Thursday, May 13, 2010

This Time Last Year

This time last year I was halfway through my Yoga Teacher Training and loving every minute of it. When I wasn’t doing yoga I was teaching rich honeymooners to dive – but not many of them, as Mexico was in the midst of the Swine Flu tourist-draught.

In May, the year before that, I was teaching diving in the Philippines. The year before that, I had only recently arrived.

The year before that I was back in London, saving hard and flipping coins as to where to go next. Two years before that I was meandering in Costa Rica, running out of money and coming to terms with the fact that I would soon be returning to the UK.

In May of the year before that, I was living in Honduras, diving, bartending and living by the beach. The year before that, in May, I had recently arrived in Guatemala and was falling in love with the same village that I left just a few months ago. The year before that I was in Canada, living in Victoria, taking great long walks along the sea front, with my state-of-the-art, only recently invented MP3 player (which had it’s own bag – it was too big and too heavy to fit in my pocket!)

In May of the year before that, I was living in London with two wonderful friends – good times. One of those lovely women is getting married this summer – I can’t wait!

Early May, of the year before that, I was in Indonesia. A much less travelled Indonesia than it is now. I was travelling with a man who was the most handsome of my previous boyfriends and also the tallest. We went to places where just being white and foreign was enough to make us celebrities. My boyfriend, at 6’4” was also a giant, from whom small children would run screaming. They would come back of course, but run screaming again if he took off his shirt – he had a hairy chest, which is unheard of amongst Asian men. I remember a young man of about 18, who was clearly sick with jealousy, politely asking if he could touch Andrew’s chest. Andrew, somewhat mollified, said yes. The boy touched the hair tentatively, and then nodded approvingly.
“I am going to buy one like that” he said, “I can buy one in Lombok.”
We told him we had been to Lombok and it was lovely, but we hadn’t seen any chest hair.
“Really?” said the boy in surprise “but I have heard, that in Lombok, everybody is a rock star.”

The year before that I was on a fishing boat somewhere in the Gulf of Carpentaria. That year I worked a season on a prawn trawler out of Darwin. One night our nets were attacked by sharks, which didn’t happen often. We pulled the nets in at dawn and in the half-light, as the nets came to the surface, I saw the water churning and frothing with, maybe 60, sharks. It was one of the most extraordinary scenes I’ve ever witnessed. When the nets came out of the water, the few remaining fish fell out – the nets were full of holes. Our skipper was apoplectic with fury and launched into a tirade against sharks, holes, nets and his crew (rather unfairly, I thought). He said the boat was a "useless tub of shit" until those nets were fixed and back in the water, then he went to bed. We five, pulled in the outriggers and hung the nets off them like vast blue curtains. The biggest hole was a metre across. So we set about sewing up the holes – it took us 20 hours – then we got back to work. A few months later I got off that boat fitter, stronger, browner and blonder than I had ever been.

The year before that I was in London, feeling anxious: I was about to embark on my first long-term, solo trip and I was very concerned about having the right stuff. I had decided to buy a new backpack – a proper one. Cheap backpacks, as every traveller knows, are a false economy. The straps cut into your shoulders and then break. I spent most of this month choosing. My final choice was £85, making it the most expensive item I had ever purchased. When I handed over the money I remember thinking that that I would be wearing this bag for a whole year. That trip lasted 2½ years, and I’ve worn that backpack for many, many more.

The year before that I had just broken up with my first love and decided to start saving to go travelling. The year before that I had just moved to London, with my first love, I was learning graphic design and wondering if I would stick at it.

At this time, early May, of the year before that, I was I was doing my Finals at University. My friends were all worrying about jobs, but I did not apply for a single one. I knew what I was going to do – I was going to travel. A week after my exams ended I packed up my student digs and cleared out my bank account. I bought a one-way ticket to Athens and the cheapest backpack I could find. I left with the country with £60 in my pocket. My dad remembers me saying that I would be away for 3 years! My dad privately told my mum not to worry, that I would be back by Christmas! He was right – I was back in November.

During that summer, a fat man in a very expensive white suit approached me in a bar in Paxos. He had four bodyguards with him, all in matching black suits. I was told later, by the owner of the bar, that this man was a Godfather in the Greek Mafia. He offered me a job, on his private island:
“Doing what?” I asked
“I don’t know” he replied “what are you good at?”
I politely declined his offer.
“Don’t you have a sense of adventure?” he said “what are you going to do instead?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I said “but I’ll think of something.”

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Hanging In There

Alright! Everybody stop panicking! Relax, rest easy and call off the search parties – oh, you already have. That’s nice. Well you will be relieved to hear, none-the-less, that I am not dead; I have not joined M16 and disappeared into a dark, sticky world of subterfuge and superfudge; I have not sunk into a well of depression and resentment against the world and life in general... oh hang-on! Actually, I have been doing a bit of that.

