Monday, 19 January 2009

A three day old copy of Metro, wrapped around a London Underground bench*

I have decided that I have been blogging long enough to allow myself the indulgence of a post about all the things I miss about the UK (yes, my life is full of arbitrary self-imposed rules and censorship, it's tremendously fun). When I started blogging, I vowed to myself not to stray into whining for Boots and Marks and Spencer on a weekly basis. Internet, you can take my longing for Boots and Marks and Spencer as read. I defy any expat not to miss them and their seductive promise of free access to embarassing quasi-medical products** and decent knickers/sponge cake.

Here, instead, are some of the more obscure and personal ones.

1. The Evening Standard ES magazine on a Friday. Walking home on Friday night and picking up the Standard magazine was the official start of the weekend for me. I hate the Standard. It's dreadful. The magazine is not much better - it's full of hedge fund millionaires and vapid women standing around at fundraising parties for David Cameron. But it's the ritual of the thing, dammit.

2. Carluccios in Fenwicks basement on Bond Street with Violet. Violet works at an august (and deranged) institution nearby. We would often meet up here for tea and biscuits, after Violet had dragged me kicking and screaming out of the wrapping paper and presents section, clutching ill-advised purchases. We did this especially often when I was off work and in group therapy. Poor Violet has put up with a hell of a lot from me over the years, including hideous group therapy tales to put her off her Earl Grey and macaroons. Sometimes we would mix it up and go to Liberty, or to Postcard Teas, or even Sketch or Yauatcha if we were feeling really festive, but Fenwicks was our local. I miss her so much. I want tea and macaroons and giggling, and mooching around the shoe department with my best friend.

3. Russell Square. Russell Square holds so many memories for me, misty cold winter ones, and fountain splashing summer ones. Non-Londonders, Russell Square is a small patch of greenery very near the British Museum full of mature trees, ninja squirrels and a great modern fountain. It has a no frills café for English breakfasts, or tea or coffee. It's a great mix of students from nearby UCL, tourists, and Bloomsbury eccentrics, and it feels like a place where things should happen. You often overhear good conversations, or see people reading fascinating books. It used to be a prime spot for cottaging, but I don't think they've left enough greenery for it still to be.

Lashes learned to walk here and drenched himself in the fountains over and over again. I often brought both boys for breakfast here with baby Fingers in his pram. I met my mum here, heartbreakingly, one of the last times I saw her alive, and Lashes staggered towards her grinning. She brought him a wooden Noah's ark that day; I still have the odd animal kicking around that I can't bring myself to throw away. He's nearly 7. She died when he was 1. That seems impossible when I type it.

The Space Cadette and I have sat in the grey wintry cold outside the café and talked hopelessly about the mess our lives are many many times. Prog Rock Step Dad has joined me for plenty of espressos. The CFO would have a bacon sandwich and Lashes would follow the gardener around trying to steal his tools. I love Bloomsbury and Russell Square is the epicentre for me. I whiled away two lots of maternity leave, bored and lonely around these streets but this place always cheered me. I want to go back and have time to waste drinking strong tea out of styrofoam surrounded by buses.

4. The Tuesday lunchtime magazine crawl. Ah, happy Tuesday. Grazia and Heat both come out on a Tuesday, and I would hole up in Patisserie Valerie in Spitalfields in my lunch hour with a giant cappucino and my magazines. Bliss.

5. Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street - the BEST book shop. Just, the best. I love the smell of it, the staff, the excellent selections they put out on table tops, the old crazies that wander around in the back room. Everything.

6. Brick Lane. Generally, the fact of Sunday trading seems extraordinary from here in the 1970s (uh, Belgium), but Brick Lane seems like a miraculous shiny beacon of wonder. Bagels! Ten pomegranates for a pound! Knock off Balenciaga! Stuffed owls! Packets of biscuits stolen from hotels! Stolen everything, actually. Mar Mar Co. Labour & Wait, Shelf and the rest of Cheshire Street. ON A SUNDAY. A Sunday. Here, you'd be hard pressed to find bread on a Sunday. Sigh. Sigh sigh sigh.

7. Paul at Academy Framing. Violet and I had a terrible crush on him. He was small and sarcastic and full of clever ideas for framing pictures. Apparently he has now left. Sob. No more withering looks.

