Home #6

*dusts this thing off*


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!


My first photo of London

My first photo of London

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?

My most recent photo of London.

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.

A Cypriot Christmas

The Paphos waterfront.

The Paphos waterfront.

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.

Complicated, man.

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.

(Cyprus photos are here.)

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.

Roma, Amor

Colosseum by night

It was probably inevitable that Rome would be my first continental European destination, this time in Europe; if anything, it’s perhaps surprising that it took me this long to get here – both in terms of my now having been in Europe for four months, and just in general. I have, after all, been a devotee of the ancient Romans for more than half my life now.

I have to assume that it began with ancient history in year eleven; though I own that it was more than just the history books that fed it. I don’t remember exactly, but I was clearly enthralled enough by what I was studying (I had a very good teacher, those last two years of school) to prattle on about it enough that people recommended me fiction to read. It was that year, when I was fifteen and sixteen, that I read Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series (which should not be dismissed based on the frothy over-indulgences of her romance novels), and Lindsey Davis’ Falco series (which may not be historically accurate, but really brought to life Rome as a place). There was, too, a novel I’d read some years previously, the third in a series by a New Zealand author, Tessa Duder, about a young swimmer from Auckland in the 1950s/60s, who came to Rome to swim in the 1960 Olympics: Alessandra: Alex in Rome.

Coming to Rome, then, is the fulfilment of a dream I’ve had since I was fifteen. It means walking the same streets as people I idolised as a teen (I’m not saying I was a normal teen). It feels like a big deal.

Logically, I knew Europe was close and that I could go to places, but it wasn’t until a colleague was talking about her weekend to Berlin that I remembered this as something I, too, could do… I think I booked something the following day. It had to be Rome; of course it did. And now I’m here, really and truly, and it’s both hard to believe and so very, very real.

My flight was nearly an hour late leaving London, for reasons unexplained, so the free walking tour I’d booked in to for Friday evening was already looking unlikely when I landed; that, at least, made it easier to deal with waiting nearly another hour before my shuttle left – and then spending another two hours on that shuttle, for what is allegedly a 25 minute trip (granted, it was rush hour on a friday night; it was never going to be quick). Several thoughts: I am never driving in Rome; these streets were really not built for cars; everything is amazingly beautiful. We drove around the walls of the Vatican (probably as close as I’ll get this trip; my feelings on religion aside, I am keen to see the art and architecture, but I’m just not sure I can fit it in), over the Tiber, and past countless monuments and famous buildings. It was exhilarating; so many places I had read about and seen pictures of.

But finally, some ten hours after leaving my flat in London, I arrived at my hotel – hotel Apollo, on the Via Dei Serpenti, a narrow little street that leads directly to the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum itself. That was definitely a sight worth seeing in the dying light of the day, lit from within.

My hotel room is tiny – single bed, not much room for anything else – but comfortable, with breakfast served of a morning on the sixth floor terrace, with a view out over the city. I must take a photo; it looks like everything you imagine a view of Rome to be. After a little downtime, I headed out into the city: down to the Colosseum itself, first, and then through the winding, narrow streets in search of dinner. There is something exhilarating by being surrounded by people speaking other languages; there was a group of rowdy Italians next to me at dinner, and a group of Spaniards and another of Germans in tables across the way; if anyone else spoke English primarily, I didn’t hear it. I had pizza, and a house red, and stopped for gelato on the way home; it was all amazing.

This morning, I had a walking tour booked: we went down into the forum, up the Palatine hill, through the amazingly preserved house of Augustus, through Livia’s house (also surprisingly well-preserved given it was discovered and opened to the public much earlier), through the ruins of the Palatine palace, and then onwards to the coliseum. Our guide was an archaeologist, and while I wish she could have gone into more detail, I was probably the only person on the tour with a solid grounding of the history, so I suppose that’s not unfair. Most of the group was American, plus two middle-aged women from Sydney (in fact, even from the same part of Sydney as my family; they both live on the northern beaches).

I don’t know if I can describe what it felt like to walk on actual stones trod upon by actual Romans. We walked down the Via Sacra, and I– because I have an imagination– could visualise what it might have been like during a triumphal parade. I could have spent a lot longer in the ruins, just wandering around and imagining, and I may actually do that: I’ll have to pay to get in again, but if I have the time, I think it would be absolutely worth it.

After the tour ended, I stopped for risotto ai funghi (and, okay, a glass of wine), and then a gelato, and now I’m resting my feet and recharging my batteries (phone; camera; self) before I head out again this afternoon. It’s warm, 24C and feels warmer, and the skies are blue and clear and perfect. Honestly, I could not ask for better.

Losing track

The fact that I’ve lost count of exactly how long I’ve been in London probably says something about my present state of settlement; I’m no longer really counting. Roughly, though, it’s been a little over two months, and honestly, things are going well. I’m at the point where people have started to caution me about emotional swings– that this is when things start to get difficult. In a way, I’m sure that’s true: August is nearly over, and that means autumn is impending, and that means it is soon going to get colder, damper, and darker. All of those things are going to have an adverse impact on me, I have no doubt.

Having said that, I’m prepared for that– as much as I can be– and mostly, feeling positive about the change. I’ve been buying winter clothes (which is fun! Scarves and gloves and wooly jumpers and all kinds of cozy things), and working my way up to cycling to work (which should keep me exercising, which I think will be important).

Additionally, I have plenty of things to look forward to: visits from several different friends, a trip to Rome, another to France, and Christmas (somewhere; I’m still making final decisions on that). Once I hit January, it’s really only a couple of months before my parents visit (in April; we’re going to Spain together), and then it will be spring again. (Just like that, I’m counting off nearly a full year!)

Beyond that, though, I am feeling settled. I’m settled at work, where I’m beginning to make friends, and where I’m feeling very positive about the work I’m doing, and how it is being received. I’m settled outside of work, too, with an active life (including a social life!) and lots of things to look forward to. I’m even making plans to combine the two, with some weekend plans with a friend from work. All good things!

Home is a little more difficult, as matters continue to be a little complicated with my flatmate. I’ve never been good at flatsharing; I hated it when I was in my early 20s, and I definitely hate it now. It’s difficult because I’m sure some of my gripes are personal to me: things that don’t really matter in the scheme of things, but matter to me because of how I prefer to live. Some of them, however, are not. I’ve definitely had moments of staring at rooms for rent, and considering moving again, but I’m forcing myself to stick it out for now– there’s no point rushing out into a different place until I’ve really tried to make this one work. If things still suck in a few months time, well, that will be different.

This evening, a handful of minor things piled together to the point where I refused to cook in that kitchen (it would mean cleaning up after her, and no, I was not in the mood for that), and couldn’t stand being in the same flat as her (I am over-dramatic sometimes, yes), so I took myself out for dinner. Which also bothered me, because I’d just bought food to cook for dinner (and the leftovers were supposed to be for lunch tomorrow, sigh), but it helped, so that’s something. I’m calmer, now, though I haven’t dared to check the kitchen to see if she read my note/did anything about it.

I miss living alone. At the same time, faced with living alone and not being able to afford to do anything, or living with someone else and having disposable income for travel, fancy food, theatre and so on… well, I’ve made my decision on that one. There’s no point being in London if I don’t have the money to make the most of it! So I will make it work, the best I can.

And in the meantime, I will enjoy the rest of what life has on offer for me. I’m on a day trip to Glastonbury on Saturday, and a chocolate tasting the following Wednesday. I’m seeing Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in No Man’s Land, and Kenneth Branagh in The Entertainer, and then there are my visitors and then Rome and… September and October are filling up. Life is good.