“After a swim like that, you don’t need to ask ‘what is the meaning of life’,” says Efi, a friend of my hosts who is visiting from Israel.
It’s yet another lovely summer day in Germany. The lake is wild around the bank and clear, cold, and fresh in the water. It’s quiet, just a couple of other people barely visible through the trees and long grass. The lack of people is explained by the fact that we are lying about underneath a sign that says, “Achtung! Privatgelände. Das Lagern, Grillen, Surfen und Baden ist verboten.”
The German word for ‘forbidden’ was one of the first I learned, and it’s a good thing I did otherwise I might have been walking on train tracks and mixing up my recycling all over Germany.
Admittedly, I’m not too surprised to find myself floating in a semi-secret lake. I’m visiting Klaus and Sabine, friends of my childhood neighbours Jeff and Kate, and during the days I’m with them I see the many small ways they choose to live alternatively.
Schloss Hamborn, where they live, is a pretty unique place.
In the 1930s the castle (the schloss) became a Steiner school. At first it stood alone in the forest and housed everything and everyone. Over the decades more buildings and many homes have sprung up around it so that it is now a village – but a village unlike any other.
At Schloss Hamborn, the school is the beating heart. It is specifically for kids who struggle at school, or have a learning disability, or come from a disadvantaged background. (In addition there are adults with disabilities who live and learn here.) Students live in groups, usually in a big family home, and their schooling is individual and holistic.
The day after I arrive, Klaus takes me on an informal walking tour. The castle itself is now used for meetings and private tutoring and day groups of young kids from other villages. Next to the castle is the woodwork shop. Down in the valley is a little publisher. On the other side, past the offices of the social workers, is the café. Across the street is the bio supermarket, the second-hand clothing store, the gift shop. Up the road is the bike and car mechanic. Nearby is the commercial-sized vegetable garden. All around us is a beautiful forest, managed by a forester.
A regular kind of village on the face of it. But the shops and workshops all have a dual purpose: they are legitimate businesses run by professionals – the woodworkers sell their furniture across the region, the books are sold in bookshops, the mechanic serves the transport needs of the whole community – but they also exist to teach the students, who can learn the skills of whatever they have an interest in and aptitude for.
Another day we take a longer walk and visit the farm. Dairy cows, pigs, sheep. A cheesery. Fresh hay bales cut from the fields. A butcher will soon set up shop. You can fill your glass bottles with raw milk from the automatic milk machine. This is also where Schloss Hamborn generates most of its own power using a combination of solar and some kind of ecological woodchip method.
We walk and walk, stopping at the village cemetery where the founder of this particular Steiner school is buried next to the guy who donated the castle. Just over the hedge two farm workers are trying, with many frustrated exclamations in German, to coax a very pregnant cow up to the barn.
On we go, past reclaimed forest on the left and a small band of milchkühe on the right. We leave the main track to climb a hill and here it feels like we’re in the middle of nowhere, paddocks to our back and forest to our front. As we’re walking we pull blackberries off a bush, small clusters of dark purple juice. Here is a pear tree, and here a plum. We pick up pears from the ground and take a few bites. I try a plum from the tree but it is definitely not ripe. Apple trees and more apple trees. Under an avenue of shady trees a mirabelle has dropped delicious little gems of fruit to the ground.
I’m not used to this kind of fertile, verdant land. Things just grow. Of course in Schloss Hamborn even the wilderness is put to work, so many of these trees will have been planted and monitored. But some of them will have just popped up on their own. Sometimes the simple fact of a tree growing with nothing but soil and water and producing a fruit that feeds me blows my mind.
I’m also delighted by the way Klaus and Sabine connect to their environment. They turn raspberries and blackberries into jam. They pick “middle Europe olives” (a tiny wild cherry) before they are ripe and pickle them. Under apple trees they collect any that have fallen before their time to feed the horses in the school stable. They avoid cling wrap and plastic packaging in the kitchen. They choose not to eat meat and to drive a cheap ordinary car as a “helpless protest” against a society that always wants more-bigger-better-faster-cheaper. In their life at Schloss Hamborn I see ways to live differently.
So when it is Sunday and sunny of course we are here, enjoying a glorious lake swim under a sign that says “forbidden”, leaving no trace except the slightly squashed grass. Swimming against the current.
