Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Writing Home About

Since the age of 18 - approximately 11 (gulp) years ago - I have moved many times. Approximately 16, in fact. You’d think, what with my penchant for living out of a backpack, that moving house might be something I find pretty easy to handle. In this case - #17 – you’d be wrong.

There are several reasons for that. The first, biggest and bestest is that I am moving in with my significant other.

Co-habitation (in the romantic sense of the word) is not something I have ever tried before and I am very happy and excited.

And also a wee bit nervous.

Aside from the obvious reasons for this (like no longer being able eat, for the 4th night in a row, brie and crackers for dinner in my underpants at the kitchen sink while filing my fingernails), moving in with someone who is not a roommate presents a whole new set of variables towards nervous anxiety that I’d never previously knew existed.

First and foremost, the significant other is Greek. Yes – this is a good thing – especially when it comes to my affinity for a late night souvlaki. But, like most Greeks, he comes complete with a very big and very Greek family. As a person with only one first cousin, this is a concept I still have trouble wrapping my mind around. Especially 20 minutes after landing in Montreal when I suddenly found myself in a taxi on the way to their home.

“We don’t have to go,” the Greek insisted, “if you’re not comfortable.” But I shook my head firmly, applied several coats of lip gloss, and insisted I was. In truth, I had a swarm of butterflies doing the mambo in my stomach. Which didn’t help when, upon being introduced to about 12 people, I was sat down and presented with as many plates of food.

“I’ll put some steaks on the barbeque for you guys,” confided Mama Greek, patting my arm reassuringly.

And here I was thinking we wouldn’t have to have this conversation so quickly into our relationship.

"Aww," I patting my stomach, "you don't have to do that. We're not that hungry!"

Her eyes widened. “Of course! You have to eat! Have some spinach pie!” And she leapt up to pile more food in front of me.

I shook my head.

“The thing is,” I whispered, “I don’t eat steak.”

This seemed to stop her in mid-stride.

“You don’t eat meat?”

“Chicken and fish!” I yelped in desperation . “Love ‘em! Both!”

“No steak,” she repeated, sounding very disappointed.

I shook my head again, looking around for Nia Vardalos.

Fortunately, they decided to like me anyway.

And the feeling is mutual. After being back on Montreal soil for just over a month, I already feel like I have a whole new family. Being the Girlfriend of the Greek, (and residing in his current apartment,) seems to allow me automatic access to weekly shipments of food, frequent phone calls to inquire into my well-being, and serious parental concern over Reason to be Nervous #2:

Painting the new apartment.

No one likes painting – I know. I, someone who once thought painting an entire 1-bedroom flat Midnight Periwinkle was a really smashing idea, like painting even less. I’ve definitely had my share of it over the 16 moves. So I was relieved to be told that the new place would be freshly – and professionally – painted when we moved into it at the end of this week.

Which is why, when we finally saw the paint job at the end of last week, things didn’t go too well.

“It’s… bright,” I tried to tell the Greek.
“It’s hideous,” he said.
“We can fix it with lighting,” I attempted.
“It’s god awful,” he replied.
“It’s like glow-in-the-dark stars in daytime,” I said, desperate to convince us both.”

“Well,” he said, “I guess we’ll have to live with it.”

“We’re re-painting,” I said, put the dog on the leash, and stormed off to Rona.

We dreaded the idea of taping doors and ceilings, laying down newspapers, and grinding away with a roller.

That so was not the hard part.

Have you ever tried to agree on paint colours with another person? It all goes back to my theory that what one person sees as Cherry Blossom Red is seen by another as Evergreen Tide. This theory proved doubly true when taking colour samples from Rona and bringing back to rooms that seemed to change colour and hue entirely from morning to afternoon and then to evening.

“Too girlie,” the Greek would say one paint swatch.
“Too yellow,” I’d say of another.
“Too light.”
“Too dark.”
“Too cold.”
“Cold? It’s BROWN.”
“It’s a cold kind of brown.”
“Fine. What about this one?”
”Too powdery.”

And on it went.

The man at the Rona paint counter has already given us three complimentary hats, perhaps in honour of the three rooms we’ve painted. (We’re repainting two of them tonight.)

