He’s the soul man

We nearly didn’t see Gregory Porter. I’d booked our tickets in July last year and, as the April date grew imminent, I realised I’d noted the date incorrectly. I’m so glad we didn’t miss out. It was a privilege and a joy to experience an evening of beautiful jazz delivered by the soul man.

Gregory PorterNashville-based singer/songwriter, Kandace Springs, opened the concert. Showcasing songs from her new album, Soul Eyes, she also shared a beautiful cover of Roberta Flack’s The first time ever I saw your face.

Porter’s band took the stage to an enthusiastic welcome. Pianist, double bass player, saxophonist, trumpeter, Hammond organist and drummer welcomed the nattily dressed, hat-wearing gentle giant to the stage with beautiful music.

Gregory Porter opened with Holding On from his upcoming new album, Take Me To The Alley. When the audience responded with appreciative applause and whistles, he introduced his band. Throughout the evening, he shared the stage generously with his band. He stepped out of the spotlight at every instrumental solo, and never failed to show appreciation for his band. And so he should – they were a superb match for his liquid velvet voice.

On My Way to Harlem was his second number. Porter clicks his fingers through every song, feeling every beat, every nuance, every note. After some gentle scatting, he brought the number to a close, before moving on to the beautiful Illusion.

“There’s a lot of trouble in the land,” he reflected, before introducing his next number.

“At the end, feel free to join in with me. But not until the end. I love you, but I don’t want to hear you,” he said.

The son of a preacher mother took us to church and brought us back into the room with No Love Dying. We joined in at his command – at the end – and he seemed pleased with our performance.

“There’s a good vibe in here tonight.”

He encouraged us to clap to the rhythm of our hearts in Liquid Spirit. Porter moved across the stage, taking his mic stand with him. The song featured an insane piano solo, and an equally insane drum solo.

The lyrically and melodically exquisite Hey Laura followed, before another clearly personal track from his new album, Don’t Lose Your Steam.

Boy, you hear me calling your name
The bridge is your time
Your engine rolls hot
If the bridges fall down, don’t lose your head of steam.  

“I wrote that for my three-year-old son to help him eat his cereal. Just carry on doing what you’re doing, and you’ll be all right. But especially for my three-year-old.”

As Porter sat down next to the piano, the rest of his band left the stage.

“This next one is called … whatever I feel like,” he said.

He chose the very poignant and beautiful Don’t Be a Fool, which he and his pianist presented with intimacy and tenderness.

His band returned to the stage, and his very smiley double-bass player opened the next number: a rousing and soulful cover of Motown’s 70s hit – Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone.

Musical Genocide, again with an extraordinary piano solo, and The Consequence of Love followed. Porter, tall and with a towering presence, never hogs the limelight. He appears to revel in the talent of every band member; he feels and appreciates every note.

After another cover – Nat Adderley’s 1960 Work Song, made famous by Nina Simone – followed the moving story of Be Good. This brought with it an outstanding and beautiful sax solo – delicate, sultry, sublime.

An astonishing trumpet solo in 1960 What? – the song inspired by Porter’s own stories of life in Detroit, as well as Martin Luther King’s assassination – brought the concert to a close and the audience, screaming and whooping to its feet. Porter again acknowledged his band, said “God bless you,” to the audience, and walked off the stage.

He came back with the energetic Be Free. He sang his gratitude to the audience and hoped we’d felt the love. He bowed, waved to us and walked off the stage, leaving his band playing. Starting with the pianist, each band member took it in turn to play solo before walking off the stage. The double-bass player – now on an electric bass guitar – and the drummer challenged each other to a musical duel, before the guitarist left the stage with guitar flung over his shoulder.

The drummer held the stage for a further five minutes. He teased us by pretending several times to stop playing, and then continuing his awesomeness. When he eventually stopped, put down his sticks and sauntered off the stage, the audience went crazy.

Give me a blues song, tell the world what’s wrong
And the gospel singer, giving those messages of love
Woah, and the soul man, with your heart in the palm of his hand
Singing his stories of love and pain, woah.

Thank you, Mr Soul Man, for holding us all in the palm of your hand for the evening. What an outstanding band, an awesome concert. Woah!

Sunshine in London signing off for now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A pocketful of Rye

One of the many wonderful things about living in the UK is that if you’re not already living in a beautiful little town or village, you’re always just a short drive away from one. Mr Sunshine and I have just returned from a short break in an exceptionally beautiful part of England, and it was less than two hours’ drive away.

