Pursuit of the British Dream

I arrived at Islington Town Hall, early and awkwardly alone. The ceremony was attended by glowing families, partners, former refugees and a handful of lone young professionals, who seriously harshed the graduation-type vibe of the occasion. When I took my oath to the Queen they played the Beatles, and I stood alone, shaking an Islington Councillor’s hand as I received my Certificate of Nationality and the freelance photographer took a photo that he would later ask me to purchase for £10.

After almost 7 years , I was British. Whatever that meant.

They were not an easy 7 years, I arrived a year before the housing crash, fresh-faced from Korea and ready to start my studies at the LSE. Gordon Brown was still Prime Minister; the economy was going to grow forever. But that quickly changed. In subsequent years I found myself holding down two jobs, an unpaid internship and my studies to ‘get my foot in the door’ and struggling to pay off my Canadian student debt as the value of the pound dropped. I prayed repeatedly the latest round of redundancies wouldn’t hit me, and I went home in sadness as I lost first my grandmother and then my father.

Labour’s open arms to immigrants shut quickly with the new Coalition government. I could no longer count on doing my time and earning my passport as increasingly fellow migrants like myself were refused on the smallest excuses. I found myself weeping at the Home Office’s immigration centre one December day in 2011 in Croydon when they suggested my application for indefinite leave to remain would be rejected due to the prolonged absences I took when my close relatives had died.

During those 7 years I felt I grew to understand the UK, and that the UK shaped and adjusted the adult I was becoming. Now that I could stay forever – what should I do?

And so I decided to buy a flat. I mostly did this as I suddenly had the opportunity – a new job with a good salary, a loan from my mother, a good prospect of finding somewhere. The hardened truth that home ownership does make SENSE.

I did not realise that I was both endorsing the national obsession with property ownership and embarking on the most frustratingly British of bureaucratic nightmares. It was to become a baptism by fire, courtesy of my adopted homeland.  I knew now, what I was getting into, I’d probably refrain from trying at all.

In Canada, housing purchases are completed within 60 to 90 days of the initial offer. There are no surveys or valuations, and the process is legally binding from the moment your offer is accepted. No gazumping. (almost) no cash-buyers.

I began looking in January of 2014, one of the worst times since the housing boom of 2005/2006 to begin looking. Soaring prices, fanatical and desperate Londoners finally able to access credit after those dark years. I would struggle to get agents to even register my details once they heard my budget, and I would consistently call them every Wednesday, hoping to be booked in for some random open house they had over the weekend.

I saw flats where 9 people lived in a 3 bedroom maisonette in Stratford. I had a soft drink thrown on me from the window of a passing car while walking from a viewing in Forest Hill. I was taken so far into Upton Park I couldn’t imagine living there as a woman alone. I made 4 offers on ex-council flats, only to be swept away by cash-buyers paying far above the valuation.

The worst came when Foxtons took me to a flat on the market for 30k more than a flat I had just offered upon. It was located in an almost identical building, a maisonette in a high rise right by Homerton Station. ‘Its just come on the market’ she said. ‘I haven’t seen inside’.

As the door opened we were met by total darkness.  As the agent flipped various electrical switches to no avail I observed 4 very large plastic drums (the kind bodies are disposed of in Breaking Bad) in the foyer, along with 2 large fridge freezers. The kitchen had dishes piled high and a rank odour.

As our eyes adjusted to the dark, I noticed that all the windows in the lounge had been blacked out with rubbish bins and tape. It was permanently dark – but I began to make out piles of clothing, up to the ceiling filling the room. It was overflowing. It was the home of a hoarder, put on the market, as is.

“I can’t go in there”, I said. The young agent breathed a sigh of relief saying “I’m scared too.”

Worse was the conversational mundanity, the constant need to give progress updates and boring details over and over again. Genuine friends asked because they cared, and expressed concern or interest where appropriate. But I suddenly had strange acquaintances and non-friends taking special interest in me. They wanted to ‘perv’ on my progress, snoop at my viewings and budget, monitor my success. They were the ones desperate to buy with no reasonable prospects of ever being able to afford it, they were the ones who might pull down a fellow crab in a barrel who had managed to pull herself above the fray, given the opportunity. They were desperately jealous and deeply suspicious and smiled without their eyes.

