When asked about life in London, the move or being far from whatever “home” means on a given day, I’ve used “gettin’ there”, to the point of exhaustion. The truth is, getting there is everything but a linear process, everything but just a destination. Having grown up abroad and juggled with the definition of home and roots for a long time, London was, and still is a whole new peculiar and exciting challenge for me. I’m there, and yet still on my way and I’d love it if you would accompany me on this bi-monthly trip around the lovely odd city of London. If not, I guess I’ll see you at the pub.
What the Food
7th January 2020
There exists one thing that the French enjoy slightly more than complaining about the Brits, and that is complaining about British food. Come to think of it, remove British from the equation and you’ll still get the French talking about food. If we’re sitting at lunch, we’ll probably spend a good while wondering what it is we will be having for dinner and going on about how Jean-Paul’s blanquette de veau really could use some salt. However, Christmas and specifically Christmas meals have the particularity of uniting many nations together. Indeed, racist uncles and embarrassing childhood stories blurted out by an eager older brother are, unfortunately so, quite international. In the case of my very own brother, the story where, at the age of four, I threatened him with a knife to get him to open the snacks drawer which was too high for my hungry little-self, is amongst his favourites. Although I don’t remember any of it and cannot attest to the truth of his favoured tale which was in any case probably inflated considerably, it can give you an idea of food’s importance in my life. Not only am I French, I am also ready to injure and kill for a cookie. Now that we are out of the festive frenzy that put our taste buds to the test, I decided that it was only fair to use my passion for food as a means to clarify some British culinary traditions. As much as I would like to display the full range of family stories containing tales of lovely trips to Great Britain which where turned to food related disasters, I will refrain from it. After all, I have yet to complete my Brexit pre-settlement status application and would appreciate completing my university diploma with limited injuries. Let us thus treat the following paragraph as a guide to ignorant foreigners like I once was in the face of British food, and embark on a lovely adventure along the dining tables of Great Britain.
Illustration by Izzy White
1. Never be fooled when someone offers you pudding at the end of a meal. Your mind will be playing a lovely slideshow of warm and fluffy cakes only to end up with a couple of strawberries on a plate. Pudding generally means dessert, deal with it.
2. There is an exception to this rule, however. If after having seen your plate be filled with a nice roast on a Sunday lunch you hear the magic words ‘yorkshire pudding’ and look down to see golden little cakes which might even slightly resemble a potato, don’t slap your weird host. Yorkshire puddings aren’t dessert, they’re a Sunday roast’s best mate.
3. When you think that the English language allowed works like those of Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and Jacqueline Wilson to be written, the semantic culinary shortcomings of it are just unfathomable. However, I fear it can’t be changed and I’ll just translate the following to you: mince pies do not consist of meat stuffed into an excuse for a pastry. They’re dried fruits and Christmassy spices on a bed of beauty and they’re delicious. Have another.
4. In the UK, eat your greens has a wholly different connotation. I do not care that you’ve never enjoyed the little green globes one calls peas; you cannot go around this tradition. The Brit cook them in butter and they’re mandatory. I did not think I’d say this but kudos to you on this one, England.
5. Aaaah wine. My favourite topic. It is not food and it definitely is not British but a meal isn’t one without wine and this is exactly why you should pay attention when I write: do NOT under any circumstances order rosé in Britain . You will only get a sarcastic look from the bartender, a glass full to the brim with something looking and tasting oddly like strawberry syrup, and an empty bank account. Stick to a casual house red and suck it up.
6. Meat. There is something utterly unexplainable about British meat eaters. It often seems to me like the whole lot of them have a sit down once or twice a year, to be reminded that only the oddest part of an animal, and only with the weirdest cooking times, will be tolerated. Visit St. John’s Bread and Wine in Shoreditch to get a full on experience (I do recommend their madeleines for pudding though). I have more than once contemplated the fact that there might be a conspiration to make meat taste so odd that covering it with gravy is not necessary but obligatory. (It has been said that Grease’s original song “Freddy, My Love” was actually composed by a British butcher under the title “Gravy, My Love”)
7. Last but not least, seven being the most powerful magical number, never be fooled by a mate asking you what it is that you are having for your tea. They are not asking whether you are more of an Earl Grey cuppa’ lover, but politely inquiring about your dinner menu.
Coming from a country where “Pain au Chocolat” literally means bread with chocolate, looks like bread with chocolate, tastes like it, and IS just bread with chocolate, I felt like some vocabulary clarifications were of the essence. Before I leave you to tenderly shake your head at these lovely British oddities, I invite you all to remember that although winter festivities are often a time of culinary excess, throwing yourself in a diet obsession probably won’t have you kick off the year as nicely as you’d wish. You’ll probably end up at the pub sobbing right onto a plate of chips between two sips of a pint anyway, and, as per usual and in the respect of the international bond I try to foster and maintain, I’ll probably be right there with you. Bottoms up!
Ride or Die: The Inevitability of the Pub
13th December 2019
I love Harry Potter. I am fully aware of the risk that I am taking by opening up my very first actual column with such a strong statement but, the truth is, I love Harry Potter with a proud and fierce passion that - much like Hermione Granger’s hair - cannot be tamed. My first encounter with the United Kingdom happened within the pages of the magical world and much of my decision to study in London was calculated in relation to the proximity of Platform 9 and ¾. Setting foot on this somehow perpetually damp soil, I wasn’t expecting anything to be as revered as my personal seven tome bible. Few of you will understand the utter shock I felt discovering that not only was there another British religion I hadn’t been aware of, but that it has its very own codes, language and powers, its own warmth and identity. However, what it does share with J.K Rowling’s world is its sense of a parallel dimension. Stepping inside a public house for the first time (I can’t help but think that the shorter version of “pub” was invented by drunken patrons incapable of uttering more than a single syllable) hits you with the certainty that you are indeed in a universe of its own kind. Wooden counters around secret booths standing about in the floating aroma of ale, topped up by an ever warm atmosphere which only the final call bell is able to disturb and shake in frenzy… this would be your basic pub experience.
