Friday, May 28, 2004

Concourse Chic

I enjoy working in central London for many reasons – chief among them the chance to see some genuinely different sights. One lunchtime Kim and I met on the Victoria Station concourse for lunch, we were officially going to find somewhere to sit for lunch but something even better turned up. As I was heading towards our meeting spot I walked past a very elegant couple in tux and ball dress, unusual to say the least at 12.30 in the afternoon. I found Kim and on the way back saw this couple standing by a Haagen Daaz promotions stall with another couple in elegant dancing gear.

I made Kim lurk with me as I watched them organize something, turn on a stereo, and then start to tango and salsa around the stand. I was enchanted – one couple were a distinguished and very tall man with grey hair, his partner a tall stunning blonde in a strapless red ball gown. The other couple were shorter than me, two slight and very dark South Americans, the gentleman in a tux, the woman in a tiny red velvet dress with fishnet stockings. The promotions girls started handing out free tubs of Haagen Daaz to the watching crowd and Kim and I settled down for our free lunchtime concert.

At first I just admired the dancing. The tall couple were more serious with their dancing, they were elegant and cool, placing their feet just so and smiling coolly at each other and the crowd. The South American couple were much warmer in their interpretation of their dance, moving faster and more seductively, almost making love in the middle of Victoria Station, yet with a cheeky smile they would target each member of the crowd and glide seductively over until they would both make eye contact with you and invite you, in accented English, to join them. I was seriously wavering between an urgent desire to dance (I had my dancing heels on) and the potential embarrassment of being a beginner in front of such a large crowd – and I think they sensed it. In the end the only thing that swayed me was that the gentleman concerned was shorter than me!

Once a big enough crowd, munching on free ice creams, had formed around the dancers the fun began. London is generally so distracting that when you have been here long enough you learn to filter the unusual out, especially if you are due somewhere. Victoria Station is a huge and important station and thus two couples dancing for a crowd in front of ticket barriers was always going to be interesting. People would be striding, head down or eyes unfocussed, across the floor and suddenly find themselves face to face with the elegant couple who would nod their heads and glide out of their way, or have to try and not trip over the sexier couple who would grin mischievously up at them and follow them across the empty space as they tried to escape. You could spot some victims from a mile away and their reactions were always different – some froze and then reversed, some froze and then carried on, some never ACTUALLY noticed and some noticed suddenly and were either offended or pleased by the slightly unusual circumstances.

The best reaction was a crowd member who, after about ten minutes watching, left, and returned with a single flower for both the ladies. A fitting appreciation for a beautiful free gift to anyone's London weekday.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

A short trip

It was Matt’s birthday and we had a small celebration in honour of the day to tide him over until his party. Jacinta had come up to stay the night and try out our local club, only two blocks from us. It was an outpost of the South African equivalent of the Walkabout called Zulus, painted in the gaudy colours of the South African flag and unfailingly packed each Friday and Saturday night. So Jacinta and I got into our glad rags, downed the birthday champagne and even persuaded the usually hermitical Matt and Monica to get dressed up and join us. When we got to the line, the doorman refused to let Matt in with us three girls, despite Monica’s incredulous cry of ‘But he’s my husband!’ The irritated blondes went home and left Jacinta and I to the tender mercies of London’s South African community.

And what a strange night it was too. We got into the club and it was in a huge hall with all the warmth and atmosphere of a school social – probably exacerbated by the dirt cheap beer and alco-pops being drunk, the dismal pop music and the overall cliqueiness of the punters.

Let me give you two examples of what a club should not do. One – it should not use really bad DJs! Now, I like my pop music – not as much as I like hip-hop and R&B granted - but pop is easy and it is pretty harmless. Unless you play two 5ive songs in a row, the second one being their ‘remix’ of ‘I Love Rock and Roll’ which is excruciatingly mixed into … THE BRITNEY SPEARS VERSION OF ‘I LIKE ROCK AND ROLL’! I was completely dumbfounded! Did he think this bizarre homage to Alan Merrill / Joan Jett was cool and self-reflexive? I don’t know what he thought actually – it all went down hill from there.

