I didn’t really want to go to London. I didn’t want to return to the world of news and reality, commuting, delayed trains and, let’s face it, since it’s January after all, disgusting weather. I was perfectly happy in my bubble, perfectly content and embedded in my own slice of rural France for over two months. The time – or better said, my perception of it – had taken on an elastic quality and the two months felt a lot like six. And yet when people asked me what I did during those two months since packing up my life in London in exchange for la vie en rose, I could only recall fragments of activities: feeding birds, fussing over the cat, chickens waking up, chickens going to sleep, trips to various supermarkets, piss-ups at the neighbours’ at the chauteau across the road, family visiting, eating pintxos in San Sebastian, friends over, howling at the moon, delayed fireworks on New Year, dancing drunk on Sofia Vicoveanca (a beloved Romanian traditional folk singer), singing along and showing off my ppprrrrrrrr-ing skills (loud sounds made during traditional dancing that would even wake up the dead from their eternal resting places), cockerel dying, electricity tripping, heating shutting down, trip to the thermal spa, a few walks, bits of working, bit of writing, lots of wine drinking.
It’s incredible how much a person’s mind and actions are in synergy with the place and I noticed this more when I arrived in London on Tuesday for a quick work trip. I was nervous at first. That I’d find it overwhelming and that I’d feel lost and unwelcome now that I’ve left it for good, but when one has lived in this city for as long as I did, I found myself very quickly like a fish in the water, aware that I could negotiate it blindfold if I had to. I fell straight back into feeling at ease in this Babel Tower that is the city of London. But I had brought something extra with me this time around. I had brought a big dollop of serenity and an enhanced ability to remark on the subtle but, nevertheless, ubiquitous magic around me. I was attuned to capture the many wondrous moments a city like London dispenses of in abundance every single day.
London greeted me with a crisp sunny day. I was welcome at the office and, for a fleeting moment, it felt as if I have been on a long holiday and I was now back at home, settling in my usual routine. But I knew that if that would have been the case, I wouldn’t have been as content as I was now, knowing that, come Sunday, I’d be on a flight back to Biarritz, to my beloved bubble.
Settled on District line to Wimbledon, I was on my way to Putney, where I was staying with a friend. A man came over from the other end of the seating area, apologised profusely in a soft Easter-European inflexion for disturbing me and asked me if the train would stop at Notting Hill Gate. I haven’t completely unmemorised the tube map, but I hadn’t been to Putney many times in the past and I glanced up at the tube map above my head before confirming. The man thanked me and sat back in his place. I took out the book I was reading (re-reading One Day in fact) and noticed from the corner of my eye somebody hovering over me. I looked up and saw a woman’s inquisitive face.
‘Looks like I got on the wrong train,’ she said. ‘Do you know how I can get to Victoria?’
I glanced above my head again and suggested changing at Earl’s Court for Eastbound.
‘That’s right! You’re a clever girl,’ she said and moved to the far end of the carriage.
‘She could have gotten off at High Street Ken,’ said the guy to my left – a smartly dressed Asian in his early thirties.
I glanced up again and realised his option was better.
‘You’re right,’ I said. ‘She could have gotten on the Circle from there.’
I returned my attention to my book but a few seconds later he spoke again.
‘She called you a clever girl.’
‘That’s because I am,’ I joked and returned to my challenged reading attempts.
‘Is it fiction or non-fiction you’re reading?’ he insisted.
I turned the cover over, as if not sure what I was reading, flashing my wedding ring in the process. ‘Fiction,’ I said and returned, once again, to my book.
‘Where are you from?’ he asked again. ‘Are you French?’
How funny, I thought, now that I have moved to France, it looks like I am now channelling some kind of invisible French energy. I smiled back at him: ‘As it happens, I live in France. But I am actually from Romania.’
It must have been the wedding ring effect that finally put an end to his questions. But no sooner had I returned to my book for the fifth time that the original guy who had asked me about Notting Hill Gate appeared by my side.
‘Excuse me,’ he said in English. ‘You said you’re from Romania?’
‘Yes,’ I answered, in Romanian.
‘How good,’ he said in Romanian (the rest of the following conversation, as you can imagine, happened in Romanian). ‘Can you tell me what plenty means?’
‘It usually means A lot. In what context?’
‘I was washing dishes at work and a colleague walked past and said Plenty.’
‘A lot then,’ I said.