I was climbing Death Hill because I had heard there was some exercise equipment at the top.
From that sentence alone you might think I’m a sucker for punishment, but that’s not it. Death Hill, while not entirely a misnomer, is a short-lived pain. And mostly I was curious about an forest-based exercise course made of logs.
I found a little sign that said “Zurich parcoursvita” and followed the arrow. Pretty soon there was a sign showing some mobilité exercises, which I dutifully did. Then I came to some logs with instructions on jumping over them, and further along the track some bars for pull-ups.
There were long stretches of path in between stops and after the fifth station I started to wonder how far this thing went. While I was standing there wondering, I heard a commotion of rustling leaves and a small red doe went tripping lightly down the hill (did I mention this was a very steep hill?). You don’t see that at Lake Monger, I thought.
I kept going, following the route further up the hill. Here were some gym rings and a bar exercise constructed of wood. Still on track then. The path zigzagged around and came out at a series of stumps for step-ups. Further along there were two wooden benches, the sign showing me how a man in bike shorts would execute a plank on, well, a plank.
The instructions on the signs were always in French but luckily the language of two-dimensional faceless figures is universal. Plus there was the fun of puzzling out some of the words. “Alternativement lever le pied”… “Pied” is leg, “lever” must be to do with lifting… Alternatively lift the legs!
Given that the path now faded into a meadow I figured I must be at the end. But no, the arrow pointed across the grass and voila! Another station in the middle of some trees. I jumped over some more logs and soon I found myself on a road, a school to the right and a farm shed to the left. But the arrow said onwards, so onwards I went. This was turning into quite a trek.
Fifty metres along the bitumen I spied a sign at the edge of the forest. The path picked up again and I found several more stations: bars low to the ground for balancing, poles for running figure-of-eights around. In the nearby shed a goose was honking, but here under the trees it was cool and quiet. The path came out on another road and began to descend.
Surely now, I thought, surely now I’m at the end. Oh look, another sign.
I took a left at the intersection and ahead I could see a few houses. A man was watering some impressively tall, pink hollyhocks. “Bonjour,” we greeted each other. Around here, you never walk past someone without saying hello (and this practice is so like the place where I grew up and many parts of Perth, that I can’t help smiling).
I found a sign with information about the parcoursvita, tried to read it for a few minutes, decided to look at the view instead. Grass dotted with wildflowers rolled down the ridge, and just across the valley was Villars, the ski resort town a little up the mountain from Huémoz. It was another one of those brilliant green afternoons, when the sun is warm, the flowers are swaying in the breeze and the birds are chirping in the trees. It’s hard to avoid clichés here.
But I’d lost the trail. I walked back the way I came, racking my brains for the way to say “hello again” since the man was still watering his hollyhocks out the front. But he spoke first.
“Bonjour encore, cherchez-vous pour le parcoursvita?”
Actually this is what Google Translate tells me he said. I only caught the beginning and the end, but context is great for filling in the gaps.
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak French,” I replied, with the apologetic grimace that goes along with that statement.
He thought for a moment, then pointed to the forest. “Down.” I nodded. “Huémoz.” I nodded again.
He indicated the space between a house and a shed I had assumed was private land. “Let’s go,” he said firmly, still holding the hose and making no moves to join me.
This was perhaps one of my favourite linguistic mishaps yet, and for once it wasn’t me uttering it.
But more importantly, I now knew where the path continued (nice work, Hollyhock Man!). “Ah yes,” I said. “Comprends. Merci!” And off I trotted.
I had, in fact, reached the end. The path trailed through the trees and eventually I was picking my way back down the treacherous Death Hill, having done an obstacle course in a forest and learned how to say “hello again” in French.
And that’s how you exercise in Switzerland.
(Actually, you also exercise in Switzerland by cycling up ridiculously steep mountain roads and making it look like a Sunday stroll. But I won’t be writing about that because I won’t be doing that. Ever.)
When I realised I would be on my own for my twenty-ninth birthday I decided to make the best of it. I’d never spent a birthday alone before – it would be a new experience, ripe for reflection.
A few years ago I began to suspect that at heart I’m an optimist. I used to say I was a ‘realist’ (a euphemism with a superiority complex if ever there was one). But it turns out that when I miss the bus and have to walk home I think, isn’t it great to get a good long walk in, and now I can listen to that podcast.
