Thursday, February 12, 2009

Living Abroad Matters 13 - Hanging Out

Summer Time and the Living Is Easy
Everything stops in mid-July and August in London. By everything I mean school’s out and all regular activities take a break. Just when we join a Hillsong Connect Group and just when I discover the Islington Folk Club and the singing group at Cecil Sharp House and the therapy centre in Fulham, it’s Down Tools. We’re closed, back in September!

The whole of the UK adopts a single-minded focus – summer. Who can blame them after suffering the bone-chilling, bleak winter when darkness closes in like a shroud mid-afternoon? No wonder locals rejoice in the warm, lazy days of daylight stretching on until 10 pm, with silhouetted pink clouds dancing across a benign sky.

Going abroad is the thing to do. I got an email from a friend. The family’s off to their holiday house in France. And the pristine beaches of the Greek Islands lure the sun-starved. But for those who can’t afford to go away, the parks become the focal point of London where people hang out all day, suspended in time, without a worry in the world.

Thursday afternoon, I get off the train at Lancaster Gate and join the lazy mob in Hyde Park, a green sanctuary in the middle of a bustling city. I find a spot under a massive shade tree next to the ornamental pond. Heartbroken Patsy Cline is wailing maudlin on my ipod. I have a notepad and pen and sparkling mineral water. Suddenly life is very simple. I have everything I need. And so does everyone around me, in an air of sublime sufficiency.

A pale, bare-chested guy is lying on his back with a book. Another young man sits with his bicycle, plugged in, grooving to his own music. A pretty young mother and daughter have their picnic pack set out on beach towels. There’s a contented grandma minding the pram and a toddler gleefully kicking a ball.

Three happy mates are strolling along; complete with ice creams, cameras, unspoken friendship. Two teenage girls laze in the sun; skinny legs in the air, texting on smart phones, thumbing magazines, making idle conversation. An old man in a floppy hat is propped on a chair in front of an easel, painting the fountain. Two mischievous children chase the panicky, waddling ducks.

Now I am striding along with The Proclaimers belting out On My Way from Misery to Happiness. My steps are in perfect time to the beat and I am highly amused, bouncing along to my own private song, impressed by the strength in my legs and consumed by a surge of crystal clear joy. The sun is glistening through the vivid leaves of a mighty oak tree. A light breeze fans my cheeks. Jaunty girls in helmets trot by on shiny horses.

The scene is magical by the lake. A grinning black grandma with tight curls and gold hoops is peddling a wide-eyed, chubby cheeked child in a blue paddle boat. The plump, overfed ducks are nose diving for scraps. A cluster of strutting black youths show off their muscular torsos with jeans pulled off their hips to reveal designer boxers. Two relaxed policemen rock back and forth. The café and ice cream shop are doing a roaring trade. Diners are munching big salads and chatting.

Sensationalist newspapers tell us we live in a frightening world of terrorist threats. I don’t see it. I see humanity co-existing peacefully, enjoying simple pleasures on a perfect sunny day. No CC cameras here, no sirens screeching, just birds chirping and children laughing. I am sure the people of Iraq wish to experience such tranquil safety too, without US bombs causing destruction and mayhem and unending tragedy.
Saturday afternoon, Andrew and I hit the Half Price Ticket Outlet in Leicester Square and score seats for the dazzling musical, Wicked, and then hang out in Regent’s Park with books and magazines until the show starts. The Wicked Witch is not really that bad. Typically she has been demonised by her enemies while the Good Witch is not really that good. She’s a shallow airhead, the product of clever PR. I detect a political parallel. We jump on the Tube home with another West End show under our cultural belts.

The London Tube in summer is stifling. Built before air conditioning was invented, the tunnels are too narrow to install any such hi-tech cooling devices so commuters suffer, crammed together, with arms lifted to clutch the rails and sweaty armpits exposed to scent the torpid air. At the end of a busy day, the throng is prone to pong! Such is the hazard of city life.

But we are not outsiders anymore. I know we have settled in and been accepted as locals as invitations from new friends flow in. We enjoy an elegant dinner with Bea and Jan, celebrating their housewarming, a mid-week barbecue with our new Connect group buddies and a lively Sunday lunch with Jacqueline and Stuart and their circle of interesting friends.

And for a solid week of furious page turning, I indulge in The Charming Man, the latest novel by Marian Keyes. She’s an engaging Irish writer; her character studies are so intelligent, so witty, so engrossing. If you are looking for a scrumptious read, a feast of relationship drama peppered with tasty words and phrases, read this delicious book and be completely sated. Better than rich, dark chocolate. Better than a good Merlot. Almost as good as Ben & Jerry’s.

Remember whenever you are feeling down in the dumps, try these three tips to cheer yourself up: Wear something silly. Eat something fun. Play your favourite music loud. Whatever season and place you find yourself in, I wish you moments of pure joy.

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