hiatus | the heatwave

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It has been a long time since I wrote anything for this space. A hiatus of sorts, perhaps a symptom of a busy school year.

Over Christmas we inevitably travelled, to India. It started with the flight and the queues of Heathrow, the temporary disorientation, remembering whether or not we flew out of terminal four last time. You do it enough, it's all some sort of mechanical, learned haze. Being carried along in the crush, down the jet bridge, through frigid air heavy with the stink of kerosene. Like the air’s coldness somehow traps the fumes, holding onto them through to the cabin, where in the first few steps into the early aisles fuel mingles with coffee scents and artificial air pressure. Our flight turns and taxies, clumsy. Slick tarmac, onto the runway. The plane pauses, composes itself, the engines gun and the floor shakes and the flight rumbles over the concrete awkwardly, until the wheels retract, the ground falls away, the wing dips, the cabin hums. London fans out below winking and blinking lights, carved into bays and headlands by swathes of black.  Then there was the bombardment of color and chaos and life that hits you after a trip to India, that stays with you through the flight home, then is sucked out of you by London's damp, clammy night air. 

It was cold after Christmas. Just as people saw the first few gleams of spring, the buds and their hope were engulfed by some of the most intense snow the eastern UK has seen since Tupac was rapper of choice. Flurries started and didn’t stop, it was beautiful, hypnotic, coming down harder in sloppy white sheets like puppy kisses. There was too much snow on sidewalks, the dogs played in the garden, chasing icicles and snowballs that sank deep, leaving tracks and furrows while plumes of grey smoke from a dozen chimneys muddled with the heather sky. Geese flew overhead in formation, shadowy onyx against towering somber cloud; peppery and rippled. Hands were dry and fragile like old paper, the ground was undisturbed feathery white until it met fields where the earliest wheat was fighting through; there it looked chunky and porous, like paper towel. The wind murmured and caressed the ribs of haggard trees, blowing powdery snow onto the roadsides. They were littered with abandoned trucks and cars looking overly bright and metallic so the place felt more like midwinter Alaska than spring Norfolk. More brilliantly brutal than subtle and charming. 

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And then summer came, like a flash flood of dry heat, no warning, no expectations, the ground and the people unable to absorb it all. The atmosphere just decided that was it, enough of winter's indecisive drizzle and mild, pale yellow rays, the sun seemed to go from being the color of butter to somewhere closer to an Indian temple marigold. No spring. No buffer period, no hesitation. There was no way to miss it. Europe basked and burnt in a heatwave. The sky was so clear it was a storybook cliché, or a childhood drawing, like someone had said, kids, let's color the sky blue. It was more as if the world was upside down, like looking at the Mediterranean Sea, suspended above you. The dogs would run out of the shade to where the sun cast blocky shadows through the needles of pines, chase a squirrel, and come back with their own fur like charcoal; hot, black, and sandy. I would take my car out and send up a plume of umber dust, winter's puddles were bone dry and left everything coated in a fine layer of what looked like cinnamon. I'd follow that usual rural route framed by fields and in the rear view mirror driving downhill fast it left a distorted smudge of pale green, flax and straw behind me. From above the countryside probably looked khaki, as if it was washed in sepia with patches of dun and tan like fading army combat uniform. 

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There is football on TV, most of which is bad, and a new Drake album, most of which is great, and the sun sets late and barely sets at all. It takes a short dip over the inky horizon then floats back up, between the russet roofs of houses to the east of our own, casting long shadows and cool blue shade. In the shade you shiver, maybe watch the swirling dust, or crystalline drops of dew forming on cut grass. But there are these tepid mornings when you walk out and the earth just smells warm, of verdant leaves and heavy fruit trees and every bush bristling with life and flowers, and you should be somewhere further south. France or Italy, maybe, somewhere with stone farm houses the color of caramel and where the roads aren't full of harassed holiday makers in packed cars. But another week of high pressure has been forecast, so another week of sunshine spilling over the yellowing grass. The sun will rise amber and brush early cloud with peach, it will fade the roses on the trellis to watery claret. The clouds will be rare, light, with pretty latin names like altocumulus, cirrocumulus and altostratus, which meteorologists call the clouds of fair weatherWait, until around midday, when everyone is where they need to be and the roads are quiet, the sun is sharp and the heat uninhibited. To hear kites call as they cruise the thermals miles above us, perhaps a light rustle of grass in a sliver of breeze, and absolutely nothing else.