So I buckled down and searched for the sunny side.
It wasn’t hard to find. I’d spent weeks surrounded by friends, old and new; soon I’d be meeting up with some family; the magic of the internet keeps me in touch with home. There are isolated people in the world but I am not one of them, I thought. Some people have nobody to remember their birthday – I had people asking me weeks in advance where to post ‘a little something’ to.
Anyway I enjoy being alone, and as all you fellow introverts will attest, ‘alone time’ is just another way to say ‘super fun times’. I like to think this is partly borne from a childhood of bookshelves rather than TV channels, a big old farm to roam about on, and parents whose response to the complaint of boredom was the threat of “well, I can find something for you to do”.
Well, I said to myself as I mused on the prospect of an alone-time birthday, I can find something for you to do.
In fact, it dawned on me, I could do just as I pleased. Anything I wanted! It doesn’t get much better! I was getting a bit over-excited.
July 20th. I woke up in Bratislava as a newly minted twenty-nine-year-old and all of my bravado faded. I had flown in the previous evening, it was so hot that even I with my super-sleeping-powers hadn’t slept well, and I was feeling the strangeness of a new, foreign place. I felt really far from home.
Being lonely is different to being alone; I consider it a blessing that I’ve never experienced loneliness before. But I am getting a little taste of it just recently and something about having a birthday brought it to the fore. I happen to think this is a good thing though. I am not unbearably, unendingly lonely, not even close. I’m having a grand adventure and enjoying nearly every moment (the moments I don’t enjoy are the ones where I’m lugging my bags around a rail station trying to find platform 8 in the two minutes I have to make my connection). Feeling a bit lonely from time to time is a good thing because it helps me understand that life isn’t always comfortable, and because it might just make me a tiny bit stronger and a little more empathetic.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t miss people.
As for my birthday, it was a nice day in the end: I had some totally lovely chats via Skype, wandered the pretty streets of Bratislava and enjoyed a cocktail. But when my mood picked up two days later and I suddenly got excited about this new city I gave the solo celebration another crack. I had a pedicure for the first time ever, and took myself out for dinner. It was so hot I was practically dripping sweat onto the plate, and the beauty salon was between a Harley Davidson showroom and a cemetery, but these quirks actually made me enjoy myself more. I wouldn’t find this at home, I mused – and there was the silver lining.
I arrive at Swiss L’Abri two days after Ian has flown home to Australia, feeling bruised at the prospect of many months apart. It has been a rough few days. But I’m also excited. I’ve heard a lot about this place.
As the train from Zürich speeds south I realise that apart from punching my destination into the ticket machine I have given next to no thought as to where L’Abri is actually situated.
Well. It’s in the Swiss Alps.
I get off the train at Aigle and stare. These aren’t even the highest mountains in the Alps, but to me they are gigantic. Enormous. Mountainous. I grew up in remote, sandplain country and apart from a quick to trip to a snowfield on a high school camp, I’ve never been this close to real mountains before.
I buy a bus ticket – suddenly remembering “ein ticket für Huémoz bitte” won’t work here. French! Golly, I have even less grasp of French than German, and that’s not much. “Bonjour,” I say. “Huémoz?” He shows me the price on his screen: six euros for a short trip. This is Switzerland, baby.
When I lumber luggage-laden off the bus at the L’Abri stop a guy in a red shirt is standing there, smiling a welcome. “Were you waiting for me?” I ask in disbelief (I had no specific arrival time). “No no,” he grins. “We’re just moving furniture and I was waiting to cross the road.” All the same, he picks up one of my bags and walks with me up to the main chalet. A casually generous welcome that, it turns out, is typical at L’Abri.
Established sixty years ago by a Christian couple called Francis and Edith Schaeffer, L’Abri is a place where people go to ask questions, take time out to think, read, write, pray, or simply live in community for a while. Situated in a tiny Alpine village in French-speaking Switzerland, the name L’Abri translates to shelter. There are a number of these places around the world now, but the Swiss one is the original.
