Monday, December 15, 2014

Alone in New York

Back in mid-October, I was sitting in a southeast Asian restaurant, eating tom yum soup, waiting for a callback from the super, as the recent cold spell had sent the new flat's heating into hissy, obnoxiously loud overdrive. I was missing E acutely. There were other couples everywhere, and those uncoupled ones were at the bar watching a noisy game of football - the NFL kind with helmets, that's the most detail I could absorb. Coldplay's Yellow was the jaundiced soundtrack. I was reading about love; the pure and unconditional love of a mother for her child aged six, and suddenly I felt older and emptier. My life felt so comparatively narcissistic. Suddenly I wanted to grasp a small hand, more than anything. It was all rather sad.

It was so often in those early days that I caught myself sitting alone, eating some kind of soup-based noodle dish or another, thinking of the people I loved that were far away from me. Often at that time of the day it was long after my mother's bedtime in London, and E's in Spain, and I hadn't had any internet installed in the apartment yet, and I got to thinking, "I ought to write things down more often". Only from this kind of no-man's land of semi- boredom does creativity come for me. It's a place where the Internet, and cats playing banjos, and halfhearted instagram-posting cannot place its cold dread hand on my shoulder. So I usually found myself outside of the apartment, trying to pass the evening amongst others, but not really with anyone. Just watching and listening, making mental notes and trying to stave off the certain loneliness that came from arriving home to nothing and to no-one. My flat was missing furniture, life. It was missing E.

It's getting dark at around 4.30 now, and light at 7, and it's much harder to wake up. The window in the tiny corridor that passes for a bedroom in my New York apartment faces a brick wall, and as I'm on the 4th floor of a 6th floor walk up building, the sun must be far overhead to begin to reach the crevice between window and wall. Waking up alone makes my movements mechanical, automated. There's something so forlorn about not being able to turn, reach out and touch the warm body next to you in the bed, and to re-enter consciousness next to another human doing the same thing.

And then before I know it, the day has whooshed past in a flurry of activity - of work - and it's become time for bed again, and I sort of guiltily enjoy the luxury of getting ready in my own time. I idle in the shower, using lavish products I've treated myself to. Then I feel deep woe, thinking about all the people I've seen sleeping rough; those haunted, lined faces that New Yorkers hurry past every day; those forgotten children who wake up every day cold and hungry, and lost. And I think: this city is making me selfish. And lonely. And there is the state of being in this Big Apple - it looks lustrous and inviting, but when you take a bite, it's occasionally floury and maggoted. 

So what's the remedy? Time with family and friends, when they visit, as mine did for Thanksgiving last month. Regular calls, texts, sending photos of things you know would tickle them. Planning ahead for the next break. Joining things. Trying to do good, spending my time unselfishly. Donating a coat, clothes, or money for hot meals, and signing up to volunteer. And realising that I have things to be thankful for, in that I'm holding the maggoty apple in the first place.

Monday, August 25, 2014


Today is my birthday.

I arrived in New York 13 days ago, and I'm missing my family acutely. The Mister is still in Barcelona, working hard, and working on a plan to visit me here, as am I planning a half-term break to return to my beloved Barna. Today was also the first day at the new school with returning staff coming back (last week I was oriented amongst other brand-new staff only).

I am sleeping on a (very comfortable) friend's sofa until tomorrow, when I will move into a studio of my own, but it's one of the most uncertain birthdays I can remember. I really have no idea what to do with myself. I'm another year older, and far away from those I love.

The past few birthdays have been something of a celebration of self; maybe that's your late twenties for you; maybe that's the large dash of Leo in my character. I've allowed myself to be fêted, and have revelled in the attention. At my 30th, I remember telling a good friend, "I haven't had a wedding, nor a baby shower, nor an engagement party - and that's all fine with me, but I'll be damned if I won't have a big celebration for this."

Being alone and in a foreign place has brought home just how egocentric the past few celebrations have been. There's now a shift in how I'm seeing the function of this day, namely that without my nearest and dearest here, I don't feel much like celebrating myself, because I'm not nearly as much me without them.

