When travel is less than perfect: my bittersweet London memories

Last Sunday I woke up without an alarm. I felt rested and content. I went for a walk up Mount Victoria and sat cross-legged on top of an old concrete bunker and marvelled at the beauty that is home. To my left, the perfect symmetry of Rangitoto. To my right, the harbour dotted with sailing boats against a backdrop of white beaches and rolling hills. Directly in front of me, the calming presence of North Head and a dozen islands stretching out to the horizon.

This is the place I call home.

Rangitoto Island

North Head & beyond

My hometown often leaves me speechless. Gratitude bubbles up in my chest and silences my restless mind. In moments like these, I think, this is enough. My life feels both expansive and tiny at the same time. Expansive because my mind is flying free, soaring over the blue water. Tiny because my home seems so small, this little peninsula, a collection of streets, familiar houses.

I feel immensely grateful that I love the place where I grew up. That my desire to explore has never been marred by a desire to flee. That no matter where I go, I carry home in my heart.

But sometimes I worry that I will get too comfortable, too content. That I will become complacent. As I sat on top of that bunker, on that still Sunday morning, I thought: I hope I never take this beauty for granted. I hope it is forever enough to calm my frantic mind.

Beyond home

Another Sunday dawns. Today it is rainy and humid. I wake up at 5.45am, my throat parched, gasping for air. The weather is warm and sticky. I pushed open our two bedroom windows, as far as they would go, and lay still, listening to the wind swirling outside.

I can’t sleep, but it’s too early to get up. I check my phone. I scroll through Instagram, Facebook. Spring has dawned in London. The sky is a bright blue, people are at the pub. Immediately, bittersweet memories flood my brain.

I close my eyes, and for a few moments I am back in London. Walking to Putney Bridge. Shopping at Waitrose. Leaning against the doors of the tube on a weekday morning, reading about nicer places, as I speed towards work. Fumbling for my swipe card to enter the office in Farringdon. Always fumbling for my swipe card.

Sitting in our back garden in Fulham, chatting about the world with our flatmates, interrupted by planes flying low overhead. Heathrow Flight Path.

Waking in the middle of the night to shouts from the flat above. The neighbours are arguing again. People run up and down the stairs, cursing. The front door bangs.

Venturing to unseen corners of the city on weekends, eyes wide open, minds exhausted. Eating the best chocolate cake we’ve ever tasted in Brixton. Always looking for a quirky, independent café to try. Often ending up in Pret-à-Manger, hungry and tired, eating a ham sandwich.

The best chocolate cake, ever, at Brixton Village Market

After-work drinks in the pub during winter. Old pub, low ceilings, pint glasses overflowing. Standing outside in the rain, trying to get to know my colleagues. Navigating the different cliques and unspoken rules. Yearning to be asked about my home, for someone to listen to my story, for someone to see the real me.

Shopping for winter boots in Bromley in the rain. Feeling broke and broken. Desperately looking for something practical, something I can walk long distances in. Most boots are fashionable, with chunky heels and non-existent lining. I leave the store with sturdy lace-ups, something I’d never wear otherwise, out of a primal desire to avoid cold, damp toes.

Catching the train to somewhere new, and feeling the breath return to my chest as we soar out of London, passing the rows of houses and finally seeing nothing but fields of green, or even better, a glimpse of the sea.

Revisiting old favourites. Being transported back to my 19-year-old self in the Tower of London, a mesmerising piece of history. Climbing the Monument for the second time in my life and seeing a completely different view. Walking past private gardens and posh shops in Chelsea, but this time wondering what all the fuss is about.

Tower of London, one of my favourite places

Eating curry in Brick Lane. Feeling conned. As usual, wishing we knew the area better, so we could seek out the trendy eateries and meet some locals.

Coming home from work during a transport strike, after three hours on a bus. Collapsing, exhausted. Tom takes my shoes off, puts me to bed, hot drink and a piece of toast. Crying my eyes out, out of sheer exhaustion.

Loneliness, even though Tom is nearly always by my side.  Wanting to get to know locals, to form a connection, to be part of a community. Wanting to be asked about New Zealand, getting the odd question about Lord of the Rings if I’m lucky. Telling people about New Zealand anyway, often met with kind eyes and blank faces.

Always talking about home, thinking about home, until one day: home.

Right back to where we started

We went home. When people asked me about London, I didn’t know how to answer. When I am passionate about something, a place or a person or an idea, I can’t stop talking about it. I speak fast and freely and excitedly. I get frustrated when people can’t see what I mean, because my heart is so full, my soul so alive.

