Monday, April 30, 2007

Views of Dublin

The Spire of Dublin, the world's tallest sculpture, was commissioned to celebrate the millenium, but wasn't unveiled until 2003. It is also known by local Dubliners as the 'Spike,' the 'Spire in the Mire' (referring to O'Connell Street's unsavoury reputation), the 'Stiffy by the Liffey' (it is within sight of the River Liffey), and the 'Nail in the Pale' (the 'English Pale' was a 20 mile area around Dublin that the English fortified to keep out Gael incursions), among many others.

This street performer is at it every day in Temple Bar, a trendy area of Dublin frequented mostly by European tourists and an absurd amount of people getting trashed in Dublin with their closest friends before they get married.

A footbridge over the River Liffey leading from Temple to the north side of the city. Even today the river demarcates the poorer districts of the city from the wealthier.

With the River Liffey in the foreground, we can see the monument to Daniel O'Connell at the head of O'Connell Street in central Dublin. O'Connell was an early 19th century nationalist who championed non-violent resistance to Engligh occupation. He is known as the 'Liberator' or the 'Emancipator'.

Goodbye Ireland

I wouldn't say I went out with a bang, but I did have a splendid day out in the Irish sun along the coast north of Dublin. The sweet smell of the Irish Sea gently embraced me as I walked around a few small towns in the area. I always forget how seducing the salt-water smell can be, until I find myself within its spell.

My time in Ireland is coming to an end. The conference on the weekend was a great experience, one I will no doubt remember fondly. The rest of my time has been relatively uneventful. My friends in London were right, I chose perhaps the only city in Europe that is more expensive than London. The verdict is out on whether this is true or not, but I have continuously been both amazed and dismayed by the Celtic Tiger. This is not exactly the Dublin I thought I was visiting. My Irish highlight was visiting the countryside last week, and again today. Interestingly, the crashing waves of the Irish Sea reminded me of the lilting green valleys out in County Meath. Seeing both shining in the sunlight was a treasure.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

County Meath, north of Dublin

It was a lovely, sunny day today in Ireland. I took a trip to the County Meath, north of Dublin, to visit the NewGrange passage tomb, a 3,400 year old neolithic tomb in the countryside. It was a great day, I learned lots about the history of Ireland, from the Celts to the Vikings to the Anglo-Normans, all very richly embodied in this sweet little county.

The NewGrange Passage Tomb, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Archealogists believe it took anywhere from 5-50 years to build. It housed the ashes of only the most important leaders of those people living in Ireland at the time. It was discovered by a local farmer in 1699, and restored from 1962-75. Just above the entrance there is a roofbox that lets the sun in on the winter solstice, the only time the passageway and inner tomb would ever see any light. It's a testament to the builders, engineers, designers and workers that the roof has never leaked, so that the inner tomb hasn't seen water for 3,400 years.

A view of some grave markers around the tomb.

A building just below the main tomb. Notice the stone fence in the background.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Kilmainham Gaol

Yesterday I went to Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, an old jail that is now a historical museum. It was a phenomenal lesson in history, especially that of Irish resistance to British rule, and the terrible treatment of the Irish poor over the decades. I've decided to let the photos mostly speak for themselves (I couldn't resist short captions).

The view of the inside of a cell. At times of great social turmoil (e.g. the potato famine) and/or political unrest (e.g. the many Irish rebellions), prisoners were often 4-5 to a cell, 22-24 hours a day.

Behind this door 14 leaders of the Irish rebellion of 1916 were executed by the British. This turned public opinion around to the side of the rebels, paving the way for Irish independence 5 years later.

The courtyard beyond the doors was where child prisoners went out to spend their 1-2 hours of outdoor time a day in silence. Prisoners as young as 7 spent time at Kilmainhaim, often for petty theft.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Cheap Flights, Pack Light

I learned some valuable lessons this afternoon. There’s a reason those intra-Europe flights are so cheap. I thought I had it all figured out, I packed all my weighty stuff in my carry-on, wore my heaviest pair of boots and jacket, all with the expectation to smooth through the check-in. I even asked my pal John for his opinion on the weight of my bag back in Notting Hill before leaving. We both agreed, it was close to the 15 kilo limit, but still below.

