A bit of Africa in the heart of London

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A few weeks ago here in East Dulwich, I found myself in need of some Ibuprofen and feminine hygiene products. As in the states, these products are more expensive in the local shops, so I needed to find a Boots or Superdrug…the U.K. versions of Walgreens or CVS. So I used Google to find the ones closest to me. There was one of each about a 15 minute walk towards an area of town I had only ever heard of because one of the bus lines I often used terminated there- Peckham.

The city of London is divided in to two sections, north of the Thames, and south of it. The north is considered much more upscale…home to Hampstead Heath, Kensington, Chelsea, Belgravia…all the well known posh neighborhoods. There you will find Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, Harrod’s, Parliament, the British Museum, Westminster Abbey..etc. Most tourists keep to North/Central London, with the exception being the South Bank of the Thames, home of the Globe, The National, Tate Modern, London Eye and cheesy tourist attractions. The South Bank also happens to be my favorite place in the city. Well, it was…

As you head further south, you run into the lesser known hamlets of London.  The towns your average tourist has never heard of. Clapham, Dulwich, Streatham, Brixton, Croydon…and Peckham. Each one has its own energy and flavor. Some more flavorful than others.

So I headed toward Peckham. After walking a few blocks, I came to a crossing, went through it and continued walking in the same direction, down Rye Lane. The street took a curve to the left….and when I strolled around the corner, I entered into a whole different world. It was so sudden, like walking into a wardrobe and finding yourself in Narnia.

Colors, sounds and smells hit my senses full on. As I walked further down the street, they became even more intense. There were people everywhere! Women, men and children in brightly colored African garb. Strange smells coming from the food shops, which while selling the usual display of fruit and veg also had on hand bowls of exotic spices, dried fish, chickens hanging from the ceiling, and bits of what I assumed was meat but couldn’t tell you from *what* if my life depended on it. Loud haggling coming from inside the shops, often accompanied by music and laughter. The demographic had switched from mostly white to predominantly black and southeast Asian.

There was a palpable energy…an exciting vibrancy to the streets. I know I must have looked like an idiot as I stared about me, trying to see everything at once. I almost missed the drug store I had gone there to find in the first place! On my walk back, as I neared East Dulwich again, and turned back around that corner, the noise disappeared, as if muffled by a blanket.

About a week later, I was having dinner with a new friend Vicky and mentioned my brief trip to Peckham and Rye Lane, and the impact it had had on me. And to my great surprise and pleasure, she felt the same way! Having grown up in Africa as an ex-pat, she has spent quite a bit of time on Rye Lane, and offered to take me on a tour. Needless to say, I was thrilled.

So, this past Saturday, Vicky and I headed back to Peckham, and this time I took the opportunity to explore. We entered stores with names like “Peckham Afro Foods Ltd” , and strolled up and down the aisles. Vicky showed me some of the spices and foods she used to eat during her childhood in Zambia. I stared, interested and yet slightly grossed out by the offerings at the meat counter- cow feet, goats feet, lungs, tripe, brains, hearts, and an entire goats head! Whole chickens hanging from the ceiling, their beaks swinging only inches away from the men who were working behind the counter. One counterman saw my obvious interest and confusion, and shared with me some of the ways in which these items are used in traditional African cuisine. We saw stacks of “chewing sticks”, which have a peppery flavor and are used to clean your teeth. Most of the shopkeepers were happy to explain the uses of the various items, and at no point did we encounter anyone hostile or unfriendly. They allowed me to take photographs, which I was grateful for as Vicky explained that some shopkeepers might be concerned that we were inspectors. I saw every kind of dried fish you could imagine, sometimes just the heads. There were refrigerators full of African malt beers and sodas…leafy greens I had never heard of and rows and rows of grains tied up in plastic bags.

We entered a fabric store, and I couldn’t help but touch the richly colored satins, cottons, lace, brocades and beads. We passed hair salons, where right there on the street women were getting hair weaves and their eyebrows threaded. Street vendors selling prepared food, sneakers, fruit and veg, jewelry and African clothing.

Music came from all different directions- rap, tribal, Asian, religious chants and gospel. We ate lunch in a Middle Eastern shop called Persepolis, which had originally only sold traditional Middle Eastern groceries but had expanded to include a bakery and café called “Snackistan”.