‘Why didn’t he say A lat?’
‘Plenty is more expressive.’
‘I want to speak very good English,’ he said, standing now above me, left hand firmly squeezed under the strap of his backpack.
‘That’s a very good thing to want,’ I said, amused.
‘English is very useful,’ he continued.
‘Especially in England,’ I quipped.
‘I already speak English though,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t have gotten a job otherwise,’ he said, more introspectively.
‘I know,’ I said, remembering the times when I too used to wash and serve up plates in hotel restaurants and suddenly panicked by words I didn’t know like pantry, cutlery and crockery, despite my already excellent university-level English.
‘I’m coming from work now,’ he continued and then as if I needed any further clarification: ‘Going home.’
‘Enjoy your evening,’ I said, as the train came to a halt and he was getting ready to get off at Notting Hill Gate. ‘And good luck with your English.’
I smiled to myself. When I used to live in London, weeks, months would go past without as much as making eye contact on the tube. Now I moved to France and suddenly I was the most popular person in the carriage.
As the days went by, my short trip to London acquired an even more dramatic and surreal quality. Moments of unexplained elation at crossing Putney Bridge with a victorious sun behind me and realising how much I loved being in London again and how fully I occupied my place in this world: with wonder and joy. Seeing a flock of geese flying low above the river, just like often saw in France, or a common pigeon (a creature I didn’t use to have a lot of love for before moving to France) picking up twigs between the rail tracks at Edgware Road station, which he carried onto a metal platform above our heads, his tiny feet making clinking noises as he walked it towards his barely visible nest. Later that day, as the evening came dressed in a damp coat of unforgiving cold, I found myself sandwiched between discontent commuters from both sides of the District Line platform at Earls Court, waiting for the next Wimbledon train. Due to an ‘incident’ at Aldgate (memories of my years spent in the flat in Aldgate East came rushing past) the entire Circle, District and Hammersmith and City network was messed up. As annoying as I felt tempted to feel, I was more amused by a TFL employee who was giving a stand-up performance through a speaker to a flabbergasted crowd of people desperate to get home.
‘Great news, my dear Richmonders,’ she blasted through the loud speakers. ‘You next service to Richmond is about to arrive on platform four. This baby’s gonna take you home.’
People kept rushing past me so I decided to stay completely still until a Wimbledon train would arrive, finding the whole situation both annoying and entertaining. Annoying because it was cold, my hands were freezing and my lips were chaffed, and the Londoner in me hated delays and transport chaos; entertaining, because the woman was making a real effort to lift commuters’ spirits and make them, if not smile, at least less upset about getting home late to their children or lovers.
‘Wimbledoners, I have good news, three Wimbledon trains are set to arrive in the next five minutes. To make your wait less painful, we’ll play another game of firsts. This time: first time in London. Did you know that the first ever roller-skating exhibition took place in London? Roller-skates were invented by John Merlin, who made a demonstration of his invention, but he forgot to add breaks. He ended up having a serious accident, but thankfully survived. This was in the year 1760.’
Once safely inside the second Wimbeldon train, I once again smiled to myself. What other funny moments would this trip bring?
As it turned out, the next surreal moment was to be delivered to me at Boots in Farringdon where I went to buy a few bits and bobs on Friday, during my lunch break. When I arrived at the cashier to pay, the man behind the counter began an actor-worthy recital:
‘And how are you on this wonderful day?’ he said.
I’m great,’ I said. ‘How are you?’
‘Oh, I couldn’t be better. I’ve just had a great lunch break and, thanks to Mr. Starbucks, also a very good coffee to keep my spirits up. And the sun is shining, tomorrow is the weekend, what more can I wish for?’
‘I’m with you,’ I said, smiling, as he scanned my items.
‘I can see here that you’re got two items that are part of our Three for Two promotion. Wouldn’t you like to get a third item?’
‘No, that’s ok,’ I said. ‘I’m good.’
‘Are you sure you don’t want another mini-dry shampoo? They are useful little items and one of our best sellers,’ he continued with added drama.
Well, I thought, since I’m getting it for free I might as well, and went back to the shelves to pick another one. When I returned, the man was scanning a min-bottle of Head’n’Shoulders shampoo.
‘This is an excellent shampoo,’ he said. ‘Myself, I use it all the time,’ he continued. It was Head’n’Shoulders, not Ten Voss, the world’s most expensive shampoo. Was this guy for real or was I being filmed by a candid camera?
