Last month, I went to London. On my own. No husband, no kid, no friend, no relative, and no schedule. I had only one mission: to avoid the typical tourist traps and experience London as I know it and remember it, in all its gritty, pulsating, multi-cultural glory. And, to follow my curiosity wherever that led me.
Where better to do that than in London’s iconic markets? Where tacky and trendy meet antique and boutique, where people-watching is an unavoidable pleasure, and each neighborhood offers-up its own quintessential experience.
I walked 50 miles in 4 days, carried blister plasters in my bag, and realized (painfully) just how little I walk in the U.S.
DAY ONE: Camden High Street and Camden Lock Market
Camden is an assault on all the senses. It’s a street that moves to the beat of the dance music blaring from the gaudily-adorned shop facades that reminded me of a slightly-twisted, Through the Looking Glass version of Main Street, Disneyland.
And then, just as quickly, it’s a serene canal framed by weeping willows, crossed by quaint bridges, and with views of transitioning barges, then a skyline of cranes and office buildings when you turn another.
It’s a street-food trip around the world with Korean, Brazillian, Columbian, German, Italian, French, Middle-Eastern, American (“Southern Fried Mother Clucker”), Indian, and a whole host of creative mixtures (think Korean Burritos) jostling for your stomach’s attention, beside the British staples of Fish & Chips and Pie and Mash.
This was my delicious lunch, served from a little stall beside the lock where you can watch them chop the fresh ingredients: a 3-curry combo with lamb and aubergine, spinach and chickpea curry, plus Dal, garnished with fresh mint, a dollop of yogurt, and a sweet chutney. All for just seven pounds.
It’s an indoor-outdoor market that never seems to end, winding in and out of buildings and alleyways and under brick eves that create a network of connected, mini neighborhoods each with their own personality; offerings alternating between vintage clothes, Union-Jack magnets, and modern art. There’s Alice Cooper blaring from a vintage record stall and, two-stalls down, Bob Marley jammin’ in a store merchandised from wall-to-wall with the reds, greens, yellows, and blacks of his home country.
In short: it’s not for people who don’t like lots of people or constant stimulation. In case you were wondering, I am not one of those people. I was buzzing with energy by the time I walked back to the tube station.
INFO FOR PHOTOGRAPHY BUFFS | Shot on a FujiFilm XT-1 with a 23mm 1.4 lens
I grew up about 12 miles east of London in a small-ish town called Rainham. It’s basically a London suburb at this point, situated just off the Thames, but it has a long history going back thousands of years. There is a Neolithic excavation site in Rainham, an Anglo-Saxon burial ground, and the local church is a Grade I listed building, erected around 1170 AD, that stands as it was built. Although the history is long and deep, it’s not what you would call a picturesque town. It looks pretty ordinary and isn’t exactly the hub of any major activity. But, it’s home.
After we rocked London (click here to see that blog post) this was our next stop. I jumped in a rental car and drove straight to the last house my parents owned before they moved to the U.S. to be with me. My maternal grandparents – my Nan and Grandad – lived next door to us (to the left of the photo below) and even before we moved next to them when I was 13, this was the street I would come home to after school, waiting for my mum to arrive home from work. Mum didn’t drive back then and she used to take a train and a bus back home. From the front wall of my grandparents’ property, I could see the end of the street where the buses passed by. I knew approximately what time her 87 bus would come by and would stand at the front gates with my eyes glued to the end of the road, waiting for that double-decker red. Then, at the first sign of her rounding the corner onto our street, i would take off in a full-out run to throw myself into her arms. I still remember the excitement of how it felt to see her head turn that corner and the feeling of happiness and safety once her arms were around me. I remember her smell, that she was always lugging heavy bags of large ledgers, and that she would often bring me home a McDonald’s hamburger, my grandad some kind of meat pie that he would devour at one sitting. Then we would sit in my grandparents’ front living room and talk about our day while we would wait for my dad to arrive in his car to pick us up and take us home. We never went straight home, there was always a cup of tea on the boil first.
