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From terror to chaos? 3-9 June 2017 in London and Manchester

It’s been an emotional roller coaster of a week.

Home in London last Saturday, I was still dealing with the emotional impact of Manchester, making room for sadness and grief along with my defiance (it doesn’t make us weak or victims to mourn the dead), when the London Bridge attack happened.

It happened fifteen minutes walk from my house, where we had decided last minute not to go out for dinner, but to get pizza instead. I couldn’t quite believe that I was personally so close to another act of terrorism, so soon after Manchester. I didn’t want to believe what was happening. We spent a few hours not quite knowing the details. How many attacks? How many dead? Why was it taking so long to resolve? Were there hostages? My mind spun but emotionally I was pretty numb.

We need a new word to describe that sinking feeling when that terrible thing you knew could happen has happened, and that abstract fear of terrorism that we normally push to the back of our minds as part of a more general fear of death, comes a little closer. For me the thing that causes temporary tremors of fear is the knowledge that the scenes through which we pass everyday could so easily turn into scenes of terror. A market or a square could become a war zone. The same physically, but in reality, unrecognisable.

I tried to feel anger and defiance again, but it’s hard to be angry with something as big as terrorism. The feeling tends to shade off into a wider despair at world events, making me and my feelings seem pretty small.

So I was pretty grateful to Donald Trump the next morning. Seriously – thank you, Donald Trump, for giving me the chance to get absolutely, blazingly, personally, mad as hell. It was a great feeling and really pulled me out of that numbness. My fury against Trump called up my deep love of my city and my mayor, both of which I wanted to protect as fiercely as a mama bear against everything that threatened them.

Who knew you could love a place so fiercely? But London, and London Bridge in particular, has been my home since my early twenties. This is where I ran around with friends, throwing drunken parties that went on all night, spilling out onto the walkway outside on nice evenings; where we started our nights out singing and drinking on the bus to wherever else we were going; and where we walked by the river to clear the hangovers, all the way down to Borough market to chase away the headaches with burgers and falafel. It might have been at the market I first tried falafel, and baklava, bright green olives and ‘drunken’ cheese. Now that I’m older it’s where I buy squid or scallops or venison for special nights in. Where we drink mulled cider in the autumn and ice-cold smoothies when the sun comes out.

This general election has increased my love of my neighbourhood and neighbours. When I was out on the doorstep, listening to voters, I was able to say honestly how I just wanted everyone to be happy in our little part of London. I want us to share this space considerately and all be patient and friendly with each other. By and large we are. Despite disparity of age and income I think people are pretty tolerant, for example of young people having fun in the Borough area, people staggering home at all hours, and community parties going on till dawn!

So it was really hard to leave London on the Sunday evening and go to Manchester for another week. And it was a really hard week, being here, while wanting above anything to be back there with my community, at the vigil, and then at the election – knocking on doors and getting out the vote.

And now I wake up to a hung parliament!

There are probably many reasons to feel concerned right now: a weak government with Brexit negotiations looming, a country split north against south, young against old, cities against towns and rural areas, Tories taking votes from UKIP by going hardline racist… but right now I can’t stop smiling, and I’m going home to London.

The upsides to being back in London

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This is the second part of my list of things that I was looking forward to getting home to when we left the States and which I’ve spent nearly a year crossing off.

Things to enjoy in London:

The Thames.

I love the river. We live next to it and we spend our weekends walking up and down it. We even got on the water recently to come back from Kew Gardens. The riverside is also a feature in many parts of London. By the Southbank Centre (a lovely place to hang out in its own right) you can enjoy Waterloo sunsets with a glass of something from one of the many pop-up bars associated with the Festival Hall, the British Film Institute and the National Theatre. Further down, between London Bridge and Tower Bridge we have the Scoop amphitheatre, which features theatre and music in the summer, a big-screen during major sporting events, and a general holiday feeling.

Borough market.

Though this market has become very busy on a Saturday, with tourists attracted to its huge variety of street food, it’s still a great place to buy good produce. We love the fish stall and have cooked mussels, scallops and squid as well as fish from here. And an afternoon spent tasting cheese from Europe and the UK makes for a good day – Neal’s Yard is just around the corner too. We’ve also enjoyed Maltby Street market, although they put their prices up recently – £8 for a sandwich might be pushing it, even in post-Brexit London.

London restaurants.

We found high-end dining in DC either a little disappointing or hugely expensive. Getting back to our favourite modern European restaurant Magdalen was the perfect homecoming. Sadly it recently closed, but at least we got to go a couple more times. I’ve also enjoyed Spanish food at Pizarro and a little Spanish place my sister recommended (I’m keeping that our secret). And Polish/Baltic food at Baltic – which is also great for its huge selection of vodka and vodka-based cocktails. This is just scratching the surface of London’s restaurant scene – we have a very long list of places we still want to try when we can afford it.

The culture!

In DC there were not many theatres. High culture was highly expensive – the only way I could get my fix was by going to the free Millennium Stage stuff at the Kennedy Centre at 6pm on an evening.