When I checked my bag at the Ryanair check-in and it weighed 22 kilos, a full 7 kilos over the allotted limit, I was a tad surprised to say the least. Instead of paying $85 just for the privilege of checking in my bag, I proceeded to get rid of as much stuff as I could. Boxer shorts, an old pair of running shoes, socks, penned-up journal articles (I made sure to keep track of those I discarded), a couple tees and a sweater, an old bag, it all ended up in a pile along with other traveler gear. I swear, if you’re ever at Gatwick, come with empty bags, there’s bound to be a bunch of cool gear for the taking.

After my fourth attempt at bringing my weight down, I thought it might be kind to give the ticket agent a small gift. I presented her with a bar of soap my Mom made, and sure enough, she ignored the fact that I was nearly 2 kilos over weight, or the equivalent of $25. Lesson one: Ryanair is serious about their weight limitations, but the ticket agent does have some wiggle room.

Lesson two was a lot less eventful. The friendly voice that chimes in over the intercom at Gatwick every five minutes “There is a one bag limit on carry-on baggage. A woman’s handbag counts towards this limit” is also very serious. I thought I’d chance bringing my camera and my computer bags, but of course, I was nabbed at the security gate, where an army of fluorescent-dressed folks look you up and down to decide whether you have one bag or more. Somehow I managed to fit my camera bag into my computer bag, but not before I took out my laptop, which if carried on its own, doesn’t count as a bag. Where can I read the rulebook for all of this? It really is quite fascinating, if not a bit annoying.

Here I am now sitting at Gate 10 of Gatwick waiting for my flight to Dublin. Lots of suits, it must be a right fashionable flight with the business class. I’d really like to play guitar with my friends right now, right here, and just liven the place up a bit.

There’s the chime, the race has now begun. I guess if you purchase a pre-board, you get to go on first. There doesn’t seem to be any assigned seats. I’m just going to wait until the end to get on, I hate these seat battles, people jockeying for position is just so ‘high school’. But I guess we never really grow up, do we? Some of us just wear suits and ties, carry briefcases and walk with purpose.

"La Bouche du Roi" at the British Museum

This marks 200 years since the slave trade was abolished. In Britain, there’s lots of talk of William Wilberforce and other liberal abolitionists who campaigned to end it. This official version of history will have us all believe that progress is made through polite political lobbying of parliament, when in fact, freedom(s) are most often won through struggle. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of the slave trade: from countless uprisings that wreaked havoc on the resolve of slaveowners to the victorious slave-led revolution in Haiti in 1791 that fought off the armies of the world’s superpowers (unfortunately, Haitians are still paying the price today), it was those who were enslaved who made the slave economy untenable.

Knowing the controversy over the question of abolition, it was with a bit of trepidation that I went down to the British Museum to check out their latest exhibit marking the bi-centenary. The British Museum hardly strikes me as a space for careful reflection on empire and racism. But there it was, Romuald Hazoumé poignant exhibit, entitled “La Bouche du Roi.”

This exhibit tells the story of the slave trade using innovative artwork, and links this history to present-day forms of bondage and resistance in an area of Benin that served as a jumping off point for the transfer of slaves to England in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The main part of the exhibit, and the most striking to me, was based on a 18th century woodcut of the slave ship Brookes, based in Liverpool. This woodcut was made for the abolitionist Thomas Clarke and is well-known in Britain. Hazoumé re-creates this woodcut using petrol canister masks to represent the bodies lined up in the original woodcut, 304 in all. There are small plastic cans representing children, cracked ones representing dead bodies, and at the head of the ship there are the goods, such as gin bottles and guns, representing the items used in trading for Africans. Why plastic petrol cans you might ask?

Hazoumé chose these because they are currently symbols of oppression in Benin, as young men heat these canisters to blow them up and transport petrol between Benin and Nigeria, often dying in the process due to the dangerous use of the over-extended plastic cans. As the exhibit tells us, “Like slaves, the plastic cans are worked to breaking point, and then discarded.”

