Damp sparklers and soggy rockets! That’s what the weather forecaster said last night and it looks like it might be true. The skies are grey and the kind of fine misty rain that England does so well looks set to stay. It’s a day for sitting beside a log fire (if you’re lucky) and making soup and mugs of hot chocolate after a walk with the dog – or cat in our case. He proved himself ‘more dog than cat’ by joining us on a walk beside the sea the other day. The problem is he’s pants at fetching sticks and won’t swim out when we throw stones in the water.
Although it’s November 5th and the mantra is “remember, remember”, I’m trying hard not to remember balmy clear nights with fireworks and entertainment in Cyprus last year with no rain to dampen the party spirit. Instead I am cheering myself up with thoughts of train journeys and pop-up cafes.
The other week I discovered a little gem at the local train station in Emsworth. Arriving with time to spare at this quaint Victorian station, which has a Railway Children look about it from the platform, I thought it would be too small to have a café. But a blackboard just inside advertised coffee and cakes at Carriages. I wandered in to the former waiting room which has been transformed into a Cath Kidston style café with spotty plastic table cloths, bunting and pot plants, all in pastel shades of pale pink, yellow and duck egg blue. I was so surprised about it not being ‘Costa’ or another chain that I wondered if they’d even have takeaway cups. No fear, there was a smiling barista happy to help and a row of tempting cup cakes lined up along the counter. We chatted about her new venture to acquire the empty rooms and start up a traditional café on the platform. I was only sorry there wasn’t time to sit at one of the pretty tables to soak up the café charm – another day hopefully. Standing on the platform a cup of latte steaming in my hands I felt so pleased that there was somewhere like Carriages and that a couple of people could still start up a ‘business with a soul’ in this little community. I’m sure it makes commuting a happier experience.
I met another bit of beautiful British entrepreneurship a few days later after a walk along the cliffs in Dorset. It had been a sunny afternoon, one of the last warm autumn days as it turned out, and we’d enjoyed a picnic with a panoramic view of Harry’s Rock with Poole and Bournmouth in the distance. We decided to wander down to Studland beach before heading home and I was wishing I’d packed a thermos of tea or coffee. I needn’t have worried. At the bottom of the lane just beside the beach was a little shack with it’s blackboard sign for tea and coffees propped up outside. It was almost 5pm but the café was still serving tea and not just tea, but tea in proper mugs that you could enjoy on the picnic benches overlooking the beach. At the top of the slope leading onto the sand beside a beach hut was a large container filled with buckets and spades and beach toys. Instead of a price for hiring or buying, there was a little notice which said, ‘please borrow and return – we like recycling.’ I was impressed and touched all at the same time. This seemed like a local family offering a brilliant service for visitors and locals alike. A young girl from the cafe was tidying up the buckets and spades to pack them back in the beach hut and I helped pick up a few left on the shore. There is something special about letting people borrow things without a charge and it was incredibly refreshing and simple. It made me want to live somewhere like that, where it isn’t all about money and charges.
Although we may have to contend with soggy sparklers and a smoking bonfire tonight, at least there’s plenty of tea and other charming seaside cafes to seek out in the future. I’m looking forward to sampling many more. There should be a ‘rough guide to UK seaside cafes’ – now there’s a thought…
I may have overdosed on train journeys. Last week I chose one of the worst days possible to ‘take the train’. What should have been a four hour journey turned into a six and half hour marathon, which included swapping from train to train to avoid landslips and fallen trees. During the journey you inevitably become closely acquainted with a clutch of strangers, who you exchange sighs and sometimes smiles with as train announcers crack jokes and flustered guards repeat reasons for the delays. About 5 hours into the journey that famous English sense of humour proved it could soar above adversity, when the train announcer finished his update on progress south by telling us our lifejackets were located underneath our seats. There was a ripple of laughter, which did help lighten the heavy atmosphere in the carriage, as people were murmuring into their phones to let loved ones know when they might actually arrive at destinations. I was laughing, but I did wonder for a fraction of a second if lifejackets were stored on trains…but no, that would be silly, wouldn’t it? I resisted the temptation to check under my seat.