8. Pre-packed, environment-flaying fruit and vegetables. I know this is treasonous, but oh, lord, the convenience of pre-packed stir fry, and mango, and sugar snap peas. Shit, I said I wouldn't start weeping for Marks & Spencer.....

Do you live away from home? What do you miss?

* This came from a discussion with Zeno about what represents London for us. He said a pigeon with a withered foot. I said a crushed Benjy's styrofoam cup. We both agreed on the old copy of Metro.

**Seriously, a country where you have to ask at the counter for pregnancy tests, athlete's foot treatments, pile lotion and Nurofen, is a country which has its priorities ALL WRONG. Less beer, more open shelves, Belgium. SORT IT OUT.


justme said...

I work just a couple of minutes away from Russell Square, so anytime you are in London and feeling nostalgic, I would be happy to meet you there!
I don't live away from home as such (unless you count the fact that I live in England but am actually Scottish), but I DO live in the country. As I work in London this doesn't really limit my choices, but every now and then when I run out of something after 6.00pm I long for the kind of shops that stay open late into the night! And I miss the vast choice of decent take away food....but that is improving!

Parisgirl said...

I'm with you on Boots and Marks & Spencer. I also miss the British Museum, the Science Museum (especially the flushing toilet) and the Natural History Museum (the rubber T-Rex) and the Maritime Museum at Greenwich. I miss Regent's, Kensington, Hyde, Greenwich and Battersea Parks and Clapham Common and, as a great shopping experience, the whole of Kensington High Street. Plus, the Tate (Ancient and Modern), Battersea Power Station, the National Portrait Gallery, and, and and...
Sorry, see what you started!

Pochyemu said...

I'm using a great book I got at the Marylebone book shop on my dissertation. I used to go to the American university on the high street when I first moved to London. everyone in my school was the son or daughter of an oil baron or a sheikh, so I was alone at lunch when their drivers would pick them up to they could eat at Selfridges or whatever and I'd spend my freetime reading books & then order them cheaper off Amazon to finish them.

A Woman Of No Importance said...

If it's of any comfort, petal, scarcely any of us can afford to buy food in Marks' these days, with the credit crunch munching - They've just announced closures of lots of the little food stores as a result...

You wrote a lovely piece of nostalgia today - I have often felt it would be more than fantastic to live in Europe, and I love Belgium (esp. the beers), but I guess it's often a case of the grass is always greener...?

bevchen said...

Umm, I do not miss Marks and Spencer. Does that make me strange?

I miss potato waffles (nope, no idea), being able to shop on a Sunday, free contraception, not having to specifically ask for milk for my tea in cafes (and also actually being brought MILK when I ask for it rather than coffee cream), pasties and decent second hand bookshops. The last one may actually exist in Germany but not where I live!

Marya said...

This is actually a really helpful post for me because I'm planning to go to London for a conference in April, and I'll make a point of checking out some of the places people say they miss -- I'm definitely going to stop by the Marylebone bookstore and the flushing toilet at the Science Museum.

I totally sympathize, by the way, because I'm from New York City, but I haven't really lived there since high school, and I miss it so much. I miss the Metropolitan Museum and walking down Fifth Avenue and the Bronx Zoo and the Freak Show at Coney Island (they have a wolfman who bicycles across a tightrope -- check it out if you're ever in town).

Liberty London Girl said...

My little sis tells me that M&S have started discounting food at the end of the day (she told me this whilst chomping through a 50p Shepherd's Pie so I may have got some details wrong) but it does rather make one feel as tho the end of the world is nigh...

Daunts, Daunts, Daunts. I have TWO equidistant from my London pad (Belsize Park & South End Green in Hampstead). AND they let me take Posetta Baddog in there too. I love those round tables of enticing books. It's how I discovered blissful Persephone Books - and got my hot sticky paws on a copy of Making of a Marchioness.

Grazia still gd, but I do find that Heat has lost its glow now. Can't be doing with all those galumphing reality stars. Weird, cos I loved it when I was London-living.

