Friday, 26 September 2014

What's in my blogger's bag?

A while ago I came across the pretty illustrations of Kristina Hultkrantz, who designs under the brand Emma Kisstina. This self-confessed girly-girl covers posters, scarves, and make-up bags with her bold yet delicate designs, and despite not being the girliest of girls myself, the strong, solid colours of her designs hugely appealed to me. In checking out her blog I also discovered a fascinating series of illustrations, showing off the things that bloggers kept in their bags. And then I was hooked. 

I know what it takes to keep my own blogging show on the road - a lot of coffee, wine and chats with blogging pals mostly, but I don't keep those in my bag! - but what about other bloggers? Can you tell what kind of blogger someone is from the contents of their bag? Turns out, you can...The majority of the bloggers Kristina features in her series are glamorous fashion and lifestyle bloggers; their designer handbags groaning with beauty products and glittering jewellery. But I thought I'd drop Kristina a line and see if she was up for the challenge of featuring the bag of a rambling city blogger - with, as Kristina noted herself, not even so much as a lip balm in sight.

And the game Kristina rose to the challenge and tackled my well-travelled Manhattan Portage bag and its random contents. And I love the result...
Whilst my bag may not be as stylish as the bags Kristina normally draws, it might be the only one that's been to five continents! (Thanks to its outstanding quality however, you probably couldn't tell that by looking at it. That thing is worth every dollar I paid for it.) And as for the contents I like to think Kristina has captured my bare essentials, both for blogging and city living: 
  • my Oystercard for getting around London
  • my wallet and keys (because obviously!)
  • a little something to read on the Tube (from my collection of old Penguin paperbacks)
  • my camera and my iPhone for snapping photos of cool things I see
  • Field Notes notebooks and cheap Bic biros (for copious writing)
  • and coffee shop loyalty cards (I have a LOT of those about my person usually!)

Thank you, Kristina, for taking on a bag that's a little different from your usual inspiration and for creating something so pretty from my bag's inner recesses!

You can check out the rest of Kristina's series on bloggers bags here on Pinterest.

Monday, 22 September 2014

A little bit(e) of Mexico in London

Mexico. When you think of that particular Latin American country, what comes to mind? Mariachi bands and margaritas? Old ruins and beautiful beaches? As many tacos as your stomach can hold? (Just me then, ok...) These days, Mexico is becoming less of a dream and more of a viable holiday destination, with increasing numbers of flights whisking Brits from grey old England to Mexico's sparkling Caribbean coast. If you don't fancy hanging out on the beaches of Southern Spain surrounded by hundreds of lobster-coloured compatriots, you can book an all-inclusive deal to Mexico these days; even package holiday operators like First Choice have added Mexico to their itineraries. But if you live in London and fancy a little Mexicana in your life you actually don't have to travel at all.

London's high streets are ever-changing things. They are slaves to economic trends, but also to cultural and social ones. And right now, London seems to be hungry for Mexican food. You can see it in the shopfronts in front of you. But we don't want any old tired burrito eaten beneath plastic parrots and sad sombreros. Oh no. We want decent flavours and an environment that feels more Soho than Tijuana. And fortunately for us Londoners, this is what we're now getting.

Interestingly though, few restaurants seem to be coming directly to London from Mexico. Some of our best-known Mexican options are home-grown. One of the most familiar restaurants across London is street-food chain, Wahaca, started by British former MasterChef winner, Thomasina Miers. Plenty of British firms are run by individuals who have spent years living (or at least eating!) in the US, where Mexican food is plentiful and popular; such as California-inspired Tortilla, and Chilango, founded by a former Chicagoan.  When I was working in Fitzrovia, a colleague and I used to head to a nearby branch of Benito's Hat (inspired by its founder's time living in Texas) for a Friday treat of slow-roasted pork burritos, and maybe a cheeky margarita to get us through the last few hours of the week.

It's not only chains aimed at the hungry office worker's lunch-break that are popular with London diners however. Plenty of one-off, independent Mexican food spots have popped up too, many of them in some of the coolest corners of the capital. Some combine food with pretty decent cocktails too - such as Bodega Negra, which lurks beneath a sex shop storefront in Soho (and its sister spot, Casa Negra, near Old Street). Also in Shoreditch is Boho Mexica, a restaurant and lounge covered in Mexicana both old and new; from vintage film posters to modern art work. Several Mexican delicacies made an appearance at Dalston's Street Feast this summer too; from Killer Tomato's vegetarian tacos to shots of tequila with pickle juice chasers (not for me!) at the Breddo's Tacos stall.

