Tuesday, January 29, 2008


I meet a man who I think at the time is the handsomest man in the world, in a horrible club where they light sparklers every time someone orders champagne. We make out in the door of a florist's shop in Mayfair. Things go a bit far. A man interrupts us and wants to know, can we give him change for the payphone? Perhaps he mistakes our guilty looks for fear. "I'm not a Muslim, I'm a Hindu," he says, eager to please.

I tell the handsomest man in the world I want to move to Berlin and finish the book I'm writing. "Like David Bowie," he says. For no reason at all, I start to cry. I think I'm crying because I am still in love with my ex boyfriend, but really I'm crying because we're not going to have a baby, and I'm not going to move to Berlin, though I don't know these things yet.

Months later, after I've not had a baby, I go to Berlin to welcome in the new year and watch the people who live in the city narrowly avoid setting fire to each other, with fireworks. It's late December - the year feels old, draggy, heavy in the hips, it doesn't want to go on. Almost everyone I'm with is Danish. The woman who owns the flat is Swiss, but she isn't here. We piece her together from fragments. In a moment of revelation, I realise that the emergency landing instructions next to the toilet might be the sign of an air hostess, not a chronically anxious phobic.

On new year's eve we end up at a cavernous gay club where men have real live sex in dark rooms at the back. My friend wants to take a look, so we do, and I pretend not to be shocked. Later on we get separated and in an upstairs bar I see a man in glasses unwrap a packet of sandwiches he's brought with him and eat them, like an explorer halfway up a mountain, halfway through the long trek of the night.

I think Berlin is like London. Everywhere is like London, after a while, after you've been in London for a while. It has the same mixture of drabness and fierceness, but the streets are wider from where the armies marched through.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Because I don't think anything deserves to be easy, when I'm 15 years old I fall for a Czech student who looks a bit like a cat. I first see him onstage, playing the piano in a threadbare suit. And, boom, this is it: little do I know that from now on my life is going to consist of falling in love with foreign men and moving to places in inexpert attempts to please them, although the whole point of foreigners, perhaps, is that you can't second-guess them, don't know how to please them.

I write him letters. I phone him long-distance. He's bewildered, angry and kind by turns. The poor guy: he's unleashed a teenage monster, an emotional Godzilla ready to lay waste to the world. (But Europe is done with monsters.) The half-term holiday rolls around. I announce to my mother that I'm taking the coach from London to Brno.

I listen to Maria Callas on my walkman, driving through Antwerp in the rain. I have an adolescent sense of melodrama. I arrive, bleary-eyed, underslept, ungainly. I'm staying with my friend in a Communist-era apartment block. Love has brought me here! I wander around, not sure what to do. The love of my life is busy with his PhD, and probably horrified that I've arrived, although he's very polite about it. I sit in a church, half-heartedly admiring the architecture, and don't belong anywhere. Europe's churches are nothing to do with me.

The coach back to London is crowded. I'm forced to sit next to a Czech man who speaks hardly any English; we exchange our handful of words of each other's language, then sit carefully upright, giving each other space. The journey goes on forever. Night comes. When the stranger falls asleep, his head lolls onto my shoulder, and I let it rest there, not moving, adjusting my breath so it matches his. I can see my face in the black mirror of the coach window. There are many more years ahead of me in which I will travel alone.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


Me and the Romanians are outside an Irish pub in Stockholm talking about how awful winter is going to be. "Snow up to here," says an Englishwoman, and gestures to her hip. The Romanian woman scowls and grinds out her mentholated cigarette under the heel of her bright pink shoe. She works, unhappily, in telesales. Sweden has not been good to her. It's not clear why she's here, except that things would apparently be even worse in Romania, where everything is shit, similarly to Sweden, where everything is also shit, she says. Maybe everything is just shit.

The Romanian man lights another cigarette. I make polite conversation. "I don't know much about Romania," I say. I rack my brains for anything I know about Romania. My idea of being polite is telling people things that they probably already know, but cheerfully, and with enthusiasm. Sometimes, the desire to connect with people, to show willing, leads me to say incredibly stupid things. Like now. "Romanian orphanages!" I say, triumphantly, as an example of something I know about Romania.
Luckily he mishears me. "Romania is a country," he says, pityingly. Relenting, he throws me a scrap, "Dracula lived there. In Transylvania."

