Thursday marks five months exactly since the offer I made on a beautiful flat in a tree-filled part of South London was accepted. Coincidentally, it’s also the date we are scheduled to complete – which in UK house-buying parlance, means the day I actually become the owner of it. Five months isn’t an unusual amount of time in this country, where the process is convoluted, and where generally people end up in property chains where people must sell and buy on the same day. It’s still a horrifically long time when you’re in the midst of it.
Needless to say, the current covid-19 situation has also thrown some spanners in the works. As of today – Tuesday – I’m told we are permitted to go ahead with completion, and that I will be able to move. I am trying to focus on that, but also not get my hopes up too high, because despite the fact that we are now contractually obligated to complete, this is a crazy time and no one really knows what’s going to happen.
It’s a difficult place to be in. I’d expected to be anxious with excitement, this week, counting down the days with pleasure. I’d booked in leave so that I could have the better part of a week at home, to nest, following the move. (This is hilarious, in retrospect, because… if this move goes ahead, I am going to have nothing to do BUT nest.)
Instead of excitement, I’m in a constant state of anxiety. To be honest, knowing me, I’m sure there would have been anxiety anyway. Some of the anxiety dreams I’m having result in me waking up absolutely convinced I’ve forgotten something important, or leaving confused instructions for myself that, in the morning, mean nothing. Last night, I appear to have set myself a reminder for ‘vital shopping’. I don’t know what ‘vital shopping’ refers to, but I’m 99% confident I’m covered. I’m pretty sure that kind of thing would have happened regardless of this whole situation, because I am an anxious person, and this is not unlike me. I’m pretty sure, though, that the whole situation has amplified it.
So I’m anxious. I’m not sleeping (or at least, not sleeping well). I’m also hyper-conscious of the fact that I’m doing this alone, and that it would be so much easier to get through this if I had a partner. Which, on the other hand, makes me feel pretty good about myself for managing on my own… but still. Most of the time – 99% of the time – I am perfectly comfortable being single, and then there are these moments where I can see the benefit of having someone.
Which is not to say that I’m alone, because there are lots of people in my corner right now, talking me off cliffs or just generally being supportive.
And… look. As stressful as all of this is, I’m still in a place of enormous privilege. Even if the purchase gets put on hold, I’m not homeless (I don’t really want to stay where I am, and it will cause me stress, but I won’t be homeless). I have a stable job, unlike so many other people. I’m in good health. I’m in the financial position to be able to buy in the first place. Whatever happens, I am incredibly lucky.
And whether it ends up being Thursday, or some later date, I am going to finally be able to realise my long-held dream to own my own home. And that’s super exciting.
I was two-and-a-half when we moved from Auckland to Sydney, and six-and-a-half when we moved from Sydney to Atlanta. I was young enough the first time to have no particular feelings of displacement (that I recall), but the second move was harder. Aside from the stupid (and I do mean stupid) questions (“How are you finding having electricity?” and “How did you learn English so well?” and “Did you used to ride kangaroos to school?”), there was always a sense of not-quite-belonging. Home was elsewhere, but home also didn’t exist anymore; ‘home’ was confusing.
We didn’t come back to Sydney to visit that first year (we went to Europe instead – a very smart move on the part of my parents, one I echoed in my first year in London), but the second year we did (thanks to a very generous travel allowance provided as part of my dad’s overseas package from work), and it was… still hard. There were other people living in our house in Sydney, of course, and that was strange. Everything was moving on without us; I still had friends, but they had other priorities and were interested in things I was not part of. I’d expected to feel like coming home, but… it didn’t entirely feel like home anymore.
In contrast to that, of course, there was our stay in New Zealand, with my Oma and Opa. In many ways, their home became my second home over those next years; it changed, but in gradual steps, and without the sense of alienation that came with change in Sydney. Most things, really, stayed exactly the same: it was a place that felt safe.
My paternal grandparents, Grandad and Grandma, were much older. Grandad died before I was born, and Grandma began to sink into dementia when I was still relatively young. In contrast, Oma and Opa had a constant presence in my life. Opa was loving but more distant, a quiet man with whom it was difficult to have real conversations. And Oma, well, she was the heart of the family, the centre of everything. Plump and cuddly, and increasingly child-sized as she got older, Oma was practically perfect as a grandmother. Her great passion in life was for books, and her house reflected that: it was a treasure trove of mostly children’s books, old and new (but mostly old), and every visit meant discovering new treasures and rediscovering old friends.
‘Alice in Wonderland’ was her particular favourite, and her collection of Alice editions took up a whole bookcase in the living room. There were books in every room, though, shelf upon shelf of them: thousands and thousands in total. There were toys, too, and particularly bears. In the mid-90s, Oma started making her own teddy bears. My own, Jacquie Bear, was ‘born’ in April of 1995 (midwife: Oma Filbry), and shipped to me in Atlanta for my birthday in May, or so the handmade passport in her little backpack tells me. Jacquie joined me in my bed the first night after my ex moved out in 2016, and has slept beside me every night I’ve been at home ever since. I came to London with two suitcases, and she was carefully tucked into one of them, my constant companion.
Oma also spent a lot of time in the 90s researching her family history, and eventually writing a book about the family but also her own life experiences. There’s a copy of her book in the library of the Auckland Museum, and later, when they were putting together an exhibit about immigration to New Zealand, that book meant that our family was chosen to represent the Dutch experience. (There is, let me tell you, a great thrill in seeing one’s own family represented in a museum.) That book helped me understand so much more about where I was from, as did visiting Holland with Oma and Opa, and letting them show us the places that were important to them.
Oma and Opa’s house sits at the bottom of One Tree Hill, one of the hundreds of dormant volcanos located in the Auckland area, and a massive park complete with herds of sheep. It was my mother’s childhood home from the age of 7, and so many experiences that I had as a child, staying there, were ones my mother had too, years before. Like my mother and her siblings, my siblings and I used to climb to the top of the hill, spending hours exploring the massive park and trying to avoid stepping in sheep turds. We’d also take trips to the Auckland Museum, to the Wintergarden in the domain, and to Devonport and the beaches and Kelly Tarlton’s aquarium. Clearly, my memories of visiting Oma and Opa are of childhood treats, but above everything, they made me feel safe.