My parents sold this house to come out and live down the street from me in the U.S., eight years ago. We had so many happy memories there that it’s hard to stand in front of it and not be able to go inside. It’s even more difficult coming home, as I did for 15 of my 20 years in the U.S., and not, this time, having a “home” to stay in. Residing in a hotel in your home country seems just wrong. And I never realized, until after it happened that it was gone, how much having that home-base, at home, really mattered. We stood in front of this house with heavy but thankful hearts, wishing we could see how the garage conversion had been done and if the beautiful kitchen we had spent so much time in, was still well-cared for.
The hotel we stayed in was actually in Romford, a large town not far away that is the major retail hub of the area. Mum and I used to visit religiously, every Saturday, to walk around the stores, the market, have copious cups of coffee, and a light lunch. When I was really little, my dad used to come with us and we would go early enough to have breakfast out. When we did, we would often go to a small cafe (said “caff”) in the shopping center called Gingham Kitchen. In the 70s and 80s it was resplendent with orange and brown checkered furnishings; the sign up-front is still original and hints at that earlier style. I honestly didn’t expect to turn the corner and find it still there after all this time but there it is, still standing, still busy with it’s odd mix of hunched-over pensioners looking for a cheap, satisfying lunch, and locals who know that the toasted sandwiches and lasagne beat out any of the fancy spots that have popped up around town.
In case you’re wondering, I had a toasted sausage sandwich and my mum and daughter had toasted cheese sandwiches. Basically it’s like a grilled cheese but without the grilled part; less greasy in general. It tasted exactly the same as it did 20+ years ago. I love that about home, the little things that don’t change.
Like Rainham, Romford isn’t exactly a picture-perfect postcard town. But to me it’s home. Below you can see one of the major thoroughfares and the hotel we stayed in to the left.
Romford is a market town and Fridays and Saturdays for most of its life have been bustling with the energy of the market area. When I grew up this place was a hive of activity, a place where the latest fashions would hang in a stall beside fresh produce being sold by loud-mouthed stall vendors who enticed you over by calling out things like “Come on, darlin’, come get yur bananas, nice and fresh, just a pound a bunch!”, and where East End traditions like jellied eels were still popular. At Christmas time the market stalls would blast the latest popular Christmas songs and the cauliflower would sit beside gaudy tinsel and foil decorations.
I don’t know what happened to Romford market in the last decade, but the buzz has gone. It was half empty and a sad sight. But we eeked out what we could of those old memories.
On our first night in the area, we drove back to the home I grew up in, about 2 miles east of the last house my parents owned. I lived there from age 10 months to 13 years and so this is really my childhood home. The street is really narrow and tiny and the houses are huddled together in terraces, with cars parked in what used to be front gardens to try and free-up some room on the street. I had to stop the car in the middle of the street and left it running while we jumped out to take a quick photo in front of our old house.
As we did so, an old man came out of the house next door and looked at us strangely. “Sorry,” I said, in case he thought we were up to something fishy “we used to live here and just wanted to take a quick photo.” At that moment the man lifted his head and looked at us critically. “Pauline?” he asked, referring to my mum who was about to jump back in the passenger seat. Mum and I suddenly looked properly at the old man and realized all at once that this was Jack, the same man we had lived next to for almost a decade, almost 30 years ago. He still lived there! Before we knew it, he was calling out his wife to greet us and we were taking pictures on his front doorstep. There was just something incredibly touching about my own daughter standing with the man who had known me so well at her age. And, just like finding Gingham Kitchen still in the same place, serving the same food, something so comforting about finding Jack and his wife right where we left him.
Then, the woman who now owns our old home, popped her head out of her door and ended up talking to us. She told us about how much she loved the back garden I have so many amazing memories of, how much she loves living there. I wish she would have invited us inside but the invitation never came and I didn’t have the guts to ask for one.
Next stop was my infant and junior school (equivalent to elementary and middle schools in the U.S.) It too has a long history: the building that is now a nursery school, dates back to the 1700s and was a classroom I was once a student in.