Would you rather whip up your own Mexican feast? No problem. Alongside these various eateries are a growing number of Mexican food producers too, supplying restaurants and homes with locally-produced ingredients. Gringa Dairy on the Old Kent Road, for example, makes Mexican cheeses. And even the foodie-heaven, Borough Market, now boasts a branch of The Cool Chile Company, which sells all kinds of seasonings for Mexican home-cooking and cocktail-making. The Londoner's love affair with Mexico - or its food at least! - is clearly here to stay.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Camden's tribute to Amy Winehouse

On what would have been her 31st birthday last Saturday, a statue of the late British singer, Amy Winehouse, was unveiled in Camden's Stables Market. Her style was bluesy jazz and soul, and immensely popular. By the time she was 20 years old she had released an album - Frank - that was destined to go platinum and launch a truly stellar musical career. Sadly, she had a life as filled with pain as the soulful songs she sung, and Amy never made it past her 27th birthday, dying of alcohol poisoning in 2011, and joining the infamous '27 Club': a group of famous musical individuals who died at the age of 27. (Amy Winehouse shares this debatable honour with people like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain.)
While she was still alive however, topping charts and performing gigs, Amy was very definitely a Camden girl. Although it is probably fair to say she didn't spend her days hanging out amidst the foreign tourists who wander the market each day. But just opposite the market, beneath a railway bridge, stands the Hawley Arms: a classic English boozer, much frequented by famous people from the worlds of music, fashion and TV. According to the media, it was Amy's home away from home. When the pub went up in smoke in 2008 practically every article or broadcast on the fire made mention of Ms Winehouse's patronage of the place.

Amy Winehouse's actual home wasn't far away from the bustling centre of Camden though. Head on up the hill out of Camden towards Holloway, and you soon come to Camden Square; a large residential square with a sizeable central garden and huge white houses round its edges. Here, Winehouse purchased a mansion of her own, threw up high security fences and installed a recording studio. When she died, it was here her fans came to mourn. They tied flowers and letters to the trees opposite her house, set up vigils through the night, and left candles and bottles of whiskey all over the pavement. Camden Square is on one of my running routes, and even today - now the house has been sold and someone else lives there - you can see the odd note or red rose pinned to one of the nearby trees.

And now Amy has returned to Camden. I went to see her new statue at the market yesterday. At least I think it was supposed to be hers...

The sculptor, Scott Eaton, has recreated Amy with her trademark behive, a pout...and someone else's face. Those  Disney-princess eyes may be ringed with the same thick black eyeliner she loved, but they don't look much like hers. The statue is described as 'life-size', yet with tiny, spindly legs Winehouse looks more like Bambi than a young woman. (Of course she was notoriously teeny, but there is an oddly unreal quality to this depiction). I couldn't spot a single one of her famous tattoos anywhere on her new bronze skin.

The tourists in the market didn't seem to mind however. They queued up to pose with Amy's statue, copying her hand-on-hip stance, grinning at their companions behind cameras. By the statue's bronze heels lie hand-written notes and plastic-wrapped flowers from her fans, who now have a new place to visit their lost idol. She may not look exactly the way many of us remember her, but Camden's famous daughter has come home once more.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

A photographic treasure hunt in Shoreditch with Foto Ruta

It is rare to meet a blogger these days who is not also a photographer, or in the very least someone who takes photographs. If you blog about things that you see and places you visit - as I do - people often want to see for themselves what they look like. I'm not sure what that says about my descriptive ability or a reader's desire for visual verification, but these are the ways of the modern blogging world. And while many of us struggle along without a great deal of artistic talent, documenting rather than creating great art, plenty of bloggers, journalists and Londoners take stunning photos to accompany their written work. 

Despite being a girl who is really all about the words, I would love to do a better job of taking photos. And, after being given a rather nice camera for Christmas last year, I have finally started to learn about how to take photos, embracing exposure and aperture, and eschewing the basic point-and-clicking that has served me for the past 20 years or so. I now travel with a camera on me at all times, usually my decent manual camera as well as my trusty iPhone's little lens. And I certainly take more pictures, even if not perfect ones. So when Foto Ruta recently invited me along to one of their photography events, with the promise of a crash course in street photography, I was there with bells on.
Foto Ruta was started in Argentina, and is the brainchild of two photographers who were exasperated at the lack of creative ways through which tourists could see the city of Buenos Aires. They wanted to help visitors better explore BA, without the sterile tours or standard 'must-see' attractions. Clearly the tourists in Argentina agreed with them, and from their Latin American beginnings Foto Ruta are now running photography tours in four countries: Argentina, Chile, Spain and the UK. Oh, and they are eyeing world domination, with plans to be operating in twelve countries round the world very shortly. 

I was invited along to join a Foto Ruta Clue event in Shoreditch a couple of weekends ago, and so, with camera in-hand, off I went one sunny Sunday. As our group assembled in a very East London co-working space on Shoreditch High Street (think lots of exposed brick and large industrial windows), it became apparent that there was quite a variety of cameras between us. Some of us carried smartphones, some fancy SLRs. No problem, we were told. We were here to take photographs and explore the city, not produce a technical masterpiece.