Vicky knew of a roof top bar called Franks, which was on top of the Peckhamplex, an independent cinema. To get there, you had to walk up ten flights through a Pepto Bismol pink stairwell, to end up on what was basically the top floor of a car park. (The view is spectacular, you can see all of Central London) The bar stands at the far end, and has picnic tables in the center and a crude wooden ledge that runs around the edges so you can set down your drink and take in the view. There is no roof, only a retractable shade over the top to keep out the elements. The loo is nothing but a series of wooden outhouses set along the rear of the building with gaps between the slats wide enough to take in the view whilst relieving yourself. (I made the mistake of peering down the hole in the toilet. Should not have done that….)

We came across the smallest shop I have ever seen…only three or four feet wide and ten feet deep. It sold African clothing, and if you peered in the back, you could just see the middle aged black woman who minded the store seated in a chair. She also let me take her picture, and seemed very amused at my interest in her and the shop.

As we were leaving, Vicky explained to me that neighborhoods like Peckham are in danger of extinction as gentrification slowly makes its way through the south of London. What an unholy shame it would be to lose such a unique and vibrant community. I hope to return to Peckham when I eventually find myself back in London, and speak more to the residents and hear their stories.

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“If only” are the saddest two words

Well, I’ve a bit of good news. I know where I will be going after Aug 31st when the house sit here in East Dulwich ends. I’ve secured a pet sit in Leeds here in the UK from Sept 2-17th. They have a beautiful Siberian Forest cat(who is huge!)named ‘Tarmy’ that I will be taking care of. I haven’t been to Leeds before, so I’m excited! I’ve already looked up what there is to do there, and I know the first place I will be heading is the West Yorkshire Playhouse. They are doing a ballet interpretation of Wuthering Heights. As a former ballerina myself and a rabid Bronte fan, there is no way I’m going to miss it. And they have tickets available for only £15! Of course I will be way in the back, but I’m used to that. As I always say, at least I’m in the building! ( When I was going to college in NYC, I saw many a Broadway production by buying the $15 standing room tickets. And, I will admit, there were also the times when I would see only the second half of a production by sneaking in during intermission with all the smokers who took a break outside. I would just sidle in with them and then find an empty seat. Don’t judge me. )

Anyway, I’ve told ya’ll about many of the people I have met here. And often, when I tell them about what I am doing here in the U.K…that I have sold all my belongings and left my job, family and friends to go traveling around the world and write…so many people say the same thing… “You are so brave.” I’ve heard it time and time again. But here is the thing. I don’t feel brave. I’ve felt MANY things since I decided to do this, and have discovered some new and interesting emotions to churn my belly along the way. But bravery? Nope. Not for one second.

I didn’t embark on this full of bravado, certain that once I flung my brilliance out into the world I would achieve all my hopes and dreams. Far from it. I took this leap out of sheer unadulterated fear. The kind of fear and terror that makes a 140 lb woman able to lift a car off of her trapped child, or leap from a burning building. Or sell all her stuff and run to Europe to write.

There are two things that I am terrified of in this world…lightning(for damn good reason…that shit will come out of the sky and kill you) and regret. And I’ve learned during my 47 years of living on this planet, that the things I most regret are the ones I DIDN’T do. Opportunities missed because I was too lazy or scared to take them…feelings left unshared until it was too late…yada yada yada, you know the drill. Coming up with excuses for not taking chances or risks.

I hate “what ifs”. And the older I get, the more I hate them. Which only makes sense as time marches on and I get closer to the end zone. And unlike a football field (American football), the end zone isn’t clearly marked. Lightning could fry my butt at any moment.(I got “mildly” struck when I was 13 and am absolutely convinced its stalking me to finish the job)

Luckily, one thing I am not afraid of is failure. Hell, I’m good at failure! I’ve failed at all sorts of things. Mind you, it is never my intention to fail. I also have no fear of success, and I have had enough of that that I keep on plugging away. I figure, you keep throwing enough stuff out into the universe, eventually something will stick. But you don’t want to toss it something you gave 50% of yourself to. The universe doesn’t want your half assed crap. You have to give it everything you have, so you aren’t left with any “what ifs”. And when or if you fail, you learn from it and move on and keep going. Sometimes you can even laugh about it. (If we ever meet, remind me to tell you about the time I decided to write and produce a sitcom I had written just because I felt like it. Lesson…don’t try to do it from start to finish in less than two months. But I did, and we all had fun. But you won’t be seeing it on Netflix.)

