Culture shock

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Gina eyes my living room with dismay: the threadbare Persian rugs; the curtains from home with the slight frays at the edges; Philippa's portrait of me, and the nude she pastelled for one of those landmark birthdays, the chaise longue and the ancient telly; the candelabra; the pile of books I'm still waiting to read. She gulps. "It's really - er..." She is lost for words. Gulps again, fishes around, finally hooks one and hauls it out.

"...bohemian," she finishes. In my general sphere, "bohemian" is either a term of approbation or a mick-take, but I know what she's thinking. It's written all over her face. For the first time, I'm seeing my living space through American eyes. And they are rolling in panic. "Omigod," she's thinking, "Serena told me she was doing really well, but this is a slum. Those rugs must be decades old, and the upholstery on the sofa and the chaise longue doesn't even match. She must be really poor. And I have to stay here for two weeks."

I, meanwhile, am wondering what has happened to the cheery party chick I knew at university. She'd arrived at the airport in a lined raincoat, carrying two suitcases of a size that people in the Third World use to emigrate with. It later transpires that, so certain is she of the lack of amenities in this country, she has brought several bottles of mineral water, a dozen individually vacuum-wrapped bagels, a hairdryer (but no adaptor), the entire contents of the Body Shop and the gross annual product of a small pharmaceutical company.

"Come through to the library," I say. "You'll be sleeping in there." She brightens momentarily, not realising that "the library" is an ironic title. When I moved in I decided to shelve the spare room completely, to keep my several hundred books at bay from the rest of the flat. It's actually a twelve-by-seven-foot boxroom which also contains my shoe collection, the hoover and a futon. "Oh," she says. Then, bravely, "No, that's fine. I'll be fine in here."

She follows me into the kitchen and I start making coffee. She stares grimly at the papers filed on my stove and the loop of messages hanging from the fax machine. "I guess you don't have much storage space, huh?" she says. "No. I've just carried on being messy."

I find the lovely croissants I got up early to buy at the deli, and put them in the oven. Gina is still wearing her raincoat. I suggest she might like a shower.

"No," she says. "I think we ought to go to a supermarket." "OK," I say. "We'll go after breakfast. What do you want to buy?" "I need food," she replies.

"Err. There's quite a bit of food here. And the shop on the other side of the road's quite good."

She won't meet my eye. "They won't have what I need," she says.

"Like?" "Yoghurt." "There's yoghurt in the fridge." "Not real yoghurt."

I get it out and show it to her. Live, natural, low-fat Greek yoghurt, with a picture of a goat on the front.

She shrugs. "That'll do, I guess."

"So what else do you need? I'll go over and get it."


"Milk in the fridge, too, darling."

"I can't drink that. It's not skim."

The milk, too, is low fat, bought specially. I show her.

"Why don't you have a look in the fridge? Then we'll get you whatever I don't have."

She looks at me accusingly. "You don't have eggs."

"Well, I've got a couple. How many do you need?"



"Yeah. But I only eat the whites."


"I've been doing weights and I need the protein."

"What about the yolks?"

"They're all fat. I put them in the garbage. Can I make myself some eggs now?"

"Sure. There are croissants."

"I don't want croissants."

"Oh. OK. Coffee?"

She looks aghast. "Do I want caffeine poisoning? No thank you. You got any erble tea?"

I'm stumped. "Is that some brand? I've got Earl Grey and Lapsang. And workmen's tea."

"No," she says. "Camomile, rosehip?"

"Oh. Sorry. No, I don't. I did have some camomile once, but it smelt like cats' piss so I threw it away. Would you like some orange juice?"

"I only drink fresh." She has just watched me whiz a crate of the things in the juicer. I don't know how much fresher I could make it. I am starting to feel tired.

I go to the shop for eggs. The people behind the counter are discussing the Princess of Wales's cellulite. "It's the dieting that does it," Mary is saying. "Don't be silly," says Sita, "it's the vomiting. She throws up all the good stuff and the poisons stay in her body."

Back in my kitchen, Gina throws away six egg yolks, puts a lump of butter in the pan and scrambles the whites. We go down to my garden to eat. It's looking lovely: things are busting up from beneath the earth and I've spread a couple of rugs and some kilim cushions on the flags. The sun is just starting to hit the rose bushes. Gina slurps her eggs. I light a fag and drink coffee. She looks around her. "You know what you should do?" she says. "What?" "This place could be really nice if you got some patio furniture. Maybe some white plastic chairs and a parasol."

I sigh. It's going to be a long fortnight