"this bud of love, by summer's ripening breath, may prove a beauteous flower when we next meet"           
- juliet to romeo (Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, what else?)

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** All these photos are from around Norfolk, taken over the past 3 summers. The cows were at the Norfolk Show a couple of years ago.

fawn and burnt siena | summer rome

Rome apparently has seven hills and we seemed to have climbed at least eight in our first few hours alone . The Trastevere district where we had hired our apartment was very hilly, it transpired, but none of these hills were one of the actual seven. The neighborhood's sidewalks were roughly paved, disturbed where the roots of the Mediterranean stone pines had heaved upwards fortissimo. The leafy streets were flanked by town houses, standing proud and lean in gardens and terraces shaded by spiky palms, lemon and orange trees. The houses were balconied; wrought iron in deep black, set against the earth tones of each facade. Not newly painted; not peeling, shades of fawn and burnt siena, wooden shutters always a degree lighter than the stucco and framing the window. Even for someone like me - probably a good deal colder than the balmy sun-warmed stone around us - it was not hard to imagine Juliette stepping out onto a balcony and calling out to Romeo on the street below. Maybe because that was Verona there was no one out on the street except my sister and I, entranced by the green and the walls and the climbs.

We'd heard horror stories of entrance queues for any famous monument so arrived early at the Roman Forum, with the Circus Maximus and the Colloseum under the same ticket. The Forum and Circus were almost eerily empty before the tourist buses arrived, the complex much bigger than I imagined. The ancient Romans got around, that was clear, and they liked building things. Red, dusty earth swirled under our feet as we padded through the remnants of the government and financial heart of the ancient city. It was signposted, but there was no clear route and the Romans didn't seem to have ease of understanding for foreign visitors centuries later as their main concern. Some say to get a guide or an audio tour, but a bit of imagination and rusty roman history seemed to be enough. Cream swathes of material; togas and laurel; twins raised by wolves.  It was no later than 10am, best, and the temperatures were pushing 34 Celsius. The kind of arid heat that moves over the ground in a haze and dries it to a blushing shade of auburn red, and the trees to muted olive green that appears brushed by a sepia overlay. We stopped in the shade of a cedar, for a drink. I held out the bottle of water to my sister. Et tu, Brute, I said to her, and we moved on. 

There were crowds in the Colosseum in chaotic groups waving selfie sticks, which seemed a pretty fair re-enactment of the real thing, perhaps without the selfie sticks. So instead we walked, as we always do, up a hill, since this was Rome, there was at least a one in seven chance you'd be climbing, but the climb also seemed to filter out a good chunk of the tourists. There were walled gardens, loosely attached to convents and monastaries, where the sisters ambled in the shade, bright white contrasts against the walls in their spectrum of pinks and reds. The shades were like wine glasses on a connoisseur's table, and probably in the hands of more prudent tourists on the buzzy terraces below. The local primary school had come to the park for games, nannies played with their toddler charges in the shade of orange trees and the views stretched far over the River Tiber, the sky so blue it was almost gray, punctuated by the domes of St Peter's Cathedral and the Vatican in the distance.

We had not particularly intended to hit up every tourist site in Rome but I wanted to see Via del Corso, the famous shopping street, and it happened that the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Piazza Navona and the Spanish Steps were in walking distance of each other. The ancient Romans' renaissance counterparts seemed more forward looking in terms of their town planning. We went first to the Pantheon and we might as well have started by being shot in the head. Nothing would have the same impact. It was so foreign but familiar, so silent when the marble on the walls seemed to scream so loud, the handful of tourists inside moved in slow motion but with a sense of urgency, because it was like the whole building was a dream, and if you woke up it would all be over. There had been a sign which baffled Layla and I on the way in - it told visitors not to lie down. Who would go into a monument and lie down? But we could then see why, there was an odd power in the way white light seemed to flood through the dome and reach every corner of the building. Visitors wandered out, slower than they had entered, back into the piazza and shielded their eyes with their hands, blinded by morning sun. The carabinieri, a police-military hybrid that seem to hang out, benignly, on every street corner in Rome, must have got a real kick out of seeing the smugness on pretentious tourists' faces transformed into a blank look of total awe when they emerged.

