Bright Spots | Week Twenty-Eight

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+ Saturday morning’s bike ride: to our favourite Daisy’s cafe for eggs and the newspaper, to my grandparents’ house for tea and feline sweetness, back along the tree-lined streets of my hometown to the house I grew up in.
+ this book – a true beauty of a tome, with heart-stopping prose to match.
+ my comfy, cosy denim skirt paired with pink lipstick and Saltwaters.
+ working a brisk fifteen minutes walk from Foyle’s – delicious and utterly devastating for my bank balance, I predict.
+ an evening perusing old family photographs with my little sister – such gems I couldn’t help but include a few here (!)
+ our whole family being under one roof, even if just for an evening.
+ watching a brass band in Embankment Gardens one lunchtime this week (they played all of my favourite Sound Of Music tunes!)
+ getting our garden ship-shape – next weekend I’m going to plant a tin bath-tub with herbs!
+ hydrangea season, the chalky blues are my favourites.
+ the subsidised council ROOFTOP pool I discovered, ten minutes walk from the office.
+ capers in everything: their acidic tang is my favourite thing to add to almost any dish.
+ a homecooked meal with Z, setting the world to rights as we cooked and sipped glasses of Beaujolais.
+ an overcast Monday night made extraordinary: four of us, last together in the Austrian backwoods, somehow together again, if just for an evening.
+ lunchbreak in Jubilee gardens with my dear old dad, fresh off the plane from Singapore.
+ washing, damp, hanging on the line – a delicate waltz, and my favourite chore.
+ high summer: the heat this weekend recalled Saigon. Melting hot. Humid. Glaring sunlight overhead.

Bright Spots | Week Twenty-Seven

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+ the warm weather, blue skies, wearing Saltwaters to work, crunching through crisp dew on my daily walk through the park
+ Saturday afternoon at the Victoria and Albert, a cup of tea cradled as youngsters splashed in the pool
+ work: what an (overdue) revelation to have a job you look forward to getting up for
+ those light evenings and a bike ride along the Thames, to Barnes Bridge and back, in an effort to savour them
+ making supper together (we’re on a roasted vegetable kick)
+ Friday night: a work trip to the pub and then Thai food at the tiniest hole-in-the-wall in Hammersmith with my love
+ starting a crisp new paperback: this one, if you’re interested. It’s gorgeous.
+ hollyhocks and late-blooming roses and the way light is dappled by the trees in full leaf
+ a Sunday with Mama – a swim, the farmer’s market, a lazy afternoon watching Wimbledon
+ small kindnesses – the lifeguard who sneaked me into the fancy pool, a shoulder rub early one morning, and the perfect cup of tea

Bright Spots | Week Twenty-Six

I haven’t felt much like writing about ordinary life since last Friday, when I was woken in the middle of the night by the radio we had left whistling, as the cheers of Brexit supporters and Farage’s self-satisfied drone interrupted my already broken dreams. For several days after, life felt anything but ordinary. And yet, as always, it continues. Identities have been abraded, the hopes of millions crushed, and yet I can’t help thinking – almost half of this country voted for this. Nobody can say what the future holds but if it is a divorce with the union, a return to isolationism, if it is Theresa May (who may look stately, given the chaos right now, but who is also vehemently anti-immigration and has in the past placed an economic value on love), then I do not see my future in this country. God knows where will take us, in that instance, but I know that I no longer wish to buy property, raise children or dedicate my life to a country and a government that has again shown its true colours in recent weeks. Yet life goes on: the tubes are full as ever, migrants (who contribute so much) are still here, and the Polish cultural centre in my borough that was vandalised last week still stands, now with a carpet of consolatory blooms beyond its welcoming doors. We still go to work and buy milk from the corner shop and read The Guardian, because it’s the only paper that seems to understand, and smile about trivial things. Despite the fact that, at its core, life feels very different and the future an unknown land. So, bright spots – after too many a week in absentia. Bright spots of the quotidian, that still – in spite of everything – are making me smile.

