Category Archives: Travel

Shah Mix-a-Lot

“It’s like, you can’t tell people they don’t belong in America. America was made up only a few hundred years ago– I mean America isn’t even a thing!”

I am oversimplifying my views on national identity to a woman I have met just a few hours before on a walking tour of Old Delhi, India.

She laughs. She has already mentioned being born in Spain and going on to live in several other places including London, Paris, New York, and Santiago. She speaks Spanish with her mother, who is also on the tour with us. I try to piece together the pieces from what she’s told me– “So you are… Chilean, American, and Spanish?”

“Yes,” she says, “I was born in Madrid to Chilean parents, but I was raised in New Jersey. It wasn’t until I moved to Chile while working for the UN that I realised that, no, actually when it comes down to it, I am American.” I tell her I was also raised in New Jersey, and when I tell her where she knows it exactly. “Near Short Hills Mall!” she exclaims.

We are walking around the Red Fort now. Built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, it combines aspects of Timurid and Persian design with otherwise traditional Mughal design elements, combinations that would continue to be mixed and perfected until becoming trademarks of Indian architecture. Once over, the Red Fort was home to the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which now presides in the Tower of London as part of the British Crown Jewels (the British Crown has always maintained it was obtained legally; several countries, including India, disagree). “I decided to move back to New Jersey partly because my parents are there, and partly because Chile is so far from the rest of the world. But it’s also the sort of country people don’t leave, which makes it really difficult to ingratiate yourself into. I was getting to the point where I had to decide if I wanted that, if I wanted to really commit to Chile and to stay and to try and really become Chilean. And I decided the answer was no.”

When we leave the Red Fort, we go our separate ways, wishing each other luck. It seems everyone is in India thinking in some ways about their identity, their opportunities; who they want to be and have the chance to become. A Filipino-Canadian woman on our tour is about to begin a yoga retreat run by monks in a remote part of India. “I was overwhelmed at work,” she tells me. “All the women– all of whom I got on with– were concerned with what handbags they carried, their clothes, how many hours they were putting in. It was getting to be too much.”

A few days later Sam and I are in Agra, having just been to the Taj Mahal. Our guide has brought us unknowingly to a shop that sells marble inlaid with carefully filed pieces of precious stones in intricate designs, much like those that adorn the famous mausoleum. I’m immediately suspicious– we didn’t ask to be brought here and it’s a cheeky trick if you ask me– but our salesperson Sunny is charming and interested and immediately puts us at ease.

“Which one of you is more English?” he asks us at one point. Sam and I look at each other, wondering if it’s a trick question. “Sam?” I suggest, not sure if that’s the right answer. “He’s lived all his life in London, whereas I’ve had a good run in the States.”

Sunny shrugs. “See, I would have said you’re more English,” he says to me, before looking back at Sam, “I’d have guessed you were more eastern.” Sam confirms that his ancestors are a mix of Russians and Irish. “Aha, see,” says Sunny, vindicated. “I see a lot of people in this job, from all over the world.” At this stage in history I’m sure that every one of us is a different combination of a multitude of places. You can rarely tell where, and you can never guess the whole story. To get at that, you have to go, explore, ask.

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Shots for India

I am good at the overarching plans but not at the small details. I am your ideas person. “Let’s go to India for a week, for Holi,” was one of my more recent ideas. It had been on my “list” for ages, by which I do not mean an actual list, not even a bucket list, but a mental list. The kind of list that really only has one thing on it, like Go to India for Holi, because I can’t remember more than that without writing it down.

Sam said yes, and I booked flights, and then felt like I’d already accomplished my goal. It was only in stages that we realised that we needed to make sure certain things were in place, like a visa, and vaccinations. Sam made us an appointment at the Boots in Dalston, but when we arrived they didn’t have any of the shots we needed. “You can go to the Boots in Wood Green,” the man behind the counter said, helpfully, forgetting that no one wants to go to Wood Green, not even the people who live there.

Instead, the next day we agreed to meet at our local Clockwork Pharmacy after work, which incidentally is owned by the same people who own the freehold of our building, Clockwork Mews. The sign outside our flat is the same as for the pharmacy: a blue and orange tablet.

I have cycled as ferociously as I can muster after a day spent in the stark glow of artificial lighting, and I arrive at 5:44. A small elderly Indian man is locking up. I am off my bike, looking both ways down the street, for either a place to lock up my bike quickly or for Sam. I see neither, but my frantic behaviour has caught the attention of the pharmacy manager.

“Excuse me, can I help you?” he asks, tentatively. It’s not advisable to start provoking crazed individuals in Hackney.

“I need vaccines!” I blurt out, doing nothing to allay his fears. “For travel, to India,” I add quietly.

He shakes his head and continues to pull down the shutters over the storefront.

“Ah, you’re too late,” he says, regrettably. “My pharmacist is sick and needs to go home. Usually we close at 7pm, but tonight, 6!”

I’m envious of anyone who can make these kind of executive decisions over their working lives. I remember I haven’t yet found Sam. The manager is happily chatting to me now, comfortable in the knowledge that if I’m crazy, it’s in one of the socially-acceptable sorts of ways. I rest my bike against a section of the window he hasn’t yet shuttered and pull out my phone. Sam has messaged to say he’s inside.

“Aha!” I said, as if this is a trump card. “My husband is already inside getting his vaccinations.”

The manager’s face changes.

