Three days of solitude – the first time in nearly sixteen years that I’ve been left at home all on my own. It’s quiet. It’s still. I have space. And time … to do whatever I want.
So I clean the house from top to bottom in a fast-paced frenzy – tidying, scrubbing, hoovering, shining the surfaces, and wiping everything clean.
No-one is going to mess this up within five minutes, I think. By the time I come back from the shops, it’ll be just as I left it.
This cheerful thought almost puts a skip in my step as I saunter to town in search of inspiration. Unsure where I might find it, I start at the market, with the notion that a creamy slice of authentic Greek feta will help.
The stall holder calls “Bom dia” to some passers-by. Is he Portuguese? No, but his friends are, he smiles. He’s from Romania, and admits that he misses home – a very natural, friendly country, where people live from the land. He advises me to try some typical Romanian dishes (including bear specialities) if I go there, and tells me that the country offers excellent skiing too.
While he talks, he spoons up some baba ganoush and Moroccan olives for me to savour later.
I thank him and walk on, hearing a flurry of messages ping in from the kids. They are worried about me – they think I must be feeling lonely.
I reassure them with photos of my market buys and a load of emojis (they love smiley faces). I tell them I’m fine – happy to be solitary.
I arrive home, with library books on Middle Eastern food tucked under my arm (I’m scratching an itch to learn more about tangy za’atar). I unlock my front door to utter stillness. No-one shouts a welcome and the house is still spotless. It feels very odd.
I try to enjoy the vacuum of silence, but notice that I’m struggling to fill the dishwasher and the washing machine. However, I am aware that I remain the author of my own hours, and I admire a layered sky outside for a while before evening descends in its eerie way. I go inside, turn on lights and crash around the house as I plan the next day.
The imbalance of my solitude begs a break, so I travel to London with a good friend. We wander along the riverside …
Eat some fresh Indian street food …
And are moved by an exhibition that focuses on the Calais Jungle entitled “Call me by my Name“, run by the Migrant Museum UK project.
We absorb the stories told through photographs, films and other artwork, and see in turns tragedy, anguish, hopelessness, optimism, loneliness and solidarity. Inhabiting a temporary space, there is hope and much scope for a permanent venue for the museum project; there is a need for such a place, and still much more to be said about Britain’s long migration story.
We take our leave and wander again, coming across forgotten pockets of London and more crowded scenes. An escape from the rain leads us to the dark cosiness of an old riverside wine bar, where we lean lazily against a mantlepiece, chewing over all manner of subjects.
Arriving home later, I am stunned again by the dark quiet. I turn on the television for its noise, but gaze at the screen not even once. Impressions from the day – foreign spices, migration, movement, languages, the green of London, opportunities, friends – intermingle and fight for space in my head. I hope I’ll sleep …
Thunder explodes in the small hours, jerking me awake with a banging heart. I know I’m not scared, but this feisty storm flashes and smashes at my senses. Why am I calmer when caring for the kids?
When it’s safely light, I rise and feel the emptiness of the house with a bit of a pang. I check for any incoming messages – not one. As I go about my now slower morning routine, I realise that when alone, I smile less, frown less, and talk to myself much more.
I was craving these days of solitude, but as I await the homecoming of my eldest child, I accept that I’m better off not being left entirely alone with an overactive imagination (which I had thought was a childhood thing, but now realise was merely lying inert, waiting for its moment).
However, in my isolation I did find some inspiration within the books I borrowed, as well as from a lovely email from Mohamad in Berlin, who describes how Syrians typically use za’atar (there are many ways including sprinkled on olive oil then eaten on bread with cucumber and tomatoes). Mohamad reminds me that za’atar can be two things – the herb (similar to thyme), and the spice mix – and he sends me photos as illustration.
Mohamad tells me that he and his family used to collect fresh za’atar from the mountains near his home as they loved the flavour of its wild freshness. Maybe one day he will be able to do that again. Food for thought.