Jacoba Josephina Schoondergang was born in Leiden, the Netherlands, in August of 1925. Her father had a canning factory, and they lived, I think, a very comfortable life. She was fourteen when the second world war began, and spent most of her teenage years living in a country under occupation. The only daughter, she chafed, I think, at being expected to do more household tasks with her mother than any of her brothers: she would much rather have spent all of her time reading a book!
Frans Filbry was the brother of one of her best friends, and she remembers seeing him standing at the top of the stairs and deciding that this was the man she was going to marry. In many ways, it’s difficult for me to understand what drew them together: she was bubbly and bright, warm and friendly, and he damaged by his wartime experiences, quiet and stern and withdrawn. That they loved each other deeply, however, was one thing I was always certain of – a cornerstone of my life.
Faced with post-war life and all it entailed, Frans wanted to get as far away from Holland as it was possible to go, and so – now engaged to Jacoba – he moved to New Zealand. She followed in 1953, travelling by plane (a journey that took, in those days, something like 10 days, always stopping overnight). Despite having both come from reasonably well-off families, they were very much working class in New Zealand. Frans worked for many years in the Holeproof factory in Royal Oak, first on the factory floor and later as a night watchman. They had five children together: Eric, Miriam, Frank, Victor and Helen.
Money was tight, but despite that Jacoba always found ways to buy books – the beginnings of her great collection. Neither of them ever saw their parents again, and indeed, scarcely if ever even spoke to them on the phone. Oma told me, not long after I moved to London, that phone calls were too difficult: just hearing the voices of those she loved made her cry, and the calls were too expensive to be taken up by tears. In later life, they managed to take several trips back, and some of their family members took trips out to New Zealand to see them, too, but it was a long time before that. For me, having also chosen to move across the world, that really struck home. It can be difficult enough for me to be so far away, but I have so many easy and cheap ways to stay in touch. The same was never true for my Oma and Opa.
My mother and her siblings spoke Dutch before they spoke English, it being the language spoken at home, but largely lost their Dutch once they went to school. Nonetheless, their heritage had a big presence in their lives, as it did in mine. Mum remembers eating hutspot on October 3rd to commemorate the siege of Leiden, a meal she says was much more fun to play with than actually eat. They also celebrated Sinterklaas on the 6th of December (and I recall very vividly receiving a chocolate letter ‘L’ each year). Salted dutch liquorice, chocolate hail on buttered bread, speculaas biscuits, borstplaat, croquettes, appelmoes; all of these, for me, taste of my childhood.
I visited less often, in adulthood – I suppose that’s always the way it goes. I was there for Christmas in 2004, for a visit before a holiday with the ex in 2010, and to see Oma while she was in hospital for an extended period in (I think) 2011. Opa died in 2011, and I was back for the funeral; four years later, I was there for Oma’s 90th birthday, the first time the whole family (aside, of course, from Opa) had been together in decades.
The following year I moved to the UK, heavily conscious that I might never see Oma again. We had a few good email exchanges after that – even into her 80s and 90s she picked up enough technology to be on email and even, sort of, facebook – and even a few skype calls when my parents were there, but contact was limited. I’ve never been good at keeping in touch.
I sent her a card for her birthday in 2017, a pop-up card with a bear in it, to combine two of her passions (pop-up books being another of them). The bear was promptly named Concertina Jack, and was still displayed with pride in the living room as of a few days ago. At time of writing that card, I’d already planned a trip back to Sydney for Christmas, and I’d deliberately routed my travel via New Zealand so as to be able to see Oma. Even as I did so, I had the fear that it might be too late, that she might be gone before I made it, but I had to try. She was so thrilled that I was going to visit.
She was noticeably older and frailer that visit. Still mentally there, for the most part, but physically frail. My aunt and uncle took her out for daily drives, though she couldn’t do much at any destination (aside, of course, from drink coffee), which kept her occupied. Her hearing was mostly gone, but we still managed to have some wonderful conversations. She was so proud of me; we spoke at length about my move, my new home.
When I flew back to London, it was with the firm expectation that, this time, it really was the last farewell. I would never come back to that house that had always been my second home, and I would never again hug her or tell her I loved her. I had no plans to be back any time soon – plans for Christmas 2018 involved central America – and how likely was it that she would still be around in two years, or more?
On December 15th, my final day of work for 2018 and the day before I was due to fly to Costa Rica to meet my family for the trip of a lifetime, I was 10 minutes into my commute when my phone rang. It was my mother – and I knew.
Oma, she told me, was in hospital, and it was expected that she had no more than 24-48 hours to live. She had a herniated bowel, and was considered too weak to survive surgery. Clearly, Mum would be flying to New Zealand as soon as possible, and my siblings also intended to do so. What did I want to do?
Of course I wanted to be there, though I wasn’t sure if that was even possible. Would there even be flights available, at this time of year?
12 hours later, I was in the air. I can’t begin to describe what it is like, boarding a long-distance flight in a desperate attempt to reach someone in time, knowing that you’re probably going to be too late. After we landed in Tokyo, more or less the halfway point, my hands were shaking so badly I could barely turn on my phone, dreading what news would be waiting for me.
She was still alive when I landed in New Zealand, just short of 48 hours after the diagnosis. I was rushed from the airport to the hospital, exhausted and sweaty and still wearing my winter clothes. She’d just woken up when I got there, and was conscious enough to talk to me; we all assumed that she’d been holding on just to wait to me, the very last family member to arrive. We all assumed that, now I was there, she’d go quickly.
She was in pain, she was uncomfortable, and she was ready to die, but her body wasn’t ready to let her yet. Between the family, we made sure that someone was with her twenty-four hours a day. The nursing staff were amazing, but they weren’t – couldn’t be – always there; we helped feed Oma sips of water, put balm on her lips, gave her throat spray for her irritated throat. She was happy to have us all there, but she wanted to die and she just couldn’t.
I’ve always been pro-euthanasia, and watching Oma over the last five days of her life, I can only say that I am doubly certain that it is the humane thing to do. At first, we were able to have conversations with Oma. We sang, we read her books, we talked about our lives. She again told me how proud she was of my decision to move. She made jokes, mostly black comedy about dying (she’d close her eyes, as if intent upon deliberately dying then and there… and then open them a few moments later with her eyebrows raised as if to say ‘well? WELL?’).
A priest came in to give her last rights and she asked us all to leave the room – and we could see her inside, waggling her finger at him as she told him exactly how she felt about the Catholic Church’s stance on euthanasia.
