In search of the sublime, contemplating Brexit in Brittany

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In one of my favourite literary vignettes, Edmund Burke, in the mid-18th century, contemplated the meaning of “the sublime” in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. He described it thus:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.

Burke deduced that the term applies to whatever makes “the human creature” fearful, especially the natural world. Whenever we see huge waves crash onto the shore, lashings of rain in a winter storm, a powerful ocean swell: these things invoke a feeling of awe, terror, and sublimity.

Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), added:

Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt.

Burke, especially, finds much evidence of the sublime in literature and poetry, citing the work of Homer, Milton and others. Indeed, literature was my first love; it connects me to something within myself that’s always existed, since the moment I could read. It was this feeling, helped by the storied streets of the French capital, that propelled me towards exploring another part of the country in search of this sublime that I kept talking about. My being in France in November and December, visiting small coastal towns during the off-season, could have something of the sublime about it – or at least, I like to think so. After spending 11 days in Paris, finishing the final touches on an academic paper, I felt a desperate need to be by the sea.

And so, I took a four-hour bus to Rennes, the capital of Brittany. I enjoyed a day exploring its pretty town centre and Christmas market.

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On the day with the best forecast, I awoke early to take the train to Le Mont-Saint-Michel, the medieval monastery that was built atop a rocky island over 1,000 years ago. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it really is awe-inspiring – as the coast comes into view from the road, you see the abbey’s spire pierce the sky, made all the more dramatic for the flat land surrounding it and the fact that it’s the tallest thing for miles around.

You can take a shuttle bus or walk 40 minutes from the public bus drop-off point to get the the island itself. I’d recommend walking if you can; you get to watch the monument slowly rise out of the sea as you come closer, giving the most fantastic views. When the tide is out, as it was when I visited, it looks like this:

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When the tide is in, it is possibly even more majestic, looking something like this:

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It was a cold and windless day, and I sat on some rocks for a long time, just absorbing the view.

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After leaving Rennes, I set out on a journey to the place I’ve been excited about visiting for months: the medieval city of Saint-Malo. I arrived on a sunny Monday morning. I had passed through miles of flat, green countryside on the 40-minute train journey from Rennes, and could feel the excitement tickling the pit of my stomach as the sounds of seagulls drifted through the air. I had been looking forward to seeing the sea for ages.

I walked out of the station and straight down a main road towards what was signposted as the intra-muros, meaning the historic walled part of the city that sits so iconically on a peninsula. I felt a smile spreading across my face as I came closer, feeling the diluted winter sun warm my skin and stopping to look at some quite majestic sailing ships that were reflected in the still, calm water, looking as though they were suspended in the sky. I could smell the sea air.

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Saint-Malo today has a population of around 44,000 and is visited by many tourists. My personal interest arose after I read Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See (2014). Set in World War II and revolving around two main characters, both children, the novel took him years to write and resulted in a slew of awards and attention, including the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In beautiful prose, Doerr slowly builds a magnificent image of the life of a blind girl and her father who escape Paris to live in Saint-Malo during the War. One of the reasons I liked this book is because of its exploration of the father-daughter relationship, one I wish I saw more of in literature and art.

Walking past the city’s impressive ramparts (I had hoped to see a storm, but had arrived on the calmest of days), I headed to the expansive beach. Something I am really starting to love about Brittany is the wide, sweeping, flat beaches; the tides are huge and powerful, and there’s certainly something of the sublime I hoped to find here.

The tide looked to be completely out on this calm day in Saint-Malo; the low sun made mirrors of the rockpools, reflecting that particular low, golden light of day that you only see in winter. My heart soared as I spotted these rockpools, reminded of countless days spent on Pembrokeshire beaches as a child, collecting crabs and shrimps in buckets, playing cricket, and building sandcastles. I looked out across the English Channel – La Manche, or ‘the sleeve’, in French – realising that Cornwall and Devon were on the other side.

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Saint-Malo from the beach

Ever since beginning to learn French properly, and intensified by Brexit, I have taken a more active interest in this neighbour across the water. I thought about the name of this region of France, Brittany, and how similar to Britain it sounds – and there’s a reason for that. Britain used to be inhabited by Celtic peoples, and to this day Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and Cornwall still have strong links to their Celtic roots. Many of the Celtic people of England (called Britons), however, fled across the Channel to north-western France to live in Brittany, or Bretagne, during the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries. This explains why the name is so similar (Britannia means “Bretons’ land” in Latin).