However, Hazoumé doesn’t want to leave this image of victimhood germinate, and reminds us that transporting the petrol is also an act of resistance to the oppression that stalks this part of Benin. It is one of the few ways for these men to claw back some of Africa’s resources for their own benefit, having seen so much of the area’s wealth pilfered over the centuries, leaving the majority of the area’s residents mired in poverty.

And this is the true strength of the exhibit. Slavery is not simply historical, something that happened in the past, but its legacy is still ongoing, as is resistance to its many forms. I was left wondering: How am I implicated? How are we all implicated in this injustice?

Off to Dublin with Mixed Emotions

I’m leaving for Dublin later today, at 1730 to be exact. I’m not sure why this is, but I feel loneliness where I wish I felt only excitement. I suppose that’s the way with emotions, you never really get what you want, and it can be a struggle to want what you get.

I think I have the loneliness figured out though. I was talking with a friend back home earlier, and it came to me. Even before I left to come to London, I felt lonely, which seems odd, given my enthusiasm for the place. But there’s something about leaving that tugs at my heartstrings in a way I’d rather avoid. Is it leaving what I have come to know and appreciate behind? Is it the unknown of where I’m going? Is it not feeling completely settled in any one place?

Whatever it is, leaving one place for another is both exciting, e.g., I can’t wait to see the Irish countryside and to present my paper at the conference, and also a bit daunting, e.g., leaving places and people behind, so that any expectation I have of feeling just one set of emotions is unrealistic. Does anyone else ever feel like this?

The great thing about my time in London has been the hospitality I’ve felt at my hosts’ place, meeting a bunch of new Londoners (C., L., H., M., H., N., S., and crew), spending time with some people from back home, and wandering the city and digging my own company. Also not to be forgotten are the everyday Londoners who filled my days with meaningful exchanges. John at John’s Hair Fashions trimmed me Monday in Shepherd’s Bush and regaled me with stories of the English Premier League; Emre at Portobello Market asked me some pointed questions about Canada, and sold me a nice hoodie on Thursday; Anabella at Camden Market enlightened me on the Spanish art scene on Saturday; Adrian taught me a lot about the offshore diving industry on Friday; and many others came to shine a light on my London life, each in their own small way.

Overall, I feel like I unlocked a few doors that remained under key last time I was here. After 8 days, I’m under no illusions: London is a great world city, full of life and colour. It’s also a place where many people live and struggle to survive. No contradiction, just want to keep my sometimes-unbridled enthusiasm in check. Representing London otherwise feels like a disservice to the thousands, or more likely millions, who experience this place differently than I do. In this moment I’m reminded of the man who was violently thrown about right next to my friends and I on a sidewalk pub 5 nights ago for selling a newspaper. When my friend spoke with him afterwards, he said, pointedly: “This place, England, is shit. Get out of here as soon as possible.”

While I don’t feel quite as strongly as he did, nor am I suggesting that London/England is prone to violent acts, I do feel like it’s time to go. I’ve decided I could live in London, in fact, I might just want to one day, but I’d need a compelling job both to make an income that could sustain living here, and also to keep me occupied, because wandering a city can get old pretty quick. When I finally write a novel sometime in the future, I’ll come write part of it here in the spring, I’ll just expect a bit more rain than I got on this visit. Fifty drops yesterday equals fifty in a week. Thank you London for sharing.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Love Carrier, Heart Stealer

Part of my London mission has been to be what my dear friend called a “love carrier.” That is, someone who acts as a messenger, bringing gifts from afar to those in love. I’ve accomplished this in two capacities.

First, I brought a lovely wrapped gift from my friend back home to her new girlfriend in London, not coincidentally, the woman who brought me to Elephant & Castle. It was a near perfect synergistic moment. I handed the gift to her, and she handed me a part of London I never would’ve known, but will now forever remember, at least from my vantage point today. I like this gig, the returns are well worth it.