It was special, though, to have that time with her – and for the family to gather. I spent more time with my cousins than I have since we were small children. It was hard, but it was also important. One evening, a bottle of wine was brought in and she sucked some of it off a sponge, much as she’d been doing with water for days (there were also some wine ice cubes, because why not).
It got harder and harder to get her out of bed to use the toilet, until they finally put her into an adult nappy instead (apparently, the doctors wanted her on a catheter and the nurses basically revolted and refused to do it – good on the nurses!). It got harder for her to talk. She became more and more agitated, and kept choking. My brother and I did an evening shift with her, from 7-1am, and it was awful. She kept trying to sit up and reach for things, but couldn’t tell us what she wanted. I know she was still partly with it, though, because at one point when I thought she was asking for water, she was actually trying to tell me yet again what a wonderful life I was having in the UK.
The following morning, the doctors decided to take her off the fentanyl she’d been on and put her on morphine. After that, she didn’t really wake up again, not properly. That night was quiet. I came in at about 6.30 that morning (jetlag is good for something) to take over from my aunt and uncle, and she didn’t stir at all in the time I was with her alone. Her breathing was laboured, and sometimes she’d go for ten or fifteen seconds without a breath, meaning I was constantly on alert as to whether she’d stopped breathing altogether.
That morning, the day nurse, Claire, invited us to help her wash Oma for what was likely to be the last time. My mother, aunt Helen, sister and I all helped, carefully wiping her down and then smoothing lotion into her skin. She was so small, so fragile; she never even stirred.
Most of us actually left the hospital for lunch that day, going to the kiosk in the domain (admittedly, right next to the hospital) rather than one of the hospital coffee shops just to get outside for a little while. We were all exhausted, emotionally and physically, after spending long hours – and overnights – in the hospital for most of the week. It was Friday, a full week after the diagnosis.
When we came back into Oma’s room, my cousin Kim was singing to her. Within thirty minutes, between one song and the next, she finally drifted away. In the end, after everything, it was peaceful: she was simply gone.
I’d never witnessed death before.
We held the funeral on Christmas Eve, in the same venue as Opa’s was held seven years previously. It made Christmas a more subdued affair than usual, but also perfect in its own way. It’s probably the last time the whole family will gather like that. It’s certainly the last time we’ll all gather in that house.
The house is crammed full of memories, for me and for everyone else in the family. It is also crammed full of actual stuff, from the thousands of books, the many teddy bears, the antiques, the delft, the art and the detritus of fifty years.
It feels uncomfortable, to me, to be told to go through and pick what I want from a house that has always felt like home to me – like grave-robbing, picking through the remains. But it is important, too, to save the things that matter most to us. I will never see that house again: the house is not in great condition, and the land it sits on is worth potentially a lot of money. By the time I am next in New Zealand, whenever that may be, the house will be long gone.
So yes, I picked through the remains. Two antique and beautiful books have come home with me (a second edition of Jane Eyre, a first edition of Daddy Long-Legs), as has a framed tile depicting two traditional New Zealand villas (not dissimilar in style to the bungalow that is Oma’s house) with One Tree Hill in the background. I’ve also adopted another teddy, Ralph, who will be foster-parented by my parents until such time as they can get him over to me (alas, he did not fit in my luggage), and who will join Jacquie Bear in sharing my bed. Packed away in my boxes in Sydney, I also have an antique writing box that Oma and Opa gifted me from their collection for my 21st birthday. For me, these items will always help me remember.
Not that I need things for that. I am so lucky to have had my Oma for thirty-four years of life. Not many of us get that long!
She was one of the kindest, biggest-hearted women I have ever known. Open-minded, interested in everything, acquisitive when it came to her passions and also generous in sharing; equally, cheeky and full of fun. My mother claims to remember her once flinging a forkful of mashed potatoes at the plate of one of her sons, saying she’d always wanted to do it. My aunt remembers it being a forkful of peas, and no one else remembers it at all, so who knows what really happened – but it makes a great story, and seems entirely in character.
I flew back from Auckland yesterday, spit out of Heathrow airport at 5am to a foggy, damp winter’s morning. It’s hard, being so far from home again. It can be lonely, sometimes.
But then I remember how much harder it was for my Oma and Opa, and how lucky I am that my own parents are only a facebook message away, and that I will see them again later this year, and that when the moment came it was possible for me to fly back to say goodbye.
Watching my Oma die was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but being able to be there for her was one of the most rewarding.
I’ve recently entered a new phase of my London experience: searching for a place to live where I can do so without flatmates. (London is expensive. This is hard. It’s still exciting.)
I’m currently in my fifth London home: six weeks in a boarding house in Notting Hill; six months in Bermondsey; four weeks subletting in Angel; twelve months sharing with coworkers in Kennington; and now I’m in Clapham Junction, living in a friend’s spare room for a few months.
The current place is great, but temporary: I need to move out by early May. Beyond that, I’m really, really ready to start living alone again. I think the one thing that sharing has really hit home is exactly how much alone time I actually need. I lead a much more social life here in London than I did in Sydney; at the end of it, there’s something very comfortable about going home and not having to deal with anyone else.
The current flatmate and I have a pretty good balance of spending time together and time apart, and I generally get home at least an hour or two before she does after work, which gives me a chance at some quiet time, but it’s still time. The nice part about the current arrangement is that I have 2-3 months to find and move in to a new place, which means I’m not in a frantic rush to find something (as I have been every other time I moved).
On the downside, a lot of places are advertised as available ‘now’ which makes it more difficult to find something well in advance.
Still, some of them are advertised well in advance, and so I’ve started my search already. It’ll probably start slow and ramp up over time, but it’s refreshing to know that I don’t have to take the first place that looks like it might work.
I’m really looking forward to settling down somewhere for the long(er) term. Hopefully, London Home #6 will last longer than the others.
I inspected my first property this morning. Located in Streatham Hill (that’s streat-ham, not streath-am), it’s on a direct bus route to work, even if it is a long way out, and that appeals to me. The area is nice: a beautiful old high street with lots of interesting bars, cafes and pubs, lovely nearby parks. The flat, on paper, was perfect: studio with separate kitchen, gas, bathtub, ultimately no more expensive than my rent was in Kennington.
