Sunday, 27 September 2009

Berlin vs. London

Writing a blog on living in London, it has been suggested, means one should stick to writing about London, which of late I have strayed from doing a fair bit. Yet what I am really writing about is becoming and being a Londoner, and now wherever I travel beyond the city, I fear I view the outside world through a London-tinted filter. Other cities are mentally compared to London before I realise I am doing it, and so it was on a recent business trip to Berlin.
As I left Heathrow (strangely having cleared security twice, and coming back through Arrivals before completing Departures, thanks to a complicated incident involving my distracted colleague and a forgotten suit) I had no preconceived vision of Berlin, a city to which I have never been. Obviously I was aware of the city's tumultuous and sad past, and the immense hope with which the city has continued to change and redevelop. But as soon as I left Tegel airport (which reminded me of a Lego airport, so clip-together and tiny it was) I began to analyse the city; playing a mental game of City Top Trumps in my head, comparing it to London.

First I noticed the trees (which I'd even noted from the plane on the descent) - trees were everywhere throughout the city, green still as autumn has not quite reached Germany yet. But they were far newer, straighter, tidier trees than those we have here; old, bent, wiggly trees growing between the concrete. And here, no stereotype invocations intended, I noticed a staggering regularity to the whole city. If there had been a theme which city-planners were working to it would have been "squares of every size" or "the eternal glory of the platz"; everything is laid out and positioned just so. London's city shapers in contrast were clearly working with a plan drawn by a four year old with a box of crayons and a vivid imagination.

Understandably, much of the city's architecture lacks London's immediately evident centuries of history, and various newer buildings are not particularly stunning. Save elements, of course, such as the stunningly redesigned Reichstag, which has brought elements of transparency to the pillars of governance through architecture in an extraordinarily creative manner. Berlin, much alike London, could probably be reduced to a few iconic buildings and locations in the eyes of many visitors, yet the story which these may tell would doubtless be very different. As each significant government to control the city has stamped its mark on the city, Berlin has come to represent a very mixed history, culture and place today. I found it hard to get a feel of what Berlin really was, although my very fleeting visit of less than 24 hours (much of those at night) probably did not help this much.
The people, who are not called "Berliners" (JFK, take note - a "Berliner", as any fule kno, is a type of donut), are fabulously polite and speak excellent English. This is a great consolation to one whose brain contains merely a single German phrase after studying the language for 2 years at school; a single phrase concerned with locating the nearest open-air swimming pool, so not exactly of use on a business trip in Berlin.
I spied not a single threatening youth or drunken, slurring lout. This was a clean and civilised city for clean and civilised people. And all very nice it was too, but, as an occasionally uncivilised soul, I found myself missing the rambling chaos of disorganised London. The yelling, the dashing, the traffic systems not overseen by gloved and booted armed forces, the higgledy-piggledy architecture. I was almost glad to get stuck on a gridlocked, unpatrolled motorway before finally swooping back into London past the shambolic Hammersmith Flyover. And I'm sure very few people can ever claim a fondness for the Hammersmith Flyover; travel can do peculiar things to one!

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Sleepless in Southwest London

Only once before I moved to London had I suffered from insomnia, in the weeks leading up to a long trip to Madagascar. Deeply unsure of what I had let myself in for, going to work as a research assistant on a project based in the middle of a forest, miles from civilisation, and with a brain mightily addled by pre-trip anti-malarials, I tossed and turned for weeks. My first night in Antananarivo, the wild island's capital, on a damp foam mattress shared with 3 other people, I slept like a baby. The following 2 months, on a deflating air-mattress, under nothing more than a sheet and a mosquito net, watched by orange-eyed lemurs and noisy night-chattering birds, I slept better than I could remember ever before.

Yet here, in a comfortable double bed, in a silent street in London, I am currently struggling. So I stop fighting and listen. London at night has a particular sound for me. When I was little my parents would bring me to the city to visit my grandparents, who lived right in the middle of the action, in a large house near the city centre. As the grown-ups dined downstairs, I remember being put to bed, at the very top of my grandparents terraced house. In an unfamiliar bed, and totally overexcited to be in the big city, I never wanted to go to sleep. As the faint sound of glassware tinkling and adults chattering wound up to the top floor, I would slide out of bed and creep to the window-seat, which was the perfect size for a small fidgety girl to perch on. Staring out I could see little, except dark night and the odd light behind shutters in a house opposite, so I would just listen.
I heard cars zoom by, the Kings Road finally unclogged by this time in the day, and buses swishing doors open and closed. Taxis stopped to pick up passengers from pavements and I heard them request destinations I could not make out (and frankly they would not have meant much to me if I had been able). I loved the thrum of airplanes criss-crossing the sky; I would doze to this sound, dreaming of glamorous people arriving back home from exotic holidays in the dead of night. Somewhere there was always the wail of an emergency services siren; a nippy police car or a heavy swaying ambulance. This response to a cry for help, to many cries across the city, should have made me fear this place - here was a city where people were being hurt or were in danger a lot, if the siren count was anything to go by. But for the 10 year old me it was a lullaby of city-music, weaving together voices, vehicles, and the odd bird's nighttime serenade.