The streets around the Pantheon and Via del Corso seemed to pump all sorts of blood through Rome - financial, artistic, historic, the fashionable edge. I had warmed to our temporary Trastevere home, but it was defintely the more 'boho', young, neighborhood, and I had been amused and impressed - the local-produce stores, trendy cafes and the raw food place were so, well, LA.   Via del Corso was where the shiny Italian designers congregated in the old Renaissance buildings and was a study in Italian street style, so lessons from the best. A man in a sharp blue suit and polished leather loafers lit a cigarette on the doorstep of Valentino, a white Vespa leant against the wall of D&G, a salesgirl with skin an enviable shade of caramel eased the shutters off the door to Salvatore Ferragamo, all in a days work. The stereotype that Italians know how to dress was remarkably accurate; girls all in black linen and white shoes, the male uniform of blue suits, all rode shining Vespas, most were dark haired, no one looked tired and no one was pale, maybe there's something in the coffee. Despite this also being the tourist heartland there was not a single Starbucks or chain coffee shop to be found, in general far fewer than I had expected, but you could smell the freshly roasted beans from each hole in the wall cafe and wafting out of ground-floor apartments. The modern Romans, it seemed, lived well in their charming Renaissance buildings, gestured enthusiastically while talking, had the most cute and cheerful bambino, drove their Fiats with fervour and took their dogs wherever they could.

I took a half-hearted jog up to the Piazza Garibaldi early one morning to see if I could beat the tourists and the heat to a sunrise view. The rising sun was partially blocked by the night blanket of cumulus puffs, on their way out but the skies seemed painted by streaks. The clouds were heather gray and soft lavender, girly peach and sweet caneteloupe, breaking to the lightest blue in parts. The domes of the Vatican bloomed round and classic in pale beige, the huge war memorial of the Piazza Venezia a solid slab of pillared white marble, the rest of the skyline punctuated by the pixel-squares of townhouses and cathedrals unchanged for centuries. Doves swooped and plunged in the middle distance and church bells rang, each chime bringing to life the stories of empire, demise, rebirth, creation. The metallic notes made me realize that one thing we forgot to do was to throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain, which would supposedly meant a certain return to Rome. But then I knew I'd be back. There was still a  fog of cobbled squares we hadn't yet touched, there were hushed streets where dogs barked from behind iron gates, there were lines of cypress trees against the titian facades of sunkissed villas, and morning light would still stream through the shaft in the roof of the Panthenon. 


hello all :) Rome was, in all honesty, one of the most beautiful European cities I've visited. We did so much more than I talked about here (we even went out to the countryside one day, but that's a post in itself) and I could just go on about the beautiful buildings and people and sunshine... if you're jealous I get it. Anyways now we're back, I should hopefully be baking again soon, since aaalll the summer fruit is here and I have a few plans for this space over the next few months.
Hope you're all enjoying these warmer days. Ciao xx


to be golden | spring Norfolk

I took a break from studying last week to take some photos of the blossom at the village church. It's not a long walk, maybe 5 minutes at most, but I needed it. Contract law is... dense, I suppose, and I seem to be chained to a desk for something like 8 hours a day. Whoever said university was the longest vacation you'd ever take may just as easily have said it was also a one stop route to Hollywood or something. Either way. I wanted out of the house for a bit, without the complications of a full-on dog walk, just wearing regular shoes and taking along my camera because I finally bought a leather strap for it. The road was busy, people going places, with visions and aims and expectations to fulfil. 

 For it being springtime and there being blossom everywhere, the sky was dark. I'd been using the light when I was working and it was only 2pm. Not particularly cold, in fact it was quite mild, temperatures somewhere in the low teens. Just overcast and windy with bands of dark cloud moving swiftly across the sky, different layers. The wind shook the trees and petals scattered, falling among the gravestones in the churchyard. Pink and gray is always a nice combination. I felt a drizzle, light rain on the side of my cheek, coming in at an angle in the wind. I pull my scarf around my shoulders, and reach for my hood, then drop it. The drizzle had turned into fat droplets. Solid, but falling in such a way that I was barely wet, and the air was still mild. I rarely feel the rain because I am always reaching for that damn hood. My hair was down and blowing around but I left it, as is. It would curl in the moisture. But I had nowhere to go, I would be walking home to a textbook telling me about mitigation and damages. A steady tip-tap of the drops falling on my jacket. It was like a subconscious reaction, to reach for my hood when it started raining, probably says a lot about me. A curly strand of hair... not any attempt at an emotional reaction, I'm not good at those. Not a dancing in the rain type moment. I'd never been one to celebrate tropical downpours or to splash in puddles with an umbrella. Just cold rationality, I suppose. That the hair actually really didn't matter right now, so I might as well stand out there and perpetuate the situation. I needed a break from the constant battle between the cold logic on which I pride myself and the futile search for something else.

