victim almost immediately forgets about it. Looking identical to his innocent cousins (who adhere to the paver status quo), he is able to outwit the same set of forgetful feet again and again.

On rainy days, when most pavers close their eyes, put on a grim face and let the water drops fall on them and then roll away like clear marbles, he wriggles and shimmies between his neighbours, opening up his borders and letting the rain tickle his sides and work its way down to fill the grubby pots and pans he keeps underneath his belly.

Once the rain stops and the other pavers get on with the job of waiting to be stepped on, he stops wriggling and tries to blend in. He pretends that he is waiting to service a suede-booted foot with a compliant solidity, but really he is quietly manoeuvring a series of pumps and spouts into his pots and pans.

He is well practised. Even his neighbours can’t tell that he’s doing anything, and the approaching suede boots (or sometimes the ballet-flats with inadequate border patrol) assume that this upcoming patch of pavers will exercise their civil service as quietly and uncomplainingly as the last.

He is also helped by his position. Somehow he was able, years ago, to negotiate his way into the enviable (yet long-winded) real-estate position of ‘Central Paver on Well-Frequented Corner of Street Leading to/from Tube Station’. He is popular because of this location – like an all-you-can-eat dinner buffet at a tiny airport where the only other option is cold sandwiches of questionable freshness at a newsagent.

So the suede boots and under-prepared ballet flats tramp his way. He is the most convenient option.

He sees them coming and readies himself. He stiffens his back and lowers his hand to the pumps in the pots. The feet clomp closer, stepping without a care in the world across the obliging grey backs of his cousins. Once they are two pavers away, he sucks in his breath, swirls his stockpile of water marbles and then, when the foot lands on him, he releases his breath, opens all of his borders and squeezes his pumps, spurting a backwards waterfall of brown liquid up into the air. His technique is so well perfected that this waterfall never fails to perform three or four quick somersaults before landing – with the same inevitability that Wednesday follows Tuesday or regret follows a rampant Terry’s Chocolate Orange binge – squarely on the unsuspecting shoe.

He realeases his kerplunk of a laugh at the same time: his pavery equivalent of a criminal’s calling card: letting those suede shoes know they’ve been had yet again.

It echoes in the ears of the boots, and they curse their rickety memory and vow to themselves that next time, next time, they will remember this anarchist paver and re-route their steps.

But here they come again, on their way home from the shops, and the paver stiffens his back, shakes his head and chuckles.

It’s always just too easy.

*Apparently the British don’t say ‘paver’. I have had arguments over whether this word can mean ‘a piece of pavement’ alongside ‘one who paves’. Well, one argument. According to the infallible yourdictionary.com, both meanings are correct, so I’m going to stick with my colonial language perversions and sprinkle ‘pavers’ all over this blog entry with my giant pavery salt-shaker. Paver.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Bienvenue à Bruxelles!

The day I arrived in Brussels it was dimanche sans voitures (Sunday without cars). I had been told about this before arriving but had forgotten about it, so when I was walking from Brussels Midi station to the city itself, everything seemed a little sedated. A few kids sailed by on bikes, the occasional bell tinkled and I saw a police car cruise down a quiet street: lights on, sirens off.

I started to get the feeling that maybe visiting Paris first was a mistake – that it was like eating the tastiest thing on my dinner plate first and then realising that all I had left now was broccoli (or Brussels-sprouts, even. Ha. I’m sure you couldn’t see that one coming!). But I hadn’t even reached the city centre yet, so I decided to withhold my broccoli pronouncements until later on. I decided that maybe once I’d cracked Brussels’ crème brulée lid with my teaspoon, I would see warm melting raspberries and smooth chocolate cake batter.

I was walking down Avenue de Stalingrad, heading for the Grand Place, when in the distance I heard the unmistakable promise of a melting raspberry: a rumbling of drums, a far-off trumpet. It was in the opposite direction to where I was headed, but there’s something about faraway drums that makes you feel you’re missing out on something big, so I turned down a side-street towards them, getting my teaspoon ready.

I was not disappointed. The crème brulée lid shattered into thousands of delicious lego pieces and the chocolate cake batter was thick and flowing. A band of 12 young people dressed in a mixture of black Cossack hats, fluoro yellow shorts, funky indie suits and black suspenders were dancing down the street, playing the liveliest, most enthusiastic and unabashedly happy music I have ever heard. There were drums, trumpets, accordions, saxophones, clarinets, trombones and one big, moody tuba. A trail of grinning people were following along behind them, and they lured us all into a big auditorium where they clambered their way up onto the stage.

The music was fantastic – it was fast-paced and. They took turns having solos and the rest of the band would creep up around them, staring at them in ‘mock’ curiousity and awe. The accordion player kept doing jumping splits like a rock star, the lead trumpet player looked like the kind of guy who would make embarrassing but witty speeches at wedding receptions, and the notes bounced comically along like a multicoloured beachball at a football match.

The best photo I could manage, unfortunately

They played for about an hour, and Brussels went from a broccoli side-dish to a place where people were ecstatic to be alive.

Later on in the same day, after discovering where all the tourists were hiding (they’re all around the Mannekin-Pis, which, truth be told, is not all that exciting. They dress him up in little outfits and it smacks sharply of people who put clothes on their pets…) and that a day without cars results in a day swarming with bikes (to the extent that crossing the road requires the skill and dexterity of the 2006 ‘Frogger’ champion), I heard a different kind of music.

Dimanche sans voitures = get your Frogger joystick ready

Near Bourse/Beurs station, there was a DJ playing emotional, intense and incredibly loud piano recordings from the top of an abandoned building. I stopped to have a sandwich at a little Dutch café and watched the hodge-podge of Brussels folk float by. There were people on rollerskates, a guy on a penny-farthing, and at one point a man in a medieval peasant outfit trotted by on a horse. As I was sitting there a group of what looked like African American rappers flounced by – wearing oversized white jerseys, straight-rimmed caps, silver sunglasses and straight faces, but they were speaking in French and had the soundtrack of Chopin’s ADHD cousin behind them.

The DJ near Bourse/Beurs

Here’s to discovering that, even though places aren’t Paris, that doesn’t necessarily make them broccoli.

P.S. Obviously I’ve been having trouble with the speed of my updates lately. I hope you’ll bear with me if I intersperse everyday junk with actual travel stories. Instead of writing about Amsterdam, which I was meant to be doing, I wrote about a rebellious piece of pavement near my flat. It isn’t because I don’t want to write about Amsterdam – it’s just that pieces of pavement keep getting in the way…

Friday, 24 October 2008

Ma Sœur, la Proustienne Involontaire

It felt almost like a pilgrimage. Strapping on my most serious and anticipatory navy-blue expression (and yet, being distracted by hedgehog chestnut shells), we trekked up the cobblestone path of La Père Lachaise. All of his twisting wine-bottle words and his swirling bedroom and his greatcoat and his folds of blankets like meringues and his coffee and his madeleines and his distant cathedral spires and his coach-seat meditations and the seeing of familiar faces in strangers… all of these things wove around the rain-stained headstones, pointing with silk-gloved fingers towards – of all things – a number. Plot 85.

One back from the road, in a shiny rectangular box, lay Proust. I stood there, awaiting the teaspoons and thimbles and buckets of melancholic satisfaction sure to hit me like a chestnut out of a Parisian tree.

I felt a vibration. But it was not the awaited chestnut. It was not the inner rumbling of a pilgrim’s joy. It was my Sony Ericsson W200i announcing an incoming call.

‘Hi, it’s Laura!’
‘Hi Laura! Where are you? You sound tired.’
‘I’m in bed.’

The seriousness fell off me like a liquid dress. There was a puddle of sentences at my feet. I could see my sister, phone to ear, lying in her absolute favourite place to be: her bed.

Proust would definitely have approved!

Monday, 20 October 2008

Another Slingshotted Sultana from Paris

I visited Paris with my friend Marc, who may or may not have been increasingly irritated by my futile outbursts of ‘why wasn’t I born here?’ every third pavement stone or so. I know it is an incredibly obvious observation to make, but these Europeans with their easy style, double-cheek kissing greetings and access to Hemingway cafés are just so… different.

I sat at a café in Montparnasse (where, like all Parisian cafés, all the chairs face out to the street, so you talk side-by-side watching the little posh dogs trot by rather than face-to-face (a setup making philosophical musings less likely)) and watched people coming and going – girls smoking and reading French papers, men having animated, hand-flailing discussions, darkly-dressed High School boys greeting each other with quiet, earnest expressions – and it wasn’t just the language barrier that made all of this frustratingly impenetrable. It was their mysterious lifestyle: their meeting friends at this café, strolling here from tiny unknown streets in their dark clothes and their assured, two-kiss mindset.

It was their childhood.

Earlier in the day we had walked through Parc Monceau and there was a group of school kids in navy blue uniforms jostling and scuffing their feet on the dusty white gravel and taunting each other in tiny French voices. It was just regular kid stuff, but as we walked out of the gold-rimmed gates and onto a boulevard leading to the Arc de Triomphe, I saw how the places people do their ‘regular kid stuff’ in can turn them into multilingual, darkly dressed, earnest discussion-havers, or confused, sunny Australians who can only say ‘I think we’re out of milk again’ in one language (and yes, these are the only alternatives. You’re either a French philosopher or an Australian in need of a quick trip to Coles…). Australian kids play Bullrush in grassless playgrounds off of the Northern Road. French kids play pétanque in a park off the Champs-Élysées. We went on excursions to Warragamba Dam or Questacon in Canberra. They go on excursions to the Loire Valley or the palace of Versailles.