Since returning to the UK I have been mostly unemployed. Yes, unemployed. Not idling, with is healthy; not lounging, which is delicious; not glorying in an existence unrestricted by the conventions of nine-to-five and pension schemes, which is everything a perfect life should be – oh no – I am just unemployed. As Jerome K Jerome (a role model of mine) pointed out –
“It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do. Idleness, like kisses, to be sweet must be stolen.”
Being unemployed is pointless and no fun at all. Hence the lack of blog – basically, for the last four months, I have had nothing to say.

Dec to Apr & what I thought of it
December: Still had my tan and the entire trauma of home invasion rattling around in my head. Was ill and didn’t sleep (with the exception of 25-26th of December – both sleeps being booze induced). Mostly wandered around being startled and checking all the doors were locked, repeatedly. Attended Christmas.

January: Glared at the snow. Started job-hunting in a lackadaisical and unfocused manner. During my previous incursions to the UK I have secured work within a few weeks – I assumed it would be the same this time, so I actually wasn’t in too much of a hurry. My first batch of applications met with complete and thunderous silence.

February: Started seeing a Counsellor – she told me I was depressed and needed to take anti-depressants. I insisted I was not depressed, just a bit fed-up and exhausted because I hadn’t slept properly since July. Realised, as I said it, how foolish this sounded. Continued, more earnest applications were met with continued resonating rejection.

March: Diligent and enthusiastic job-hunting: a revised CV and a fancy new portfolio. My first interview! I hated them. Sleeping better, putting on weight, feel like the lights (inside and out) are coming back on. It’s sunny! Slight tan returning. Decide to rethink my plan – maybe I won’t become vampire (sanguinarian, obviously, otherwise what’s the point) after all. Decide to become a T-Shirt designer instead (more on that coming soon – bate your breath people).

April: Some interviews, more rejections, but feeling more positive about the whole business. Still unemployed, very broke. But I am sleeping and no longer feel compelled to check that the house is secured every half-hour. It occurs to me that I used to write a blog...

So that’s it. My next posting will be cheerful, I promise! So... England eh? It’s a funny old place, isn’t it?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Hello London

I arrived at Marylebone at 4pm, left the station and walked towards Baker Street. Soon I’m on the massive Baker Street intersection where I nearly got run over in 1995. I was deep into a walkman-zone that day: bouncing along with my techno-house on full volume. Daydreaming and oblivious to my surroundings, I nearly stepped out into the on-coming traffic, and would have done, if an elderly gentleman hadn’t stopped me with his umbrella. I was startled and slightly disoriented for a moment.
“Do, excuse me,” he said “ I wasn’t sure... were actually trying to kill yourself?”
I assured him I wasn’t and said thank-you.
“Jolly good” he said cheerfully, the lights changed and we walked on.

I took a left turn onto Paddington Road and then right into Marylebone High Street to see how the rich people shop. Exotic delis, interior design stores and sexy little Boutiques with surprisingly few clothes – even the sandwich bars have chrome fittings. I worked around here back in 2000 – terrible – nowhere to buy lunch.

I reach Wigmore Street – do I turn left here or continue to Oxford Street? My foolish side decides to have a look at London’s busiest street. I last nearly 20 metres before wanting to shake my fists angrily at some stupid French tourists who come to complete stand-still in front of me, without warning. I step to the right to avoid hitting them and an American family crash into me. The French girls toss their Parisian ponytails and flounce away unrepentant. I take a sharp left back to Wigmore Street. There’s a couple standing at the corner:
“Or we could walk down Oxford Street?” says the girl, hopefully.
“No,” retorts the man “it’s just like this street except with thousands of idiots.”
Quite right. I set off down Wigmore enjoying my purposeful stride.

Turn right onto Regents street and take the first left, past a nice little Bar that does great food at lunchtime... now... how do I know that? When have I been there? I am still musing when I pass a familiar doorway. Ah yes, there’s a little Design Studio on the third floor. I can’t remember when I worked there, but my boss was very good looking, very charming and sadly, very married. But he used to take me out for lunch every Friday to that nice little bar around the corner.

Soon I’m back on Oxford Street, the marginally less packed end. I’m looking for a little shop near Tottenham Court Road. This shop does two things: they sell a wide selection of tweed flat-caps and they unlock mobile phones very cheaply. I find it – it’s still there. I peruse the caps while they unlock my phone and then continue on my way.

Charing Cross Road, by John Walsom

Right into Charing Cross Road, past The George, another favourite pub: one of those places where you know you’ll have a great night... so long as you don’t get mugged.

