The Strangeness of Kindness – remembering how to be human

I’ve spoken before about my need for reindoctrination into the concept of people being ‘nice’ after living in London for so long, but I thought I’d share a story to illustrate how severely afflicted I was. This was a couple of weeks after moving to Edinburgh and I still wasn’t used to the whole idea of good customer service. Or any kind of customer service. Actually it was all rather weird.

My kitten had been driving me nuts for days, so, determined to sort her the hell out, and despite the fact it was called Simply Dogs, I walked to the pet store half a block from my house. I didn’t know for sure, but I was fairly confident Simply Dogs wasn’t a literal interpretation of their services, just like the launch of Virgin Airlines years ago didn’t convince me I’d be ineligible to fly with them.

I had a quick look at the window displays and yes, there we go, cat toys. I pushed the white, wooden door open with some effort and stepped in. Although only about as big as your average famous person’s walk in closet, Simply Dogs was crammed full of what was quite possibly every single animal product available to mankind. Precariously stacked shelves of name tags, leashes and fetch toys reached the ceiling. Cat and dog baskets, bicycle carriers, litter, dry food, wet food, fish food, bird food, automatic laser beams, dog hurdles and curious things called Wiggly Giggly and Kong Wobblers filled almost every bit of floor space. These too were arranged just as alarmingly as the shelves.

I stood there, stuck staring in amazement, before being startled by a small “hello…”

Turning my head to the right I was surprised to see a lady seated behind a small glass counter. She was crouched so low, for all I knew she might have been sitting on the floor.

“Oh. Hello.” I replied, feeling giant-like as I looked down at the top of her head.

She smiled widely and stood up. “Is there anything I can help you with?”

She had soft blue eyes and a kind, round face, but her hair was a most unusual pale yellow, so much like creamed butter that I felt a sudden urge to lick a cake bowl. She wore a grubby, blue windcheater with the name “Pedigree” embroidered on it and her plump hands were clasped together, resting on her belly as she spoke.

“Well, my kitten has developed a new routine where she claws the sides of my bed at 3am every morning. Have you got a scratching post? But not those stand up, ugly carpet ones? Are there any other kinds?” I asked hopefully.

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I know what you’re thinking – how could anyone possibly ever have a problem with something this cute and fluffy? Well, if that’s what you’re thinking, you’ve obviosuly never had one.

Her eyebrows lifted toward her buttery fringe. “Oh aye,” she said, coming round from behind the counter and negotiating two display racks in the middle of the store. She squeezed in front of me, her right foot kicking a bottom shelf as she passed. A pyramid of Sheba Chicken Liver spilled to the floor.

“Oh.” she said, absentmindedly looking back to see what she’d knocked over, but making no move to pick them up. “I’ve got a wee something back here, the last one I think.”

Balancing one hand on a box of disposable puppy nappies, she reached behind a row of super-size Royal Canin dog food bags and presented me with what looked like a skateboard made of porous cardboard.  ”There we are,” she said, pleased.

As she handed it to me, I noticed a small, plastic bag of suspicious looking herbs taped to it.

“It comes with Catnip. You sprinkle it all over it. Cats love it.” she explained.

“Ah,” I said, moving the packet toward me for a closer look, somehow managing to stop the urge to sniff. Continue reading

Planet Nice – aka Scotland

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Living in Edinburgh requires an attitude adjustment. I’m so used to people being rude and unhelpful I’ve totally forgotten what nice is. My years in London have conditioned me to not even expect it any more. Every situation dealing with another human being is approached with the expectation that it’s going to be a hassle, voices may be raised and if it’s on the phone, there’s a pretty good chance the F bomb shall be dropped.

In the short time I’ve been in Scotland, I’ve had five separate incidents of friendliness. And I’m calling them incidents because they felt so strange to me, they may as well have been interactions with aliens. I almost expected Mulder and Scully to make an appearance after each one. I swear, there’s so much niceness being thrown at me, I might have to wear a raincoat to avoid being drenched in it. Well, that and the wet stuff from the sky.

Driving to Edinburgh from London, I was supposed to first go to the Big Yellow storage facility to unload most of the van, but as you can read here, there was no way that was going to happen after eleven hours on the road and five hours before that packing and cleaning. The next morning, one of the ladies from Big Yellow rang to see if I was alright, because she knew I was driving and the weather had turned bad. They already had my money, so I figured it wasn’t secretly about a possible lost sale. After I hung up I had to admit to myself this was just a complete stranger interested in my welfare… being nice.

