home in London

fireplace with candles

The weather is colder and wetter in London, even though almost summer. Warm days are more humid. The flora feels familiar—roses, honeysuckle, geraniums, oaks—but with more decorative palms and no pines. The birds sound trillier, and even the doorbells are melodic. The tap water is thick and somehow oily, filming brown the insides of porcelain cups, so it's being run through a pitcher filter. My friend's recently rehabbed flat is charming: tall ceilings, high halogen lights, big front windows with beautiful northern light, a nonworking fireplace I filled with her candles that glow against the black-painted brick in the evenings. The kitchen is short on cupboard space but with a lovely raw-brick wall. The main floor wood is painted light-gray, the bathroom minimalistically tiled, while the bedrooms and hallway are lined with a flat, durable carpet I've never seen in the U.S. Most everything seems of a higher taste and quality than I see in America because, well, this is Europe—our primary cultural sourcebook.

kitchen brick wall

hanging stained-glass bird

I experienced the same feeling at the Queen's Park Farmers' Market on Sunday, a market carrying the same fruits and vegetables and flowers as Portland, yet the prepared food, the tarts and savories, and the handcrafted jewelry and secondhand stands in the Hall were far more upscale than I'm used to at neighborhood markets. In video game terms, I've leveled up, several levels. Portland, an American mecca of hipsterdom, feels provincial by comparison. But still, I have only brushed the surface here. I am letting myself sink into the atmosphere slowly, infusing myself with the daily sounds of speeding trains and cars rushing past like waves, the shrieks of children from the nearby school grounds, the buzz of fat flies flown in from unscreened windows, the myriad languages spoken on the streets: Polish, Russian, French, Arabic—and English.

Queen's Park garden

The past few days, I have been exploring on foot the Queen's Park Ward within the Northwest London Borough of Brent and the districts of Maida Vale and St. John's Wood by car while outside and discovering Gumtree (the British Craigslist) inside. London intimidates me. Pedestrians must be especially alert or risk being hit. I am unused to being a tourist in a place where I speak the same native language. It all creates an interesting juxtaposition of familiar and foreign.

built-in TV cabinet display

Travel is the best way I know to gain instant humility. It feels especially disorienting not having access to my usual sources for secondhand items since that is how I shop for most everything other than food, shoes, and underthings. Most 'charity shops' here focus exclusively on clothes and books. But we need housewares, specifically big baskets, a coffee table, and furniture for a preteen. My lovely, smart, creative expat friend has been in survival mode for years during and after her divorce (a feeling I can relate to), feeling the constant pressures of being a working single mother, so one of my goals for the summer is to help her create a home she can sink down and relax into more often, instead of always being in go-go action mode.

One can have practical beauty on a budget, even in one of the most expensive cities in the world. It starts by shopping the cupboards, digging out treasured gifts and placing them on display—to be of use. Broken leafy branches gleaned from the sidewalk can be set into a handpainted vase full of water to function as a placeholder for a houseplant. Seasonal flowers (blessedly for us, pink peonies!) purchased from Tesco, the local mini-grocery, can dress up a built-in bookcase, while a set of handmade pottery cups can be lined up in front of the rarely-used TV, awaiting tealights. Possessions can always be culled, with too-small or ill-fitting clothing and unwanted books and furnishings sold or donated to free up more space. Windows can also simply be opened to air out a room.

Next, we will buy a string of what the British call 'fairy lights' to drape around the flat. We will source a nice used wooden coffee table on which to set a steaming cup of herbal tea at the end of the day as we chat to wind down after a home-cooked dinner. We will find a few secondhand table lamps for cozy evening reading and movie watching. We will splurge, maybe, on a colorful Moroccan leather pouf as extra seating. We will buy bunches of hooks for the bathroom and hallway and borrow a drill. I will knit us a bathroom handtowel from thrifted natural linen-cotton yarn brought over from the States (because I was asked to teach her creative, intuitive, funny, clever daughter to knit). Since I've barely done any knitting in years, such a simple project feels meditative. I am doing more yoga. I am sleeping more hours. I am slowly adjusting to London time. I am loving the long, light-filled days of summer here in the land of (some of) my ancestors. I am wondering why they ever left.

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