I stood in my open doorway last night, face immersed in the cool, damp, autumn air, smiling for no real reason, waiting for Egils’ bike light to pierce through the darkness. Our residential street has sparse lighting, so the intense halogen light on the front of his bike announces his arrival several seconds prior to his tired body—clothed in a bright reflective yellow jacket—breaks through the night. Egils bicycles eleven miles to his office and eleven miles home… Twenty-two miles a day, one hundred and ten miles a week… By Friday, he is bone tired and ready for a hot meal, glass of wine and a weekend. Luckily for him it was all standing right behind me in the open doorway; well, the weekend would unfold, but the rest was imminent.
I never stand in the door and wait for anyone; I have no idea why I did last night. Maybe it was the cool night air which, defying the laws of physics, carried the aroma of my smoked haddock chowder, simmering on the stove—along with the comforting smells of old wood and wax that live in our house—down the hallway and out the front door at nose-level; or perhaps it was the sliver of a moon beckoning to my romantic side… then again maybe it just seemed like the perfect way to end a really good day.
As I stood in the doorway I surprised myself by suddenly whispering—like a prayer in church—I live in London! And then, as though saying this once, wasn’t weird enough, I repeated it, louder and slower: This time with a silent wow underscoring it: I… live… in… London…!
Well, here it gets even more odd, so I’m going to go sideways before I go forward…
The block where we live. “Our House is a Very, Very, Very Fine House…”
Our Front Door With Black and Whilte Tiled Walkway.
Our house is a two-story turn-of-the-century English row house in which 7 people reside: On the top floor there’s me, an American, WAS (minus the P which I deleted years ago). I’m the oldest in the house, the only person who currently works from home, the one who continuously turns the thermostat back, grieves for the mice in the wall who are about to be exterminated (they’re just trying to lead a normal life!) and uses more words than necessary to say what needs to be said—at least according to one editor and my Baltic man. Which brings me to Egils, my silent, serious, Latvian man, who speaks 5 to 10 languages (the irony of a silent person speaking multiple languages is not lost on me) and who is probably the most pragmatic of our lot. Egils spends very little time and very few words in jest. He is a master of solutions; generally finding them split seconds after recognizing a problem and then, without invitation or complaint, fixes the problem. Upon moving into this house Egils began tightening loose screws on pots, pans, and hinges, balancing wobbly legs on every piece of furniture and appliance in the house, and oiling anything that squeaked or threatened to do so. In other words: When I hug my man and say “Wow, Babe, are you happy to see me?” and he says, “No that’s a screwdriver in my pocket,” he’s serious.
Egils Coming Down The Stairs After Fixing God-Knows-What…
Shiva—a tall, young immigrant from India who appears completely contented with every aspect of his life, says he will one day return to his homeland and marry (not necessarily in that order)—also lives on our top floor. Although Shiva claims to be a less than excellent cook, the aromas that come from his meals create a Pavlovian response in me, when he even approaches the kitchen.
Also sharing our floor is Chanel: A beautiful, young, dark-skinned English woman whose ancestors came here from The Commonwealth of Dominica, and who reminds me so much of my middle daughter, that I have inadvertently referred to her as Jessie, more than once. Chanel possibly rivals me in wordiness, but unlike me, she mostly uses her mobile phone to do so. Yep, that’s my Jessie… Erm… (that’s British for “Um”) I mean, Chanel…
Downstairs, Hungarian Anita lives with her Bangladeshi partner Quamrul. Anita has a degree in teaching but works the night shift at MacDonald’s—a typical immigrant’s tale. Quamrul is an entrepreneur who works incredibly long hours but perpetually smiles—even when he looks completely exhausted, which is most of the time. Quamrul is also a fabulous cook but unfortunately I seldom smell his cooking because he and Anita eat close to midnight due to her schedule.