Today's indulgences? An Italian ice cream eaten in the sunshine, and some facetime calls to my loved ones. A more selfless birthday than those past; perhaps that means I'm finally all grown up.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Thoughts From a Londoner Twice Removed

Last week, a good friend of mine (a Madrileño living in London for some years now) emailed and referred in to me, in a very kindly way, as an ex-Londoner. I surprised myself by how forcefully I wanted to dispute this, given that I can't see myself living in the UK again for any significant amount of time, and that I'm about to undertake another mammoth move even further away to the US, a whole timezone away from London's beat.  But something about being cut off from London frightened me, like I was going to be cast into social oblivion. London's ex, who didn't get to keep any of the mutual friends.

"I'll always be a Londoner, though, won't I?" came my needy cry.

In his best discursive Spanish style (I mean that in the nicest possible way) he asked me several questions back. "Let's see, what's a Londoner?" he wrote. "A fairly open and heterogenous state of mind? Caring about the best hamburger in town? Complaining about the Tube? Not being able to afford your first house? Having your mind as open as Cicciolina's legs?"

I had to google who Cicciolina was. I don't think my mind is that open.

Then I thought about all of the other questions. Here's what I came up with, after much pondering.

I think I'll always be a Londoner, because I'll always feel I have a claim of sorts on the city. I won't feel lost in the centre of it. I'll understand why people moan about the tube, or grumble that they can't afford houses. There will always be places with memories that I will gravitate towards; places I would either cross the street to seek out or to avoid. And there will always be a funny sort of pang of recognition in some key places where big things happened. I can't cross Waterloo bridge without feeling something profound. You can't spend your twenties somewhere and not feel that, I think.

On average I have returned to London once every three months this past year, and things have changed even in that short time - new skyscrapers, new restaurants, new overground stops, new cycle lanes. But the sense of homecoming, although it isn't home any longer, is still strong. It that because so much of my family is there, or because I can step easily from the Gatwick train, pull out my oyster card and know my whereabouts, or because I don't have to struggle with the language?

Or is it deeper and more self-absorbed than that? Is it because I see myself in others there, I know who my tribe are just by looking at their newspaper and I have memories and emotions deeply rooted in the familiarity of those train platforms, those journeys, in the increasingly green places I pass on the way to my mother's train stop in Chelsfield?

Marx wrote: Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is alive. 

I'd be interested to know what you think. Do places have a hold over us because we see ourselves in them? Because they contain our memories? Because of the people within them? And once we leave a place, do we still retain any claim on it, even if we do not return?

I don't have any hard answers. I was just enjoying the question. Cup of tea, anyone?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Ahora Caigo

HOLIDAY! CELEBRATE! And other words that end in an A sound...

We recently returned from a week in a teeny, weeny, holiday bungalini. It's been the making of this month. I calculated before we went that we hadn't been away on a holiday, just the two of us, without any computers, wifi coverage, nor much in the way of mobile phone reception, for the best part of 16 months. We didn't even....shhh... take any conditioner. (Straggly, unruly hair is a small price to pay for inner peace.)

The truth is we've not had much time, or many euros to spare. Oh, eff off, you live in a sunny place, I hear you protest. You can walk to a beach, you lucky biscuit. ¡Callate, puedes caminar a la playa, eres afortunada! OK, I admit, we can see palm trees from the living room, but we have chirruping emails to answer, rooms to clean, laundry to dry, ironing to do and several weekly food shops just like everyone else. Add some recent life/family/health/job insecurities to the mix and well, Little House on the Prairie it ain't.

So that's why ditching the city for this place for a bit was much needed. See how it makes the Mister look positively catalogue-model winsome?