There’s something keeping me going, though. Maybe it was the paint fumes, but other night, as I sat one the counter of our soon-to-be kitchen, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I realized then that it had been a long time (11 years, in fact,) that I’d felt like I was really at home. And despite the sawdust on the unfinished floor (in which the dog was currently rolling,) colour ambiguity, and the Greek stomping around from room to room muttering things like “not Chihuahua Beige…but Tumbleweed Mellow?” I know that I am. And that that’s a good thing – and a whole new type of adventure.

And at least life is colourful.

Or, at least, many different shades of tan.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

One Leg to Stand On

I’m about to spend two weeks traveling around Scottish Highlands, where I planned to walk for miles and commune with wide open spaces and sheep. I’m currently hosting a steady stream of friends and loved ones as houseguests, and I’d planned to show them around London and share with them all the haunts I've come to know and love. In three weeks, I will no longer be a resident of this city, and I wanted to soak it all up as much as I could.

So it’s only fitting that I broke my ankle and am in a cast up to my knee.

Never having broken a bone in my life, I always imagined that when it came time to do so, I would do it skiing. I learned to ski at the age of 16, and, after 3 lessons (most of which were spent gaping in fear on the top of the bunny hill or knocking over rows of people when attempting to leap off a moving chairlift,) I skied the Swiss Alps. Probably not the most safety-conscious idea, but life is short, and anyway, at that age you think you’re invincible.

What you don’t think is that at 29 you’re going to break your ankle, not dancing it up in heels in some pounding club, not swooshing down a snow-covered mountain, but falling down the stairs.

In your own apartment.

It happened on Bank Holiday long weekend. That’s basically the equivalent of our Canadian August long weekend – in other words, one not devoted to a saint or queen but designed simply because we’ll all go stir crazy if we don’t get some time off. Given that the English generally have 5 weeks paid holiday a year, I can’t say as I empathize entirely. But as a temporary resident, I really can’t complain. Especially as a Bank Holiday long weekend seems, for them, to be a good excuse for a barbeque.

After the first question (“what happened?”) the second question people are always asking is “were you pissed?”

"Well I never!" I always respond. Except that, in truth, the answer is... sort of.

It was great barbeque. Though not in honour of a queen, there were certainly plenty in attendance. So, naturally, I celebrated with a few glasses of red. Honestly, though, I blame the stairs. When you rent a flat in London on the basis of its attic room with sloping ceilings – the kind where one would picture the writing of an award-winning novel – you have to deal with stairs. Which in this case happen to extremely steep and about 3 inches wide.

At first, I assumed it was a bad sprain, partially because I could move all my toes, but mostly because I don’t have health insurance and didn’t really want to explain this to hospital staff, much less my parents.

However, after four days of not being able to walk, I was finally convinced by Tom (House Guest #1, who is, I must add, a qualified lifeguard) to get myself to the local clinic. There, the lovely Irish nurse asked nothing of me except my opinion on Paul McCartney’s impending divorce, and informed me, cheerfully, that I’d fractured my ankle. I panicked. Would I still be able to drive a Mini with manual transmission around the lochs and bens of Scotland?

Her answer was, unfortunately, no.

As luck would have it, a friend and colleague had just happened a buy new flat, where she happened to find an abandoned pair of crutches. After spending two days hopping on one leg, I figured crutching around London would be a piece of cake.

Wrong again.

If you’ve ever had to get around on crutches, you probably have a pretty good idea of how exhausting it is. If you’ve ever had to get around on crutches in 31 degree heat, in an enormous city that doesn’t believe in air-conditioning and where public transport is comprised entirely of staircases… well, all I can say is, I feel your pain.

So, I’ve been spending many of my last precious days here lying around, reading In Touch, In Style and bad paperbacks, making long distance calls and – yeah, yeah – writing the damn award-winning novel. The days I’ve tried to carry on as normal – going to work, for a little tour with a houseguest, to the supermarket down the road - have resulted in me collapsing, exhausted, in a pile on our couch, my hands swollen and aching, cursing the stairs, red wine, and anything else I can think of. Having a broken ankle has definitely exposed me to a new way of life. You would think that getting sympathy from random strangers would be a fun twist on the usual, especially in a place where a friendly smile is about as common as a sunny day. While I do enjoy being given a seat on a crowded bus or tube, (although I still can’t get why people always feel the need to ask if I need one first – I’m still tempted to answer “no really, I’m fine" and then fall on top of them,) I’m not a huge fan of being on the receiving end of stares from passers-by. Especially when I trip on the top step at the station and crutches go flying everywhere. I feel a certain kinship with Tucker in the film "There's in Something About Mary", and there’s nothing good about that.

