Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Tour guide vs. Tourist: The ultimate face-off

“You’re too loud!” A man’s nylon-enshrouded arm waved for my attention, for everyone’s attention. He looked miserable.

He sat among rows of over-prepared tourists, all wearing shoes so sensible they had no place in London. Some were shod with hiking boots. Others with bulbous white trainers, the sort resembling miniature cruise liners on each foot, which is, I suspect, their natural environment. But we were on an open-top tour bus in the centre of London, not the Alps or a 14-day cruise to the Bahamas, though a few wore the T-shirts.

Somehow in a sea of immigration and unparalleled diversity, amid faces and accents of all hues and tones, these tourists still managed to concoct a look that said: We don’t belong here.

Looking back at the still-waving man, I paused, microphone in hand, to assess the situation. He locked bespectacled eyes with mine and crumpled his face like he had a migraine that was entirely my doing. This one’s a problem, I thought – my first delinquent passenger as a new London tour guide.

Perhaps I could have ignored him, had I tried harder. But when I continued to speak, he looked at me like my voice was a busted sewer pipe; like my tour was a test-run for a new method of psychological torture; or, like I was his estranged wife who’d just informed him I’d not only be taking the dog, but the house on the lake as well.

As a tour guide in London during high season, it helps to have a thick skin. Since I don’t have one, I cope in other ways. I see my job as a sit-com, and I’m the main character. The concept offers the false sense of security I need, that everything will work out by the end and I will glean some useful lesson from each episode no matter how cringe-worthy. Each antagonist is carefully chosen for comic value. In this episode, I’d apparently acquired a failing marriage.

Following their father’s lead, the children, swathed in beige safari gear, covered their ears with their hands. Their bony arms akimbo made for pointy elbows in the faces of nearby passengers. The boy moaned and rocked a little. If my voice inflicted as much pain on him as it seemed, I hope the poor child never gets a paper cut. He’d have to be euthanized.

“Maybe you could take it easy and stop talking for a while,” the condescending husband character suggested, gesturing at our suffering offspring, as though it was a perfectly reasonable thing to ask. “You’re talking a lot.”

But I’m a tour guide. Sixty-five passengers, including this man, paid me to talk for two hours straight, from Westminster Abbey to Tower Bridge, and now his issues wanted me to stop. “There’s a public bus that follows the same route and costs ten times less,” I thought, but didn’t say. “And isn’t the commentary the entire point of a sightseeing tour?” I didn’t say either.

Instead, I covered my microphone with my hand and managed a much more discreet, “I’m sorry sir, but these people are expecting me to tell them about London.” I gestured at the other passengers who were polite enough to busy themselves with a statue of a horse. Incensed, he stood, rolled his eyes and took a different seat. My seat. The one reserved for the tour guide.  He was now close enough to make me fear the episode might receive an R-rating, if not for intimate touching, then for the rage I might unleash if he continued to play his role so convincingly.

While leading a tour I usually stand, so I didn’t actually need my seat, but I did wonder why he wanted to be closer to the apparent source of his misery. The answer became immediately clear – now I could hear him, too.

In close proximity, he met my every historical fact with a cluck, every anecdote with a huff. The children writhed in pantomime pain just a few seats ahead. Exacting their powers of peripheral observation, they regularly checked for their father’s approval and got the exact opposite from me. Objectively, I must say the scene was impressive. The children’s belts were cinched so tightly and the chinstraps of their sun hats so taut, that their relative range of motion showed real dedication to the cause. If practice makes perfect, I see a future in Japanese bondage for these two.

Hyde Park, Queen Victoria, Marble Arch, I rambled on in the face of adversity. But my mutinous sit-com family was contending for a Golden Globe. My passengers, the live studio audience, were now fixated on this subplot rather than London. A few kindly shot me glances of solidarity. Everyone else shot me looks saying, “I’m so very glad I’m not you.” My studio husband just wanted me shot. I couldn’t wait to be rid of this man and his two snivelling protégés.

With no amicable end to the arrangement in sight, as the bus pulled over to collect more passengers, I had no choice but to start the proceedings. “This is your stop,” I said directly to the man, and I meant it more than I’d ever meant it before. In retaliation he unleashed an expression of unbridled disgust to match my squinty face of disapproval. Following a brief, but intense stare-off, the father finally resolved to add me to his list of failed relationships. He cast a look so final and so clear, I knew exactly what he was saying. “Fine,” said the look. “You can have the dog and the goddamned house. But I’m taking the kids.”

