Category Archives: Living in London

Taste Test

When I get there, Sam is locking up his bike outside Stour Space, where in just under a year we’ll have our wedding. It’s an art gallery and a community space that hosts evening yoga sessions and midweek, midday ping pong aimed at freelancers. We like it mainly for two reasons: it’s really close to where we live, in a cool part of London, still rough around the edges; and it has an element of surprise.

We knock loudly on the side door and hope we’re heard, and when we gain entry we’re introduced to the chef, Michel. He is French, lean and quietly amicable. Standing in the Counter Cafe the sun is slowly descending behind him, threatening to wipe out the views of progressing construction across the canal. He points to the only table that has been laid out for diners, and we drop our backpacks and our bike helmets and very nearly collapse into the respective seats. House white is promptly offered up; we are tonight’s drinking crowd.

Have you ever planned a wedding? We haven’t, not yet. Being of a certain age though, we have a growing number of friends who have. “How far are you?” sings the chorus, and– having already picked the venue and bought my dress— I confidently reply, “Quite far.” But I know that if we pull this thing off successfully it will most likely be due to the international team of doctors, lawyers, film directors, project managers, poets, architects, and accountants we’ve assembled to help. They call it a wedding party, but I hate the Shakespearean fantasy of the phrase, a mocking nod to the theatrical, sometimes tragic. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be a stretch to use the oft misaligned “hashtag squad goals”.

When the caterer, Hugues (also French, but more emphatically amicable), arrives he approaches to say hello. Momentarily disappearing he returns with three additional bottles of wine, this time red, each referred to in terms of character and robustness that in our uncouthness Sam and I can’t quite associate with a taste. We are left alone with four bottles of wine, enough food for six, and a pen and paper with which to jot down our thoughts. Hugues returns to very little, just a splattered scrap of paper that reads in lazy scrawl: Yes, we like this.

Following a debrief with Michel and Hugues, Michel leaves for the night, and, pouring himself a glass of red (full of character, robust) Hugues tells us about managing the Counter Cafe of Stour Space. We love Hackney Wick; the fairy lit bars and restaurants here, the canal, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park– my favourite of London’s outdoor spaces. “We’ve been here for five years,” he says, “but it’s changing. Everywhere is being bought up, smaller places aren’t surviving.” And the arrival of West Ham? “The fans have not affected us, really. There have been one or two incidences elsewhere; a lot of the bars have simply banned colours.” There is a game on tonight, immediately across the canal from us. Every so often we hear a distant roar, but it is negligible.

Having now consumed a large ratio of the wine, I stand up and grab my helmet, as does Sam. Hugues winces. “I didn’t know you were cycling! I wouldn’t have let you drink so much!” I slur something that I intend as a farewell. Confident about our anti-destination wedding on the Hackney Riviera, we stumble to our bikes and zig zag home.

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Friend Request

On a sunny Thursday evening in late August, I meet Ayesha outside Hackney Town Hall and we head to Netil 360. The rooftop bar just south of London Fields is cool, very cool; the view of east London is uninterrupted, while benches and beanbags atop the pea green astroturf are littered with people wearing muted tones, hidden behind round shades and sipping craft beers.

“Aperol spritz?” asks Ayesha, taking a side glance at me and expecting an “Obviously” in return. They’re served here by the pint, and if I didn’t before now I know that they are gently usurping the negroni. But I really love negronis, and someone once poured a ruinous amount of aperol into my Prosecco. I still haven’t quite got over it.

I suspect that very probably I do like them, or can learn. After some debate we order one and share it, like we’re kids attempting to savour the week’s pocket money. But Ayesha has won over the bartender by complimenting her dress, so she doesn’t mind too much, my indecisiveness, Ayesha’s sage compromise.

It’s paradoxically both difficult and easy to be social in London. There is lots to do but also several obstacles to doing any of them with people you already know. The first is simply geography; because when I first moved to London I settled in Brixton, south of the river Thames, that is where most of my friends live. Now I’m in Hackney there are 8 miles between us. Were this the American suburbs, that 8 miles would take approximately 15 minutes by car, but London’s streets are clogged and public transport– if you’re not a cyclist– is your best bet. Any way you slice it, it’s a trip that will take at least an hour.

Then there is calendar clash: if you live in London, you’re busy. It’s part of the reason you’re here. We are the easily bored, the ones who want to see around corners, both London’s and our own. Everything is either world-class or pop-up, and either way it’s usually transient, because people are experimenting and then they are moving on to something new. Recently we’ve seen Rebel Wilson in Guys and Dolls, Jonathan Franzen just after Purity was published, the Historic Palace’s limited-time-only Lost Palace “evening event” (which was really just a quirky take on an audio tour, but I really enjoyed it).

To combat this we invent concrete reasons to meet. Ayesha and I used to have dinner club, a given reason to cram into each other’s flats despite none of us owning enough chairs to accommodate. I’m not sure that in London anyone has dinner parties until well into their 50s, if ever; there just isn’t the room for sit-down hospitality. Dinner club had a good run until Jon spoilt it with 8 courses, which no one had the stomach to compete with.

