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.Together 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.
My 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.
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.
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:
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’m 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.
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.
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.
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.”
When someone offers you ‘a drink’ here, unless you’re in a pub it usually means ‘tea or coffee’.
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.
At supermarkets here you pack your own groceries into bags (not packets, as we call them in South Africa).
At petrol stations here, you pump your own petrol, whereas in southern Africa there are paid petrol attendants who do this.
At many shops here, you can scan and pay for your purchases yourself at a self-service checkout area.
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).
Swearing on television talk shows here seems to be OK.
It’s a crime here to beg. The crime is ‘Begging and summoning alms’.
You can be arrested here, or at least get a warning, for peeing in public.
It costs you 30p (ZAR7.50) to use a public toilet at a London train station.
Public transport in and around London is expensive. My commute into central London costs around £11.20 a day (ZAR280).
There is a difference between a tube (underground) and a train (overground), and between a coach (inter-city) and a bus (within a city).
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.)
You can get about 80 channels on Freeview television here, and a TV licence costs £145.50 a year (ZAR3,500).
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.
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.
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:
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.
I get off the bus and walk to my office, past a wall with this daily reminder:
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.
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.
“Anyway, back to the grindstone.”
“Isn’t it always? Sorry.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
It was a beautiful summer’s evening. I was sitting in the midst of hundreds of other students on a grassy mound in the middle of my university residences. It was Cape Town, it was the 80s and this was our natural amphitheatre for the annual inter-residence ‘concert on the mound’.
The programme that night offered the usual variety concert fare: a sweet-singing choral group, a cool, curly-haired singer/songwriter, an outrageous physical comedy sketch, some toilet humour, some church-camp skits, and a light-bulb-muncher. Nothing prepared us for the unassuming, moustached young man with shoulder-length hair who was about to take a seat at the piano.
He started to play, and he started to sing, and we mound-dwellers were entranced. When he sang Billy Joel’s Piano Man, he got us singing and swaying and screaming for more. It immediately became one of my favourite songs, now on the soundtrack of my student days.
I had no idea, all those years ago on that mound, that one day I’d be sitting in a baseball stadium in San Francisco on a beautiful late summer’s evening, watching a Billy Joel concert. It was on our first visit to America, and Billy’s first concert in San Francisco in four decades. When he played Piano Man, I cried. Of course I did.
It was September 2015, and we joined 36,000 fans in the AT&T Stadium – home of the San Francisco Giants – for an evening of Joel magic. Supported by Gavin de Graw, Billy opened his songbook with a thunderous Big Shot, followed by My Life.
“Hello San Francisco,” he yelled. “I haven’t played here in 40 years!”
He apologised that he was not, in fact, Billy Joel. “Yes, I’m Billy’s dad,” he joked.
He laughed about his advancing years, his lack of hair and several references to just plain missing the mark. I loved that between his huge and not-as-huge-as-he’d-hoped-they’d-be songs, he paid homage to his host city by playing snippets of songs about San Francisco, or by artists from San Francisco. It was authentic, and courteous. I felt it was a generous touch.
“If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair … Hmmm, no can do.”
A beautiful Vienna was followed by Zanzibar, a breathtaking arrangement around Carl Fisher’s insane trumpet solo. Billy told us how, as he grew older, he was finding it more difficult to sing the high notes. After giving himself a few squirts of throat spray, he promised us he’d do his best in the next number.
When he hit those high notes in Innocent Man, the audience screamed and whooped and whistled. It felt intimate and triumphant – we knew he could do it; we were right there with him.
Say Goodbye to Hollywood was followed by a brief taste of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit before moving on to his cynical The Entertainer. After the haunting Doneaster Alexa, Billy told us about his uneasy relationship with music videos.
“We made a video here in San Francisco. I hated making those things. I didn’t sign up to be a f***in’ movie star, you know what I mean?”
Tommy Burns’ guitar solo lit up Allentown, before two more brief nods to the talent from the city of gold. He played a few bars of the theme from The Magnificent Seven and told us he’d always wanted to write a soundtrack to a Western.
“I wrote this next song with that in mind, although it is completely historically inaccurate,” he said, as he chuckled through the fail-facts of The Ballad of Billy the Kid.
After a few notes of I left my heart in San Francisco, Billy brought us his beautiful tribute to home: New York State of Mind. He followed with No Man’s Land, which he told us “wasn’t a hit, and it’s going to die a death tonight!”