The Romanian woman has taken an interest in me. We discuss our career prospects. She would like to become a freelance writer. I advise her not to. I would like to get a job in telesales. She advises me not to. We smoke and look at the strip of blue sky above the narrow street, in a leftover stub of Stockholm as it was first built, first imagined. She sighs, mentholated tobacco on her breath, her bosom heaving under her H&M suit. "I will go home eventually," she says. "We all will."

Monday, December 04, 2006


Guest blog by Thomas Will!

Dinard has undoubtedly reached the nadir of its popularity. The beach huts lining the cold promenade are shabby, the paint peeling from their woodwork, and the statue of Hitchcock which stands atop a large concrete egg in the car park has turned its back to the cold sea. The grim-faced British holidaymakers, such as they are, huddle in the cafés at the top of the beach whilst masticating endless plates of bifteck-frites, their eyes fixed disconsolately on the Channel.

We visit the town on Saturdays, walking along the coast road from St Briac in order to visit the market (we have already known the area long enough that the only recreational activity with any interest remaining to us is shopping). Turning the corner down the hill into the town square, past the men from the Ivory coast who sell humorous toy apes with enormous extendable penises, and tight-faced Bretonne women hawking imitation blanc-de-Chine, we enter the market proper, a region tinged with the unmistakeably disagreeable odour of andouillette, which swings from the cross bar of a charcutier’s stall like the decaying remains of some long-gibbeted criminal.

The real interest for the jaundiced and artistically inclined shopper lies, however, in the numerous art-supply shops which are spread about the narrow streets of the town, capitalizing on a, by now rather archaic, local association with painting. This faint bohemian patina has been bestowed on Dinard by the occasional historical presence of Renoir and Monet, who came in their vacances to paint the local rock formations, pine trees, grizzled ex-winkle-pickers, and other maritime features. These days an entirely different calibre of artist purchases their tools in these shops, but what they lack in terms of ability they made up for by their grim enthusiasm. These slaves to the painterly muse can be seen dotted all over the headland on a clear day, and are doubtless up there in the not infrequent rain and mist too, as the fecundity of their efforts, which was displayed in the innumerable shop-front galleries of Dinard, points to a year round creative devotion uninhibited by even the most adverse weather conditions.

Photos by Tom

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


The Irish girl says everyone is beautiful. "I suppose everyone has something beautiful inside them," I say, because it's evening and I've had a drink or two and I'm feeling expansive and generous, as if I'm finally about to become someone I'd actually enjoy being.
"No," she says, firmly. "I mean everyone is actually physically beautiful."
An old man walks past, leaning on a walking stick, his face collapsing in on itself and disappearing or preparing to disappear.
"Even him?"
"What exquisite eyebrows," says the Irish girl, with genuine longing.

Where are we? We're not in Spain. The signs are a jumble of oddly placed consonants, and the shopkeepers frown with deliberate incomprehension at carefully enunciated Spanish phrases. At the hostel, I get into an argument with a dreadlocked American who insists he's a traveller, not a tourist. "A traveller is someone who suffers," he says. "I walked through the desert for three days. The sand nearly blinded me. A tourist wouldn't do that." I instantly dislike him. All around us, people are flirting, kissing, drinking. A tourist is someone who takes pictures; a traveller is someone who wants to go home.

The Irish girl has an Irish friend who seems to have somehow got stranded in Barcelona. He's not in touch with his family; the embassy has given up on him, he says, looking shifty. "I don't have any money," I say, stiffly. The Irish girl laughs and suggests going for a beer - she probably thinks he's beautiful, too. By his account, he's dropped off the edge of his life, a feat as easy as missing a couple of flights. I make excuses and leave to go and look at the unfinished cathedral. Later that day, I see the Irish exile on La Rambla, mixing with off-duty mimes in their heavy make-up, released from silence, smoking and slapping each other's backs.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


The summer after the summer that ... gets back from interrailing, accidentally overdoses and dies, I win an interrail ticket in a competition funded by the parents of another dead child, in memory of their son. My winning entry is a clutch of really quite terrible poems about - well, not much. I am 17 and a right pain in the arse, in ways that are not fully explained by hormones or bereavement. Me and a friend of mine bicker our way around Europe, doctoring the handwritten dates on our tickets so the trip lasts an extra two weeks, and ending up penniless and food poisoned in a sleazy hotel in Paris, where every night a man knocks on the door next to ours and pleads over and over, in a reedy old man's voice, "Philippe, où sont mes lunettes?"