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+ street parties, hen parties, leaving-work parties
+ blousy peonies, spread in jars about the flat
+ the tomato plant, reaching for the sky
+ friendships blossoming
+ my grandparents’ garden
+ a delicious, impromptu dinner: butternut squash noodles, fried aubergine, halloumi and mint-laced peas
+ a Saturday in Cambridge with my dearest, oldest friends
+ deep conversations in the car – there’s something about driving that fosters it, isn’t there?
+ long soothing swims
+ a Thursday night feast with two dear old friends
+ a new job, that is more than I ever hoped for
+ and the updated commute that accompanies it – a walk through the park to begin every morning

What are you grateful for?

On Europe

Riding bike on the Danube

I am pretty wild about Europe. I have been for as long as I can remember. I fell in love during those early family holidays consisting of days spent wandering through cornfields in southern Germany; gazing upwards to admire the twin spires of Europe’s most beautiful cathedrals; the sprawling, speckled-grey chateau our parents and friends rented for several weeks. Days shelling on the vast blonde beaches of Brittany; collecting rose petals to sieve into perfume from bushes running riot on Austrian roadsides; sitting down to supper at Breton restaurants, fingers soaked in the creamy sauce that is so often a vessel for mussels in that part of the world. Days spent queuing to see Van Gogh, and Monet, and the attic where Anne Frank penned her famous diary. I would spend my pocket money – francs, deutschmarks, peseta – on keychains and pocket knives, practising my s’il vous plaîts and auf wiedersehns as I passed shiny coins across the counter. Even then the thought was thrilling: this wealth of foreign cultures on our doorstop and the thought that we – as Britons – were part of a greater good, an umbrella culture. Europe. 

I was never more certain of the miracle of the European Union and all that it stands for than the long, hot summer I lived on the banks of Lake Neusiedl in Austria, a long spindly shallow of reeds that stretches, like fingers, across the border into Hungary. Living so close to a border gave me great admiration for what the founding fathers of the Union were aiming for when they decided a pact of nations, united by shared ideals, was something to strive for. On sweltering dusty noons, my friends and I would grab rusting bicycles from behind the old straw-thatched barn and cycle south towards Hungary, pausing en route to pluck plums from laden trees at the peak of their ripeness. We sampled grapes from the vineyards we would pass en route and filled our bicycle baskets with the sunflowers for which the region is known. We’d cycle on until, eventually, road signs would inform us that we were nearing the border with Hungary. The boundary itself was unremarkable, over-achieving sunflowers in place of the barbed wire you might expect in other parts of the world. A modest sign marked with the European flag announced our right to enter, unchecked, into another country. The blue of the flag represents the ambivalent sky of Europe and its dozen stars symbolise the peoples of Europe in a circle – a motif of unity. You are welcome here, the sign inferred. For what are borders, after all, if not man-made human constructs, cemented by history? We are all Europeans, the sign inferred. Ride right on through. And we did, exploring the borderlands of Hungary and her onion-domed spires, dirt roads and Kürtőskalács pastries for ourselves. We’d cycle home in the twilight, back across the border we had crossed in the midday heat, returned to Austria by the evening. Europe. I felt part of it.

Similarly, the year I lived in Germany aged twenty-one on the spine of the blue Danube, I was able to reap the benefits of the EU, receiving thousands of pounds in Erasmus grants and the opportunity to work in a secondary school without a visa by virtue of my European passport. I couldn’t quite believe that I – an Englishwoman born and bred – could so easily build a life in another country many hundreds of miles from my own, with few questions asked, purely for the fact that we were part not just of a shared continent, but a shared institution. Europe. I was welcomed and I repaid what I took, as the vast majority of economic migrants do. We all benefit from the easy ebb and flow of people across this diverse, storied continent. Freedom of movement has its flaws, true, but it works pretty well most of the time. The odd mishap is, surely, a small price to pay for such unparalleled liberties.

My experiences abroad, so easily garnered, with so few hoops to jump through, have shaped me as a person. They have made me a better citizen here in Britain. They have strengthened my professional contributions both as a translator, and more generally and given me the confidence to contribute to my society, wherever I am, and to accept other cultures with open arms. To embrace the foreign, to revel in difference, to learn from communities different from my own. Europe, and its union, unites cultures. We have so much to gain from it. We are so much better together than apart.