Over the next two weeks I feel how fitting this name is. I am enveloped into a warm and busy cocoon. The pace of life here is both busier and slower than normal. For half the day I am on a work crew cleaning the bathrooms or making pizza or weeding the gardens, and for the other half I am studying solo in the library. The meals are simple, delicious and wholesome; they run an incredibly frugal operation here, not wasting anything, using onions from the garden and wild strawberries. Internet usage is restricted to evenings and days off, forcing the habit of actually being with the people around you. The routine also forces a distinction between work and rest that I think is often lacking in modern society. Once your work is done and the meal is over, your time is your own. You can hang out in the lounge chatting to people, playing a little piano. If you need an introvert-recharge, there are mountain trails aplenty to seek solitude along.
Those mountains again.
On the first evening I stand out on the patio and just look. From my perch on the side of this mountain a forested valley dips down in front of me before soaring upwards into another gigantic mass of rock, ridges and peaks pushing into the never never. Grey stone turns to pink marble for a few moments as the sun sets. Through the valley, cloud swirls around a glacier. I can’t stop staring.
These jagged peaks are the backdrop for everything we do, literally – and, in a sense, metaphorically. In the face of sky-high rock you can’t help feeling small. And in the face of such beauty you can’t help feeling grateful. Each day I’m reading and thinking about what role art plays in Christian life, and right outside the window by my desk is a scene some might call God’s art: brilliant green trees shining in the hot sun; a distant mountain ridge filled with snow; weeds and grass and brambles as thick and deep as a river rolling down the slope; flying insects chirring and buzzing, zipping around like it’s festival time, sipping nectar, chatting to each other.
And it’s not just the insects chatting away in the summer grass. Conversation plays a huge role at L’Abri. It feels like a safe place to ask questions and make comments I wouldn’t feel able to in other Christian groups. Everything is on the table. My fellow students are here with questions varying from the practical to the existential, and I find amongst them people willing to think outside the box a little, respectful of difference but not afraid to offer opinions.
We have lectures twice a week from the workers (also our tutors) who live here permanently. On the philosophy of belief, on the joy of food, on the ethics of technology. They are richly referenced and thought provoking, and sometimes the discussions afterwards go on as long as the lecture itself.
It’s in discussions like these that I make new friends: sharing our life stories while pulling weeds, talking about relationships while watching people play ping-pong, conversing about travel while cooking a stirfry. There’s a lot of serious chat but there’s also a lot of fun. On our days off, we hike into the mountains, or go dancing at El Gringos until 3am, or hitch a ride in an effort to get to Montreux… in the back of a white transport van… something I wouldn’t do most places in the world, but in Switzerland it’s so safe even the locals hitch.
We’re all hitching in some way, all passing through this place, taking a little and giving a little. Some of us may see each other again, some may not. Some may come back one day, some may not. As for me, I’ll think fondly of my fellow travellers, people who left an impression, who pricked my mind with a new thought, who cared enough to ask real questions about me and my life.
And I’ll think about the mountains standing steady and unmoving, and how in some way we all took shelter in them.
I’ve always liked German people. Below their reserved manner lies genuine warmth and I guess that combination appeals to me. In Germany I frequently encounter a kind of matter-of-fact-ness, whether someone is refusing or helping. It seems to me a uniquely German approach: things must be done properly and rules must be followed, but within these parameters generosity and kindness abound.
I was swimming in the Temple of Dreams (officially known as the Stadtbad Neukölln) in Berlin and four laps in my locker key fell off my wrist. The buckled bracelet slipped open and I watched it sink to the bottom of the pool.
It was a really deep pool. I checked – three metres. The tiling was a beautiful dark blue, shadowy at the bottom, and for a split second of panic I felt like my key (and the personal belongings it signified) had sunk to the depths of the ocean. Dive down and get it, I said to myself. But my diving technique lacks, shall we say, technique. The pool attendant will help me, I thought.
“Dive down and get it,” he said.
“I tried but I can’t,” I said. “Do you have any way of reaching it?”
He shrugged. “Ask him, or him, or him,” pointing at several men in the pool and looking at me as though he thinks I’m short of a few.
This is one of those tiny interactions where in Australia, or even England, I would expect a refusal to be couched in politeness. “Sorry, love, but we don’t have any way of getting it for you. How about you ask that bloke over there?”
I’m not saying that Germans are rude and Australians are lovely, that’s not the case, it’s just one of these differences of manner found in different cultures.
