Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Proustian Post Quatre

To all who have commented on past posts: I haven’t figured out how to respond to each comment individually, but I do appreciate them all. One thing though, if you’re using a pseudonym, let me know who you are!

Portobello Road Market vs. Camden Market: a probing comparison by a drenched amateur

So here it is: the hard-hitting comparison I’ve been storing to blow your sombreros off with until now. All very thoroughly researched through a triangulation of qualitative and quantitative methods, with all possible bias or subjectivity swept under the coffee table and many references to Foucault’s The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the College de France 1981-1982 and Latour’s Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies to add more pomp and gravitas. The result will be up to Foucault, Latour and YOU. In the words of Mr. Moran: Vote now for your favourite thing and you too, could win a thing.

Portobello Road Market is very classy and pretty, but so busy you are forced to spend longer contemplating antique toaster-handles than you ordinarily would. It is mainly antiques, produce stalls, vintage clothes, photos and prints and touristy bric-a-brac stalls. My favourite thing there wasn’t the London bus matchbox cars or the £50 diamante necklaces, but this:

At an intersection near the produce stalls, there was a bald old man sitting on a blue crate with a plump Jack Russell terrier lying across his shoulders. As I was walking by, he lifted up his styrofoam cup of coffee and, ever so gently, with all the relaxed confidence of a well-practiced routine that was not by any means too gag-inducing for the ogling, ambling masses, tipped it towards the dog’s lips. The dog took a few licks and then the man lowered the cup and had a few gulps himself. That little scene almost won Notting Hill the much-coveted ‘Cool and Eccentric Market of the Fortnight’ sash, but ultimately it was Camden Market that took out that particular title.

Camden Market (the street part)

Camden Market is much more sprawling and unexpected than Portobello Road. It has mass produced everything (along with one-off knick-knackery). It has shelves of multicoloured bongs and lego-man necklaces and fluro lyrca rave outfits and overpriced vintage dresses and space-invader print Doc Martens and narrow laneways with blue fairy lights and couches on the ceiling, and it smells of curry and coffee and chilli and strawberry crepes. Of course the God of intermittent rainfall and diagonal breezes (let’s call him Bernard) kept waving his rainy sceptre, so my umbrella was going up and down and inside out and into people’s temples for most of the day, but I still thought Camden Market deserved to have my ‘Rad Market of the Quarter’ badge pinned to its lapel (alongside the fortnightly sash).

Camden Bongs

Two Small Things

- Small thing #1: the apples here, without a dollop of exaggeration or embellishment, are all perfect 100% of the time. No dodgy Braeburns in London. No floury Pink Ladies. No worm-infested Royal Galas. Nothing but crisp, fizzy, juicy baubles of joy.

- Small thing #2: the buskers here, with possibly a teaspoon of exaggeration this time, are much more talented than the bizarre acts that clog up Devonshire St Tunnel and Circular Quay back home (a certain bell-ringing man in a donkey suit comes to mind). Kudos to the saxophonist playing Bésame Mucho at St Paul’s tube the other day.

One Hypocritical Observation

The slow-walking, video-camera swinging, tube-clogging masses of tourists everywhere get a bit much sometimes. Oxford Street is a bottleneck of teenagers. Portobello Road is full of Italians who don’t know to move out of the middle of the road when you’re having an arm-flailing discussion. Americans on the tube complain loudly about the old people hogging the seats. I roll my eyes when I see someone taking a photo of the BT tower, but as I squirm my way through every congested sidewalk, I realise that I am part of the problem.

A Sweet-Potato Wedge of Comedy

I’ve been to a fair few comedy evenings since I’ve been here and they’ve all been fantastic. Surreal, over-the-top, full of silly voices and conveyor belts of UK accents. The Pleasance Theatre (http://www.pleasance.co.uk/islington) in Islington, apart from being a warm and aesthetically pleasing venue in itself (full of black-framed photos, bright and silly posters; vintage lounges, wooden staircases and well-clad individuals), hosted ‘Sketchatron’ on April 11, and there were three comedy duos I will now be following closely. Tommy and the Weeks are witty and silly and deliciously inappropriate, Dmitry and Vassily do impressive improv in flawless Russian accents, and Colin and Fergus take up where Monty Python left off (and, even better, they build on it). I remember one line by Fergus, who introduced his partner with a dead-pan staccato voice like John Cleese in ‘authoritarian’ mode: “I’ve been married twice. This is my wife Sarah, who is quiet and clean. Then there is my ex-wife Philippa, who is beautiful… and died.”

Some of these duos are bound to be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August, which is grand, because I am bound to be there too.