In practice, it was very nearly perfect but for one thing: the kitchen, while separate, was so tiny it did not have so much as a single counter/bench. It had a fridge, a sink, a stove, some cupboards… and that’s it. Reader, I could not live like that. Where do you chop? Where does the toaster go, the kettle, the microwave? The rest of the flat was small, too – it would be bed, desk (or table, I guess), wardrobe, chest of drawers, and that’s it – but I’m not afraid of small. Still, it needs to be functional.
Were I in a rush to find something, I’d probably have been tempted to apply for this one; but I’m not, and so I won’t. I’m glad I forced myself out into the rain this morning to look – it was educational, if nothing else – and I’m equally glad I don’t need to move there. I’ll just have to keep looking!
(I think the most interesting thing about inspecting that flat, for me, was all the couples. I think I would find it small to live in as a single person; I’m not sure how two people would be able to cope. I’d want to kill my partner in two seconds flat if, when at home, we basically had to sit next to each other on the bed at all times. I understand that I have a good income, and that the London market is hard, but I could not do it. There would be a homicide in two seconds flat.)
I like house-hunting, but I expect my enthusiasm will wane – after a few weeks of it, I’m likely to start panicking about finding the right place, and just worry about finding ‘a’ place. Hopefully something will come up before then!
It’s been weird, these past couple of weeks, watching my ‘On This Day’ feed in Facebook. Day after day:
Today it is one year since I announced I was moving to the UK.
Today it is one year since my visa came through (yes, I took a risk there).
Today it is one year since I moved out of my apartment.
Today it is one year since I finished up at work.
Today is Sunday, and that means it is a year since I finished packing my last suitcase, had breakfast with my siblings and sister-in-law, watched my sister-in-law’s comedy science competition, and then had dinner with my lovely friend Sue. It’s one year since I hopped in a cab to an airport hotel, having said goodbye to everyone I knew. After hugging Sue goodbye, I was on my own, ready to fly to a new country where – on the whole – I knew almost no one, with no job and no real plan.
When I look back, I half wonder if I was crazy.
It was a spectacular leap of faith on my part. I’m not known for being impulsive, and I am definitely not known for doing things that haven’t been meticulously planned. I don’t quit jobs without other jobs to go to. I just don’t.
But here I am, one year later. I started a new job four weeks to the day of arriving in London, and moved into a flat less than week after that. I was lucky enough to win a promotion within two months of starting that job, and even though I regularly feel like an imposter and a fraud, the truth is that I’m fairly confident that I’m good at that job, that it wasn’t a mistake to promote me.
That first place I moved to may not have been ideal – may not have been my best decision – but it served its purpose: it gave me someplace to call for six months, and time to find better people to live with, a better home.
Today, I had brunch with some friends whom I met at one of the first meetup groups I joined, 11 months ago. I no longer attend the bookclub we met up, but it served its purpose, and that quiet, insecure voice at the back of my head marvels at being chosen to continue a friendship with (12 months has not destroyed those insecurities, despite my best efforts).
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, though I will say I have had less homesickness than I expected – or than I was told to expect. People warned me about the six-month mark, where the newness had worn off and the reality set in. Six months hit in December for me, just before Christmas, and I expected it to be hard… but it wasn’t. I was homeless, half a world from home, and it was the depths of winter, but I was ok.
Actually, my first day of homesickness and despair was the day I interviewed from my first London job. I left the interview feeling that it had gone incredibly poorly – and I was normally so good in interviews! – and had to force myself not to cry as I walked blindly down the Strand. I had lunch in one of the dumb tourist restaurants along there, and blinked back misery; then, I washed my face, dried my eyes, and took myself to the National Gallery (and then the National Portrait Gallery), where I took solace in water lilies… and tried not to cry over paintings of Sirius Cove and Coogee beach, both places I know well, by Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton. The art helped, but I think I still cried myself to sleep that night.
(And then, of course, I actually got the job, and it worked out to be such an amazing opportunity to for me. Go figure.)
I am wistful for those first four weeks in London. How often does one get the opportunity to be a tourist in a city for so long? I did so much, but surely I could have done more. Twelve months on, there are still so many things I haven’t seen, and places I haven’t been. London is amazing like that.
I’ve been to the theatre more than thirty times(!), in the past twelve months. I’ve been to Rome, to Reims, to Cyprus, to Spain, to Paris. I’ve been to countless museums, and enjoyed countless amazing meals.
There are things – and people – I miss a lot. In retrospect, I might have been ok, staying in Sydney. I was rediscovering friends, and myself. The thing is, of course, that I think I’m more than ok, in London. I’m amplifying the process; in twelve months, I think I have rediscovered more than I would have in so much longer. In many ways, I feel like a different person.
I’m not, of course: I’m still me. Perhaps I’ve moved in a different direction; perhaps I’m exploring new facets. Still, I’m not a different person.
I am, I think, a better person. Happier. Healthier (who would’ve imagined the me of twelve months ago cycling to work!?). More comfortable in my own skin.
I’m tentatively planning a week in Switzerland, later this year. I’m going to buy a rail pass and travel around the country on my own steam. There’s something absolutely liberating in doing that: with a rail pass, most of the time you don’t buy tickets in advance. You just… catch the train. This adds variables, and variables are not – traditionally – something I’m all that good with. What if I miss a train? What if I can’t get a seat?
I’ll be fine. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned, these past twelve months, it’s that I can look after myself.
I arrived in London at about 9pm on a Monday night – the 20th. I expect I’ll be conscious of that, tomorrow, on Monday night the 19th, one year later. On Tuesday, I’m taking myself to dinner and then to the theatre– when I first arrived I awarded myself (for interviews, for finding a place to live, for getting a job) with theatre trips, and it makes sense to do so again now.
I promised myself, twelve months ago, that I would give London at least a year. Well, no. I promised myself that if I didn’t have a job within a couple of months I was free to go home, but as long as I did, I would stay at least a year.
Clearly, I’m not going home after one year. I doubt I’ll go back after two.
Beyond that… actually, it’s kind of nice not to have a plan.
I spent Christmas in Cyprus. As you can see from the date, I’ve now been back for over two weeks, so you’d think I’d have already written something about the experience, but it never quite happened. Things are unsettled: I’m subletting someone’s room while they’re overseas, being in-between homes myself, and the end result seems to be that I’m more hibernating than living. No doubt it doesn’t help that there’s been a lot going on at work, and that I’ve had a cold, and that my evenings this week have been largely spent house hunting; still, it’s been long enough now that I’ve no doubt forgotten half of the things I did.