But at the same time, I’m trying to keep my spirits up. As Pollyanna as it may sound, I feel strangely lucky. The fall could have been a lot worse. The break could have been a lot worse. The cast could be on for the usual 6 weeks instead of 4 - which means, thankfully, I won't be stuck wearing it in Scotland. Life, in general, could be far inferior to what it is right now – warm weather, visits from people who light up my life, and, soon, having a heart to heart with Nessie.

And my upper arms have never looked so good.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Birthday for One

It might be a small understatement to say that these are not words one hears every day. Especially from one cell phone to another, over the Atlantic, across 5 time zones and originating from under an umbrella on a rainy street corner in the middle of Leicester Square. But my lucky friend Emily had just that opportunity, and the phone call (if you haven’t guessed) came from me.

Aside from the immensely life-changing experience of seeing, live and in the flesh, my teenage heartthrob in his skivvies (not to mention on stage performing in the incredible One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), this phone call was a very significant one. Why? Because it came at the victorious end of the first time I have ever celebrated a birthday really and truly alone.

This is not a request for sympathy, by the way. As a matter of fact, I think that there should be a special agency – non-governmental, if it must be – that distributes medals and badges of honour and bravery for going out by oneself. Your first, smallest trophy could be for the First Movie Alone. I know some people are old hat at this, and spend many a glorious Wednesday night or Sunday afternoon (or – gasp! – Saturday evening) happily not sharing their popcorn, laughing loudly at all the wrong bits and bawling their eyes out shamelessly while the credits roll. But I know far more who have never done it. And to them I say: I understand. It’s a daunting thing.

Of course, it’s not like there was some kind of massive social birthday do on somewhere in my honour, and I simply walked straight past the balloons and confetti and onwards to spend the night with Christian. London, as I’ve said, is a tough place to get to know people, so my spending my Birthday Friday Night out alone was not completely by choice. I did get to celebrate the actual big day with the magnificent Tegan – at the Maple Leaf Pub, no less – drinking Moosehead beer and eating poutine and revelling in the abundance of Australian wait staff and English clientele.

But when it looked like Friday was going to be birthday party-free, (and you can ask people who know, my birthday has historically been a week-long event), I decided to grab the bull by the horns and make the most of it. Or so I thought.

In fact, wandering through Covent Garden on a beautiful Friday evening was not as inspiring as I would have hoped. There’s only so much window-shopping one can do (an activity best done alone, in most cases) before it comes time to do have to do that annoying thing called eating so as not to starve and take away from the enjoyment of Mr. Slater. The more I wandered through the streets and stared into restaurant windows, the more I wondered what exactly I’d been thinking. This was not a good idea. This was an utterly ridiculous idea. I could not possibly go into one of these candlelit places, teeming to the brim with lovey-dovey couples and happy families, and ask for a table for one. It seemed about as much fun as jumping off a cliff.

Eventually my appetite took over my brain, (which is usually how I operate anyway,) and I realized it was do or die of hunger. As luck would have it, at that very moment I turned a corner and came upon the glorious sight of an Ed’s Easy Diner. Home of, in my opinion, the best malt milkshake known to humankind, and possibly extra-terrestrial life as well. Ed’s is brightly lit and kind of tacky and not exactly what you’d call fine dining. In other words, it was the only restaurant in Covent Garden that was half full on a Friday night.

I took a deep breath and went in. The cheerful (i.e. Australian) waiter kindly offered me any table in the house. Wishing to the gods I’d thought to bring a book, I sat by the window, and ordered.

And then it hit me. I could either wish the rest of my Birthday Friday Night away – and it’s not every day a girl turns 29 in London – or take what was given to me and make the most of it. So I sat up straight, turned towards the street, and got lost in watching the world go by.