I think I miss swimming in the Hampstead Heath Ladies Pond the most. *But not fishing the duckweed out of my swimsuit crotch after.


ps re: necessary drugs: I tried to buy Codeine somewhere on Lac Leman when in Suisse-land and they treated me like the worst kind of ADDICT. You can't buy it over the counter in NY either. I have to bring giant packs of Solpadeine MAX at Heathrow.

Red Shoes said...

I was born and raised in California but I haven't lived there in exactly 15 years. When I visit family and friends it is always so bittersweet. I miss:

1. In-N-Out Burgers. And their theme song.

2. Being able to find any fruit or vegetable imaginable. For cheap. All the time. And avocado on EVERYTHING.

3. Proper Mexican and Asian food. Oh God, I miss it. SO MUCH!

4. Dry heat. Contrails in the summer sky. The smell of very hot, dry air and the Santa Ana winds.

5. That Cali attitude, as though no other place on earth exists and if it did, why the hell would someone choose to be there instead of HERE. I hated that when I lived there, but I find it oddly charming now that
I'm gone.

6. The hairstyles and crazy Cali clothes. A million kids all doing their best to be unusual while simultaneously fitting into a million stereotypes. It's adorable.

7. The cars that go Boom.

8. No more than 2 hours to anything, beach, mountains, desert, Hollywood, Mexico... anything.

9. The original Disneyland.

10. My grandparents.

Oooh, California. I'm so homesick now. In my memories, California smells of AquaNet and Hubba Bubba.

Also, 11. Thrifty ice cream cones. And 12. Joshua trees. And brown hills, and terra cotta tiled roofs and and and...

Parisgirl said...

Oh, I forgot...decent Indian, Chinese and above all Thai restaurants.

katyboo1 said...

God! I love Daunt Books. AND I miss London and it's not even like I live outside the country. I can be there in an hour and a half and it still seems like too long a way away.

Fat Controller said...

I miss London, but I cannot crystallise my feelings for it as eloquently as you. All I can say is that whenever I return it is just like putting on an old and tatty but much-loved overcoat. It fits, it is comfortable, I just feel like I belong, Like I've never been away.

I buy all my clothes in UK on principle. I buy a year's supply of pants, socks and jeans from Marks & Sparks and a years supply of shoes from Clarks because I refuse to pay 25% VAT. The bloody Danish state takes over half my earnings, they're not having a quarter of what's left.

Also I buy a year's supply of Twinings Earl Grey leaf tea, because you just can't get it over here.

Furthermore, at Clarks you don't get treated like an escapee from a freak show just because you take a size 12 shoe in extra wide. Over here it's "We don't keep them that large, we'll have to order it in specially. It'll be about two weeks" at full volume across the entire shop.

Rant over.

Vanessa said...

About Toronto, I miss: ugly, utilitarian clothing like Lululemon yoga pants, Sorel snow boots, and Keen shoes. Everyone looks like they're about to bolt away to squeeze in a triathlon.

I really miss the effortless way Torontonians have of pronouncing even the most difficult, multi-syllabic names from faraway lands.

I miss killer food that is just...casually all around, and reasonably priced. One doesn't have to make a huge cultural production of choosing having a nice meal.

I miss the try-hard eagerness with which Torontonians embrace the latest research and new ways of thinking, and the frustrating hive-mind of cultural taste created by CBC radio.

I miss women without makeup pushing babies around to weekday brunches on mind-bogglingly long maternity leaves.

I miss the logical doughnut shop method of ordering coffees--"double double", "two milks", etc. and not having cream foisted upon me when I have clearly asked for milk.

I miss summer cottages, not because I have one or found it anything other than hellish to be trapped at one, but because everyone fucks off and the city is not straining at the poorly-funded seams for a few days, at least.

I even miss the Beer Store and the LCBO, the only places where alcohol can be sold. Very archaic, and inconvenient for my lifestyle, but so funny when all the city suddenly goes through a self-conscious Kentucky bourbon phase because it's the product of the month.

Potty Mummy said...

I'm lucky. I live in London, and count it as Home. Just to make you feel better though, here are a few things I wouldn't miss if I moved away and which might make you feel better about not being here...

Chewing gum on pavements (it's disgusting, when I was pregnant it actually used to make me retch). House prices. Talk about house prices. Talk about schooling. 4 x 4's in mafia black. The blond wannabe's driving them. French children at the Lycee (sorry, I like the French, just not that variant of them).

