Gettin' There

with

ZOE MANSET

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.

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Chapter four

Gettin' Dressed to Get There

14th February 2020

It is generally agreed upon that there is a part of performance in social interactions. How could there not be one ? Other than the fact that social interactions can be a whole range of things going from boring to intimidating and that we fight to hide it, I’m sure my professors are glad that I don’t behave in seminars as I do at the pub. Or at least they should be.

The acts that one puts up in social realms vary from one person to another and so do the tools they rely on. I grew up around strong, vocal women who loved and love clothes, a love which they easily professed. Although I now realise that it is their intinsic class and elegance rather than their attire that imbue them with an aura, their confidence in rocking the clothes the chose to wear certainly inspired me. The time in which I started to fully decide on what I would wear and why I wore it, coincided with my departure from an easy, familiar life in the Parisian suburbs, to the humid and heavily scented island of Hong Kong. One of the things that scared me the most was the idea of going back to school. There was no way around it and as much as I begged my mum to let me stay at home with her, the doomed day arrived and before I knew it I was seated in the back of a dark and cool classroom. I remember being greated by our teacher, saying goodbye to my mum and most of all, the excruciating walk from the classroom door to the back of the class in the farthest seat possible. The only thing that kept me going was the rough and familiar feeling of my long kaki skirt under my clammy palm. As I said, at the time I had started to explore my personal sense of style, and my current fascination lay with pirates, one that has not quite left me to this day. I would stroll around the house with a bandana tied losely around my waist, just over my maxi skirt and quickly feel like this new, foreign house wasn’t that scary after all.

Illustration by Izzy White

Talking about that first day with friends that I made later on in the year, one of them admitted to wondering “who the hauteous girl in the back was”. When I laughed, she justified herself saying that I was new and yet had strolled in like I owned the place, heading straight for the seat I wanted and playing carelessly with my flowing skirt. This walk to the back of the class still is the image I associate with the feeling of holding back tears, the lump in your throat growing so fast that you fear you might just explode. However, that is everything but what it looked like to the people surrounding me at the time, apparently I seemed bored at best. My favorite maxi skirt and my loose black t shirt that reminded me of sea wars and gold earrings were the shield that got me through the day. They did not change what I felt, but they pushed me to go past it and keep walking because well… what would Calico Jack do ?

Since then, I have often received comments that spanned from mocking to admirative on the way I fashioned myself. A teacher once told me she found great fun in waiting for me to walk into her classroom, wondering if I would be rocking a sequin dress or a jean and t-shirt. Although I’d always been either touched or amused by people’s comments, I never quite understood their institance on calling me “daring” or even “brave”. I like to think that it was not necessarily because my taste was so commonly accepted as horrid that people admired my capacity to survive a full day with the rags I had on the back, but you never know. Clothes weren’t and still are not my way of protesting or professing anything other than my interest for fashion and possibly performing arts. They are a shield, a booster to the mood I’m in or wish to be. I use them to channel the different people I need to feel akin to on certain days whether it’d be an 18th Century maiden or a 90’s gangsta rap star. Needless to say there are some that I manage to pull off better than others but I should not let myself digress. What I mean is that clothes are the comfort zone that I create for myself wherever I am and not a risk that I take.

Before I got to London, I had the common conception of the western fashion world broke out in roughly four cities and ruled around their own “style”. The myth of the aloof and effortlessly chic Parisienne, the proactive, sparkly New Yorker, the glamourous and sensual Milanese and the daring, sometimes wild Londoner. I was rather surprised to see that I found nothing of the constant and extravagant street catwalk I expected. Sure, there were possibly more pink hairdoes and boys in skirt than what I’d seen in Hong Kong or Paris, but it was nothing I did not expect and studying art history, your version of what “extravagant” means tends to shift. Regardless of what I thought, I was too absorbed in feeling misplaced and seeing London as a shapeless grey-ish zone to ponder on this stylistic surprise.

It is only about a year later, when some books of mine which had been hidden in the meanders of my many moves returned to my possesion that I managed to put a finger on it. Amongst the different fashion books in my collection, a few of them happen to be about the mythical “Parisienne” and how to attain her essential and absolute cool. Others where about the general aura of French women and the different tricks they used to cultivate it, long lists of do’s and don’ts to follow religiously. Seeing those books for the first time since my arrival in London, I realised what it was that surprised me in the city fashion. As extravagant or eccentric were the styles I came across, there were no gauging looks, no judgmental glances on the tube and very little defying attitudes. People just seemed at ease with both attire and demeanor. I tried to imagine a young, hip British fashion writer trying to tell her fellow countrywomen how to cultivate the perfect pub fashion and laughed. I realised I had reached a destination of comrades: people dress for themselves, revelling in the spontaneity that is a given here. The truth isn’t that there is fundamentally more creativity here in London than in other places around the world. It is rather that people don’t feel like getting dressed in the morning dictates a form of courage that will have to face the sneers and snickers of those around them.

I am a fierce admirer of many things to do with French fashion and my point here isn’t to demolish it but rather to point out the snake-biting-its-tail trouble of its myth. The issue in trying to curate a look of classy nonchalance is that all nonchalance threatens to vanish, leaving a cold cut snobbery that has never looked good on anyone.

And, between you and I, I’ll pick a rugged mini-sequin-skirt and carefree laughter over a slick tux and calculated attitude anyday.

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Chapter THREE

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!

Chapter two

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.

Chapter One

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.

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