Things don’t look much different than they did when I was a kid. A few more boarded-up shop fronts, but that’s about it. Otherwise home remains almost exactly how it appears in my fond memories. It makes my chest ache to think about all that and it was a dream come true to show my daughter where and how I grew up, especially since those places and spaces are so different to the ones she calls home. What is this desire to share our own roots with our kids? I don’t know but it’s powerful and primal.
Final stop before we retired our first day was the Fish & Chip shop we loved, The New Cherries. Not only is it the best chippy in the area but it’s also a rocking Chinese restaurant. And yes, it’s still there and hasn’t changed a bit. Since it’s take-away only, we bought paper plates and plastic knives and forks and then ordered all our favorite things. Cod and chips and a saveloy for my daughter (that I may or may not have picked at) and then deep-fried shredded beef in chili sauce, chicken chow mein, special fried rice, and curry sauce, for me and mum. It was a certifiable food-gasm and we sat on the bed of our hotel room and groaned and moaned with pleasure. The whole room stank by the time we were done. Nomnom.
The Chinese plate
We ate many delicious meals in many beautiful places in our two weeks in England but this was hands-down the best meal we had the entire time we were there. It’s definitely a story that will live on in many re-tellings for all of us.
Backing-up one step, we also got talking to this guy behind the counter at the Fish shop. Turns out he’s the son of the owner who has owned that restaurant for 40 years, basically all my life. He was very impressed that we came all the way from America to seek-out his family’s food and even offered to bulk-ship us some saveloys back to the U.S.
I know they say home is not a place, it’s a feeling but… I kind of disagree with that in many ways. Maybe it’s something you can’t latch onto until you’ve lived for an extended time in a place that is very different from where you grew up. And maybe I am indeed confusing the feelings I have about this place with the memories I still hold so close to my heart, but I do know that this place is and always will be home in all the senses of the word. If anything, 20 years gone has only intensified the feeling.
i wish I had lingered longer and taken more photos. Next time I will be more leisurely in my exploration. Looking at what I got now, it feels lacking, like so many things I wanted to capture thoughtfully, are missing.
Next up: exploring grand homes and castles and constantly marveling at the presence of green, green grass.
Sometimes life doesn’t work out exactly as you planned. Or even, in some cases, at all how you planned. You fall in love, get married, buy a house… you’re living the dream. And then almost as quickly as your dream was realized, it dissolves into a million tiny pieces and you find yourself trying to find a container for as many of those fragments as you can before they slip through your fingers entirely.
Which is the moment in time when I stepped into Miranda Ables’ life, earlier this year. Miranda had won my Our Story competition, nominated by a friend who was inspired by her positive attitude and resilience in the face of many challenges. A single mom with two daughters, Miranda was dealing with the aftermath of two divorces and resulting, separate custody battles, right about the time that her youngest, Mia, was diagnosed with Acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Now a single mom, juggling two, separate custody schedules, Mia’s doctors visits, and coordinating her medical care with a father in another household with whom relations are strained, plus the pressures of trying to keep a job when your daughter’s treatments and care require a large amount of work flexibility that isn’t readily available, Miranda’s friend, Bernadette, wrote this about her when nominating her for the Our Story experience,
“Even through all of these trials she comes to church every Sunday and sings and plays piano before the congregation and is grateful for all that she has, not hateful of what she does not or all that is happening.”
It’s a lot to handle, and the intricacies of her situation, as I found out, are more complex and stressful than a summary blog-post could ever capture. But, as Bernadette says, I found Miranda to be full of light and laughter and happiness, in a way that was truly humbling. When we met for our session earlier this year, Mia was in recovery after some heavy chemotherapy, her hair growing out, and her sassy energy back. We spent some time enjoying Mia’s new bedroom (recently renovated by the charity The Sweet Dreams Foundation) along with her older sister, Loriah, and then took a walk to the neighborhood play area for some swing time.