This wasn’t my first time joining a group tour rather than travelling alone/with friends/with family, but it was the first time in over a decade, and I was apprehensive about that. I knew I would be the youngest in the group – I’m a little old to be interested in tours aimed at 18-35s and didn’t want something too adventurous, which left a narrow range of options, most of which are taken by those a little later in life – and that was fine. I don’t mind being around people much older than myself, and in a way, this time, it was comforting.
They were a nice group. There were about eighteen of us, surprisingly evenly split between men and women, and all singles: I booked through a group that caters to solo travellers, so everyone was widowed, divorced, or just never-married, and that was comfortable for me. Everyone was British with the exception of one woman from New Zealand (though at least she travelled on a British passport – to her benefit, in this case). We flew into Larnaca, with long delays at Heathrow, and then had a two-hour drive out to Paphos (also spelled ‘Pafos’, which I guess makes sense given it is translated from the Greek (Πάφος)). It was a long day. Paphos is in Southern Cyprus, which is to say, Greek Cyprus– before travelling, I knew only very roughly the political and military situation in Cyprus, something I was to learn a lot more about over the next week!
We stayed in a resort just outside of Paphos, which was lovely. The weather wasn’t great (12-14 degrees Celsius, plenty of rain), but certainly warmer than London had been, and there was enough sun that I could get a feel for what Cyprus must be like in the summer (hot). I had a king-sized bed in my room which was absolute heaven. I’m not sure what it is, but somehow when I have that much room I end up sleeping almost horizontally. Bliss!
In addition to our (Irish) tour manager, we had a local bus driver and local guide. Our guide, Stella, was a matronly woman in (at a guess) her late fifties, who had a habit of repeating herself with the exact same phrasing and intonation– which I guess is not surprising giving she’s delivering tours in a language that is not her first! She was Greek Cypriot, and seemed very, very keen on pointing out different villages and telling us which ones were Greek villages, and which ones had been Turkish villages before, in her words, the “Turkish invasion of 1974”.
It occurs to me, of course, that if I’m correct with her age, she must have been at a formative age in 1974, when the Turkish troops arrived and took over 30% of the island, and it’s no wonder that she came across as bitter and disapproving. Mind you, I imagine many Cypriots feel that way – I can’t imagine what it must be like to know that your country used to be whole, and now a foreign nation has taken over 30% of it, forcing people away from their homes and businesses and lives. I know that it’s not quite as simple as that, and that some terrible things happened on both sides, of course; still, knowing that another country claims part of yours as a sovereign nation, one that no other country acknowledges, must be beyond galling.
That further struck home for me later in the week, when we visited Nicosia, which is a city split by the so-called ‘green line’ that divides the two parts of the island. As you drive into Nicosia, you can see the mountains behind the city, and upon mount Pentadaktylos, the flag of the self-declared state of Northern Cyprus has been created out of painted rocks. It’s absolutely huge (allegedly, 111 thousand square metres), visible for miles and miles, and the Greek Cypriots refer to it as ‘the flag of shame’. The Turkish Cypriots argue that it is their mountain and they can put whatever they like on it; the Greek Cypriots consider it a massive ‘fuck you’.
Within Nicosia, you can still see bullet holes from the fighting. (There’s also a massive statue commemorating Cypriot freedom from the British, but that’s another story altogether.) And then, of course, you have the checkpoints. Nicosia, as I said, is a city split down the middle. Streets are simply blocked off, many with armed guides watching to make sure no one crosses without authorising. You can cross– with passport in hand, of course– but I ultimately elected not to: mostly, I think, because I thought it would take too long, and we had limited time. Still, it was chilling to see those checkpoints, and those young armed guards.
Negotiations to solve the Cyprus conflict are ongoing – it’s been in the news again only this week, in fact. Allegedly, things are going well, but Erdoğan has insisted that Turkish troops will remain on Cyprus forever, which is clearly going to be a sticking point for the Greek Cypriots. It’s been forty years, now, and it’s hard to imagine that it will be easy to solve that issue. But… I don’t know. I was reading after my return about Varosha, a resort in Famagusta in Northern Cyprus, which was one of the most popular holiday destinations in Europe until 1974… when, following the ceasefire, it was fenced off completely and just abandoned. It’s an entire town that has been abandoned, everything left as it was, for now more than four decades. I find it a chilling thought, and part of me would like to see it (from outside, of course; you can’t get too close because there are armed guards even now), and part of me thinks that would be just too sad.
Other parts of the trip provoked much less thought on my part, at least! We saw some absolutely stunning Roman-era mosaic floors, and ruins from even earlier than that. We also saw Aphrodite’s supposed birthplace, and I washed my face in the spring water from her bath, which supposedly will give me eternal youth and beauty. We were supposed to head up into the Troodos mountains, but it snowed so much the police refused to let us up there; I suppose it would be bad for tourism if a bus of British tourists had an incident! That was disappointing, but these things happen.
Beyond that, much of the week seemed to revolve around food. We had a buffet breakfast in the hotel every morning, a meze lunch, and than a buffet dinner– a lot more food than I am used to! The meze lunches were amazing: it would be dish after dish after dish of interesting food, served with local wine, and finished with a local dessert of some kind. It’s easy to say ‘oh, I’ll only have a little’ but when all those plates come out… oof. I also thoroughly enjoyed drinking sketo – Cyprus coffee – which is the same as Turkish coffee but referred to differently for, well, obvious reasons (one also buys ‘Cyprus delight’ instead of the obvious). I enjoyed zivania, the local spirit, rather less (they refer to it as ‘firewater’ and our guide swore blind that she uses it to clean her windows. Enough said).
So that was my week. I enjoyed the group I was with, although some of them did – being of a certain age and background – have a few prejudices I would have preferred to avoid (no, people do not migrate to or seek asylum in the UK so they can claim benefits). That’s to be expected; I’m sure I said some things that they were horrified by too! Mostly, they were lovely.
It was a different Christmas to the one I had last year, and no doubt different to the one I’ll have next year, but I’m glad I decided to do it that way: different was good. I skyped my family on Christmas day, and although the package I sent them didn’t arrive until after Christmas, at least I was part of the celebrations, even from so far away.