My Scandinavian Friend

About 1 minute’s walk from the Fitzrovia Flat, tucked away under a floral-print doona on quiet Great Titchfield Street, is a little place with bright red walls and Danish sweets that serves THE BEST COFFEE IN LONDON. They use Monmouth Coffee beans and they have soy milk. Their coffee mugs, instead of having ‘traditional’ handles, have these round protuberances shaped like a coffee tamp (or a motorbike handle, for those of you who didn’t spend too much of your lives practicing the subtle art of barista-ing and hence are happily unacquainted with coffee tamps). It’s called Scandinavian Kitchen and the blackboard out the front has a daily Danish quip (like ‘It’s Viking Good’. I didn’t say they were clever quips…). The other day when I was in there, they were playing Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising. It didn’t really ‘fit’ amongst the assorted Scandinavian sweets, breads and cheeses, but Mr. Springsteen’s voice reminds me of my Dad, so that was the icing on the triple-layer chocolate truffle cake.

The Scandinavian Kitchen

Coming up in Proustian Post Cinq: The move from Fitzrovia to Hackney.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

London Cobblestones

Nancy Drew and the Mystery of the Missing Dishes

When I arrived at 'the flat that hygiene forgot' here in Fitzrovia (not Covent Garden, as I originally thought), I noticed the dearth of basic kitchen necessities. A quick survey uncovered 2 mugs, 4 bowls, 1 scotch glass, 1 rusty apple-peeler, 3 plates and 1 cherub corkscrew (with the screw coming from somewhere decidedly un-cherub-like). Along with the unpredictable cutlery drawer ('Will there be any spoons this morning? Or will I eat my cereal with a fork?'), my groceries kept disappearing as well.

Considering Hannah was never at home, and Peter left for Canada a week into my stay, that left one possible suspect: the remaining flatmate, Peter the second. He seemed quite nice until he pulled off his mask Scooby-Doo style and revealed himself as the dish-hoarding chain-smoker from the seventh level of hell. That sounds a bit harsh, but read on...

After I revealed to Hannah his predilection for grazing upon my groceries and his tendency to buzz in at 3.30am after losing his keys, she wrote what I could only suspect to be a rather sternly-worded note (signed from the both of us, though I am still uncertain of its precise content) and slid it under his door.

The next day when I came home, the missing kitchen necessities had materialised on every available benchtop. There were mugs and glasses and bowls and cutlery and plates, and - considering I had never seen some of these items over the course of two whole weeks - I could only guess how thick and thriving the colonies of bacteria must have been in amongst the dried spaghetti sauce and mystery brown gunge.

Perhaps it was just a coincidence; perhaps it was an act of defiance against 'the note'; perhaps he just didn't like the cut of my jib. Whatever it was, I had an hour of washing-up spread out before me. Unstable multicoloured skyscrapers of bowls and pots and mugs. Long-established bacterial communities to massacre in a cruel tsunami of lime-scented liquid. I was tempted to leave it all there, but I remembered an oft-encountered lament of Mum's: 'If I don't do it, no one will'. One thing that is definitely NOT oft-encountered at home, however, is dried-up cigarette stubs lying in an ashy grave at the bottom of countless blue Ikea mugs. I don't think Peter has even been home since I did the washing-up, so I can't even avoid asking him about the 'dish situation' as I (more than likely) otherwise would have done.

Living here I have also been haunted by the mail of residents past. A new name affixed to Flat 225 comes through the slot almost every day. Luckily someone amongst this group had taste: on the bookshelf upstairs I found a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and Damned.

Snow and Confetti

The weather hasn't been too bad since I've been here, but last Sunday I awoke to white fluff floating around outside my window. Kyle and I had already arranged to go to the Tate Modern, so we walked there in the snow, stopping once on the way so I could wrap my frightened fingers around a comforting coffee.

The great thing about most of the museums and galleries in London is that admission is free to the permanent exhibitions. The Tate Modern had a paid-entry exhibition of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, but I was happy enough to stumble upon Giacometti's 'Unique Forms of Continuity in Space' and Miro's 'Woman and Bird in the Moonlight' (which some of you may recognise as my MSN user picture).