Back in the pool, I paddled over to a guy holding onto the block.
“Entschuldigung,” I said with my best smile, and explained my problem in English.
“Well,” he said, “I am a former freediver.”
I mean, really.
He was down and back in a flash, key in hand. He proceeded to explain that three metres is the deepest you should dive without equipment, and showed me how to dive properly, but before setting off again I got out and hid my key under a bench.
In part, this is simply a story of a foreign encounter. Interactions in unfamiliar places, where unknown languages are spoken, and unknown cultural norms are practiced always feel bigger and more vivid to me. Everything is charged with newness and uncertainty. Eventually multiple interactions accumulate into my overall impression of that culture.
A few weeks earlier I was exploring Erlangen, a town just south of Forchheim where Ian and I were staying with Tessa.
I was looking for a contemporary art gallery listed in the tourist book but the information was a little confusing. Eventually I found a building where a discreet silver sign labelled ‘Kunst Museum’ told me I was in the right place.
Inside was a florist and some closed doors and no art. But here was a partially open gate at the entrance to some stairs. I took a chance. Some mail lay on a step and in the doorway I could see a pile of odds and ends, an old sheet, a tin of paint. This can’t be right, I thought, and nearly turned around. But then I saw an old man sitting at a desk in the foyer.
“Is this the kunst museum?” I said, hesitantly. Through another doorway I could see several watercolours propped against a wall. It wasn’t a wild guess.
He spoke very broken English so we stumbled through, trying to understand each other. It was – or it wasn’t? They had art, yes. But there was no art. I was mystified. He stood up behind the desk, he was tall with thick white hair.
“I would like to look at the art?” All my statements were rising into questions.
“Here,” he gestured towards the three watercolours propped against the wall. “You can look at these.”
We stood and looked at them, silently.
Then he seemed to make a decision. He showed me into the next room where small artworks lay in a line on the floor. Gradually his manner warmed and he explained that this was a recent exhibition that had just come down. It was unclear when the next exhibition would go up. In three months time? Every three months?
“This one is a joke,” he bent down and pointed at a small drawing that showed two animals with speech bubbles. He tried to translate the German. One was asking the other why it was doing something and the other was saying it was doing this other thing. I didn’t get it.
After a few awkward minutes of looking at the art and trying to communicate, he returned to his desk. A moment later he was back.
“There is something else,” he said. “This way.”
Back down the stairs, then another set of stairs, we came to a big white door in the basement.
“The collection,” he explained.
Rows of floor-to-ceiling sliding gates were hung with paintings, and the floor was covered with moody black and white sketches. This was the official collection of the Erlangen Art Society: art from the Nuremberg metropolitan region from 1946 onwards. There was an enormous variety of paintings, from traditional picturesque through abstract modern to contemporary photo-realist.
“How long will you need?” My increasingly generous guide asked.
“How long do I have?” I countered.
He left me there, with what is probably a fairly expensive and certainly culturally valuable asset, for half an hour without supervision. Apparently I look trustworthy.
I realised later that it was Monday and museums in the area are closed on Mondays. Even if there had been an exhibition at that time it would have been closed. How’s that for generosity.
Some days Europe is surprisingly, almost shockingly, small. Other days you travel cross-country by train from Bruges to Munich and it takes twelve hours and you think, who knew it could take more than three hours to get anywhere in Europe?
Admittedly, some of those hours were spent on unmoving trains and platforms (also unmoving). We had just enjoyed a couple of days in Belgium where the temps had been pushing 30 degrees, and it only got warmer as we travelled into Germany. After cool weather in the UK I felt like we’d crossed more than just the channel.
When I’m in transit, I wear as many of my clothes as possible without looking like Bernard Black on his way to Oxfam, and up until now this has worked perfectly. It’s cold, I’m layered up, and my bag is ever so slightly lighter. 8:00am at the train station in Bruges and I’m already regretting the thick jumper, coat and long pants. I shed within the bounds of decency but all the way to Brussels the sun beats through the window and we change to our next train as hot as ever.
At Frankfurt the delays begin. The midday sun beams into the hangar-like Hauptbahnhof and beautiful as I find big European train stations today I’m simmering. Our train arrives thirty minutes late, and we speed off at nearly 300 kilometres per hour.