Second, I met up with my good friend’s old English pal here in London, and while I had nothing to offer, I am bringing something back with me for her, a little gift courtesy of my new London friend. Again, he brought me to the south end squat, the dancehall night and to see Malika Booker yesterday. Talk about unfair. I like being a love carrier, not only does it have a nice ring to it, it also has great benefits. Anybody want to sign me up?

On the other side of the spectrum, yesterday at the Sunday Up Market, I bought a little keychain affectionately called the heart stealer. It’s fabulous, as you can see above. If only all heart stealers could be so adorable, the world would be a much shinier place, don’t you think? Notice the bag full of multi-coloured hearts, it’s oh so cold, but I can’t help but smile. I wonder what the world would be like if breaking a heart, stealing it really, was nothing more than removing an organ that was replaceable. It’d probably be less painful in the end, as some of us know, a broken heart takes ages to heal, much more than any old physical ailment, or at least most of them.

The funny thing is my new green & white friend can be seen as either a love carrier, with a bag full of hearts to spread around, or a heart stealer, with the same bag full of hearts thiefed from those in love. It all depends on how the wind blows, and what side of the bed you wake up on. Yesterday he was a thief, today she is a carrier. What will tomorrow bring?

La ville que je ne connais pas

J’entends des murmures
Dans la salle à côté
Et les frissons
Me touchent partout.

Les voix mijotent
Comme dans une soupe bouillante
Trop chaude pour bouffer
Mais toujours assez pour me renconforter.

Qui peut être ici avec moi?
Ici, dans la noirceur d’une ville que je ne connais pas.
Que je connaîtra jamais,
Sauf dans mes rêves.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Favourite Photos from my Day in the East End

Kick-ass performance on Brick Lane, feat. a tap dancer doing some hip-hop stylings, a group of percussionists, and a stand-up bass player.

A trashy view of the Sunday Up Market, between Spitalfields Market and Brick Lane.

Clever political commentary, using some familiar symbols to pull us in. Haven't I seen that somewhere before?

Malika Booker's "Unplanned"

Earlier this evening I went to check out Malika Booker’s one-woman show “Unplanned” at the Battersea Arts Centre ( in South London, near Clapham Junction. I knew nothing about her beforehand, safe for what my friend Chris had told me, basically that she was one of London’s hottest slam/dub poets. Hot she was, the show was an amazing example of creative synergy, as she brought together some strong writing, with a wicked lighting show, a clever sampling of sounds, and a solid use of props. Above all, it was how this was made to work on stage that was truly inspiring. That’s it, I left the BAC feeling inspired to write, as the performance went on, the ideas were spinning so fast in my head I could hardly keep up with Booker’s smooth voice. When she came by after the show and asked us how we liked it, I couldn’t help but bubble over with enthusiasm, and not even because I thought her writing was so good, in fact, I didn’t think it was that tight, but again, it was what she had the guts to throw together for us that so moved me.

To give you an idea, the show ranged from storytelling using aluminum foil, to shadow stories using backlighting and a screen, to a showing of a film on a 20” tv, all the while relying on audience participation. All of this was organized around a theme of sex, pregnancy and the control of women’s bodies, in a way that rocked you gently into her narrative, as if we were all newborns being told a bedtime story. The truest sign of success, in my eyes, is that I left the show wanting only to write. Do you know that feeling? Like you have a thirst, a deep hunger, that nothing but sitting down and engaging in some creative pursuit will quench. It’s a precious feeling, like nothing else in the world. Well, I suppose love- deep, passionate, I-miss-you-when-you’re-out-of-my-sight love- that comes close, very close. But that’s for another day, or perhaps place. It does, however, feel very appropriate that Booker’s show has brought me onto the subject of love, because that’s what I felt watching her. A love for art, for performance, for the spoken, felt word. Thank you Malika (and Chris for turning me onto her).

Un mot sur l’élection en France

Aujourd’hui le premier scrutin de l’élection en France a eu lieu. Les résultats ne sont pas encore connus, mais je voulais ajouter un peu de commentaire sur l’état du Parti Socialiste en France. Voici une scénario imaginée entre deux Français à Londres.