Moving Out, Sometimes a Fantasy, Don’t Ask Me Why got us dancing, and Always a Woman to Me got us singing and swaying. We Didn’t Start the Fire and River of Dreams kept us on our feet, before the poignant and romantic ‘bottle of red, bottle of white’ Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.
Brief interludes of The Mammas and the Pappas’ California Dreamin’, Janis Joplin’s Piece of My Heart and Santana’s Black Magic Woman kept San Francisco in the musical conversation, before he ended his concert and finished me completely with the extraordinary Piano Man.
I knew and I sang every word. I was transported. I was on the stage, I was on the mound, I was in my teens, I was in my strength, I was nostalgic, I was present, I was everywhere, I was right there in that moment.
We screamed and we wouldn’t let him leave the stage. Billy’s encore brought rousing versions of Uptown Girl, Still Rock ‘n Roll to me, and You May Be Right.
Billy may have joked about his age, however his musical talent and the energy in his live performance increasingly impress. If he has to wait 40 years to do another concert in San Francisco, I can only imagine how awesome that will be. I hope we can get tickets.
It’s been a good old while since I wrote any blog posts. So I’m thrilled to be back after such a long break, and freshly inspired by a number of things – a lovely trip to Barcelona at the top of the list. My goal is to be here weekly – on the blog, not Barcelona, although that would be fun!
I won’t try and catch up in one single go; I will try to do so over the coming months. So much has happened over the past few years, and I have so much to write out of myself. I plan to do that here and in my ever-brewing “book”. I’ve also chosen not to wait until I’m good enough to do so. That’ll only happen on the eleventieth of Javembuary.
Mr Sunshine and I have fallen a little bit in love with Spain. Last New Year we visited Valencia, our first adventure in Spain, and this New Year – last week – we soaked in the extravagance of beauty, history and sunshine that fills every corner of Barcelona. We walked our feet raw, and got ourselves lost more than once. We watched street flamenco and under the perfect ceiling of the Palau de la Musica Catalana. We ran out of words in the shadow of Gaudi’s extraordinary La Sagrada Familia, and we learned to laugh in Spanish and Catalan.
Street flamenco in Park Guell
Flamenco in the beautiful Palau de la Musica Catalana
We flew out of a rainy, grey London and into a balmy and sunny Barcelona. We took the bus that stopped right outside our hotel in Castelldefels, a small village outside of the city. The bus ride cost us about two euros each – a refreshing difference from the high costs of public transport in the UK. After a long walk to the local beach, we sat down for a typically delicious and social meal as the sun set over the Mediterranean.
Castelldefels – our home for a week
Our first trip into Barcelona brought us from the train station up on to Passeig de Gracia, where we were met by the awesome sight of Gaudi’s Casa Batllo.
We later discovered this to be the Block of Discord, in which Gaudi’s house was just one of three architectural masterpieces to vie for the coveted town council Arts Building Annual Award (Concurso anual de edificios artisticos). The very beautiful example of modernism that is Casa Lleo Morera, designed by Lluis Domenech i Montaner (he of the equally exquisite Palau de la Musica Catalana fame) won the award in 1906.
We remained in awe for the week. To my amateur eye, Barcelona’s architecture oozed with opulence, detail, beauty, flamboyance, indulgence, bravery.
Not only are the buildings striking in their styles but also in their structure. Each noted architect was supported by teams of artists and artisans – 150, in the case of Casa Lleo Morera (pictured below) – to realise the vision of the master architect. Mosaic ceilings, the art of trencadis (mosaics created using shards of broken tiles), remarkable marquetry, hand-painted and stencilled tiles – no detail was overlooked. We were quite overwhelmed.
The first house in the world to have a facade made entirely of glass
The main living area that opens on to the back yard
And then there was Gaudi’s unfinished La Sagrada Familia. There are no words – I was quite overcome by the depth, breadth and generosity of imagination, innovation and genius.
Moving away from the beauty and historic importance of the city, we had loads of other fun. We visited Barcelona’s home of football – Camp Nou – to watch FC Barcelona play Real Betis in a La Liga match. We joined 99,998 over-excited football fans to witness a trouncing by the home team. The fans screamed passionately for their beloved Barca again to do them proud, and they obliged in style. We watched the world’s best footballer – Messi – score a goal right in front of our eyes. When he did, the crowd screamed, jumped to their feet and chanted ‘Messi! Messi! Messi!’ as they waved their arms in adulation.
When the referee made an unpopular decision, the crowd again jumped to their feet and yelled their displeasure, waving their fists and hands at the ref. In between, there was singing and chanting in praise of the beloved home side, ‘Barca, Barca, Barca’.