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Rye is an enchanting, medieval town in the historic county of Sussex. You have only to walk along its cobbled streets and through its narrow alleyways, marvel at its Tudor buildings, and soak in its charm and character to know you’re walking through a town rich in history.

At its heart is the Mermaid Inn, on the beautiful, cobbled, Mermaid Street. Once the haunt of notorious smugglers, the Inn is laden with stories and creaking floorboards. With cellars dating from 1156, the building was rebuilt in 1420. It maintains much of its original character, including crooked walls, higgledy-piggledy staircases and sloping ceilings.

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The Mermaid Inn, on Mermaid Street

We stopped for a drink in the hotel’s Giant’s Fireplace Bar, which we heard boasts the second largest open fireplace in the UK. The barman also shared with us some history of the hotel, which was frequented in the 1700s by local smugglers – most notably the Hawkhurst Gang. He also stage-whispered the whereabouts of the now-not-so-secret passageway into the bar.

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The second oldest open fireplace in the UK

A walk along Rye’s central street introduced us to a range of vintage shops, antique shops, restaurants, coffee shops, and nothing that looked typical of a UK high street. We found Thomas Peacocke’s Rye Grammar School, built in 1636, which is now home to a large store selling second-hand CDs, vinyl and DVDs.

We stepped into Edith’s House, lured by its offering of teas and scones, and it felt like we were sitting in a family home from the 1970s . The walls are papered in textured florals, the crockery and furniture are all a mish-mash of styles and colours, there are doilies on the dining and side tables, an ancient television set, and teapots and old telephones dotted around. Everything about it feels comfortable and welcoming, and the food is outstanding.

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Inside Edith’s House

We walked past the Wobbly Wardrobe, the Hatters House, Simon the Pieman (the oldest tearoom in Rye), and saw that we could buy fossils, crystals and gifts from A Pocket Full of Rye.

The Parish Church of Rye, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin and sometimes known as the ‘Cathedral of East Sussex’, is the oldest building in Rye and dates back more than 900 years. It is told that in 1377, when the town was looted and set on fire by French invaders, the church bells were carried off to France. The next year, men from Rye and the neighbouring seaside town of Winchelsea, sailed to Normandy, set fire to two towns and recovered much of what was stolen, including the church bells.

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The churchyard of the Parish of St Mary’s Church

We heard those bells at close quarters , when we visited the church at noon and climbed the 85 stairs to the top of the bell tower. The stairways, ladders and passageways are very narrow and low, with several cautions to ‘Mind your head’. I enunciated one such warning in English, and my very best French and German to Mr Sunshine, and then stepped up and bumped my own head.

From the top of the tower, the views across Rye and surrounding countryside were stunning. You can see from there the second oldest building in Rye – the Rye Castle, also known as Ypres Tower, which was built in 1249.

As you walk around the bell tower, you can see the three rivers that frame Rye, and in the distance, the sea and a glimpse of Winchelsea.

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The view from the bell tower at the Parish of St Mary’s Church
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Rye Castle – or Ypres Tower – up close and personal

When we visited Winchelsea beach in the early evening, the tide was low. The pebble beach opened out on to acres of sandy shore and it felt like the sea was miles away. (At high tide, as we saw the next day, the beach was a tenth of its low-tide length, and only pebble.)

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Winchelsea beach at low tide

As the light faded and the shadows lengthened, we watched lambs gambol and sheep graze in the green fields across the road, as the sun set beyond them.

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Rye sheep at sunset

We found great, character-filled pubs and restaurants in Rye where we enjoyed excellent fare. We explored some of the countryside around Rye, and discovered places of outstanding beauty and views that went on forever. We stumbled upon a most delightful little place in Pett, called the Tic Tockery: a bespoke hair salon, tearoom and giftshop (yes really). Overlooking rolling hills, the tearoom was filled with homemade cakes and treats and colour and character – unfortunately, we couldn’t stay as they didn’t take card payments and we had no cash on us.

And on our drive home, we found the Five Bells Inn in Brabourne in Kent. This divine little country inn not only served excellent food, using only locally sourced, sustainable, traceable and fairly traded ingredients, but it looked like this:

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The Five Bells in Brabourne

With good food, a peaceful town full of history, beauty and charm, plenty of sleep and some blue sky and spring sunshine, and surprises all along the way, I’m not sure our short break could have been any better. If you get the chance to visit Rye, go.

Sunshine signing off for today!