Jess, from Foto Ruta London, whizzed us through an introduction to the afternoon's event, then showed us a selection of photos produced by earlier Foto Ruta events, carefully explaining why each was such a great photograph. She also gave us a number of classic rules of photography to bear in mind whilst creating our own images. Each of us was presented with a lanyard and set of notecards, containing a potted history of Foto Ruta, a reminder of many of the presentation's tips for good street photography, a map of the area, and, most crucially, our list of 'clues'. We all had the same eight clues - prompts or themes to inspire us - and in small groups we would shortly be sent off to create a set of photographs that responded to each prompt. Clues ranged from 'Pockets of light' to 'Sunday blues', and included the particularly tricky 'Dads are the original hipsters'; this one presented a creative dilemma or two for many of us - how do you set up or capture something as specific as that?!
Our submission for the clue 'Beyond retro'
Out we all went onto the streets, and out came our cameras. I headed around Shoreditch with the lovely Nishan, a film student who was in town on holiday from Singapore. We happily nattered and snapped photos, and wandered merrily off the map, and agonised over finding subjects to correspond to our eight clues. Shoreditch was the perfect pocket of the city for our clue hunt, filled as it is with ancient and modern urban elements, windy streets full of peculiarities, and a hugely rich street art culture. We even finally tracked down a 'hipster dad' (Although he later admitted he had no children. But then made a generous offer to, er, contribute to some hipster babies if we wanted some. We politely turned him down.)
'Food hunt'
Before we knew it, we were zooming back to Forge & Co., our HQ for the afternoon, with two hours of street photography behind us. Next came the process of scrolling through our many, many new photos, and selecting our final shots for our clues. Once each group had selected their photos, out came the wine, and, over a glass or two, Jess talked us through our images, giving us a (kindly positive) critique of each one. With six or seven different groups taking part, it was fascinating to see how each had interpreted the same set of clues so differently. (You can check out all the photos taken by our group on our afternoon exploring Shoreditch here.) And, Jess was right: it truly didn't matter what camera had been used, as the fun of the images was as much in the interpretation of clues and spotting of weird urban life, as it was in the light levels and framing. I certainly finished the day with a clutch of new photos of which I was rather proud! And I will try to remember my newfound tips and tricks...and to just keep snapping away at this city.

As a blogger, Foto Ruta offered me a complimentary ticket to their Foto Ruta Clue event. (Usually tickets to this event cost £24.00.) Any opinions expressed in the above post however are those of The Accidental Londoner alone. I do not endorse products or organisations that I don't or wouldn't use myself or recommend to a friend.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

The end of the summer in the city

On our recent holiday we arrived in Paris in the middle of summer. During the summer months, particularly August, Paris sort of shuts down. Parisians, along with plenty of other people across France, clear out of the city during the hottest time of the year and head to the beach. Offices wind down, shops shut, and museums close up. For a local it must be nicely peaceful - a time when one can claim the city streets for one's own, when the office is a less stressful place, and one has longer evenings to enjoy a post-work apero or two. As tourists, there is still plenty to do and see in the city, but a few attractions are disappointingly closed and the city feels a little different. It is quieter, emptier. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. While we were there last month we tramped cobbled streets, delighting in how we had the place to ourselves; and then we'd turn a corner and find ourselves surrounded by an Ecuadorian tour group, and it would feel crowded and busy again. 

A Parisian friend asked whether we experienced anything similar in London - a sort of city summer holiday period. I said no, not really. But then I came home and realised I might have been wrong. Wandering through my neighbourhood in the last few weeks I noticed a number of signs in the windows of shops and cafés, declaring that businesses were closed for the summer and would reopen at the end of August or the beginning of September. Everywhere from the flower stand at Tufnell Park Tube station to the greasy spoon cafés that line Kentish Town Road was en vacances. I remember my favourite cafe near home shutting up for the summer before, but this summer, while I've been working from home, I have really missed it. (I've been forced into a new rival instead, where the coffee is excellent but the screaming infant to cappuccino ratio is a little high for my liking.) Is this a new thing? Or have local businesses in North London always come over a bit French in the summer and I've just never noticed it before?

This week, things have felt like they are getting back to normal however. With each new day, the high street has welcomed back another shop or cafe, ready for the autumn. The apologetic signs in the shuttered windows are being taken down. Outside homes on the quieter residential streets I have watched cars being unloaded of holiday detritus; sunburnt children, bags of dirty laundry and brand-new flippers and boogie-boards, purchased in a fit of sunstroke-induced madness, used once or twice then bought home to languish in the cupboard under the stairs.

It feels as if the spirit of summer is passing. The leaves are starting to drop from the trees and brown in the gutters. I have already busted out a couple of thick jumpers as the temperatures drop. Hell, my wellies even made an appearance before August was out. Whilst I remain (for now) blissfully free of formal office hours, I am rising earlier and leaving the house with the commuting hoards. London feels fuller than it has over the past few weeks. Londoners look greyer; they are back in their workwear, out of their shorts and flip-flops. I followed a little group down the street sometime before 9am this week. In the middle walked a forty-something man in glasses and a grey pin-striped suit. He held a briefcase in his left hand and a small skipping child in his right. Beside the briefcase walked an older child, looking up at his father, earnestly explaining something that sounded like a homework project. He dragged a book bag behind him as the group progressed down the road. His father looked as if he was only half-listening as he dodged the commuters queueing for the bus, and the Royal Mail cart, and people clutching paper cups of coffee to themselves. Farewell, Summer! London has started a new term.

Monday, 1 September 2014

August in pictures

So as August began I was somewhere halfway up France...

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