summer

Deux Heures À Paris

8219134830_91b27396b8_oI studied in Paris for four months when I was 19, because I am a cliche. I lived with my cousin in a fourth floor flat off the Rue de Rivoli that had no lift and no oven and no way near enough space for two people who were not romantically involved, (and I wrote a blog about it, because I am a cliche.) These days I regard Paris much like I regard my family: with a mixture of delight, fondness, and horror. And, much like my family, I find that I get on with it best when my exposure is limited to snatches of 24 hours or less. This weekend I had a brief afternoon window between my journey from London and my onward travel northwards, and I think this is probably the my favourite way to enjoy the city. A small taste. An amuse-bouche.

With only 2 hours between trains I elected to get the underground to the centre and walk as far as was bearable with a big cheap rucksack in city summer heat. The smell of the metro and its symphony of rattling stops and starts is oddly one of the most familiar things about Paris. So are the oppressive crowds of August that lie in wait at Citè; wading through swarms of ticket collectors and tourists trying to fit the station’s bulbous lines of lamps into a square format. (Resisting the temptation to get my iPhone out and do the same.) As soon as I emerge from underground, Paris always seems to swallow me whole, sucking me out into the sunshine and stuffing my ears with arguments and accordions and the shriek of seagulls. I begin my sweaty march towards the Île Saint-Louis, beneath Nôtre Dame’s gargoyles and alongside cafes bristling with Americans and Parisians, my boots already chalky white with Paris gravel. A woman in cream stilettos whizzes past on a vespa. I’ve already seen seven tiny dogs. Couples: everywhere. Pigeons: everywhere. There are more benches than a city realistically needs, and every welcome breeze is balanced by the smell of stale piss.

Acquire two scoops of sorbet at Berthillon, and find a patch of riverbank to sit on. I Instagram. The omnipresent smell of stale piss forces me to walk and lick. I meander along a radioactive Seine broken only by arching bridges white with seagulls, and boats of Asians in sunglasses. Branches dapple the water and the facades of apartments facing the river, and everywhere else is pale under the unforgiving glare of a cloudless sky. Comedic/tragic juxtapositions of couples whose make-or-break holiday to Paris is doing the former, and those whose is doing the latter: kissing like noone is watching, screaming like noone is listening. An old woman in red capri pants with a husband in tweed; an older woman wheeling a bike with panniers stuffed with bread; a still older woman in a silk neckerchief and a cloud of perfume and a chestful of amber beads. (Paris belongs to old women.) Away from the rippling shade and into the relentless sun. Shakespeare and Co. have opened a new cafe, and it looks like every cafe in London. Teenagers considering paying €15 for a secondhand paperback with a nostalgic cover. More selfie sticks than I can count. Someone with a Starbucks cup. I descend underground once more.

Much like my own city of London, I hold Paris both dear and in disgust. I sort of hate everything about it, and it sort of always feels like home. 

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Brainchild

I spent last weekend at Brainchild Festival, a DIY festival of art, music and performance in the arcadian grounds of the Bentley Wildfowl and Motor Museum in Sussex. It’s a volunteer-led festival with few attendees outside of the 20-26-year-old-creative-persuasion demographic beside the woman who owns the land. And her small fat dog who hates men and barks at them if they get too close. I took up the option of putting in 10 hours of work across the festival to halve my ticket price, doing everything from deep-frying in the kitchen to litter-picking to bar-tending to guarding the showers. It was a lovely three days, even if I came across even more art students dressed from their own childhood 90s wardrobe than I might in an afternoon on Dalston High Street.

One of the best parts of the festival were the myriad art installations to interact with (and mainly sit on). A giant cereal box that opened on the second day to spew giant foam Lucky Charms; a maze of hula hoops and coloured yarn that over the course of the festival become more and more complex and difficult to navigate when drunk; a rainbow-painted wooden living room complete with wooden pond, pot plants and window out onto the rainbow sunsets. Our favourite was the giant colouring wall by illustrator Betty Woodhouse, complete with pots of felt-tips and excited gaggles of 20-somethings. Performances ranged from the usual bands and DJs to stand-up comedy and short film screenings to group yoga classes and interpretive dance. Too much of the music featured wailing ghostly female vocals for my taste, but there were some real stand-out acts; drum and saxophonist duo Binker & Moses stole Sunday evening, and Jess Murrain’s spoken word mixed in with double-bass accompanied vocals was a highlight of Saturday. (She was followed by a puppet show called “Miss Clitoris and the Bejazzles”.)