A sneaky shot with Miro's painting

The work that really caught my interest was a video by two Brazilian artists - Rivane Neuenschwander and Cao Guimaraes - called 'Quarta-feria de cinzas (Ash Wednesday)'. Using what must have been a phenomenal camera, the video follows a parade of ants carrying colourful flecks of confetti. Because the ants are dark and tthe ground is full of 'natural' colours like brown leaves, moist-looking grey rocks an dark soil, the confetti - in various colours like fuschia, fluoro yellow, lime green, bright blue and reflective silver - sometimes look like they're floating and twirling and bumbling their way across the landscape on their own. Even when you can see the ants, if you 'soften' your vision it looks like these round bright discs are sliding down the sandy ant-holes themselves, bring 'drawn' there by some mysterious alien beam. Sometimes you'll be watching this incredibly sharp picture of one ant carrying one pink piece of confetti up and down rocks and through leaves, and other times the leafy floor has various swirly flecks all bobbing and weaving in the same direction. It is mesmerising to watch. It also has a very subtle soundtrack of little crinkly, poppy, chirpy, buzzy noises. I think because the sounds are slightly 'mechanical', it adds to the sense of an overarching, unknowable 'force' that is directing this confetti-gathering movement. It is too 'cute' to be creepy, but the whole setup leads you to suspect some kind of cult-like 'purpose' behind the meanderings of these ants and their colourful plunder.

That's enough arty-fartiness for one post. I will put down my pen-of-high-pretention now.

Hackney: some say it's up-and-coming, some say it's down and staying there

One of the problems with moving to a new country is that, as yet, most place names are meaningless to me: they carry no positive or negative associations. 'Elephant and Castle' may sound quaint and interesting, but it isn't until you talk to a Londoner that you are filled in with the sordid details of drive-bys and ghetto-style housing. Before Peter the second turned into the dish-hoarding somnambulant, he gave me a quick North-South-East-West comparison of London with Sydney. They were fairly 'sweeping' comparisons, and he did point out a few anomalies, but basically it ran like this:

North London = laid-back like Bondi
East London = funky like Newtown or Glebe
South London = poor like Redfern
West London = rolling in cash and Maseratis like the North Shore

Based on this comparison, you might be able to guess which area of London I would most want to live. Kyle and I had decided to look for a flat-share place together, so we arrived with a skip and whistle to a lovely terrace-house in... Hackney. The place was about 10 kabillion times better than the flat in Fitzrovia, but it wasn't until a girl at work told me that I might want to pack a bulletproof vest if I was moving there that I began to have serious doubts. Walking towards the house to sign the papers, I took in the brownness and the seediness and the swirling of sirens and began to feel very 'small'. The 'bulletproof vest' comment had me severely rattled. The landlord had made Hackney out to be a magical place where children gather on weekends to dance around maypoles and distribute daisies to the elderly, but of course it was in his interests to skip certain uncomfortable details. My 'character-judgment' radar was refusing to bleep at me, however, and he took us for a walk around the neighbourhood and let us have a private conversation with the other flatmates before we attached our names to any paperwork. One of the girls managed to convince me that Hackney has this huge stigma attached to it, but that it is now a safe (if ugly) place to live. I myself witnessed a robbery right around the corner from the flat in Fitzrovia, so it seems like there are few places in London that are 'untainted'.

On the bus on the way home I also realised that I've spent my whole life up til now living in a place outsiders consider a 'dive': Western Sydney. So I'll just have to take up my habitual position as 'defender of stigma-riddled neighbourhoods'. I can always throw around Bansky's name (http://www.banksy.co.uk/), who has been known to work in the area, or I can just pretend I live in Shoreditch, which is 10 minutes down the road.

So, for better or worse, Hackney will be 'my hood' for the next 3 months. It is an unfortunately named place: something between a cliched expression and the charming sound of phlegm.

Catering for London's Elite

I have managed to score a fairly decent 'back-up' job as a waitress with a company that caters for upmarket events all over London (they did the Queen's 80th, for example). One of the perks of the job, apart from the opportunity to work at some amazing venues I might otherwise never have seen the inside of, is that we - the gallant and black-bedecked waitstaff - get to eat all the spare 5-star meals. This week at Plaisterer's Hall (http://www.venues.org.uk/extlink_frame.asp?VenueName=Plaisterer) I could help myself to, for example:

Entree Beetroot cured Scottish salmon on horseraddish fritter with beetroot creme fraiche tapenade, chive oil dressing and a soft herb salad.

Main Roasted rump of lamb studded with garlic and rosemary on a roasted garlic creamed mash with roasted root vegetables and a rosemary jus-lie.

Dessert Mandarin torte with a rich bitter chocolate sauce.

They also had vegetarian options like roasted veggie stacks and strudels, and, for dessert, fruit platters with kiwifruit, pineapple, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and rockmelon arranged in concentric circles. So even though £6 an hour is unquestionably dismal, I'm sure I can put up with blueberry cheesecake with mixed-berry compote and a sprig of fresh mint every day until I find something better. (Before you leap in with your 'Heathrow-Injection-I-told-you-so's, Jaxon, I haven't actually been snapping up the cheesecake every day!)