Breton, the language of Brittany, is still spoken by many in this region, and has produced some fabulous music. Brittany also remains a very popular tourist destination for Brits today.

Of course, the connections between France and Britain, much as the two might grumble and pretend otherwise, are undeniable. French was actually an official language of England for about 300 years. After William of Normandy, better known as William the Conqueror, invaded the isle in 1066, French quickly replaced English in all areas associated with power, including in the royal court, the clergy, the aristocracy, and in law courts. English survived to evolve into its present-day form, absorbing many, many French (or Latin) words in the process – in fact, as many as one-third of words in English share a common root with French; this amazed me when I first started learning, but in fact even someone who knows no French would recognise so many similar words, especially if they saw them written down. An amalgam of Germanic, Romance and even other languages, English has such a vast vocabulary in large part because of its ability to adopt new words in this way. (I learned much of this from the fantastic History of English podcast.)

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Watching the sea as I eat lunch on the rocks

As I was looking out to sea across the Channel, I felt a sense of sad calm fall over me as I realised I am still capable of fleeing Brexit Britain, just as the Celtic Britons fled all those centuries ago in the face of danger and instability. Far from being invaded, my feeling is that Britain today is shutting down, closing itself off from outside influences. Thinking of the richness of just this region’s shared history with Britain, the absurdity of the Brexit situation crashes down upon me once more.

Still, I passed the most tranquil of afternoons atop a rock in the dilute winter sun, perfectly warm due to the absence of wind and my decision to wear several layers. Checking my phone, I saw that it was 12 degrees C. I tucked myself onto a flat, high rock shelf with a view of the beach swimming pool (unfortunately empty for winter) and gazed out appreciatively as I ate my lunch. Afterwards, I settled into reading my hefty copy of Risingtidefallingstar by Philip Hoare, which contains many stories about the sea – and who I also saw speak at the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris.

Walking to my hostel later, I felt full of ocean air and literary Romance, happy to have finally arrived in the city I’d envisaged many times while reading Anthony Doerr’s novel earlier this year.

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The swimming pool on the beach, now (above) and in summer (below)

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The ancient city of Saint-Malo as viewed from Grand Bé island, which you can walk to at low tide.
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The sea was a beautiful blue, calm swathe during my days in Saint-Malo. (None of the famous storms I’d heard about)

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View of Saint-Malo from the lighthouse
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Huge tides reveal several hundred metres of fabulous sandy beaches each day

When I finally left Saint-Malo, after extending my stay by two days, some of that famous stormy weather was finally starting to whip up along the shore. I was sorry to be going; I could have stayed a week. My next stop took me to Deauville, which is actually in Normandy, but has the same wonderful wide beaches that you see in the film Dunkirk – itself not far from Deauville.

This time, though, the weather was near zero degrees. Cosied up in my warm Airbnb studio, looking out over the sea, I pondered the latest in the Brexit negotiations saga. I had arrived the night before, struggling uphill through the stormy, hailing, windy, frozen elements to arrive in the darkness. Thawing with my hands over the electric hob, my heart sank as the reality of the situation seeped into my tired bones.

Forcing myself out of my downward reverie, I layered on every piece of clothing I had with me and walked along the expanse of beach at the edge of the town. The tide was out, and the wind whistled along the edge of the beach like a child zooming a toy car along the ground.

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I think it must have been that day, in such low temperatures, as I looked out on the Dunkirk-esque sweep of the beach, as I ate macaroni gratin in a warm cafe, as I tried to follow the conversation of French people around me, as I drank my latte, as I pondered my lonesome independence and the precarity of Brexit, that I decided to commit myself to the project of making France my home – at least for now. I just cannot face being in Britain, to watch as the country and its people are led to ruin.

The sublime is that which scares us, which brings out the most powerful and intense of emotions; it transcends beauty. There’s nothing beautiful about Brexit. But perhaps there is something sublime in starting this new life, in indulging the pain that I feel in this moment. Out here in Brittany and Normandy, I feel connected to this small corner of the world and whole in my own fragmented way, even as I spend my days alone, and struggle to anchor myself. Taking one day at a time – I think that’s enough for now.

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Other great quotes on the sublime (thanks to Good Reads):

A friend to kill time is a friend sublime.
― Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase (1982)

Love is the suspension of reality in favor of the sublime.
― Jeffrey Fry, Distilled Thoughts (2017)

For thousands of years, it had been nature–and its supposed creator–that had had a monopoly on awe. It had been the icecaps, the deserts, the volcanoes and the glaciers that had given us a sense of finitude and limitation and had elicited a feeling in which fear and respect coagulated into a strangely pleasing feeling of humility, a feeling which the philosophers of the eighteenth century had famously termed the sublime.