The English sense of humour and the cheeky banter is one of the things that help us through those rainy, dreary days. And nowhere has better banter than Nottingham. Apart from being one of the best shopping centres in Europe it’s also irrepressibly friendly. Having travelled on trams and buses around the city, it’s the only place I know, where people pass £5 down the crowded tram to pay the conductor who can’t reach them and then pass back the change over people’s heads, without a second thought. ‘Hey up me duck’, what’s odd about that? That’s what’s so brilliant about public transport. You’ll probably get asked where you’re going if you have a large bag or a rucksack. If you look lost, there will inevitably be a clutch of passengers to chip in and tell you when to get off. I once joined in a kind of monopoly game using public transport around the city. We were armed with clues about each destination we needed to reach. The passengers realised we were on a mission and it wasn’t long before they were all chipping in with the best stop to get off and directions about how to get to the next location.
The banter is on the streets too. Last week as I sauntered past a white van and three workmen in high vis jackets peering into a large box full of wires at the side of the road, I noticed an older couple stopping to chat with them. The man exclaimed loudly, “but how on earth do you know which wire goes where?” I half wondered if he was their supervisor, but he wasn’t dressed quite right. The workmen were shaking their heads and seconds later there was a burst of laughter and I realised he was just stopping to have a joke with them. The other people walking past smiled as the couple sauntered off down the street, leaving the baffled workmen to their rewiring. I couldn’t see that happening in London.
Now back in Cyprus, I’m realising our sense of humour and the ability to tease people we don’t even know, is one of the things I value in life. No matter what your problems are, someone sharing a joke with you can lift your spirits. Laughter really is the best medicine because there’s nearly always a funny side to any problem.
It’s Wednesday and for the first time in two months I’m thinking about feeling homesick…
How strange, here I am in a beautiful hot country surrounded by my immediate family and new friends, with all the comforts of home and I feel a bit out of place, as if I need to be back in England. I suppose this is a feeling that will come and go for the next two years, this time brought on by seeing one of our visitors off to the airport to fly back to the UK. Talk of, English harbours, train journeys and plans for weekends away have conjured up pictures of ‘our green and pleasant land’, which I know is more often grey than green, but I miss being there today and I miss my friends and my old workmates too. Strangely, I miss the routine of going into the office, making plans, solving problems, cracking jokes, dealing with stuff and even having a bad day!
I’m not without purpose here, but days seem to involve too much food shopping, cleaning and cooking and not enough stimulating dramas and pressing deadlines. I guess I’m a drama queen at heart then, and I’m reflecting that this quiet life away from it all isn’t always as perfect as it seems from the hubbub of a full-time job. It’s also puzzling me why I feel like this and what ties me to the UK and the places and people I know there.
There is a huge security in being in your own country, your ‘homeland’. Here I am, a foreigner, not speaking the language, attempting to find my way round and make life work, but differently. Life here has to be lived in the Mediterranean way, with down time in the middle of the day when the sun is too hot to bear. Meals are for sharing and evenings aren’t spent in the lounge by the TV, more likely outside chatting round the table, or playing a game of cards or backgammon where it’s cooler.
Last night we had a BBQ at the beach, we watched the sun go down, we drank some wine and ate delicious sausage and kebab filled pitta breads with salad. We put driftwood on the little BBQ to make a safe fire on the rocks beside the water and debated about the direction of the wind, the flames and any stray sparks as the waves crunched on the sand at our feet. We gazed at the stars as they appeared above us in a velvet black sky. Across the bay we could see the lights of some of the local resorts and out to sea fishing boat lights flicked on and off in the darkness.
I like this lifestyle very much, but today I’m missing ‘home’, I miss friendly Southwell and Nottinghamshire and I miss the possibility of what the weekend will hold after a busy week at work.