‘Is there anything else you would like to purchase today?’ he asked, with an inflexion in his voice indicating that despite his question, he was far from finished with me.
‘No, I’m good,’ I said. I’ll just pay now.’
‘Oh, look,’ he said unpeeling the receipt from its printer and displaying it like a precious diploma. ‘You are getting a free eye-test and 20% reduction on frames. Isn’t that great?’
‘It is but I’ve just had one recently,’ I said.
‘Then you can give it as a gift to a friend,’ he said and by this time all I really wanted was for him to shut up. ‘And look, you get double-points if you buy over £20 worth of products in any of our stores…’
‘Thank you,’ I said, grabbed the receipt and made for the door. There was only as much chit-chat I could handle on a lunch break, even with my spotless mind.
By the end of the week, as I was carrying my suitcase on the train to make my way towards Stansted Airport on Sunday morning, I was grateful that the trip to London appeared to have reopened my creative channels. I have no idea why, but cities and crowds inspire me. More so than the countryside, where the silence is complete and the spirit is at peace. In order to write, there has to be a hole for me to fill, a yearning to make sense of the world, an old wound that still hurts a bit sometimes, an immaterial absence that living in the country doesn’t conceive. For a while, I was too happy in France to write, but being back in London re-fuelled my spirit with nostalgia and a lot of life.
Those were the kind of thoughts going through my head, as I wheeled my suitcase in the underground, changing lines, from Victoria to Central at Oxford Circus, when a young man passing by on my left said something.
‘Sorry?’ I said, as I didn’t understand him, deep in thought as I was.
‘I said you have beautiful gloves,’ he said walking by my side now, as I felt my face becoming the colour of the gloves I had purchased a day before from Collectif: red. I was also wearing a navy coat, a Christmas present from my husband, a black beret, a red and black chequered scarf and red lipstick: a combination of colours I felt extremely good in, but never had it crossed my mind that it would attract a man’s attention.
‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘You’re very kind.’
Blushing still, I continued my walk, feeling his presence a few steps away to my left. When I got to the stairs and picked my suitcase up to descend, I felt someone pulling it from me. I turned my face and saw the same man, smiling at me, offering to carry it for me down the stairs.
‘Thank you,’ I said, blushing further in the knowledge that he was attempting to get my attention. ‘I’m going that way,’ I said once at the bottom of the stairs, hoping he would go in the opposite direction. I was a married woman who certainly wouldn’t encourage anyone to flirt, but being rude to someone so nice was out of the question.
I waited on the platform for the train, taking glances into the direction of the crown now spilling over onto the platform from the stairs, relieved to see he wasn’t part of it. But when I got on the train, I saw him jumping into the same carriage. He took a seat opposite me and I noticed he sported the beginning of a hipster moustache, a grey oversized scarf, black jeans and brown brogues the few times I glanced in his direction, catching each other’s eyes. I could tell that he was trying to figure out a way to speak to me. I was flattered, of course, but there was no point encouraging him. I took off my red gloves and allowed him to see my wedding ring. A couple of stops later, he moved at the end of the row of seats and closed his eyes. I couldn’t help but think about the times when I was single in London and would have killed to meet a man on the tube like that, in such an old-school romantic way. Imagine the stories we would have told friends at dinner parties:
He: ‘I noticed her as she walked in front of me. So elegant, so chic. And those red gloves. I went over to talk to her and by the time we got to Liverpool Street, I asked her out for coffee.’
Me: ‘I was taken aback at first, but he was so polite and gentlemanly, how could I have said no when he invited me to coffee?’
But then again, back when I was single, I wasn’t as happy as I am now. And I didn’t wear red gloves, red lipstick, navy coat and black beret, and nice guys didn’t stop me on the street or on the tube to talk to me. And it didn’t matter. Because I was going home to France, to the love of my life and our chickens and our goats and our cat, and our future donkeys, and ponies and horses and dogs and the happiness that we built together. And this happiness is the only reason why nice guys stop me on the tube to tell me they like my gloves.
It’s true, I didn’t want to go to London at first. But I came back rejuvenated, as if I’ve had a creative mud bath and a facial. Because where else would I replenish my creative well, but in the city that gave the world brands like Putney Pies, Estateology, Full Monty Café or Pyjama Lama?