Monday, May 25, 2009

YouTube envy on the Northern Line

I live with two of the most creative people in London. Or rather, two of the most creative people in London are letting me loiter in their home, pending a more permanent living arrangement and employment, in exchange for not being a pain in the ass, restocking the toilet roll, and sleeping with one of them.

It's OK, he's my boyfriend.

Among the many perks of living here, including regular sex, is a sunny back garden. Oh, and bearing witness to the creative processes of a talented resident musician, through the bits of genius that seep out from under the door of his studio.

While the production of this – the most mainstream of his side projects – was initially top-secret, I was able to memorise a good block of the lyrics before the trio went public with the Google Maps-inspired song and video. And it went very public. The whole thing's gone viral since. It's been blogged about by The Guardian, covered by BBC TV, and it made the front page of The Metro, a free London daily with a readership of over 1 million.

What really speaks for the mini-project's success is not its tally of more than 10,000 views on YouTube, or the fact that it's approved for sale on Amazon and iTunes, but rather the ever-expanding following of people dedicating time and effort to slagging it off, and complete strangers coming to its defence.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Who's full of what?

"London's changed so much," lamented the roast beef-hued elderly Englishman beside the pool. His kindly, obese wife reclined next to him, bobbing her head in agreement. She was one of the few women at the resort to conceal her mountainous breasts from the sun. For the purpose of conversation, I was grateful. It's not that I'm offended by the human form, but heaps of oiled, cascading flesh is nothing short of completely distracting for my relatively conservative Canadian sensibilities.

"I hate to say it," he continued, "but it's full of immigrants now". It was the second time he'd said it. I wondered which time he hated saying it more.

I thought about how any friendly banter I've had in London has been with the immigrant population and how in contrast, the English had for the most part successfully avoided me. Then I thought about the Canadian jokes I've endured, all involving some mispronunciation of 'about' and using 'eh' as a suffix for everything, and finally, pretending to mistake me for an American and expecting me to be offended. Usually in that order.

"I'm an immigrant," I said. Sure my great-grandparents emigrated to the United States, then to Canada and then I emigrated back to England, but that just makes me an immigrant to the power of three.

The rest of my family was from Poland – a group particularly disliked in England – but I like to wait until someone says something disparaging specifically about the Polish before mentioning that portion of my DNA. It's a weak sucker punch, but a jab all the same.

The Englishman stuttered and rubbed his hands together before clarifying, "Well, we don't mean people like you."

People like me. Outspoken, agnostic, half-Polish liberal humanist environmentalists from a nation built on immigration, and one of the world's most successfully integrated multicultural cities, Montreal? Or white, English-speakers from the Commonwealth?

Three months since my emigration to London, I'd finally settled in enough to want to get the hell out. So, my boyfriend and I decided to celebrate the occasion with a super cheap 4-hour flight to Cyprus – a hot, dry island flooded with English ex-pats. Seven days on the coast in Paphos and save for the service staff, there were no obvious signs of Greek Cypriot life anywhere – just traditional English breakfast, pendulous English breasts keeping time with the sun on the beach, and daily papers flown in from London. I learned more about Pete and Katie Price than the local culture.

"Cyprus has changed so much," I imagine an elderly local lamenting simultaneously. "I hate to say it, but it's full of the English now."

This is me on Coral Beach in Paphos, Cyprus, feigning surprise after a Cypriot piƱa colada. That's my shark-master partner in crime in the reflection of my sunglasses. He's the reason I'm in this part of the world at all.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Morrissey

"If Morrissey doesn't throw a tantrum at least once tonight," I said again on the way to the Royal Albert Hall in London, "I'll be disappointed."

I meant it, too. He's notoriously temperamental and shit-fits are at least half his allure. A Morrissey gig without incident is like Mexico without machismo; like the Sixties without psilocybin; like Disney without dead mothers. And I wanted the full post-Smiths experience. If all went well, he'd be insulting me along with his thousands of adoring, pissed off fans. It was going to be sweet, and I was going to write home about it.

But I said it one too many times, and if manifest destiny played any part, I'm entirely to blame for what happened.

Always one to disappoint, Morrissey indeed threw his shit-fit, but long before we got there. He cancelled due to a "mysterious illness".

Mysterious = mental.

That's me outside the Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington, London, just moments after realising I got what I'd wished for.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

No duvets, pillows or desperation

Throughout London, there are signs and warnings indicating what not to do. It's the antithesis to Latin America, where you breathe, eat and sleep at your own risk, without warning of actual and imminent danger.

Some warnings I appreciate – keep left, look right – because I'm still new to the reversed flow of this culture. But others are universal common sense – basic warnings, and the privilege of a country where the most dangerous animals are knife-wielding children and my neighbours in Brixton.

I used to find it unsettling to think anyone needed to be reminded that there's wheat in Shredded Wheat, that children shouldn't play on scaffolding, and that old people can be slow. It bothered me that authorities express so little faith in the capacities of the kingdom's occupants that there are even expiry dates on fruit.

