An Evening in Queens

I went to NYC over the summer, and one afternoon a Californian friend dragged me all the way to Rockaway Beach to hang out with some sk8er bois. 

F1010032On a balmy Tuesday afternoon we embarked upon an epic journey to Rockaway, Queens, to see a pair of Lexi’s skater friends from her hometown in California. Spencer and Joey had been spending their holiday working at a smoothie bar on Rockaway beach, being drooled over by teenage girls on cruiser bikes and hanging out with the myriad other beautiful young people that had chosen a sunny summer in Queens over wherever they’re from, be it Hunt’s Point or Honduras. The boys were sharing a bedroom in a terraced house also occupied by a Californian skater with the most amazing shark tattoo, a deaf Brazilian masseuse, and a pair of beautiful South American best friends. They were living the dream. It may have taken us a marathon two and a half hours to get into Queens from Manhattan, but we were met with beers and buddies on a gloriously sunny beach so we didn’t mind too much.

Rockaway has gone through many incarnations. Spencer’s aunt, visiting for the day, told us that when she was younger the place was hip and cool and full of beautiful youth at the weekend – just as it is is now. In the thirty years in between a surge in immigration and poverty hit the neighbourhood hard, and we were told that streets we now casually strolled down in the dark would have been absolute no-gos a decade before; now the houses are full of a mix of young hipsters and foreigners alike here for the summer, and well-established families living alongside each other in harmony. Hipsters head in from Brooklyn and Broad Channel to spend their afternoons on the beach. Spencer and Joey’s house shared a backyard with a young Puerto Rican family and their ecstatic pitbull puppy, and across the street crowds of kids on razor scooters and skateboards were playing tag outside the social housing. It’s not all good news – most of the buildings along the waterfront are glitteringly new after the devastation of last winter’s storms, and graffiti tags over the sidewalk sported slogans like “We will rebuild. We will not give in.” The shadow of Hurricane Sandy still hangs heavy over Rockaway.

F1010034Their plasterboard house was full of surfboards and skateboards, paintings by its residents and vinyl on the walls. We piled into the tiny hallway only to be angrily shushed by Berenice storming out of her room covered in massage oil, and abashedly retreated behind a flimsy curtain entrance to the boys’ room to munch on vacuum-packed cinnamon cookies that Joey’s mum had shipped over from California. Spencer’s cousin owns a tiny organic cafe right next door, but we opted instead for Rockaway Taco, a surfer stall on the corner famed across the city for its excellent fare. I had a chorizo one. It was great. As we set off to walk their boss’s dogs, strays rescued from the garbage dumps of Puerto Rico, Spencer greeted almost everyone we passed on the few blocks towards the house. They are all invariably in their 20s, many foreign, and every single one incredibly attractive; Rockaway Beach seems to be the place to come to enjoy a summer of eternal fun, youth and beauty. And dogs. Everyone has one. The front yards of these rows of houses are invariably filled with Virgin Mary shrines and American flags, plastic pink flamingos and the occasional vegetable patch. We passed two community farms that host hog dinners and a rundown piano with flowers spilling out of the lid, all soundtracked by the omnipresent planes roaring overhead towards JFK. Two black cats picked their way across a vegetable patch and begrudgingly allowed themselves to be petted, descending into deafening hissing and a retreat behind a surfboard as our charges lolloped down the porch steps to nearly bowl us over. We walked them a few blocks and then ram them around a skate park by the water, before returning them to cat glares so we could head on to an evening’s cannnine-free entertainment.

More eating and more drinking at a Thai place on the waterfront, lit by twinkling fairy lights that swayed in a bracing wind from which we hid under Peruvian blankets. It was a lovely spot, flanked by houseboats that gently knock against the dock, and we were joined by all the housemates; Columbians and Puerto Ricans and Californians discussing university plans and leaving parties, and the unspoken undercurrent of how to continue a relationship with each party on a separate continent. We moved on with much laughter and skateboarding and screams of uncoming traffic to a house party for Peruvian New Year, in a garden rigged up with suspended table lamps and disco lights, another piano filled with flowers and a film projected onto a neighbouring wall. A cat sprawled at the entrance basking in the attention of countless party-goers, and a familiar smell filled the air (and our lungs). Everyone has to leave far too soon, and all we have time for before rattling back to Manhattan on  the A train is perhaps the most delicious beverage ever invented: a frozen Pina Colada from an Irish bar full of drunks.

Spencer has a true cliche tattooed on his forearm that we all laugh at, but it also seems bizarrely fitting for this summer town of carefree party people: Live Life. No Regrets.



