Thursday, 21 December 2006
Alex Horne – December 21st 2006
My friend Ed lives in a library near Finsbury Park. Unfortunately the books themselves moved out some years ago before a group of squatters moved in so the address is now slightly less quaint than it sounds.
Ed is effectively house-sitting while the owners negotiate the best way to make the most money by knocking down the 1960's municipal building and replacing it with as many compact modern flats as possible. It's quite a common and economic way of renting property in London. He doesn't have to pay a lot and has enough floor space for his flatmate to run a bicycle repair shop in what could well have been the children's section but there are plants growing though the ceiling, buckets on the floor collecting drips from the light fittings and the squatters do occasionally drop by to menacingly check on what was once theirs.
My friend Ed's girlfriend moved in two weeks ago. She's called Joni and came from Holland. So far, she's our most recent Londoner. She has, however, been to stay countless times over the last few years and is already au fait with such London-centric complexities as the Oyster-card (although I think she's still brave enough to warrant the title of this article) so when Rachel (my wife) and I headed over for some pre-Christmas breakfast any plans to grill her about First Impressions of London were quickly abandoned. Instead we ate a delicious fry up fried up by Ed, served through a hatch where once tea was once passed to thirsty readers, and chatted about bikes, bacon and bowling.
It probably goes without saying that Joni's English is pretty much perfect. Every Dutch person I've ever met speaks pretty much perfect English. Apparently the first language in Holland is Dutch but I suspect that's an urban myth. I'm pretty sure Dutch people all speak English and pretend they've got their own language to make us feel even more inadequate. But then I also think the Netherlands should really be a faraway kingdom at the base of a great tree where little people ride mice and the occasional troll gets a bit enraged.
Despite her language and tube-travel skills, getting round London is still not simple for a Dutch newcomer. Joni often travels by bike* and has quickly discovered that cycling here is a little different to the famously laid-back mode of transport frequently photographed in Amsterdam. Here motorists treat you like a fly to be swatted with their doors while pedestrians step into your path then shout at you for getting in their way and buses loom out of the fog, a never-ending obstacle to somehow overtake. She's currently having cycling-proficiency lessons from Ed's flatmate.
British fry ups, she says as we tuck into an enormous plate of murderous food that was meant to be breakfast but will prove to be almost all of the meals of that day, are similarly stressful. While Londoners seem to have an ingrained knack of cooking then eating at least eight different food items at the same time, the Dutch are generally less able or inclined to fry and consume several types of pork, a couple of potatoes, a number of eggs and various other miscellaneous items before going to work in the morning.
To me, these are important cultural differences. I'm proud of British fry ups and am probably a little envious of their safer cycle routes. Unfortunately, however, throughout the brunchterview (breakfast + lunch + interview) my mind was generally occupied by the disappointment of a sight that Rachel and I happened upon on the way to Ed's library that morning. A sight that for perhaps the first time made me nostalgic for a London of the past.
Anyone who's driven in either direction along the Seven Sisters Road, past Finsbury Park Tube Station and the Happening Beigel Bakery, will without doubt be familiar with Rowans Tenpin Bowling – a Mecca for skittles enthusiasts and air-hockey fans alike. Admittedly many will never have set foot inside this magical complex but their attention would surely have been drawn to the neon lit building by an enormous landscape poster angled gently towards the Arsenal World of Sport shop, featuring the tremendous Bowling Girl – perhaps Rowan herself – lying leisurely across a lane, head resting on a bowling ball, clad in regulation bowling socks and hotpants. A sight to make all North Londoners proud.
Until now. Just before turning right to Ed and Joni's idiosyncratic home, Rachel and I glanced up expecting to be warmed by Bowling Girl's wonderful smile, a smile that would literally, yes literally, have made Mona Lisa green with envy… only to be greeted instead by an advert for Lidl. Lidl! It seems they'd bought the shop below and had somehow got permission to replace our beautiful Bowling Girl with their own simplistic but ugly logo.
And so throughout our morning meeting, my mind raced with angry thoughts. How could they do this? Where was Bowling Girl now? And most importantly, was Lidl Dutch? And if so, how could I carry on with this sham?
Thankfully, they're not Dutch. They're German. And so I'd like to be among the first to welcome Joni to our unhealthy, unsafe but charming capital city.
*A month previously I'd dropped off Rachel's bike at the library in exchange for a song that Ed said he'd write especially for me – a fair swap I'm sure you'll agree.