The final downstairs inhabitant is Tommy from Glasgow… Amazingly, with all of the English as a second language flying around our house, Tommy is the person I find the most difficult to understand. With his first language being Glaswegian (and despite this being closely related to English) I understand roughly 60 percent of what Tommy says. When I asked him, recently, if he had as much trouble understanding me, he looked puzzled, cocked his head dramatically and said, “Huh? What?” Then straightened his head and said, seriously, “Holly, you ken better than ta set yerself up like that, wi’ me, aye?”
I love Tommy’s humor—made even better when delivered in his accent—especially when I understand him.
Our space is a mishmash of cultures, languages and belief systems but we share certain essential qualities: We are all quiet, clean and respectful and these traits have created a safe, comfortable home. I’ve already blogged about home and how I’ve come to define it. And yes, I am now at home here in this late 19th century house in the area called Seven Kings in London.
Our house is quaint with a huge back garden (a yard in USA is called a garden here in UK; I try to do as the Romans do when in Rome) and small front garden with a black and white tiled walkway—that appears to have been born at the same time as the old brick house—leading from the public walkway to our beautifully ornate front door and all of this is located only one (extremely-long) city block from The High Street.
[Informational: In UK, The High Streets are generally happening places, allegedly the site of everything from cool upscale shops to great bargain basements. It was clear to me at first glance, however, that The High Street here in Seven Kings, was going to be a cornucopia of disappointments for me.]
On Friday morning—after spending the last three weeks mastering every appliance and device in our new house, when not organizing the stacks of brown boxes and plastic bags full of stuff that had to be unpacked and then repacked into pretty fabric boxes, burlap bags and newly assembled Ikea flat-pack shelves—I spent over an hour wrestling with writer’s block extraordinaire, before deciding to investigate The High Street, however disappointing it promised to be.
The first block of The High Street, after turning right from my street, consists of several used car lots.
To me, used car lots house collections of abandoned dreams, broken promises, and financial devastation, from which disreputable souls are now attempting to make a profit. There was a time when I could counterbalance those miserable images with passionate backseat encounters and drive-in-movies (AKA the excuse given to parents when the actual goal was passionate backseat encounters). But the Drive-in’s have mostly been bulldozed over and it’s been many years since kids tolerated such inconveniences as climbing over a stick shift or worrying about cops with nightsticks investigating steamy windows… Today young people have sexting, cyber-sex, and their own bedrooms, since most parents are far too busy with Facebook, Twitter and their finances, to actually supervise them … Anyway, due to changing times and cultures, used cars have lost their charm, in my book, which leaves used car lots looking like cemeteries without enchanting old stones, interesting epitaphs, or trees.
By No Stretch of Even My Imagination is This a Cool Street, Right?
So browsing the rows of used cars was hardly an uplifting way to begin my High Street investigation … no great surprises there.
I was, however, slightly surprised by one aspect of the used car lots: There were no obvious salespeople poised to ambush anyone pausing long enough to scratch his nose. In fact, between three huge car lots I saw only one woman who appeared to be affiliated with the businesses. She had on a shorter than recommended red dress (given her years and girth) and looked like she was smiling in spite of wet burps. Even if I’d needed a used car I’d have avoided her on principle.
In the absence of aggressive salespeople, however, each lot had a website displayed overhead; implying to me that either customers actually come to them (oh yeah, as if) or they were simply attempting to give the appearance of a marketing infrastructure while actually being money Laundromats. I imagined dodgy web addresses—since they apparently had replaced disingenuous car salesmen—saying things like: honestlythebestcarofyourlife.co.uk or trustmemywifedoes.fancyadrink.co.uk. Factually I didn’t stop to read any of them.
Just past the used car lots were shops selling automotive parts and used tyres (UK for tires; when in Rome, remember?). My favorite shop was called Part Worn Tyres. Personally, I’d have gone with Nearly New Tyres, but far be it from me to impose my cup-half-full version of capitalism on anyone. The abundance of parts and cheap tyres, just past the car lots, seemed to scream—to me anyway—when that best car of your life doesn’t hold up, once you’ve left the parking lot, you have readily available options.
