Sometimes life feels small: day-to-day routines and responsibilities hungrily eat time, days merge together, and by Friday you realise the most exciting thing you have done all week is catch up on last week’s Homeland. And that’s fine, sometimes curling up on the sofa in my PJs, with Husband, a glass of wine, and Brody is exactly what I want, exactly what I need – a lazy distraction at the end of the day. For most of us, life isn’t exciting every day, well, I guess unless you’re a multimillionaire and you have a team of people to shield you from the boring bits. Oh… Imagine. How wonderful. ‘I’m sorry that’s way too dull for me, please pass it on to my people.’ (Although, I’m sure millionaires still watch Homeland.)
But alas, I am not shielded, and I need regular injections of a bigger world. Injections which feed my mind with something new, and which give me a sense of perspective on life – one of the reasons I love travelling so much is the space you create for your mind when you step outside of your own reality and small world.
Although, thankfully, I am not relying on faraway lands for these injections. When we’re just in Nottingham for the weekend, Husband and I seek out something new to experience, even if it’s a small – teeny – thing: we go to a coffee shop we haven’t been to before, and sit by the window taking in a different view of the city; or we visit the latest exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary (Nottingham’s Tate Modern); or last week we went and looked round a church we hadn’t been into before, which I had barely noticed when walking past, yet was beautiful inside. These moments take me outside of myself and my day-to-day stresses, and if there is such a thing as a soul, they reach that part of me.
Last weekend we reached these parts with a trip to London. I LOVE London, and I get ridiculously excited (think child like ‘are we there yet?’ behaviour) about going there. I love the busyness, the vibrancy, the different nationalities, the different languages mingling in the air, the architecture, the culture, just the sheer variety of life that is on offer. I love it all. London is the Grand Bazaar of life.
On this trip we stayed in Whitechapel, in the East End. The large Bangladeshi population – 52 % of Whitechapel’s population is Bangladeshi – makes it a fascinating place to walk round: men and women in traditional Muslim dress going about their daily lives, intriguing and unfamiliar smells wafting out of restaurants, passing conversations just as likely to be in Bengali as in English, and school signs in both languages.
You are also forced to face the relationship between poverty and race, as you walk past tower block after tower block – 70% of British Bangladeshis live in low-income households, and they have the highest rate of relative poverty within any ethnic group in Britain.
But as we entered the Whitechapel Gallery, we entered a different world. It was free to enter the gallery, but everyone in there looked like they had money: white, middle-class, Guardian readers wandered round in their discretely expensive clothes; they may have ‘just’ been wearing jeans, but they were expensive jeans. The contrast to the streets and markets we had just walked through stirred up uncomfortable emotions about how different life is for people. We walked around the exhibitions, having our usual conversation about contemporary art: ‘I don’t get that, do you?’ ‘No, me either…’
We stopped to have a drink in a traditional East End pub – although finding a pub was not that easy, I guess a sign of a large Muslim community. Then in the continued spirit of our colourful, pick ‘n mix day we went to a Pakistani restaurant. They didn’t serve alcohol, but allowed you to bring your own and there was a conveniently located off-licence next door. We self-consciously took our wine in a black plastic bag into the restaurant, but relaxed as we recognised several people from the off-licence, and we saw all the other black plastic bags dotted around tables. (No one wants to be the only one drinking, looking slightly desperate.)
The next day we walked through Whitechapel, down into Bethnal Green and then onto Columbia Road Flower Market. Again, we stepped from poverty to wealth, as people bought exotic looking flowers and stylish Christmas plants, and filled up cafes serving lattes and posh English breakfasts – bacon on granary rolls, smoked salmon and scrambled egg, chicken’s livers on toast.
We headed on down to Brick Lane and stopped for something to eat in a Syrian restaurant, sitting by the window so we could people watch. People of all ages, colour, class, race, size and nationality walked past – it felt like the world was represented in this one small space. I could have sat there for hours just watching, reflecting on the interesting world we live in, creating life stories for people.
Our last stop was Dennis Severs’ House in Spitalfields. Severs, an American artist, bought this 18th century house and transformed it into an art experience. The idea is that you walk round the house in silence and experience what it was like to live there in the 18th century: the rooms have been recreated to that time and are lit only by candlelight, smells and sounds related to this era trick your senses, and your imagination does the rest.
The weekend had definitely reached those parts that Brody cannot reach: my mind explored new ideas, my taste buds sampled interesting foods and flavours, and perspective is reinstated.
I can cope with my small world again, for now – until it’s time for my next soul injection.