Directing audience attention away as he arranged his things and prepared to leave me – children, backpacks, snack packs, water bottles, camera, map and suntan lotion – I pointed out the Bob Forstner car showroom, because no one can resist a Lamborghini. It was the perfect location for a scene change.

When the bus pulled away from the stop, I looked down at the sidewalk and watched the disgruntled, neurotic triumvirate shrink into the distance, becoming nary more than a tiny beige smudge in a crowd of otherwise pleasant tourists. In this moment I realized I might never see the family again. And with that came relief.

I never wanted those kids anyway.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Wild England

I’ll admit I was expecting some trees. Camping would be the perfect break from the cacophony of London, I needed – respite from the queues, the cost and the constant threat of pickpockets and train delays.

For the peace of the countryside, I was willing to incur a few itchy welts and fall slack with my hygiene. From my tent in the shadow of the trees, I would mistake the sound of the wind for traffic, and the buzz of mosquitoes for shit electronica reverberating through from the neighbour's flat. But then I would awake to my refreshing new reality in the countryside. And I would take a long, deep breath of clean country air and smile contentedly – completely relaxed and rejuvenated. There would be little to do, other than play cards in the dancing orange light around the campfire, and perhaps cool our beer in the frigid North Atlantic sand.

I had no idea what I was in for, but driving through a military weapons test site on the way to the campground was the first sign I wasn’t going to get the peace I’d been expecting.

Camping in England is as dissimilar to camping in Canada as our respective versions of football. The only wild creatures at our campsite in Durdle Door, near Poole, were feral children and mothers who ran madly among the tents scream-crying, “Where’s my baby!?”. Fortunately, every tent was within earshot of all others, so their children were usually located fairly quickly, which meant the fathers could stop cursing and the mothers would stop hyperventilating and they could get back to bickering about whose responsibility it is to watch the kids. Teenagers roamed in small packs, hunting stray beer and tentatively stalking each other’s elusive virginities.

Rows and rows of beige and tan rectangles lined the paved, speed-bumped streets of the campground, surrounding the small field designated for tents. To get there, we walked a gauntlet of beady eyes, peering out through white lace curtains, belonging to old ladies, Shih-Tzus and toy terriers. All capable of terrible yapping should anyone stumble onto their perfectly manicured territory, too near the potted mums, pansies and plastic ornaments. In England, this is a campground. In Canada, we call the phenomenon a trailer park. Nowhere else would you see so many white shoes outside a retirement home.

Our tent overlooked two trailers, a few parked cars and a beautiful valley dotted with grazing sheep. There would be no campfire, I realized, but not because we risked inadvertently starting a forest fire – there were no trees in sight – but because we couldn’t risk ruining the grass. We didn’t need a flashlight, because even on cloudy nights, the streetlamp next to our pitch provided all the light we needed.

There was no wilderness, but nature made itself known. It rained from all directions. The wind blew in with gusto, sucking out our slack tent walls and snapping them back with twice the enthusiasm. Camping in Canada, I thought, trees would provide some shelter from the weather. Camping in England, I could just walk to the campsite pub, next to the shop if I wanted shelter. Not only did the pub offer cold pints and a quiz machine, but full English breakfast and steamy lattes in the mornings.

When I realized waiting out the storm in a pub was an option, I also realized the campsite was more populated than my Canadian hometown. My parents still live there, where there are so few people, a general store is barely viable. They drive fifteen minutes to the nearest town to find a meat selection like the one at this campsite. Where I’m from, most of the meat is still running wild in the forest.

I really thought that in heading to the English coast for camping, I’d be getting away from it all. Relatively I was. London offers everything you could ever want, and everything you definitely don’t – Buckingham Palace and council estates, multiculturalism in the streets and people under trains, orderly queues and regular stabbings. Fame and misfortune. London has it all.

At Durdle Door, our campsite, things were simple. Only lattes, cold cans of beer, salty ocean water, and beautiful coastline could be found, all within a two-minute saunter. Even the sun made an appearance eventually, and long enough to sear my pale, deprived pins. It didn’t matter that camping in England wasn’t like camping in Canada. Nothing in England is like Canada. That’s the point of travelling. I reminded myself of this as I passed a yard sale on my way to the pub.