Now, before all of my Australian friends get the wrong idea and call me an unappreciative cretin, I should say that I loved growing up in Australia. When Mum would stop off at Tony’s fruit and veg shop on the way home from school to buy us a Bubble-o-Bill, I really felt that life couldn’t get much better. But it is impossible not to compare, and to wonder about impossibilities.

Marc, for example, grew up in Basel: a region of Switzerland that borders France and Germany. Apart from the ability to say ‘we used to pop over to France for our lemons and to Germany for our baba ghanoush (incongruous as that may seem…), if you add to this happy location an Italian grandmother, English mother and Swiss father, you end up with someone who can speak about 16 languages fluently and who can walk down tiny but familiar streets to cafés where the girls are reading about politics, the hand-flailing men are discussing Russian history, and the darkly-dressed High School boys greet each other with quiet, earnest expressions because that is the way it is done.

Slightly different to a Bubble-o-Bill on the way home...

Tuesday, 14 October 2008


It has taken a while to get things together since my last update, because I have visited Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Hamburg and Barcelona since then and have been overwhelmed into silence. I’m like one of those Fritzl children finally emerging from the dungeon: wide-eyed, illiterate, lost, and about to shut down from sensory overload.

But even though I feel like I’ve just eaten ten mud-cakes, eighteen croque monsieurs and forty-six tubs of rum and raisin gelato (which may not be too far from the truth, so long as you add in twenty tapas lunches and seventy-eight espressos…), and will need to lie down for a few months to let them digest, I don’t want to wait until I’ve forgotten what a croque monsieur tastes like before I get started. So forgive me if I’m only serving you slabs of icing and then oozings of cheese, followed by a slingshotted sultana into the shoulder, but I need to let the flavours out in whatever way they come!

The first slingshotted sultana: Paris Perfumes

One of the first things I noticed about Paris was how nice it smells. As opposed to London or Sydney, where you get intermittent stabs of B.O. or that otherwise ubiquitous deodorant choice for men whose nostrils have been silenced in favour of overblown advertisements pushing the blatantly false idea that women will be yours by the aircraft-hangar-full if you douse yourself liberally in this eye-wateringly strong scent: Lynx body spray; on Parisian sidewalks you drift by the most foot-stoppingly, head-turningly, breathe-in-ingly good smells. They are always ‘just enough’. You only notice it once the person has already passed. A woman in a bright blue coat and leather boots passes you with a floral, woody, understated loveliness. A 20 year old boy is somehow mature enough to choose something subtle and appealing: like grey toasted hazelnuts. An old lady with the most well-coordinated, stylin’ outfit you have ever seen on someone that age makes you turn to follow a sweet, warm scent of hot milk and almond shortbread.

Sometimes there will be a group of three ladies talking on a street corner. As you go past, the perfumes rise and fall in polite competition, saying ‘you first,’ ‘no, after you,’, ‘oh thank you, but I will only be brief. It is your turn now, and then yours, my dear.’

More sultanas to follow shortly…

Friday, 5 September 2008

Whitechapel Yoghurt

Whitechapel is one of the cheapest squares on the Monopoly board, and now that I’ve been living here for a couple of months I understand why that is. BUT, I’ve been criticised for being too negative in this little blog of Proustian nonsense, so instead of peeling back the Whitechapel yoghurt lid and showing you the dark green fluff indicating that this place has been left in the fridge for a few weeks too many and should only be eaten if you have scant concern for your own internal organs, I will try to focus on the positives. Scrape off the fluff and dig deeper in! Maybe it’s still good at the bottom…

Positive #1: Smells

With its high Indian and Bangladeshi population, the smell of my Whitechapel neighbours’ cooking often sends spasms of jealous pleasure across my tongue. They are usually sharp, spicy, tangy scents that saturate the air completely and come dancing to my amateurish nostrils in waves of hot, thick perfection. They make me hover by the back door in a semi-delirium.

Positive #2: Sounds

There is a short old Bangladeshi man with a grey beard and a faded faruque cap who hunches over crates of green mangoes near Whitechapel station every afternoon. Barely opening his mouth (but opening it just enough for you to see his yellow teeth inside), he says ‘Ayyy mango, mango, mango,’ over and over again. I like his hard-selling tactics. I am growing fond of him.

Positive #3: Sights

Spitalfields Markets are clean, colourful and spacious. Likewise the Sunday Upmarket off of Brick Lane is well-structured and lovely. But it is the people who spread out their knick-knacks on blankets along Brick Lane that I like seeing most. Matchbox cars and size 16 shoes and folded chequered shirts and plastic pearls and battered CD players and tiny vases and lycra masks and two old pots and bouquets of green lighters and coat-hangers of multicoloured ribbons at 20p each and a framed picture of a German-Shepherd in profile are all spread out evenly on tartan blankets and their sellers lean against brick walls smoking and eating red liquorice.

Positive #4: Let’s skip taste and touch and go for the sixth sense: The Ghost of Nikolai

Nikolai was the guy who lived in my room for four years or so before I moved in. I get snippets of information about him from my flatmates, and, from what I’ve been able to piece together, it seems like he was a bit of a loner. He spent hours alone in his room, coming out occasionally to watch marathon screenings of The World at War on the History channel and never once having friends drop by for tea and croissants. Of course I could ask more questions about him, but I prefer to imagine what he did in this little room with too little natural lighting and too many broken power-points. Did he comb his fringe over his eyes, lie on his bed and stare up at the ceiling? Did he tap absent-minded, compulsive beats on the desk with his fingernails? Did he write long lists of Mario Brothers characters, from most favourite to least favourite? Did he find, as I do, that creative spirit is strangled by beige walls and paisley curtains? Ah, but here I’m being too negative again! For all I know he had the time of his life in here…

Positive #5: Let’s forget the senses altogether and turn to: The Irony of Whitechapel McDonald’s

This will take a little bit of research to verify, but I recently discovered that the McDonald’s that I pass every morning on my way to the tube station has an interesting history. It used to be a furniture store, and upstairs it housed the Jewish Social Club. In May 1907, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Gorky themselves all walked up those stairs for the congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Apparently they came to London as part of their European tour, attempting to spread the seed of revolution. Some of them stayed on Fulbourne street, which I can reach in about two minutes from my front door.

Imagine that. From a place where people discussed the horrible alienation induced by the division of labour and made passionate speeches about capitalist control over the means of production, to the plastic-seated, fry-sizzling, fake-smiled epitome of modern capitalism: McDonald’s. How depressing. Perhaps I shall entrench the irony further and go eat a McNugget in honour of Lenin and Trotsky. I’ll dunk it in some Sweet n’ Sour sauce and try to come around to the view of many: that people will always prefer their right to work for chocolate thickshakes than equality.

And so it would appear my attempt at a positive post has failed. I do enjoy irony, though, so perhaps it’s not all bad! Here’s another sign that Whitechapel may have some hidden treasures:

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

File Me Away

My job involves a lot of filing. Today as I was slotting Olojharan Obolinko down in his rightful place between the dashing Ojoban Obolinka and the delightful Mohammed Obolezarak, I wondered about the likelihood of any of these people actually meeting one day, and the massive sequence of events that had to occur to result in them sitting flush up against one another in a London filing cabinet. Even if you forget that the Obolinko, Obolinka and Obolezarak parents all had to decide that a little Obolinko, Obolinka or Obolezarak would be a welcome addition to their families (except for Ojaban, who was a mistake), and cast aside the striking similarity of their uncommon (some may even say contrived) surnames, there are quite a few decisions these ‘O’ brothers had to make – and quite a few circumstances beyond their control they had to find themselves in – to see them rubbing their filey shoulders together in this admissions office.

Olojharan decided to take a year off after finishing school in South Africa to backpack through Eastern Europe and sample as much štrukli and viška pogača as possible before returning home to ‘real life’ selling phone credit and crisps to people in his father’s shop. That was the plan. But, after a particularly heavy night on the kruškovac in Croatia, Olojharan met Melania. She had a penchant for designer clothes and gourmet nibbles, and convinced our Olojharan that the only way he could fund his newfound love for Egyptian cotton sheets and Armani suits was to launch a career in high finance. So, upsetting his father (and at the same time impressing him more than he will ever admit), Olojharan applies to an economics degree. His details are sent, his photos attached, his numbers punched in. Into the filing cabinet he goes.

Ojoban was the seventh of eight children (his younger sister was also a mistake). He grew up in a tiny house in Newfoundland and always had to fight for his fair share at dinner time. His older brothers were rolling fat things with bad tempers, and, one night, as he watched Ajalan’s chubby fingers snatch the meatloaf from his plate and shove it between his grinning white teeth, he made the decision that he would show them all. He would eat the finest of foods some day. He would never have to share. And he would never get fat. A chef seemed an obvious choice, but, after a failed venture as a kitchen assistant in town (his boss told him he’d never seen someone so clumsy with a whisk), he realised he only wanted to eat food: not make it. Flipping through the Aubergine Quarterly he saw a job advertisement for a food critic. He applied, but was told he needed to know how to write with great panache and accuracy about the inner workings of soufflés. So, with a new sense of purpose, he applies to a combined Arts/Science degree, majoring in English Literature and Nutrition. His details are sent, his photos attached, his numbers punched in. Into the filing cabinet he goes.