I felt this way when I returned home from my first big trip overseas. When I was 19 I went on exchange to Lyon, France. I arrived in the city alone, with nowhere to live, and spent my first ten days in a hostel, madly visiting flats and putting my classroom French to the test.

My six months in Lyon were exhilarating. They remain one of my fondest memories. I awakened an independent streak in me I didn’t know I had. I made new friends and spoke a new language and pushed myself far beyond my comfort zone.

It was in Lyon that I decided to move to London one day, even though I might not have known it at the time. What I did know is that Lyon was just the beginning of my overseas adventures – I quietly vowed to come back to this side of the world.

19 year old me, living in Lyon

When I met Tom, I had been back in New Zealand a year but Lyon was still fresh in my heart and soul. He quickly established that I wanted to live overseas again, that this was something I envisaged happening in my near future.

One year later, the company he was working for went into receivership, I was stuck in a job I hated, and we decided to move to England.

We all form opinions based on previous experiences. I had no doubt in my mind that this second round living abroad would be just as exhilarating as the first, perhaps even more so, going with the man I love.

But London was no Lyon, and for some reason, for reasons I am still trying to figure out, my soul did not engage.

Moving to London was a hard and difficult process. Unlike when I moved to Lyon, there was no time-cap on the experience. We could be there for a year, we could be there for ten years.

We made decisions blindly, fumbling in the dark. We went in the wrong direction more than once. I spent a lot of time isolated, unemployed, looking for a job while Tom worked long hours. It was tough.

Things got better. We moved house, lived with close friends from home. I found a job. We met other Kiwis living in the area and we managed a few holidays in our spare time.

But our ‘everyday’ was a slog, it was an uphill climb. It took most of my energy to commute to work and then spend nine hours in a job I wasn’t passionate about. I wasn’t earning enough money for weekend escapes to outweigh the dullness of my 9-5 reality.

I felt like we were failing. I still sometimes wonder if we did fail. Did we give up too soon? Were our expectations too high? Did we make too many wrong decisions? Did we not have the right attitude?

When we arrived home, I was still working through these feelings. People asked me about London, and I didn’t know how to answer without sounding ungrateful or small-minded.

Redefining travel

My experience in London forced me to redefine what travel meant to me. I had been on three other trips: a one-month exchange in Tahiti when I was 14; a two-week trip to Rarotonga with my best friends when I was 17; and a six-month exchange to Lyon at age 19.

All three of these trips were challenging but exhilarating. They nourished my soul and mind and helped to shape the person I would become.

Before London, to me travel was synonymous with adventure and discovery. It was undoubtedly a positive experience, despite any negatives.

I am still coming to terms with the fact that London felt like none of these previous trips, and did not warm my heart in the same way. I kept wondering: where did we go wrong?

But the lessons I learned in London are now propelling me through my life in New Zealand. The complete lack of direction we felt in London has helped us define our way forward back home.

Making the everyday extraordinary

When Tom and I were living in London, we had Europe on our doorstep. We had infinite options. The city was alive and buzzing. There was always an event on, a new show to see, a new park to visit. Although some people thrive in a busy environment, to us it felt heavy, suffocating.

There were moments when it was brilliant. When I adored the city and its people and its history. But these moments were the exception, not the rule.

The day-to-day grind, the long commute to work by tube, the grey weather, the constant need to be on high alert, this didn’t feed my soul.

And it was then, when we were both trapped in a routine we didn’t love, that we decided we did not want to live our lives waiting for an exception to the rule.

We wanted every day to have a little bit of light. We weren’t prepared to sacrifice daily dullness for the odd wild weekend or once-in-three-months trip abroad. What we wanted was to love our ‘Ordinary Wednesday’, to create a life we didn’t want to escape from.

If we hadn’t lived in London, I’m not sure we would have arrived at this conclusion – at least not so soon in our relationship. After being home a few months, I realised I had been devaluing the time we spent in London because it wasn’t an incredibly positive, happy time.

Walking to Putney Bridge, where I did most of my soul searching. Always a relief to see the murky Thames.

That was my first mistake. Just because something is hard, or not the right fit, doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it. And most of all, it doesn’t mean you failed.

I’m sure everyone has bittersweet memories of some kind, anxieties about the past, worries that you could have tried harder. What if you had done things differently?

When I see glimpses of London on Facebook or Instagram, I sometimes feel sad that our time over there wasn’t what we expected. And sometimes I wonder, if everyone else is loving it so much, then where did we go wrong?