Next, Cambridge Circus, a gladiatorial arena where the game is as follows: Cambridge Circus has an eccentric traffic situation, many roads and many lanes, which follow no discernible system. No matter where you cross, no matter what colour the lights, when you are halfway across the road a vehicle (usually a black cab) will appear from some previously unseen side street and attempt to run you over. The trick, for those in the know, is to find some tourists heading your way and use them as a human shield.

I spotted a couple of suitably substantial Germans and trotted along side them, the woman gave a yelp of surprise when the black cab missed her by mere inches, but we all survived and I’m sure the sprint did them good.

Ahead of me are two narrow streets. I know that one of them will take me direct to Seven Dials and the other will lead me into the murky maze of back streets somewhere behind the London Graphics Centre. I take a guess... and a minute or so later I am lost amongst shadowy streets, dotted with abandoned Art Students. A left, then a right, I kind of recognise that bead shop, and yes! There is Seven Dials straight ahead.

The little pub I used to frequent is still there, but it seems they no longer allow people to take their drinks over the road and onto the mini roundabout to sit on the statue. That’s a shame – negotiating traffic whilst carrying a round of drinks is something everyone should try at least once. I stop for a quick coffee, for old times sake, at the Japanese-inspired basement coffee lounge, full of cool kids with astonishing hairstyles. Then it’s a right turn down Neal Street.

At the bottom of Neal Street, where the M&S is now, there used to be a veritable Palace of all things Kitsch. I don’t remember what the shop was called, but on the front was a row of plastic manikin legs, all doing the Can-Can. At 15 years old I thought that shop was the heighth of cool. M&S is no substitute.

I turn left down to Covent Garden and look for some street theatre. There’s a juggler – he’s not bad, a few good tricks, but nothing my brother couldn’t do. I was about to walk on, when he starts to do the same sequence, but this time juggling meat cleavers. That’s worth a look! Then he repeats the same sequence, with the cleavers, whilst riding a unicycle. For that, I give him some applause. But then he says those dreaded words “a volunteer” and it’s time for me to move along. I stop to listen to some opera singers – is there anywhere else in the world where opera singers busk? Sadly I only hear the end of their set, but they’re excellent.

I pass a Bar I used to visit often in my early 20s. It looks the same and I pop in to use the toilet. In the toilets are two girls applying make-up with industrial trowels.
“You know what” says one, between coats of high-gloss emulsion mascara “sometimes I don’t feel like going out, I’d rather stay in... but y’know, it’s gotta be done, innit?”
Her friend nods sagely, “you know what that is” she replies, “we’re getting old.”
They are no more than 22.

Back on the street, I am pleased to find the shop where I bought my backpack – the one I have been carrying around these last 14 years, is still there and still busy. Finally, I circle past the Ted Baker store (well I can dream can’t I?) before locating the pub where I will be meeting my two, delightful old friends (‘Oi! Less of the old’ I hear them grumble). I haven’t seen them for five years, so I’m looking forward to it.

Safely reunited, after a quick pint, we head over to a French Bistro style Restaurant for dinner. My companions, both of whom have vegetarian wives at home, order meat, followed by meat, with some meat on the side.
“Absolutely” says one friend, “and if they’d let me, I’d have sausages and chocolate for dessert!” As I order the goats cheese, my other friend, sighs in an ‘I’m-so-disappointed-with-you’ kind of way.
“Oh Jane” he says, “you’re such a girl.”

Dinner was excellent, and the company even better. Afterwards we head to a nearby subterranean bar, which serves delicious cocktails for exorbitant prices. Bizarrely, the three of us have a tradition of drinking in subterranean bars. As we settle in with our cocktails, my friend sniggers and points,
“Check out the DJs girlfriend” he says, “have you ever seen anything so bored!”
He’s not wrong. She’s wearing a sparkly top, but she couldn’t be any less sparkly without inducing a coma. She’s hunched and slouched on a little stool, motionless, glassy eyed, tedium and apathy oozing from very pore. Half an hour later my friend says,
“Have you noticed the music has got really good?” We agree and turn to look – oops! It seems the DJs girlfriend... is actually the DJ! And she’s very good. The bloke is now slouched on the stool at her side, looking equally bored and ever so slightly resentful.

It gets late, having said goodbye to one musketeer, I head back with the other to his new place. Safely back at his flat, we sit down for a nice cup of Earl Grey, and I admire their new chandeliers, before retiring to their very comfortable guest room, accompanied by their very friendly cat! How times have changed – back in the day, when we first became friends, I would have been lucky to get a warm beer night-cap, a musky sleeping bag and a bean bag on the living room floor! It seems some things really do get better with age!

And so, there ends my evening in The Big Smoke. Hello London! It’s been a while, but you’re looking well. It was good to see you again.