The best bit was that there were two best bits: we could walk to a choice of two unspolit beaches along a rocky coastal path pretending to be mountain goats, and also - we had a barbacoa to put chicken on, something that took us right back to gnawing on jerk chicken with blackened fingers in our beloved Brixton. 
Oh, and a bonus thing. We learned loads more colloquial Spanish from the truly alien pleasure of watching telly in our little bungalow. We haven't owned a telly in more than a year. 
Ahora Caigo (quite literally, Now I Fall, or Now I Get It! - a game show where competitors fall through a hole in the floor at breakneck speed if they answer incorrectly - and  Millonario Anónimo (you know the format, but did you know it would be even more tear-jerking in Spanish? It's la crisis, you see) - were our favourites. 

I tell you what, we needed that holiday. Because the real work starts here. You remember that New York job I went for two posts ago?

They only went and gave it to me.

That's right, we're moving to NEW YORK FFS OMG ETC ETC.

I'll go first in August, and the Mister will follow in a few months, so now we are on EMOTIONAL HIGH ALERT and are bobbing wildly up and down like crazed trampolinists, veering between elation and woe at the thought of separating our lives - the ones we've just spent 11 months soldering together in this live/work space that has been our business and our home and our adventure and our comfort blanket all in one.

This is pretty big, yo.

Monday, May 19, 2014

An Open Letter to Nigel Farage

Barcelona, 19 May, 2014

Dear Mr. Farage,

I am following your party’s rise in popularity with some disdain, because from what I see and read here (I’m living abroad as one of the millions of British citizens who do so, but we’ll come to that later), I am finding it difficult to associate UKIP policies with a fair and open minded society – in fact I am finding it nigh impossible to understand the function UKIP serves in modern Britain.

Let me explain.
It must be really liberating, fantastical even, for you and your supporters to live in a world where they suppose that crime did not exist in Britain before mass immigration. Immigration from the European Union and other countries around the world has been proven in no uncertain terms to bring massive benefits to Britain, and to its citizens. With many family members and friends who work in the NHS, it is evident everyday that the service could simply not run without workers from outside of our country who dedicate themselves to keeping one of our finest institutions afloat.

As someone born in the USA to an immigrant father from the Commonwealth, and a mother from Kent, who met in London, I am a proud product of a multi-cultural Britain. As well as being a British Citizen, I have been an immigrant myself, moving to the UK aged 11 and residing there for 20 years. The Britain I arrived to in 1993 was very different from the Britain we have now, and I have seen many positive changes as our society has grown, been enriched and been influenced by the movement and exchange of people, ideas, foods, cultures and customs. Sure, there’s tension sometimes. But having lived in one of London’s most diverse boroughs, Lambeth, for nearly 10 years (and during the riots in August 2011), I have witnessed first hand that it is the startling inequality that persists in plaguing people’s lives, and a sense of working increasingly hard for increasingly little gain, that leads to unrest, not someone’s nationality. As if that matters to the people of London, who have and make friends and family from all corners of the globe. 

Let’s move on to your assertion that we should leave the EU in order to be able to control our borders. Last year I moved to Spain to live and work. Even as an EU citizen, I was asked to provide evidence that I could support myself financially and that I had a healthcare package, so as not to immediately use or abuse public services intended for locals. Given the state of the Spanish economy, and the fact that I am still a visitor here, I feel those are fair requests. But I am still delighted that I am able to live and work here, and furthermore that local services benefit me, such as community centres providing subsidised classes (so I can study the language, for example, or exercise, or learn a new skill). When I go back and forth to the UK, my EU citizen status allows me freedom of movement, and I am reassured that if I were travelling more widely in Europe and I fell ill, I would be able to take out my European Health Insurance card, and be cared for, from France to Romania.

Restricting movement for Europeans coming to the UK would go both ways. There is no picking and choosing, particularly if you decide to leave the negotiating table in Brussels altogether.  How on earth would you ensure that the millions of British citizens, who are living, working or retiring in Europe, would retain their benefits and their freedom of movement, rights to own properties, claim pensions, vote, or have a say in their communities? Under your proposals they would cease being citizens of Europe, and for the 1.8 million Britons living in Europe, I suspect this idea will be as hated as it is misinformed.