Mohammed was born into a wealthy Nigerian family. He was pampered good and proper his entire childhood, snacking on caviar sandwiches and shark-fin soup with truffle dippers. The only ‘work’ he had ever done consisted of telephoning various international zoos offering 200.6 million nairas and 6.2 concubines in exchange for a bald eagle to add to his personal menagerie. So, when his father was jailed for tax fraud and his mother fled to Bulgaria with her lover, it came as quite a rude shock that everyone in the family turned to him to work back the Obolezarak fortune. After a family meeting, where Mohammed spent the whole time stroking Emerald – his blue-winged raquet-tail – it was decided he should enroll in a business degree. Mohammed has no intention of working or studying (quite frankly, he is incapable of either), but his uncle has already paid five times the tuition fees to secure his place. His details are sent, his photos attached, his numbers punched in. Into the filing cabinet he goes.

The ambitious South African sits next to the hungry Newfoundlandan who is next to the slothful Nigerian. They are connected by similar surnames and coincidentally colliding circumstances.

I close the filing cabinet, thinking about all the things that had to happen to result in my hands being the ones to alphabetise and file these three people I may never meet. Somewhere in Canada, maybe my numbers are being punched in, and I’m being wedged between a philandering German and a philanthropic Pakistani.

It may be a small but incontrovertible truth: we’re all next to somebody we don’t know in a filing cabinet somewhere.

Monday, 4 August 2008

A Red Soufflé in Hyde Park

I have often been criticised for my persistent lack of organisational drive. I thought maybe moving to another country might convince my new friends that I do act and not just talk, but unfortunately lately I’ve been acting with the same joie de vivre as a hibernating animal after a glass of warm milk. My new BFF noticed the snoring emanating from my cave and decided that the only thing for it was to burst inside with ice-blocks and waterskis, singing ‘Good Morning’ à la Gene Kelly and announcing the arrival of summer with timpanis and glockenspiels.

To prove to him that I can organise (and to thank him for reminding me that I am a young person in London and not a Grizzly Bear in the Alaskan wilderness), a plan was hatched. It was an organisational soufflé: for it to rise successfully it required a few days to prepare the key ingredients.

Before I impart my recipe, it may help you to know that this friend is also my French tutor, so there are many French flourishes involved. If you do not enjoy a good French flourish, you may substitute this ingredient with some icing sugar.

Sarah’s London Soufflé


1 x red beret
1 x black and white scarf
1 x quantity red wool (at least 150 metres)
1 x picnic blanket
1 x pack of chalk
1 x quantity home-made food labels in French (eg. ‘a knife’ = ‘un couteau’)
1 x quantity basic picnic food, including a baguette and camembert cheese
2 x functioning mobile phones with sufficient credit
1 x desperate prayer to Vishnu that it doesn’t rain


You will need to select a fitting location to cook in. I selected Hyde Park, but feel free to adapt this to your own city or town.

1. Organise to meet in front of the Serpentine Art Gallery in Hyde Park at 1pm sharp on Saturday.
2. That morning, purchase all of your fresh food, don your red beret and scarf, pack your wool, chalk, picnic blanket and food labels. Before leaving home, drop in your prayer to Vishnu (you may have to do this the night before, also, and sprinkle more in – to taste – across the course of the day).
3. Arrive at the Gallery at midday so you have ample time to prepare. Once there, approach the Gallery staff to ask if they would mind you scrawling a small message in French on the pavement near the entrance outside. Take their advice and write the note on paper instead (even though you spent your lunch-break the day before on a cross-London chalk-hunt).
4. Get out your ball of wool and tie one end to a post near the Gallery entrance. Attach your sign that says ‘Suivre moi’ (‘Follow me’).
5. Unravel your wool, weaving it around trees, over footpaths and down hills until it runs out in a place not many people would choose for a picnic.
6. Set up your picnic blanket at this end of the string and affix your French labels to the food (eg. Le Fromage, Le Noix, L’eau, La Myrtille, Un Bol, Un Plat, etc.).
7. Send your friend a text message that says: ‘Quand vous être à le musée, chercher pour l’instructions’ (‘When you are at the gallery, look for instructions’).
8. Try to look as ‘normal’ as possible when strolling families and curious tourists notice your woollen trail and (a) stare, (b) smile, and/or (c) approach you to ask what on Earth you are doing.
9. Wait.
10. Wait some more.
11. Worry about the other end of the string.
12. Panic when your friend sends you a message, clearly having not seen your note.
13. Reply, telling him to look for a little red clue.
14. Keep an eye on the trees in the distance until you see your perplexed friend collecting the string: weaving around trees, over footpaths and down hills.
15. As he gets closer, try to look as nonchalant as possible. Fail miserably.
16. Eat, drink, and discuss steps 1 through 15.

(Serves 2).

The rest of my plan involved seeing The X-Files movie (which, I hate to admit, disappointed me immensely), having a drink in a pub overlooking the Thames in Bermondsey, then heading to the National Theatre in Waterloo to watch Bafta nominated short films which were shown outside up on the Fly-tower.

The hibernating bear has awoken…

Monday, 28 July 2008


I am sitting in Victoria Embankment Gardens. I wandered here accidentally but have decided to stay. There is a free concert on. Multicoloured deckchairs of blue, red and green are lined up roughly in front of a tiny green stage. Populating the deckchairs are many white-haired men and women, reclining at angles that could make even the most alert of people look three seconds away from a sunny snooze. A bald man in a blue shirt squints as he bites his nails. Behind me a girl is discussing her English lessons in a Spanish accent: her teacher says her grammar needs work. The sun is out, and along the brim of the receding hairline in front of me I see sweat beads glittering. A girl gets up, leaving behind an empty bottle of Iced-tea. Pigeons bob and weave between the legs of the deckchairs, pecking at muffin wrappers. Over the fence is the rumbling of traffic – the sharp squeak of brakes, the honking of boats, the gravelly groan of buses accelerating. People suck on frappuccinos through green straws, tap messages into black phones, click on red lighters to start their cigarettes. I hear a woman’s high-pitched laugh, chairs scraping on the pavement, a group of school kids speaking in German. On Villiers street a group of men are singing ‘I Love You Baby’ as they walk to the tube station. When they finish, people cheer.

The concert never starts, but I am glad I came here.

Friday, 18 July 2008

J'aime Beaujolais

Who cares for paid pleasures or pre-organised festivities? Give me spontaneity and unexpected revelries.

Unfortunately my friend Jean-Marc has beaten me to the punch writing about the pub/bistro in Covent Garden that we are destined to frequent. Unfortunately he has also written about said pub/bistro in a way much more eloquent than I, but I won’t let that stop me. Now we will just have two different versions of the same tale.

After an early evening exchanging bad jokes and consolations in a pub near Seven Dials, our stomachs turned us out onto the Covent Garden streets in search of a menu offering something other than steak, steak with a side salad or steak with a side steak. Weaving around the mish-mash of streets that used to confuse me, we stopped in front of a tiny, dimly-lit bistro. There were raised eyebrows from my companion, and one look at the ceiling densely packed with glass beer steins, multicoloured neck-ties, gnarled brown branches and lampshades made out of faded yellow wine labels was enough to convince us both to step inside.

It was a French bistro/pub called Beaujolais. I’ve never had a ‘local’ before, but now I understand the drive to spend as many nights as possible in a place where the surroundings are warm, the music unobtrusive and the owners shake hands with you when you leave. And, of course, where all the signage is in French and the waiters speak to you earnestly in the language before realising you only understood the words ‘fromage’ and ‘aujourd’hui’.

It was a blessing in disguise that there were no tables left so we had to sit at the bar. After divvying up our plat de fromage we found ourselves the targets of a lumbering, loud (and a little bit lewd) local from Brittany. He’d had his bar stool ‘stolen’ from him and, after many a glare at his blonde-haired usurper, and many French curses that went over my head, he spent the rest of the evening standing half-behind, half-beside the bar, joking loudly with us, insulting my Swiss companion and confusing all the hopeful bill-payers when he refused to take their money.

On the bar between my elbows was a silver plaque: “Honestly, I’d rather be at Beaujolais – Tony Hogan”. It turns out it was a year to that very day that Tony Hogan – a British writer who had spent almost every night at Beaujolais for 20 years – had passed away. Our Jack Daniels-scented bar-fellow and then the owner of Beaujolais and some of the barmen each took time to tell us about this man. By all accounts, he was the very model of an English gentleman. An encyclopaedic knowledge of French history, a willingness to sit down with a glass of wine and discuss any confusions, and never a harsh word to anybody.

Up on the wall was an In/Out members board with locals names scrawled in white chalk. Tony’s name was right at the top, marked as ‘Always In’. From the looks on the barmen’s faces when they described the last day they saw him, it was obvious that this was a man well deserving of their reverence. Their loss was great. The owner looked at our demolished plate of cheeses, then met my eye, shrugged and said: ‘C’est la vie’.

Between the bellowing Frenchmen, the insistence on wine over water, the animated stories and the little French signs everywhere saying things like ‘If you are drinking to forget, please pay before drinking’, I honestly would rather be at Beaujolais than many other places, too. Here I cannot help but quote my partner in Beaujolais revelry to finish:

“Jean-Yves waves regally at his clientèle and turns towards me. 'This wine bar has been here for 30 years and there are only locals here.' he whispers, his salt and pepper (avec hint of Brie) beard rustling and bustling nervously as he leans towards me and continues 'You will be locals, I know it...'.”