Back near our hotel, we visited a small, local eatery in the village of Castelldefels. We sat at one of the very few tables, and one of the other tables was filled with a group of locals who had one tooth and a dozen beers between them. Together they laughed and screeched at the game show playing on the TV above them, momentarily distracted by a local pooch wearing a pretty pink ribbon. As they petted and hugged the dog, the TV show was replaced by a succession of music videos – James Brown, Bob Marley and, ironically, Whitney Houston.
We ordered a glass of rioja each and they were brought with a plate of cheese for us to nibble on. We ordered a selection of tapas, and soon ordered a second glass of wine. The waiter raised his eyebrows and said, “For her too?” Haha! The bill came to 18 euros; while that was exceptionally inexpensive, we found eating out in Barcelona generally very reasonable.
Language was a challenge. Although we speak neither Spanish nor Catalan, we managed to communicate enough by sign language and pointing, to order the food we wanted (mostly) and get to where we wanted to be (mostly). Someone asked me at the train station if I spoke Catalan, and I just shook my head. I thought she’d asked if I spoke Latin, which seemed a bit odd to me at the time.
A young guy at a bus stop asked us something in Spanish, so we shrugged and apologised, “English?” He pointed at his wrist, so we showed him our watches, and he nodded and said, “Merci.” On another occasion, a woman said something to me in Spanish and, in a bizarre twist, I answered in Xhosa. I still don’t know why I thought that would be useful.
When we celebrated New Year in Valencia, we discovered a fun Spanish tradition. We joined thousands of locals in the town square, in the shadow of a clock tower and, as the clock struck midnight, we ate 12 grapes. The idea is to eat the grapes in time with the chimes and, tradition suggests that if you do so, you’ll have a year of prosperity.
We noticed the locals’ grapes were small, seedless ones. We had large, seeded grapes so only managed about three in the allotted time. We also looked like feasting chipmunks as the locals all around hugged and began their year of prosperity.
This year, we bought the smallest grapes we could find and, although we couldn’t find a local gathering, we successfully finished our dozen grapes as we watched the clock chime midnight in Barcelona on our hotel TV.
After our final hotel breakfast in the company of a touring basketball team from Lithuania, we boarded our bus for the airport and flew back into grey, rainy London. You know, with 12 grapes under our belt, it feels like 2016 is going to be a good year. Hasta la vista, baby.
A few weeks ago, I dreamt I’d lost my enthusiasm. It was a nightmare – I just couldn’t find it anywhere. It was such a relief to wake up and realise it was just a dream. Just as well – I needed it in buckets for my upcoming red box experience: a comedy improv workshop.
It was with a mixture of excitement and terror that I’d booked my place on a comedy improv workshop in central London. It represented everything I love and fear – spontaneity and showmanship – and it would mean taking a huge step out of my comfort zone. Love overcame fear, and I decided to go for it. I’m so glad I did; an afternoon in a chilly venue under the arches in central London, with a bunch of like-minded and hilarious people, has to rank among the most outstanding experiences I’ve ever had. It’s difficult to capture just how much fun it was, but let me try.
I had checked out ahead of time exactly where to go, and got to the venue nervous and early. I arrived at the same time as Sophie, who looked as tentative and nervous as I felt. Turned out she was a professionally-trained actor and singer, who was using this experience to get her confidence back to give acting another go. No, that didn’t intimidate me at all. We stepped into the interesting theatrical space – in the foyer of which was a caravan, of course – and met the delightful and uber-friendly workshop facilitator, Fiona. She noted our names and encouraged us to relax and have fun. My nerves must have been visible.
By 1pm there were 12 of us of different ages, ethnicities, accents and backgrounds, standing in a circle ready to begin our afternoon of improv. We were invited to introduce ourselves by saying what our names were and whether or not we’d done improv before. We offered no surnames, no job titles, no home towns, no qualifications; this stood us all on equal ground (kind of – Sophie and I were the only improv rookies) – and there was no place for assumptions, judgments or expectations. Equipped only with enthusiasm, it was easy to imagine leaving my inhibitions at the door. I had to act like no-one was watching, and I was amped.
Fiona introduced our afternoon of character-focused improv, and started us off with a warm-up exercise, which involved several bunny-related gesticulations, pointing at others, and dancing a kind of reggae move around our neighbours. A drinking game for the sober, if you will. It required co-ordination and offered bags of laughter.