I did eventually have an offer accepted on a flat, and I currently wait in limbo for us to exchange contracts sometime in the next month. I am, inadvertently, making the family in the flat homeless, and I believe it will be a year start to finish before this is finished. Will it be worth it? To have a home secure from the exploitation of private landlords and London’s rising rents?

Ask me when I’ve completed. For now, I just think – man, I am SO fucking British right now.

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From Ethopian Gruel to River Cafe Risotto – Enough Food IF…

 

Its hard to believe now that less that two weeks ago I was sitting in a mud hut in Ethiopia (blissfully unaware of the fleas biting me) being served coffee by a woman who probably earns in a month what I earn in a few hours.

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I was in the home of Abadit (above brewing coffee in her courtyard), a widow with seven children who was honoring her guests with freshly roasted, ground and brewed coffee, laid out on a bed of eucalyptus, while frankincense burned. I was humbled and grateful to receive such generous hospitality by a woman who had just moments before told me of when her family had such little money they ate only two meals per day – sometimes less. They ate simple porridges made of barley or wheat – never any vegetables, dairy or meat.  Her children were sick, they couldn’t attend school. She was desperate.

When Abadit was widowed, she lost her income and was unable to irrigate her family’s land.  Luckily, 2 years ago she was given a cow by Save the Children which now provides her with a steady income as she sells butter and milk, and enables her family to eat nutritious meals daily.  She has also been able to hire men to farm her land for her – meaning they also have vegetables. She now works with the Minister of Agriculture to show her local community how to grow and prepare a wide variety of nutritious foods.  She was living proof that hunger, which affects 15% of the world’s population, can easily be fixed. Her children now have better health and attend school regularly.

Flash forward a week and I’m back in London sharing Abadit’s story with a room full of food bloggers, (donated) champagne in hand.  I pause mid-presentation and think: HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

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In this room, many of these people are my friends, and in a weird crossover of my extra-curricular work as a food blogger with my professional work for Save the Children, I’m trying to explain, for the first time, what it is I do when I disappear to another continent for a week or so every few months. I’m trying to share the confidence of the people I met in Ethiopia, and most difficult of all: I’m trying to inspire others to make a difference.

When conceiving of this event, we wanted to celebrate people’s passion for food and create an opportunity to learn at the same time.  With a bit of blagging from my colleague Amy, we had suddenly gathered a roster of amazing discounted food, completely donated wine, and the head chef (Danny Bohan) and Sommelier (Emily O’Hare) from The River Cafe to cook for us. We would learn about hunger, learn how to fight it and celebrate food as a glorious thing.

It was an amazing evening, and I’ve been so inspired by all the blogs and tweets I’ve seen since then.  For anyone hoping to help us make sure G8 leaders put together a plan to end the scandal of hunger all together, come to The Big IF this Saturday at Hyde Park in London. Tweet about it if you can’t make it, #BigIF #ifcampaign.

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Mushroom Foraging: Avoiding Death Caps, Encountering TASTE

Andy’s species samples ahead of our foray, Nov 2012

It took me two years to finally get my act together to get a place on Andy Overall’s ‘Fungi to Be With’ mushroom forays. You needed to fill in a paper booking form! Send a CHEQUE! by post! It was like 1892, and I just couldn’t seem to get my shit together – I had no idea where my chequebook was, let along a first class stamp.

In the end I mooched a stamp off a colleague and sent cash, and last November I went on my first foray in Epping Forest while yesterday I went on an introductory workshop on Hampstead Heath where we covered some identification techniques in a more in-depth manner.

Andy’s wife described the forays as ‘a walk with a purpose’ and I think thats probably why I loved them so much.  We tromped off trail through the heath and in Epping forest for hours – sometimes absorbed in a clutch of edible mushrooms that we madly stuck in our bags, sometimes crowded around large, beautiful inedible specimens or as a highlight of Epping Forest’s foray: a clutch of young death caps.

My haul for the day in Nov 2012: Amethyst Deceivers and Jelly Ears

I quickly learned that when mushrooms abound, there are very few you can eat – and in most cases you only need to become very familiar with how to identify edible varietys (and any ‘ringers’ they might have) alongside confidently identifying the most poisonous mushrooms and you can probably get by ok.  I wouldn’t say I’m quite there yet, with about 4 edibly varieties in my portfolio and reasonable deathcap knowledge, but its a start – and a super fun hobby.