Let us drink to Tony.

The Music Edition

Thom the Pied-Piper of Victoria Park

Thanks to a generous Canadian couchsurfer named Elias, last month I found myself in the enviable position of being able to say ‘I have a free ticket to Radiohead!’ to anyone who would listen. Apparently Elias chose me not for my groundbreaking insights into Wittgenstein’s ladder or even my abiding love for Mr Yorke’s voice, but because he discovered from my CS profile that we had one very important thing in common: a shared passion for those dangerously addictive devils in a blue packet: crispy M&Ms.

They were playing on Tuesday and Wednesday (24th and 25th June) in Victoria Park and our tickets were for the Wednesday. BUT on Tuesday night, I was standing in my kitchen, dropping another tablespoon of chilli into my dhal when I suddenly realised I could HEAR the Pyramid Song. I could HEAR Thom’s voice from my stupid little under-stocked kitchen. He was serenading me as I chopped my coriander.

Like a rat lured by pipes, like a dopey forest animal transfixed by Orpheus’s lyre, I was drawn to the music. I wolfed down my dinner, recruited my flatmate Kyle to be my partner in stolen sounds, and ran down to the park, looking like a right plonker with my hands stretched out trying to catch the notes echoing between buildings, rumbling off the parked cars in the street and generally dervish dancing around in bejewelled ballet slippers.

We made it there just as Jigsaw Falling into Place began, and joined the other sound thieves on a hill just outside the concert walls. People had brought tartan picnic blankets, bottles of wine and tea-lights, and every now and then I’d meet someone’s eye who was just as deliriously appreciative as I was to be there. I had only ever heard Radiohead recorded. Live, Thom’s voice remains painfully personal. Even for the thousands of ears who had paid to be there, it was as if we were all behind the fence. He was singing to himself, and we were all just fortunate eavesdroppers.

The next night was obviously brilliant as well – they played Paranoid Android, which satisfied my Year 8 self on the school bus listening to it over and over again on my walkman – but that first night was just so spontaneous and unexpected: like getting home and finding a chocolate ganache cake with a big fuchsia bow on it in the middle of your bed (on a plate, of course).

Mighty Boosh vs. Hop Farm = Fluoro Spandex vs. Oatmeal Windbreakers

The Mighty Boosh festival and Hop Farm Festival were both held in the same field in Kent, but there the similarities end. The headliners of each festival drew significantly different crowds. The Mighty Boosh, for those of you whose lives are blighted by your wilful ignorance of this show, consists mainly of the British comedy duo Julian Barratt (Howard Moon) and Noel Fielding (Vince Noir): the former a jazz-loving ‘straight-man’ with a penchant for tweed and intellectual self-delusion, and the latter a cheeky androgynous electro-boy with a penchant for sequins and Mick Jagger (oh, and a phenomenal hair-do).

Contrast that with the headliner of Hop Farm – Neil Young – and you will get an indication of the crowd-pulling differences of these two festivals. Of course Neil Young is still amazing, it’s just in a slightly ‘older’ way…

On the Boosh festival day I was carried along on a magical dragon-boat of glam-rock ski-suits, sequined cowboy hats, gold spandex, fluoro yellow tutus, purple robes, afro-wigs and men dressed as the pink tentacled head of Tony Harrison. On the Hop Farm day I stood in a sensible field of navy windbreakers, beige trousers, plastic ponchos, and fold-up chairs with bags hanging off them to collect the mandarin skins and cheese wrappers from pre-prepared picnic lunches.

Spot the difference. Exhibit (a) Boosh Festival

Exhibit (b) Hop Farm

Highlights of both days included chasing down American comedian Arj Barker for a photo, chasing down anybody dressed in a costume for a photo, sneaking in a bottle of vodka in the middle of a rolled up sleeping bag (thanks for that tip, Mum and Dad!), the Mighty Boosh’s soup-song remix, Jim James from My Morning Jacket wailing the glittering notes of Gideon in his blue cape, Gary Numan in general, discovering the lesser-known double-function of Oyster cards as Grade-A avocado slicers, and wearing slices of Edam cheese on my ankles. Unfortunately, that last point is not a joke. But at least it wasn’t my idea…

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Tubes, Buses and Pigs

Tubular Observations

As obvious as it may be to write about the tube in London, as a daily user with multiple interchanges requiring multiple trudging up escalators, multiple shoulder-barges from people walking in the opposite direction and multiple invasions of personal space from multiple men who submerged their clothes in eau de Lynx body spray that morning, there are a few observations I have to make.

Firstly, I’ve decided that I much prefer the trains equipped with vertical poles to hang on to than the ones with horizontal poles that run down the length of the ceiling. Although the horizontal poles seem more efficient because more people can hold onto them and you don’t have the issue of vertical pole-koalas (the ones who decide it is necessary for them not just to hold the pole with their hand, but to wrap their whole body around it, leaving everyone else to try their best with empty space or the surprised earlobe of the businessman next to them), when you have a sadistic tube driver who applies the brakes at unexpected staccato intervals throughout clear stretches of tunnel and pushes down rather too forcefully when coming to a complete stop, the horizontal pole proves how useless it really is: somehow our feet lose all ability to grip the ground, and we clang into each other like hanging salamis in an unusually windy butcher’s shop.

Secondly, I have learned that you must treat each peak-hour overground train as if you are an arrogant world-class boxer: forget everything you ever learned about sportsmanship or sympathy for your peers; talk yourself up inside your head, and when the time comes, knock down anyone and everyone who stands in the way of that golden championship belt (AKA a spot on the 7.45am Westbound train). If you don’t you’ll end up scuffing your shoes back on the platform, watching the yellow and purple carriage fade into the distance and thinking about the sliver of space between the fat lady and the Rastafarian that was rightfully yours but conquered by the guy who, having long ago abandoned any sense of chivalry or the natural British inclination to queue, showed up at the last second and stole it in a blaze of elbows and laptop bags.

Leaving London, if only for a day

It only took almost four months, but I finally managed to break free from the tupperware container of yesterday’s spiced-vegetable Biryani that is London and make my way to ‘mysterious’ Stonehenge and ‘city-of-the-multiple-pig-statues’: Bath.

I say ‘mysterious’ Stonehenge because, on the one day when gloomy English weather may actually have been helpful in mustering up those ‘what’s it all about?’ sort of sentiments that are meant to burst naturally from your pores upon visiting something built around 1500BC, the weather was so perfect – clouds yawning contentedly in the sky, newborn lambs grazing beside buttercups in nearby meadows, children licking double-decker ice-creams with sprinkles – I could only stand there and say: “Yep, that’s Stonehenge.”

The only ‘mystery’ I encountered all day was why so many Americans come to this country when they expect everything to be the same as ‘back home’. Americans outnumbered every other nationality on the bus about 10:1, and on the hour-long bus trip from London to Stonehenge and then again on the next hour-long leg of the trip from Stonehenge to Bath, the discussions I was forced to listen to consisted mainly of complaints about pitiful portion sizes, pitiful public transport, pitiful trading hours and pitiful customer service. All compared to ‘back home’ where the portion sizes are reasonable, public transport is as smooth as your favourite childhood slippery-dip, trading hours allow you to buy a floral-print sofa and washer-dryer combo at three in the morning, and customer service is such an integral part of the national identity that they’re considering etching ‘The Customer is Always Right’ into Thomas Jefferson’s Mount Rushmore chin.

Peppered amongst the complaints, I also overheard someone asking, in all seriousness, ‘What’s the singular for ‘sheep’?’ and a hearty discussion regarding the horrors of the Australian accent. A portion of it is transcribed here:

“So, I was like dating this guy a while ago, and he was like, so hot, and he was Australian, but I wished I could like plug my ears or something, and just like, look at him instead, because his accent just made me want to barf.”

Never mind that there were at least two Australians on the bus: myself and my friend for the day, Amy from Melbourne. We sat in our orange coach seats, distinguishing ourselves from the Americans by our subtle Australian form of revenge: absorbing all the abuse so we could bitch about it when we were out of earshot.

As for ‘the henge’, there is a thin black rope functioning as a ‘fence’ around the stones and people shuffle up, take their photos, stare at the crows squabbling on the rocks for a bit, and then shuffle back off to join the queue for the toilets. There were audio guides available, but I was happy just to say, ‘Yep, that’s Stonehenge’, do my lap of contemplation and obligatory jumping tourist shot (below) and then shuffle off to poke around all the ingenious Stonehenge memorabilia in the gift shop. Amy found the ‘Stonehenge Rocks’ slogan utterly hilarious, bless her.

On the way to Bath, I have to tell you, I saw grass like I’ve never seen before. Field after rolling field of most perfectly formed, glossy, plush and gloriously green grass. I wanted to pretend I had an emergency so the bus would stop and I could go throw myself into it. You know how you see something so perfect sometimes and you just want to make a dent in it? Like when you open a new tub of ice-cream and the top is so smooth that you get this sudden urge to stick your finger in? I wanted to destroy this grass. I wanted to leave strange rolling imprints so that planes flying overhead would see an armadillo holding an umbrella that had blown inside out.

