Category Archives: travel

North by Northwest

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Marking my newest tube map has shown a striking fact that I’ve tried to ignore for six years- I know nothing about north London. Aside from small pockets like Finsbury Park, Camden, Holloway and Angel Islington that have the good fortune to be close enough to the city centre or proximity to other places and people that I wanted to visit- north London remains a mystery to me. I know vague things about it- the large communities of Orthodox Jews, media types and celebrities- but the actual physical form of it, the history and feel of the place remained outside of my reach. The problem is, simply, there isn’t much happening up north. Much like my far west residence, much of it is simply residential, and that dreaded word- suburban. However, this is the year I promised myself that I would push past my complacency and explore this unknown frontier where rich men roamed.

I started my journey in Hampstead, the north’s spiritual home. Cris-crossing between the Under/Overground I emerged in a lush area flanked by park opening and London staple Daunt Books. Making a note to swing around and come back to Daunt, I started through the park, wary of of the greenery that would inevitably cause havoc on my hayfever. I was struck immediately by the wildness of Hampstead Heath. Much like its sister to the south, Richmond Park, Hampstead was less clean-cut than other parks, lending it  an artistic, romantic wildness. Beautiful Georgian homes peered from behind the trees as the crowds flocked towards the numerous ponds, watching the ducks and coots frolic in the water as footballs were gently passed around.

Walking up sharply inclined paths that cut through the trees, past cyclists and families led me to Parliament Hill. I stood in the high grass and gazed at the sunbathers in various states of deshabille as the park unfurled gently behind them, the cityscape visible in the distance. With the dense greenery behind me and the golden green grass that surrounded me, I could understand why this had been the setting for so many paintings and films. Moving past the topless sunbathers that ignored the brisk spring weather for that rare chance at sun, I walked down the sloping path, past the tennis courts and middle aged gay couples holding hands, to another part of the park with yet more ponds. Sitting down on the grass I watched the sunseekers sprawled out on picnic blankets, their Waitrose and Marks and Spencer’s food surrounding them like a Manet painting. A young spaniel ran from blanket from blanket, hunting for affection, completing the scene.

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After tiring of the cheery pleasantness I set off again, passing the men’s pond, which was surrounded by middle-aged men in small swimming trunks, their soft stomachs spilling over. A quick glance over the fence showed men on the pier, goggles on, gazing at the pond, empty save for a few swimming rings and honking water fowl. Eventually I left the park, though a quick glance at google map showed that I was nowhere near my starting point! I walked around the park, marvelling at how different the area was from my small suburb.  I stopped when I saw a bus stop whose destination was Highgate. Deciding to continue my adventure, I hopped on the bus, hoping to see the famous cemetery. As the bus travelled to Highgate, I felt as though I was leaving London altogether. Highgate is known as a village within the city for very good reason. The chic pubs and well tended buildings became sparser as the bus heaved itself up a sharply inclined country hill. The buildings reminded me strongly of the early colonial buildings in Williamsburg, plain and sturdy. We passed what looked like a village square before stopping at a large school. It looked unlike anything else I’d seen in London, the closest comparison I could think of was Dulwich Village in the southeast.

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Walking around the area I’d felt as though I’d stepped back in time. Amongst the normal high street shops was the delightful looking High Tea at Highgate, which I reminded myself to return to (I am forever searching for teashops). At Highgate Bookshop, further down the road, I had a look in, happy with the shop’s tininess and quaintness, and it’s solid collection of fiction. It was like a Richard Curtis film, I expected Hugh Grant to waltz in at any moment. After sating myself on books I walked back to the green, cutting through small streets and looking at the fancy houses and rich greenery as well-dressed parents and their children in well-tailored school uniforms walked past.

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After exploring a bit more, I left Highgate Village and walked towards Muswell Hill. I was only there for a moment, but I managed to get a picture of London in the spring.

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5 Ways to Tell That You’re a Londoner- The Transport Edition

Five ways to tell that you lived in London too long:

  1. You’re annoyed rather than horrified when you hear ‘there is a delay due to person under the train’ during rush hour.
  2. You become slightly enraged when tourists stand on the wrong side of the escalator (there are signs!)
  3. Your sense of time changes- it is now entirely reasonable that it takes up to two hours to get across town, whereas two hours used to mean that you were able to drive into another state or two.
  4. As long as there’s a night bus, there is a way to get home. It will probably take 3 hours.
  5. You express your frustration with obnoxious people on public transportation by furiously not making eye contact and pretending they’re not there.