The worst part of the trip was definitely getting home: three hours delay in leaving Larnaca, which meant we arrived at Heathrow at midnight, and then it took two hours for me to get through border security (this is where having an EU passport would be useful)… but that was fine, because, oh right, our bags didn’t come out until 3am. I then had to get to Paddington for the hotel I’d booked into, which meant catching the Piccadilly line (hurray for night tubes) to King’s Cross, and then a bus back to Paddington and… well, by the time I made it to my hotel, it was 5am, December 31st.
Which is why I was fast asleep in bed by midnight on New Year’s eve.
I liked Cyprus – it’s probably a place better suited to a spring or autumn visit, but there’s plenty of history and culture and natural beauty. I probably wouldn’t go back (though never say never), but it was different to anywhere else I’ve been, and I really appreciated that. Our tour manager is a Cuba expert, and that’s really taken my interest: another place with an interesting political history! We shall see.
On Thursday morning, I packed up my bed linen, towel and laptop, and walked a suitcase up Tower Bridge Road in order to drop off the keys to my flat with the real estate agent. By 9am it was done: I was ‘homeless’. Inverted commas, of course, because while I don’t have a ‘home’ right now, I do have places to sleep: I’m covered until the end of January, which is hopefully more than I need. Still, it’s not my favourite feeling, this being without a place that is mine. This is the second time this year – the second time in just over six months – that I’ve been in this situation, and it sucks.
What hasn’t sucked is how amazing people have been. No fewer than four people at work offered to give me their house keys while they’re away over Christmas, and another offered her couch for as long as I needed it. The same has been true of people outside of work. Given I’ve only been in the country six months, it’s a nice feeling: I’m not alone here. For that feeling alone, I am incredibly grateful.
I had a half day at work after dropping in the keys, which was subdued. Three quarters of the office finished up last week, and they seemed to take all the energy and enthusiasm with them. We’ve done our best with bringing in treats, having coffee dates, and even playing carols on occasion, but it’s hard to sustain. I did my bit on Thursday by opening one of the bottles of champagne from the collection under my desk, and that was nice. I skipped out after that, lugging my suitcase on the tube to Victoria, where I had a teeny, tiny hotel room for the night – and a ticket to see ‘Rent’ at the St James.
I’d seen ‘Rent’ live three times before buying this ticket, and I admit, I hesitated over it. The tickets weren’t cheap, and I saw it in Sydney back in April, all of seven months ago; did I really need to go again?
I did. And I’m so glad I made that decision.
At the door, they stopped us all to explain that they were having some serious issues with illness within the cast, and that the matinee performance was going to be only semi-staged as a result; and that if we wanted our money back, or to exchange tickets for another time, they would be happy to do so. I dithered only for a moment: I wasn’t sure how I felt about paying full price to see a not-full version, but on the other hand… I was there. It was my plan for the afternoon. I wanted to go.
And, really. If they could not actually perform the full version, they had clearly had some major issues, and to that end I was impressed they were going ahead at all, and I wanted to support that. (It turned out that the Wednesday night performance had had to be cancelled, even.)
As it turned out, one of their biggest issues was that the actor who played Mark (who is, for those who do not know the show, pretty much the glue that connects everything) was out sick. And so was his understudy. And so they’d dragged in someone new, someone who hadn’t rehearsed properly, but was willing to step in. He performed with script in hand, which is incredibly brave; he was excellent.
They were also down to a chorus of three, which made things a little difficult a few times, but which they pulled off spectacularly.
(And their Angel was the best I’d ever seen: he did backflips on the stage in heels, the crazy man.)
No, it wasn’t a full performance, but it didn’t matter. They had energy, and the audience did too. I felt… so alive, being part of it, and so connected.
And then they gave us free drinks at interval, as if I needed to be bribed not to complain; I have absolutely no regrets. Sure, seeing the full production would’ve been something, and I’m sorry I won’t get to, but I feel like what I saw was something different, and something real. That’s what live theatre is all about, right?
I wept through most of the second half; I do that, sometimes, and it has been an emotional and exhausting few days. Weeks. Months. Year. But I felt lighter and far more relaxed when I left, and for the first time all week I actually slept properly. I don’t know how much of that was because of the theatre, and how much was because of how tired I was, not to mention the relief to be done with my flat; I don’t suppose it matters. I slept, and it was lovely.
Seeing ‘Rent’ in Sydney, earlier this year, was one of the first things I did after my ex moved out. It was my way of reminding myself that I could do things on my own – that, in fact, I had been not doing things I love because of my relationship, and that was stupid. As musicals go, it was perhaps one of the better choices for me: the whole point of ‘Rent’ is this idea that there’s no day but today. ‘Forget regret, or life is yours to miss.’ I needed that, in April, and perhaps I need that still. I think we all do, in a way.
So here’s to living life. To taking chances. To embracing whatever comes.
I’m at the airport, now, on my way to Cyprus. I’m sad, not being with my family, and sad, too, that the package I sent them three and a half weeks ago won’t arrive in time for Christmas. But I’m happy, too: I’m excited about this trip, and enthusiastic about the future.
My life was so different, a year ago. (Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, as would be appropriate in this context.) I imagine my life will be different again, a year from now, though I can’t imagine what and how. But it’s okay. I’m okay. Everything is okay.
My moving plans were rather unpleasantly turned on their head this week, when my landlady emailed to say that, oh, oops, the flat had sold much more quickly than anticipated… and that I would need to move out by the 28th.
This was rather unwelcome news, as I did not have anywhere lined up to move to– the place I’d looked at last weekend had fallen through (alas), and although I had some potentials to look at this week, none were ideal. And, of course, I leave for Cyprus on the 22nd, which gives me even less time to get myself organised.
You may imagine the swearing that ensued. There were also tears; it was a frustrating evening.
Several days later, though, and I think I’m largely sorted. I’ve sublet a room in a pretty uninspiring flat in Angel until the end of January, which gives me breathing room (and has the benefit of being surprisingly cheap). In January, two coworkers and I are going to hunt down a three bedroom flat or house to rent together. I’m hesitant about living with coworkers – I fear we’ll see too much of each other – but I’m also really, really pleased about this: I feel hopeful about the prospect.
I think it’s because I trust them, and that makes it easier to imagine this place as a home rather than just a place where I have a bedroom. I would like that; I miss that.