Mid-festival we ventured round the corner to the Bentley Motor Museum itself. It’s a strange combination of a warehouse full of chronologically exhibited cars (and some scary mannequins challenging stereotypical gender roles), displays of questionable of history, a dolls-house workshop, and a gift shop selling seemingly completely non-related items. Mainly soap. MORE exciting is the Bentley miniature railway, which everyone from completely spaced-out students in harem pants to off-duty security guards hopped onto at some point over the weekend. It’s run by retired men in train conductors’ hats, and a small dog in an official uniform. Your ticket is stamped at both of two “station” stops, in a journey that lasts approximately 15 minutes. Puffs of smoke from the tiny steam engine remained visible above the trees for the whole weekend, reminding everyone where the real fun was happening.

Although there were plenty of fab acts and DJs and workshops happening across the weekend, the best part for me was being able to spend time with good friends and interesting new ones in a beautiful setting. The weather held and I took a fantastic book to sit and read on a cushion under the light-up jellyfish, or on a sofa under the giant central tree, or in The Steez Cafe in front of some strange piece of performance art. The sunsets were glorious and the loos weren’t even too horrible by the end, and I’d recommend it as £35 very well spent.

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.

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Summer in Oxford

Although it was bucketing it down on Saturday as I left Oxford to start my hols, it has always pained me that the academic calendar means we don’t get to experience the city in high summer. Oxford is made for summer sun, even if official guidelines direct us to secrete ourselves away from it in dark and dusty libraries; golden evenings in the centre make me fall in love with the city again and again, and I’ve managed to take more rolls of film in the last two weeks of term than in the whole of the preceding eight months – a solid indicator of joyful existence. Here are some joyous things to do under gorgeous Oxford summer sunshine.

ImageCroquet

Despite years of practice and family-ruining rows on my grandma’s lawn I still manage to be terrible at both tactic and technique in this most upper middle-class of sports. New College has a great little croquet lawn in its front quad, over-looked by the porters and any curious freshaz who want to peer down from their rooms and witness everyone’s sporting triumphs(failures). During my first summer in Oxford I enthusiastically entered into inter-collegiate cuppers croquet with an American friend who had never touched a mallet before; he still managed to wipe the floor with me and all the other Englishmen, which I suppose is a rather damning summary of our national sporting character, and also of croquet. But however futile in athletic terms it stands that bashing a ball around the college croquet lawn is a very entertaining way to spend the remains of a summer afternoon – especially when things get heated and someone kicks over a hoop. (Alright I admit I have yet to witness this at Oxford. My family is very competitive.)

 

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Most Oxford colleges own a number of punts that their students can rent free of charge. New College’s vessels may not be as swish as Magdalen’s or indeed as roomy as Hertford’s, but they’re conveniently placed in a boathouse just off of our sports’ grounds and they get the job done – I mean presumably. When one is competent. The only time I have managed to go punting we made it about 100m from our starting point, got attacked by more branches and bushes than Harry in the Triwizard maze, and one of our number fell in… But as a means to an end of picnicking on a grassy riverside knoll surrounded by daisies and inquisitive ducklings, it does do the trick.

Balls (lol)

Getting all fancy and enjoying a 12 hour extravaganza of food and fun in a centuries old setting is an essential part of the Oxford summer experience, one that I wrote more about here.

B&W6-2Soaking up the sun in beautiful surroundings

Every city I have chosen to park myself within so far has been a beautiful one, lucky for me. Growing up in London was a convenient starting point, four months in Paris and then five in Burghausen, but Oxford arguably tops them all in general loveliness. Being able to laze an evening away in a setting as glorious as New College gardens, a stone’s throw away from our bedrooms, is a luxury afforded to students at very few other universities and one that we do not waste. Whether it be eating ice-cream in Magdalen’s back quad or chatting in Christ Church’s egregiously extensive grounds, even the most boring conversational partner’s company is improved by these surroundings; unless you’re at St Anne’s. Soz.