 

Diamonds and dust

I posted this piece in the wake of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London in 2012. I thought, as today is Human Rights Day in South Africa, I would re-post:

Yesterday’s Diamond Jubilee river pageant was an extravagant spectacle to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s 60 years on the British throne. In March 1995, on this day (Human Rights Day) in South Africa, the Queen commemorated something similarly historic, with slightly less pomp and ceremony, in a dusty township in South Africa. The occasion was no less grand.

In May 1994, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was sworn in as President of the newly-democratic South Africa. I remember voting in those historic elections and feeling an overwhelming sense of being part of something special. In March 1995, the Queen and Prince Philip paid their first official visit to the newly-free country.

Photo courtesy of mirror.co.uk
Queen Elizabeth II with South African President Nelson Mandela on an official visit to the newly-democratic country in March 1995

At that time, I worked for a non-government organisation that received funding from the British government. Ours was selected as one of two beneficiary organisations in Cape Town that would receive a royal visit.

Planning began in earnest about four months ahead of the visit. The Queen’s time was limited, so we two beneficiaries set up a ‘visit site’ at the other organisation’s premises in Khayelitsha. Their premises proved bigger and more adaptable for the visit than our premises, which were mostly in church halls and community centres.

Khayelitsha is an area of the Cape Flats in Cape Town, South Africa. The Xhosa name means ‘new home’ and it is reputed to be the biggest and fastest growing township in the country. Our organisation worked in that and other communities, to train unemployed people to start their own small businesses.

Being the project manager for the visit, I met three or four times with the royal team of Private Secretary to the Queen, press and police secretaries, as they made regular scoping trips to the country. We faxed letters to each other regularly. Information was paramount, planning was detailed, timing was precise. We learnt fun facts such as:

  • when the Queen drives through residential streets lined with people, she drives at 4mph
  • she always gets out of her car on the right-hand side
  • verified information is required about each person the Queen is due to meet
  • equally, the people who will meet the Queen get the information required for meeting her.

The day dawned: Tuesday 21 March 1995. Human Rights Day in South Africa. We all travelled together to the Khayelitsha venue to get ready for the visit. Everyone was dressed to the nines, ready with their own story to tell the Queen. We were excited; animated. The royal entourage arrived on the dot of their expected time and began to make their way through the itinerary we so painstakingly put together.

I remember seeing the Queen up close and personal and thinking she looked radiant. She had soft, smooth skin and shining blue eyes. She took an interest in each person she met, asked beautifully well-briefed questions and graciously listened to each person’s story. Prince Philip broke away from the entourage and typically adopted a more spontaneous approach. We got wonderful images of him, head back and laughing loudly as he chatted to my colleagues. The Queen, gentle and genial, proved photogenic as always.

I don’t think even the most strident of cynics would have criticised that visit to dusty Khayelitsha in 1995. I’m not an ardent royalist myself, but I was glad to be part of a visit that was truly special, relatively and appropriately ordinary and supremely intimate. And most importantly, it took place away from the glare of the media.

For us, months of planning bottlenecked into a 10-minute visit that will stay with each one of us always. The weather was never going to disappoint. It was windy that day, and the sun shone as it always does. Not only was it a royal seal of approval for the micro-enterprise development work that our organisation did, but, more broadly, it was one way of welcoming South Africa back into the international community.  No number of boats could have done that quite as perfectly.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Hello, gorgeous

Sheridan Smith is a funny, Funny Girl. We were privileged to see her last weekend in the new stage production of that name (Funny Girl, not Sheridan Smith), which finishes its run at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London Bridge this weekend. Easily one of the best and most fun shows we’ve seen.

From the moment Fanny Brice whispered, “Hello, gorgeous,” to her reflection in her dressing-room mirror, we were enthralled, entranced, entertained, moved, captivated, delighted.

Sheridan Smith, a beautiful and skilful comic actress, brings so much charm and wit to the role of Fanny, the ugly-duckling-turned-Ziegfeld-Follies-star. We laughed and cried with her as she sang and one-lined her way to stardom and into heartbreak in the arms of Darius Campbell’s smooth, debonair Nicky Arnstein.

The staging was inventive. The musical direction and all those familiar numbers sublime. Sheridan balanced comic timing with emotion, taking us from awkward squirming out of Nicky Arnstein’s advances in You Are Woman, I am Man to the passionate delivery of People and her poignant, rousing Don’t Rain on My Parade.  She carried the adoring audience – and her enthusiastic cast of singers and dancers – along on her every note.