Le petit homme au cheveux roux: “Mais, voyons, vous croyez que c’est vrai?”
La dame au cheveux noir: “Oui, bien sûr.”
L’homme: “Mais comment, elle est socialiste, n’est-ce pas?”
La dame: “En effet, mais la gauche n’est plus une force en France. Elle prêche le blairisme, vous le savez, non?”
L’homme: “Voyons! Si je voulais être Anglais, je le serais. Mais nous sommes Français et j’en est fier. Comment ça du blairisme?”
La dame: “Mais Jean-Luc, au moins elle n’est pas Le Pen.”
L’homme: “Oui, au moins il y a ça. Au moins…”

Veuillez visitez pour les résultats les plus courants.

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)

"A tense political thriller that resonates emotionally. Not to be missed, not even if you dislike subtitles! " Courir dans le vent rose

I went to see The Lives of Others at Shepherd’s Bush last night, and I left very impressed. For most of the film I was taken in by the drab 80s era east-Berlin scenery, it set up a cold mood. The middle got a little slow, so if you're looking for a thriller with lots of shoot-me up action, this isn't it, but there were so many plot twists that I remained deeply involved in the story. In the end it was all worth it as I came to fully appreciate this slow, methodological approach. It was only then that I noticed just how much I had invested in the characters. The kicker is the last 20 minutes, where everything sort of comes to light quite beautifully. I cried, almost wept really, laughed, and let out a huge sigh of relief when it was all over. By far my favourite movie of the year, a right successful thriller. Go see it, and expect to be moved. I think I might remember the last 4 words for a while to come. It might even make you think about the cost of security in our post 9-11 world.

For an overview:

For reviews:

Endless Stalls and Market Halls

Only 2 more days left on my latest London odyssey. In the past two days I’ve met a number of well interesting folks. There was Chris and his crew who allowed me to tag along with them to the Camberwell squat (, and then to a Dancehall night in Shoreditch. On this journey I met Nathan, a cute boy from Chicago, who doesn’t like to say he’s American, and Philip, a German pilot working in London in finance who gave me a U.S. geography lesson. Who knew that Kansas City straddles Missouri and Kansas. Philip did, I didn’t. I didn’t get home from Chris’ place in Hackney until 6am, but the bus ride to the Tube at 515am was phenomenal. The city was coming to life slowly before my eyes, and what was truly remarkable was just how quiet it was. I didn’t think it was possible.

Yesterday I spent the day with my friend from Ottawa at Camden Town. We were part of the crazy mass of people snaking our way through the endless stalls and market halls. Don’t be fooled though, the first market you see getting off the Camden Town tube, the one with the big green sign that says “The Camden Market” is crap. It's Che, Che and more Che surrounded by a bit of Bob, lots of pretty dresses, and tonnes of pre-fab tees with terribly unoriginal slogans! I was pretty discouraged after going through this stuff, but then we explored a bit more and discovered the artist stuff a bit further up, and boy, was it ever worth it. Lots of great stuff, we had a wonderful day. I still prefer Portobello, mostly because of its antique market, where, by the way, I picked up a print of a world map from 1751 on Friday, a thing of beauty. I also think Spitalfields was more up my alley, but that was a year ago, so I’ll go check it out today and let y’all know which market is the hottest.

London Lexicon

Finally, here it is. A useful selection of Londonisms, as overheard on the tube, on the 'beeb,' and through random conversations on the street and in an anarchist squat.

a) Chugger: n. a person who solicits on behalf of a charity or non-profit organization, i.e., a charity mugger.
Tom: “Last evening I was walking down Oxford Street when two chuggers from Oxfam asked me for some quid.”
Leila: “Yes, they do seem to hang out plenty on Oxford. Did you tell them you were right broke?”
Tom: “Yes, I did. But not before I asked one out to the pub. He met me there later on.”
Leila: “Go on! That’s bullocks…”

b) Munted: verb impassive form. 1. to be fucked up. 2. to be old, antique-like. 3. to be rough, uneven.
1. When I woke up this morning I was munted. It was a long night out.
2. That leather is munted, it looks well used.
3. The blade on that knife is right munted, hardly useable.