Still, I longed for the smell of wood smoke to permeate my belongings, for sparks to char and scar my hooded sweatshirt and for pinesap to ruin the seat of my jeans. I wanted to worry about real animals – bears, coyotes, skunks and raccoons – rather than suburban foxes stealing our Mediterranean olive assortment and feral teenagers stealing our beer.

But instead of worrying away the days of our trailer park residency, I sipped my coveted latte and took a really good look at my welt-free self. Breathing deeply, I let the aura of freshly mown grass and sun-warmed pavement fill me with the sense of summer, and I accepted the beautiful absurdity of camping in England. Because with all the authenticity it seemed to lack, it also lacked mosquitoes.

As the sun sets over the trailers, here I am making delicious kebabs to cook on the bucket barbecue. The entire camping experience was made possible by friends who organized basically everything, and the entire reason we had a nice time. They also took this picture.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Sacrificial Lime

"THIS is the way to cut a lime," condescended the bar owner, eyeing me with one brow lowered for dramatic affect. His manicured fingers held the tiny off-season fruit to the cutting board where it awaited slaughter, while I played along to avoid my own. His fingers were clustered together, precariously balanced, like a trained elephant on a circus ball. Then he confiscated my knife and, waving it in the air, commanded me to watch while he gracelessly hacked uneven bits from the poor, unsuspecting lime.

"See, you must always cut away from your fingers," he instructed. "I don't want to be paying any hospital bills because you don't know how to cut a lime properly." My mind went to my predecessor who can no longer work due to a decorative cherub having fallen on her head and cracking her skull, and to my co-workers who were presently climbing a 12-foot swinging gate to secure a tarp for the smoking section, and of those trying not to drop the propane tanks while carrying them from the shed to the garden heaters. And of the tiny, barely visible cuts all over my hands from shards of broken bar glass and my general level of exhaustion from working double shifts, back-to-back as standard.

"This one's no good," he declared after a few failed slices with all the conviction of Henry the VIII, snapping me back to the morning's lesson. He plucked another from the bowl. Maybe trying to avoid the senseless loss of its own life, the second lime rolled free of the cutting board and wobbled off down the bar. Only when the third lime lay splayed and visibly suffering before me, did the owner throw the knife in my direction and walk off. "This is your job, I don't have time for this. Ask the chef to show you."

Ignoring the sting of citrus in my cuts, while the owner was off doing more important things in the office, I sliced the limes carefully and evenly as I've always done. But this time I tried to do it a lot faster, so I could finish before he came back.

If I learned any lesson, it wasn't the one he'd intended.

Monday, March 22, 2010

I, hypocrite

In precisely seven days, I will commit the most hypocritical act of my lifetime. Only my short stint as a member of a Pentecostal youth cult, or as a groupie with my CK model boy toy and his reality TV friends one hot New York summer, can begin to compare. And if the outcomes of those little episodes are any indication of how this latest hypocrisy will go, it won’t be long before I’m exposed as a complete fraud looking for a good story.

I’m applying to become a London tour guide.

She-who-rates-London-with-drain-sludge could be leading gaggles of enthusiastic Germans, Japanese and American high school students through its filthy streets by summer.

While I’m not exactly sure what sort of questions I’ll be asked in the interview, as long as I’m not asked if I 'heart' London, I figure I can muster up some answers. If they like me, I’ll be invited along to the training and trial stage of the process. I’m assuming my lack of knowledge beyond Jack the Ripper, plague and fire, and how-to-queue-without-getting-clucked-at will be answered with a basic training guide I can surely memorize for the benefit of my passengers.

Should I make it through and actually be hired as a guide with this renowned company, it will be my mission to help people enjoy their time in London as much as possible during the weekend they’ve booked here. A weekend, after all, isn’t long enough to worry that the BNP might win more seats for racists in the upcoming election; that London gangs are now using dogs as well as knives as weapons; that journalistic integrity is traded for sports, tits and celebrity affairs; that sexism thrives on a level not seen in urban North America since the era of Mad Men; that it can be difficult to find coffee before 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning anywhere but McDonald’s; or that alcoholism is so standard that, as a bartender, I’ve regularly served crane operators two pints before noon. The credit crunch happened, by the way, while the old boys sucked back Guinness at City pubs. I’m privy to all this, because bartending was the only job my degree in Public Relations could get me at the time.

No, I’ll just show people the gritty and glorious bits of London’s history. As a guide, it would be my duty to squeeze every last drop of goodness out of London and lovingly deliver it to my passengers to take back home with them.