But then I remind myself that travel is an intensely unique experience for every individual. We all respond to situations differently. What works for one person may not work for another.

The beauty of travel is it awakens you to who you already are. It shines a light on your uniqueness. Through comparisons and new experiences, you are able to identify what is really important to you on an individual level. And that is invaluable.

On the road to our Ordinary Wednesday

Another lesson that London taught me is time is finite. Many people describe London as being a city made up of small cities. There is music London, or theatre London, or café London, or pub London, or history London… whatever you are interested in, you will find a group of people interested in the same things, and they will become your community.

What this taught me is that there is not enough time to do everything. We only have so many hours in each day. So, you have to be selective.

Find what it is that feeds your soul, and concentrate on investing your time, money and energy into that. Don’t worry if it’s different to what other people want, or more importantly, what other people think you should be doing.

We are all unique and life is too short not to listen to the desires of your heart. No matter how bittersweet my memories of London, I will always be grateful to the city that put me on the road to creating my ideal life.

‘Pride’ film review

Pride the movie review “When you’re in a battle with an enemy that’s so much bigger, so much stronger than you, to find out you had a friend you never knew existed, well that’s the best feeling in the world.” – Dai

What happens when a group of London-based gay and lesbian activists pledge to support small-town Welsh miners?

That’s the question behind the 2014 film Pride, directed by Matthew Warchus. Set in London and Wales, Pride follows the unlikely partnership of two distinct groups throughout the lengthy National Union of Mineworker’s Strike.

Synopsis

It’s 1984. Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister. The government has just announced plans to close more than 20 coal mines, resulting in the loss of 20,000 jobs. The nation is in uproar. The closures will undoubtedly leave many communities destitute.

As miners across Scotland, Wales and England go on strike, a young man watches the situation unfold from ‘Gay’s the Word’, a speciality bookshop in South London. Unable to ignore the injustice – and never one to sit on the sidelines – Mark rallies his friends to help the miners.

“Mining communities are being bullied, just like we are! What they need is cash.

Mark coordinates a fundraising campaign, placing people on street corners with money buckets to collect small change for the Union of Mineworkers. The group comes up with a name: Lesbians and Gays Support the Minors (LGSM).

Before long, LGSM has raised a decent sum of money – only no one wants to take their cash. Pride, it turns out, can be closely linked with prejudice. However, it’ll take more than a few rejections to stop Mark from trying to do what is right.

“It doesn’t matter – it’s the right thing to do.”

LGSM pick a random mining town from a map and make a phone call. They reach someone from the small Welsh town of Onllwyn and tentatively ask whether or not the miners will accept their support.

Through a stroke of good luck – that may or may not have had something to do with an old lady’s poor hearing – a new partnership is formed. LGSM descends on Onllwyn with financial aid, food and a fighting spirit.

The friendship that blossoms between the people of Onllwyn and LGSM is heart-warming and entertaining. But it is also quite normal – within days the two groups realise they aren’t so different after all. They find partnership in solidarity.

In fact, it is the people of Onllwyn who refuse to accept the aid of LGSM that become the outsiders. These people are clearly portrayed as the prejudiced, small-minded, insecure fear-mongers they are.

United, Onllwyn and LGSM do more than raise money and awareness, they challenge bigoted opinions and prove what can be achieved when people are united, not fractured.

“Do you see what we’ve done here? By pledging our friendship? We’ve made history.” - Dai

My thoughts

Pride made me laugh, cry, swear and even yell. Based on a true story, it felt impossible to watch the film as a passive bystander. It didn’t matter that the strike is now part of history – I was on the edge of my seat, rallying for solidarity, community, justice. My emotions went up and down with the characters. I was wholly invested in their success.

First, the laughter. Pride is, after all, a comedy. The scenes where LGSM meet the miners for the first time are hilariously awkward, and by the time they are old friends it’s hard to stop laughing.

The element of ‘difference’  between the miners and LGSM breaks down barriers and people lose their inhibitions. It’s beautiful to watch both parties open their eyes to new ideas and realities. Pride is a testament to the importance of covering new terrain, of going someplace new – even if it terrifies you.

But Pride is so much more than just a feel-good flick. The best comedies draw attention to real issues in a light and constructive way. I learned a lot about the plight of homosexuals in Britain, and I couldn’t help but wonder: could this movie have been made ten years ago?

The tears flowed during the scenes when the LGSM group were cursed at, spat at and even physically abused. Another familiar theme was that of AIDs, and the very real fear of death that many of the LGSM community felt.