I have a place to store my belongings for a month or so, so now it’s time to start packing them all up in preparation for them being picked up and taken away. It feels a little bittersweet, and I wasn’t wholly sure why, at first.
Yes, this room has been as much of a ‘home’ as I’ve had these six months, but I’m not really sorry to leave it. I think the thing that is really giving me pause is that, for better or for worse, this flat was the first place I’ve ever lived that I chose for myself, 100%. Everywhere else has been chosen for me, or chosen in conjunction with others. I found this flat; I made arrangements to view it; I made the decision to move in.
Issues with my flatmate aside (and, of course, this rather inconvenient need to move at short notice), I don’t regret that decision. It introduced me to part of London I might not have explored much, otherwise, and it has been mine: the place where I really started to figure out who I was on my own. In that regard, it has served me well.
I’m not terribly looking forward to the next few weeks; I don’t really enjoy a lack of stability, and that’s certainly what it will feel like, having only a very temporary home. But the end result will, I think, be worth it– more time to make the right decision, more time to find the right place. I’d rather wait, now, than desperately sign a lease on something immediately, and be stuck in what could be a worse situation.
In the meantime, I’m a little aghast at how much I seem to have accumulated in the past six months. I moved into this place with a large suitcase, a small suitcase, and two shopping bags (okay, and a backpack). I will need boxes, to move out.
(Yes, yes: silence forever, and then suddenly a whole slew of posts at once. That’s how I roll.)
Last weekend, I escaped to Reims, France, for a weekend of champagne tasting. It’s something I booked months ago – literally, in June or July, very soon after I arrived in London – and had been looking forward to with great enthusiasm. I know so little about the wine regions of Europe, and getting to explore them is something I’m very excited about.
(Especially in person. Especially when I’m with someone who knows what they’re doing.)
I found this tour through one of my meetup groups. The man who runs the group does that as a sideline, with his primary occupation being wine tourism. Which is a thing. Of course it is.
Anyway: Christos (the wine guy) knows his stuff. I’ve been on a number of his meetup events, and they’re always great: good wine, good company, and often good food as well. And, importantly, not always ridiculously expensive. (There was one event which I did not attend, which was £100 a head, and involved the opening of 5 or 6 bottles of 1980s vintage Bordeaux, but that is unusual.)
We met at 7am on Friday morning, which meant leaving home soon after 6. I was… well. We’d had a work corporate away day the day before, which was followed by drinks, and while I only had three drinks (one was a large, so perhaps that’s four), whatever their cheap red was hadn’t terribly agreed with me. I was Not Well, but also Determined To Work Through It. Getting to Victoria involves two buses for me, but I elected to use the cold morning air to clear my head, and walked from Westminster to Victoria. It helped. At least a little, anyway.
Reims is a seven or eight hour drive from London, by coach, once you include waiting time for the train beneath the channel. I actually hadn’t paid much attention to how you drive to France; I knew you could, because there was a tunnel, but I’d not really thought it through, or recognised that it involved a train. A train that large coaches can drive onto. That is an experience: driving onto a train, man. We stopped at the terminal for coffee (I really needed it by then) and bathroom breaks (there was a bus on the coach, but…) and then it was straight onto the train, which we celebrated with, of course, champagne. Christos runs two of these tours each year, and opening champagne at that point of the trip is tradition. I approve wholeheartedly.
The train beneath the channel takes about 30 minutes, I think. I ventured off the coach to use the bathroom, believing we were closer to the front than the end (we weren’t), which meant I walked through ten or twelve compartments before finding to the bathrooms (there is one at each end of the train). It’s very disconcerting, because you know you’re moving, but you also don’t feel like you’re moving – a bit like being on an airplane, I suppose, but beneath the water.
And then, suddenly, we were in France. My second time in France, but my first spending time outside of Paris! We drove on, stopping for lunch after two hours, and then driving one more hour to arrive in Reims. Our first champagne house was the next stop: Champagne Charles de Cazanove, located within the city centre. I was, I admit, not especially impressed by their champagne, which wasn’t to my taste, and the cellars were a little too modern to feel ‘right’. Still, champagne is champagne!
We stayed at the Hôtel de la Paix, which is a Best Western, but really lovely despite the chain ownership. It has a lovely bar (very important), serves a lovely buffet breakfast, and the rooms were nice. I was sharing (I had the option to pay more for a single room, but preferred to spend that money on food/champagne) with a woman named Pam, who was lovely. We had two single beds that were a little close together, but they were comfortable, and the shower was utterly amazing.
There was a group dinner that night, where I got to know a few more members of the thirty-odd others within the group. I had foie gras, which was (of course) amazing, plus steak and potatoes, and a chocolate mousse for dessert. Plus champagne, of course, and wine.
Each trip Christos plans involves visiting different champagne houses, so that no one ends up seeing the same ones twice (where possible). The first house is always one of the larger ones, and after that they always visit some of the small ones, but always grand cru or premiere cru rated. The two on Saturday were vastly superior to the one on Friday: both small, family-owned operations where you could see that they loved their product, and were personally proud of it. The first was Champagne Francois Seconde (where they had the cellars I had hoped for out of the first house); the second Jorez Le Brun.
We tried between four and six champagnes in each house; needless to say, there was not a lot of sobriety, and very, very little spitting of wine following tasting! Despite not really having intended to buy much, I ended up buying a couple of bottles at each place, including a bottle of ratafia (my regency romance reading self wiggles in delight at the latter), which proved surprisingly delicious.
Seven of us went for dinner together that night, which, again, was lovely. French food is amazing!
Sunday took us to one final champagne house, where the product was delicious, and superbly enhanced by the tradition of opening bottles with a sabre! Four members of our group were randomly selected to perform that honour, and it was fascinating watching it, and then seeing the bottles afterwards, glass clean sheared away.
We had time after that final house to have lunch in Reims and explore the famous Christmas markets, which I was delighted to see. My halting French was enough to let me buy what I wanted to buy (things to take back to work, and send elsewhere), and then I ended up meeting up with some others from the group for lunch, before we headed back to the coach.
It was a long trip home, despite my efforts to sleep along the way; going home is always longer than heading out, I suppose. We arrived back at Victoria just after 9pm, which wasn’t too bad, but then I had to lug my bottles of champagne (and my suitcase) on two buses in order to get home. I could have called an uber, I suppose, but it didn’t seem too heavy and unwieldy at the beginning… the same could not be said of it by the end.