We tried to stick it out – the drinks were at genuine 1996 Perth prices and we WERE in our nice clothes - there was no need to make it a complete waste of makeup. But as the music went from very bad to absolutely terrible, we fled to the toilets for a respite. And that was when I realised why the crowd was so insular and reminded me of a school social with obvious groups of friends simply dancing in circles.

Second thing clubs should not do – make the atmosphere so exclusive that it becomes another country. As Jacinta and I lined up in the bathroom we realised that there was no English being spoken in that bathroom except by ourselves. Every girl in that room was talking Afrikaans. I suddenly felt that I was back in Turkey for all the sense I could make of the surrounding conversations. Once out in the club again I just looked around at vast numbers of ex-pats clinging doggedly to their old ways and I remembered why I try to stay away from Australian pubs.

We left Zulus after barely 45 minutes in the end and had a better time lying on the outside benches of our little Browning Road pub watching the stars for 20 minutes then we had in the club.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Sunny Days at the Local Milkbar

Despite a hideous first week at work, I actually got up on Monday morning in the best mood ever to find itself manifest on a Monday morning. I attribute it to both the sunlit bedroom and the residual well being of Sunday. Yet as I stood on the tube, crushed against my fellow travellers for 40 minutes, as I navigated the heaving tides of Victoria station concourse during peak hour and as I settled myself down in my grey office with a view only of chimney stacks and roof tiles, I felt almost Zen-like in my composure, like I was relaxing after a pleasingly strenuous yoga class. It almost felt like I was a solar charged panel, finally lighting up with the sun and radiating the stored energy. I was so high on the weather I tried to find a park in the concrete jungle of Victoria for lunch and thought I had hit pay dirt when I spotted a strip of green on the street map. Alas I had forgotten we were on the border of Belgravia and my little park was a luscious private garden that was only open for residents, so I left, dejected, to eat lunch al-desko.

Browning Road is a lovely road - it is a quiet heritage listed street, with sections of cobblestones, a pub, a hairdressers and the cutest tiny cottages with narrow flower-filled cottage gardens. There are a lot of children playing on bikes and with dolls, and they are surprisingly enterprising. On our window sill is a tiny seedling from one of the trees in the street, cultivated and then sold by the streets' children. Today they had Nesquik, about five pints of milk, a huge bag of lollipops, a toy milkshake maker and a toy cash register. 25p got you a cup of frothed Nesquik and a lollipop. It was just what I needed after a nightmare journey on the tube and so I stood in the street with three other backpackers, making small talk with the young businessmen and enjoying my cool milk drink. The proprietor of the Browning Road Milk Bar advised me that I would be able to get milkshakes all week, lemonade on Sunday. I have to say that the thought of a milkshake under the tree each day certainly had an appeal.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Suntoucher

The timing of my move out to Matt and Monica's house couldn't have been more auspicious, the spring weather is glorious, but definitely more enjoyable with a forest on your doorstep. When I got to London in August an unusually hot summer was ending and the gardens were parched. Even so, to my eyes the greens were amazing and the pure abundance of growing things astounding. Now I understand why people live through the winter – the spring is a pleasure that makes the dreary months almost worthwhile. A sunny weekend was exactly what I needed – starved of sun, warmth and the chance to bare more than just my hands and face, I went a little crazy and became a dedicated Suntoucher. I missed one day of stunning weather frantically doing all the jobs I had to do inside, and finally escaped the house with Monica as my guide in the late evening.

From home, it is only a short walk to a slice of forest surrounding a lake and the Snaresbrook Crown Court. It must have been about 7pm when we started out and the air was soft, warm and glowing – illuminating verdant green trees and sharpening the shadows. As we strolled around the winding banks of the lake we passed people meditating, little girls in party dresses feeding geese and groups of couples piled on top of each other on picnic rugs. There were leaf-blanketed clearings with arching tree branch avenues running off them, just made for thundering horses and flashing sword fights. Passing under the trees, Monica's height meant she walked through spider webs and collided with tiny green caterpillars’ bungee-ing to the floor below on silken threads. I was completely enchanted with this little slice of heaven and had to stop searching for superlatives to describe it.