The ambience and  intimacy of the 150-seater theatre make it an experience unlike any other. Built as a five-storey factory and warehouse for the French Menier Chocolate Company when they expanded overseas between 1865 and 1874, the building opened in 2004 in its current incarnation. According to the website:

“Throughout its history, the Menier Chocolate Factory building has been inspired by both individuality and the pursuit of quality. […] the Chocolate Factory is a stimulating environment to enjoy a high-quality and entertaining theatrical experience.”

“There’s nowhere quite like the Chocolate Factory anywhere … The bubbliest kid on the block, and one of London’s great theatre hopes.”
The Daily Telegraph

It is an extraordinary, beautiful space. It was a privilege to sit in the second row and feel involved in every song and dance routine before us. We’d seen Kyle Riabko’s astounding and beautifully crafted  What’s it all about: Bacharach re-imagined there in July last year, before it too moved to a bigger West End theatre.

A friend once ran out of superlatives as she described a new book. She eventually just said, “Don’t ever not read this book.” I feel the same way about Funny Girl, and Sheridan Smith.

Our red box is richer for these tickets, as are we for the joy of watching Funny Girl. It’s moving to the Savoy Theatre in the West End in April and, who knows, maybe Broadway next. Don’t ever not see this show. Or Sheridan Smith.

Sunshine in London signing off for today!

 

 

Back in the blogging lane

I started writing my blog about a year after we arrived in London. I started writing it for a number of reasons. It was mainly to do with catharsis. Little did I realise a new world would open up in front of me.Brighton.jpgThis week I met up with someone who follows my blog from South Africa. Sitting in a hipster little coffee shop in central London, and chatting to Jacqui from Africadayz  about why I started my blog, and hearing how it had inspired her to start hers, I realised how pivotal my blog had been to my whole London experience. It kept me sane, it kept me focused, it kept me hopeful and it kept me connected at a time when things could so easily have been so different.

I was job hunting at the time. The process was soul-destroying. It took so much of my time, with little if any return, and it was challenging to feel upbeat about making that the focus of my every day. With encouragement from friends across the world, I investigated starting a blog. I thought it would balance the tedium of seeking employment in the Big Smoke. And I hoped it would be fun.

I had no idea – and I still don’t – where it would lead. I just knew, on a gut level, that I needed to write.

I chose to call my blog ‘Sunshine in London’ for reasons you can read here. I remember the trepidation with which I pressed ‘publish’ for the first time ever. It was August 2010, and I was nervous as all heck to put my writing out in the public domain. It was the first of what became daily posts about my London adventure. I write about life in London, about job hunting, about being an outsider in the Big Smoke, about our now overflowing red box, and about everything that makes me laugh.

The process of writing a blog has been almost life-changing for me. I find I look at the world slightly differently, I’m constantly fine-tuning my observation skills and, while reading the outstanding, often exquisite, work of a community of writers I’ve grown to know and love, I know I’m learning from the best. Every day  brings the opportunity to read great work, and to sharpen my skills.

My now dear friend, Wendy, from Herding Cats in Hammond River, was the first ‘stranger’ to visit my blog and comment on a post I’d written. I remember how excited I felt that someone – who lived in Canada – had paid my blog a visit, and had liked what I’d written enough to comment. She and I would visit each other’s blogs every day and I loved discovering with her how much we had in common. I’ve not met Wendy in person yet, but I know that one day we will. We’re already friends.

Through meeting Wendy, I found other equally fabulous bloggers and connected with them. As my blog world grew, organically, I soon found myself part of a community of like-minded people from across the globe. I loved it. It gave meaning to my days, I read excellent and honest writing, and I laughed and cried with an outstanding bunch of human beings.

I’ve loved the sense of belonging I’ve felt. In many ways I’ve felt validated in my writing, and in my perspective on life. I had no idea writing a blog would do that for me.

One snowy day in December 2010, I went out for the morning and spotted someone cutting her finger nails, at my local bus stop. It got me thinking of all the strange and weird sights I’d seen on public transport. When I got home I wrote a characteristically light-hearted post about what I called ‘public displays of toiletry’ (PDTs). This throwaway post – Please don’t do THAT in Public – got Freshly Pressed and attracted the attention of about 5,500 readers and hundreds of commenters over the next few days. I was flabberghasted. I was also thrilled and slightly unnerved by this unexpected attention.