The desire to write has always been a part of me, since I was a wee tot. I remember when I got a Brother electric typewriter for Christmas. I was on it for hours that day…blissfully creating all sorts of weird stories. Most of my life I’ve managed to squeeze it in between working full time and being a single parent.  Mainly plays that I was able to get produced in community theatre, and a few other things here and there. Nothing I ever got paid for,(or got paid very much) but it was enough to keep me happy. (I’m not even sure I’m any good…and I agonize over every word. But I’ve since learned that all writers feel that way. Boy, that was a relief.) Would I have liked to be able to make a living from it? Sure! But working and parenting came first, so I slid it in when I could.

Until it got to the point where I couldn’t any more. My daughter was out of college, working full time and living on her own. ( I’m very proud of my spawn!) However, my job was quite literally taking up all of my time and life and energy. Night shifts, day shifts, second shifts…back and forth…every week was different. 12, 15 or even 18 hour days. Being called in on a day off for an emergency, working in the Florida heat on my feet all day. No vacation days…no sick days. I became a zombie. Depressed. Didn’t see my friends, had no social life, and certainly didn’t have the time, or even the ability to write. I had ideas…oh yes I had ideas!! (I will say, night shift was great for coming up with story concepts!) I even tried getting up early in the morning at 3 am before a regular shift would start. But no matter what I did…when I would try to put words on paper, I would end up just crying in frustration.  It wasn’t that the work was awful, and I made a decent living…it was just the hours and the energy expenditure that was doing me in. Four years of it, and there wasn’t any relief in sight.

And I got scared. I was scared that this was it. I’m 47. Who leaves a good paying job at 47 to start something new? But did I want to end up in my 80’s…wishing I had had the guts to change my situation when I could?

Fear led me here. It doesn’t take any bravery to leap OUT of a burning building. Its instinct. The human instinct to survive…to live. I was surviving…huddled in the corner trying to keep the flames away…but I wasn’t living.

And so I leaped.

Only time will tell whether this ends up a ‘successful’ venture. If I manage to have enough time to create a finished product, be it the short story collection I have started, or another play. The worst outcome really is that I get to write a bit and have some adventures. I do occasionally get asked…why Europe? Why England? Why leap so FAR? Why not stay in the states…or go live in someone’s basement? And the answer is…if I am going to leap, I am going to jump as high and as far as I can. Because I may only get this one chance. For all I know, the end zone is closer than I think. (Plus, by taking such a risk, I’m removing the possibility of laziness creeping in to derail me. If I want to keep traveling…I have to work. Its like a mental cattle prod. Also, I just love the UK. Always have. Especially London)

I am going to see as much of the world as possible, and work on my stories, and write this blog…and meet people and explore!! And use all of that juicy life to fuel my imagination. And the more I write, the better I will get. And if I am back in Florida at my old job in three months, if I run out of money and don’t have enough coming in to keep going…then so be it. I will go back to work…and if life lets me I will try again. (Up until my daughter marries, and if she gets over thinking pregnancy is weird and kind of gross…then someday I may become a Grandma. I want to be near her for that, wherever she may be.)

So…the time is now….the day is here….

(How many of you just read that and added “One Day More!” at the end?)

My story isn’t that unique. I’m not the first person to give up everything to travel and have adventures or take a risk. And there is nothing noble about what I’m doing. Its just my way of keepin’ on, and making damn sure I don’t end up in the old folks home muttering over and over to myself… “If only I had tried”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, the people you meet!

me and Max

For those who know me, it will come as no surprise for me to state that I am a bit of an introvert. Some people have difficulty believing that, as when I engage ‘extrovert mode’ I can be lively, outgoing and even, (if I may say so myself) occasionally charming and personable. (I have no illusions however, its only fair that you should know that at times I can be a right moody little shit. That also comes as no shock to anyone who has the joy of prolonged contact with me. I have been known to work myself into a right funk for weeks.) But I eventually emerge, ready to engage with the world again, and I have always been glad I exerted the effort to escape from ‘funkytown’. Taking the risk that I have, leaving home to leap out into the world has given me just the impetus I needed to allow my innate curiosity of the world and the people who inhabit it to take precedence over my predilection for hermitlike behavior.