Round two – a zombie-style game of ‘catch’ – saw my being the first asked to play a zombie. I had to lumber around the room in my ‘flavour of zombie’ in an attempt to catch someone. Once someone had been caught, we all had to dance around the captive and stage-whisper, ‘Watcher, watcher, watcher’, and the captive would have to nominate the next zombie. Fun! Spooky, but fun!
Back in the circle, we took it in turns to say something for everyone else to mimic. That was hilarious, and everybody had a good go at it. We then had a time of walking around the room adopting, in turn, unusual ways of walking, different ways of engaging with each other, ignoring each other, nodding at each other, leading with a body part such as a chin, or a bent knee or whatever took our fancy. It was really funny. Just when I’d adopted a walk that involved my right arm hanging over my head, Fiona told us all to freeze so she could interview one of us. In a version of musical statues, this continued – we walked around until told to freeze, and Fiona interviewed all of us one by one. My favourite characters included a guy walking around holding on to his trouser legs, shaking his trousers incessantly and moving from foot to foot. Turns out he had mice in his trousers, and he was on his way to the pet shop to sell them. Why were they in his trousers? He didn’t have a bag to put them in. As he spoke, some mice travelled from one leg to the other, and he became increasingly on edge. So funny!
Rhemy was another favourite. She was walking through a park in the posh part of town and, with her big teeth and bigger smile, she talked of how busy she was and how amazing her job was and how crazy her life was. She told of speaking loads of languages; when she was pressed to say which languages, she said, “All of them.” She said ‘yah’ a lot; she was fully the posh girl. Sue was walking completely bent over – her interview revealed she was a contortionist who’d put her back out trying out new moves in her bedroom.
Back in the circle, we took it in turns to hold ‘the gracious goat’ with a sense of whatever emotion we fancied. As one person held ‘the gracious goat’ and announced it, the people on either side had to announce this with some reverence, and the people on either side of those had to go down on one knee and, with a flourish, say, “Isn’t it exciting/confusing/boring/disgusting that s/he has the gracious goat?”
After a comfort break, we re-convened in an area of the room set out theatre-style with four chairs on the ‘stage’. Cue the ‘creature comforts’ segment, Aardman-style. We all sat in the audience section, and four of us at a time had to sit in the chairs on the stage. Once on the front seats, we had to sit with our heads bent over our knees and pull funny faces. Fiona would say, “Pull a funny face. And another. And another.” After doing this several times, Fiona would say, “Now, sit up.” We had to sit up with the face we’d just pulled and hold that face for the duration of a series of interviews. She interviewed each of us in turn, and we each had to be that person with that face. This was brilliant and so so funny.
Stu sat up with a taut face and eyes stuck, staring heavenward. He talked of his failures at finding a suitable date, and about his forthcoming date with someone he’d met online. He was worried about how he’d ever manage eye contact. Jim sat up with mouth downturned and proceeded to talk as one without teeth about his grandson’s upcoming wedding, and how attracted he was to his young, Polish carer. “If I was 30 years younger, I’d have a go at Anastasia.”
Our final exercise of the day followed with groups of four, again, sitting on the chairs at the front. We had to adopt a common way of sitting, by copying each other and finally settling on a style. We then had to have a conversation among ourselves that we felt fitted with that way of sitting. Our group settled into a relaxed style, slouching and leaning far back on our chairs. Jim began to talk as a member of a London working-man’s club, smoking his rolled cigarette and discussing the merits of Tarantino as a film director. The conversation that ensued was hilarious, outrageous and incredibly great fun to be part of.
Fiona thanked us all for taking part in the workshop and invited us to come back again any time. We all said goodbye to each other; I picked up my bag and my inhibitions and stepped back into the chilly London afternoon, once again myself. After the amazing freedom of playing, pretending, acting out loud, laughing hysterically and showing off for a whole afternoon with a bunch of strangers, I’m not sure I’ll ever be quite the same again. I had peeped at another version of me, and I quite liked it.
So, here’s the thing. I can speak English. I paid £125 to chat to someone for eight minutes yesterday to prove it. My certificate will soon be on its way.
Proof that I can ‘speak and listen’ in English is a requirement for my settlement visa application process, and passing an exam in central London at an approved exam centre was one way of proving it. I winced at the thought of paying so steeply for such a short test, but having completed it, I now understand why it all cost so much. Walk with me.
