Monday, August 31, 2015

A Photo A Day

I give you my last five days and an introduction to my neighborhood in a photo a day:

Wednesday 26 August: Victoria Park. A short walk (or shorter run) from my flat, Victoria Park is one of the largest green spaces in the East End. Alternately known as the People's Park, it was built in 1845 to provide the Victorian working classes with their own parkland. It is a beautiful space, with manicured lawns and gardens woven through with running and walking paths.

Thursday 27 August: Regent's Canal. I don't know much of historic note about the canal, but the towpath is busy with pedestrians, runners, and cyclists, and it is a lovely place for an evening stroll.

Friday 28 August: Brick Lane. Running through Bethnal Green to Whitechapel High Street, Brick Lane is the center of my new neighborhood. It reflects in microcosm the successive waves of demographic change in the East End. The name hails from its past as a district of manufacturing, close to the wharves on the Thames. Jack the Ripper did his ripping in and around Brick Lane, and the narrow streets and architecture reflect its industrial roots. 

The 19th century saw increasing Ashkenazi Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe; this period survives in the most popular bagel place in town, the 24-hour Beigel Bake. The bagels come laden with salt beef and gherkins (which are apparently not to be called pickles) and dripping with mustard. As a former New Yorker, I will say the bagels themselves are nothing to write home about-- they're sadly not water boiled, an essential component in getting the right chewy texture-- but let me not quibble with an institution. 

Brick Lane in the 20th century became home to London's growing Bengali and Bangladeshi communities, some of the largest current demographic groups in Whitechapel. Brick Lane reflects this today, with street signs in Bengali, innumerable curry shops, and several mosques. The area feels very Southeast Asian, and very Muslim; some of my neighbors, and many in the crowds in Brick Lane, wear djellebas and hijabs.

The final demographic group, the 21st century's contribution to Bethnal Green, consists of people like me: young and often white students, artists, and gentrifiers, drawn by cheaper rent, multiculturalism, and an increasingly trendy art and bar scene. Brick Lane has not quite reached the level of Shoreditch, a hotbed of hipsters one neighborhood further west, but I speculate that it's only a matter of time before current residents get priced out.

Saturday 29 August: ramen. Saturday I met up with a friend from NYU, Megan, who is in London for the next month. We did touristy things (London Bridge, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, St. James Park, etc). But you don't need pictures of those things-- you've seen them all already, in every movie ever made about England-- and in the interest of providing at least one picture with people in it, I give you our dinner, at a ramen place called Bone Daddies. It was delicious.

Sunday 30 August: Spitalfields City Farm. I guess cramming three pictures into one is technically cheating, but I wanted to show them all, because this was the most exciting place I've been since getting to London. An urban farm and community garden in the nearby neighborhood of Spitalfields (pronounced, unfortunately, Spittlefields), the farm is a lively place. The many concurrent projects include educational and family programs (the farm was crawling with toddlers at a birthday party when I visited); an acre and a half of garden space under cultivation; a community garden specifically for Bangladeshi women to raise culturally appropriate crops; a farmyard bustling with goats, sheep, chickens, pigs, donkeys, and a Shetland pony; apiculture; compost production; wool dying and yarn spinning; and a small cafe featuring seasonal vegetables and cheeses. It's an impressive operation. I'm hoping to start volunteering in the garden, as a way to meet people and to keep my hands in the dirt. I have the feeling that this could be a great place to get plugged in to.

Which leads us to today. It's August Bank Holiday, an annual long weekend, and there's a Caribbean festival and parade on in Notting Hill. It's been raining all morning, but if it clears up a little this afternoon I'll head over. Tomorrow evening I fly to France to spend three weeks in Bordeaux with Pierre; upon my return, school will start, and life will get real.

When it does, I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

In Which I Learn I Don't Speak English English

I almost didn’t leave for London yesterday.

Monday morning before my planned Tuesday afternoon departure for England and grad school, I had still not received my passport back from the UK consulate with my student visa.  As if that were not enough, over the weekend I had managed to come down with a case of bronchitis. Whiffs of panic could be scented in the air in the Skove household. But things came together, as they do; my passport arrived, with all my papers in working order. After a lovely going-away gathering with my farm coworkers, Monday night found me clocking in 11:00 pm at a 24-hour CVS, washing down antibiotics with codeine.  Tuesday my parents gave me a lift to Dulles to see me off, and before I knew it I was on a plane.

It was then that I had a rude realization: British English and the English I know do not necessarily share vocabulary.

Let me digress for a moment to explain that when you have 3-foot-long thighbones, as I do, economy seats are a real pain. I don’t mean this in some metaphysical way, like the way all your friends singing that one song from Frozen is a real pain; I mean the tiny space between seats causes actual physical discomfort.  So you’ll understand that when the time came to choose a seat online, and I saw an aisle seat with extra legroom at no additional fee, I thought my stars had aligned for once. I noticed small print explaining that this seat adjoined “cots”, and briefly registered this as odd—I’ve never seen cots on a plane, I thought, imagining metal foldout beds, like summer camp or M.A.S.H.—but mostly disregarded it, because hey, legroom.