Eventually the doorman (because doesn’t every diner need a doorman?) and I struck up a conversation. Thrilled at having a real live person actually talk to me, I informed him excitedly that I was going to see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, starring (did I mention) Christian Slater. Ah yes, he said, nodding thoughtfully. He thought he remembered him from back in the 90s. We went on to discuss the merits of not wanting to understand Shakespeare, and when I left, he wished me a very good night.

Which, as you can tell from my post-performance phone call, it was.

This is not to say that I’ll never feel weird or awkward again about eating alone or going to the movies solo. Our world, it seems, has a great big hole when it comes to the encouragement of doing things without company, and it’s been ingrained into us from every direction. Try to book a solo vacation – or even rent a hotel room for one online – and you’ll see what I mean.

Some of my worst traveling moments were when I wished with every fibre of my being that I had someone to talk to. (Especially in Frankfurt – never go to Frankfurt alone.) Sometimes, like green tea or anything else that’s good for you, it stinks. But I still maintain it’s a great and important thing to do once in a while. Which could be why I’ve just booked a ticket to Verona, Italy. A hotel room alone is way out of the budget, so I'll be staying in a convent! But you never know what you might learn from a nun.

And tonight, Friday night, my plans have just fallen through. But I think I hear a large popcorn and Romance and Cigarettes calling my name. It’s a musical, but that’s okay - no one has to know. Plus I won’t have to share my gummy coke bottles with anyone. And that, alone, is worth the price of admission.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Gaying it up in London

London is a lot of things, but a good place to meet people is not one of them. You’d think that, in a city of 15 million, new friends would be as easy to come by as, say, fish and chips, or Mini Coopers. But many claim this not to be the case, and I’d have to say I agree. Especially if you happen to be someone to whom the idea of making small talk with strangers is on an equal level of terrifyingness as, say, diving into a pool of leeches on national television. Which I am.

That’s why, when I found myself coiffed and stilettoed, walking cautiously towards the tube station last Saturday night, I couldn’t shake a feeling that was all too familiar. It was the same one as being 8 years old and going to the first day of swimming lessons at summer camp. And I failed Maroon four times.

Since moving here, and especially since settling into a brand new, not-so-shiny, two-bedroom apartment with the lovely Tegan, I’ve had some startling moments of suddenly realizing I actually live in London. Do you know what I mean? There I'll be, racing through Covent Garden to catch a bus or wandering down Oxford Street on a Thursday night looking at things I wish I could buy and suddenly, I realize hey – I live here!

And despite my queasiness, Saturday night was one of those moments. Because I was heading out to Notting Hill, to meet up with my new friends, D. and D., who invited me along to a birthday party of a close friend of theirs. It was all happening at The Gate, which is smack across the street from Portobello Road and all the rest of the excitement.

My plan of action, as a person of class and poise, was to meet them for a couple of drinks, pull out all my best conversational tactics, maybe do a little dancing (much easier than talking), and then catch the tube back home prior to 12:41, which is when the last one runs on Saturday nights. I was keeping up with this exceptionally well, until it came time to actually leave. And then the D’s invited me to go “gay it up” with them at a bar in Clapham.

I tried to protest. Really, I shouldn’t, I told them. A big night out like that wasn’t really in the budget for me, not to mention a cab ride home.

“It’ll be so much fun,” insisted D 2.
“You’ll stay at mine,” commanded D 1. "When will you get a chance to do this again?”

He had a point there. It’s not like I’m getting any younger here, and Saturday nights out dancing with fabulous gay Londoners is not the sort of thing one gets to do too often.

So half an hour later, D 1, D 2, their friend “Sweetie”(yes, that’s actually her name) and myself were boogieing up a storm, and my god it was fun. It's been a long time since a night out at Stereo in Montreal, and I’d forgotten the total feeling of bliss of being able to shake your booty amidst so many happy, smiling men without once worrying about what they might think of you. Not to mention how friendly and delightful so many of them were, and excellent dancers of course. The music couldn’t be topped – ABBA, Madonna, the BeeGees and hands-in-the-air house. They even played – yes!- the theme song from Xanadu. It does not, ladies and gentlemen, get any better than that.

We closed the evening with fried chicken, which we shared with our cab driver on the way back to D 1’s house. (The English like to put an “s” on the end of any name as a sort of nickname thing. For example, I often get called “Nats”, and Tegan “Teegs”. This still didn’t stop me from giggling in the back seat all the way as the three of them kept piping up “Drives, could you turn up the tunes, please,” and “Turn right here, Drives.”)