With the instruction to arrive no later than 15 minutes before my allotted time at my allotted venue, I arrived a good half-hour early. I announced myself – as instructed – to the concierge at the ground floor reception area and was met with a blank stare. He had no idea, really, where the English exams were taking place but he suggested perhaps the kind people on the third floor might know. He directed me there. I went to the third floor offices, to be told the English exams were in fact going to be held there, but the company hadn’t moved in yet. After kindly phoning the company on my behalf, the receptionist handed the phone to me. I spoke to someone who admitted that the administrative bungle was entirely theirs. He apologised profusely and directed me – with a further thousand apologies – to the correct venue, which was a five-minute walk away.
I found the new venue, and the fun began. I was greeted by Joe (not his real name), a clipboard-carrying gentleman who asked me for my name. He checked my name on the list, crossed it off and directed me to follow him into the nearby waiting room and ‘sit on that chair, please’. I climbed over several people to sit on that particular chair. As soon as I sat down, Susan (not her real name) came over to ask me for my passport and my ‘topic form’. [For the English exam, you have to think of a topic you can talk about for five minutes. Woe betide if you were to arrive at the exam centre without said topic form.]
After making a photocopy of my passport, checking that I had in fact thought of a topic and written it on my form, Susan handed me back my passport along with a few other papers. She instructed me to ‘put the papers down [like this] on the table in front of you when you’re called to the front table’. I nodded. I was tempted to ask if I was allowed to cross my legs while I was sat on that particular chair, but thought that was too risky.
I was then called to sit on another chair, this time at the front table. I sat down and looked at Mary (you know that’s not her real name), the clearly stressed and over-worked admin person, to see if I had put the papers down in the right spot on the table. She took them, so I must have. Mary hauled out a pile of papers from her oversized folder, asked me to check this and sign that and verify the next thing. She then took my passport, opened it at the photo page and held it up at eye level.
“Lift your head and look me straight in the eye, please,” was the instruction. I did so. Mary looked at me and the photo – double checked me and the photo again – and then ticked another thing off her list. She handed me back my passport along with a few other pieces of paper and told me to ‘put these documents [like this] on the table in front of you when you go into the exam room’. She then instructed me to go and sit on ‘that chair’. I obeyed.
A few minutes later, Penelope came along. She had a long dark pony-tail and an officious walk. She greeted me and asked me to ‘walk this way’ down the corridor. I tried, but found her gait quite difficult to mimic. I followed her nonetheless. We got to the end of the corridor and she told me to ‘stand here’, which I did. She then told me that I was to follow her into the exam room, sit down [she didn’t say on which chair] and put my papers down on the table in front of me [like this]. She then told me to sit on ‘that chair’ and wait for her after I’d finished my exam. Again, I promised I would.
I decided to tell each staff member I encountered that I had, in fact, been sent to the wrong place for my exam. Partly because I was annoyed and partly because I thought it might display my ability to take part in spontaneous conversation. It also led to every single person saying ‘sorry’ to me.
I duly followed Penelope into the room, and by now I think I’d perfected her walk. I put my papers down in the right place (I think) and with a flick of her pony-tail, Penny left the room and me to my exam. The examiner introduced himself to me – I have no idea what his name was – took my papers (I guess they must have been in the right place otherwise he might have called me Kevin), and, after clearing and setting his stopwatch, said, “Shall we get on with this? For what it’s worth.”
I said yes, because I thought that was the right answer. No-one told me to say anything else.
What followed was about eight minutes of conversation about the magazine I write for work (the topic I chose), ‘entertainment’ and ‘special occasions’. It was kind of awkward, given that I can speak English and everything, but we both persevered and lived in the moment. I am grateful to the examiner for that, and for telling me about a club that he and his wife belong to where you can get cheap tickets to the theatre. Cheers.
The exam ended rather abruptly, when the examiner I think got tired of talking to me. He said we were finished and I needed to leave. And with a dismissive wave of his hand, he told me to take my papers with me. I left – by now I’d reverted to my own style of walking – and went to sit on the designated chair to wait for Penny. She came by a few minutes later, surprised that I was already finished, and with another person in tow ‘walking this way’. After depositing the next student in the exam room, she emerged with another piece of paper for me and a look of excitement on her face as she told me I had passed with ‘two distinctions’!
After a brief discussion about how quickly I could get my certificate, she put my piece of paper into an envelope, popped in a complimentary pen, and wished me well on my way. So many people, so little time, so many instructions. In an ordinary world, Mary and the examiner could have had this covered, and the exam could have been cheaper. Hey, I got a free pen, I guess.
As I said goodbye, Penny told me to ‘like’ the exam centre on Facebook. This time, I don’t think it was really compulsory.
