Five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes

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.

I’m homeless, but I’m okay.

Choosing home

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.

Of December.

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.

A weekend in Reims

Champagne bottles at the end of the riddling process, where the dead yeast is ready to be disgorged.

Champagne bottles at the end of the riddling process, where the dead yeast is ready to be disgorged.

(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.

A room of one’s own

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 could live here?!

I could live here?!

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.

I’m a lovely person to live with, really!

Festive feels

It's a 3D reindeer!

I’ve never had occasion to wear a jumper like this before.

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.

But I am only getting better.