Not for love of the city, but maybe for spite.

This is a sign in Alexandra Park, near Muswell Hill. It's a more affluent area and experiences different dangers than places like, say, Brixton.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Sweeter than others

Still half asleep, I’d never have made it to the fridge if not for being so hungry I’d dreamt of barbecuing the cat. I’ve been working long hours, and more specifically, all the hours that stores selling food are open, so groceries have been left up to my boyfriend and otherwise spectacular life partner.

While our friend Sam describes him as having ‘the palate of a five-year-old’ what with his penchant for fizzy drinks, sweets and American fast food for more than the novelty of it, he’s been making some remarkable Jamie Oliver-esque developments in the kitchen.

As often as I’ve eaten his signature honey chicken salad and his egg and salami scramble, I never tire of the cacophony of flavours in these would-be simple dishes – flavours and textures only a novice or mad genius would dare combine. Maybe not the fried cucumber with eggs, but everything else.

When I first met him, there was little more in his fridge to eat than shrivelled cocktail sausages and Sainsbury salad bar assortments with far too much sweet corn and beetroot for my Canadian-ness. It was the gummy candy and chocolate raisins he kept at the bedside that sustained me. He was too busy having fun, he explained, to worry about food. Food and fun, I continue to argue, are not mutually exclusive. Sweets are always fun, he’ll compromise, except when you eat too many at once. Though my mother’s voice screams in my head, I don’t let her out of my mouth. Sweets aren’t food. I know, Mom. I know. Or are they?

This morning, I was especially looking forward to making myself some buttery morning eggs. And considering how long we’ve been living together now, and how well I know him, it wasn’t unreasonable for me to think my boyfriend would have stocked up the ingredients. I remembered seeing some a few days back, a six-pack of free-range organic British-bred eggs, or freedom food, or happy healthy democratic holistic eggs, or whatever they call them here.

And when I opened the fridge door, I scanned the shelves with my blurry morning vision and indeed found a six-pack of eggs. And just then I realised how little I’ve been around since I started this new job and these long hours, and just how much my boyfriend’s been left to his own devices, and how sweet he really is. For these eggs, all six, were of the Cadbury cream variety.

He knows they’re my favourite.

This is a perfect relationship, and another dish we agree on: Bananas and milk chocolate on the barbecue. If you come over to our place this spring in London, we'll make some for you.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Wish you were here

This morning in London, I leaned back in my patio chair, facing the sun with my eyes closed, rolled my pyjama pants up to my knees and let myself pretend I was in Montreal in springtime.

The sound of traffic drove me closer, because the last home I had in Montreal was on Avenue du Parc, a main thoroughfare just barely north of the city’s answer for Central Park, and by the same designer – Parc Mont-Royal. Its fields and wood served as a local reserve for raccoons, birds, itinerant campers and, on Sundays, barefoot drumming neo-hippies, pseudo-Rastafari, real drug dealers, and medieval troops prepared to reenact battle with an improvised armory of cardboard, plastic and foam, held together with duct tape. The battles, set in a muddy clearing, never fail to draw a crowd. It’s like watching a live scene from Life of Brian, or witnessing the manifestation of a major fault in our collective genetic make up.

Of course we’d only wander there after a breakfast of bitter coffee and a version of eggs Benedict concocted by someone who’s apparently never eaten it before, who happens to be the ornery owner, chef and sole waiter of the oddly busy cafe. Refills are free, but we’d go behind the counter into the small kitchen to get them ourselves. Otherwise, we’d be accused of being inconsiderate for not noticing he’s busy, and as lazy for not taking the initiative to pour a simple cup of coffee. That, he’d say, is the problem with people these days. I don’t remember the name of the place, because we called it Oo-veet, or the rough pronunciation of a neon OUVERT sign with a few of the letters burnt out.

Then, because the coffee would be unsatisfactory, we’d wander down the same road into the hub and heart of Mile End, to Café Olimpico. Veterans call it Open Da Night, again thanks to a trend in the neighbourhood, of not replacing bulbs in illuminated signage. It was meant to be informative, Open Day and Night. There, we’d trade a raunchy joke with the staff and order a latte, the undisputed best in the city. We’d find a spot in the sun, somewhere between a few members of Arcade Fire and tens of up-and-comers, and that wouldn’t make it different from any other day. If we’d be lucky, our friend Domenico Ciccarelli would stop by, and we’d get to say his name.