It’s been a weird winter in London. The highest rainfall since records began has added yet another reason why public transport hasn’t been running on time. Any day now, London commuters will be revolting. Well, perhaps even more so than they are right now.
A tube strike earlier last month threw London into chaos for 48 hours. Commuting commotion aside, the sight of the city’s mayor’s bad haircut and the union boss’ embarrassing sunburn, along with their public spat, were enough to send Londoners scuttling up North. Lengthy talks averted a second planned strike, which I fear will happen sometime soon anyway.
I commute by train into central London every week day. My journey, which should take 25 minutes from the edge of Greater London, usually takes at least 40 minutes. I have now heard – I think – every reason under the chilly British sun why the trains run late. My trainline announcer is always polite and apologetic that the ‘Oh. Eight. Oh. Seven. Service. To. London.’ is running late, and offers an excuse which can range from signal failure to overhead line problems, late running engineering works, planned engineering works, the train behind us has broken down, lightning strikes, tube strikes, trees on the tracks, snow, flooding, a person taken ill, no staff available at the station, the doors won’t close, the train ahead has broken down, the train ahead has been delayed, a person was taken ill, trains are being regulated, the wrong kind of snow has fallen, leaves on the tracks, it’s too hot so the trains have to run slowly, an animal on the track, a trespasser on the track, and, my personal favourite ‘an earlier disruptive passenger’. To that last excuse, I always wonder ‘earlier than whom’?
So, while the train runs slowly into or out of my working day, I’ll often while away the time eavesdropping. Sometimes I’ll read my book but it’s often far more entertaining to listen to what’s going on around me. The other evening I sat near two loud young guys in suits who had had one fizzy drink too many before boarding the train. Not only had the alcohol loosened their tongues and their ties, but it also caused their gelled hair to droop ever so slightly. They seemed not to hear each other so yelled their conversation. After some screamed banter, they decided to compare the quality of sound of their respective earphones and that meant they had to yell even louder.
“Try these noise cancellation earphones!”
“These are ****in’ amazin’, bruv. They block out all the noise!”
“Wha’? I can’t hear you cos a’ these noise cancellation earphones.”
Listening to ‘awesome choons’, they then ran through the specs of each set of earphones – seemingly for the benefit of commuters on all eight coaches chugging eastwards. They left the train a few stations before mine, still shouting “Wha’?” at each other after every sentence.
The other evening I got on the train and sat near a tattooed and multiply-pierced young man who was engaged in conversation with anyone who would listen. A young guy and his girlfriend sat opposite him, and he noted the guy’s footwear.
“Nice trainers, bruv. You just been for a run, yeah? No? You look like you just been for a run, wearing them clothes and then them trainers, yeah?”
“I haven’t been for a run, mate. I work in a trainers store.”
“Wha’? You work in a trainers store. I bet them ones was expensive. You there with your daughter, ‘n all.”
“She’s not my daughter, she’s my girlfriend.”
“So where do you and your daughter come from, bruv?”
“Wha’ – Windsor on Thames?”
“Yeah? Or as we like to call it these days, Windsor in Thames. Yeah?”
He then proceeded to talk about all the places across London that could conceivably have drowned under the current rainfall and give them the suffix ‘in Thames’. He then looked at the guy to his left and asked, “So where do you live, ‘n all?”
“Chadwell Heath,” he said.
“Chadwell Heath, yeah?”
After thinking for a bit, he said, “Well, you can’t really make no joke about Chadwell Heath, now canya?”
He then looked to me and nodded, “Y’all right, young lady? Yeah?”
I nodded, and passed the baton on to my neighbour who said, “Yeah, I’m all right. And I don’t have no name.”
Mr Chatty-man moved on to the subject of supper.
“Yeah, gonna get me some chicken nuggets with chips and curry sauce. Me, I like me chips like I like me women: spi-cy. I bet you like spicy food, till you can’t feel your lips no more, yeah?” he asked the Asian guy opposite him, who politely begged to differ.
This was a good time to change tack.
“Heard about the guy who bought twelve tubs of Tippex? Big mistake.”
He delved further into his repertoire of jokes before asking his giggling neighbour what the time was, as he realised, “I should’ve taken me antibiotics hours ago.”
When the train pulled into his station, he stood up to leave and said fond goodbyes to anyone who would offer him eye contact. Most of us were cringeing and squirming in our seats, some of us were giggling and all of us were just plain looking elsewhere.
“Heard about the earlier disruptive passenger, bruv?”