Ask me to shut my eyes and play me those exact same sounds and I am right back in my grandparents house, and in my 10 year old self's London. As I lie in my own house now, no longer a wide-eyed child, I cannot hear the cars and the buses, the lorries or taxis - I live on a pedestrianised street, however, so I'm not suggesting a great sea-change in the late-night symphony of the city. I still hear the omnipresent sirens, signaling pain and wrong-doing somewhere near. The reminder of the hideous extremes of life within a city; the mixture of wealth and poverty, of danger and safety. I still hear the planes overhead (even nearer now that my slumbering-place is closer to Heathrow). When the weather is bad, and they descend to a lower altitude, our street could almost be part of the runway they sound so close. A keen plane-spotter could probably tell the time from their regular sky-high to-ings and fro-ings. I sometimes hear our local fox yelping; an immensely tame and jolly chap totally unfazed by late-night drunken residents crashing home or young people on bikes tearing through his patch. Once I swear I even heard an unlikely barn-owl.

Tossing and turning and listening, these sounds vocalise for me the 24 hour life of a city such as London. Across the streets and roads and parks and river there must be thousands of other people awake and hearing these sounds, gripped by insomnia or with a valid reason for such late night/early morning activity. But, as ever in the city, every individual is part of something bigger, a thought in which my frustrated sleepless self finds consolation, and even sometimes the peace to drift off again.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Smoke-machines, schnapps and the search for something more - A Majorcan holiday part II

Having made it halfway through my week in Palma Nova I began to settle into this deeply foreign (in so many senses of the word) way of holidaying. I lay on the beach in the day (although I read improving philosophical books to kid my brain into believing I wasn't giving it some major time off) and headed out to eat in the evening, before taking a short disco-nap, then braving the clubs of the Magaluf strip. By Wednesday I'd even got used to watching people drink beer with their full English breakfasts before 10am. Well, almost.
But before long my attention span (equivalent to that of a small, overexcited child at the best of times) demanded a change of scene. Dusting off my rusty Spanish I procured a bus timetable and one morning, with a friend also open to a little culture, effected my escape. The bus (refreshingly air-conditioned but Hispanic-ly late) rang with the Italian jokes and chatter, and British whinges about weather, food and public transport, as it wound through the hot, rocky landscape. Finally, it drew down to a bus station overlooking a bright blue sea, watched over by an ancient stone cathedral; this was more like it - we had found beautiful Palma de Mallorca.
In place of English pubs and high-rise hotels, we explored tiny, windy streets echoing the old Arabic roots of the city's development. Gaudi, a great architectural hero of mine, was even drafted in to work on the stunning cathedral, "La Seu", and his influence notable on other buildings around the city as well. Surrounded by phenomenal architecture and a fascinating heritage mixing ancient Arabic influences with contemporary Catalan culture, I could not comprehend how this could be so near the hideous, English-ified modernity of Magaluf.
We lunched on fabulous paella, cooked freshly to order, in a small bar hidden away from the shops and museums, and the city's tourists. I heard Spanish spoken everywhere, and watched locals go about their everyday lives, shopping for supper, running errands, walking their dogs - this was a real place, totally independent of the islands braying holiday-makers, who are visitors here rather than seasonal taste-makers as in Palma Nova; they do not dictate what is stocked in bars and shops, or force the locals to speak a foreign language in their home town, and nor do they shatter their peace with drunken expletive-riddled rants about beer, kebabs and "skirt" at 4am.

I returned to Palma Nova thinking far more positively about this Balearic isle. There was more than "lads on tour" style holidays and greasy spoon cafes; you just had to make the effort
to look for it. That night however we embraced the chavvier side of the island, and around midnight set out for the Magaluf strip. We drank scarily cheap cocktails, although with surprisingly little effect. The schnapps and orange juice tasted rather like the orange squash I used to have at Sunday school when I was little, thanks to the staggering amount of watering down in which the bar-owners were obviously indulging, maximising profits at the expense of stupid tourists. We danced like maniacs to thumping club tunes, in a fog produced by smoke-machines and sweaty dancers, as lasers and flashing lights spun overhead. We finally called it a night (or rather an early morning) at 5am, hyped up and giggly, eating chips overlooking the neon lights illuminating the still-reveling revelers, and the ex-revelers now recovering on handy curbsides.