By far, the best aspect of my travels has been meeting people from all walks of life. From an itinerant alcoholic to a young woman studying for her Masters degree. Men and women with rich and very real lives and stories to tell. And I soak them all up. Mind you, after “soaking” for a bit, I need to hibernate for a time, not terribly long…just enough to process and appreciate the gifts these people have given me. Don’t get me wrong, I love going to museums, the theatre, visiting historical places and just absorbing the vibe of each city I visit. But to be allowed the grace for even  a short time to be invited into the life of someone I previously didn’t know existed, to share a meal…a pint…or even just a conversation with human beings who live half a world away from Orlando FL…I am sometimes overwhelmed with the hugeness of it.

And my god, the generosity and kindness I have received in return. An offer to dinner from a lovely woman near my age named Vicky here in East Dulwich, whom I had never met and knew of me only through a friend and this blog. I got to hear not only her fascinating personal story of having grown up in Africa only to find herself shipped here for boarding school in her teens, but also funny and poignant tales of the local residents.( I also saw foxes creeping through the back gardens. That doesn’t happen in Orlando, I was thrilled. I love foxes. Even when they squeal while in the throes of passion, I will take them over alligators any day.) We are going together this weekend to explore ‘Peckham”, a part of London rich in African culture. I’m very much looking forward to trying ‘goat curry’.

I had pints bought for me from a group of rowdy fun loving people in a pub in Yorkshire. (I only had the balls to introduce myself because I had already had two pints and I had heard them singing “Country Roads” inside the pub. Having lived in West Virginia for a short time, I thought it was the perfect gateway into a conversation). Turns out, a married couple in the group owned a pub there in York, and for the rest of my stay kindly let me set up my laptop in a back corner so I could work. (I am unashamedly going put in a plug here. If you are ever in York, go to the Bay Horse Pub and Hotel in Marygate. Classy, cozy and friendly. http://www.bayhorsemarygate.co.uk/   Tell Sherrilee and Paul I say hello!)

I shared my umbrella at a bus stop in front of the Natural History Museum and gained in return a friendship with a bright, funny and interesting young woman who shares my love for all things “geek”. She is studying for her Masters at London Imperial College, and getting ready as I write this to submit her thesis. She had me over for dinner, and after discovering my penchant for British humor, introduced me to all manner of new programs and You Tube videos.

Not to mention the lovely people who have invited me into their homes to pet sit for them.  Clive and Haven in Clapham, and their pets Max (a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel whom I have fallen madly in love with), Penelope, (a ragdoll cat) and Leonard the fish (who truthfully I found to be a bit of a bore. Horrible conversationalist.) I’m going on a picnic this Friday with Haven and Clive and their two adorable children. (And of course, Max. Last week I arranged a play date for Max and I. We spent the afternoon in the park together. I seriously have it bad for this dog)

Here in East Dulwich, (by the way…pronounced “Dull-itch), I was lucky enough to engage a pet sit that came with friends! On my first night, I was invited out to a pub by a friend of the lovely woman whom I am sitting for (my charge is a very handsome cat named “Ollie”), and then encouraged to attend a book club meeting the next night. The leader of the group then invited me to a barbeque at his home for the following weekend where I was thrilled to meet even more fascinating people!  It just goes on and on!

And of course, who can forget ‘John’, whom I wrote about earlier. 🙂

I also have two dear friends here in the UK whom I knew before taking this trip… Amber in York and Rob here in London. They keep me grounded, providing a safe place for me to be my complete, real and rather frequently ridiculous self.

I’m sitting here in my little borrowed flat, and as I am writing this I occasionally look out the window into the gardens beyond. As I mentioned, I find myself overwhelmed at times. How did I end up here? All the decisions I’ve made, some small, others life changing…that led me to this view out of the window. What are the sheer odds that a woman from Orlando FL would ever be sitting at this desk, looking at this view? Or meeting these people? I am so grateful for this opportunity. And no matter how hard, or scary, or even lonely this trip has been, or will be in the future, I will have the memory of these experiences forever. (Unless I get Alzheimers…but then hey, I will have this blog to look back on, eh?) As of this moment, I do not know where I am going next. But I’m confident that wherever it is, whatever new horizon I find myself gazing at in wonder, I will meet people who make it worthwhile.