I’ve also discovered just how discoverable your online writing can be. As lovers of live music, Mr Sunshine and I go to many concerts and I write about them. One post reviewing a Van Morrison gig not only got picked up by a Van Morrison fanzine, but the chap I’d sat next to read it too! Equally, a blog about a Paolo Nutini concert got picked up by one of his fanzines too.

I found more new friends and blog followers after that. I have since met – in real life – two other fellow bloggers from North America: Renee from Life in the Boomer Lane  and Caitlin from Broadside. It was amazing to meet them and, as I did with my new friend last week, discover that friendship in cyberspace can easily translate into real life. I have a few other blog buddies I’ve connected with on social media too.

One of the most moving blog moments for me involved a post about language, and about sounding forrin here in London. In the post – So this is where I learnt to speak funny – I mentioned my Zimbabwean high school teachers, one of whom (Mr K) I reminisced about with affection. Through schoolfriends in Australia and Canada, I got in touch with Mr K’s wife in Cape Town, who read the post to an ailing-and-in-hospital Mr K. She told me it made him laugh. It was only a short while later that he passed away.

I did find a job after my seemingly endless hunt. That was five years ago. My blog took a back seat for a good part of those years, and I’m just starting to get myself back in the blog writing lane. My book is ever brewing in my belly, I have a constant desire to get better at writing, and I value the nurturing connection my blog writing has given me to a world of talented and remarkable people. What better motivation could there be?

Sunshine signing off for today!

 

 

 

 

 

Salad days in the Cotswolds

In the late spring last year, I had to travel to the Cotswolds  for work. I had to spend most of a Friday in a picturesque little village in Gloucestershire. It’s tough, I know, but someone had to do it.

I travelled by train from central London. A 90-minute journey took me to a village called Moreton-in-Marsh, where I met my colleague.DSC_0590_1Together we travelled into a village called Stanton, where our work awaited us.

When we’d finished our filming, we wandered around the beautiful village and marvelled at the homes and village life. I imagined a future that involved a home in the Cotswolds, and spent some time wondering how Mr Sunshine and I could make that happen.

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DSC_0582_1My colleague took me back to Moreton-in-Marsh where I was to catch the train back to London. I walked around the village, and stopped for a meal before the return journey. I chose a sweet and cosy little ‘tea shop’ on the village high street. When I entered and asked for a table for one, I was shown, with some empathy, to a little table next to the window.

I read the menu, and couldn’t find anything I really wanted. So I asked the waiter if they could make me a ‘special salad’.

“A special salad?”

I said something really simple would be perfect.

“A mixture of what you have would be great.”

“A special salad? What do you mean?”

When I explained some lettuce, tomato, potato salad and the like would be fabulous, she said, “I’d better ask my manager.”

She scuttled, frowning, towards the kitchen.

A few minutes later, the manager came over to my table and said, “I understand you want a special salad?”

Again, I explained what I was looking for.

He looked at me sideways and then excused himself. He disappeared kitchenwards.

A few minutes later, a third person approached my table and asked me about said special salad.

“What is it you want? Lettuce? Tomato? Cucumber? Potato salad? Coleslaw?”

When I responded in the affirmative to whatever she could offer me, she offered to see what she could do for me. She returned 10 minutes later with a plateful of deliciousness, and encouraged me to enjoy it. She looked like she felt sorry for me.

When I’d finished the multi-coloured selection of freshness, I called for my bill.

The manager brought the bill to me with an apology.

“I’m really sorry, I had to put it through as a quiche. I didn’t know what else to do.”

I was so amused I’d caused a storm in a tea shop. And then it got me thinking – maybe that’s how we could fund a life in the Cotswolds: open a tea shop specialising in special salads. Especially for the fussy townies.

Sunshine signing off for today!

 

 

 

 

Starter for 20 in London

When I first started blogging, I wrote about all the things in London that were new and different from what I was used to. Having grown up in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and having lived in South Africa, I still find many things fascinating, while others have become part of my everyday life in this beautiful Big Smoke.