Okay. This is actually, believe it or not, the second time I've typed out this whole thing, so my eyes are beginning to plead for mercy. Hopefully next time I'll learn to save my drafts. Goodbye from this little internet cafe on Tottenham Court Road! I'm going to miss being so close to everything when I'm living out in Hideous Hackney.

Friday, 4 April 2008

A Lonely Landing

First off, thanks to everyone who commented on my first post. I'm surprised you made it all the way to the end. Here comes the next challenge:

London Landing and Ill-Equipped Tube Stations

When the plane was coming in to land, the skies were clear over London, and out of my little oval window the first landmarks I saw were the London Eye, London Bridge and the Gherkin. Sir chats-a-lot was still yammering on about Mrs Thatcher and her visionary social policies by my side but I tuned him out to focus on the murky Thames. My doubts about moving here had just about slid away down the aeroplane wing and then the pilot's voice came over: "It is 0 degrees in London this morning." My doubts scurried back up the wing, crashed through the window and buried themselves in the pocket of my flimsy Australian coat. No amount of coaxing or offers of banoffee pie could get them out.

I mentioned earlier the $200 excess baggage fee for my luggage. So it was to be a pretty uneven fight: 1 x small, ignorant Australian girl with scant upper-body strength (but a fabulous hairdo) versus 2 x pregnant-with-octuplets bags, 1 x peak-hour on the tube, 100 x apathetic Londoners and 2 x tube stations that were ill-equipped for the 1 x small, ignorant Australian girl with scant upper-body strength (but a fabulous hairdo). The first thing that confronted me at Covent Garden station, after miraculously hauling both bags out onto the platform, was about three flights of winding stairs. Fantastic. Luckily it seemed to help being a small, ignorant, increasingly helpless-looking Australian girl with scant upper-body strength (and a dishevelled hairdo) because at both Covent Garden and Warren St stations, two lovely English gentlemen helped me out. And everyone says the British don't care...

Then Peter came to rescue me, and it was on to:

The Flat that Hygiene Forgot

I have to be careful what I write here, because Peter has been absolutely wonderful with showing me around and answering the unprecedented onslought of stupid questions I keep asking every time there's a pause in one of his favourite housing-rennovation TV shows, BUT "the flat" - although central - has about the same levels of hygiene and cleanliness as a back-alley behind one of Sydney's recently named-and-shamed salmonella-housing Sushi bars. Mum would clutch her heart and faint in horror. Then she'd regroup, dust off the three-week old particles of egg and chicken tandoori pieces that attached themselves to her skin, and pronounce the task insurmountable. (So much for being careful about what I write. Sorry Pete! Of course I'm exaggerating.) It's within walking distance of Soho, Oxford St, Trafalgar Square, the British Museum and Buckingham Palace (among other things) but unless I get a job tending the Queen's gardens I am probably moving on quite soon.

Beginning the Tally of Famous Sights

Neal's Yard - Soho

Between setting up a bank account, looking for work, applying for numbers and cards, getting spectacularly lost and learning to say 'trousers' instead of 'pants', I've managed to visit a few places, or at least pass them while I'm walking. Soho is fabulous, obviously - packed with funky cafes, winding cobblestone laneways, knick-knack shops and an endless parade of people trying to outdo each other with avant-garde fashion. One of the tasks I had set myself was to find the best coffee in London, and according to my Lonely Planet Guide, Monmouth Coffee Company in Soho was the place to go. It may take a little more investigation, but so far it is definitely the best I've had. The smell of the place alone made it worth the effort of finding it*. The only downside is that they only offer full-fat milk. No skim, and definitely no soy. So for the lactose-intolerant amongst us ('I have no patience for lactose, and frankly I won't stand for it'), it is probably only good for the occasional stop in. Unless you drink your coffee black, of course.

Me and Monmouth Coffee

* On that note, a word about London intersections: I am used to an 'intersection' being an orderly sort of place, where two (or at the most, two or three) streets meet in a well-constructed fashion. Here, and in Soho especially, an 'intersection' actually refers to about seven streets that collide in one hodge-podge of roundabouts, strange offshoots, cement islands and cyclists who care little for traffic signals or befuddled pedestrians. Right near Monmouth Coffee Company, for example, I counted seven cobblestone laneways that all met up in one place. There was a roundabout in the middle where a rather large collection of people were sitting to admire the skill of the taxi drivers who managed to navigate their way through. At least the cars drive on the same side of the road, so I haven't been run over (yet).

(The place where seven lanes meet is actually a known London oddity called 'Seven Dials'. Here I am).

