During the 1990’s the United Kingdom offered the youth of the Commonwealth an incredible gift of a two year work and travel visa, At a crossroads in my life , I booked the cheapest ticket I could find with TAP and boarded a flight to London, this included a hair raising stop over in Angola, which was locked in a bitter civil war at the time…. what were my parents thinking??? A steep descent into Luanda revealed an airport that looked like a scene out of a Mad Max movie. The fringes of the runway littered with the burnt out remains of various aircraft, a handful of menacing looking military types joined us on board, the Lockheed Tristar fired up her engines and roared off into the blue sky. If the landing had been unnerving then the take off was positively terrifying as the pilots hauled back on the controls and we rocketed back to the relative safety of 25000 feet. I was hugely relieved to be back on terra firma once we finally landed at Gatwick airport in the First World.
Arriving in one of the biggest cities in the world from an underdeveloped nation was a shock to the system! London in spring greeted me with an icy chill in the air. The grey crowds shuffled up and down escalators passed unseen buskers- no one made no eye contact and everyone seemed to be in a hurry to be somewhere else. I wrestled my luggage down Old Brompton Road breathing in toxic fumes and watching enticing black cabs weave through the noisy traffic out of my reach .The historic Georgian buildings were cheerfully decorated with flower boxes overflowing with sunny daffodils and trailing ivy and they seemed to welcome me to my new home at the Hour Glass Pub in Old Brompton Road.
I went from being a barefoot farm girl who worked with a team of staff and cooked over an open fire to just me….. as the chief cook and bottle washer, 60 lunch orders and a kitchen equipped with an overwhelming array of labor saving gadgets which all demanded my immediate and constant attention at the same time. This job took multitasking to a whole new level – I was responsible for the cooking, cleaning, washing up and polishing the brass – of which there was a LOT!!! The upside was that I got to know Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley who used to greeted me every morning as they passed by, while I polished the brass knocker on the front door! I became a minor celebrity myself with the locals in Chelsea after “surviving” a bout of Malaria! The local doctor was determined to send me off the the tropical diseases hospital and I was just as determined not to go! Winning that argument and armed with my script I dragged myself off around the concrete jungle of London in search of a pharmacy that stocked what I needed. Later that year I narrowly escaped a car bomb blast outside the Israeli embassy which blew through the buildings 30 meters in front of me, showering the street with a millions of shards of glass. After this life changing event I was referred to, by the locals at the pub, as “Leanne……..the Zimbabwean who survived Malaria AND a car bomb!!!”
London even then was a melting pot of cultures and all the reasonable Restaurants seemed to be owned by Immigrants. We dined out on Spicy Pad Thai , Turkish Shwarma at Notting Hill Gate, Mr Woo’s “eat all you can Chinese” for just 3 Pounds, and an outstanding Greek Restaurant just around the corner. We knew it was the best Fish and Chips in London after bumping into an incognito Princess Diana who had popped in for take away on her way back to Kensington Palace.
In December 1994, while out on the town for the night with a group of friends, we boarded a Double Decker bus bound for the Theater District. The entire length of Oxford Street was lit up with a glittering array of lights that culminated in the tallest tree I had ever seen in Covenent Garden. As beautiful as this display was I could not help feeling sad that this magnificent tree had been cut down and crowned in a halo of a thousands of lights, for the fleeting enjoyment of the crowds for Christmas. Half price tickets were available on the street for the Premier of the Lion King, which promised a lighthearted antidote to my homesick thoughts. The projector flooded the screen with places I knew and the plaintive whistle of a lone Guinea fowl pierced the silence of the theatre giving me goosebumps. It was a call I had not heard in what felt like forever……..Africa was calling me home.