But then had come a transformation to which we were still the heirs…. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the dominant catalyst for that feeling of the sublime had ceased to be nature. We were now deep in the era of the technological sublime, when awe could most powerfully be invoked not by forests or icebergs but by supercomputers, rockets and particle accelerators. We were now almost exclusively amazed by ourselves.
― Alain de Botton, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2008)

 

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Cabins, sails, and fjords in southern Norway

This summer, I had the pleasure of spending time in the land of saunas and pine forests, of rain and water, water, everywhere, of fjords and sailing boats and tall blonde humans. It seems that every family has a cabin on an island, and a boat to get there; every public amenity functions like clockwork; it’s expensive, but superior in quality – of products, and of life, it seems.

For I have stepped into not what one might call a “regular” household for an average Norwegian, but some kind of supercharged version, wherein my wonder at the things I’m getting to see is surpassed only by my disbelief that I know such people who are willing to share their incredible worlds with me. How can I have such impossible friends, whose extreme generosity and privileges of upbringing create a unique window through which I can peek? I can only believe in some force from above, magnetised by my curiosity, bringing us to each other. And so here I am, a lucky soul, sitting in my own good fortune in this long, jagged land named Norway.

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Boats bobbing at the seafront on Bygdøy, a peninsula west of Oslo city centre

Many of my impressions thus far have been formed from the proximity that Oslo has to the sea. That great life, heaving in the Oslofjord, more northerly, more grey than I’ve ever seen it: steel-coloured and shifting like molten metal. It reminds me of something restless, perhaps abandoned, definitely tough.

Immense freedom is to be found at sea. I grew up with the water; but it was in swimming pools, morning and evening, up and down the lanes, several times per week. My time in the water was measured in resting heart rate, personal best, training in metres. One hundred freestyle, 400 individual medley, four times 200 backstroke. Competitions at weekends and medals and time trials. You won’t leave the pool tonight without swimming more than a mile.

My Norwegian friend’s relationship with water is entirely different. He grew up with fishing, with sails, with sea spray flying in his face. His memory is full of knots – as a measure of both speed and security – and he thinks nothing of stripping down to go for a swim. As a child, he fell asleep in the hull to the sounds of his family’s wooden boat creaking all around him, softly swaying in the waves. He treats jellyfish with relative indifference; trout as a potential meal. He seems more comfortable near water than anywhere else. He has a pragmatic approach to the sea as a resource: it’s there to be used, shared, enjoyed in moderation.

In keeping with this, one of my first days in Oslo was spent at Bygdøy, a peninsula near the city centre which houses several museums – three of them ocean-themed. We went to four in one day: first, the Norwegian Centre for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities, which gives a really interesting of the Norwegian Jewish population (which has never numbered more than 2,100) and how they were treated during the German occupation in the Second World War.

Despite the numbers being small, it’s good to see the country acknowledging its role in Jews’ persecution. In addition, the Centre is housed in the former residence of Vidkun Quisling, a name I’ve heard mentioned a lot here: he was a Nazi collaborator when he served as Prime Minister during the German occupation of Norway, and his name is therefore synonymous with treachery or betrayal. It thus seems like an appropriate contribution to justice to turn his former residence into a memorial of sorts for those he helped send to their deaths. There’s also a good film called Max Manus which tells the story of internal resistance to German rule during WWII.

After this educational visit, we went to the Maritime Museum, the Polar Museum, and the Kon-Tiki Museum. All three were wonderfully evocative of Norway’s rich history of exploration. I found myself reminded of all my favourite sea-inspired literature: Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Michael Morpurgo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom and Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea, Amy Liptrot’s The Outun, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. As a child, I gathered books and poems like this and wrote out my favourite lines, which I stuck to my bedroom wall. I always felt drawn to the sea, but unable to access it as I wished. Sometimes I felt I was saving up inspiration for a future time; here in Norway, I’ve feel like I’ve found a way of connecting them to the real world.

The remainder of my days near Oslo were spent swimming in lakes, taking the dog for walks in the rain, thawing in the sauna, and taking my friend’s boat out onto the fjord to circle the many islands that exist there. We spent two nights on the boat in a gently swaying harbour, falling asleep to the sound of the water lapping at the edges of the vessel, mere inches away from our heads.