A couple days later I was buying two things in HMV. One of them scanned up as zero. So the guy said “I didn’t see that” and gave it to me for free. Hello. Unheard of. Well, in London it would be unheard of. Then again, HMV has just gone kaput, so maybe the soon to be unemployed staff don’t really care much about the last weeks of HMV’s profits.

Then a lady in a shop gave me change of a £20 note for bus fare, without expecting me to buy anything from her. I was about to walk out after figuring out they didn’t sell bus tickets, because it just didn’t occur to me that someone would change my note for me, but before I could, she offered to change it. When I asked if I had  to buy something first she said “No, don’t be silly”. She could have said “No, don’t be a Londoner”.

Later still, when realised I didn’t have any money left on me except a few coins, the lady in a pet store let me have some cat litter without paying and just said “Come back later with the money.” I actually stood there for a few beats, silent, trying to fathom what she meant, like she’d just turned into Brian Cox and had tried to explain the universe to me.

Seriously, what planet is this Brian? Continue reading

Thinking is a lot more effective when you actually use a brain.

When I was thinking about how to get all our “stuff” from London to Edinburgh, I thought with my wallet, not my head. Or my arms or legs or my seriously neglected cardiovascular system. Moving company? Way too expensive. Man with a van? Well he might be a lot cheaper, but it’s not like he could magic his way back to London. He’d probably charge us for a night’s sleep and for his time schlepping all the way back too, wouldn’t he?

Fuck it, I’ll drive us, I proclaimed – me, the girl, the cat, the kitten and a van full of all the ‘stuff’ one seems doomed to amass by staying still for more than a few weeks, like dust on the top of the fridge that you never realise is there until the day you move, or a really tall (and rude) person comes to visit and points it out. I came to London with one large suitcase -albeit bursting at the seems – a few years later and I had to ask for the biggest rental van I could get to accommodate all the accumulated ‘stuff’. 

We took the west route, past Birmingham and Manchester and the Lake District, because I read on some crappy forum the east route merges into one lane after Newcastle, and I imagined all sorts of holdups as a consequence. The west route – so says Google Maps – is only about 10 miles longer, something like 414 miles or 7.5 hours’ drive. And not that it should matter, but much more scenic, according to the authoritative voice of  FatherFatFingers88 from the forum.

I’d arranged temporary accommodation for us and space in a storage facility for the portion of the stuff we wouldn’t need until we’d found a permanent place. I figured it would be best to go to the storage place the same day to unload the van so I could return it the next morning and only be charged one day’s rental.

Thinking with my wallet again.

The day of the move we were up with the birdies. We needed time to pick up the van (sure to take ages courtesy of London traffic and car rental rigmarole), pack it, do a last once over clean of the flat, plead with the passing policemen to let me keep the beast of a van parked on the footpath and bribe the builders next door with some beer to help us poor, weak females with the heavy stuff. This had to be done by 11am, when the inventory clerk was due. She was coming to make sure we hadn’t left holes in the walls or dead bodies under the floor boards. Continue reading

What I’ll miss about London – Argentina.

A few weeks ago, I realised there’s still so much of London I’ve yet to explore.I grabbed a London city guide to see how slack I’d been and saw that I still hadn’t done The National Gallery, Kew Gardens, Tower Bridge (been over and under it, but not in it), St Paul’s (be outside it, not in it),Wimbledon, the Notting Hill Festival (meh, I’d probably never do that actually), climbed the Monument at Monument…

So it’s a few weeks later and I now have only one week left in this city. So did I get off my bum to set the travesty right? No, of course not. But I did make sure I had one last visit to a London delight which l shall no longer be able to enjoy in Edinburgh.And anyone who knows me even slightly will be able to guess that this would involve food, and not very sophisticated food at that.

Last Friday night I took myself and the girl who, until meeting me, had never had a steak in her life (apparently it’s just not a dish you get in Hungary) to Gaucho, an Argentinian steak restaurant. In my opinion, or maybe I really mean my in my price range, it’s the best steak you’ll get in a chain restaurant in London. I would have just said ‘best steak in London’ but I’m acutely aware that there’s a whole other London out there which only those on a rather preposterous wage ever get a glimpse of. I’m sure in their London good steaks are easy to come by. But in my London, after budgeting well for a couple of months, if you can afford to splurge £25-ish for a slab of cow, Gaucho’s is the place you want to splurge it in.

Despite the fact that Gaucho’s interior design looks like someone has slaughtered a herd of black, brown and white cows, then dimmed the lights and put in chandeliers in an attempt to make us believe cow hide is couture, it’s no run of the mill chain.