Anyways, we arrived in Bath and only had 3 hours to spend there. Should you ever find yourself in Bath with only 3 hours up your sleeve, if you hear about Beckford’s Tower, I strongly recommend taking a bus. Amy and I decided that it couldn’t be that far away, and after a 45 minute uphill walk, we were greeted by the lonely Tower Museum ladies who were mightily impressed we’d walked all the way from Bath. Even Beckford himself rode up on his horse, they said. Which leads to my second recommendation should you ever visit Beckford’s tower: try to arrive with at least a vague understanding of who Beckford was before entering. Of course, it won’t matter if you don’t, because these Museum ladies spoke as if we were two Beckford pilgrims come to lay rhododendrons and coloured beads at his hedonistic feet. They said things like ‘It’s just like him, you know, to have made the stairs to the top so small and easy to climb,’ and ‘Of course he would probably have sat up there pretending that he owned the city – that’s something he would do,’ continually rolling their eyes at the antics of silly old Beckford and remaining oblivious to our glassed-over eyes and polite nodding.

Beckford's Tower, Bath

Even though we didn’t have much time left to see the rest of the city, when we came back down from the Tower, we were still too polite to stop the enforced Postgraduate Beckford course that came next. Whether we wanted a museum tour or not didn’t seem to matter. I assume making Beckford Tower bookmarks and tea-cosies all day isn’t the most fulfilling of occupations, so anyone who ventures inside the Beckford walls is a prime target for in-depth tour guiding. I also assume dedicating most of your days to Beckford’s memory can make you a little too obsessed. After enthusiastically taking us over to a glassed-in replica of Fonthill Abbey, where the fabulously wealthy bisexual Beckford spent many years in seclusion after being publicly outed, she leaned in close and pointed to a little grey balcony with a door underneath. “I like to imagine him strolling proud and naked out of this door and going for a swim in the river nearby,” she said.

I loved her enthusiasm, of course, and if I had time I would probably have stayed and indulged her Beckford fantasies further, but we only had about an hour and a half left to see the rest of the city. So we took in the Circus, the Royal Crescent, the Abbey, Pulteney Bridge (which looks more Europe than UK) and bypassed the actual Roman Baths because it cost about £15 to get in.

Pulteney Bridge, Bath

Apart from the Bath stones, which most of the buildings are made out of and make everything look bright and clean, the only other thing we saw a lot of were pig sculptures. Bath must have been having some kind of unadvertised Pig Festival, because sprinkled in unexpected places around the city were these multi-coloured, multimedia Pigs. There were white ones with wings hanging from trees, a silver one with a bow and arrow sitting above the doorway to a coffee shop, a spotty one standing sentry on a street corner, a blue one in the main square, one made out of feathers, one made out of gold mosaic tiles… I read now that they’re there to promote the 3000 year-old legend of Bath’s founder: King Bladud. According to BBC news, King Bladud “discovered the healing powers of its hot spring waters while walking with his swine.” Cool. Any excuse to decorate an entire city with pig statues is fine by me.

Friday, 30 May 2008

Earning Pounds, Losing Pounds

Beginning the 9-5 Hi-ho

So since my last post I’ve picked up an office job. My first office job. There are some pretty cool perks involved, but before hearing about these I was already elated that I don’t have to clean anything at all before I go home. This is the first job I’ve ever had where I can just leave. Scrubbing mugs, dismantling coffee machines, sweeping, mopping, polishing, cling-wrapping, dating and rotating, changing bins, restocking syrups and condiments, refreshing griller foil, emptying grinders, wringing out dishcloths, unpacking dishwashers, wiping dried milk out of blenders and all those other tasks that left my hands looking and feeling like crunchy-nut cornflakes (but probably tasting more like Windex and off milk) are – hopefully – a thing of the past. Here I can just turn off my computer and go. And someone else cleans up after me.

I’ve noticed that each morning when I come in the bin next to my desk has been changed, and the corners of the bin-bag have been tied in neat, thoughtful little knots so the bag doesn’t collapse in on itself under the sudden clunk of my banana peel missile. I wonder who this person is that I never see. Maybe it’s someone else who dreams of that glorious peach-flavoured day in the future when they don’t have to clean before they go home. Maybe I should leave them a little present with a note tied on:

To the lovely soul who empties my bin. Sorry about the unfinished cup of tea the other day. Please accept this jumbo-sized packet of Revels and a charcoal still-life entitled Basil plant and daisy in shot-glass on Hackney table* as a token of my appreciation. Yours with neat, thoughtful little knots: Sarah.

*based on a true still-life.

I’m working for the Admissions Department at a college in London and, after only a week, I have been hit multiple times around the ears, nose and throat with a giant plastic cliché bat, and tickled on the shoulder with many obsequious feathers. To explain, as part of the application process, students have to submit an essay/personal statement outlining why they have chosen this school, what they will bring to the campus community, where they see themselves in five years and all the usual gaff. Occasionally you will read one that’s well-written and touching, but in general the opening emails (read: the obsequious feathers) and personal statements (read: the cliché bats) go a little something like this:

(a) The emails

Dearest respected sirs,

Hope by the grace of God you are doing fine. I just put in my applicant to your highly esteemed and most honourable institution and hope very much that your excellences will give me a place in your grand school. Your excellences must see my English skills is being very high, and I think my applicant must be top priority. While waiting to hear from your quick and positive actions, I will remain your future student. Thanking you, and God be blessing you abundantly.

(I don’t mean to sound quite so mocking, because I happen to like being referred to as ‘your excellence’ (even though they assume I’m a man). It’s a definite step up from ‘that coffee wench’.

(b) The personal statements

It is my personal opinion that you must dare to dream in this life to achieve all of your life’s goals. You must aim for the moon because that way if you miss, you’ll still end up amongst the stars.

From a very young age I have dreamed about working in Marketing – it all started when I found that I had a knack for cross-promoting animal crackers in the playground at Our Lady of the Sacred Cheesewheel in Venezuela – and since then I have been slaving over hot quantitative studies and praying at the mosques of advertising shamans to earn a place at your fine institution. I see your school as the next step on the pathway to my dream, and if my hard work and naked determination to succeed is not enough to convince you, please take the following into account:

When I was sixteen my father had the hide to lower my Jimmy Choo budget and told me I’d have to start working if I wanted that new pair of orange silk pumps. This significant life set-back contributed to my low self-esteem and I ended up with a serious eating disorder where I could only ingest purple-coloured foodstuffs. It was many months before I could look at an orange, and to this day star-fruit upsets my fragile constitution, but I pulled together and, green grape by green grape, I reached my goal of ‘total dietary colour incorporation’.

When my father saw my determination to conquer broccoli rapids and scale the dizzying heights of sushi peak, he decided that I was obviously of the highest managerial and marketing calibre, and reinstated my Choo budget. He is also going to pay my tuition fees, so if you ever have a problem with payment (which you won’t, because he owns Belgium), just let me know and I’ll threaten him with a bag of aubergines and purple cabbage.

So, as you can see, I know what it’s like to suffer outrageous fortune (as King Lear said), and I will always hold a strong desire to overcome any obstacle and attain the freedom to eat white-chocolate mousse, or – in this case – study Marketing. Most of all, I know that we can’t let our dreams die. Life is a challenge and you have to take it up or be left behind.

Of course these letters are also usually full of so many punctuation problems that I am left with an acute stage of apostrophitis, and are peppered with so many ‘your/you’re’ mix-ups that my grammar Nazism starts marching down my internal Nuremberg square, but I just can’t bring myself to write a totally realistic replica for you all (or all two of you, at least. Hi Hayley!).

The Roman Heist

One sunny day, deep in the heart of Europe, someone decided that a five-course meal overlooking the Pantheon was the only way to truly experience Italian culture. Being rather short on cash, but of a naturally conniving and gluttonous disposition, this person decided to rob me of £205 as I sat innocently at my London desk. As I was deciding which colour post-it note to use – pink or green – they were deciding which Main to have – the Wagyu beef or the Lobster. As I was pouring my Tea de English Breakfast, they were pouring their Chianti de 1950. As I was typing in my 40th application, they were placing a 40 Euro tip on a crisp white tablecloth. And, as I was crying over the discovery of a depleted bank account, they were rubbing their bellies and sighing over an orange sunset.

To make this heinous crime even worse, I only made the discovery on a Friday afternoon before a Bank Holiday long weekend. And when I called the bank, they cancelled my card straight away – before I even had a chance to replenish my wallet, which, at the time, was only home to one weathered pound. So instead of the trip to Brighton I had planned, I had to settle for a trip to the discounted section of Tescos.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

This Hackney Life

The Move East

I wish I was able to say that the move to Hackney was fraught with hilarious hiccups and tearful pleas to an eccentric old man named Tete-Raki to move his collection of glass pick-up sticks and jade marbles from the path of my rolling luggage juggernaut. I predicted slanty rain and a slow ´leak´ in my luggage that would leave a Hansel and Gretel trail of plastic orange shoes, purple pashminas and Kinder-Surprise toys along Euston Road. But the move actually went quite smoothly. Even though I had banned myself from TopShop and Spitalfields Market until I was earning more than lint and shoelaces, I still managed to accumulate a lot of STUFF, and it all had to go.

Kyle loaded 3/4 of my STUFF onto his bike and rode all the way to the new place (amazing, I know. My junk probably weighed more than he does), leaving me with just my big black suitcase to take on the bus. No slanty rain, no encounters with Tete-Raki, not even an impatient busdriver. England was in a generous mood.

The New Pad (I hate it when people call houses ´pads´...)