In mid-August, we had a big change of scenery and spent the best days of the whole trip far away from the city. Two hours’ uphill hike from Ljosland Skisenter – I couldn’t say exactly where – lies a wooden cabin. It stands at the edge of a lake, the view over which reminded me of a smaller version of Loch Ness as viewed from Urquhart Castle.

In this cabin are two open fires, several animal skins, endless piles of firewood, the musty air of being closed all winter, and a bubble blissfully insulated from the connected world. Internet and phone signal can be reached only by climbing the nearby mountain – the tallest in southern Norway, at 1,041m above sea level (incidentally very close in height to the tallest hill in Hungary, Kékes, which I climbed three summers ago). And this cabin, incredibly, has been in my friend’s family for generations.

We carried all the supplies we’d need for our four-day stay, which meant lots of heavy food (though thankfully not water – that could be pumped from the clear lake).

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“Fully loaded we got snacks and supplies.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11GYvfYjyV0

There was an almost primordial utility in the way we divided up the practical tasks, matching each other’s skills to each thing that needed doing. I made fires and coffee, washed up, wrote about our stay in the guestbook at the end; the others collected wood, prepared meals, opened shutters on high windows, rowed the small boat across the lake. Together we kitted out the large bed that we would sleep in later.

We all had a turn at fishing. I caught a few small trout, which I returned to the water. Pulling a hook out from where it’s lodged itself in a poor fish’s gills is a real test; I found myself talking constantly to the fish, trying to soothe myself as much as it. It can take ages before the hook comes free, the fish gasping and wriggling the whole time.

We also caught (and released) one or two lemmings, the small, furry, hamster-like creatures that scurry around in these kinds of wet, mossy landscapes.

Indulging these elemental pleasures was immensely fulfilling. Each job took time; it addressed an immediate need, and therefore each corresponding reaction created a sense of balance. I spent hours reading by the fire, wrapped in multiple blankets, and we drank and conversed deep into the night accompanied by a dusty wine box we found in the cellar.

That’s what I took most from my time in Norway. When it came to leaving this bubble of calm, each step we took on the two-hour walk back to where the car was parked felt like a step away from the tranquillity and simplicity of the past four days. Yet I carried it with me, and do still, even back in the city – that sense of internal peace, and connection with nature that is so coveted these days.

 

Learning French in Brussels: reflections on two months of lessons

When I moved to Brussels seven months ago, it wasn’t with the long-term in mind – but as with so many of the best laid plans, this one has gone somewhat awry, and not in a bad way. I’ve been taking semi-intensive French lessons ever since I finished my traineeship at the European Parliament, and I’ve gathered some reflections to share.

For as long as I an remember, I’ve yearned to become competent in a second language, yet lacked the motivation – and the environment – to put this into action. It seemed to me, as a wide-eyed 18-year-old fresh from the rural English countryside, that all my international friends at university had arrived with such fully-developed language competence that I couldn’t see how they’d ever been beginners. It seemed that I would always be so hopelessly behind, I’d never reach the same level.

And thus, I always approached language-learning with the same kind of resigned envy I with which I regard those who can play musical instruments well. Yes, I can sing in tune and have a bit of a knack for strumming patterns; yes, I can pick up a ukulele and strum along to simple songs with ease. But I have never put much effort into practising, and therefore regard these things more as lucky, one-off achievements – something I dip into now and then – rather than an ongoing effort which amounts to something that might be called proficiency. And so, I look at someone at a party who grabs a guitar and effortlessly bashes out “Wonderwall”, and think, I wish I could do that!. In much the same way, I meet someone who’s learned another language – especially as an adult, as opposed to being brought up in a multilingual environment – and I am immensely impressed and somewhat envious.

All this has made me think a lot about what milestones we set for ourselves when learning a new language, and what we mean when we say “fluent”. In fact, there’s a good article on the Education First website about differing perceptions of fluency. Learning a language isn’t like learning to fix a bike puncture – the space between either having or not having this particular skill depends massively on your confidence, environment, and self-perception. It’s well-documented that women, in particular, tend to play down their abilities.

An example of this hitting home for me was when a multilingual EU national I know confidently described themselves as being able to speak French; once we were in Paris, however, they balked – reverting to English after just a few words, they were clearly uncomfortable communicating in French.

Similar experiences have amounted to something of an eye-opener for me. I don’t think my acquaintance was lying, or trying to show off – they just perceive their skills differently. As someone who already speaks three or four languages due to their upbringing and education, it probably didn’t feel like a big deal to add French to that list, even if it’s at quite a low level. Yet I, with a GCSE in French, would never dream of saying I speak it. Even now, I think I’d need to reach a much higher level before feeling comfortable with that phrasing. “Speaking a language”, to me, is being able to confidently and spontaneously communicate in that tongue. But to others, it might be something very different.