With my faith in civilisation restored I had a fabulous night out, poles apart from my peaceful day wandering cobbled streets mere hours earlier. In the knowledge that these cobbles existed however, I was able to throw myself into the bright lights and the pounding noise, safe in the knowledge that there was something more than smoke-machines and watered-down schnapps. More on this one island, and more beyond. And in three days time, I'd be home in London, where, at least for now, I belong.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Sun, sea and soap operas - A Majorcan holiday, part I

Apologies for the Accidental Absence, however from time to time Londoners need to get away from the city, to have a change of scene and maybe realise what a fabulous place their home is. Together with 3 chums, I headed for Majorca, the largest of Spain's Balearic islands, for a week of sunshine, serious nights out and a much needed break from the office. Now, I will hold my hands up here and say that our destination of Palma Nova, a mere 30 minutes shambling stroll from the neon lights, late-night chip shops and lap-dancing clubs of Magaluf (yes, the same Magaluf where a British holiday-maker was recently battered with a baseball bat in a carpark), would not be my first choice of holiday-spot, however it was wonderously cheap, so off we flew.

Palma Nova was a juvenile settlement, not small but young (as the "nova" in its name suggests). The majority of its buildings cannot be more than 50 years old at most, although many look as if their first major face-lift is slightly overdue. It has soft, sandy beaches and a lovely warm sea, clear enough so you can see the odd small piece of plastic floating in it. Trees line a road running along the sea, clustered with bars and restaurants, and small shops selling cut-price perfume, leather handbags, cheap sunglasses, and even cheaper alcohol. High rise towers thrust up out of the rocks around the shore housing hundreds of other holiday-makers.
Settled into our self-catering apartment (the kitchen of which was used for no more culinary effort than the opening of a bottle of wine during our stay, however), it became apparent that here on this Spanish island we were surrounded by English people. Worse than that, English people on holiday. All geared up to make use of my A-level Spanish, I was met by Essex drawls everywhere I went. The British on holiday make shamefully little effort when they go abroad choosing to yell louder rather than attempt another language, and it seems the few locals who brave the Brits have surrendered and learned English.

Palma Nova (and Magaluf even more so) panders to these lazy, and resolutely uncompromising, Brits. Grocers stock Heinz baked beans and PG Tips tea-bags. There are bars named "The Willows" and "Kings Road Bar", even Irish theme pubs, and endless, greasy all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurants. Take a stroll along the sea-front in the evening and all the bars' flat-screens relay English soap operas, such as "Coronation Street", "Emmerdale" and "Eastenders", to the ex-pats. After which they all mysteriously switch to never-ending re-runs of "Only Fools & Horses", a quintessentially English (and awful) TV drama staring the quintessentially English (but less awful) David Jason. Surely the point of a holiday is to escape from one's daily routine at home - work, household chores, BBC television scheduling?

Strangely all this familiar Britishness did not make me feel at home. The juxtaposition of news-agents selling The Sun tabloid to tattooed Brits called Colin and Maureen and the bright, hot actual sun was just too confusing. Give global warming a few years to work on the British climate and this is how I imagine Blackpool or Weston-super-Mare will be. As a Midlands girl, and now an adopted Londoner, I had never felt more out of place. My parents (as I have previously complained about - never again!) used to take my brother and I to soggy Scotland to stay beside seas you would not want to have swum in wearing even a thermal wet-suit. Traveling further abroad I climbed Andean peaks, camped in Madagascan forests and pottered merrily around New York City, but this British enclave in the Balearics was entirely the most alien thing I have ever experienced. And all the more terrifying for the lack of locals; "What have they done with them all?" I wondered, wandering the streets in wishing to encounter someone named Jose rather than Jordan. For the first couple of days I was horrified by it all. The lobstery-red sun-bathers cooking on the beaches, the holiday-makers browsing shops in far too little clothing with the exact outline of yesterday's outfit picked out in sunburn (yeuch!), the screaming blonde children called Josh, Ruby and Hayley scrambling on climbing frames late into the night, when even I should have been in bed.

It appeared I had two choices. Turn and run, head back to the civilisation I knew at home, or stay, brave it and embrace a truly "British" holiday...
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