Hilariously (or ‘hilariously’) last year I got food poisoning quite badly after eating a mushroom omelette for breakfast followed by raw oysters in the half shell for an indulgent lunch.  While I knew I had been very careful with my wild mushrooms (and they had gotten the green light from Andy), I had no idea whether my bad luck had been caused by norovirus laden shellfish, or mushroom poisoning.  In the end I decided if it was mushroom poisoning I was likely to die regardless of medical help, so I might as well relax.  Within 24 hours I was back to normal.  But it was bad timing, to say the least.

Yesterday’s Haul

People freak out when they hear on the news that a woman made soup with a death cap and died. While this is tragic, I’d be interested to find out how experienced they were in identifying mushrooms – the risks aren’t worth the soup. I’m confident collecting the above St. George’s mushrooms at the moment, if only because the time of year means no death caps are growing – no major poisonous mushrooms (that are white) are growing yet.

In fact, I did despair mildly for the evolutionary potential of humanity when follow course participants described their mothers picking mushrooms from their garden and eating them after ‘the man at Sainsbury’s reckoned they were ok’ or professing that they always followed the edict ‘if it smells good, it won’t poison you’.

Seriously, are we living in medieval times? Are you looking to become seriously ill? Why did generations of humanity develop scientific approaches to this if idiots will just ‘use their nose’ and see what happens? I won’t be picking any mushrooms without Andy with me to double check my identifications for a long, long time. Luckily, he does this handily via his facebook page, when in doubt.

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Nettles: The Saute, Smoothie Superfood Solution

In April took a foraging course in Clissold Park with John from Forage London. It was a sunny morning in London, the kind where you actually believe this city couldn’t be better if we tried.  We wandered the park identifying nature’s bountiful Spring presentation of edible salad leaves (and a couple of poisonous ones – always important!), berries, roots and fruits and most wonderfully, sampling pre-prepared products John had brought with him – stir-fried burdock root, dandelion coffee, chutneys, rosehip syrup, elderberry-clove cordial.

While we identified an overwhelming 20+ plants, what stuck with me most (as usual) were the stats John knew about the vintamin and mineral content of a few key plants I was already familiar with. Nettles have 40x the iron and protein of spinach or kale – they are free.  Elderberries have highly potent anti-viral properties, and a simple syrup taken as a daily tonic can help fight off colds better than any berrocca.  Wood Aven (or ‘clove root’) is a ‘weed’ that has a flavourful root that was used to spice food before the advent of the spice trade.  I’ve got a good eye now for garlic mustard, red/white dead nettle and sticky weed.

Edible greens from Clissold Park

But it was nettles I was most interested in. So last week I bravely donned my marigold gloves, snipped a tub of nettles from a safe patch near my house that dogs have no access to and made a nettle smoothie using my usual ‘green smoothie’ recipe (being sure to steam the nettles first to get rid of any sting!), and also made a simple dinner of grilled steak, new potatoes with wild garlic and nettles sauteed like spinach with butter.

The smoothie was great actually, nettles have a lovely minty freshness that played well with the kiwi and pear. Sadly I made 2 days worth and the next morning the vibrant green of my drink had become a bit murky brown – lesson: nettles don’t keep that well (in smoothies). Tasted fine, however.

The sauteed nettles had a texture that reminded me slightly of the fiddleheads ferns I used to eat in Canada as a child – a lovely crunchiness emerged after a quick fry and they certainly tasted delicious (but what doesn’t, covered in butter and salt?). As Hugh Fearnley Wittingsall says: if you like your greens, you’ll like nettles.

I often buy big packs of kale to have in my daily morning smoothies, but at least on weekends this will be replaced with fresh nettles – not only are they free, but they are better for me.

Vibrant Green (Nettle) Smoothie

250 mL ‘posh’ orange juice
big handful of nettles
1 kiwi, (cut in half and squish insides into blender)
1 pear, peeled and cored
1 tsp spirulina powder (optional)
1 banana (optional)
125 mL water (optional if you add banana)

So I vary the ingredients of my smoothies, but OJ, Kiwi, Pear and Spirulina are pretty constant.  They don’t seem to get gloopy if you use a blender instead of a juicer and taste great together.