Illustration by Izzy White
Truth is, the line separating your common bar or other drinking den from the true Public House is much more prominent than most foreigners like myself may think. The first distinctive feature of the pub is that, the prime purpose of this landmark is not necessarily access to liquor. Mind you, I myself have never set foot inside a pub without ordering a nice glass of wine regardless of the time (it’s always happy hour somewhere in the world). However, the knowledge that I could very well sit there and waste hours nursing a single cup of hot chocolate, tucked away in my red velvet corner booth, is enough for me to feel entirely comfortable in what was invented as a home away from home. No matter what kind of bar one usually frequents, there is always some kind of dress code, speech and even attitude expected from patrons, even in the coolest of places where a tie and signet ring would be snickered at. The uniqueness of the pub lies in the fact that nothing is ever expected of anyone. I have rocked up to the pub dressed in a sequin dress and faux-python loafers, yet have visited the exact same place in the largest pair of jeans I own and my muddy wellies. The pub doesn’t care: the pub - and again much like the ideal wizarding world - does its own thing and welcomes any and all individuals inside its walls whilst looking at the outside world with a relaxed amusement. It gives one the space to have fun and go all out, all the while a neighbour might just indulge in the sober pleasure of a judgement-free plate of bangers and mash.
If a non-British soul comes across these few lines, they will no doubt have noticed the powerful, singular designation of “Pub”. This is precisely where the utmost beauty of it is: in one of the most socially segregated countries I know, the Pub is the ultimate social leveler, be it in old Manchester or on your street corner. The true British don’t just go to a pub, they go to THE Pub.
And now my friends I ask you: what better first step to fully gettin’ there than the knowledge that however cold and lost we might be, however estranged and goofy we feel, home is where The Pub is.
1st November 2019
As life itself does, it started with the body. The physical move from a warm and casually familiar place to a much colder one filled with grey indiscernible shapes and a lot of confusion - of which a few recognizable voices were trying to appease. My cosy nest had been carefully constructed over nine consecutive years under the bright sun and heavy tropical rains of Hong Kong Island. My nest was a confetti, a speck of colour on the large map of the world. Its vibrant cries in hundreds of languages and messy streets were lullabies to my daydreams. I navigated its temples and skyscrapers with the ease of a chimpanzee in the comfort of the jungle. It was safe. It felt good, and from my high-rise view-point, the world, unconsciously so, seemed like an exciting and quite similar place.
Again, the first to set foot in London was my body. My mind was racing through lavender fields in my native Provence and my heart was buried somewhere in a Cantonese coffee shop. Talk about a messed-up sense of identity. So here I was, all leggy and awkward with my huge coat and my stomach twisting in directions I never knew existed. I was eighteen and yet my hand struggled to let go of my mother’s as she left for the train to Paris and her own exciting new life, which seemed to be, for the very first time, estranged from my own. My eyes, tired from crying, couldn’t get used to the bricks and wide streets beneath the grey skies that were so far removed from the narrow roads and sinuous mountain paths of my tropical city. London was far too big for how tiny I felt at that moment.
The first to get there was my body and I have to admit that my mind took its time. The hostility I felt around me was shaped by a sense of floating: I wasn’t really there and would soon come back to the humid landscapes of my childhood, to the blue corridors of our high school that had heard me complain and laugh so many times. It’s tough, if not impossible, to see beauty when the only thing you have with you is an unfamiliar physical sensation. My mind wasn’t quite ready to stop tanning on Cantonese beaches and I left it there for about six months. These six months saw me cry in Museums where I found relief and the longed-for sensation of belonging somewhere. They had me drown in centuries-old fiction and hide behind piles of research and self-induced academic pressure.
Illustration by Izzy White
However, without me noticing it, they also had me go for walks in tiny mews and along unknown canals that I regarded with the intrigued suspicion of a child presented with a big, somewhat scary but inviting new toy. They saw me discover the joys of the pub and the delicious cynicism of British conversation until one day, it wasn’t just my long legs and bushy hair that acclimated to London’s drizzle, but my weary mind too. It had finally caught up; I was there to stay and if my heart still wasn’t ready to truly open up to grey cobbles and the weird English obsession with tea, my mind was there to at least register and accept them. It got there around Easter and gave me a bit of time to revel in this new feeling of knowing that I was now a part of this London town and that this wasn’t just a coffee break on a long drive, but a real honest-to-god long stay that would only further shape my international-self.
My mind and body had reached a nice point before I left for summer, and truthfully, I did not believe anything else could join them. After the hardships of the year, this betterment seemed to be more than enough. The thing with life and growing up is that the surprises pile up in a strange, sometimes delightful and sometimes truly nasty mount. But the real surprise that was awaiting me when I came back to London at the beginning of this academic year was a truly pleasant one: My heart, my little drama-queen, over the top blood-pumping organ, had arrived with me and was excitedly expecting the returns of its pals, my body and my mind. It wasn’t fully in love yet, it still isn’t now, but it’s there for feelings to grow into something that might become a ferocious love and that, for now, has me excited and ready to let my affection for this city transform into something bigger.
I am no spiritualist guru and this separation of the different entities of my being is mostly to tell you that getting there completely takes time. This process is far from over for me and writing about the strange oddities of British city life in this column will be just as much a part of the process as calling my mother last year and crying so much that even my dog got worried.
I am looking forward to bringing up the quirks of London and maybe ending up truly, whole-heartedly getting there.