One morning, on my way to work, I came to understand the value of stating the obvious. No longer happy with my job – overwhelmed, exhausted, dissatisfied and numbed by ibuprofen – I read the warning on the hatch of a dank, dark charity drop-off bin along the way:

Do not enter.

And for a moment – faced with another day working for a motivational life coach with colossal and unrealistic expectations – I was thankful for this particular statement of the obvious, because I'd considered it.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

I survived my job with pills

When I told people I had a job, instead of asking me what it is I was doing, they'd just say, "Wow!"

I try not to take this personally. Jobs and sunshine are rumoured to be on short supply in London. To the general population, any job is now considered a good one, so long as it pays.

That's not been my experience though. It's been relatively sunny and warm since I arrived, and I've been working as a Marketing/PR Assistant for exactly a month – exactly the same amount of time I've been letting this blog slide. I feel guilty, so please let me explain how I've allowed this to happen.

The short version involves me popping ibuprofen like Skittles and fighting the urge to lie down on the office floor in the fetal position. I beleieve, in the animal kingdom, that's called "learned helplessness". It's what impalas do when they're tired of running from the lions.

The long version involves me working for the most intense person I've ever encountered – even more intense than the Zapatista rebels in balaclavas who interviewed me to decide whether to allow me onto their reclaimed land in southern Mexico. Even more intense than the Cuban officials who interrogated me for two hours to determine whether I was a literary threat to the state, or a sun-seeking booze hound. And even more intense than my mother while she's cooking Christmas dinner.

Intense. And just as committed to the cause.

In this new job – my first real job in England – I worked for a life coach, a Cambridge-educated psychologist, a BBC reality TV presenter, an ex-Playstation advertising executive, a serial entrepreneur and a leader of a social innovation movement that's meant to change the world. Normally, working with a team like that would thrill me. But it wasn't a team. It was one guy. One guy, and I was his one assistant.

I was the 666th person to enquire about the job. Looking back, that may have been the first sign of what would come. My first day was the second sign. Following a 5-minute briefing in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, I was to memorise a list of tongue-twisted jargon I was quite sure no one would grasp, in the time it took to walk across London Bridge to our meeting. Thirty-six days in the country and I was about to mingle with mid-level MPs and quasi-celebrities at a televised Channel 4 event. Basically, flirting for funding. Every key word I remembered to use elicited a similar, "Sorry?"

That's when I realised I'd jumped – head first into London, and slightly more metaphorically off the London Bridge.

Since then, I've done everything from copy editing a motivational manual, hiring and firing suppliers, re-branding a product two weeks before its launch, writing copy for everything and acting as a sounding board about the trials of being a new husband, new father and entrepreneur. It's been a challenging experience, not because anything I've had to do was difficult, but rather because it was not humanly possible to meet deadlines tighter than American Apparel leggings. And it's hard to admit I'm human.

Working for a professional life coach means emotional sharing is part of the job description. He arranged the seating so that we faced each other all day long, never more than a metre apart, to allow a free flow of 'energies' between us. Energy, in plural. Toward the end, my 'energies' started getting so thick, you could cut them with a metaphysical knife.

As a coach, he expected his motivational tactics to help me accomplish more and more each day. Soon, 12-hour days weren't enough to keep up. So on occasion, I'd try to get a couple of hours in before heading to work for 9:00, where I'd remain until at least 6:30.

But that was just the first problem. My boss wasn't just a coach, he was a psychologist, which means I also began feeling like an office case study. Then, I began having to squish my 'energies' over to make more room for the elephant ego in the room, as is to be expected when working with a successful ex-ad exec. Because he is a serial entrepreneur, everything should've been done already, and exactly the way he's always done it. Every passing second is a second farther away from the deadline: yesterday. And more than that, working for a TV presenter requires grinning and bearing it all, and looking pretty no matter what.

He is a self-proclaimed leader of a social innovation movement, and as this experience just confirmed, I'm still not much of a follower.

So yesterday, I cleared my head of London's favourite past-time – the favourite after looking at page-3 boobs in public, discussing celebrities like they're close relations, emotionally investing in football, worrying about getting the last Tube home before midnight, and recycling tired jokes about Canadian English – and that's recession fear-mongering. I cleared my head, and I resigned.

"I think I'm gonna "peace out"," is precisely what I said.

As soon as I did, I knew it was the right decision. My 'energies' were pissing him off anyway. But I learned a lot during that intense second month in London, including a bit of wisdom from my now former boss, and I am going to "imagine beyond my imagination" what to do next.

Right now, that involves an icy cold beer in a sunny backyard in North London.

This is what the air traffic-heavy sky looks like every day in London, whether you can see it through the clouds or not. Quite often I remember what it felt like to land in Heathrow for the first time, wondering what might be ahead. The love part's going well. The job part? I could use a little help.