I looked down the road where a shaft of sunlight had hit the tarmac, accentuating its blackness, slowly stretching towards me. Something I had grown up with, whenever I was in a rural part of Europe; looking along an expanse of road and watching the skies clear. The sun crawled forward and washed the street with mellow light, it was nothing extraordinary, in fact a normal occurrence around here, these sharp bursts of sun after rain. But maybe it was perspective, how the sun could sweep across the road and towards me, with golden fingers outstretched, as if brushing a layer of gold leaf. I waited, to be figuratively illuminated, to become part of that. To become golden. That's what it's about, for me. Gilded everything. Always chasing something. There were petals stuck to the soles of my shoes, glistening with moisture. So pale pink they were almost transparent. Such faded glory. They had been so perfect and yet one shower had been enough. How did that make sense? How could nature have made something so beautiful that could just go, so easily? There was the war memorial behind me, outside the church, shrouded in the fading blossoms, since even these tiny villages had lost a few young men. What did they have to prove? Could logic not have told them that there was no cause, no point... nothing to prove. 

I had nothing to prove, to anyone... but myself. Everyone else will say I've done fine and in all that cold rationality that I have usually.... it's probably fine. But I'll beat at it forever. Everything. I'll edit, save, edit, save, edit delete the photos I eventually post on this site. There'll be some tiny flaw - slightly underexposed, too much contrast, too much shadow. Cold rationality will tell me that nobody else will even notice. Only me. I'll open essays three times after I declare them done, because they're not ever finished. This post? This is probably version nine. I'll paint my nails, again, even though nobody will give the smallest damn that there is a bit of pink showing under the red. You know those animated characters from kids' TV shows who find themselves on roller blades, going downhill? I'm like them with the never good enoughs: can't stop now, don't know how. Or like one of those miners during the gold rush, heading out into the unknown on a wild goose chase for gold. Maybe in all honesty they knew it wasn't there. A bit like that idea of perfection, an unattainable idea of 'doing well', 'looking pretty', 'being successful'. Cold logic says that it's not there, you're knocking on the door of an empty house.

I did finally go home, the sky dark again with the threat of rain. Logic said to go before a downpour, for a dry jacket to walk the dogs tonight, and that there's an exam. I put the blossom and their ebbing glory behind me. I walked back, into my search for a gold mine that sense told me doesn't exist.  

 

“Logic doesn't stop you feeling. You can behave logically and it can hurt like hell. Or it can comfort you. Or release you. Or all at the same time” 
Dick Francis, The Danger

Lower Normandy

Our rental was a barn, approached by a long gravel driveway; a tumbledown farmhouse to its right and rich, green pasture to its left. There was a small patch of woodland in the garden, a bit like a spinney, blossoming apple trees and a plastic swing strung up between two trunks. The fencing was simple post and rail, the kind used to keep cattle in place. I'd come out into the garden, early morning and hear the cows in the nearby fields, a soft cough or snort, the scuff of a hoof. The silence was deafening and dawn was on its way, but there were still thousands of stars and a white moon suspended just above the house. The dogs' noses were covered in dew, it showed on the tips of my shoes and our breath made thick silver clouds. We were standing by the wooden fence, looking out over the darkened countryside, over the crests of hills that had seen some of the bloodiest battles in French history. 