By then it might be time for a dog walk, through the wet streets of the Plateau and muddy trails of Mont-Royal or Parc Lafontaine, soggy from the melting snow. We’d buy some Belle Guelle pilsner at a corner store – ‘dep’ by local vernacular – and sit on the plastic bag it came in, somewhere on the grass in the sun. We’d stay until we got too cold to be comfortable, and reluctantly leave to fire up my hibachi on our friend’s balcony, where her boyfriend would talk about his bands, Drunken Dru and Metallian, and maybe play guitar. The barbecued meat would be over or undercooked, and entirely delicious. The process would drive us all to drool, only slightly more, the dog.

Walking home, we’d pass people still out, heading to a friend’s DJ night or chatting in the streets, stretching out the day well into da night. And best of all, the ‘we’ would be my best friends and all their beautiful quirks. As quirky and full of life and coffee as the city we lived in.

Here we are at some weird arty promo thing in a park, not looking our best, which is something we were very good at.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Sweet and unsavoury

I'm in an abusive relationship. Maybe it's because she keeps give-give-giving and I keep take-take-taking and running off to other people, or it could be something else entirely, but her hatred for me is as well seasoned and pungent as her award-winning cooking. Whatever it is, I'm willing to put up with it for the money.

When I applied for the job, I thought I'd be bartending again. Same as before, but with more hours and mandatory tipping. The owner interviewed me himself before putting me forward for a busy trial shift where I ran through the hugely popular pub-restaurant collecting glasses and generally demonstrating that working hard and being told what to do won't make me cry. Of three that night, I was the only one to make it.

What I didn't realize is that I'd be going back on a promise I'd made myself ages ago – that I'd never be a waitress, because I've heard about temperamental chefs, and they have all the knives. But when the front bar's not as busy as the restaurant, I'm sent straight into hell's kitchen, to run gourmet versions of pub fare from the fire to the famine.

And it's hard. Really, really hard to serve food with a smile while the new asshole I've just been torn is still gaping. Certainly, there's a bright side. For, if these rectal wounds don't kill me, they're certainly make me stronger. 'Stronger' sounds a lot like 'strangle her', doesn't it?

Anyway, I know she's only mean to me because I'm new, and there are a few lessons I've got learn. Mostly, it's that my name is 'Missy' or 'Luv', said so saccharine it's meant to dissolve first my teeth, then all my bones, because my existence is the reason she's never found happiness. That, and I'm probably mentally compromised.

If this is anything like grade school, I'm thinking that if I keep ignoring her, she'll get bored and bully someone else. Gourmet or not, that woman's got some serious fish and chips on her shoulder. And if she's not careful, she's going to get some gum in her hair.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

New year, new career and 40 virgins

I should have known something was up when I got an immediate call-back. Job hunting just hasn't been that easy in London.

Until now, call-backs only ever came for jobs typically set aside for immigrants like me, read: pubs, call-centres and fundraising schemes. Or there'd be some catch. Like the Z-list celebrity entrepreneur who hired me as a Marketing Assistant, and turned out to have a Jesus-complex, only a really scary sort of Jesus. The kind that intends to change the world based on a plan developed while taking LSD in Los Angeles. Come to think of it, it was more like a Koresh-complex. Anyway, I quit.

Or the Notting Hill club and All Star Bowling Lanes owner who interviewed me to be his personal assistant, but didn't hire me on account of my insistence on wearing clothes while at work.

But it's a new year, and after a nice six-week respite in Canada, I was determined to return to London with a fresh perspective. I'd no longer see it as a damp, soul-sucking metropolis with a relationship to nature limited to consuming free range organic meat and eggs, that banishes its population to at least 90 minutes in smoggy underground chambers per day. No, I'd see it as the city of endless opportunity and free galleries, steeped in rich tradition.

So I updated my CV, started applying for jobs, and got an immediate call-back. Maybe it was true. Maybe the credit crunch was on the wane. When I arrived for my interview with the marketing firm the next day, the waiting room was crawling with wired, young suited hopefuls. Fifty. I counted. It was what would be the beginning of two full days of interviewing – a veritable competition for the coveted title, Employed.

The firm handled direct marketing campaigns, and they were looking for managers to lead their teams of front-line workers – the immigrants and new graduates lucky to have pretty enough faces to land shitty promo jobs. That used to be me. I was looking forward to leaving it all behind, to making a fresh new step into the communications and marketing world in London.