London is the Place For Me

By the gentle author of Spitalfields Life

Life has sped up again, pushing past an unexpectedly cold, prolonged winter and into the cautious blossoming of spring. Two months ago I became a permanent resident of Britain, my prized visa arriving with the sacred words of ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’.

My journey towards citizenship, with its hurdles, uncertainty and displacement, is reaching its conclusion. By the end of the year, I will have undergone the last of the rituals to mark me as a resident proper, as someone deserving of settlement, of placement, of belonging. I will, and will be able to say that I belong, that I can claim localities and communities as my own and believe it to be true, that I am not one of the millions of transient spectres haunting the city for a short time before drifting onwards.

This feeling of permanency and feeling whole once again- instead of feeling like nothing more than the bills, letters and data the Home Office deemed as my existence- has given me a rather large bounce in my step. I have been out and about a lot recently and feel the way I used to feel as a student, that the city is wondrous and offers limitless possibilities in every unexplored path and undiscovered territory.

All of this is to say that I’ve been doing more exploring recently. East, past Whitechapel to Stepney Green. I hid in East London Thrift while rain hurled itself from the sky and cautiously wandered when the sun returned. Off the high street, old shops-turned flats mingled with Victorian houses flanked by small public gardens. Standing beside them were low and high rise council estates, slightly worse for wear, though many had balconies bursting with plants, toys and other signs of family life.

Further down the street led to a park and Stepney City Farm, which was unfortunately closed, though I still enjoyed looking at the goats, sheep and exotic chickens. By the time I reached the farm, only a few minutes down the street, the surrounding area looked shockingly like any number of the small villages found in the countryside (minus the thatched cottages). The ancient country church stood across the street surrounded by land, and the streets were silent. Walking past the farm and back towards the high street, industrial 70s buildings returned, filling up the spaces between corner shops and inter-war housing.

In a small community centre, nestled between council estates, a voice on speaker transported me back to Morocco, to the call to prayer that engulfed the city throughout the day. A large crowd of men- fathers, brothers, sons- gathered around the building, spilling out into the car park. As they prepared, boys played and chatted, while fathers attempted to keep order. Looking forward, I could see the high street again in the distance, with its murals, shopping centres and statues.

So many experiences jostling for attention in such a small area! Such delights that a short jaunt could lead to traversing time, locality and memory! As Henry James said in his famous quote, it is difficult to speak adequately and justly of London. It is both England and outside of it, a global city that feels deeply local and tribal once you move outside the centre ( no matter where I live, I am a SE Londoner, and I bristle at anyone who attempts to slight it). It is unabashedly, aggressively multicultural, daring you to falter in the wake of its daily hustle and bustle. It remains an odd honor and a privilege to remain here, experiencing it, in all its guises. I can say with utmost certainty that I may not yet be British, but I am definitely a Londoner.

Here’s hoping that more discoveries will be made once the weather rights itself again. And on a light note, my friend introduced me to this song:

London Links- The Underground Edition

Going Underground, Pt 1

As 2013 quickly approaches, I’ve decided to write this post in honour of the one day of the year when trains run 24 hours in order to help tired revellers return to their edge of the city. I’ve grown up with both a deep respect and fear of trains. My father was a train conductor and I have many half-remembered memories of gaily swinging around handrails in empty carriages and fearfully following my parents between cars in the New York subway.

There is something that I continue to find completely astounding about these behemoths, their quaintness and continuing technological advancement, the community and alienation that can easily be found in each carriage. It is completely true that Londoners expect a certain level of quiet on the train (though this can be adjusted for area, time of day and closeness to a holiday), and that any acts that stray too far from this generally accepted social contract will cause most in the vicinity to become aggrieved, furiously placing their noses closer to their newspaper of book, or turning their headphones up whilst pointedly looking off into the distance (of course, this changes depending on age or alcohol consumed). Despite this contract of solitude, there are still instances when friendships are forged and love is found. Its interiors act as an extension of the city, a social and historical map, forever being adjusted, improved, forgotten.