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Arrrrgh my eyes! It’s not nearly as painful with the lights down, I promise. Maybe just don’t go during daylight.

In the girl’s world, anywhere with a table cloth is fancy, so I was wary that she might be feeling a bit out of place in this dark den of dead cow. But then came the chimichurri, and the only thing left for her to think about was the food and putting more of it into her mouth. Continue reading

Blending in like a local – Ten tips for London’s new arrivals.

Being an Australian, when I first moved to London I thought fitting in would be a piece of bakewell tart. I mean, we sort of speak the same language and appear to have many cultural similarities, yes? How hard could it be? As it turns out, quite. So in the name of cultural exchange, I thought I’d reach out to the new arrivals of today. Follow these simple rules, and just like a hipster in Shoreditch with the facial fuzz of a person who never wants to be kissed again, you’ll be blending in like a local in no time.

You can read this post at work and pretend you’re catching up on important political matters on Huffington Post (not passing the time reading some chick’s stories about her bum) by pressing here. Or if you’re not micro-managed, just scroll down and enjoy.

1 – Logistics

If you want to get somewhere in London, you can rely on this.

If you want to get somewhere in London on time never rely on this.

2 – Greetings

Forget ‘hello’. You will be greeted with ‘alright’, asked as a question and with a hint of concern, just the way you might enquire when you see someone fall down a flight of stairs. This is not because they know you had too many beers last night and actually did fall down a flight of stairs. Translated, this means “Good morning/afternoon, how are you?” Unlike the rest of the world, replying to this with an evaluation of your health and mood that day is unnecessary.

3 – Chilli is not a spice, it’s a seasoning

It will be served in everything, so if you don’t like chilli, make ordering a side of yoghurt your new annoying habit.

4 – Renting

Think of renting a home like adopting a baby. Adoption involves background checks, assessments of your lifestyle, bank accounts and payslips and glowing references from employers and reputable friends. Renting is the same, except the thing draining your wallet each month from then on will be the cupboard you now call home, not an orphan. Continue reading

Gettin’ Out of Dodge

In a month’s time I’m leaving London. It’s been four and a half years and I’m no more enamored with the place than I was when I first got here. So I’m off to Edinburgh. And if you’re like every single other person who I’ve told this to, you’re going to be thinking “Ooh you’ll need to rug up” or “oooh it’s expensive there” or “Edinburgh? WTF?”

Well first of all, yes, thank you, I’m aware it’s colder the further north you go in this hemisphere. But my research tells me that rent is half what I pay here and monthly travel passes are a quarter of London’s, so I don’t know where you’re getting the expensive thing from. Maybe you’re talking about eating out at nice restaurants, in which case, I’ve heard of this thing called supermarkets and home cooking, so I might give that a go.

Why Edinburgh? Well I went there once. It was nice. It will do.

I just really want to get out of London. As well as wearing a hole in my unemployed-bum pocket, London has worn the hell out of me. Edinburgh is tiny, you can walk across it in half an hour, there’s 7.5 million less people, you’re not likely to be pushed and shoved on the Tube (because they don’t have one),and I’ll be able to afford a car, which means I can go for drives and do ‘stuff’. I can’t afford to do stuff in London. When I try it all goes pear shaped anyway. In the four years I’ve been in London I hired a car once and anyone who read this blog post might understand why the car point is even making an appearance on this justification-of-the-nation list.

Plus I do believe I might have relatives in Edinburgh who don’t know I exist. A spot of ancestral digging sounds fun.

It’s also time to get another job. Being an unemployed bum has run its course, as has the bank balance. I’ve yet to make any money from photography (probably because I realised that will take years of hard work – not 6 months), I haven’t landed a book deal (probably because I haven’t written one) and I’m not a superstar blogger (probably because I write infrequently, don’t promote it and what I write is not that globally interesting – locally though, I can’t understand why I’m not dripping in accolades and Dior handbags – errr kidding, I’d never buy a handbag).

Besides, I hate to admit it but I miss having an office job I hate. OK no I don’t. But I miss getting paid.

I don’t regret my somewhat crazy decision last August. I may not have managed to find a way to make a living doing what I love – yet – but I’ve had six months to indulge in it without the distraction of twelve hours a day participating in the rat race. I’ve tried many different avenues and failed many times but I will continue chipping away. And I’ve been luckier than most that I’ve had the opportunity to take time out from the real world to try all this. Most importantly, I’ve had time to figure out what IB bloody S is and get to grips with it away from the stresses of the daily grind.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go off to the dentist. All the saccharine in that last paragraph has made a few of my teeth fall out.