The pain, the mud, the landing beaches. Everyone knows Normandy, it has a special place in the heart of most Americans and the English. But we were in the department of the Orne, in peaceful springtime, a time of revival. Where French countryside is at its most bucolic, and the classically rolling fields were pockmarked with yellow dandelions that were the first to salute the re-emerging sun. There were leggy colts grazing and curious lambs peeping through fences, verdant green lettuce leaves at the market. We arrived on a balmy spring day, the French were clogging up the autoroutes near Rouen, headed to the coast at Le Havre, and we diverged on an almost empty stretch of road that took us into the green heartland where little had changed from the time the Allies had stormed through. We rented a barn conversion on an unnamed, unmarked lane and we wandered through still-life villages built around a single, stone church; market towns with old squares and boulangaries where the locals congregated. There were forested tracks with two options when our car met a tractor head-on: reverse a few miles or take a tumble down steep sides to join the cows grazing where a stream babbled through. I had been expecting a flat, undisrupted landscape, the kind of topography for digging trenches, but in Lower Normandy the terrain was satisfying hilly. Not so steep that we were always climbing, but enough that there were views stretching for miles,  a mélange of earth tones, browns interrupted by an unexpected shock of yellow from the mustard flowers, the verdure dotted with white; cattle, scattered around crumbling farmhouses; daisies on a suburban lawn.

This area of Normandy is a cow stronghold. Every part of France has its trucks - the grain haulage engines in the Loire, the old American-style timber trucks in forested Burgundy, and here, diary tankers. Even the smallest farms seemed to have a few girls, chewing the cud contentedly in fields far bigger than any British cow could've imagined. We were at the supermarché, looking for free range eggs, which we couldn't find, but figured in this region at least, the concept of caged birds didn't even exist. At the market there was local cauliflower bigger than footballs, grassy asparagus spears still wet from harvest, apples proudly marked as being Francaise. We weren't far from  Calvados country - there isn't much wine in this area, but rather the apple liquor and cidre normande. The trade-off was worth it for the miles of orchards and the break-away trees that watched over the winding roads like sentries. It was springtime and the blossom made that clear; the flowers bloomed in great clusters of pastel, swirled in the chilly breeze and settled  in a layer of childish bubblegum to downy white. The tiny, ancient Citroens that sped along the quiet stretches of tarmac had pooled petals under their windscreen wipers, the fallen flowers decorated the landscape like confetti at a wedding. A marriage between ground that had felt the footsteps of William the Conqueror's army, had given under the weight of tanks and a scene that could now be the poster child of mellow, provincial French living. 

It was simple, down to earth, and steady. Our Audi stuck out like a pretentious sore thumb among the rickety cars in any town we visited, farmhouses had been renovated just enough, tractors looked third generation but well loved. Any barn that had new double glazing was owned by a foreigner, but even those were enjoyably few. I was struck, initially, by the huge areas of pasture that were well fenced, with solid wooden rails, divided into neat squares. The houses that went with them were refurbished but in the old style, oozing class. Then I saw that each pasture had an outbuilding - a foaling booth, and to my horse-mad eyes, it all fit into place. Lower Normandy is home to the Haras du Pin, one of the national studs of France, where French racehorses are bred. The studs - haras - (or, according to my mum and sister "the harass") were the more prosperous farms and they too were dotted along country roads. We found one where the equine residents were close to the road and stopped to take photos, a group of four extremely elegant young horses, perhaps yearlings. Reserved but curious, polite at a distance, like the French farmers who'd give us a curt nod in their beat-up tractors. In the UK, Thoroughbreds this valuable would be under lock and key far from the road, but there was some sort of an understanding in France. A respect for each person's land, and a huge appreciation of the animals and plants that it nurtured.  Pruney and Suzi were petted; they could go everywhere, the French love their dogs. Our girls walked through the grounds of William the Conqueror's fort, I scrambled along the battlements where the archers would've hung out, church bells rang from a cathedral that lost its steeple to bombing, and a man disappeared into the tourist office with his Beagle puppy.

Every time I visit France, I say the same thing. I need a French country house. This départment brought that thought more often than before. I could see myself with a barn here, somewhere on a crest where two hills met, among the dandelions and apple blossom and rugged farmers. Somewhere to go for simplicity and silence. If one day you find that I've disappeared from a desk job in a soulless European city, you'll find me somewhere like this. A countryside truce; a ceasefire from the constant scramble of powerful cars, traffic jams and filed nails. I'll be renovating a barn, a sourdough boule of pain intégrale in the oven, with swallows singing from the hedgerows, the dogs patrolling a rambling garden, and a couple of retired racehorses grazing green pasture. Enfin de la paix, for sure.