The cunning reader will recall that I was less than impressed with the Fitzrovia flat. The new place is about 20 rungs up on the cleanliness ladder, and apart from a well-stocked kitchen, the place is also well stocked with people. I am one of seven. And, thank God, all six flatmates are more likely to share and clean than eat my mushrooms and leave Kosciouszkos of dishes in the sink. AND, bonus of bonuses, all except Kyle have English as a second language, so in exchange for helping some of them with my mother tongue, I´m learning snippets of French, Spanish and Portuguese. I brought home a beautiful leaf from Victoria Park and can now say ´C´est un jolie feuille´. Sure to come in handy in Montmarte, I know (along with ´grille pain´ (toaster), ´tortue´(turtle) and ´briquet´(lighter)).

(As a side note, I may be starting French lessons soon with a multi-lingual prodigy whose first word was ´rhinoceros´ and who apparently dances like an octopus: Jean-Marc. His fee is a pint an hour - not bad! Incidentally, he too has a blog, which you may indulge in here: http://jeanmarcknoll.blogspot.com/.)

More on the people later, but ´the pad´ is 3 storeys, 4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, 1 kitchen/living area, and a courtyard out the back that, I regret to tell you, is densely populated with garden gnomes, terracotta squirrels and a pig and an owl pushing wheelbarrows. People at home may remember the ´Great Garden Gnome Kidnapping´of 2007, where I successfully relocated the $2 garden gnome Dad received as a ´joke´ Christmas gift yet somehow managed to make a home for itself beneath our Silky Oak. I am not a gnome fan, in general, but our courtyard is so kitsch and overdone I can´t help but love it.

Exploring the ´hood

My little Lonely Planet London guide reported that, a few years back, a popular TV show named Hackney "the worst place to live in the UK". It also said, however, that this caused a huge backlash amongst Hackneyens (ites? siders? a-thons?), who pooled together their resources and launched an ´I Love Hackney´campaign, complete with t-shirts, bags, bumper stickers and mugs.

Now, it´s early days yet, but Hackney isn´t half bad! On a rare sunny Saturday I went for a long walk with Kyle so we could discover Hackney´s nooks, crannies and orange leg-warmers. A few highlights:

- Bohemia Cafe: live jazz and salsa music every Sunday night
- Hackney Empire: theatre, music and a bar with quiz nights on Tuesdays (they also do the auditions for ´Britain´s Got Talent´ here)
- Victoria Park and Hackney Marshes: my new running tracks
- Marks and Spencers Food: for when we feel like spending £3 for a banana
- Primark: for when we only have £1 left but need 3 t-shirts, a pair of ballet flats, a new scarf, a red cushion, vanilla-scented body wash, new underwear and 5 pairs of 40 denier stockings.
- And, something I never really expected to see in London:

Hackney has a city farm. It´s mainly for kids, of course, but at least if I miss that thrilling feeling of interconnectedness with "Nature" that pervaded my life back home, I´ll know where to go. If the cityscape feels like it´s closing in on me, hurling gum wrappers and neon signs at my ankles, if the bendy buses and cyclists collude to splash oceans of oil-streaked water on my innocent suede shoes, if the echoey soundtrack of five-hundred pairs of heels stomping down narrow tube tunnels starts to invade my frazzled mind, I can go look at a goat and know that it´ll all be okay.
Perhaps the best part of living in Hackney is that it´s so close to my favourite part of London so far: Shoreditch! When I made it to Brick Lane and saw the hole-in-the-wall pubs, the coffee shops with vintage lounges and Indian lamps and Hookahs to smoke out the front; the curry houses, intricate street art and the all-embracing fashion experiments of passers-by (a girl sitting near me right now is wearing a black bowler hat, white Ray-Bans, a red and black polka dot shirt tucked into a ruffled white and red polka dot mini skirt, black suspenders with silver buckles, black thigh-high socks, platform saddle shoes, dangly silver star earrings and plenty of multicoloured bangles), I knew I made the right decision moving East. There´s a pub on the corner of Brick Lane - Casa Blue - that has a queen-sized bunk-bed covered in fairy lights in one of the rooms.
The Sun is the Underdog in England
My first music festival in England was a free one in Victoria Park called ´Love Music Hate Racism´. It was the first festival I´d been to where the grass was plush and plentiful (the kind you walk on, kiddies. But come to think of it, the other kind was plush and plentiful too), but also the first festival I´d been to where the wind was a bratty toddler, making my £4 umbrella bob and twist and buckle like a spinning top when it´s almost used all of its spin juices and starts going all skewiff and falling off the table. And the rain. God, the rain.
I went with two Marcs (one a Mexican vegetarian base player and the other my potential future French tutor) and it really was just a day to hang out and pay too much for alcohol and fajitas because the sound quality was pretty bad. The lineup was great: Hard-Fi and the Good the Bad and the Queen played, and Fyfe Dangerfield from the Guillemots did a cool cover of Mr Springsteen´s ´Dancing in the Dark´, but for me the best part of the day was at about 5pm, when the underdog sun finally overthrew the tyrannical cloud government and proclaimed that there shall be free t-shirts and cupcakes for everyone. I don´t think I´ve ever witnessed such a communal outpouring of excitement over the sun before. Thousands of people cheered, turned their faces to the sky, stretched up their arms and danced. It was such an instinctive reaction. I cheered and then laughed because, back home, at Big Day Outs for example, we´re more likely to cheer when the rain arrives, and stretch our hands out for the precious icy droplets that bands might throw from their water bottles.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Proustian Post Quatre

To all who have commented on past posts: I haven’t figured out how to respond to each comment individually, but I do appreciate them all. One thing though, if you’re using a pseudonym, let me know who you are!

Portobello Road Market vs. Camden Market: a probing comparison by a drenched amateur

So here it is: the hard-hitting comparison I’ve been storing to blow your sombreros off with until now. All very thoroughly researched through a triangulation of qualitative and quantitative methods, with all possible bias or subjectivity swept under the coffee table and many references to Foucault’s The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the College de France 1981-1982 and Latour’s Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies to add more pomp and gravitas. The result will be up to Foucault, Latour and YOU. In the words of Mr. Moran: Vote now for your favourite thing and you too, could win a thing.

Portobello Road Market is very classy and pretty, but so busy you are forced to spend longer contemplating antique toaster-handles than you ordinarily would. It is mainly antiques, produce stalls, vintage clothes, photos and prints and touristy bric-a-brac stalls. My favourite thing there wasn’t the London bus matchbox cars or the £50 diamante necklaces, but this:

At an intersection near the produce stalls, there was a bald old man sitting on a blue crate with a plump Jack Russell terrier lying across his shoulders. As I was walking by, he lifted up his styrofoam cup of coffee and, ever so gently, with all the relaxed confidence of a well-practiced routine that was not by any means too gag-inducing for the ogling, ambling masses, tipped it towards the dog’s lips. The dog took a few licks and then the man lowered the cup and had a few gulps himself. That little scene almost won Notting Hill the much-coveted ‘Cool and Eccentric Market of the Fortnight’ sash, but ultimately it was Camden Market that took out that particular title.

Camden Market (the street part)

Camden Market is much more sprawling and unexpected than Portobello Road. It has mass produced everything (along with one-off knick-knackery). It has shelves of multicoloured bongs and lego-man necklaces and fluro lyrca rave outfits and overpriced vintage dresses and space-invader print Doc Martens and narrow laneways with blue fairy lights and couches on the ceiling, and it smells of curry and coffee and chilli and strawberry crepes. Of course the God of intermittent rainfall and diagonal breezes (let’s call him Bernard) kept waving his rainy sceptre, so my umbrella was going up and down and inside out and into people’s temples for most of the day, but I still thought Camden Market deserved to have my ‘Rad Market of the Quarter’ badge pinned to its lapel (alongside the fortnightly sash).

Camden Bongs

Two Small Things

- Small thing #1: the apples here, without a dollop of exaggeration or embellishment, are all perfect 100% of the time. No dodgy Braeburns in London. No floury Pink Ladies. No worm-infested Royal Galas. Nothing but crisp, fizzy, juicy baubles of joy.

- Small thing #2: the buskers here, with possibly a teaspoon of exaggeration this time, are much more talented than the bizarre acts that clog up Devonshire St Tunnel and Circular Quay back home (a certain bell-ringing man in a donkey suit comes to mind). Kudos to the saxophonist playing Bésame Mucho at St Paul’s tube the other day.

One Hypocritical Observation

The slow-walking, video-camera swinging, tube-clogging masses of tourists everywhere get a bit much sometimes. Oxford Street is a bottleneck of teenagers. Portobello Road is full of Italians who don’t know to move out of the middle of the road when you’re having an arm-flailing discussion. Americans on the tube complain loudly about the old people hogging the seats. I roll my eyes when I see someone taking a photo of the BT tower, but as I squirm my way through every congested sidewalk, I realise that I am part of the problem.

A Sweet-Potato Wedge of Comedy

I’ve been to a fair few comedy evenings since I’ve been here and they’ve all been fantastic. Surreal, over-the-top, full of silly voices and conveyor belts of UK accents. The Pleasance Theatre (http://www.pleasance.co.uk/islington) in Islington, apart from being a warm and aesthetically pleasing venue in itself (full of black-framed photos, bright and silly posters; vintage lounges, wooden staircases and well-clad individuals), hosted ‘Sketchatron’ on April 11, and there were three comedy duos I will now be following closely. Tommy and the Weeks are witty and silly and deliciously inappropriate, Dmitry and Vassily do impressive improv in flawless Russian accents, and Colin and Fergus take up where Monty Python left off (and, even better, they build on it). I remember one line by Fergus, who introduced his partner with a dead-pan staccato voice like John Cleese in ‘authoritarian’ mode: “I’ve been married twice. This is my wife Sarah, who is quiet and clean. Then there is my ex-wife Philippa, who is beautiful… and died.”