c) Cash point: n. automatic banking machine. syn. hole in the wall
Eddy: "Mate, I'm rinsed. I need some money, is there a cash point about?"
Mate: "I reckon there's a hole in the wall 'round that corner."

d) Cotch: v. to chill out, relax.
Indira: "Jeannie, come on out with us tonight. The Pool is having a dancehall thing, it'll be hot."
Jeannie: "Naw, I'm well munted. I'm going to stay in and cotch."

e) Two-se: v. to halve, as in sharing something with another
(overheard at a a sandwich shop)
Tall guy with purple hair: "Can I get the veggie sandwich, hold the mayo?"
Sandwich artist: "Coming right up. Anything else?"
Tall guy...: "Mmm, yes, can you two-se it for me?"

f) Coppers: pl.n. small change, i.e., 1p or 2p.
An artist at the Sunday Up Market: "Look at him, he's going to pay me all in coppers!"
Me: "What?"

g) Tonk: adj. muscular, buffed up, i.e., like a Tonka truck.
Me: "That guy is really tonk, he must work out a lot."

To be updated intermittently. And don't miss the Dublin version coming up next week.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

London in the 80s, Walking to a Different Beat

Today has been a slow day, perfectly so. The ghost called global warming has reared its head once again and London is sub-tropical, as it has been for my 4 days here. Sunny, dry and clear, above all it’s the clear blue skies that have the people of London a bit weirded out.

I’ve settled well into my neighbourhood, in fact, I’ve even been able to offer directions to fellow tourists. Last night, after my run in Holland Park, quite a run it was, with the planes whizzing by overhead and a large football field all to myself, I ran into a man wearing 3 large backpacks and a painful grimace on his face. He was lost, wandering 3 hours in Notting Hill, after a flight from Bangkok to London. He hadn’t slept for 30 hours, this Norwegian man, and there he was, on the same footpath as me, looking for the Holland Park Youth Hostel, which he had just passed by in the forest yonder for the fourth or fifth time, he had lost count 90 minutes ago. I had stumbled across the hostel a year ago, and brought him to its door yesterday. He was pleased, but not nearly as much as me. Not because I had helped him out, but because I knew my way around enough to do so, even in the dark.

I also found out today that I’m now able to jaywalk quite succesfully. Mind you, I did almost get struck yesterday morning, but it feels like today I finally got it. Obviously, I must learn to look in the opposite direction nearly 3 decades of habitual body memory tells me to look. I’ve decided that training myself to only look the right way would be pointless, so instead I look both ways always and hope for the best. But, around here I’m also aided by large block letters on the pavement that tell me, without question, which way I should look. Sort of like cheat sheets for the clueless. I can’t say that I wasn’t warned, that’s for sure.

Sometimes, as I explore the city, I feel like I’m in the early 80s. There’s something about being hip in London that means going back, way back in time. This is not unlike anywhere else really, but it stands out most starkly in men’s fashion, all of those ripped, tight jeans; crooked, too-cool-for-school hairdos; mega-large black-rimmed glasses; and tiny tees, either all black or white. Oh yeah, and women with their bangs and leggings and pimped out pink belt buckles. It’s almost so 80s that it’s the 70s, but before I jump around to too many decades, I’ll just say that there’s a look I’m aiming to emulate, a couple of vintage purchases today have brought it within reach, so close I can see it. It isn’t the 70s or 80s, it’s even more of a throwback, with a twist. Hopefully it’ll work on me, but if it doesn’t, I’ll have some great clothes to give away to someone. I did test it out today on my evening out on Great Titchfield Street, just off Oxford Street. My friend told me she really dug my outfit, so maybe I’ll pull it off after all.