Anyway, I decided that, after months of passively picking up words and slowly attuning to hearing French around me, I was going to put my free time to use and finally learn the language properly. I enrolled in a semi-intensive course at Alliance Francaise, a famous language school near the European Quarter of Brussels, and haven’t looked back.

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The classes are lovely and small – between seven and 14 people – and are conducted entirely in French. I began at the latter end of the A2 class, which means that I was an “advanced beginner” (according to the Common European Framework for languages). Now, I’m in the B1 class (the beginning stages of being an “independent user”) and my aim is to complete it, and eventually perhaps even B2 as well (a lot of jobs require B1 level at minimum, and with B2 you can find work easily and even study in French). I have lessons three mornings a week, which last between 2.5-4 hours, depending on the schedule. It’s intense, but so varied and fun is the style of teaching that the time flies by.

My confidence has grown enormously thanks to my great teacher, and I feel more strongly than ever that learning a language is possible whatever your age and background. There’s a great article on the World Economic Forum website on this very subject, which goes into some really fascinating reasons as to why you’re actually better primed to learn a language as an adult.

It’s very telling that in my French classes, at least 80 per cent of the students are women. More prone to self-criticism, women are also therefore perhaps more likely to grasp opportunities for self-improvement. Learning a language can be infantilising; inevitably, you’re going to be taking baby steps, and be spoken to like a child. You have to brace yourself for the fact that you’ll feel humiliated at times, and that this is an area where your achievements elsewhere in life won’t be noticed. I wonder if men – generally speaking, of course – are less prepared for the prospect of embarrassment in front of a bunch of strangers. Plus, as men are still often the main breadwinner (especially if the couple has children), they might have less flexible time for hobbies. It’s a big commitment and it isn’t cheap, after all.

But that’s the wonderful thing about learning a language: it is a great leveller, especially when the classes are all in French. Some people in my class, from Brazil, Italy, and other countries, do not speak English. There are refugees, EU agency professionals in their 50s, students in their 20s, freelancers like me, housewives, and many women who have followed their male partners to Brussels for his job. Not one of us shares a nationality. Yet none of this matters in the context of the lessons – our differences are ironed out as we struggle to become better together. There’s a real sense of camaraderie and shared progress that I haven’t found in many other environments.

Another thing that’s amazing about learning a language is the appreciation it gives you for small achievements. It’s hard to describe the feeling of euphoria when I got through my blood test at the hospital entirely in French; when I first walked into a boulangerie and ordered myself un café à emporter; when I called up one of my favourite restaurants, heart racing, and booked a table for three; when I enrolled onto le prochain niveau at the language school reception desk, and she only had to switch to English once to help me. The best time was when I helped a blind man who had got lost on the busy street, looking for the post office. I was on a high for days.

Inevitably, highs can be followed by lows. I get nervous when I meet French-speaking people whose English is unsteady, feeling ashamed that I can’t talk competently in their native tongue. A lot of cinema and public events are still off-limits. It can be hard to fight off the feeling of uselessness when you say something and everybody looks confused. Sometimes, I don’t ask for help, not knowing how to phrase what I need. I don’t stand up for myself when I’m catcalled; if I’m lacking confidence that day, I shop with my head down, hoping nobody tries to talk to me. I am much less sociable than my English-speaking self, afraid I won’t be understood if I try to make conversation in my local shop.

But at the same time, I’ve learned to be much kinder to myself. I was born and educated in a country that seems to revel in its own lack of interest in other languages (exacerbated by Brexit): where languages aren’t compulsory in schools, where you’re laughed at if you try, and where you grow up with an implicit sense that wherever you travel, you’ll be able to get by in English. Many of the people I’ve met in the EU circle in Brussels are immensely privileged by upbringing; their parents have high-powered, well-paid jobs and so they attended private European or International schools where multilingual education is the norm. This is something I, and my British peers, can never benefit from – you can’t go back and change your childhood.

But you can certainly steer the course of your language learning as an adult. I now see that there is no reason why I can’t become proficient in French at the age of 24. I am slowly becoming more confident in my ability to learn. What Alliance Francaise has taught me is that it is never too late to learn and that with the right teaching, motivation, and being in a country that uses the language you’re pursuing, you can notice real progress in your abilities. I’m proud of how far I’ve come in just two months, and hope to continue this way.