In your open letter published in The Telegraph today you said of Romania: "When I visited the country I was truly shocked by the living conditions and social exclusion of a large Roma minority. It is difficult to believe that such discrimination still exists in Europe today.” Indeed it does, as you have so aptly shown us by singling out Romanians as your target. There is nothing inclusionary about your ideas, despite being married to a European.

You go on to say that “The other huge problem in Romania has been the growth of organised criminal gangs for whom EU memberships has meant greater opportunities. Under free movement rules there is absolutely nothing the UK authorities can do to stop such people from entering our country. We should not be in a political union with Romania, with an open door to all of their citizens.  We must take back the power to stop criminals from entering our country by taking back control of our borders. The only way to do that is to leave the EU."

Increasingly as I look at what is happening in UK politics I feel a divide, not just between people within the UK (Scotland won’t agree with you, that’s for certain) but also between the UK and Europe that is in danger of becoming ever more pronounced. One day, if your ideals hold water with the people of Britain, I am afraid I will see a small island, floating away from trade, commerce and cultural growth on its own in the North Sea, flanked by neighbours who want nothing to do with its small-mindness and petty crowing about feeling hard-done by. I am afraid I will see a place where people have hardened against those unlike them and meanwhile whilst they were trying to find someone to pin the blame on for their social ills, their society degenerated to a point of no return. 

I see dark hearts, and anger, and no real answers in your policies, Mr. Farage. I see a return to rhetoric to match Powell’s rivers of blood speech, and no hope in the way you view the world, let alone Europe. If the day comes that I won’t be able to move freely in Europe because my UK passport won’t allow it, I’ll see that as the final nail in the coffin for Britain. If, under your watch in a brave new UKIP world, places then became limited to live and work in the UK, I’d withdraw, and someone else could have my spot. 

In fact, I’d gladly give my place to a hardworking Romanian.

Burning Up in Barcelona

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Earplugs for the Soul

This week was one of the first in a long time where I had one of those cold-sweat early hours awakenings, the kind where a nameless dread has you all aquiver before you even know why. Then your sleepy brain-fug clears and the things you'd worried about a little during the day rush back into your field of vision, only in the wee hours they loom large, much bigger than they did during the day. Why IS that?

A few nights later, our young and carefree (read: twattish) Spanish upstairs neighbours held a gathering on the roof terrace, which now that the nights are warmer means that with the benefit of a coating of alcohol one could conceivably spend most of the small hours outside. The party started around 4am - pretty standard as far as Spanish yoots are concerned - and I was awoken from a deep slumber by some rhythmic bleeping. Because it was two floors up, on the roof, and not in their flat directly above us, I was able to put aside my marginal hatred for their uncluttered brains and weed-infused revelry, fumble around in the dark for some earplugs and return to fitful, dark and detailed dreams.

It's the first time in 9 months that I've started to feel the expat blues; not for a longing for ye olde Englandshire or anything like that, god no, but more from a sense of responsibility being dodged somehow, as there's suddenly lots of crapula going on back in the UK that we're not able to be there for as quickly as we would like. Namely, family illness. More than ever we're feeling the ageing of our parents - something I'm sure has brought many back to Blighty prematurely. It's a timely and devastating reminder that we're not as young and carefree as we thought we were a year ago. Perhaps that serves to feed my dislike of the neighbours, living out a very present existence with not a thought for anything or anyone around them. But then I suppose that's the privilege of youth. Who gives a flying fuck at that age?

There's also been a drive here to broaden our income streams, not relying solely on the B&B but also on using the skills we had before, and there's always a creeping worry that my brain will go soft, or that I'll be left behind within my sector, which has this week seen me throw my hat into the ring for a job in New York. (I know, pretty wacky, hey? Not any closer to family, but perhaps with a sufficiently large enough paycheque that trips back to the UK could be more regular, or I could contribute more to the family purse in times of difficulty). Our life abroad has just begun, but the first relatively carefree 9 months have morphed into something different. Something to test individual mettle. "What is it you really want?" the universe seems to ask. "Because if it's selfish responsibility-abandonment and sunshine, you've had enough now."

Back to facing the music. I don't know how long I can keep the earplugs in for.