Coincidences in Denmark

It’s funny how the more you travel the smaller the world seems to get. Last week I spent a few days in Copenhagen, a windy and expensive city that I loved and where I discovered numerous weird international connections. The first was an incredibly obvious link that just did not click in my brain until after my return to the UK; during my Springboard course at the beginning of the holidays (a really great programme for women in the workplace) I met Lise, a fabulous Copenhagen-or-thereabouts native who gave my travel buddy and I a much-needed insider tour on our last day in the city. She’s a fresher English Literature student at Worcester College, and told us all about the Danish university system that not only offers its students free tuition, but actually pays them £600 a month to study at all! – truly a superior nation. Understandably she has always dealt with raised eyebrows from parents and peers alike over her decision to study in England (who can blame them, Denmark is The One). BUT she did relate an anecdote about her ever-sceptical father returning from an international medical conference freshly convinced that Oxford might in fact be an alright place to go, having heard about its general reputation from people there. The day after my return from the continent I had supper with my mum who bemoaned a missed opportunity in the form of a Danish psychologist she had met at an international medical conference, whose daughter I could have made contact with in Copenhagen. Apparently she had set her heart on Oxford and had just started her first year at Worcester, what a shame we didn’t manage to connect.

But my favourite link was not as ridiculously coincidental as the above, but did form part of a generally hilarious evening. On our last night in Copenhagen we were invited to join a party in our hostel by a group of Dutch musicologists on a study trip from Amsterdam. Their dorm room was packed with three bunk levels of Europeans exercising their voices and limbs to 80s hits, there were glow in the dark stars on the ceiling and whisky all over the floor, and someone was harassing every new entrant with one of those head massagers that looks like a medieval torture instrument; a night already in full swing. Jaegermeister and rum and other horrendous alcohols were thrust upon us and I struck up a conversation with an excellent girl with a shock of blue hair and a Cage The Elephant band tee, who told me all about the time that her boyfriend had got her tickets to see the band and had secretly messaged the drummer before to get them to play their song and afterwards they had got so trashed with the roadies that she had spent all her money on that t-shirt and been broke but ecstatic the rest of the weekend. I responded in musical kind and told her that I’d been an Amsterdam the week before and seen a bloody FANTASTIC production of Lucia di Lammermoor, at which she squealed jealously and demanded how I got tickets. I told her my uncle was in the Dutch National Opera at which she squealed that HER uncle was in the Dutch National Opera, and had MY uncle performed in last year’s run of Gotterdamerung, to which I replied that he HAD indeedand then we squealed some Wagner at each other until she terribly formally asked us if we would like to smoke some marijuana with her and her friends.

I ❤ Europe.


Bits of Bavaria: Sylt

Last year I spent 5 months in a tiny village in Germany, working as an au pair for three small boys. The village in question lies just outside the city of Burghausen, home to twenty something thousand inhabitants and their terrible tattoos, a giant lake, and the longest castle in the world (prestigious!). As an urban lady getting a first taster of seriously small town living I wrote a blog so sarcastic that when my host family discovered it a few months after my departure I was filled with horror and dread – fortunately they found it funny and not deeply offensive, but asked I make the photographic and personal element private. I’m going to publish a few of my favourite posts on here for posterity and nostalgia. 

Here is my post following our trip to Sylt, where the fam holidays every year. It was not the one.

So we’re back from our 9 day sojourn in Sylt, after 14 hours of travelling on five different trains. Sylt is a strangely-shaped island in between Germany and Denmark, and would have become a modern day Atlantis decades ago were it not for everyone’s tireless efforts in bolstering the coast up with sand to stop it being eaten by the waves. Unfortunately we were impeded by terrible weather and communal illness for much of the trip, but the boys are still very sad to be home. There is not much to write about as there was so little to do that I managed to read nine books and the entire back catalogue of The New Inquiry, so here I shall present to you a flavour of our week at the seaside in the form of some snippets from my diary. Aren’t you lucky? Most of the photos were taken on the mere one and half days that were free from blanket cloud and pouring rain.


Trudged into town to find myself some medication for my various ailments. Forgot it was a Sunday and all pharmacies closed. Consoled self in purchase of chocolate and postcards, and the lighting of an extravagant 20 cent candle in the island church. Sylt is grey and windy, full of excited dogs and picturesque garden gates.