Okay so you get it: this was a bleak and boring walk whose only redemption was not so fresh air and minimal exercise.
There was not a cool, cutting-edge boutique, fancy hair-stylist or even a vintage clothing shop in sight as I continued down The High Street… but it was a glorious autumn day so I walked forward, albeit not in the best mood.
When biking this route earlier, I’d noticed heaps of fruits and vegetables on a long table beneath an awning; overhead a sign—seeming more like a demand than shop name—read: Eat More Fruits and Vegetables. What I hadn’t seen was the actual shop itself—and I use this term loosely. Below the awning was essentially a lean-to—which looked like a slight breeze would be its waterloo—with old wooden planked flooring that wobbled beneath the weight of the shoppers—leading into a gutted, turn-of-the-century English row house that had once looked very much like the one I live in. Realizing that this once grand home had been violated in this way turned my stomach. The beautiful door was long gone as was the old brick and plaster façade. I wanted to cry. The massive space created by the gutted house, however, contained the most amazing produce—many items of which I’d never seen before—and I couldn’t help but explore further.
The Small Cupboard Beneath the Stairs (I Love This Cupboard in Our House) is Now Gone in the Gutted House. How Harry Potterish, Huh?
[Backstory: Frequently when I check out of the local grocery store, a young cashier will hold up a fruit or vegetable and say, “I’m sorry ma’am but what exactly is this?” To which I look at his (or her) pasty white—I’ll have a large coke with that Big-Mac—complexion and reply condescendingly with something like: “That’s an artichoke, Dear; you might try one sometime.”]
I avoided asking what the mysterious fruits and veggies were yesterday, because I don’t like being judged, although—or perhaps because—I’m incredibly skilled at judging.
I walked deeper into what was probably once the living room of the house—Middle-Eastern music growing louder as I pushed through people. And then suddenly I saw her: A tiny, beautiful, bronze-skinned child wearing billowing pants beneath a flowing dress—perhaps 3 or 4 years old—dancing through the crowd as though she were the only person in Seven Kings—or London—or on earth—occasionally lifting a tiny hand upwards towards the heavens and kicking up a small foot behind her.
She was utterly and completely engaged in her dance. In fact she was living in her dance.
Everyone, including me, carefully walked around the small girl, not wanting to interject our consumer energy into her sacred space …
Had Spielberg been directing my day, the little girl would have been in color and the rest of us sepia; she would have danced in slow motion while we quickly filled our shopping bags, talked on mobile phones, worried and judged…
… She had no idea that this shop had once been a grand home. This was, now, simply where her mother bought fruits and vegetables; it was the place that played beautiful music and where she danced… and this place would live in her memory for a lifetime—a safe, warm, welcoming shop with lots of noise and rough planked floors that bounced beneath small feet.
Her innocence made my heart ache for a time in childhood—back before expectations and rampant opinions took over—before I cultivated peculiar adult priorities that kept me looking at my watch and checking my bank accounts. In that moment I suddenly felt naïve and childish as joy poured over me like warm chocolate; and within that awareness of joy, I smiled as I clearly saw myself: in bare feet and a bathing suit, twirling a baton, dancing around the kitchen of my childhood with my sister Jeannine while we sang High Hopes … Anyone knows an ant can’t—move a rubber tree plant… my legs, feet and soul tingled with the memory.
And I wondered: Why would anyone give a child the message, “You cannot experience bliss anytime you please and you can’t just dance anywhere!” But more importantly: once that child reached an age of reason, why would they continue to believe it?
I skirted the little girl and filled my canvas bag with fresh produce—all mostly identifiable to me—before leaving, with my smile, and walking further down The High Street.