Mia, I found, is a lot like my own daughter, with a mature demeanor and a love for pretend restaurant and school games. In fact, I found myself having several moments of deja vu as I was served plastic croissants and donuts periodically throughout my visit. (Thank goodness they weren’t real or I’d have been stuffed.) As a trio, the Ables girls are fun, genuine, thoughtful, and kind and, despite all the stresses, Miranda has succeeded in making a warm and happy place for them all to call home.
Although life is not perfect and often not easy, these girls showed to me what resilience looks like. It looks like playing and cuddling and laughing and running and climbing and just being together. When nothing else is going as planned, the ordinary becomes extraordinary and full of gratitude.
Elena and I have been friends now for 20 years. I’d say she is my oldest friend but that sounds wrong. What’s true is that I’ve been friends with Elena longer than I have been friends with any other person. Literally, our friendship has so far lasted half my life.
What we share is a love of photography, a European background and sensibility, straight talk, political leanings and a healthy disregard for what other people think of us. Among other things. She’s ridiculously smart, has some truly interesting takes on life, and doesn’t let me get away with my B.S. And since I have a lot of B.S., this is a very good thing.
She was in Sacramento recently for work but came in a day early to hang out with yours truly on a cold and somewhat deserted day in downtown. We explored Old Town and the railroads, walked under the tunnel beneath the 5 freeway to see the progress on the new arena, cut across to check-out the Capitol, and then walked back down to Tower Bridge to catch sunset. In all, we walked 4 miles, snapping and chit-chatting along the way.
Elena is an attorney. Can you imagine being on opposing counsel and getting *this* look?
Hands-down favorite photo I have taken of E ever. And I’ve taken a lot through the years.
New King’s arena in progress. It’s hard to believe that, after years of the arena not getting built, it’s finally almost all the way constructed from the outside. As for what I think of the incredibly gray and uninspiring architecture…. Oh, well, I guess I just gave that away. Such a missed opportunity to make downtown more colorful and interesting. Bummer. Maybe the final version will change my mind. Either way, it will be good to see this area revitalized. It badly needs it.
The capitol Christmas tree was supposed to be lit on this very evening and the image below shows the media crew getting set-up for the ceremony. Unfortunately this was also the day of the San Bernardino shootings and so, as we were standing there taking it all in, it was announced that the tree lighting was canceled so that the governor could head down to the site of the shootings.
We chatted for a good half an hour to this mounted CHP officer. He was very friendly. The second photo shows him literally getting the call from “the powers that be” to let everyone know that the tree-lighting was canceled.
Elena is much more inspired by landscapes than I. I would have captured a single, decent sunset shot off the river and moved on. She, however, made me stay for a good 30-45 minutes to watch the changing colors of the sunset and to observe how the light affected the clouds differently as it moved. I love that she makes me stop awhile. Life feels like it slows down and comes into focus when I’m with her like this.
I’m out of the right words to say how I feel about finally being able to share this session – and this family – with you.All the usual ones – excited, proud, honored – don’t seem to say it right or enough. So, I’m not going to try. Hopefully these paragraphs will speak for themselves.
The Butler Family won my Our Story competition last August and were chosen by me and my family to receive the complete Our Story experience for free. There were so many deserving stories that you all shared with me and it was hard to pick just one but the Butler’s stood out for so many reasons that will become clear as you watch the above video and read on.
For the last 5 years, Lisa Butler has been battling stage 4, metastatic melanoma. It began when she found a lump in her neck and progressed later to her brain and then her ovaries. (Yes, it’s news to me too that melanoma isn’t just skin cancer.) Her cancer is a-typical and fast-growing, meaning that almost every time that surgeons have gone in to remove tumors, they’ve been too late to stop its spread. Lisa has undergone multiple surgeries, gruelling cancer treatments and even more procedures to deal with the negative impacts on her body that these treatments leave behind. She’s so young, a mother of 3 children, and wife to her teenage sweetheart, Gary. She has a lot of reasons to stick around and she’s fighting hard with admirable grace despite setback after setback.