“Your husband is inside?” He looks around suspiciously as if I’ve pulled some kind of trick on him, sneaking a Trojan horse into his pharmacy under his very nose.

“Ok, you can go in, but I’m not sure they’ll still be willing to give you what you need.”

I open the door, with my bike, the lights still flashing, and lean it up against a shelf at the front of the shop. “Can I leave this here?” I ask no one in particular, and walk to the back without waiting for an answer. As I approach the counter I find Sam walking towards me. “I’m done!” he announces, not quite as competitively as I would have, had it been me who had been seen to first.

After filling in a form and following a young Indian man to the back room, I too am sufficiently inoculated against Delhi’s microbes.

On the way out, we say goodbye to the old manager. He is jovially waiting for us to make our way out so he can finally finish the job of locking up for the night, but he doesn’t seem put out.

“You’re going to love Delhi!” he says. “When I finish with India, only then will I go somewhere else,” and I take him to mean on holidays because he has clearly made it to Clapton, “but I will never be finished with India!”

I haven’t even started with India yet and already I think I know what he means.

Beside the Seaside

“This is exactly what I wanted from a restaurant tonight,” I’m saying, looking around us. The tablecloth is red and white checked, brick walls lead up to wooden rafters, and the dimmed lights leave work for the candles on each table; it could be the backdrop for a rom com date scene. (Emphasis on the ‘com’ part of the equation, as the four year old at the next table begins a dinner-long tantrum.) I’m glad– Whitstable Oyster Company was not our first choice, but the Sportsman books up 6 months in advance, Salt Marsh was closed for a private function, and Birdies had no space for us.

On Friday Sam picked me up from work on his motorcycle, and we zoomed down the A2 to Whitstable, just over an hour east of London. It was the end of the summer, and we felt like getting away.

“Does the mackerel have bones?” I ask the waiter, suspiciously. “Yes,” she replies.

“And the skate?”

“Yes, but it’s really easy, I promise.”

“Ok, I trust you,” I say, feeling guilty for being the lazy landlubber who hates to work for her food. Sam, probably on a high from conquering his first oyster earlier in the day, has no such qualms, and confidently orders the whole plaice. “It’s going to have the head,” I say, making a face.

We had spent the day wandering between cafes and pubs, drinking oyster stout on the beach and then shimmying up to the four-person counter in Wheelers for fresh seafood. It may have been around since 1856, but Wheelers Oyster Bar is almost knowingly timeless; it’s easy to imagine the pink and blue storefront rolling its eyes at the news that Pantone has picked Rose Quartz and Serenity as the joint 2016 colours of the year.

“I’m so happy right now,” I say to Sam.

“Here?”

“Here, yes, but right now. Everything is just beginning.” We just reached the one year countdown to our wedding; I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching about the direction of my career and have, for the hundredth time, decided to push the fear aside and act instead. I worry that I am not good enough at work. Sam is good at ensuring me otherwise: There’s loads of stuff about how women only apply for jobs they think they’re capable of, whereas men apply for senior positions because they just think they can, he Whatsapps me on Friday. I don’t want to be a victim of the confidence gap. I want to be a woman of Beyoncé strength and Sara Blakely smarts.

“Ok, I think I’m bored now,” I say on our way back to the Airbnb, a charming cottage once home to William Somerset Maugham. “I’ve really enjoyed today, but I’m glad we live in London.” It’s just gone 10pm and a couple in front of us have stumbled out of a pub playing 90s anthems and straight into an Indian takeaway.

“Well,” Sam replies, matter-of-factly, “then it was a perfect weekend away.”

Flying South

 

The first time Sam came to Charlotte, N.C. with me we had been dating for six weeks. It was June last year, and it was a crazy idea, and not because we were in that first, uncertain phase of a relationship. “I want to come with you,” he told me, without blinking. “To Charlotte?” I replied, incredulously. I had to check several times. “You know it’s the south, right?”

Now, just under a year later, we have been to Charlotte together a total of three times. A month ago I woke up to several missed calls from my mother and a Whatsapp message that read: call me. My dad, 59, had suffered a heart attack and no one could tell my mom definitively whether or not he was dying. We booked flights for the following day; my dad survived.

This last time, we are flying in to Charlotte, then driving up to Virginia where Vanessa is getting married. It’s a five hour drive, which is nothing in the U.S. but if we were to spend that long in a car in England we could choose to go north and get to Newcastle or south to Newquay and span the entire country. We don’t have a car in England, though, only a motorcycle, and I have an annoying (Sam might say dangerous) habit of falling asleep as the pillion passenger, so there is no way we’d attempt such a distance. We don’t care much for leaving London anyway, where we can get everywhere by bicycle.

“What is a mason jar?” Sam asks at the rehearsal dinner, as Vanessa is having her bridesmaids write a final to-do list. The next day, he is not wearing the cowboy boots he bought when we were in Las Vegas, in January, because they do not fit underneath his British-made suit. He has found some mason jars and is pouring Woodford Reserve into two, straight, which we sip on as everyone helps themselves to barbecue and mac’n’cheese. “We’re having an aperitif,” I announce to the table.

Later, a couple from Napa discount the claim that the Shenandoah Valley wines are out to rival theirs. “The grapes don’t get ripe enough,” I’m told by a breezy Californian, in the business. “Meaning they’re too tart?” I enquire, making a sour face for effect. He nods in agreement. “You got it.”