I could go on, but - oh alright, that's not true. I couldn't, there's nothing else I can think of right now. I bloody love it here. (Which is a problem as we may have to leave before too long).

Z said...

My daughter lived in London for 9 years and loved it, but was ready to leave by the time she did. When the bomb on the bus in Tavistock Place went off right under her office window, she said she really felt like a Londoner - there was a sort of Blitz spirit at the time - but I think it was also the start of the had-enough feeling. Chewing gum on pavements, impatience, random aggression, noise... but when she visited again just before Christmas she remembered what she'll miss. Largely the Harrods hamper from her boss, which she's had for the last time, but the easy public transport (if you're issuing a hollow laugh there you don't live in the British countryside or even the suburbs), the restaurants, the workmen who will come to mend your boiler or whatever or make a delivery and give a day and time and stick to it (today at 11.45? Certainly. Not - Friday week, any time between 8 am and 6, unless we don't bother to turn up). Sushi bars, the museums, which are in provincial cities but not free, the auction houses where you can ask to handle priceless objects, the parks.

What I miss is not being able to go and stay the night with her. I only have day trips to London now.

Marie said...

I used to work at Daunt Books. True. Not the Marylebone branch, but both the Hampstead ones, so I probably never met you in a former life, but chances are I served Liberty London Girl and her doggie. I miss it too. There is no Daunt Books in my borough.

nappy valley girl said...

I haven't lived there since I was 16 but I still miss Hong Kong. In particular: the smell of rain on hot pavement; the grungey noise the taxis made; spending Sundays on a boat in the South China Sea.

Mrs C said...

As a Canadian, I miss tim horton's doughnuts.

I miss the Rocky Mountains.

I miss the oceans of empty space on the prairies.


Welsh Girl said...

Daunt's books - god I love that place. I could spend thousands of pounds in there with alarming ease if I was ever allowed in with a credit card. Actually, i rather love Marlybone High street in general......

Red Rum said...

Miss London like crazy, especially Julie's wine bar in Holland Park. I lived NOWHERE Holland Park but I loved going there. Top place in SE4 - Moonbow Jakes, the cafe that opened JUST AS WE LEFT!!!! By the way, have switched from Heinz to Branston baked beans - would never have believed it possible but Branston are better! And I STILL can't get that pesky marmoset song out of my head....

katyboo1 said...

Welsh Girl is right. Marylebone High Street is possibly the best shopping street in the world. They have a fabulous Waitrose, Paul & Joe, Emma Bridgewater, The White Company, sigh...
I used to whore myself around between those three branches of Daunt. And the independent booksellers on Highgate High Street. I loved it there. I once nearly fainted when Terry Gilliam popped up behind one of the stacks. Sigh...Sigh...
And don't even get me started on Heals.

Juci said...

Hell, I only spent a year in the UK and then only a couple of days in London but even I miss the country and the city so much that I have to go back regularly to recharge my Brit batteries. I miss the Southwest too, the lovely cities like Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Wells, Bournemouth and so on. The UK is a pretty amazing place, or at least something inside of me responds to it on a very primal level. It just feels right.
And Budapest... I guess I miss my city too, but I wouldn't want to be home right now. The economy is disastrous, Hungarian politics and politicians make me want to puke, and there are so many roadworks and bridge reconstructions (not forgetting the totally pointless tube construction) right now that the city is practically uninhabitable. But I miss the open-air cafés in the summer, the view of the Danube and the Castle Hill, the crumbling turn-of-the-century glory of the buildings, the cafeteria of the National Library and the walk back to my apartment at 9 PM when the library closed, oh God, I miss my apartment. I will never own a city like that ever again 'cause I'm a mum now. Strange.

More than a Mother said...

Beautiful post :) I lived in Paris for a couple of years; the thing I missed the most was the smell of cut grass on an English summer's day. My mother offered to post some out to me, but I pointed out customs probably wouldn't appreciate the extra work. I lived in the 9th and worked in the 18th, and used to walk home via M&S food so I could gorge on pork pies...

Jaywalker said...

Justme - yes! I would love it. We need a child so we can get into Coram Fields too and admire the smelly goats.

PG - ah, I thought this would resonate with you.. I miss RIBA too. All those handsome architects.