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Donning a beret in Ghent – actually a Flemish-speaking part of Belgium!

A long weekend in Scotland: castles, trains, and fishing villages

It’s been a very, very strange six months to be a Brit. Especially after the EU referendum in June 2016, my thoughts were scattered, anxious, furious; but one positive which emerged was a sense of fervent solidarity with fellow remainers – including dear Londoners, city-dwellers, the young, passionate older folk, the Northern Irish, the Scots. A surprise side-effect has been a lasting excitement about my near neighbours and a refocusing of my attentions on the discoveries to be found just within the British Isles and Europe.

My emerging interest in Scotland was then fuelled further by reading the wonderful book The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, recommended to me by a good friend, in which the author autobiographically recounts her experiences of childhood and recovery from alcoholism on the remote Orkney Islands. Throw in the BBC’s recent series on Orkney’s little-known but rich archaeological history, and a feeling of connection and curiosity about this country has become a fixture in my life.

Scotland feels familiar and foreign at the same time; comfortable, yet unexplored. Like my beloved Wales, it is part of the United Kingdom, yet is demonstrably and recognisably its own country. The politeness, the pub culture, the weather, feel comfortingly familiar, but I am intrigued by quirks, idioms and accent, as well as differences in social attitudes, friendliness, and landscapes.

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Our long weekend in Scotland began in the majestic Edinburgh. The weather was eerily warm for a Scottish winter, and remained so throughout our trip – almost 10 degrees some days, and mostly clear and sunny. It was an amazing stroke of luck. We took a lovely train journey from Edinburgh Waverley to Aberdeen, which took about 2.5 hours.

Once we’d settled into our Airbnb apartment, we took a walk around the city. The discovery which really charmed me was a tiny fishing village which goes by the local name Footdee, or “Fittee”, tucked away at the east end of Aberdeen harbour. People still live in the miniature houses, originally built for fishermen, and which provide squat shelter against the wind. There are rows of tiny gardens, some inhabited by an array of gnomes and decorated with nautical symbols. When we came upon Footdee, the wind was raging down the harbour-front and the sun was setting. It was with a sudden hush that we found ourselves walking alongside this delightful settlement.

On another day, we took a bus to Loch Ness from Inverness – just eight miles away. From the medieval Urquhart Castle on the Loch’s shores, we looked out across dazzling clear skies and took in the tranquillity.

We learned about the castle’s history from a friendly tour guide named Graham. He told us about clashes over the site between different clans, including the Picts. Interestingly, the old Picts language was a Celtic language similar to Welsh. The extant words aber and inver mean the same thing – “mouth of” – hence such cities as Aberdeen, Inverness (“mouth of” the river Ness) in Scotland, and Aberystwyth, Aberavon, and Abergavenny in Wales.

Overall, the trip filled me with a lightness and internal calm that I haven’t really felt since the EU referendum. The low-level background anxiety that hums within me almost constantly about the future of the UK and Europe was quieted by the peace of the landscapes and the convivial familiarity of the Scots. Inverness is the furthest north I’ve ever been, and while it didn’t feel too different to any other British town of its size (around 50,000 people), there is something to be said for how one’s mentality changes with the awareness of being so “remote”. The sense of distance is palpable, somehow – and in a good way. I’m definitely not finished with Scotland just yet.

 

My favourite places in London

One of my favourite quotes of all time is from the 18th-century writer, Samuel Johnson: “a man who is tired of London is tired of life”. It’s a quote, and a sentiment, familiar to many Londoners – and one which I thought of regularly when I first moved here as an 18-year-old. I would be filled with a sense of endlessness as I navigated the streets, this city seemingly limitless in its possibilities.

It took me a long time to feel I knew this place, but no time at all to feel at home. That is one of the many wonderful things about London. Now, almost five years to the day since I returned to the city of my birth, I am leaving it.

Yet I am not tired of London – and certainly not life. My reasons for leaving are multiple, but mainly it’s the pull of a long-held desire to work in mainland Europe, hastened by Brexit. Unlike many who become weary of London’s expense, I think the premium you pay to live here is 100% worth it. But I don’t want to just accept that this is the peak of human happiness; precisely because I love it so much, I have to go. There is so much more to see. I am spilling over with it.

And so partly for sentimental reasons, and partly to ‘put to paper’ what I’ve carried in my head these past five years, I wanted to compile a list of my favourite spots in the city. There are so many places I’ve been; I notice that all of my most memorable are north of the river. Perhaps when I return, I need to dedicate more time to the south, where I spent the first few years of life. But for now…

City farms

I’ve written a whole post about my love of city farms. Visit them all if you can!