 

Ballin’ 2014

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One of the great joys of the Oxford experience  is just how easy it is to find an excuse to get suited, booted, and tarted all the way up for a fancy event with your friends. Formalwear = instant beauty;  tailcoats and full-length dresses have transformative powers that make even the least glamorous of us instantly instagrammable – someone should have told Snow White’s stepmother to slap on a ball gown before heading down the poisoned fruit route, because it’s a surefire way to outstrip anyone in the aesthetics stakes. I proved my own point in this matter last night at Trinity College’s triennial commemoration ball, a night of glamour, glitz, and immaculately manicured lawns during which the rain mercifully held off and I made my £180 ticket back through consumption of candy floss alone. This year was a big one in Oxford for commem balls: Worcester’s tricentenary bash also took place, and Exeter is throwing a 700th anniversary event tonight that has half of Radcliffe Square closed to the public (to its rage). I chose Trinity over Worcester’s nightmare waiting list and headed over with a very select crew of friends and housemates – but balls being balls and Oxford being Oxford ended up running into about a hundred people I knew at the event, and chatting to many I didn’t. 

The evening started for us at 8 with a champagne reception on Trinity’s front lawns. The committee settled on a digital wristband system this year which made queuing up and cloakroom depositing incredibly speedy so we could move right on to fancy champers and chocolate coated strawberries; I had spent half an hour the day before helping committee members unload box after box of champagne so knew there was no shortage there, and we were definitely not disappointed. The rain had cleared up just in time and the college looked golden and glorious in the last of the evening sun, and obviously all the guests in their white tie did too. To add to the magic, dreams were made within an hour of arrival as I got to meet Oxford-based photographer Nasir Hamid whose Flickr feed I have followed avidly for a few years now, and who photographs many of the balls and Oxford life in general. Discovering that he follows me too was a delightful ego massage and a half, and he took snaps of us on both digital and our beloved 35mm film. A perfect start to the evening.

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 presetFrom the front lawns we moved through a second quad complete with painted blue lawn and onto the meat of the ball. Trinity is a college made for such events, and there was ample room for stage, marquees, and quieter wooded areas which were no doubt host to countless scurrilous activities by the end of the evening; there were at least four bars and countless food stands, and to be honest the committee really outdid itself as the whole event was a roaring success by all accounts. The array of food was particularly spectacular, and although the best thing I consumed was definitely a Bailey’s milkshake at the very beginning of the night, by the end I had eaten my weight in whitebait, fajitas, hog roast, poached pears and candy floss – a smorgasbord of feasting spread across three quads. The musical entertainment too was right up my street (and seemingly everyone else’s). Although we tragically missed Out Of The Blue’s unfeasibly early set both Aluna George and Clean Bandit gave syuper performances – the real stand-out was the Beyonce tribute band in the early hours though, followed by a less exhilarating silent disco as by that point dawn was breaking and birds chirping and I felt like I might expire from exhaustion.

In amongst all the standard ball activities was the quite novel installation of a giant Monaco-style makeshift casino by the back gates; I think it could have been fabulous if actual money/glory was at stake, but as it was the wristband scanners broke down so it turned into a less glamorous speakeasy serving the most disgustingly strong gin martinis possible. Abandoned half-sipped specimens littered the room. Disgustingly strong drinks were certainly a theme of the night – whoever was in charge of drinks clearly likes their liquor hard and their mixers sparse – but bizarrely I think that the undrinkableness of everything actually meant no one got too sloshed and everyone paced themselves a bit better. I certainly just cannot force myself into ingesting a G&T with a 50:50 ratio (no matter how awkward the situation), which probably served me better than endless delicious glasses that go down a charm. Luckily entertainments aside from alcohol abounded, and we busied ourselves with shisha, carnival swings, dodgems and walking hedges; there was a Jamaican steel drum band and a stuffed zebra, and to be honest the whole thing was so well-planned and executed that though our stamina failed at 4am I don’t think I would have run out of amusements by the final clear-out at 6.

I had a really lovely evening (that my mum tells me was well worth the extortionate ticket price for this selfie alone), and it was an apt summer “so long” to Oxford, finalist friends and New College Lane. My favourite moment was the truly fab firework display a few hours in that had me clapping like a small child – they never really lose their primal appeal do they? – and my one regret is not going back for that third helping of hog roast. Next time.

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