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London – new, old and under construction

In addition to all the huge and obvious differences between life in the northern and southern hemispheres, here are 20 everyday things in London that still feel new to me:

  1. In the winter, I dress in layers. With central heating everywhere, as long as I have a warm coat, boots and a scarf to keep me warm when I walk outside, I OK if I wear light clothing when I’m inside (indoors, as they say here). By contrast, in southern Africa when it’s cold enough to wear a jacket, I’ll keep my jacket on even when I’m inside.
  2. On hot days in the middle of summer, my friends and colleagues rather love going out in the midday sun. We southern Africans are the ones who sit in the shade.
  3. When the weather is warm, it is a rare and special treat to swim in ‘an outdoor pool’ or ‘lido’. For the rest of the year, swimming will be in heated, indoor pools.
  4. People here tend to talk in terms of seasons, which I find quite unusual. Probably because seasons aren’t so remarkably defined in the southern hemisphere. So, while someone in London may say, “We’ll probably go on holiday again in the autumn,” in South Africa, you might say, “We’ll go away again when the rand is stronger.”
  5. When someone offers you ‘a drink’ here, unless you’re in a pub it usually means ‘tea or coffee’.
  6. We have power showers in our bathrooms here: you turn on a power switch on the bathroom wall, and then press the ‘on’ button on the shower, and out comes hot water, instantly.
  7. At supermarkets here you pack your own groceries into bags (not packets, as we call them in South Africa).
  8. At petrol stations here, you pump your own petrol, whereas in southern Africa there are paid petrol attendants who do this.
  9. At many shops here, you can scan and pay for your purchases yourself at a self-service checkout area.
  10. You can pay for your shopping here with a ‘contact-less’ bank card – which means you merely touch your card on a machine for any purchases up to the value of £30  (ZAR750).
  11. Swearing on television talk shows here seems to be OK.
  12. It’s a crime here to beg. The crime is ‘Begging and summoning alms’.
  13. You can be arrested here, or at least get a warning, for peeing in public.
  14. It costs you 30p (ZAR7.50) to use a public toilet at a London train station.
  15. Public transport in and around London is expensive. My commute into central London costs around £11.20 a day (ZAR280).
  16. There is a difference between a tube (underground) and a train (overground), and between a coach (inter-city) and a bus (within a city).
  17. You can buy alcohol here on Sundays, and you can buy wine, beer and spirits in the supermarkets. (In South Africa, you can’t buy alcohol in a supermarket on a Sunday, and you can’t buy beer and spirits in a supermarket.)
  18. You can get about 80 channels on Freeview television here, and a TV licence costs £145.50 a year (ZAR3,500).
  19. On weather reports on TV and the radio here, you’ll hear the weather described as ‘bright’, ‘breezy’, ‘dull’ and ‘disappointing’. Usually all on one day.
  20. There are a number of free daily newspapers and magazines available at tube and train stations: the Metro and the London Evening Standard, the Timeout magazine, and NME.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Six years of Sunshine in London

It was early September in 2009 that Mr Sunshine and I packed up our home in Cape Town. We had simplified our belongings into a suitcase each and, with his university place and my hopes of a job, we jumped on a plane bound for London. We had no guarantees.

For the first year or so, until I’d got permanent work and we no longer had to live on savings, it felt like we’d leapt out of a plane, waiting for our parachutes to open. The ride was scary and exhilarating, never knowing when the cheek-wobbling free fall would end.

All we knew was that it was going to be an adventure. And it has been.

It feels like a lifetime since that all began. My blog name reflects both my nature and intention to find sunshine in London, to find light in the dark days, and to make the most of every day. I’ve done just that and I’ve learnt a lot. With characteristic lightness, and looking beyond the city, I bring you six things I’ve learnt:

  1. London is ever surprising

When we’d visited London in the past, we were struck by its charm and beauty and excitement. Living here, we are no less enthralled. There is always something to see.

My daily commute into central London takes me past Pudding Lane (where the Great Fire of London began in 1666), past the Monument (designed by Sir Christopher Wren, to commemorate the Fire), over Southwark Bridge across the Thames with a view of Tower Bridge and the Shard to the east, St Paul’s, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Tate Modern and a glimpse of the London Eye to the west.

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Tower Bridge and the Shard, from Southwark Bridge

I get off the bus and walk to my office, past a wall with this daily reminder:

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I pass a charging point for electric cars, a small rehearsal space and an art gallery, next to a small churchyard with a community garden, created from the rubble of a World War Two bombsite.

Around the corner from my office, past a church with a cat-flap on its door, is a favourite lunch spot for my colleagues and me. We’re regulars at the little cafe in a gallery and rehearsal space where we often spot well-known film and TV actors and comedians.

There is a dark side to the Big Smoke too: it’s really expensive to live, work and travel in and around the city, there is constant TV surveillance everywhere and it’s really really hard to find work. I’ve learnt that if you can wrestle those elements and remain standing, you’ll be ok.