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Exmouth Market

A charming, pedestrianised road near Farringdon, I’ve spent many a happy Sunday wandering here. I’d recommend the restaurant Caravan for its great coffee.

Somers Town

I once stumbled upon this area between Euston and King’s Cross. It feels suddenly, quietly Dickensian among the chaos.

Victoria Park

Many students who live in Central London never make it out this far, but Victoria Park is probably my favourite of them all. I love going for a stroll or a run here, watching people walking their dogs, or getting lost in its vastness.

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Victoria Park in autumn

Ethiopian restaurants

I’ve covered, enthusiastically, the places offering my favourite cuisine in the city.

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Fish Island 

There’s an amazing outdoor space called Swan Wharf, with a cafe serving great food called The Plough. I love it because it’s right next to the canal; the surrounding area is known for supposedly having more artists per square metre than any other European city. It feels quiet, industrial, and spacious, reminding me a lot of Berlin.

Stoke Newington 

My life changed when, fresh out of my bachelor’s degree, I was hired to work with the Stoke Newington Literary Festival. I had never been to this part of London before, and it made me realise that it’s still possible to have that village feeling even in a big city. Stoke Newington is adorable, full of independent coffee shops and with the fantastic Clissold Park nearby.

Kelly Street

Just my favourite-looking street in London.

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Kelly Street in Kentish Town – image via Ewan Munro at Flickr

Keystone Crescent

My other favourite street.

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Keystone Crescent near King’s Cross station – image via Barbara Smith at Flickr

Dalston Curve Garden

Definitely one of the best discoveries of my time here. The Dalston Curve Garden is a community initiative, tucked away off the bustling Kingsland Road, and sells pizza, homemade lemonade, and cakes. There are beanbags and benches and a lovely chilled-out vibe – there are blankets for colder weather, and you can stay as long as you like. It’s really one of a kind, and I desperately hope it survives.

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Dalston Curve Garden (I appreciate their flying of the EU flag after Brexit)
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Dalston Curve Garden – image via Alper Cugun at Flickr

Broadway Market

I’ve been lucky enough to live very close to this lovely street for the past year. Every Saturday they have a spectacular (if unaffordable) food market, which draws people from all over without feeling touristy. I’d recommend the Turkish-run Broadway Cafe for their delicious in-house gozleme, a kind of flat bread filled with spinach and cheese, which costs £3 and fills you up for hours.

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My beloved Broadway Market – image via Kotomi_ at Flickr

Highgate

I once wrote about a lovely wintry Sunday spent wandering around Highgate. It’s got such a pleasant village feel, and spectacular views of the city if you know where to look.

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Gothic architecture in Highgate.

My Village Cafe

This friendly, hippie cafe in Camden serves great vegetarian food and is full of board games.

Free bookshop, the Kindness Offensive

Up near Camden Road is this bookshop, perched on a corner and housed in what used to be a pub. Run by the charity the Kindness Offensive, you can walk in and take up to three books, free, and drop off old books yourself. I once volunteered with this wonderful charity and they’re very special people. Plus: they have a very cool ‘magic bus’.

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London Fields lido

I’ve been so fortunate to live five minutes from this lovely outdoor swimming pool. It’s heated, so stays open in winter, and is situated within the lovely London Fields park.

Lee Valley river

A few summers ago, I cycled up the Lee Valley towards the town of Cheshunt. It makes you feel you’ve escaped London for a while, surrounded by fields and nature, and makes for a lovely cycling day out.

Ziferblat 

I wish I’d discovered this place sooner – only in these final few months have I been hanging out at Ziferblat. Run by volunteers, you pay for time spent there rather than what you consume. There’s a kitchen where you can help yourself to cake and coffee, and a truly special community vibe. It’s situated near Old Street.

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Russell Square Gardens

Many a memorable day was spent here during my first years of university. Russell Square will always hold such a special place in my heart.

Natural History Museum

My favourite museum in London. I have very strong memories of my parents bringing me here as a child; the dinosaur collection used to terrify me, but to this day this museum remains a wonder to me.

Lincoln’s Inn Fields

Situated right next to my university this year, LSE, Lincoln’s Inn Fields was a firm favourite for my friends and me when we needed to relax. There’s a cheap coffee place offering student discount, and on hot days people spilled from their offices into the park, filling it with warmth and bustling contentment in the sun.