Since coming back to London I’ve been like a kid in a sweetshop. R came back from a trip once to find I’d booked for us to go and see not one, but two productions of King Lear (Glena Jackson at the Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company version at the Barbican). We’ve actually seen three Shakespeare productions this year, as we also saw Tamsin Grieg in the National’s production of Twelfth Night. Also at the National we saw Brecht’s Threepenny Opera

In terms of classical music, we’ve seen a production of Haydn’s Creation at the Southbank Centre’s excellent, comfortable and purpose-built concert hall, and spent a highly enjoyable evening of Gilbert and Sullivan at the ENO’s Pirates of Penzance.

And there’s been comedy and fringe theatre too. Backyard Comedy in Bethnal Green was a lot of fun. I went to an evening of 11 short 10-minute plays, each written and directed by a different person and each featuring 3 actors. And we went to what I can only call an immersive theatrical event, where we travelled with Alice into wonderland and each had different adventures as the play unfolded around us: I had to peel potatoes, while R got to join the QGP (Queen’s Garden Patrol)!

 

There’s always something going on in London. While in the States we spent money on travelling, here I save for nice meals out and the theatre. Some things remain on my list as I’m waiting to find the right opportunity. For example, we’ve not gone to a proper opera since we’ve been back, and I’ve yet to go to anything at the Royal Opera House. And as we’ve been watching BBC’s Masterchef, the list of restaurants to go to has been growing. So, to misquote Samuel Johnson, I don’t think I’ll ever be tired of London.

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The upsides to being back in the UK

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When we were planning our return to the UK, I wrote a list of all the things that I’d missed and that I was looking forward to. Now, almost a year since we got back, I’ve crossed off most of them. This list got a bit long, so I’ve separated it into two posts – one about being back in the UK, the other about being back in London, the city that I call home.

Things to enjoy in the UK:

Bacon sandwiches. Known as something that has the power to convert vegetarians, British (more often Danish) bacon is a bit like a cross between the Canadian and American kinds. Thick cut and grilled so the fat is just browning but the meat is still juicy, and pressed between two pieces of soft white bread and butter, this is the taste of home. R enjoys his with Worcester sauce; I’m a purist.

Pubs. The pub at the end of our road got renovated when we got back, so we now have a really nice local! It’s a bit hipster – unvarnished and unmatched furniture, plenty of gin and craft beer, and food mostly provided by street food vendors on rotation – but we love it.

Beer gardens. It’s lovely to drink outside. Even if it’s a little too cold; especially when the sun shines. There aren’t that many in London, but we have spent some lovely afternoons and evenings in beer gardens in Winchester, Exeter and Oxford.

The seaside. So far we’ve just enjoyed this in Devon, but there’s nothing like a good long walk along a coastal path, boats clinking at their moorings, the smell of salt – followed by a pint of beer or cider, with a view of the sea.

British countryside and birdsong. We recently had a weekend away, camping, on the border between England and Wales. The walks in woodland, carpeted in bluebells and wild garlic were just lovely – and a great foraging opportunity – and every morning we woke (rather grey and cold and early) to the dawn chorus. Though I loved the red flashes of cardinals and the cries of blue jays in the States, I’m happy to be reunited with my native wood pigeons and blackbirds.

British Indian and Chinese food. I wrote about how different the American version of Chinese can be. Friends will be happy to know that I am now reunited with my beloved prawn crackers – which can also be picked up in most supermarkets here.

‘British’ Mexican food. Although we really enjoyed Tex-Mex in the States, in London we’ve rediscovered the chain Wahaca, where you can get really good value Baha-style Mexican.

Italian pizza. Thin and fresh, and available so many places, you can kid yourself it’s not that unhealthy. Pizza Express is great value and has nice wine – I know, pizza with wine rather than beer! – and, as I’ve mentioned, a new chain, ‘Franco Manca’ opened while we were away.

Ok, this list became a bit London-focused! I’ll leave you with these:

Scraps from DC – it’s the little differences

I mean, they got the same shit over there that we got here, but it’s just, there it’s a little different.

You want an example?

Well, in summer you can walk into Pret a manger in DC and buy a lobster roll. And I’m not talking about a couple of pieces of crayfish, I’m talking about proper lobster.

And in bars, you can always get food. Most places you can even get good food – like a fresh salad you want to eat, or mac and cheese – Americans will eat that with anything. And hot sauce with breakfast – they drown everything in that.

And they have H&M. But it’s not a cheap shop for kids – they treat it like it’s high European fashion.

And TK Maxx? It’s pretty much the same, except in America they call it TJ Maxx.

Scraps from American travels – New Orleans

It’s chaotic, and not at all like America.

Though it resembles ramshackle bits of Spain or Italy, it’s unmistakably French.

Music everywhere! The expected brass, but also jazz, blues, even French folk.

People wandering the streets with plastic glasses of beer, drunk already at 1pm.

Parties on balconies bedecked with beads, ribbons, banners. The colours of Mardi Gras, shine for a month-long bender.

Arguments breaking out as out-of-control kids throw beer down from their balconies onto performers in the street.

The place smells of sugar: praline shops, fudge, chocolate, and powder-covered beignets.

Bars are open to the street, the air balmy and soft on this February day. Chartres Street – most of the tourist chaos left behind on Decator and Canal – has that classic, French-quarter charm you read about. The square at the end of the street is like Paris – street art and performers.

I eat crawfish cakes with hot sauce.

A middle-aged couple order tall cocktails to go.

And Yoda just walked past with a storm trooper.