My next stop was a Polish deli where I bought pickles because Egils loves all things Polish, so much so that he studied the language; unfortunately he later informed me that the Polish label on the jar said Swedish Style Pickles. I also bought butter that turned out to be margarine (which we don’t eat) and sauerkraut. It’s hard to go wrong with sauerkraut, although technically it’s German… I said, “dziękuję,” (which means thank you in Polish) to the cashier, as she tallied up my goods. She snapped to attention and smiling, began speaking Polish to me (God I never learn), which left me no choice, but to interrupt her and admit that I’d already used ½ of my Polish vocabulary and the other word was probably inappropriate. She said that I did a fine job delivering my dziękuję before I left. Although I noticed that I’d put the accent on the wrong syllable when she repeated it back to me, which caused me to wonder: How had a poorly pronounced dziękuję led her to believe I was fluent in Polish? But I smiled back at her as I silently blessed her for attempting to connect with me in her mother tongue. Then I walked out the door and rejoined The High Street.
On my glorious yet arduous walk home—lugging several kilos of fresh veggies and fruits, a huge jar of Swedish pickles and a massive jar of sauerkraut—for some reason I began reflecting on my early days in Estonia and a particular cultural misunderstanding that had occurred early on: I’d had several conversations with friends—both Russian and Estonian—where my friends had referred to living in various foreign locations. “When I lived in France, I was almost hit by a car!” or “When we lived in Spain the heat was unbearable.” For months I thought that people residing in Estonia must have suddenly become nomadic and moved all over Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Then one day, after a close friend had related one such story, I asked: “Exactly when did you live in Czech Republic?”
“Oh for two weeks in 1994,” she replied.
I instantly understood: Northern European people use words very sparingly, as I’ve mentioned; in fact they are virtually incapable of indulging in lingual superfluity, like some of us… So their logic prior to putting their story into words would have been: I was in said location for more than a day. I was alive. Ergo: I lived there.
I liked the idea, in theory, of referring to any place I’d ever visited as a place I’d lived. Like seriously, how pretentious and verbose could I get with that one?
“Well, when we lived in Croatia on Krk. “(roll R aggressively, then chuckle) “Ah… yes, those Croatians do keep a tight grip on their vowels, don’t they? So as I was saying, when we lived on Krk—that’s an island, don’t cha know—we so loved the nightlife!” (Smile with faraway look in eye; puff on electronic cigarette protruding from faux silver holder; appear deep in thought)… “But, alas, it couldn’t touch the music scene we enjoyed when living in Prague!”
Okay, so I never actually did it; although I gave it some thought. Clearly… But it was obviously duplicitous for an American with English as a first language to do what comes naturally for Baltic folks; besides it would have cheapened the places in which I actually have lived.
Defining where I live has always been somewhat complicated for me—and more than slightly spiritual; it has become even more so in recent years. I don’t live where I pitch my tent or check into a hotel. I don’t even necessarily live where I pay rent, put my sheets on the bed and cook in the kitchen. I did all of those things in the bedsit from hell, but never did I say, or feel, that I lived there. I spent over a year staying with my dear friend Bette, in the States, but didn’t feel that I lived in her lovely home or neighborhood… This is because I have some rather strict criteria that need to be met before I consider myself living somewhere. Where I live is where I share space with my life mate. It’s also where I find joy and intimate connections with others. Where I live is where I can grow, learn and change because I feel safe … safe to browse through fruits and veggies I can’t name, or try out language skills I don’t have … or stand in a crowd smiling, as every cell in my body remembers a dance I once did in my childhood kitchen … Where I live must also include a home that’s safe enough for me to stand facing an autumn night and smell the air as I smile for no obvious reason and talk out loud to myself …
Back To Where I Started
Our house was quiet and clean, with soup simmering on the stove, as I stood in my open doorway last night, and surprised myself by whispering—like a prayer in church—I live in London! And then, as though saying this once, wasn’t weird enough, I repeated it, louder and slower: This time with a silent wow underscoring it: I… live… in… London…! And then, right there on the black and white tiled walkway that runs from my door to the sidewalk—beneath a sliver of a moon—I danced.
Signing off from London with a wee dance!