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Have passport, will travel…

When I was a young person, I dreamed of becoming an Australian Aborigine and living in the Outback. Then I discovered the great white shark, and it destroyed my Australia dreams forever (I was five). Despite this setback, it was always my dream to see the world and become a global citizen, to not feel tied down to one nation, ideology or creed. At 28 years old, there are a lot of places that I have seen and places that I want to see:

  • EuropeEngland, Scotland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Lithuania, Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Malta, Iceland
  • Asia– India, South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Nepal
  • AfricaMorocco, Egypt, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, Benin, Mauritius, Seychelles, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Comoros, Djibouti, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, São Tomé & Príncipe
  • Oceania– New Zealand, Tahiti
  • Caribbean– Cuba
  • North America– Mexico, Canada
  • South America– Argentina, Chile, Peru, Easter Island, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Paraguay, Venezuela
  • Central America– Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador
  • Middle EastLebanon, Jordan

Some of these places are completely unsafe at the moment (those in italics), but I still want to visit them once they become more stable/travel bans are lifted. What counties have you seen? Where would you recommend, especially if you are a minority and/or a woman?

Travel and claiming authenticity

The urge to travel is getting stronger every week. Now that home has become more established and permanent, I want to visit lands both near and far. Preparing for Morocco has been an exercise in blissful planning and researching, which has only made me think about other places that I want to see. Invitations to see my friends’ hometowns in various countries seem even more tempting and my list of places to travel to over weekends and holidays continue to grow. Since it is impossible for me to do anything without reading about it and writing lists, Morocco has earned itself a folder on my laptop, filled not only with places of interest and what to bring, but also customs to follow, appropriate clothing to wear and food to try. Morocco feels like the next step in my travels, a departure from the foreign, yet still familiar, cities of Western Europe. Not only will it be the first Muslim country I’ve ever visited, it will be my first time in Africa and in the Global South, which is pretty significant to me. I want to travel through Africa more in future, through North and West Africa, especially since some of my studies focused on the megaregions/slum cities of West and Central Africa. I also want to visit some places in the Middle East, though I’m not sure where at the moment.

Having to look for new clothes for my holiday is really bringing home the cultural differences that I am likely to encounter. For both men and women, modesty is necessary, and though clothing will probably be more Western in the cities, I want to err on the side of caution since I will also be in smaller, rural areas. My original idea was to stock my wardrobe full of airy, vintage sundresses, but numerous travel guides and forums have stated that legs and most of the arm must be covered. For a country like England in the summer, clothes that are youthful, light while still covering up do not exist (even maxi dresses, which I’m too short for, show a lot of flesh.) So I’ve begun looking around my neighbourhood at hijabis and Asian women in more traditional clothing for inspiration. It’s absolutely amazing to look at the differences of groups within the same spaces, and the creativity that exist within such clothing restrictions (though by saying restrictions, I am clearly being Western in my thought process, since I doubt that many of these women view it as a restriction). Texture, pattern and colours become more important and create a look that can be vibrant and speak of the blend of cultures, beliefs and heritage that these women occupy. It is not only these women that are embracing and re-establishing their culture, in many diasporic communities all over the world, the rise of blogs have created a global space where traditional fabrics and patterns are being utilised in modern ways that allow people to show an approximate visual representation of who they are and where they have come from.

Clothing aside, thinking about travel so much has made me question what I want out of it, what I hope to see and whether my presence in certain places is a good thing. Many travellers, especially minorities I would imagine, like to believe that they will not be tourists in the ignorant, disruptive stereotypical way. This has especially become important in an age of ecotravel, sustainable tourism and visiting places, many of them postcolonial, that aren’t in the normal tourist spheres of Western Europe, North America and parts of Asia. But it has to be remembered that my status as a minority will always pale to the fact that I am a Westerner who is (relatively) well-off, and how I process foreign places and people is always seen through Western eyes. What I am most afraid of is going into another country and appropriating its culture, whether it is in order to have an “authentic” experience, to have a souvenir to bring home or to feel like a seasoned traveller. I do not want to compartmentalise and categorise my travel experiences in order to fit a general narrative, but I also do not want to approach it in some neo-colonialist way as though it is my playground and it is solely there for my amusement. I simply want to go and experience it in all its subtleties and manifestations for as long as I can, and hopefully learn something along the way, even if it is simply the reaffirmation that there are many ways to live life outside Western expectations.