  1. There is an art in small talk

Having grown up in southern Africa where days are either perfect or occasionally not-so-great, I’ve now learnt to notice – and care about – the weather. It’s a great topic to start a conversation or, indeed, keep a conversation going.

I’ve learnt that the weather is generally not quite right in London. Winter might be starting too late:

“I like the weather mild at the end of the year, but not mild mild, you know?”

Summer might be way too hot, spring may be a bit too windy and autumn just too full of leaves. Weather reporters are known to describe the weather as ‘disappointing’, days as having ‘a slow start’ or indeed giving you the opportunity to ‘treat it like a catwalk and wear your warmest coat’.

Small talk at the office water cooler can revolve entirely around weather. Or the weekend. You can also have entire conversations about nothing, really. And they’re usually punctuated with rolled eyes, an eyebrow-lift, a sigh, a shoulder shrug a resigned, ‘anyway’, and the inevitable ‘sorry’.

On a Monday morning it could typically be:

“How was your weekend?”

“Great, thanks. How about yours? Sorry, can I just …?”

“No problem. Sorry.”

“Not at all. Mine was great, thanks. What did you get up to?”

“Not much, really. Just a quiet one, keeping it chilled. Sorry, may I?”

“Of course! Chilled sounds good.”

“Went way too quickly, though.”

“Doesn’t it always?”

Both sigh, shrug our shoulders and roll our eyes.

“Absolutely.”

“Anyway, back to the grindstone.”

“Isn’t it always? Sorry.”

  1. Choice can be overwhelming

The first time I shopped in a large supermarket in London, I felt giddy with the choice. Of everything. It’s much easier to shop when you have a limited choice. When you have 14 options to choose from, it’s hard to decide which is the best one. It’s the same with things to do in London. I sometimes review the entertainment on offer, and I don’t know where to begin to choose. I’ve learnt that the best thing to do is to do everything you can. Or nothing at all. We generally go for the former.

Our red box is overflowing with mementos of holidays, concerts, day trips, cultural experiences. We’ve seen and done more than we could ever have imagined. London offers us huge helpings of carpe diem, and we’re feasting on it.

  1. British reserve is an actual thing

The ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘British reserve’ are alive and well and living in London. I hadn’t realised they existed until we lived here. I’ve learnt that my friends and colleagues would rather put up with inferior service or food than say anything to make anyone feel bad. I went out with friends last week; we all ordered the same hot meal, which arrived tepid and ‘disappointing’. I was the only of the three who sent mine back to be re-heated; my friends didn’t want to ‘make a thing of it’.

I’ve also learnt that my friends find it easier to say nothing than to say something that might make anyone feel uncomfortable. I’ve lost both of my parents since we’ve been here, and in my deep sadness and loss, my friends and colleagues remained largely silent. I don’t believe it’s a lack of caring; it’s a fear of saying something that might make you or the other person feel, well, anything. This lack of expressed emotion is something alien to me, and I struggle with it very much. Sorry.

  1. This is a country of outstanding beauty

We’ve travelled a lot throughout the United Kingdom since we’ve been here and have found many places of exceptional beauty. From the turquoise and extraordinary coastline of Cornwall to the exceptional and breathtaking green of Wales, and from the rugged and wind-swept South Downs to the bleak and wild islands of the Outer Hebrides.

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St Ives, Cornwall
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Llangollen, North Wales
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The South Downs
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Lochmaddy, North Uist in the Outer Hebrides
  1. London is a paradox

At first, I found it hard to find my place in this beast of a city that heaves with the tongues and tribes of a thousand nations. No-one and everyone belongs in this huge and very small city. I’ve walked its modern, history-steeped streets. In the noise and bustle of eight and a half million people that call London home, where no-one hears me or sees me, I’ve yelled into the darkness and found my voice. And I’ve learnt that for now, while home is on the other side of the world, London is where I’ve hung my hat.

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Sunshine signing off for today!

In no random order

I’m constantly curious. An observer of the absurd, the ordinary, the bizarre. Walk with me through the streets of London, and some other streets we’ve visited, and look at the world through my eyes. In no random order, as I once heard someone say.

I hope you’ll see what I see.

Last year, as we waited on the Embankment to buy tickets for a boat trip along the Thames, an off-duty mime walked past me speaking on his cell phone.

On the boat, we were invited by the captain to enjoy what the onboard bar had to offer: “Hot and cold drinks, and limited sandwiches.”