I found myself swearing out of surprise when I saw how homosexuals were treated, and then I realised they must still be treated this way in so many parts of the world. I found myself yelling at the screen out of frustration at the way some people can be so incredibly prejudiced and cruel.

The way human beings treat one another can be atrocious. How is it that, on one hand, we can cooperate in such beautiful harmony, out of a place of love and unity, yet on the other hand we can act from a place of violent and hatred?

Pride shows both sides of the coin – humanity at its best, and humanity at its worst. It is a confronting film with an underlying seriousness, but at the same time it is light, fun and uplifting.

When the credits appeared on screen, I felt a mixture of sadness and elation – sadness that some people can be so awful, but elation because the film reaffirmed that when people work together, for a good cause, beautiful things happen.

Like all great stories, Pride is about love prevailing.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fIh0v7nQcXw&w=854&h=510]

The London List

Richmond, London "The problem with a place like London is – where do you even begin?"

Sometimes, my inner control freak expresses herself in strange ways. There are moments when I catch a glimpse of myself from the outside, almost as if my subconscious leaves my body and gives me a birds-eye-view of my own unique, slightly batty, approach to life.

A few nights ago I had one of such moments. Sitting on my bed, surrounded by Time Out magazines and coloured pens, I was frantically flicking through the pages and carefully tearing out articles.

“There’s just so much to do in London!” I exclaimed to Tom, who was sitting quietly next to me, absorbed by an article on the internet and effectively blocking out my little circle of stress.

I was feeling anxious – but in an excited way. You see, I’ve had a tough few weeks. I’ve learned something new about myself: I’m not very good at being unemployed. I’d been moping around feeling blue and dreaming of flying back home to the New Zealand summer. But then I snapped out of it, by deciding to conquer London like it was the to-do-list of all to-do-lists.

I had started thinking of London as something I had to do, a task I had to tick off my ‘list of things to do in life’ before I could move on successfully to the next stage. Like a level on a video game. Or a chapter in a book. I felt as if there were certain coupons I needed to collect before I could say “I’ve DONE London.” Like visiting all the major tourist destinations. Attending a high tea. Eating fish and chips in a local pub. You get my drift.

But the problem with a place like London is – where do you even begin? London is huge, not just in terms of population or land mass, but in terms of what it has to offer. Even if you lived here your whole life, you couldn’t possibly do it all.

Besides, to make things even more complicated, there are many different Londons within London. There’s the arty London, the muso London, the foodie London – and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Whatever you’re interested in, you can find a group, club, venue which caters to your passion.

All of this only contributed to my anxiety, as I sat on that bed and tried to find a way to begin.

“I think I need to buy a clearfile,” I said to Tom. “You know, so we can organise activities by category – food, tourist, music, art etc.”

“Mmmm,” said Tom. Eyes still glued firmly to the computer screen.

“Or maybe we should just fold up pieces of paper and put them into a bucket and pick one every week? You know, be adventurous?”

“Yep, sounds good.” This time I get a small nod.

“Oh but then we will have to categorise the buckets, you know, for rainy day activities and sunny day activities, expensive activities and free ones. Otherwise we could pick out an outdoor activity when it’s raining?!?!”

At this point my voice was most likely beginning to border on slight hysteria and I was probably chewing anxiously on my pen, mind going a million miles an hour. An OUTDOOR activity on a rainy day?! God forbid.

Tom shut his laptop, placed it on the floor and turned to me slowly.

“We just have to begin,” he said simply.

Begin?! But that’s what I’m trying to do, I protest. Doesn’t he understand?

“We just start doing things. You don’t need a clearfile, or a bucket system, or to organise it logically. We just get out, every weekend. Simple.”

Simple?

And that’s probably about when my subconscious left my body and gave me a birds-eye-view of my silly state of anxiety. I could almost see the stress particles zooming around my head, in the form of Time Out cut-outs.

All of a sudden, it dawned on me how completely ridiculous I was being.

London is not a task. Living here is an experience. And here I was, trying to turn it into a chore of enormous proportions and tackle it like a project at work, or a university assignment. Armed with highlighters and post-it notes, I was ready to blow this thing out of the water. I wanted an A+ on my London report card. I wanted to tick ‘101 things to do’ off a list with a bold red marker. I could already see the blog posts unfolding. “Look at me, I’m up to number 59 – getting attacked by pigeons in Trafalgar Square!” Let’s face it, no one wants to read about me trying to play the role of ‘perfect tourist’.

