Toppled over Memories and Life Lessons from London
It's been one year since Ieft for London. Here's a collective account of my summer interning abroad.
The London Box was a lifetime ago, really.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, Captain speaking,” A voice pulled me out of my sun-soaked window seat bliss as I catalogued each memory from my summer abroad inside the little blue box in my brain, labeled in smooth script, ‘London.’
Lapping at the brim of the thing were the smells of hot scones and rose gardens, hues of Notting Hill cottages and Liberty cotton, and the flavor of laughter and lime.
Call it compartmentalism if you will, but the second my feet hit U.S. soil last July upon returning from England, I sealed the lid tight, unwilling to let a single sparkling drop of those memories spill over. I used the train ride into Brooklyn to secure my new powder blue capsule on a sturdy shelf toward the back of my brain for safe keeping.
Since then, I’ve bumped into the London Box when digging around for other memory boxes, but I’d only just peeked inside until recently.
Recently, when a blow to the back of my well labeled storage shelf of a brain sent every memory I ever preserved spilling out of their boxes into a jumbled heap on the floor.
The past 12 weeks since the accident have been spent re-organizing each box, taking catching crawfish with Julia, 2007 and untangling it from sewing ferret evening gowns with Violet Wilson, 2010 , and attempting to return everything to their respective receptacles.
Returning 18 years of memories back to their proper places is no small task, but that’s ok. You see, I seem to have come into a large sum of time. I’d rather come into a large sum of money, but one doesn’t just choose these things.
Time. Lots of lime. “Loads” of time, as my British friends would say. And what better to do with loads of free time than to slowly handle each memory as you put it back away?
There are some memories I’d rather not touch, but they still have to go back where they belong. I usually wind up dealing with those in my dreams at night, where I can’t choose to simply work on a different box.
The best part of a fictional brain box is that you don't have to simply fill it with tangible stationary or objects. Each is brimming with everything from pressed flowers to mustaches to smells and feelings.
For the most part, it’s been a gift to breathe each memory in, remembering the summertime sound of sprinklers in the field outside my bedroom window as a child, how sweet the water tasted, the soft earth between my toes. Gathering up lost conversations with lost loved ones, feeling the fur of favorite four-legged friends, and being able to almost hold in my hands the joy of first experiences and new knowledge.
I suppose the boxes closest to the front of my brainshelf are the ones that fell first, landing at the bottom of the spilled mess, leaving memories from the first ten years of my life most exposed. But I specifically put London in the back, above the box labeled Snake River Camping Trip 2006, where I thought it would be safest.
So today that’s where I’m at.
I’m pulling theater tickets out of fishing lures and trying to remove the smell of bug-spray from my powder blue box, and I thought I’d invite you to join in. I kept a journal on my trip, and I've attached some photos from it here, but there are some things that you can't paste into a journal that you can put into a brain box.
I arrived at Gatwick airport wearing a black beanie and my new white adidas. It had been a red eye flight where I slept off the many plates of Italian food I’d consumed the day before at my cousin (Michael’s niece) Miranda’s First Communion party.
Last year, while I was establishing my NY state residency, a lovely Ecuadorian makeup artist, Fanny, came to live with Mom and I for a few months while she got her feet under her. Her sister, Grima, lives in London, and agreed to let me stay with her and her family over the summer while I did an internship there.
A shiny, torn, plane ticket sits at the top of the London memory box.
I didn’t have a British SIM card so I had no way of contacting Grima when I arrived, (how was there life before cell phones??) but we eventually found each other and she drove me and my little black carry-on to her home in East Ham, about 40 minutes from the center of London.
After dropping bags at Grima's home in East Ham, I made a mad dash for the London Tube (NYC Subway’s much tidier big sister), to come out at King’s Cross. There I met my employer before her shop closed. No google maps? No problem. Just a little of sweat. I made it just in time for a quick look in her studio and a debriefing over my to-do list for the next day.
An Oyster card for the box, followed by a purple chocolate wrapper that reads 'Harrod's.'
My first day of the internship included a trip to Harrod's, one of the world’s most famous department stores, where the other interns and I had a secret mission of sorts.
“You and the other girls will tell the dressing room attendants that your boss has invited you to a surprise private gala and she has sent you to Harrods to pick out gowns to wear,” Ms. Tammam, head of the small atelier told me. “You’ll meet the other girls there at 10, try on as many dresses as you can, and report back to me first thing Thursday morning.”
I was nervous that the other interns would be blood thirsty, competitive fashion know-alls like I’d witnessed in New York. I stood in the entry way of Harrods fidgeting with my fingernails, waiting to meet “the competition,” when a pair of long arms grabbed me from behind.