Some of these duos are bound to be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August, which is grand, because I am bound to be there too.

My Scandinavian Friend

About 1 minute’s walk from the Fitzrovia Flat, tucked away under a floral-print doona on quiet Great Titchfield Street, is a little place with bright red walls and Danish sweets that serves THE BEST COFFEE IN LONDON. They use Monmouth Coffee beans and they have soy milk. Their coffee mugs, instead of having ‘traditional’ handles, have these round protuberances shaped like a coffee tamp (or a motorbike handle, for those of you who didn’t spend too much of your lives practicing the subtle art of barista-ing and hence are happily unacquainted with coffee tamps). It’s called Scandinavian Kitchen and the blackboard out the front has a daily Danish quip (like ‘It’s Viking Good’. I didn’t say they were clever quips…). The other day when I was in there, they were playing Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising. It didn’t really ‘fit’ amongst the assorted Scandinavian sweets, breads and cheeses, but Mr. Springsteen’s voice reminds me of my Dad, so that was the icing on the triple-layer chocolate truffle cake.

The Scandinavian Kitchen

Coming up in Proustian Post Cinq: The move from Fitzrovia to Hackney.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

London Cobblestones

Nancy Drew and the Mystery of the Missing Dishes

When I arrived at 'the flat that hygiene forgot' here in Fitzrovia (not Covent Garden, as I originally thought), I noticed the dearth of basic kitchen necessities. A quick survey uncovered 2 mugs, 4 bowls, 1 scotch glass, 1 rusty apple-peeler, 3 plates and 1 cherub corkscrew (with the screw coming from somewhere decidedly un-cherub-like). Along with the unpredictable cutlery drawer ('Will there be any spoons this morning? Or will I eat my cereal with a fork?'), my groceries kept disappearing as well.

Considering Hannah was never at home, and Peter left for Canada a week into my stay, that left one possible suspect: the remaining flatmate, Peter the second. He seemed quite nice until he pulled off his mask Scooby-Doo style and revealed himself as the dish-hoarding chain-smoker from the seventh level of hell. That sounds a bit harsh, but read on...

After I revealed to Hannah his predilection for grazing upon my groceries and his tendency to buzz in at 3.30am after losing his keys, she wrote what I could only suspect to be a rather sternly-worded note (signed from the both of us, though I am still uncertain of its precise content) and slid it under his door.

The next day when I came home, the missing kitchen necessities had materialised on every available benchtop. There were mugs and glasses and bowls and cutlery and plates, and - considering I had never seen some of these items over the course of two whole weeks - I could only guess how thick and thriving the colonies of bacteria must have been in amongst the dried spaghetti sauce and mystery brown gunge.

Perhaps it was just a coincidence; perhaps it was an act of defiance against 'the note'; perhaps he just didn't like the cut of my jib. Whatever it was, I had an hour of washing-up spread out before me. Unstable multicoloured skyscrapers of bowls and pots and mugs. Long-established bacterial communities to massacre in a cruel tsunami of lime-scented liquid. I was tempted to leave it all there, but I remembered an oft-encountered lament of Mum's: 'If I don't do it, no one will'. One thing that is definitely NOT oft-encountered at home, however, is dried-up cigarette stubs lying in an ashy grave at the bottom of countless blue Ikea mugs. I don't think Peter has even been home since I did the washing-up, so I can't even avoid asking him about the 'dish situation' as I (more than likely) otherwise would have done.

Living here I have also been haunted by the mail of residents past. A new name affixed to Flat 225 comes through the slot almost every day. Luckily someone amongst this group had taste: on the bookshelf upstairs I found a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and Damned.

Snow and Confetti

The weather hasn't been too bad since I've been here, but last Sunday I awoke to white fluff floating around outside my window. Kyle and I had already arranged to go to the Tate Modern, so we walked there in the snow, stopping once on the way so I could wrap my frightened fingers around a comforting coffee.

The great thing about most of the museums and galleries in London is that admission is free to the permanent exhibitions. The Tate Modern had a paid-entry exhibition of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, but I was happy enough to stumble upon Giacometti's 'Unique Forms of Continuity in Space' and Miro's 'Woman and Bird in the Moonlight' (which some of you may recognise as my MSN user picture).

A sneaky shot with Miro's painting

The work that really caught my interest was a video by two Brazilian artists - Rivane Neuenschwander and Cao Guimaraes - called 'Quarta-feria de cinzas (Ash Wednesday)'. Using what must have been a phenomenal camera, the video follows a parade of ants carrying colourful flecks of confetti. Because the ants are dark and tthe ground is full of 'natural' colours like brown leaves, moist-looking grey rocks an dark soil, the confetti - in various colours like fuschia, fluoro yellow, lime green, bright blue and reflective silver - sometimes look like they're floating and twirling and bumbling their way across the landscape on their own. Even when you can see the ants, if you 'soften' your vision it looks like these round bright discs are sliding down the sandy ant-holes themselves, bring 'drawn' there by some mysterious alien beam. Sometimes you'll be watching this incredibly sharp picture of one ant carrying one pink piece of confetti up and down rocks and through leaves, and other times the leafy floor has various swirly flecks all bobbing and weaving in the same direction. It is mesmerising to watch. It also has a very subtle soundtrack of little crinkly, poppy, chirpy, buzzy noises. I think because the sounds are slightly 'mechanical', it adds to the sense of an overarching, unknowable 'force' that is directing this confetti-gathering movement. It is too 'cute' to be creepy, but the whole setup leads you to suspect some kind of cult-like 'purpose' behind the meanderings of these ants and their colourful plunder.

That's enough arty-fartiness for one post. I will put down my pen-of-high-pretention now.

Hackney: some say it's up-and-coming, some say it's down and staying there

One of the problems with moving to a new country is that, as yet, most place names are meaningless to me: they carry no positive or negative associations. 'Elephant and Castle' may sound quaint and interesting, but it isn't until you talk to a Londoner that you are filled in with the sordid details of drive-bys and ghetto-style housing. Before Peter the second turned into the dish-hoarding somnambulant, he gave me a quick North-South-East-West comparison of London with Sydney. They were fairly 'sweeping' comparisons, and he did point out a few anomalies, but basically it ran like this:

North London = laid-back like Bondi
East London = funky like Newtown or Glebe
South London = poor like Redfern
West London = rolling in cash and Maseratis like the North Shore

Based on this comparison, you might be able to guess which area of London I would most want to live. Kyle and I had decided to look for a flat-share place together, so we arrived with a skip and whistle to a lovely terrace-house in... Hackney. The place was about 10 kabillion times better than the flat in Fitzrovia, but it wasn't until a girl at work told me that I might want to pack a bulletproof vest if I was moving there that I began to have serious doubts. Walking towards the house to sign the papers, I took in the brownness and the seediness and the swirling of sirens and began to feel very 'small'. The 'bulletproof vest' comment had me severely rattled. The landlord had made Hackney out to be a magical place where children gather on weekends to dance around maypoles and distribute daisies to the elderly, but of course it was in his interests to skip certain uncomfortable details. My 'character-judgment' radar was refusing to bleep at me, however, and he took us for a walk around the neighbourhood and let us have a private conversation with the other flatmates before we attached our names to any paperwork. One of the girls managed to convince me that Hackney has this huge stigma attached to it, but that it is now a safe (if ugly) place to live. I myself witnessed a robbery right around the corner from the flat in Fitzrovia, so it seems like there are few places in London that are 'untainted'.

On the bus on the way home I also realised that I've spent my whole life up til now living in a place outsiders consider a 'dive': Western Sydney. So I'll just have to take up my habitual position as 'defender of stigma-riddled neighbourhoods'. I can always throw around Bansky's name (http://www.banksy.co.uk/), who has been known to work in the area, or I can just pretend I live in Shoreditch, which is 10 minutes down the road.

So, for better or worse, Hackney will be 'my hood' for the next 3 months. It is an unfortunately named place: something between a cliched expression and the charming sound of phlegm.

Catering for London's Elite

I have managed to score a fairly decent 'back-up' job as a waitress with a company that caters for upmarket events all over London (they did the Queen's 80th, for example). One of the perks of the job, apart from the opportunity to work at some amazing venues I might otherwise never have seen the inside of, is that we - the gallant and black-bedecked waitstaff - get to eat all the spare 5-star meals. This week at Plaisterer's Hall (http://www.venues.org.uk/extlink_frame.asp?VenueName=Plaisterer) I could help myself to, for example:

Entree Beetroot cured Scottish salmon on horseraddish fritter with beetroot creme fraiche tapenade, chive oil dressing and a soft herb salad.

Main Roasted rump of lamb studded with garlic and rosemary on a roasted garlic creamed mash with roasted root vegetables and a rosemary jus-lie.

Dessert Mandarin torte with a rich bitter chocolate sauce.