Fortunately, opposites attract, and I have a relaxed, logical partner who kindly helps me see things through clearer lenses. We don’t have to begin – we’ve already started.

Don’t worry, I’m still writing a list. I like lists. But the anxiety is gone. The ‘list’ is just for kicks now :)

The grass is always greener... or is it?

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence "The mind can play tricks on you. The mind is rarely bound by the present moment. It can travel miles, remember years. You’re forever dashing between seemingly perfect memories and visions of the future."

We’re all familiar with the saying “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”. No matter where you’re standing, the next paddock over will always seem more appealing. It’s a never-ending cycle of comparison, a trap that often stops us from standing still and appreciating what we have right here, right now.

Yet people continue to climb over the fence and seek shiny new possibilities, glimmering so beautifully on the horizon.

Preparing for the climb, for the transition from old to new, is always fun and filled with possibility. Our imaginations go into overdrive, conjuring up images of how wonderful and special our lives are going to be once we become acquainted with the next paddock over.

Climbing the fence is also exhilarating, adrenalin pumping as you swing one leg over and promise to write to those you are leaving behind. Coming down the other side and placing your feet firmly on fresh ground is like tasting freedom and opportunity.

The rose-tinted glasses work their magic for awhile, allowing you to soak up your new surroundings and fall blindly in love with the alluring beauty of possibility. You wander the streets and imagine yourself living here, there, everywhere. You take more photos and wonder why you never used your camera at home. You live outside of your comfort zone and you thrive.

But, eventually the rose-tinted glasses wear off and reality starts to creep into the edges of your vision. You get tired, your brain over-stimulated. You start to notice things, like how the water tastes different or the air feels funny. And you start to think about that place you call home.

A glimpse of the other side... wandering through a former Estate in Bristol

The mind can play tricks on you. The mind is rarely bound by the present moment. It can travel miles, remember years. You’re forever dashing between seemingly perfect memories and visions of the future. It’s unsettling, keeps you up at night, and you start to wonder – have I made the right decision? Am I in the right place? Should I climb back over the fence, or find a new path?

We are incredibly lucky to have choices, the freedom to not only imagine an existence different to our own but to actually climb the fence and see the other side for ourselves. I believe the promise of more, the lure of a better life – be it a facade or not – is what keeps us going, what propels us forward. It’s part of being alive.

But if you’re not careful, it can come at a cost. Too often we let our egos dominate our dreams, and climbing a fence becomes not about self-exploration and freedom, but about proving a point – to ourselves and to those back home. The last thing you want to admit is that the other side didn’t live up to your great expectations. Because that would be failure, an admission of defeat.

So you update your Facebook profile with glowing statuses and gorgeous images. You tell everyone back home that it is wonderful on this side of the fence and encourage them to make the climb too. And you become so busy protecting your beautiful image of what you want the other side to look like, that you forget to stand still and appreciate what you have, right here, right now. You forget to see things for how they are, not how you want them to be. And in that frame of mind, you struggle to be truly happy.

Isn’t the mind a funny thing?

What we need to remember is that it doesn’t matter what the other side looks like – the mere fact that you climbed over the fence and gave something new a try is success enough. We need to take our egos out of the picture – and with that our fear of failure – and allow ourselves to be vulnerable for a little while until we find our feet again.

In sharing my experiences, I want to be honest. I want to challenge the grass is greener mentality, as I believe it’s detrimental to our happiness – and our sanity. I don’t want to present a perfect account of my travels, focusing only on the good times and leaving out the bad. Because that’s not real. I want to remind people that the grass is never greener, it’s just different. I still have good days and I still have bad days.

Currently, I’m homeless and jobless and things feel a little daunting. Tom has a job offer on the table and together we’re searching for a new place to call home. Things are progressing, albeit slowly. It’s not easy, but it is teaching me to appreciate where I’ve come from and trust where I’m heading.

It’s also teaching me that it’s important to be flexible. We wanted to live outside the hustle and bustle of London, but I couldn’t find work. We’ve changed course many times since we’ve arrived, trying to find a path that feels right, and so far nothing looks like what we imagined it to be. But we’re okay with that.

Climbing the fence is one of the most challenging things you can do. But if you knew that before you set out, you may not have left home. If the other side looked scary and challenging, full of dark alleyways and blind corners, why would you possibly want to make the leap? Our optimistic vision of the other side is a blessing, a necessary tool to propel us forward into the unknown. The rose-tinted glasses have their place. But it’s important to know when to take them off.

The grass is greener where you water it