Pochyemu - ah, I know exactly the place you mean with all the uber-privileged bratlets. Wow - that must have been weird. By the way, your slides came in very useful at the conference yesterday.

Woman - I do love living here. I really do. It's fantastic. But here with access to M&S would be even better...

Bevchen - pasties! You see this is why Greggs the Bakers is doing such a roaring trade in Brussels!

Marya - now I will not die happy until I see the cycling wolfman.

LLG - ooh! End of day bun fights at M&S! Times really are hard. I am impressed at your hardy swimming skills. Brrrr.

RedShoes - you are really really making me want to go. Will you show me round someday?

Katyboo and Welsh Girl - ah, Marylebone High Street. Best sleb spotting place in my manor. I swore for years Dale Winton was stalking me, because I used to see him every single day on the High Street. One of my rich lawyer colleagues has a flat just over Natwest. I was poisonously jealous. It's got a bit too expat bankery now, I think, though admittedly the shopping is still aces.

FC - with my scandi stereotypes, I would have thought they would have plenty of large sized shoes. aren't they all GIANT?

Vanessa - I'm totally intrigued at this alcohol restriction thing. In Belgium you can get beer ANYWHERE. Toy shops, Macdonalds, in our office meetings..

PM - ah, at least you appreciate it. And living in your part of town must be quite tooth-grindingly aggravating at times!

Z - yes, yes yes. All of that. Though the plumbers I can't believe I'll miss, what with the pleading and the call out fee and the '£100 for every half hour OR PART THEREOF'..

Marie - does working there spoil the mystique, or is it as wonderful as it seems?

NVG/Mrs C/Juci - you make the cities you miss sound fantastic. Mmm. Nostalgia for places I have never been.

Red Rum - oh, things that open just as you leave. SO frustrating. Every time I went down Goodge Street after we left, there was some other fantastic opening. And then the same thing happened in Spitalfields, only MUCH WORSE. Curses.

More than a Mother - Oh, the woe when the Paris M&S closed down! Awful. My dad is from the Forest of Dean, and when he moved to London to study at LSE, his mum, my granny, sent him a big box of bluebells from the Forest, packed in damp cotton wool. He's never forgotten it.

Iheartfashion said...

I'm definitely adding Daunt Books to my itinerary next time I'm in London! Looks fantastic.

Fat Controller said...

In our little agrarian community it is only the horny-handed sons of toil that have big feet, and they favour clogs.

Word verifivation is 'putran'. If that doesn't mean something then it ought to.

Livvey Kirtley said...

Well I'm not as far from home as you are: I have moved to Edinburgh from Somerset, but strangely there are still things I really miss. I miss WHSmiths which actually sell stationary instead of just magazines and I miss nice big green spaces where you can see sky with stars in it, instead of only being able to see the huge building across the road.

Jaywalker said...

Iheart - yes, do! are you going sometime? I would email you mental, endless lists of places to go. you could ignore them, of course.

FC - It sounds pretty rude in French. Clogs eh. Not your thing?

Livvey - ah, another stationery fetishist. Have you found somewhere else to get your fix?

Mr Farty said...

I've lived in Edinburgh all my life - well, not yet , obv. - but what I miss about other places:

Jacaranda trees in full, glorious bloom in South Africa.

The London Tube. Seriously. All warm and smelling of, well, London.

Trailer parks in Vancouver, with tiny hummingbirds flitting from one feeder to another.

Fireflies in North Carolina, like tiny fairies dancing under the trees at dusk.

Everywhere - the people. Most people make you feel welcome when you visit their home. It is great.

westendmum said...

Dear Belgian Waffle, just read your London archive.
I'm sorry, I didn't realise you really meant it when you said you would cry...
I live in London, and love, love, love it but.
A couple of things I miss about France:
• Breakfast beer at Les Halles, a tiny wine glass worth of cold beer called a 'bok' just so refreshing at 10am!
• Taking a coffee in the sunshine, espresso just doesn't taste the same in the UK, I think it's the water. In the same vein, I think tea tastes different outside the UK. This is also true of rosé.
Ok you got me, things I don't miss about France, never mind the chewing gum, there's dog poo EVERYWHERE.
Restaurants closing for lunch!!!!