They also had vegetarian options like roasted veggie stacks and strudels, and, for dessert, fruit platters with kiwifruit, pineapple, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and rockmelon arranged in concentric circles. So even though £6 an hour is unquestionably dismal, I'm sure I can put up with blueberry cheesecake with mixed-berry compote and a sprig of fresh mint every day until I find something better. (Before you leap in with your 'Heathrow-Injection-I-told-you-so's, Jaxon, I haven't actually been snapping up the cheesecake every day!)

Okay. This is actually, believe it or not, the second time I've typed out this whole thing, so my eyes are beginning to plead for mercy. Hopefully next time I'll learn to save my drafts. Goodbye from this little internet cafe on Tottenham Court Road! I'm going to miss being so close to everything when I'm living out in Hideous Hackney.

Friday, 4 April 2008

A Lonely Landing

First off, thanks to everyone who commented on my first post. I'm surprised you made it all the way to the end. Here comes the next challenge:

London Landing and Ill-Equipped Tube Stations

When the plane was coming in to land, the skies were clear over London, and out of my little oval window the first landmarks I saw were the London Eye, London Bridge and the Gherkin. Sir chats-a-lot was still yammering on about Mrs Thatcher and her visionary social policies by my side but I tuned him out to focus on the murky Thames. My doubts about moving here had just about slid away down the aeroplane wing and then the pilot's voice came over: "It is 0 degrees in London this morning." My doubts scurried back up the wing, crashed through the window and buried themselves in the pocket of my flimsy Australian coat. No amount of coaxing or offers of banoffee pie could get them out.

I mentioned earlier the $200 excess baggage fee for my luggage. So it was to be a pretty uneven fight: 1 x small, ignorant Australian girl with scant upper-body strength (but a fabulous hairdo) versus 2 x pregnant-with-octuplets bags, 1 x peak-hour on the tube, 100 x apathetic Londoners and 2 x tube stations that were ill-equipped for the 1 x small, ignorant Australian girl with scant upper-body strength (but a fabulous hairdo). The first thing that confronted me at Covent Garden station, after miraculously hauling both bags out onto the platform, was about three flights of winding stairs. Fantastic. Luckily it seemed to help being a small, ignorant, increasingly helpless-looking Australian girl with scant upper-body strength (and a dishevelled hairdo) because at both Covent Garden and Warren St stations, two lovely English gentlemen helped me out. And everyone says the British don't care...

Then Peter came to rescue me, and it was on to:

The Flat that Hygiene Forgot

I have to be careful what I write here, because Peter has been absolutely wonderful with showing me around and answering the unprecedented onslought of stupid questions I keep asking every time there's a pause in one of his favourite housing-rennovation TV shows, BUT "the flat" - although central - has about the same levels of hygiene and cleanliness as a back-alley behind one of Sydney's recently named-and-shamed salmonella-housing Sushi bars. Mum would clutch her heart and faint in horror. Then she'd regroup, dust off the three-week old particles of egg and chicken tandoori pieces that attached themselves to her skin, and pronounce the task insurmountable. (So much for being careful about what I write. Sorry Pete! Of course I'm exaggerating.) It's within walking distance of Soho, Oxford St, Trafalgar Square, the British Museum and Buckingham Palace (among other things) but unless I get a job tending the Queen's gardens I am probably moving on quite soon.

Beginning the Tally of Famous Sights

Neal's Yard - Soho

Between setting up a bank account, looking for work, applying for numbers and cards, getting spectacularly lost and learning to say 'trousers' instead of 'pants', I've managed to visit a few places, or at least pass them while I'm walking. Soho is fabulous, obviously - packed with funky cafes, winding cobblestone laneways, knick-knack shops and an endless parade of people trying to outdo each other with avant-garde fashion. One of the tasks I had set myself was to find the best coffee in London, and according to my Lonely Planet Guide, Monmouth Coffee Company in Soho was the place to go. It may take a little more investigation, but so far it is definitely the best I've had. The smell of the place alone made it worth the effort of finding it*. The only downside is that they only offer full-fat milk. No skim, and definitely no soy. So for the lactose-intolerant amongst us ('I have no patience for lactose, and frankly I won't stand for it'), it is probably only good for the occasional stop in. Unless you drink your coffee black, of course.

Me and Monmouth Coffee

* On that note, a word about London intersections: I am used to an 'intersection' being an orderly sort of place, where two (or at the most, two or three) streets meet in a well-constructed fashion. Here, and in Soho especially, an 'intersection' actually refers to about seven streets that collide in one hodge-podge of roundabouts, strange offshoots, cement islands and cyclists who care little for traffic signals or befuddled pedestrians. Right near Monmouth Coffee Company, for example, I counted seven cobblestone laneways that all met up in one place. There was a roundabout in the middle where a rather large collection of people were sitting to admire the skill of the taxi drivers who managed to navigate their way through. At least the cars drive on the same side of the road, so I haven't been run over (yet).

(The place where seven lanes meet is actually a known London oddity called 'Seven Dials'. Here I am).

Peter and I also went to the British Museum (where I could have spent an entire day, really, but Peter was pretty sleepy) where I took in mummies and bowls and textiles and masks and rings and coins and hats and severed bronze arms and golden statues and swords and costumes and all sorts of intricate things from Asia, Africa, Egypt and the world that made me feel captivated and overwhelmed all wrapped up in a poncho of ignorance.

The National Gallery, off of Trafalgar Square (which, incidentally, is not signposted in red like on the Monopoly board, and does not have nearly the amount of pigeons I'd been led to expect) was similarly overwhelming. Monet, Pissarro, Van Gogh (the chair! the sunflowers! the wheatfield!), Cezanne, Degas, Picasso. Two paintings that I'd never seen before but made me come closer were one from the Studio of El Greco called 'The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane' (painted in the 1590s, but it looks pretty ahead of its time, style-wise. Bold colours and angular, modernist drapery) and 'A Girl at a Window' by Louis-Leopold Boilly (1799 or thereabouts). Google images!

I've also spied Big Ben from the top of a red double-decker bus, been to Leicester square, Regents Park and Westminster Abbey (some day in the future I will be able to tell my children (children?) that I turned down a job at the Abbey).

Another note about London streets: apart from tallying landmarks, I've also been counting the errant apostrophes that were obviously released out of a giant sack somewhere around Chinatown and have since found homes on the majority of London's street signage. At the moment the tally stands at 6 absconding apostrophes every 2.6 metres. There are pizza's, taxi's, musician's, apple's, scarf's, cafe's, and all-day breakfast's. I wonder what an all-day breakfast might own...

Biting Loneliness and the Grandiose Advertising Ploys of ISH

To say I was a bit lonely in my first week here is kind of like saying Vince Noir is 'a bit' androgynous, or that Billy Connolly is 'a bit' funny or that Craig Nicholls was 'a bit' drunk when he played the mystery set at Splendour 2006. After Pete left (long story, but he bought a flat in East London and left me his room for a month), the loneliness really began to bite. It nibbled at my fingertips at first but then it worked up an appetite that saw it target my vital organs. As part of my membership with BUNAC (the non-for-profit company I joined to help me find work, etc.) I had free access to the International Student House (ISH): a hostel just around the corner from where I'm staying. The brochure painted a glorious picture of its offerings: a gym with regular yoga classes, a thriving bar with pool tables, a restaurant, warm and cosy common room, free lectures and trivia nights. I was lured there by the prospect of reams of fellow travellers. Instead, everything and everywhere was empty. I walk into the some-would-say-ambitiously-titled Internet Cafe, and the shutters are bolted on what I assume to be the International Bistro with a range of mouth-watering dishes and a positive array of vegetarian options (try the lentil curry!), and there's one Asian guy tapping away on his laptop.

It was getting desperate, so I posted a despondent note on the London Couchsurfing page (for those of you who don't know, 'Couchsurfers' are an international community of travellers and potential friends who offer up their couches for free to fellow cash-strapped travellers. We also meet for coffee, have parties, etc. http://www.couchsurfing.com/). Next day I log on and am rescued! Who would have thought a blonde 24 year old girl with a penchant for Proust and body-shots would get such a response? (Just kidding, Dad. I hate Proust...) So anyway, my first rescuer was Kyle: a Brisbane Boy (who just happens to have a blog of his own: www.cyclingnomads.org/kyle). We organised to meet at Trafalgar Square and when I found him, I unleashed about 48 hours of pent-up conversation on him in about 10 minutes. Luckily he talks just as much as I do, so I didn't scare him with my conversational Niagara Falls. We had a sandwich in the Gardens along Victoria Embankment (by the way, I'm living on sandwiches. So much for the Heathrow Injection, Jaxon! If anything I've lost weight), then took a walk over the Golden Jubilee Bridge, along the South Bank Queen's Walk (overlooking the Thames) and then back over Blackfriars Bridge. We thought we'd take in a comedy night at Leicester Square because I had a two-for-one voucher from my TimeOut mag, but we got a bit lost and ended up seeing 'Be Kind, Rewind' at Odeon instead. We managed to sneak in a dinner of... more sandwiches!

Okay, I'm about to run out of time in this little internet cafe on Oxford St (the lady behind the desk looks like Fran from Strictly Ballroom pre-stunning-makeover), so the whimsical and enrapturing tales of my job-hunting will have to wait for another time. I'll let you know, however, that those little doubts that were squatting in my coat pockets are beginning to find jobs and make something of themselves, hence vacating the premises. There's only a couple of stubborn ones left now. They eat all my food and refuse to do the dishes.