My basic method is this: boil the kettle and pour the water over the nettles just until they wilt (this melts the acid on the leaves that stings) and drain.  In your blender, blend just the OJ and nettles until they are smoothly combined.  Then add kiwi, pear and anything else you like.  If you want ice, add ice, or add gin as my brother does.  With nettles the spirulina might be redundant given how much of a superfood is, so it could be skipped.  Drink after a good fasted morning yoga session (cliche, me) or anytime and feel like friggin Popeye.

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Danish Open-Faced Sandwiches: Sol over Gudhjem (Sun over God’s House) and Other Orthodoxies

My home-made Sol over Gudhjem sandwich

Since befriending a Dane and his family while studying abroad in India almost 10 years ago, I think I’ve been to Denmark about 10 times over the years. I always feel I’ve got a good sense of the place. I’ve seen the little mermaid, taken the canal boat tour, danced around the Danish Christmas tree singing carols, even watched FC Copenhagen play. So when visiting this past weekend to meet my friend’s new baby and by ‘Didi Brie’ for the weekend, my trip wasn’t really about anything more than quality time – certainly not about ‘being in Denmark’.

But I learn something new about Denmark every time I visit ( past lessons have included ‘how to put groceries on a Danish grocery store conveyor belt properly’ and New Potato Orthodoxy), and this trip was no different: I learned how to prepare a fantastic traditional open-faced sandwich, Sun over God’s House. And learned there is only one right way to do this. When at the fishmonger (and not aware of the larger plan) I had suggested we eat our smoked mackerel sandwiches with soft cheese and lemon.  looks. of. horror.

Danes have strict rules about open faced sandwiches.  Unlike a ‘closed’ sandwich, where anarchy and improvisation reign, each open-faced sandwich in Denmark is a complete and accepted standard to which deviation is not acceptable. No changes to bread, condiment or presentation is permitted. Why mess with perfection? (or at least, a general consensus of perfection). Its one of the things I love about Denmark, and one of the things that I hate about Denmark (I should be allowed to have mustard on my salami sandwich if I want!)

Onto the sandwich: Danish black bread, spread with butter has smoked herring (or mackerel if you’re getting crazy) placed onto it.  Add chives and radishes before adding the crowning glory: an onion ring into which a single, seperated egg yolk is placed.  Garnish with a squeeze of lemon, a grind of pepper and eat with a knife and fork.

The sandwich is named after a town on a small Danish island where fish are caught (and smoked). It was delicious – smoky, sour with biting radish and moist egg yolk spread on top like a deconstructed mayonnaise.  My friend said the sandwich has fallen out of fashion with some now, as people worry about the health risks of raw egg, but well – I’m still here to tell the tale.

A more profesional incarnation of Sun over God’s House

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Christmas is Here!

I am going to have a sunny tropical christmas, for the first time this year, so I had a Christmas Party as SOON AS WAS IN GOOD TASTE – namely december 2nd.

It was amazing! A jumper clad crew of 20 descended on the flat, sang their hearts out during our ukulele Christmas carol session and ate every bit of food I prepared. I made some North American Classics – seven layer dip and spinach dip in a bread bowl, along side some fancier things – homemade chicken liver pate and a filo-baked Brie with home made cranberry sauce.

 This centrepiece only caught on fire once: 

The ukulele sing-a-long was especially popular – but I learned that once you open the door to drunken singing, it cannot simply be closed again.  Drunk people just keep singing.

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We were kept in time with this handy internet discovery:

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The aforementioned filo-wrapped baked Brie (namesake dish!) with homemade cranberry sauce on the side.

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First World Writer’s Problem

I’ve never had a rejection for a piece of writing, ever.  I keep waiting, and it just doesn’t happen.  It makes me feel, somehow like ‘less of writer’ – without my stacks of rejection letters to prove my street cred.

This is a somewhat narcissitic introduction to my latest short-story “The Ice Bridge” – winner of the emerging writer prize in Above and Beyond Magazine’s Great North Canadian Writing Contest.  Its also my first piece of paid fiction. Woo hoo!

Please read and share!

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