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Lincoln’s Inn Fields on a hot day this summer

Waterloo Bridge 

I’ll end where I began: staring out across Waterloo Bridge as a girl, this was the place where I felt most in awe of the city. I knew I wanted to be here. I once wrote about which bridges in London have the best views, and Waterloo wins by far.

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Some of my family on Waterloo Bridge – taken the day I moved into my halls of residence in September 2011. (Note how the skyline has changed in that time!)

London’s best Ethiopian restaurants: Kokeb, Wolkite Kitfo, Mesi’s Kitchen, Andu Caf‎é

It’s hard to overstate the transformative effect of Ethiopian food on my idea of “going out for dinner”. Since discovering the cuisine here in London a couple of years ago, the delicious blends of aromatic spices with deceptively simple ingredients have shaken up my palate and induced a ravenous single-mindedness when it comes to choosing a restaurant to dine at. There’s no turning back now!

I was lucky to live in North London for a year or so, in which a cluster of Ethiopian restaurants can be found. My first experience of Ethiopian food was at Kokeb, a tiny family-run restaurant tucked away on a quiet residential street, Roman Way, near Caledonian Road. The place is beautifully decorated and always busy; the food, of course, is heaven-sent.

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Kokeb Ethiopian restaurant on Roman Way. [Image: Kokeb]

Kokeb celebrated its 15th birthday in 2014 and, impressively, is run single-handedly by a lady named Getenesh. You won’t forget her in a hurry – she’s funny, charismatic and stern, and doesn’t allow food wastage, taking it as a personal insult to her cooking.

Because we’re officially regulars there now, I’ve tried pretty much everything on the menu – Getenesh, with her encyclopaedic memory, even calls us out when we try to order a dish we’ve had before, urging us to sample something new.

Even so, I have my preferences: a firm favourite is Key Minchet Abish, a divine spicy beef dish seasoned with ginger, cardamom and onion and described as “a dish for royalty” (I no longer eat this, as I’m vegetarian, but the flavours exist in other dishes so I don’t miss out). I’d also highly recommend the Ye-Misir Key Wot (red lentils) and Ye-Alicha Kik Wot (yellow split peas), both simmered in wonderfully flavoursome spices.

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Image: Kokeb

Ethiopian food is eaten hand to mouth with injera – a flat, spongy sourdough bread with which you can scoop up fingerfuls of the other dishes. Vegetables aren’t merely a side order in Ethiopian cuisine; they actually form the core ingredients of many dishes. This makes it perfect for vegetarians, or even vegans.

The plot of my love affair with Ethiopian cuisine positively thickened when I found Kokeb closed one day. Such was my craving that another Ethiopian restaurant had to be sought with immediate effect. My search led me to the wonderful Wolkite Kitfo.

Situated right near the Arsenal Emirates Stadium on Hornsey Road, Wolkite Kitfo is run by a very friendly, gracious family and offers dishes which are nothing short of sumptuous. Like Kokeb, it’s very affordable; two people can easily have their fill for less than £20.

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A mixture of vegetable dishes served on injera. [Image: Wolkite Kitfo Facebook]

I’d highly recommend the honey wine, as well as the curried beef dish (the proper name of which escapes me) and alicha wot. You also can’t go wrong with mixed vegetable dishes – they’re a great way of getting to sample as many flavours as possible on the delicious spectrum of Ethiopian cuisine.

Another of my favourite Ethiopian restaurants in the area is Mesi’s Kitchen. Run by lovely, smiling Mesi, the best thing about this place is the fact that they serve all the usual dishes in ‘side dish’ form, so you can pick one main and one side and mix them all up a bit. It’s affordable and has a relaxed ambience, tucked discreetly on the busy Holloway Road nearer the Highbury Corner end.

I haven’t yet discovered the magical ingredient in Ethiopian food, but I suspect it might be something to do with the special Berbere sauce, which adds a spicy yet delicate flavour. Anything which contains it, I’m guaranteed to love.

I wouldn’t like to call it an addiction … but it’s pretty close. Having recently moved to Hackney, one of my biggest worries was that my proximity to Ethiopian restaurants would dramatically shrink. Thankfully, there will always be a brilliant excuse to head back to Caledonian Road and Holloway – but in the meantime I haven’t been disappointed, and instead visit the charming Andu Cafe on Kingsland Road. It’s a 10-minute cycle from my home, all the food is vegan, and their takeaway costs just £5 – injera included. It’s spectacular value for money and delicious.