Monday, 30 July 2018

Various places (including Birmingham & Leeds), UK

In June, I went back to the UK for 10 days: the longest time I have spent there since moving to Berlin just short of four years ago.

As many emigrés will testify, the concept of home gets muddied when milestones start taking place abroad. Scary steps into your career, marriage or cohabitation or an otherwise significant relationship, having a child... whatever it is, you start to see life in terms of your adopted country and lose sight of how it is in your old country. I don't have the slightest clue about council tax, for example, and if I ever move back, I'll almost certainly struggle with and feel stupid about what people consider the simplest tenets of UK adulthood, despite it all being in my first language.
Without really thinking about it, whenever you're in one place you refer to the other as "home", thus confusing family and friends who may expect you to pick just one.
My native country is close by, unlike many people I know here who are from North America or Down Under, for whom a visit to theirs is a biennial or perhaps even rarer luxury. I go back twice a year on average, yet when I meet people for the first time, they tend to assume I go more.
There are two main reasons I don't. Firstly, when I go home, I visit my parents, and they do not live near any major cities, so that means I have to write off a day for travelling from the airport and then recovering from the travelling (because the cheapest flight is always the early flight). I never go back to the UK just to go to London. Going back is very different to simply going on holiday to another country. When you do that, you tend to go to one particular city, and there's its airport right there.
The second truth is that I have almost never really been financially stable. You might think, "Oh, but you had enough to go to Austria and Greece, plus you went to Canada a couple of years back", but it always comes at a price: the fact that I work my arse off and lose my mind trying to make extra cash so that I can get out of here once in a while and give myself things to look forward to. (In general, I wish people would be more honest about this.) Whenever I return, I am back at square one. I don't care what you've heard; survival in Berlin costs money and a lot of energy. If I'm only in the UK for a few days, I can't always incorproate seeing people on the other side of the country, and one reason for this is that train ticket costs are going through the roof.

So it wasn't as if I hadn't been wanting to make a longer visit. It made me appreciate this one all the more, though.


Yep! Mum wanted to go, as her friend (and my godmother) Gillian was putting on an exhibition. It had been years since I'd been to Birmingham; when I was at uni in Leicester, it was the nearest large city, so I had to go there a couple of times to get bigger errands done or catch train connections to go further north or west. In the months before coming to Berlin, we had even talked about me moving into Gillian's spare room because of the better job prospects... so there's that "what could have been" element.

I was surprised at how different the area around New Street Station looked. I used to dread going to that place because those below-ground platforms were... ugh, just so dank. A constant building site, really bad lighting, and the connection times always seemed to be really narrow. The platforms are still dark, but at least the station itself is no longer such a terrible place to hang around in. It's been merged into a shopping centre and rebranded as "Grand Central", very light and bright. We took the bus down to Balsall Heath, which is where this exhibition was.

The iconic Selfridges building

This wasn't the art, by the way. The exhibition wasn't a chair and a plant.
Birmingham skyline from Balsall Heath!

I'd heard there were some nice independent veggie restaurants and bistros in Birmingham, but unfortunately we got hungry at an inconvenient time and ended up going Wagamama at the Bullring. Not a terrible choice, though, as I tried their new vegan katsu curry. It was good. How can I recreate this at home?

Seeing as we were in the area, we ducked into the giant, multi-storey Waterstones. I picked up one title I'd explicitly wanted to buy while in the UK, and another that's been on my Goodreads list for a while but that I really hadn't been expecting to find there.
Can I just say what a bizarre experience it was to actually go into a British bookshop at all? I follow literature pretty religiously thanks to the internet, but I would say most of my sources are American, as are the selections in the English-speaking sections of Berlin bookshops. So when I see people on Twitter talking about new UK & Ireland book releases, I tend to assume it's all obscure stuff, sleeper hits that you have to specially order. I guess it's simply because of the volume of good stuff coming out, books I wish I could have read years ago; the brilliant writing and conspicuously non-overt portrayal of queer women in Sally Rooney's Conversations with Friends, for example. Actually seeing stuff "in the pulp"? Pretty surreal, and also a wake-up call that publishing is at its peak. (Which is unspeakably inspiring when it comes to tending to my own fiction-writing pursuits, too.)

We then jumped onto the West Midlands Metro (tram that takes you from Birmingham to Wolverhampton) to visit the historic Jewellery Quarter, but by the time we got there things seemed to be shut and I was in a lot of pain, so we instead made our way back to catch the train back home. Not without a stop at Pret for snacks, of course! I now see why everyone goes on about it!


Lovely Leeds! I went there to visit my sister. It had been a long time since my last sojourn to the North, but I'd universally heard really good things about Leeds so I'd been wanting to check it out for a while. Allegedly it's the city with the highest concentration of Germans in the UK, but I didn't run into any evidence of this while I was there.

On my first evening there, we went to Hyde Park Book Club, a cool venue. And when I say "cool", I mean, I felt very old; there were lots of teens and students dressed like 90s throwbacks, as is the trend these days. Anyway, I still had a nice time. A lot of small gigs go on here, there's a little bar/café with mostly vegan goodies, and you can even buy books there (as the name suggests).

While Flo was at work the next day, I went into town and explored a bit. One of the most well-known aspects of Leeds' city centre is the Victorian arcades.

A modernised arcade, I think

I liked the university's brutalist architecture, too. This photo looks like a 3D reconstruction, right?

But I think what I enjoyed most of all was just being in an English neighbourhood again with terraced houses (and bonus rolling hills). That's something that can't be recreated in Berlin.

Houses made from black stone, peculiar to the area

I have to admit that, as ever, one of the aspects I was anticipating the most in Leeds was the food! There was Temple Coffee & Doughnuts, which I'd seen numerous times on Instagram due to their very distinctive aesthetic. They had the most incredible pastel-coloured hot drinks; mine was called Purple Haze, a lavender milk (!) latte. So good. The doughnuts were also amazing. I can't really complain, since I live 10 minutes away from Brammibal's in Berlin, but... this was in a league of its own.

Later that day, we headed to the suburb of Kirkstall to check out Mog's, which is the vegan fast food place. Unfortunately by dinnertime, when we got there, most of their stuff had sold out; I'd been really craving fried "chicken", but it was a really small place. However, the stuff we did get was delicious. I opted for a Philly cheese steak and garlic fries (I was so thirsty that I was even persuaded to get a tin of Sprite).

We were so full afterwards that we walked to to Kirkstall Abbey.

All in all, I had a lovely stay in Leeds and there's definitely much more I want to explore next time!

Leicester & Cambridge

I also managed to see pals in these places, which was really nice! It is lovely to feel like you still have connections. That might sound a bit bleak, but over the past year or so I've really struggled with my identity in relation to the UK and the people there (which is probably rooted in not having sustainable friendships at school).

It was great to see Alex in Leicester! We had a nice lunch at The Orange Tree (whose vegan menu has expanded by miles — spoilt for choice, I opted for seitan popcorn chicken and a Japanese salad!), walked through nostalgic Victoria Park, hung out at her place, and then pootled around the Clarendon Park area, visiting all the old haunts having a look at what my old house looks like now!

In Cambridge, Nikita, Lynsey, and I went to the ever-amazing Rainbow Café, where we each had a different lasagne. I had forgotten how pretty Cambridge is, especially on a June evening. We walked down Trumpington Street and then over the river before sitting down on the lawn outside Queen's College and having a laugh, before Lynsey kindly drove me to my hotel near Stansted Airport.

For personal reasons, I didn't return to Berlin feeling rejuvenated and positive, but look: I did have a really wonderful time while in the UK. For better or worse, there's no place like it.