LDN life: let us eat cake

Sunshine, friends and food have worked their restorative magic after an exhausting week.

It was the week which began with submitting our dissertation proposals and ended with our much-dreaded and much-prepared for group presentations. As we left SOAS at 11pm on Presentation Eve, after hours of printing and practice, I was definitely ready for a break from my group and from thinking about the forced displacement of First Nations peoples in Canada.

10am Friday and we were up first. Weeks of research and preparation were condensed into our 25 minute slot and then, after fielding some questions, it was all over. And we could kick back and listen to everyone else’s without that nauseous anticipation that the rest of them were experiencing.

At 3pm we were all done and tumbled out into the sunshine of Russell Square. Hit by a mix of euphoria and anti-climax, as is always the case on such days, a few of us headed off to Patisserie Valerie where we could sit outside in the Brunswick Centre’s pseudo-piazza which hints of overseas.  It was definitely a tea and cake moment and, after a few minutes of debriefing the presentations, we decided to chitchat about non-migration matters.

However, if you put together five girls who are from different countries, have lived in different countries, have travelled to different countries, and are now studying migration and development, the conversation inevitably turns to life elsewhere. The mille feuille in front of us leads to stories about a patisserie in Paris where the cakes are – apparently – to die for. The tea we’re drinking prompts discussions about the virtues of Swedish coffee and the inevitable disappointment of Lipton tea on the continent.  We recall the chais we have drunk on trains in Asia, hear about Indian weddings, share tales of experiences in foreign hospitals, and dreamily evoke those once-in-a-lifetime moments like standing in front of the Taj Mahal and longing to capture its essence forever.

As we reminisced, the waitress made the fatal error of thinking we were finished and put her hand out to remove the final creamy inch of the coffee éclair. Like a shot, M – the sweetest and most placid member of our group – shouted “no!” and grabbed the plate back. Surprised and embarrassed, she apologised profusely, taken aback by her over-reaction. As the waitress beat a hasty retreat we laughed a lot and scraped the plates clean.

Wandering back to join the rest of the class at the pub, my sugar rush entangled itself with my suppressed exhaustion and I started slipping into a hazy trance.  My extrovert capabilities had ebbed to an all time low so I had a quick drink just to be sociable before extricating myself for a quiet night in. Running for the bus in my smarter ‘work’ trousers which I hadn’t worn for months, I realised I’d lost weight: rather embarrassingly, they were now a size too big and I was a bit worried I’d lose them en route. But hoorah, this is a good thing! Must be all that cycling. Makes me feel better about those cream cakes.

Saturday began at a leisurely pace, sitting in bed reading the Guardian and drinking tea. The sun was shining again and I walked all the way to Marble Arch, catching up with one of my best friends on the phone. Every so often I paused to remove another layer, wondering why I’d thought I’d needed a scarf and a jumper and a coat and wishing I was in sandals. At least I had my sunglasses on: my failsafe trick to convince myself that I’m on holiday.

P&K were in London for the weekend – hoorah again! We sauntered down Edgware Road – past the Lebanese, Syrian and Iranian restaurants – until we found some outside tables in the sunshine where could tuck into houmus, baba ganoush, spicy potatoes, grilled meat… mmmmm…perfect food to while away a sunny afternoon.  And perfect to be there with quality friends with whom I can laugh and talk seriously in equal measure: from day-to-day life to dreams and aspirations, our conversations flit easily between unseen reality and what is in front of us. P was happy because he got to practice his Arabic with the waiter and started making friends with the Kurdish guys at the next table. K and I were happy because while he was doing that we could just raise our eyes and keep eating. Sipping Turkish coffee and eating baklava, I shut my eyes and felt the warmth on my skin; breathing in the noisy fusion smells of barbecuing meat, mint, shisha and the petrol scents of summer.

(Little did I know that the sunshine would return on Sunday and that for a second day in a row I’d be sitting outside with friends – this time on Portobello Road eating a grilled venison-burger wrap with cranberry and chilli sauce. I’ll forgive myself for the indulgence of eating organic Hertfordshire game from a Farmers’ Market, sitting next to a Camper Van-cum-coffee shop, while chatting about Palestinian and Israeli politics, the Senegalese leader and the UK government’s education policies. I am everything my brother despises. How he would mock me.)

My Saturday afternoon continued as P&K wandered off to the park and were replaced by E, another Oxford friend who was in London for the day. This second stint of restorative chat was conducted in a pub over cider and took us on a conversational tour through mutual friends, the teenagers we had both invested in at youth group, the pitfalls of online dating (from observation not experience, I hasten to add), and the advantages of living in Italy. As the conversation flowed over landmarks and years, I was encouragingly reminded of the fact that things always do come together. The memories of yesterday, the hopes for the future, and these tangible now moments of today – food that tastes and smells nice, friends I can be present with, the feeling of sunshine on my face – somehow fuse together in a sense of happy continuum.

Heading out into the chilly February evening, I remembered why it was that I’d brought a scarf and jumper after all. Putting my sunglasses into my bag, I was pleasantly surprised by my foresight to bring a winter hat.

Waiting at the lights to cross Edgware Road, still in my own little Emily world, I suddenly found myself in the middle of a protest. Well, I call it a protest because they had banners, a microphone and were shouting loudly, but there were only about 15 of them. “Get a mirror, you Muslims, and look at yourselves,” shouted the leader through his mic. “Don’t just sit here in London smoking shisha while the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is suffering. We call for jihad!” In response, all the others with their beards, robes and banners, raised their fists and shouted “Allah Akbar!” In my face, but not really at me.

It woke me up with a start, was a little bit disconcerting, and confronted me with the ambivalence of London life and my place within it. It was chilly on the bus so I snuggled up in the corner with my ipod; simultaneously listening to music, praying for Syria, and saying thank you for the restorative power of good food, good friends and good conversation. And for sunshine in February. Bonus.

…It doesn’t get me down and I feel okay
Cause the sights that I’m seeing are priceless…

Life, yeah that’s city life, yeah that’s city life,

Sun is in the sky, oh why oh why
Would I wanna be anywhere else?

 (LDN, Lily Allen)

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