As it turns out, “cot” is British (or Bringlish, a term I just invented now to describe British English, because they don’t own the whole language, thank you) for baby bassinet. This is, I anticipate, not the last time that I will unintentionally hoodwink myself ("Wait, your car got booted?! Were you not supposed to park here? Why are you gesturing to the trunk? That seems irrelevant.")

Let it be stated for the record that those terms are NOT synonymous, whatever British Airways might think. A cot is a cot. A bassinet is entirely different, chiefly in that babies occupy it, a feature that was inadequately advertised. “THIS ROW EXCLUSIVELY FOR THOSE WITH TINY WEAK EARDRUMS AND HEALTHY LUNGS”, the website should have said, in 32-point bolded font.

My linguistic indignation was useless, however; I was sharing a row with two infants and a toddler, and I couldn’t even complain about it, because I chose the seat. I did this, the traveller’s suicide, to myself. We taxied into takeoff, and as the pressure in the cabin increased, the babies, on cue, burst into a chorus of howls.  About the time they quieted down, the fasten-seatbelt sign went off, and the toddler turned on an iPad to resume watching—I kid you not—Frozen.

“Let it goooooooo, let it GOOOOOOOOOO,” Idina Menzel shrieked from two seats over, and I was overcome by a strong urge to beat my head slowly against the baby bassinet (excuse me, cot) in front of me.

It was shortly thereafter that my friend bronchitis made an appearance, and I burst into a fit of chesty coughs. The one doomed innocent in row 35, a nice German man with limited English seated to my left, turned slowly to look at me with an expression of mingled disapproval and despair.

“It could be worse,” I rasped cheerfully. “I could have forgotten my cough drops, then we’d be in real trouble.” I smiled, to indicate that this had been a joke, but he didn’t laugh. We’ll chalk it up to the English.

I started thinking about ways I could possibly be a worse seatmate: I could have athlete’s foot and yet insist on taking my shoes off. I could have brought a bag of spicy nacho cheese to slurp on as an in-flight snack. I could be a third baby, a nacho cheese-eating baby with stinky feet and bronchitis, who didn’t pack cough drops OR clean diapers. This last one made me laugh, which provoked another bout of coughing. I thought about trying to share this bizarre hypothetical with my beleaguered neighbor—“Want to hear about the worst baby in the world? You could have been sitting next to her!”—but in view of the resolute way he was staring straight at the televised flight map in front of him, presumably willing the plane to be in London already, I didn’t think he was in the mood for more of my jokes. I let him be and retreated behind a book.

And thus, inauspiciously, began my time in London.

This morning I got to my new flat in Whitechapel with a minimum of hassle, thanks to an exorbitantly expensive cab ride from Heathrow to the East End. If I never take a taxi again until the day I move out, I may be able to justify that blow to my carefully planned budget. London, as two months’ worth of Charles Dickens audiobooks led me to anticipate, is gray and drizzly. My flat is cute, with (hopefully) just enough room for four people, and a pocket-sized garden out back. My German flatmate, Tayfun, is proving to be as great as he seemed via email. I already have a new number; email me if you want it.

I’ve seen too little yet to give much more of a description than that, so we’ll leave it there—I’m here; I suspect I’m not dying of consumption, as my meaty coughs would seem to indicate; and despite not having slept one wink on the plane, I can’t wait to get out and wander around through the drizzle, exploring my new neighborhood.

So I’m going to do just that. Until next crime!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

On the Road Again

It's been a little while.

It's been almost eight months since my last post, to be precise. This blog was originally kept as a Peace Corps blog; then it morphed into a travel blog, during my two and a half month trek in the Balkans. I suppose it could have become a farm blog during these last eight months, but it didn't. Despite the fertile material (pun intended) at my fingertips, I took a hiatus from writing. I learned to drive a tractor. I became skilled at seeding brassicas, a family of vegetables (kale, collards, cabbage) with biblically tiny seeds. I harvested more tomatoes than I want to think about. But write I did not.

But now I'm gearing up to be on the move again. In six days (six! Count 'em!) I'll be on a plane bound for London, to start my masters' in Environment and Development at the London School of Economics. I'll spend most of the month of September in France, travelling a little, reconnecting with old friends (B. Dunn, I'm comin' for ya!), but mostly spending time with Pierre, my boyfriend of eight months and a new addition to this narrative. Blogosphere, meet Pierre-Henry. He's pretty much the greatest.

I'll try to keep the sappy couples' selfies to a minimum. Indulge me this once.

Thus the reboot of the blog, because the alternative use of my morning is packing. Just as there's nothing like a looming final paper to make you suddenly realize how desperately your apartment needs to be cleaned, there's nothing like needing to sort out a backpack's worth of my earthly possessions to drive me to the keyboard.

I won't promise that I'll keep this up; grad school is going to bring with it a lot more work and a very different schedule than I have enjoyed for the last three years, and it's entirely possible that once my semester starts I'll barely have time to heat Ramen noodles, let alone write blog posts.

But... I'll give it a shot.