“Oh, you must be Katherine!” All of my fears melted away as three smiling faces greeted me with bright British accents. There was Appa, a Norwegian girl with thick blonde hair and sparkly blue eyes and Tina, from Turkey, with soft dark features and a Cinderella laugh. The arms, and the initial greeting belonged to Nyleeta, a native Brit who simply exudes joy.
It felt like we’d always known each other. We spent the day playing dress up in 10-40 thousand dollar gowns and returning for free samples in the chocolate department.
By the end of that first day, we had dozens of sneaky photographs of garment construction and display methods and budding relationships that would only grow throughout our summer together.
There's a peacock business card in the box from where four of us shared the matchbook-sized studio with Ms. Tammam, or “Lucy” as we eventually came to know her, Nana, a vintage clothing repair seamstress, and Daisy, a fifth intern who came once a week to specialize in embroidery.
Daisy was a brilliant addition to our odd bouquet of intern friends. She was the only true Brit of the bunch, and used words like “Blimey” and “Telly.” She educated us in embroidery and alternative folk-pop.
Seven women working together in 300 square feet? Yes. There was drama. Boy was there drama. Sometimes even boy drama.
You see, Tina had this gorgeous Italian boyfriend. Then Tina had a gorgeous Italian boyfriend who ran off to Paris for a weekend with well, not Tina. And then Tina had an ex-boyfriend who was suddenly not so gorgeous as we consoled her over sausage and chips at the Turkish cafe next door on our lunch break.
Alli, the sturdy shop owner, even offered his advice, setting another complementary plate of chips on the table at lunch and delivering secret smoothies when Lucy and Nana were out. An embossed turkish napkin for the box.
Then Tina had a stalker ex-boyfriend who decided to show up at the studio to win her back.
He appeared all doe eyed and wounded on a day when Appa and I were there alone. I got up to give him a proper American fist to the nose, but Appa beat me to it with a long spill of words I won’t record and a firm slamming of the door in his face.
That was the last we saw of him.
A few spare buttons roll around the bottom of my box from the alterations I first did at the internship, but my main task for the summer was working with Appa to create a custom gown for a West End actress to wear to red carpet events. That's what the navy fabric swatch is from.
TAMMAM, Lucy’s brand, is all about ethos and sustainability. The idea was to create one dress that could be worn many different ways to invite the customer to have fresh looks for each event without having to buy several different gowns that would only be worn once.
Appa, who has bachelor's degrees in both Fashion Design and Patternmaking, made the pattern and I sewed. Daisy stitched away on her embroidery, and Nyleeta and Tina ran the social media/merchandising of the shop.
Lucy’s own education in fashion after university stemmed from a long string of internships at companies that had what it was she was most interested in. From there, she took what she liked about each one and created her own business. She expected perfection from her interns. I didn’t live up to her standard often, but spending a summer under her measuring tape gave me the courage, and permission, to aim much higher than I had previously imagined.
Working at TAMMAM taught me a lot about tailoring and construction techniques. A folded up diagram of tailoring stitches in the box helps me remember them. I had the opportunity to learn about small businesses and niche marketing (all of Lucy’s work was vegan and fair trade), as well as retail and customer service.
But more than the physical internship itself, I learned about people. I learned how to work with people who were different than me. Growing up in Oregon doesn’t exactly present the challenge, or the joy, of daily professional interactions with people with different ideas, beliefs, or heritage other than your own.
I got to live in a city that’s been illuminated by history, where the same street that supports a brand-new glossy tower of clear windows also is home to a church of nine hundred years with a kaleidoscope of fused glass in its panes. I could take whatever I chose for souvenirs.
The characters I met, from fellow interns, to long lost cousins, and strangers in passing, changed me, each of them taking everything I thought I knew about life and helping to mold it into something new.
A few resting music notes remind me of the storied Frenchman with a soft white mustache, who stopped playing his red accordion to reach out and kiss my hand as I was walking past a pastry shop in Chelsea, and a pressed Aster for the little girl I crowned with a daisy chain in Cavendish Square Garden on a Sunday afternoon.
There's a polaroid of Appa in a pink afro wig that takes me back to the sea of vintage clothes we tried on at Camden Market, when our battles over who could find the most hideous outfits turned into an uproar of laughter that nearly got us escorted off the premises. I remember laying in the grass as the sun set behind St. Luke’s Church, wondering how many shades of pink and blue grace the bellies of pigeons in flight. Colors I stashed away in my box.
A green bookmark. I remember walking into a public Library, where I was overcome by rancid smell. Curious, I came around the corner to find an old man with blackened, shoeless feet nestled into a corner, nose buried into a book as wide as the beard that fell over the pages. All of a sudden it wasn’t the smell that filled the room, but rather the enormous sense of intelligence that emanated from his being.