And even though I had to do the walk – okay, make that the hobble – of shame home in the bright light of Sunday morning, accoutrements in one hand and Queer as Folk DVDs borrowed from D 1 in the other, I found myself hoping I would get the chance to do it again. And hopefully, soon.

Take it away, Olivia.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Just Smile and Give Them a Vegemite Sandwich

I have to admit I never really got that whole thing about the meek inheriting the earth. But I have no doubts as to who’s going to inherit Europe. That, my friends, will be the Australians.

They’re everywhere. No, I mean really, everywhere. Anyone who’s backpacked in Europe knows that you generally meet more Australians than anyone else, no matter if you’re in the depths of a medieval dungeon or on the top floor of the chichi-est shopping plaza. The sheer numbers of them are overwhelming, and I know I’m not the first to ask, but I really want to know: are there any actually left in Australia?

I stayed in Prague for 6 nights during the start of my travels and for 6 nights they filed, continuously, in and out of my hostel room, until I started stopped saying “hello” completely and just said “g’day”. Here in London, I live with six of them. Not that that makes me an authority, but as the sole non-Australian in the household, I think it’s fair to say I’ve made a few interesting observations.

I would never lump all Australians into one category, nor would I dis the Ozzie race – far from it. They come in all shapes, sizes and varieties, and if you’re going to grant them any general characteristics, they’d have to be: easygoing, fun, and full of a joie de vivre that could only originate from a place where 21 degrees is wintertime. As it comes time for me to move out of Little Australia, though, I feel I should shed a little light on the strange habits I’ve observed after spending with these folks from down under.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way right off the bat: yes, they can drink. My god, can they ever. I think that to your average Ozzie, beer is kind of like oxygen – they simply take it in out of sheer necessity and don’t really consider an alternative. Occasionally they drink other things, like wine. But the beer inevitably returns. And so, they have tolerances like cement trucks, leaving yours truly well out of the running when it comes to a night out.

They also seem to be curiously shameless about being seen in public in only their underwear. I am referring to male Australians at the moment as I’m not sure if this applies to the women, but I think overall it must have something to do with spending the majority of their lifetimes in their togs/bathers/cozzies (swimsuits), being healthy and bronzed and, in general, annoyingly good-looking. I’m not talking just boxers here by the way folks: briefs, shorts, tighty-whities – the Aussie has no shame.

Getting back to the different ways of saying things, spend some time with an Australian and it will become clear to you that living that far away from the rest of the English-speaking world has obviously done a number on their language. I can’t count the number of times I’ve stopped dead in the street while talking to my roommate Tegan, whether out of sheer confusion or simply not being able to stand up because I’m laughing so hard. We once made an omlette and our cheese went “walkabouts”. Her handbag is heavy from carrying too much “shrappy”, so we have to go to an “F-Pos” to get out some money. We have to have a "D & M", but we need to get a good “pozzie” when we go to a restaurant, and make sure the salad has no “capsicum”. But if it does, it’s not much of a muchness. She won’t cark it, she just doesn’t like them. Uh huh.

Every single Australian I’ve met (and I’m open to any and all comments on this matter) is also curiously partial to spray deodorant. I don’t know about you but I thought that stuff was outlawed in the eighties with acid rain and acid wash jeans. But they all have a bottle, the Australians, and they all use a healthy dose of it every single morning. No one’s complaining about nice-smelling friends but it’s a bit difficult to be lying in your bed at 7am, still recovering from having tried (and failed) to keep up with them the night before, and then suddenly gasping from the “Ocean Breeze” that’s just filtered through your covers. Not the best hangover cure, I’ve found.

So I will shortly be saying farewell to my Australian flat, and may I just say thank god. But that’s because it was dark, old, musty, dirty, cramped, horrible, and alternated between freezer and sauna-like on any given weekday morning – not because it was Australian. As a testament to this I will be bringing one Ozzie with me: the famous Tegan, who I met, believe it or not, in a hostel room in Athens four big months ago. She was my lifesaver then and still is now, whether in underpants or fully clothed. And she always smells good.

(Post-D&M photo courtesy of Ben Stix)