We played Scharfkopf today, and I finally understand why T’s explanations seem to make no sense. Because German cards make no sense. Firstly, all the suits are different and in an entirely nonsensical hierarchy – in what world are ACORNS better than HEARTS? In the same world that a 10 is higher than a king, as are “Unter” and “Ober”, which are also suit-less trumps. I felt that M became unnecessarily exasperated with my admittedly slow grasp of the rules, and took my affront at the lowliness of the king card as a national offence: “In Germany we do not have a monarchy, Alex.” He snapped a particularly harsh reprimand after I lost a hand over confusion that all hearts are also trumps and therefore suitless (what), and I found myself snapping back that it is only a card game. “IN BAVARIA IT IS FAR MORE THAN A GAME, ALEX.” Had to check myself to avoid sulkily returning that we are not in Bavaria, that Bavaria is silly, that cards are SILLY. I have been spending too much time around children.

(ed. C later informed me that all these silly rules are not universal in German cards – only in Scharfkopf, national game of Bavaria. Silly.)



Not much change here on Sylt. Starting to feel like Jonathan Harker documenting his descent into insanity, except that instead of a vampire and an isolated castle I am faced with five targets of potential infection and an island buffeted by gale-force winds. In the midst of fever and raging thirst I grazed my nose on the slope of my ceiling last night, and now look like I have been in a fight.


Today it is very windy. When we went down to the beach in our seven hundred layers we were greeted by a sandstorm of Pokemon Gold proportions, and waves so violent that they sent T screaming from the surf. Nevertheless enjoyed a pleasant if windswept stroll by the sea, topped off by gigantic ice-creams which we ate crowded into a windproof corner by a bin. Stared at the self-conscious youth whose sole job seemed to be making the waffles for the cones, and looking so miserable that T’s question as to whether he was allowed to go home in the evening or it was a 24 hour job seemed rather plausible. 

This evening M and C have rewarded themselves with the luxury of an hour’s alone time in town – “so long as you’re not planning to go out of course, Alex?”. The boys were outraged at being left behind, but I have to say that if my bedtime was 2 hours before sundown I too would find lights out a distressing time.


Everyone went off to meet T’s little friend Lotta and her family at a nearby playground, and I wandered along the sand snapping a few pictures and critically appraising the quality of the seashells. Snuck off to McDonalds to gobble up an hour’s worth of free internet under the guise of lengthy enjoyment of a fruit tea. The woman who served me showed undisguised consternation when I refused the standard German peppermint (yuck) and asked to see the full selection. Sylt is clearly not frequented by English tourists.

Spent some time watching dogs having fun in the sea, before returning home to fish fingers because food routine must not vary even on holiday. I felt guilty interrupting and declined joining in; C joked that English people always need to be asked 3 times if we would like food as we are so excessively polite, so she repeated the offer as I laughed. Unfortunately she left it at that and so I was forced to sit with a glass of water watching Noah polish of the last of the fish fingers. Curse my cultural courtesy.



Shared a prolonged glance with a good-looking man in a van. That’s about as racy as things are going to get on this island of average age sixty slash seven, permanently clad in my D of E anorak and a scowl. Wandered into town and endured an extended and infuriating battle with the stamp machine to send off my woe-filled postcards. Ultimately unsuccessful; retreated to McDonalds to moan to everyone over Snapchat. My grumblings were interrupted by a police chase, truly thrilling for all except the beyond stoned sk8er bois opposite me who did not look up from their burgers.


Today we took a daytrip up the coast to List, a town on Sylt’s northernmost curve that boasts a harbour, a museum, and a very expensive interior design shop in which we spent over 40 minutes. The word “museum” fills me with enthusiasm, conjuring images of slimy things in jars, giant skeletons, and badly preserved stuffed animals. Some displays of rocks at the very least. Unfortunately this museum was devoted entirely to Sylt’s environment and wildlife, devoid of any physical exhibits and swamped in interactive displays and small children. We spent four hours there. The family are the sort of museum-goers that demand to get their money’s worth: every sign must be read in full, every video watched through to the end, every audio track listened to at least once. I became hypnotised by the one jellyfish in the glow in the dark section, then stood alone in the storm simulator for 20 minutes. 

Whilst eating our bread roll lunch an elderly couple passed us walking one of those ridiculous dogs with so much hair that it falls into curls and dreadlocks. T stared at it very hard, and then said wisely, “Sylt must be a strange place indeed if people take their sheeps for walks.”


So there you have it. Sylt. Chugging back towards Burghausen yesterday evening I watched the landscape transform into that comfortable pattern of lush hills and sprawling villages, and thought about how familiar Bavaria has become to feel over the last few months. These days painted spire capped hilltops and may poles sagging under a month of rain have become as certain a sign of home-coming as the sight of the GlaxoSmithKline building looming over the A4.

Simpler times indeed.