As if this wasn’t enough, the Butler family deals with Autism in their eldest, Sensory Processing Disorder in their youngest, and Gary (an Iraq war veteran) deals with PTSD after being seriously injured by an IED in combat. To top the list of things that make their life less than easy, the family also has serious gluten, dairy and peanut allergies that they have to work around every day.
And yet, they are some of the most positive, loving, joyful and just “real” people I have ever met. It sounds like a cliche, I know – grace in the face of pain and challenge – but this family live out that reality every day and in every interaction I have had with them. Before I even picked-up a camera, I met them at their home in Roseville and chatted with them for 2 hours, getting to know each of them and their story.
Lisa and Gary say things like “I wouldn’t change anything, not even the cancer, because it has brought us closer together.” And “Because of the cancer, Gary has become a better father and I have learned to enjoy the little, simple moments more.” And you can tell that they mean them with every fiber of their being when they say it. Their laughter is whole-hearted and full-bodied. Lisa, especially, has this amazing chuckle that consumes her whole face and that goes on and on until you have no choice but to join her. As a family, they find humor in even the toughest conversations. Talking about deceased pets and cancer and autism, the tone is positive and interlaced with self-deprecating jokes. I’m certain there are many moments when darker emotions take over but their attitude to the tough stuff is humbling at the least.
Theirs is a love story that began when Gary saw Lisa walking across a deserted church courtyard when he was just 17. He was too shy to talk. She was too shy to even assume his interest. He wrote her poems instead. But even then it took Gary months to pluck up the courage to speak to her and even longer to get a date. But all the time Gary was certain she was the woman he was going to marry. When he asked Lisa’s parents for her hand in marriage, her father agreed but her mother outlined a list of 7 hurdles he had to jump over before she would give her blessing, figuring the young couple would drift apart in the time between. Gary went away in earnest and conquered every single one of them, joining the army to provide financial stability for his bride-to-be, and then returning to claim her hand in marriage finally. It’s truly a beautiful story that I don’t have the time or space to do justice here; this is only a vastly oversimplified snippet. Needless to say, Gary and Lisa are deeply in love in a way that is inspiring to see and experience.
After 6 months of working on their project, I finally got to present their full image gallery and 35 page leather album to them last night. My family and I hosted them at our home and I cooked an allergy-free mea for them while their kids and my little one raced around our back yard. The squeals of joy even caught the attention of some children in the yard behind who were visiting their grandparents, and before we knew it they were climbing over the back fence to join in. My husband and I shook our heads with the absurdity of it all. Our neighborhood is almost always deathly quiet but on this evening it was alive with the sound of children laughing and playing. It reminded me that when you invite love and joy in, it’s contagious.
It was wonderful to be beside Lisa and Gary as they watched an extended version of the above video on my TV set, to see Lisa’s tears of happiness at the moments I captured, and to hear her gratitude for the little details that even I hadn’t realized I’d immortalized but that meant so much to her. Details like her daughter’s messy hair, tangled from her devoted cat Po who sleeps in it every night; her youngest’s precious pillow pressed against his cheek lovingly and the way he wears his shirts with one collar up; and her eldest’s hands, long fingers so interesting, wrapped around the spine of a book. These are the things seen only through a parent’s eyes. To the rest of us they go almost unnoticed or dismissed as accident or commonplace but, to mom and dad, they are the small pieces of each child that add-up to make them each remarkable, beautiful and theirs.
The sad conclusion to the night was a conversation I had with Lisa when she gave me an update on her progress. She’s not been tolerating the most recent treatments well and so they’re changing-up her drugs this coming week. But more worrying is a recent scan that showed 2-3mm nodules in her lungs. They could be from an immune response from the treatment she’s been on, a chest cold, or could be melanoma tumors growing in her lungs. She’ll find out in around 6 weeks when she returns for a follow-up scan. If it is the latter, the prognosis is not good.