Just before Stuttgart, still sweltering by the window, I look up and suddenly realise the landscape is markedly different. We are looking out across densely treed hills dotted with white houses under a bright blue sky, and on such a sunny day it feels a little bit Mediterranean.
Perhaps it’s this impression that gives the rest of the trip a holiday feel.
At Stuttgart station we are delayed again. The announcement comes in German without an English version, so I ask our neighbour what they said. She can speak English like every German person, but it’s a little halting. “The station ahead is ah… blocked,” she says, smiling through her owl-like glasses. “Don’t know why.” The next announcement explains that this is because a person is threatening to jump, and she translates this update with a sad look. We wait, mellowing in the warmth, detached from whatever drama is unfolding down the line. Later, people start milling around outside our carriage before piling in with their bags, taking every available seat. Another announcement – there is smoke in carriages three and four.
The new passengers are jovial, speaking excitedly, about what I don’t know but I can guess they are each telling their experience of smelling the smoke, or being told to move carriages, or how their family is waiting for them. They laugh a lot in the manner of strangers who have banded together in a mild catastrophe.
Finally we are off. By Augsburg most of the passengers have departed the train and the holiday feeling is wearing off for me. We’ve been on the road (so to speak) all day and I’m hot and tired. At Munich we drag our luggage off the train and traipse over to the S-Bahn and the train – the one train we need – is delayed by twenty-five minutes. Of course, I think. It’s almost funny.
We arrive at our host’s place two and a half hours later than planned feeling gross and tired, but there is a barbeque cooking on the balcony and cold showers and he greets us like old friends because he lived in Australia for a while. The next morning we walk down the road with beach towels instead of backpacks and swim in a cold, clear Bavarian lake, and then I realise: summer is here and it’s amazing.
I can’t say I came to Britain for the food, but since food is one of the most fundamental ways we experience new places I’ve been interested to note some differences – mainly in London where I’ve spent the majority of my time.
London has an abundance of options when it comes to eating out. You can easily find classic French or contemporary Vietnamese or gourmet pub food, and the best quality at that. Plenty of fast food options too, although usually of the greasy spoon variety.
No surprises there.
What I didn’t expect was take away places offering the most unlikely of pairings. Asian fusion I’m used to; a trendy menu with a bit of this and that, pesto pasta alongside pho, sticky rice alongside sticky date. Sure. But “Andy’s Kitchen: Chinese and Caribbean”? Not so much.
There’s also an easy way to enjoy these cuisine combinations: Just Eat. One of many perks in a country packed full of people is the demand for convenience, and Just Eat is a prime example. It’s a website where you can browse thousands of restaurants, order online and have them deliver to your door. Choice and convenience – in a bag. I was pretty excited when I discovered this.
Convenience is the watchword in London. You’re never more than a ten minute walk from a Tesco Express or a Sainsbury’s supermarket. Groceries in the supermarkets are over-packaged: sometimes you’ll find half a cucumber neatly sealed in an individual bag, and if you want to pick out a few loose potatoes you’ll have to go elsewhere.
Recently I counted all the supermarket chains in the UK and realised there are nine: Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose. This doesn’t include Iceland, frozen food specialist, and Whole Foods, organic food market, and probably a few regional chains.
On the one hand this is great for customer choice. On the other hand I can’t recall seeing a single butcher shop in London. I’m sure somebody will tell me I’m mistaken, but hand on heart I have not seen one in all my explorations. There are plenty of bakeries and also street-side fruit and veg markets – one of my favourite things ever about the London grocery scene (is that a thing? Can we make groceries cool enough to have their own “scene”?). But the Big Four – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons – have 73% of market share, and I can’t help wondering how this affects producers and local communities. Of course this is much better than Australia where just two control close to 80% of the market. The UK is a different landscape, and I suspect more competitive, but chains are incredibly prevalent here in every area of food and retail.
The exception is the local corner store. Another product of cramming lots of people together in an urban environment, the London off-licence is on a residential street, owned and run independently, and more often than not specialising in regional food depending on the borough: Turkish, Caribbean, Romanian, Indian. The fruit and veg display butts onto the street and the shelves inside are packed to the ceiling with toilet paper, cans of beans, kefir milk, ballpoint pens, chocolate. One day I decided to play “grocery roulette” amongst the packets of soup with Polish labels and I’m still not entirely sure what I ate.