Peter and I also went to the British Museum (where I could have spent an entire day, really, but Peter was pretty sleepy) where I took in mummies and bowls and textiles and masks and rings and coins and hats and severed bronze arms and golden statues and swords and costumes and all sorts of intricate things from Asia, Africa, Egypt and the world that made me feel captivated and overwhelmed all wrapped up in a poncho of ignorance.

The National Gallery, off of Trafalgar Square (which, incidentally, is not signposted in red like on the Monopoly board, and does not have nearly the amount of pigeons I'd been led to expect) was similarly overwhelming. Monet, Pissarro, Van Gogh (the chair! the sunflowers! the wheatfield!), Cezanne, Degas, Picasso. Two paintings that I'd never seen before but made me come closer were one from the Studio of El Greco called 'The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane' (painted in the 1590s, but it looks pretty ahead of its time, style-wise. Bold colours and angular, modernist drapery) and 'A Girl at a Window' by Louis-Leopold Boilly (1799 or thereabouts). Google images!

I've also spied Big Ben from the top of a red double-decker bus, been to Leicester square, Regents Park and Westminster Abbey (some day in the future I will be able to tell my children (children?) that I turned down a job at the Abbey).

Another note about London streets: apart from tallying landmarks, I've also been counting the errant apostrophes that were obviously released out of a giant sack somewhere around Chinatown and have since found homes on the majority of London's street signage. At the moment the tally stands at 6 absconding apostrophes every 2.6 metres. There are pizza's, taxi's, musician's, apple's, scarf's, cafe's, and all-day breakfast's. I wonder what an all-day breakfast might own...

Biting Loneliness and the Grandiose Advertising Ploys of ISH

To say I was a bit lonely in my first week here is kind of like saying Vince Noir is 'a bit' androgynous, or that Billy Connolly is 'a bit' funny or that Craig Nicholls was 'a bit' drunk when he played the mystery set at Splendour 2006. After Pete left (long story, but he bought a flat in East London and left me his room for a month), the loneliness really began to bite. It nibbled at my fingertips at first but then it worked up an appetite that saw it target my vital organs. As part of my membership with BUNAC (the non-for-profit company I joined to help me find work, etc.) I had free access to the International Student House (ISH): a hostel just around the corner from where I'm staying. The brochure painted a glorious picture of its offerings: a gym with regular yoga classes, a thriving bar with pool tables, a restaurant, warm and cosy common room, free lectures and trivia nights. I was lured there by the prospect of reams of fellow travellers. Instead, everything and everywhere was empty. I walk into the some-would-say-ambitiously-titled Internet Cafe, and the shutters are bolted on what I assume to be the International Bistro with a range of mouth-watering dishes and a positive array of vegetarian options (try the lentil curry!), and there's one Asian guy tapping away on his laptop.

It was getting desperate, so I posted a despondent note on the London Couchsurfing page (for those of you who don't know, 'Couchsurfers' are an international community of travellers and potential friends who offer up their couches for free to fellow cash-strapped travellers. We also meet for coffee, have parties, etc. http://www.couchsurfing.com/). Next day I log on and am rescued! Who would have thought a blonde 24 year old girl with a penchant for Proust and body-shots would get such a response? (Just kidding, Dad. I hate Proust...) So anyway, my first rescuer was Kyle: a Brisbane Boy (who just happens to have a blog of his own: www.cyclingnomads.org/kyle). We organised to meet at Trafalgar Square and when I found him, I unleashed about 48 hours of pent-up conversation on him in about 10 minutes. Luckily he talks just as much as I do, so I didn't scare him with my conversational Niagara Falls. We had a sandwich in the Gardens along Victoria Embankment (by the way, I'm living on sandwiches. So much for the Heathrow Injection, Jaxon! If anything I've lost weight), then took a walk over the Golden Jubilee Bridge, along the South Bank Queen's Walk (overlooking the Thames) and then back over Blackfriars Bridge. We thought we'd take in a comedy night at Leicester Square because I had a two-for-one voucher from my TimeOut mag, but we got a bit lost and ended up seeing 'Be Kind, Rewind' at Odeon instead. We managed to sneak in a dinner of... more sandwiches!

Okay, I'm about to run out of time in this little internet cafe on Oxford St (the lady behind the desk looks like Fran from Strictly Ballroom pre-stunning-makeover), so the whimsical and enrapturing tales of my job-hunting will have to wait for another time. I'll let you know, however, that those little doubts that were squatting in my coat pockets are beginning to find jobs and make something of themselves, hence vacating the premises. There's only a couple of stubborn ones left now. They eat all my food and refuse to do the dishes.