Still: I managed.
It was a wonderful weekend, and I will very gladly go back to Reims. I’m so glad I decided to go– I know a lot more about champagne now! (As if that were the only plus.)
Weekend travel to the continent is one of the best parts about living in London. There are so many places that you can get to so easily! I see many more trips in my future.
I honestly thought my days of sharing a home with others – people other than a partner, that is – were over. The ex and I moved out of the old, falling-down house we shared with two others and into an apartment on our own about a decade ago; I had escaped!
Unfortunately, the reality is that even though I earn decent money in London, I do not earn decent enough money to live alone– not unless I’m willing to live in zone three or four, anyway (and I am not, not at this point of my life: I didn’t come all the way to London to face a long daily commute).
Some of you will be aware of the adventures I’ve had with my flatmate over the past couple of months. She’s very young, and very naive, and unfortunately, it seems, completely oblivious to my attempts to school her into better flat-share behaviour. Still, I don’t regret moving into this place: it is well situated, introduced me to an area I genuinely love, and has been a ‘safe’ space for me these part four or five months– comfortable, aside from the flatmate issues. It has also done a good job of outlining to me what I want in my next home.
I’d always intended to move out of this place in the next couple of months, but that plan was accelerated when I discovered that my landladies intended to sell. According to the terms of my lease, they can give me two weeks’ notice to leave, and honestly I don’t like the idea of having to panic about finding somewhere new. I’m plenty good at working myself into a lather of stress without that kind of deadline, thank you very much!
So the moving plan is accelerated. I thought I’d found a place, but that fell through. In retrospect, for the best – I can see plenty of reasons why it may not have been a good idea now, so we’ll call it a lucky escape.
The trouble with flat-hunting when you’re going to be sharing is that you’re not just looking for a nice flat in the right location; you’re looking for a nice flat in the right location with people you think – based on five minutes’ acquaintance – you can live with. That’s hard. They’re probably not serial killers, but they’ve probably cleaned the place up for prospective tenants, and they’re on their best behaviour (so are you). Will they be grumpy and snippy and difficult after you move in? Will they steal your food from the fridge, or forget to buy toilet paper when it really is their turn? Will they play loud music late at night? These are things you just can’t possibly know.
This time, I want a place where I can really make myself a home. This will be my fourth move since June, and I’d prefer it to be the last for at least a year, and preferably longer than that. I want to live somewhere where I can have conversations with other people, rather than ignoring them (and being ignored in return). I want to live somewhere that’s kept clean, and where we all use the common areas. At the same time, I want a place where I can still keep to myself if I feel like it, with enough room in my bedroom that I don’t feel trapped if I really don’t want company.
These are difficult things to balance out.
I’m looking at a place tonight that I’m really hopeful about. It’s located in a beautiful Georgian square, with communal gardens in the middle, and from the outside (I’ve been cycling through this square for months, now, and admiring it every time), it’s just beautiful. Obviously, the outside doesn’t matter, but some part of me wriggles with delight at the idea of living in a beautiful, historic building while in London.
I suspect there will be competition for this room: it won’t just be a case of showing up, deciding I like it, and moving in. Impressing people at first glance is not one of my skills, especially when it involves social attributes rather than professional ones, but I am determined to do my best.
This will be my first Christmas away from my family (and alone), and that’s sinking in a little more now.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not bothered about being single, and I don’t mind being here alone, without someone always at my side. I’ve been travelling alone, and joining groups alone, and it’s fine. It’s just…
We had a Christmas crafting afternoon at work today– wearing our ugly (or at least, tacky) Christmas jumpers– and of course, people talked about what they would be doing for Christmas, which is, after all, only a few weeks away now. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited about going to Cyprus, but at the same time, there was a loneliness to it: everyone else is talking about family and traditions and all the rest, and I don’t get any of that this year. It feels like everyone is going home for Christmas, and if they’re not, it’s because they’re going somewhere else with their husband/wife/partner/whomever.
This is not me wanting people to feel sorry for me, either, mind: I chose this, and I’m okay with it, and it’s not like I’ve always been the most Christmasy of Christmasy people (rather the opposite, much of the time). But I think it is easier to feel lonely at this time of year than at other times, and the impact of that is hard. I am a long, long way from home, and this is going to be a Christmas unlike any I’ve ever had before.
Still, it’s something I need to get used to if I intend to stay here long term (and at the moment, I do expect to be here for most if not all of my five year visa); I will go home next year, probably, but I won’t go every year, not given the expense involved (and the time and distance). There will be other years like this, most likely – and while there will be friends to visit, and perhaps even eventually partners to spend it with, I’m going to have to get used to it not being my family.
But I’m ok. I’m being festive. I’ve written Christmas cards, and I’ve worn my stupid jumper. I’ve been to see lights, and I’m going ice skating tomorrow. I’ve booked to see a matinee of Rent on the 22nd, my last day of work, so I’ll take a half day for that, and wander through the lights and the bustle afterwards, and it’ll be lovely. Now that I’m not moving until January (most likely), I may even buy some decorations for my room.
And I have champagne. This is also important.
In another three weeks, I’ll have been here six months, and that anniversary seems to have come up out of nowhere. Six months? No way. And yet. And yet. I can look back, too, to where I was twelve months ago, and things are so different in every possible way that I can barely grasp it.
Twelve months ago, my relationship was in its death throes and I knew it, but wasn’t willing to acknowledge it – not even to myself. Things were awful. I was beating myself up, trying to be someone I wasn’t; I was miserable. And I was terrified, because I didn’t know who I was outside of my relationship. We celebrated (loose term, that) our eleventh anniversary that Christmas, and I had forgotten what I was like on my own.
That fear, and my fear of being judged by people who didn’t know the gory details, kept me hanging on for longer than I should have. And that fear? It was groundless. I’m actually a much better person, on my own. A happier person, more willing to take risks and try new things. I moved to the other side of the world and aside from this bout of lonely homesickness, I’m doing fine: I’m doing more than fine.
I beat myself up a little, sometimes, for not doing more – for giving in to the desire to just sit at home instead of going to do things I know I would enjoy, or for not cycling to work even though there’s no reason for me not to. I have to remind myself that it’s ok; that I don’t have to be perfect. That I deserve even just a little slack. That, particularly at this time of year, I should be looking after myself.