But there is one thing Britain does well no matter where you shop: cheese. I have discovered cheeses I’d never heard of before arriving on this milky little isle. Wensleydale. Double Gloucester. Tunworth. Durrus. Cheshire Blue. Derby. Wigmore. Isle of Mull Cheddar. Last week we went to the Burrough Market near London Bridge and oh! What a foodie heaven. Apart from artisan Scotch eggs and steaming platters of paella and handmade fudge and Swiss Raclette sandwiches and crusty loaves of bread and mounds of colourful veggies and… wait… what was I talking about again? Oh yes. Cheese. The most magnificent of all: the Neal’s Yard store. Shelves of cheese rounds bigger than your head and a long, long counter with the most kinds of cheese I’ve ever seen, all of them British.
I have decided that I like cheese – good cheese – a lot, and if there is one reason to return to the UK this could be it. Perhaps if I find a cheese takeaway on Just Eat I’ll never leave.
When I first visited London eight years ago the most talked-about Aussie influence on the food and drink scene was the Walkabout pubs. I never actually went inside one since that kind of loud, beer-fuelled yellow-and-green patriotism isn’t really my thing. Each to their own. But here I am, back again, and now when I talk to other Australians no one mentions the Walkabout.
What we do talk about is where the nearest decent café is.
Back home, I’d never considered myself a coffee drinker. Until last year when a daily cup of Dutch vanilla was introduced into my routine (thanks, Anna) I drank coffee rarely and only on social occasions. Tea is still my hot beverage of choice and I’ll probably never make space on the tea shelf for fresh coffee beans, but like red wine and olives I’ve acquired a taste for coffee along with age.
So when I arrived at The Wonky House the housemates who were Australian were quick to give me the lowdown. Blend was a twenty minute walk away in Harringey. Great coffee. Chriskitch was 45 minutes on legs, over in Muswell Hill. Amazing brunch. Away from home base I would have to fend for myself.
This being England, I’m never far from a really solid cup of tea and that makes up for a lot. It’s certainly better than the US, where tea or coffee worth drinking are hidden gems. But most “caffs” here are ordinary affairs, lacking in atmosphere or a smooth foam or both. What I like as much as a good coffee is a good café. And the word on the street is that until the Australians started importing our version of café culture into London the pickings were slim. Often when I’m told about a great café it’s followed closely by, “oh yeah and the owner is Australian”.
I’m gathering a handful of these cafés as I traipse around the city. Some are Australian-owned, some aren’t, but they all have a certain style, one that feels familiar to the urban Antipodean. They’re light and bright. The tables are recycled wood and the chairs are mix-and-match. Fresh flowers in vintage jars. Exposed light bulbs. A great indie playlist. Best of all, they serve excellent food and drink. (If you’re ever in London I absolutely insist you go to Chriskitch, if nothing else for the food porn – you’ll never see such a gorgeous array of mouth-watering salads and pumpkin breads and cakes drenched in icing.)
I’ve gathered a few recommendations along the way from fellow Australians who seem to have a nose for finding the only good café in a neighbourhood. Dalston and Islington. Soho and Covent Garden. Shoreditch and Clerkenwell… They always prove worth the bus ride – and the upside is that seeking them out can take you to parts of the city you might not discover otherwise.
(Ironically, the photo above features a teapot. Tea will always be my first love.)
I thought I recognised the name Vita Sackville-West. But then that’s not an unfamiliar feeling in Britain; a vague sense of mental déjà vu (have I been here before in a book/movie/story?). The information card at Knole House soon cleared it up – Vita was a friend and lover of Virginia Woolf and it’s Knole and the Sackville-Wests that provided the real life inspiration for Orlando. Maybe I should actually finish that novel now. Since I didn’t in English 2204…
Knole House is one of the largest and grandest country houses in England (it is an impressive house and has a fascinating family history but I’m trying to keep this succinct so I’ll put that aside) and sits in 1000 acres of park. Think for a moment about one thousand acres. If you’re reading from Perth it’s the same size as Kings Park. Bigger than Central Park in NYC. So what?, you might think, but remember this used to be a private park for a single family.
England does parks well, but I’ve become used to gentle lawns and beds of bulbs. Knole is the closest thing to wild I’ve seen in the south yet.