And of course, everyone belongs to a book club, but with no time to read or to meet they are more formality than reality, even before you throw the meaty Magus into the mix (a book I loved, but everyone seemed to get stuck in. The key is to read using the Kindle app on your phone, when you’re making coffee at work or walking home late at night).

We split a second pint of aperol spritz (I’ve decided that although it’s no negroni, I like it enough), before walking to Dalston for dinner. En route we buy a bottle of Prosecco on Broadway Market and drink it on a park bench in London Fields. It’s good just to be our own pop-up event.

David Sedaris once wrote about the secret to success, in what has since become known as the Four Burner Theory. Picture a stovetop:

“One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.” The gist, she said, was that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.

It’s difficult to want us all to be busy, successful Londoners, but not cut-off from one another. “I haven’t seen anyone, either,” Ayesha admits when I ask. Comforted by the knowledge that we’re all struggling with the same thing, we relish the rare sunny day in the city’s bustling outdoors.

People Who Brunch

Brunch time on Saturday. Sam and I are squeezing ourselves into the middle seats of a picnic table outside of Cafe Route in Dalston, awkwardly trying not to disrupt the already-established pairs on either side. We complete the table; two girls sit opposite one another to my left, discussing their parents’ adjustment to becoming empty nesters and an impending trip to Australia, while on my right two guys with accents are asking the waiter for smoked salmon on the side of eggs benedict.

With the intention of heading over to Voodoo Ray’s for pizza-by-the-slice, we’ve chained our bikes up in Dalston Square. Most of Dalston is comfortably grubby, but Dalston Square is shiny-new and purpose-built, the cafes and restaurants nestled below shining glass tower blocks. We are frequently running or cycling through but we’ve never really looked to see what’s here, so we have wandered over to see which cafes have outdoor seating. We decide to stay. It’s not terribly warm, but it’s warm enough to make the most of.

Once our plates are cleared, the guy next to Sam, Saturday-casual in a t-shirt and backwards baseball cap, asks us if we’re from around here. He’s from Lithuania, but he’s getting ready to move to New York for work as a business development manager at HelloFresh. “Your marketing budget must be insane,” I’m saying, enviously.

He laughs. “We were just talking about how different New Yorkers are. They’ll chat to anyone, anywhere. Londoners, not so much. We were… testing this theory.” I try not to now imagine the situation as a trial by combat, and agree instead. I am being harmonious.

This year you can’t talk about New Yorkers without talking about Donald Trump. The four of us are equally appalled. “People are voting emotionally. It’s happening everywhere,” the guy next to me is saying. He’s about to move from Dalston to Notting Hill. “I’d rather stay around here– east– but my friends and I found a really good deal. We didn’t even see the place before we agreed on it,” he says with a hint of a shrug. Finding accommodation in London is not for the faint of heart, and definitely not for the choosy. He tells us he’s Romanian.

“Romania is a completely underrated country,” his Lithuanian friend states, nodding. I admit I’d like to visit. The Romanian sighs. “Romania is beautiful, it’s just been destroyed by its politicians. But that’s another story.”

Wedding Belles

“What do we do?” I’m asking, looking at Sam who is sitting on a petite blush settee. I squint at him slyly. “Are we supposed to… discuss this?” Now I turn to look at the shop assistant, Michaela, wide-eyed. “I don’t know what we do!” Michaela bursts out laughing.

We’re on Sloane Street in Emilia Wickstead, which is a new store here, just down the road from one of the temping agencies I used when I first arrived, desperate to find my place in London. And now here I am, in a dress by an up-and-coming designer, made famous by dressing Kate Middleton and Samantha Cameron, and it is the one I want to be my wedding dress.

I have been told not to go wedding dress shopping with my fiancé (bad luck), but he’s the only person I want there, and I already have a good track record of ignoring everyone to do what I want anyway.

Emilia Wickstead must be good at doing what she wants too; how else do you build a made-to-measure business into the foundations of an empire? The shop in Knightsbridge in which we’re standing is evidence of that– just eight short years in the making. I love this dress, but I love it all the more for being the vision of an ambitious young woman.

When Michaela mentions the dress is 30% off in the sale then darts off to calculate what that is, I think “How can that be bad luck?” but I say, “Should we do it?” The skirt has volume in the back and I am swinging it to test its dancefloor potential. It’s a big purchase and a big deal and I don’t know how you’re supposed to feel when you try on your wedding dress for the first time, except this feels pretty good.

The dusty pink Emilia Wickstead bag is huge and I hit everyone with it as I get on the tube. “Sorry,” I lie, hoping everyone wants to know what’s inside.

When we tell Jenny and Mike, Sam’s parents, they’re pleased. “Must be a family tradition,” Jenny says. “Mike came with me to buy mine.”