I was walking to the Tube station in the rain next to a woman in her nineties, dressed in an outfit of nude heels, WhitedressWhitecoatWhitehatWhitescarfWhitegloves, and punctuated with three coats of red lipstick.
She stepped right into the street, cutting in front of a double-decker bus with a “come closer, I dare you” look. I could hear her muttering through the crowd “these people just get slower and slower. Can't they go any faster?” I caught up to her and told her I liked her outfit. Her twinkly blue eyes softened, remaining indignant. Her wool coat flounced around her as she straightened her pose. “Thank you.” She tossed her head back and jolted forward into the crowd of people descending the escalator, a tiny white pearl of a woman in a sea of grey suits and black stockings. She even had white beads around her neck.
There were times away from people that were also memorable. Memories that seemed at the time as any other day, but looking back have a special sparkle about them. I walked ten miles on days when the sun shone, stepping into museums and cafes and churches.
One day, what started as a desperate search of a public “loo,” past a “DO NOT ENTER” sign accidentally turned into joining a tour of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry. Another time, a trip to the Turkish market around the corner for eggs turned into walking home with a bag containing bulgar wheat, lamb neck, Grey Squash, and some sort of red spice to cook into dinner.
I lived in a three bedroom townhouse with eight people and one bathroom. I got know my host family pretty well.
In the evenings, Grima’d fifteen-year old daughter, Britney, filled me in on the day’s drama from her mostly-Hispanic school (knife fights were as common as breakups) while I taught her the embroidery I was learning at my internship. We’d stitch and laugh and snack on cheese-stuffed plantain patties that our Ecuadorian grandmother brought to us.
Strips of party-popper confetti remind me of my favorite memory in London, dancing barefoot all night in Grima’s cobblestone courtyard as her family and I celebrated her birthday. Britney's cousin, John, tried to teach me how to salsa but I'm sure I mostly stepped on his feet. We kept dancing anyways. The stars hung low enough for us to touch, infused with Sangria's citrus and cinnamon.
Red and white stationary reminds me of the time I spent at the Victoria and Albert Museum pouring over centuries of costume and other art mediums.
On one visit, I came upon a painting with a box and notebook under it. The curators had a place for people to contemplate a very odd painting of a man holding the back legs of a stag in a green field, write a story about it on a piece of paper, and then put it in the box to go into a book they were going to create.
I wrote about a fashionable young man named Eustace who entered a “Greased Stag Contest.” I drew my inspiration from the annual “Greased Pig Contest” at the Lake County Fair, where a piglet is greased up with Crisco and released into an arena full of kids where whoever catches the piglet by the hind legs gets to take him home to raise. Only, in my story, catching the “Greased Stag” guaranteed Eustace the hand of the King’s daughter.
There is a church on Marylebone Road that I favored. I took a brochure from there for my box so that I could remember the windows. I could sit in there for hours on a Tuesday afternoon without a single person wandering in. Sometimes I wrote in my notebook or read out of the red Hymnal in the pew-back. Sometimes I’d sing. Have you ever sung in an empty cathedral? It’s probably frowned upon. I don’t think God would frown.
I drew a picture of dancing feet on a napkin at the Farm Girl Cafe in Notting Hill. I was wearing my great grandmother’s silk handkerchief in my hair. She was an artist. Sun shone off the whitewashed cottage bricks and I wiped a blue “butterfly matcha” mustache off of my face. I wondered where my grandmother wore the floral scarf before me. I felt a little homesick on those days, but life changes when you start to grow up.
My 18th birthday met me in London. It crept up on me without a word. And then, before I knew it, there were my four new friends and our wooden table outside Alli’s cafe, heaping with “chips” and sausages and Bubble and Squeak and even a little spice cake that Appa baked for the occasion.
At five o’clock Lucy locked the shop and Nana popped the Bubbly as we toasted to being young. The cork from my very first Champagne. Then the girls took me “out.” Nyleeta laughed at our white-girl dance skills (or lack thereof) and Appa danced anyways. I was carded by nearly everyone we met, even in the restroom, where the attendant, probably in her sixties, was laying on a sofa talking to her sister in her bare feet. She couldn’t believe I was more than thirteen.
We ended up in Neal’s Yard, where the painted storefronts swirl around a tiny stone courtyard like a scene out of a Dr. Seuss book, lorax trees included. It’s the sort of place with word magnets waiting to be arranged into funny sentences and free cheese samples sit on infinite silver trays.
What is an entry into adulthood without free cheese samples? I kept some for the theoretical brain box.