I enter through a hole-in-the-wall door in a low stone wall and feel a little like I’ve crossed into Narnia. On the other side of the wall a very modern flow of cars storms past, but here all is quiet and timeless. Grassy hills stretch all around, wooded with bare grey trees. Instead of daffodils and tulips the ground in the woods is dry grass and dirt. Apart from the occasional protective fence around a young tree, there is no sign of human cultivation.
But the best thing is the deer. There are several hundred wild deer living in Knole Park, and they are not tame. They’re obviously used to humans but you can’t pat their noses and feed them biscuits (nor should you). I walk within petting distance of a group of stags with antlers that look as though they could do some damage, and glance around to check my options should our relations turn sour. Not a person in sight. One climbable tree in reach. But I needn’t worry. I receive nothing more than a cursory glance from the elder stag before two young bucks go back to butting heads.
Later I am chatting to two fellow park strollers (it’s a popular local haunt but large enough that you can feel completely alone quite often) when two riders canter past on horseback. The group of deer they’re about to stampede simply trot to the side, regroup and resume their eating. I notice later it is so quiet that at a distance I can hear the soft tearing sound of lots of little deer mouths ripping up mouthfuls of grass.
I’ve been in Sevenoaks for the past two weeks, generously put up in the Surrey family home, and it is a lovely, peaceful town. It’s not a tourist destination and you won’t find much in the way of souvenirs or tours, but that’s fine by me. As an affluent commuter town, forty minutes from central London on the train, with pretty scenery and a heck of a lot more space than London itself, I imagine it’s a good place to raise a family. All the same I was amused to read the listing for Sevenoaks in The Rough Guide to England where it states rather dismally that there’s little reason to visit other than Knole Park and its residence. That’s a bit rude, I thought. But then I saw the spectacular house and spent some time walking around the park and I thought, whatever else you might say, it’s a damn good reason to come to Sevenoaks.
Like a lot of Australian kids, a significant number of the books I read growing up were written by English writers, starring English children and English animals. When I was older, a lot of the TV I watched was set in English villages, on English farms and in English cities. For better or worse, every time I’ve entered this country I’ve come with a set of impressions.
So occasionally I have this surreal sense of recognition over the smallest of things. When I walk down a suburban street of brown brick houses I think of Keeping Up Appearances. Uniformed children outside a college brings back The Naughtiest Girl in the School. A farmer in gumboots penning muddy sheep makes me think of All Creatures Great and Small. Every pretty village reminds me of Midsomer Murders.
Sometimes it’s the nicest thing in the world to have pleasant stereotypes fulfilled. Recently I was in Shropshire staying with the lovely Waddingtons, and one morning my surrogate mother took me along on a shopping trip to Heath Farm. Green meadows dotted with new lambs bleating; a blue door in a low stone building; dun-coloured cows chewing thoughtfully in the barn; drizzling rain. It’s a family farm fronted by a little shop that sells their own meat and dairy along with various other local products. I’m pretty keen on eating fresh and local, so I was charmed by what they had on offer. Hedgerow jam and apple cordial. A chunk of lard wrapped in greaseproof paper for 75p. Boiling bacon and gammon steak. You could not get more English.
Speaking of this idealised England that I have in my head, South Shropshire is a great place for countryside. Reputedly it’s what Tolkien based The Shire on; he lived nearby in Birmingham and would often visit. There is, in fact, a place called Bagginswood near where I stayed.
Halfway between the north and the south, and with the Welsh border on the horizon, South Shropshire is less populated and has fewer tourists than most of England. This is the way the locals would like to keep it, so shhhhh. There’s a lot of sheep farming, a lot of woods, a lot of hills. From Clee Hill the view stretched as far as the Black Mountains in Wales, and to the east it’s said that you could draw a string directly to the Urals.
I had a great week, whether at home in Cleobury or tripping around the countryside. We went to Ludlow where there are piles of Tudor architecture and a famous castle. Gloucestor to see maybe the most impressive cathedral I’ve laid eyes on yet. Leominster to see the Georgian-era Berrington Hall built in local red-brown sandstone. Villages with names like Tenbury Wells and Neen Sollars that sound both charming and ancient. A cosy pub called The Live & Let Live. It doesn’t get more English.