The next morning I woke up baking in the sunlight scorching my sheets. Such a wake up call put me in a superb mood – my bedrooms at home always faced the rising sun and topping up my tan in the morning in bed made me feel that little bit more at home. I hauled my bathers and board-shorts out of the depths of my bags, packed a picnic and headed out to worship the sun in an earthly temple. I emerged from the first stand of trees at about ten and started out across the field towards the lake, suppressing a rueful grin at the irony of joining the unclothed and white forms of the loungers on the long grass. I had always sniggered somewhat at the pictures of English people rolling up their trousers and shirts and lying in parks to catch a few rays. Now I was in their ranks, stripping off to a bikini and lying on a beach towel, sunglasses perched on my nose and not a board-wielding, wet-suited surfer in sight.

It was a blissful five hours of turning myself carefully so as to get an even first tan of summer, and I got home with a 'touch of colour' – best described as a baby pink.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Small town

For a little while there London wasn’t being it’s usual self and throwing up strange and bizarre co-incidences – and then it gave me a genuine reason to laugh. Monica and I got the last tube home one night and were walking up past our 24 hour Tesco at what must have been about 12.30am. As we walked up towards the deserted car park we spied a black man in only a small white bath towel sprinting across the tarmac. We watched incredulously as, gripping his just purchased soap, he raced across the road in front of us yelling out ‘Don’t look! Don’t look!’ At this point we were exchanging quick bemused glances and shrugs with the young man who was the only other person in the street.

It could have just stayed a funny story except that three weeks later I was walking out of the station when I heard a man behind me giving his companion, obviously a first time visitor to Leytonstone, a rundown of the area – ‘It’s nice, a little dodgy sometimes, like the time I saw this black guy in just a bath towel going home after buying soap at the Tescos …’

I was so pleased to hear the story being retold I turned around immediately and told him that I had seen it too. I hope the girl with him was suitably impressed at the fact that not only was Leytonstone home to strange stories but that they could be confirmed in the street by random Australians …

Saturday, May 01, 2004

All the parties I have never planned

When I was in Morden, Jacinta and I were fond of a Friday night out at Edwards in Wimbledon, and since I moved out of easy traveling distance of Wimbledon, the Edwards nights had to include staying at Jacinta’s. This night was such Friday – except instead of me piking at 12 to go home, Jacinta induced me to stay out in another, far less salubrious club called Footlights. We finally left that establishment at about 2am and, it being a mild night, we walked back to Jacinta’s via a little road of shops and houses just out of Wimbledon.

As we were passing the houses, we were hailed by a group of boys having a party on the roof. After a slightly rowdy exchange of greetings and compliments, we accepted their invitation to join them, trotted up three flights of stairs through a crowded share house to climb a precarious ladder to the roof to join our hosts. Once out on the flat roof it was definitely worth the slightly bizarre circumstances.

Jacinta’s little slice of Wimbledon is along a line of hills at the end of Wimbledon Common – from Jacinta’s room alone you can see south to Croydon and north-east to Canary Wharf – a spectacular view of many miles of London. The view from the roof top party was just as extensive and so we sat with the mixture of Australian, English and Turkish housemates, listened to Welsh rap and talked 3am talk.

The uncle of the Turkish guy owned the kebab shop across the road, so as we left he opened the shop for us and cooked us some chips while I nattered on about my trip to Turkey. It even turned out that the suburb in Istanbul that I had stayed in was where he was born. We finally got home around 3.30am with our chips – chips that were fresh, hot and, we agreed, by far the best chips we had ever tasted after one of the strangest parties we had ever attended.

Jacinta makes sure she drops in to say hi to our mate at the kebab shop – just think 'Fit but you know it' by the Streets and you will understand why one must be good mates with one's local kebab shop owners ...