The pitch was fantastic. I bought it. I ate it. I got up at 7 AM and paid £9 to follow a street team to a London suburb to see it in action. I completed four writing tasks and quizzes on marketing and strategy to prove what I know. And I thought because I passed them all with flying colours, at the end of the day, my Kiwi interviewer invited me to the final assessment.

But first, they needed to know I was ready to commit myself fully to the company. We want you to know the company inside and out, said my interviewer, so you see why it's important to start from the ground up.

I looked at the sales booth and began to shrink inside the corporate casual outfit I'd so carefully chosen the night before. You'll be learning about direct marketing by doing, she said. I'd be peddling make-up in shopping centres, she meant. But the harder you work, the faster you'll advance to the next level. I'd be a peddler, just a little higher in the pyramid. And then when you're ready you'll be a team leader, and when you reach the top you'll manage an entire division, earning £75,000. I wondered if there were also 40 virgins awaiting in this paradise. Then she said something about 12-hour days, 6-day weeks and endless training sessions. And of course your earnings are entirely commission-based.

Two hours by train away from home, two days of interviews.

But there is excellent earning potential.
She said it with a little less confidence. My pretty enough face isn't good at hiding emotions, and this variety was pretty obscene. I didn't lie to you. And she didn't. When I asked about salary, she'd said 'earnings'. She didn't lie, she tricked me. I fell for it, and I felt really, really stupid.

She looked nearly as sad as I did while I packed up my things to leave, but I won't fool myself into thinking it was because she liked me. I was part of her commission.

So I'm working in a pub again.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Where have I been?

Not in London, that's for sure. But I'm back now. And how do I know that? By the black goo in my nostrils, of course.

This is home. Nova Scotia, Canada. The air's pretty clear out there.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Babes in Publand

Although the novelty of working at a traditional English boozer hadn’t yet worn off, it was still nice to spruce things up a little for the holiday season.

Nothing about the pub but the staff had changed according to one octogenarian, for at least the forty years since he’d last stopped in for a cheeky pint, and I’m sure that’s true. The woodwork is dark and sturdy, the floor is staggeringly uneven, and the regulars are as eternally linked to the premises as its ghosts.

The bi-worldly clientele is dictated by virtue of location – on top of a ‘plague pit’, built on bubonic bones, and in the heart of London’s financial district, built a little less literally on capitalism’s collateral damage.

Perhaps it’s knowledge of this that prevents English locals from signing on as staff, leaving it to be manned by the more adventurous, albeit itinerant members of the Commonwealth – South Africans, Australians and Canadians – but more likely it’s the pay. Even in my three-month career in bar-wenching, I’ve seen a lot of turnover, and I suspect even a ghost or two.

The allure of minimum wage in a city where tipping is considered an American folly – and getting to and from work with a coffee’ll set you back a third of a Monday’s earnings – rapidly wears thinner than the charm of a stock broker on coke. If not for the rare, but much appreciated exceptions to this rule – and lunch on the house – it’d have been a Dickensian Christmas indeed.

Thankfully, if any stereotype about Australians is true – because I’ve been divulged a key secret of the inner circle, that much of the blonde is bottled – it’s their ability to make fun happen in even the most hostile of environments, and so my co-wenches broke out the Christmas decorations. It’s in this sort of resilience and resourcefulness that, as a rural Canadian, I feel a kinship with Australians; though if anything’s to set us apart, it’s the details of our experiences.

Amid strings of lights, shiny balls and stockings tagged with names matching those surreptitiously scribbled by staff on the walls behind the bar alongside dates of service, were clumps of green fir boughs. I imagined the boughs atop the old wooden mantle over the defunct fireplace, like my mother’s always done on the mantles at our old seaside home in Nova Scotia.

Wanting to pitch in, and give my biceps a break from pumping flat pints of tea-coloured ale, I began untangling boughs from the clumps I’d found them in, but found it a nearly impossible task – they all seemed to be fused together, each clump slightly bigger than the last.

“Ugh!” I complained to my Australian friend on staff, grabbing another stubborn tangle of boughs for emphasis, “Why are there three big clumps of these things?”

She stared me down, long enough to establish that I was completely serious, and then said in a tone suggesting both pity and mockery, something that made me realize just how far from home we both were in that old English pub.

“You don’t have artificial trees in Canada, do you?”

The English Pub, originally uploaded by Dougerino.