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Short Month

Just a short one, this month. The month and the post. Short because I'm aware that I've already broken my new year's resolution to post once per month, if you count that I'm an hour and 18 minutes into March already. (OK, for you in the UK it's only 18 - wait, no, 19 minutes in.

Well, what is there to say about February? It came and went, as February is wont to do. I had a week back in London for work. It was more than a little stormy that week, as roof tiles and garden gnomes went flying, and the news was full of politicians wearing waders and wellies and looking pointedly at huge expanses of dirty water. It was the UK's wettest January in more than 100 years, they said. It made me quite glad that we weren't spending another biblical winter in a small, damp basement flat in Vauxhall this year, with the Thames barrier being deployed and the river threatening us a few metres away. I felt quite guilty for our relatively painless winter here. But the nice thing is, we're also a haven for our friends and family now. And boy, do we know it. The mums are booking trips over in March quicker than you can say 'easyjet'. Long-lost family members are suddenly looking us up, they've heard we have a guest house in Barcelona, what's availability like, over the spring?

The truth is we're booked up well into May and June - something we never expected, at under six months of being open. But we're enjoying what we do. We're getting good reviews, so we aren't bad at it. And we genuinely enjoy making people feel at home, comfortable, cared for. We enjoy making someone's holiday - that precious time we know all too well from working long hours ourselves in London -better.

Tomorrow (well, later today), we have a couple arriving who have been referred to us by a friend, and they will be celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary here. We've booked them into the best restaurant in town, will have flowers and cava awaiting them, and will enjoy watching them stroll out each day with some foolproof recommendations under their arms. A year ago, I was packing up our flat. I just mentioned this to the Mister, and he reminded me that we put everything in boxes and held our last dinner parties this time last year. And here we are, a year on, entertaining again. And it makes me happy.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

January, Day 8

Feliz Año Nuevo! 

One of my new years' resolutions for 2014 has been to write at least a post a month on here, something I didn't manage last year with the upheaval of moving country. So I'm going to try to get January's post in nice and early. 

So far, 2014, you're all right, you are. It's day 8 and it has only rained once so far here (on the 4th). January days in Barcelona are bright, light until half 5 or so, and the evenings are clear and chilly. We still need duvets and slippers; our tiled floors are unforgiving. We still need a cosy blanket on the sofa. But the temperatures encourage action, so a walk is a good excuse to warm up and see the ocean. The beaches are deserted, except for weekend afternoons when they are teeming with families taking their abuelas out for a stroll, usually accompanied by little white dogs being promenaded in their jumpers or hats (I'm not kidding). It's wonderful to see the sun as high as it is, and skies are generally blue. Having said that, I'm ferreting away with organising visits to schools around the country for work, and so by day 8 I'm already suffering screen burn. The difference here is that when I go out for a walk at lunchtime, I get to go with E, and the sun just happens to be shining. This feels very different to any other January I've known in the UK.

Another new thing has been the feeling that the season of Christmas lasts longer here, largely due to the fact that the 6th January is a national holiday as well (El Día de los Reyes), with a whole set of traditions formerly unknown to me. It has been a beautiful festival to witness, with a fabulous parade around the city on the night of the 5th, incorporating live music, bright costumes and uniquely decorated floats. They transport each of the three Kings (Gaspar, Balthasar & Melchior) and their helpers who throw huge quantities of sweets (12 tons, apparently!) to the crowds as they pass by. The parade offers the opportunity for children to give their wish lists to the Kings, in the hopes that they will receive the gifts they have asked for. If they’ve been good, they might, but if not, they end up with a lump of coal. 

Here are some of the floats, including these mesmerising horse dancers - which were my favourite illumination of the night. They floated gracefully past our window and I felt myself watching openmouthed, so beautiful and ethereal were they. It's a pure kind of magic, that feeling of seeing something new and unexpectedly wonderful for the first time.

Here's wishing you a very happy, healthy, prosperous new year full of childlike wonderment and new things to make you go all slackjawed. Here's to 2014.