Nearly eight years later I visit Paris again, with a group of Swedish architecture students in search of inspiration. We walk around the city for hours taking pictures of alarmingly modern buildings. The walls of the Arab Institute are made up of steel apertures which contract and expand with the light; the new National Library is four skyscrapers facing a spruce forest sunk into the central well of the building. The architects crouch and take pictures, and one of them explains that the trees were flown in from Norway. "If they'd been planted here, they'd grow straight up towards the light," she says, and in fact the trees are leaning every way but up, shored up with wires strung from one fragile trunk to the next.

A friend from university is living in Paris with his French girlfriend. A friend of theirs is visiting from Berlin, on tour with her new band. When we arrive at the venue - "the least Parisian bar in Paris", says my friend - it's already packed with ecstatic fans who know all the words. I'm tired, I've been walking around all day, my feet hurt, and I've decided I hate what I'm wearing - a second-hand dress I sewed together badly when it split in the middle. People push and sway around me, singing, transported. There's a girl in the band wearing boxing gear, skinny jeans and a very severe, peroxided fringe. A good haircut is the secret to a truly successful life; I've never had a good haircut. The lead singer starts to tear up his clothes and throws the long black and white ribbons that once were his jacket into the crowd - lines of fabric snake over our heads, a network passed hand to hand. I can't bring myself to reach up and take hold. The girl with the fringe looks out at us all, suddenly human, unable to conceal her happiness.

Monday, November 13, 2006


I've been talking to my Milanese boyfriend online for nine months - long enough to have a dual nationality child, had we ever slept together, which we haven't. He visits me in London. He's put on weight. I've put on weight. We both looked better on webcam.

We met in Tanzania, where he was working as a safari guide and I was in search of a fantasy of east Africa, or trying to impress my father, or trying to impress myself. We were in a restaurant, I was glowing with happiness, he laughed at all my jokes. For the next nine months we sit at computers in various different parts of the world and show each other parts of our bodies on little webcams. He hates London, but is so proud of Milan that you'd think he'd built it with his own hands: the cathedral, the fashion, the food. I buy a cookbook and read about how to make fresh pasta, as if reading about life on an alien planet. I can't afford the fashion. I don't care about the cathedral.

I persist in loving him anyway for several months after I know I can never love him at all, for the sake of something abstract: romance, or consistency, or nostalgia for things that never happened. He tells me you can walk everywhere in Milan. "So walk," I should have said, but didn't, because even the saddest and most pointless love has some small weight in the world. When I last spoke to him, we found we had nothing to say.


They put my uncle's face on a stamp. He is a philosopher of freedom, equality and public transport, and last year he served all three by putting on a helmet and zooming through the tunnels of Brussels on a motorcycle, his ginger beard stirring in the wind. He leans forward into a better future, but meanwhile he's a thin, sparse man, all joints and ironic smiles: the air of the present doesn't sustain him. He turns down a second helping of quiche; he doesn't partake of the almond thins. He reminds me of a character in an Asterix comic, a yogi from India who ascetically turns down all food at a lavish banquet, accepting just one caviar egg which he balances carefully between finger and thumb.

My mother and my aunt go shopping and argue. "When I was born, she said she wanted to cut me up and flush me down the toilet," says my mother, holding a dress up against herself in a dressing room mirror. Ancient animosities still fester. In his underheated study, my uncle considers the task of saving Belgium from itself: its two warring languages, its inconvenient borders, its imposing EU buildings just around the corner. Downstairs, my cousins chase each other around the table wielding cutlery, and grow up to love each other. My mother thrives as the little sister, looking younger and more beautiful by the day.

In Dar es Salaam I date a Belgian carpetbagger, a salesman of advertising space and hope. My affections are divided, or at least uncertain. We finally sleep together the night before he leaves for Venezuela. C'est la vie/leaver dea as slaaf. I miss the cities of Europe, their smell of brick and cold water. The Belgian carpetbagger texts me from the airport with a compliment and an email address. I never write.