A lot has changed since I lived on the continent. In many ways, Europe is unrecognisable. Streams of desperate refugees fleeing unimaginable suffering in the Middle East have reshaped the fabric of European society, particularly in Germany. I have immense respect for Angela Merkel and her open-door policy, though it has been widely criticised elsewhere. Compassion and empathy are traits rarely seen in national leaders and her decision to fling open her country’s proverbial doors to people from wartorn regions is something to admire and emulate. Some have exploited free movement, of course, but that figure is miniscule. Leaving Europe will not stop would-be terrorists entering via the Balkans. Staying in, however, allows us access to the European arrest warrant and the cooperation that prospers in pan-continental institutions. Its benefits are manifold.

I realise that my perspective, my upbringing and my life’s experiences to date have been unusually Europhile. I feel as much a European as I feel English. But even if you don’t feel particularly European, what good would come of turning our backs on the very institution that has secured peace in Europe, after centuries of ignorant, violent, sorrowful war? To turn our backs on those fleeing conflict of a magnitude many of us can never know? To wave farewell to a single market that has allowed our economy to prosper? It is not my place to wade into the economic arguments for staying in here, they have already been examined in great detail by others far more qualified than I, but one need only glance at the list of economic experts and world leaders who have voiced their support for our continued membership of the EU to see the financial sense in voting to remain.

I do not want us to become the little island that we, literally, are – an afterthought, a racist hide-out, shut off from the rest of the world. An eccentric right-wing nightmare ruled by the kind of anti-immigrant fanatics that are not so different from those who helped the National Socialists ascend in Germany in the 1930s. (Just look at Nigel Farage’s poster, the similarities are as repulsive as they are unmistakeable.) When economies falter, there are always those who look to pinpoint a cause, a scapegoat, someone to blame. Behold, Europe! These dirty Europeans helping themselves to a slice of the economic cake – they’re after your jobs, buying your houses, filling your doctors’ waiting rooms, speaking their own cryptic languages in your tube carriage! They’ll bring their children and their whole families and their strange unknowable cultures and we’d rather not have it, if you please. Get gone and shut the door behind you, if you’d be so kind?

That isn’t Britain, at least not the Britain I know and love. I love British people – specifically, in my family and friends, and more broadly. At our best we have so much to offer: community, a sweet and baffling eccentricity, a reservedness countered by profound kindnesses, a sense of civic duty, a belief in traditions – baptised by our long and ancient history – juxtaposed with the innovation and forward-thinkingness that is easy to see in London’s skyline, streets and shopfronts. I love our strange, one-of-a-kind customs – street parties, scones bathed in cream and jam, Queen’s jubilees, the Olympics. Goodness, remember the Olympics? That spirit of openness, of pride in both our country’s unique place in the world and its liberalist, internationalist spirit seems a long time ago. I hope our countrymen remember that sense of goodwill and openness on Thursday.

The EU isn’t perfect, far from it. But at its heart, it is good. If a window shattered, would you burn your house to the ground? Of course not. You’d patch it up, install a new pane of glass, maybe even paint the window frame while you’re at it, ensuring the integrity of the whole. I hope we do not leave Europe simply because it has its cracks, its flaws, its faults. I hope we stay, work things out and commit to reform. I hope we take pride in our twin identities, as Britons and Europeans. We can be both; we don’t have to pick and choose. We live in a global society and it is ridiculous to think that shutting ourselves away, rolling up the drawbridge and reverting to a homogenous society would solve the problems modern Britain faces.

Please vote this Thursday and please, for your own sake, for Europe’s sake, for your children’s sake, vote to remain.

Further Reading

*Regular international readers, apologies if you’re from far-distant lands and this piece bears little significance for you. Back to regular scheduled programming shortly.

Bright Spots | The Singapore Edition

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Eastern streets lined by frowning jacaranda trees, the scent of frangipane blossoms on the breeze. The mindless hum of taxis roaring down the freeway juxtaposed by the air-conditioned bliss of the MRT. The buzz of a hawker centre, where delicious scents, the sizzle of industrial woks and chattering voices mingle. Crimson orchids sparkling, as if ablaze, in the sunlight. Children splashing in the outdoor pool, swimmers doing laps. The sweet sleepy cats at the rescue shelter, falling asleep on my knees just like an infant would. The wall of heat that hits as soon as you step outside. The tart tang of lime juice. The smiles and the stares. Falling into bed with tired feet, freckled cheeks and a smile on my face.