Despite her positivity – she refuses to give into worry or anxiety in case it robs her of any quality time she has left – I could sense the weariness underneath the determination, the heaviness that wasn’t there when I met them first last October. She has already been through so much and having to gear-up for another potential fight when the last one has not yet been properly announced as won, is a daunting prospect.
If you would like to follow Lisa’s progress, she has a journal on the Caringbridge.com site. You need to have an account to join but it’s free to sign-up. You can also donate to the Butler family and, if you are financially able, I would love it if you could show your support by doing so. Not only are Lisa’s cancer treatments physically difficult, they force the family to max-out their annual deductible every year, and then there is the strain of trying to manage a family of 5 on one income while one parent is often too sick to participate. To donate, click here.
Finally, I’ll sign off with a last-but-not-least shout-out to singer/songwriter Elizabeth Ann Mall who answered my Craigslist ad for someone to write a love song for my clients for free. Her song, Deep in Love, is the second song on the video and I am so grateful for her time, her generosity and her talent. I love the song and I love that we were able to give Gary and Lisa something truly unique, something inspired-by and for them only. Please visit Elizabeth’s website to learn more about her and/or Like her Facebook page. While you’re there, let her know I sent you. She’s incredibly talented and I’m lucky to have found her: elizabethannemall.com and facebook.com/elizabethannemall
Please watch the above video to see some of the images from our session and to hear Elizabeth’s song. Below are a couple of photos of the leather album I created for the family too.
Thank you for listening and please keep Lisa, Gary and their children in your prayers.
When I was a little girl, my dad used to bring home reams and reams of paper from the office for me to draw and write on.On the paper I would spend almost every free moment creating my own magazines, complete with drawings and articles about people and their interesting lives. I loved being the writer, the artist and the publisher, the sole architect of my own output. There was something so fulfilling about being able to represent my own perspective of life, unfiltered and unedited.
My mother was the one who had taught me to draw and write. Although she was an accountant by day, she had this creative side that she nurtured only at home with me. I remember a chalk drawing she made of me in her bedroom when I was probably around the same age as my daughter is right now. It was so good we framed it. (I wonder where it is now, actually. I will have to have her dig it out.)
She was also a great writer with beautiful penmanship and an avid reader; we read many of the classic children’s books together but our favorites were anything by Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. Those books were how I became inspired to write creatively myself.
I would show some of my work to my parents (who, of course, always thought I was incredibly talented) but much of it I didn’t share and just created because I enjoyed doing it. What I would do with the magazines after I finished them was not the point. In fact, I don’t remember making any real effort to keep any of those self-made publications. Maybe my mum did (I suspect they’re in a cupboard somewhere) but not because I asked her to.
Now, 30 or more years later, I find that I have stumbled right back into my childhood. But instead of drawing pretty pictures of imaginary people, I use my camera to take pictures of real, beautiful people. And instead of making up stories, I get to meet and talk to people who have incredibly interesting stories of their own.
The process still gets me as excited and thoroughly absorbed as it did when I was a kid. When I’m working on editing a client session, or transcribing an interview, or designing an album, I can disappear for hours. I’ll make a plan to dive in for an hour and move on but find myself saying “just 10 more minutes” over and over until the light through my office window begins to dim. It’s like hitting the snooze button repeatedly in the morning and I suppose, in many ways, this is a good metaphor for how it feels to come out of my creative trance and wake up to real life.
Then my husband will come home and the dishes will still be in the sink and my hair will still be unbrushed. (Having a pixie cut definitely helps with this; I can pretend it’s artfully spiky!)
Then the guilt will start. All the adult responsibilities that I didn’t take care of today! Just like that, my sense of accomplishment gets washed away with the grime on the frying pan.
That part is different. There was no guilt or shame attached with getting lost when I was little. I’m working on that.
But I still share a lot of my work with my parents and they still tell me I’m incredibly talented. Most days, that’s enough.
I'm Michelle and I love vampires (before they were cool), peanut butter and that deliciously off-balance feeling you get when you step off a plane in a new country. I'm also a mum, a writer and a visual storyteller.
Click here to learn more about all that.
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