My fourth or fifth cousin, Kirsty, from Scotland is living in London now. My family went to visit hers in Aberdeen, and then they came to see us in Oregon over a decade ago, but that’s all we knew of each other. When we met again in London, it felt like we’d grown up in the same town. She took me around the city and despite the distance in both geography and blood relation, there was something so familiar in her that really did make me feel like I had family there.
It was very surreal walking over the Westminster Bridge with a woman who could have easily been my sister with her dark hair and slight build, in another country, eleven years since we’d last met, talking like old friends.
That lovely smell of scones drifts out of the box from the day I had high tea with my friend Makena, who modeled for me in Portland when I lived in Oregon, and is now going to University in London. She’s as brilliant, and brave, I might add, as she is beautiful, and her passion for London is so contagious that when she talked of never going home you wanted to stay there with her. Experiencing the city through her youthful, skies-the-limit eyes was an experience you can’t buy in a tourist booth.
When my friend Randi (a.k.a Rainbow Randi) heard where I was, she set me up with an eco fashion designer she knew, Jose Hendo, from Vancouver Fashion Week who has a studio in London. Jose makes her clothing out of Bark Cloth, which literally comes from tree bark. She gave me a swatch for my box. We immediately hit it off and she invited me to volunteer at an African fashion conference she was giving a symposium at.
At the conference, not only did I learn about Africa’s growing role in the fashion industry, but I also met Jose’s intern, Imene.
Imene, for whom show tickets, melted ice cream, and new ideas pay homage to in my box. We met for gelato the next day after the conference and wandered around the National Gallery. We talked about everything from art to faith as we posed with the famous Lions and explored the museum together. Imene is from Brittany, France, but her parents are from Algeria, so even though she was in London for the majority of this summer, she usually spends a month out of every summer with her family in Africa during Ramadan. She shared a little about her experience as a Muslim growing up in France and I learned that small mindedness and hate sill exists outside of the U.S.
Our first day together fell two days before the beginning of Ramadan. “Soon I will only be able to eat between nine in the evening and three in the morning,” she told me. “The rest of the day, only water.”
We decided that was grounds for seconds on ice cream.
Another day, we walked eight miles around the gardens and parks near Buckingham Palace. She told me about her great grandfather who was a nomad in the desert in Africa. He was so wise and so loved, that people would walk from far and wide to come to talk to him. He lived to be 120 years old. She introduced me to Indian cuisine and she also introduced me to a whole new way of life. We watched the West End’s An American In Paris together after a long day of work, ordering ice cream at intermission and counting down the minutes to nine o’clock when we could eat it.
We shared a lust of beautiful clothes and far off places — taking in swirling chiffon theater costumes and storefronts and discussing every corner of the globe and our desire to stand there. A love of pictures, for capturing them (she has a far better eye than I), a love of food, for how it unites people, a love of life, for all that it it is, good or bad.
We shared faith.
It wasn’t the same faith, but in many ways I learned more about what I believe from my short time with her than I ever learned from being surrounded by people who think exactly how I do.
I remember one Monday morning the girls I worked with asked me what I’d done over the weekend. I mentioned attending a service at All Souls Church on Oxford Street and they all looked at me as if I’d said I’d been to a beheading. “But why?” They wanted to know. It was the first time I’d ever really thought about it, let alone tried to come up with an intelligent answer.
We talked about a lot of questions I’ve never heard the opposing answers to, whether it was religion to politics to even “fashion” as I knew it. I had to dig beneath the smooth surface of my culture, traditions, and comfort and examine the very roots of what I believe in and either re-evaluate their validity or find answers that made them stronger.
One thing I learned was how to enjoy doing things by myself.
Being on my own for the first time made crawling into my introvert shell extremely possible. I’d say one of my biggest challenges was not to abuse that. Most days I’d finish my shift wanting nothing more than to go home and go to bed. On my days off, when I felt like walking alone through the streets or reading a book in a park, I had to remind myself that adventures aren’t born out of what’s comfortable and relationships don’t bud without an investment in time.
Read more from my time in London in the following posts:
I think the most important thing I learned was that memories are only half the depth without people to stretch them with you. Without relationship, London is London. It’s a city full of pretty buildings and a fascinating history. But the people I came to know and love — the beautiful people with their remarkable stories and welcoming hearts — they made London into a magical place for dancing barefoot or eating ice cream twice in one day.
Today I'll put my powder blue London Box back on the shelf where it belongs. Life happens and things topple over. It can make a mess. It can even hurt a little -- or a lot. But there's joy to be found in the rebuilding process. I'm thankful for every memory stored away in my brain, and I'm thankful for this time to revisit them and all of the wonderful people I came to love along the way.