We enjoyed a delicious meal at a riverside pub. My fish curry was especially tasty and I thanked the waiter and asked her to pass on my compliments to the chef. She seemed pleased, and told me, “The curry was made by authentic Sri Lankans.”

A guy at my bus stop in central London asked me recently, “Does this train go to Borough High Street?” I said, “No.”

When in Belfast, I took a taxi to the ‘big house’ at Stormont. The grounds were beautiful, and the drive up to the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly was breathtaking. Once through the gate and past security, I noticed people walking their dogs and enjoying the surroundings on foot. I was surprised.

“Can anyone come here? I see people walking everywhere.”

The taxi driver said, “Oh yes. And you can even run.”

Across the pond, on our first trip to the US, we encountered a guy asking us for money at the Embarcadero Station in central San Francisco. When we didn’t respond, he smirked, “Whatever.”

One of his colleagues took a different approach. He sat on the sidewalk with a sign written on a square of cardboard: “Please help – I need more karate lessons.”

While on the bus in the city, two drivers swopped shifts. The new guy grabbed the mic, and said, “Passengers, just give me a minute. And then we’re going to rock ‘n roll.” The stoned guy in the far end of the bus yelled, “Take yer time, bra!”

As we walked past the Ferry Building in San Francisco, I overheard a young dad talking to his toddler daughter. They were surrounded by pigeons, so he was teaching her to say ‘pigeon’. She said, “Widgen.” He tried a few more times to get her to say ‘pigeon’, but she kept saying, “Widgen”. He threw in the towel. “Yeah, well we don’t even have pigeons in Wisconsin.”

On our visit to Berkeley – is it sometimes called Berserkeley? – we saw a hoarding on a building that read: ‘we-buy-ugly-houses.com’.

When we visited Alcatraz Island, the guide pointed us in the direction of the island and said, “Alcatraz Island. Plenty of bars but nowhere to drink”.

I wonder if he ever gets tired of saying that?

Sunshine signing off for today!

Observations of a nosy commuter

There is a curmudgeonly cleaner who works in the train station I travel through in my daily commute. I think he really hates his job. Every single minute of it.

He reminds me of a landscape gardener I met a few years ago. She told me she absolutely loved working with plants every day.

“Plants are amazing. I mean, I quite like people, but I don’t think I could eat a whole one.”

I think the cleaner could do without commuters all together. He usually stands at the top of the stairs, leans on his broom and glares at us. Every single morning. Around Christmas time, he yelled a Christmas carol sarcastically at us:

“Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin’s f***ing gone away…”

I guess he wished we were all Robin.

Angry-singing-shouting in the mornings aside, my evening commutes during the festive season offered plenty of silly-season observations. I like to call the late trains the ‘smelly food trains’. It seems the more alcohol you consume, the smellier the food you have to eat. And it follows that the funnier you think you are, the louder you have to laugh.

On a late journey home, I got on a tube in the middle of an office Christmas party. I ended up standing between co-workers singing Christmas carols loudly and badly, testing out their stand-up comedy and cheering everyone who got on or off the tube.

When I got cheered off the tube, I saw a herd of people dressed as ‘Wally’, and looking desperate not to be asked yet again, “Where’s Wally?” A group of elves danced with a busker, while a couple sat on the platform, gripped in deep and intense conversation over a fun pack of fast food. Another guy sat on his own, chuckling away to himself.

I walked through the station behind a guy who had a length of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of his shoe, and passed a number of random sad Santas seated around the station. A red-cheeked guy clutched his polystyrene cup of coffee like it was the holy grail, and looked like he was about to weep.

I boarded my train and sat opposite a guy who had walked on to the train, chatting on his phone with his eyes completely shut. Another next to me had spilt curry all down the front of his shirt, and a young woman was marching down the platform looking for a good seat with ‘no riffraff’.

On a more recent late train, we watched a woman sitting near us try to rouse her partner from a deep, alcohol-induced sleep. Each time she spoke to him, he stirred and responded with, “Egngchchlgkljg.”

She pinched his nose, she tapped his face, she punched his leg. He continued to sleep and make no sense. Occasionally he’d stir enough to tell her to go away. Or words to that effect.

Eventually she succeeded in getting him to his feet. As he stood, he spotted us. He wobbled over to us and apologised for ‘being rude’, before being frog-marched off the train by his long-suffering partner.

I wonder if he works as a cleaner?

Sunshine signing off for today.