I got to stand outside on a sidewalk tonight and drink, London-style. Although I only had sparkling water, it was a treat. The only downside, as I’ve found out in my other pub forays, is the creeping smoke that finds its way up my sinus cavities. Believe it or not though, London’s indoor smoking ban takes effect on July 1st, not bad, only 10 years late. And they say London is ahead of the ball when it comes to fashion!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Straddling the Meridian in the Mean Time

The London Underground, or the “Tube” as it's known, is not a 70s psychedelic Brit band, which is too bad really, because if it was, I’d love their music. Twice now I’ve snaked through the subway caverns at Tottenham Court Road station, working my way up/down all around, who’s to say, to the central line, and onwards to Shepherd’s Bush or Holland Park, take your pick. Today it was the bush for a stop into the food store. The tube was busy at 5pm, not surprisingly, but there’s something about being pressed up against people in a busy subway car that I quite enjoy. When else can you cozy up to a perfect stranger in such a manner, that doesn’t involve intoxication and bad house music?

This brings me back to the sounds of the London Underground. Around this corner yesterday, past the long line of ads for “Queen: the Musical” and “The Lives of Others,” a man was playing a violin so gloriously and feverishly, it almost brought tears to my eyes. The pure sense of joy it evoked in me was remarkable, since I’m not usually such a fan of classical music.

Today, around this corner, I anticipated seeing the same violinist, but London is not that predictable. The melodic sound of classical guitar struck my ears as I rounded the corner with 15 of my closest London friends. While it didn’t quite have the same effect as the violin the day before, it was a truly magnificent piece of guitar work nonetheless. I was left thinking, as I turned the next corner, that this tube station has some of the most talented musicians I’ve ever heard. Is this because the London Underground is such a good gig? I mean, it’s not like many people stop and listen, but some did, and they were entranced by the music. With thousands of people going by every day, maybe it truly is a great gig, or maybe there are just so many absurdly talented musicians in this bloody city that finding a gig anywhere else is near impossible. Either way, I am tickled to have made acquaintances with such a musical gem. I’m sharing the secret hoping that you might also share it with those who find themselves in the British capital.

Luckily, I did manage to peel myself away from the Underground. In the am I hopped a ferry with my two friends from back home and we headed southeast down the Thames to Greenwich. For those British English amateurs, that’s “Grenich,” home of the centre of the world, Longitude “0.” How on earth Greenwich became the marker between East & West is a bit of a mystery, I mean clearly there’s an explanation, but I can’t help but feel the imperial thrust behind such a move. According to this logic, France is in the Eastern Hemisphere, as is the rest of continental Europe. Go figure. This gives Edward Said’s famous concept of Orientalism a whole new meaning.

There we were on the ferry, trudging up, and then down the Thames, basking in the glorious London sunshine. Yes, I lucked out again, it was over 20 degrees and bright as a sharpened knife. My friend, the fairest of the 3 of us, took on a bit of colour today, and I joked that when she gets back home, nobody will believe she was in London. Maybe my flight really landed in Bermuda?

There we docked at Greenwich, 70 minutes after our departure. It was nice to be out of London, but the city never really ended. I’ll take their word for it though, we were in another town. The Royal Observatory at the top of the hill marked the line we hoped to straddle. We made our way up, following one finely-toned gentleman who ran up, as if bursting out of starting blocks, dragging a tire with his ankles and wrists weighed down. We had enough trouble making it up the hill without any tricks, thank you very much.

After a few detours and an ill-fated attempt to avoid paying an entrance fee, we later found out it was free due to un-confirmed reports of machine failure, we made it to the meridian line, along with a gaggle of French school kids. As you can imagine it was uneventful.

Me: “Oh, there’s the line.”
She: “Yes, there it is.”
Me: “I’m going to take some photos.”
She: “Me too.”
Me: “Will you take one of me?”
She: “Sure. How does your camera work?”
Me: (gesturing towards the top of my camera) “Press that grey button, and hold it down half-way.”
She: “Yes, that’s easy. Can you straddle it please?”
Me: “Yes.”

You get the picture. This went on for a bit. As is the case in such tourist schemes, the best part of the journey to Greenwich wasn’t the silver line at all, but the spectacular views of the city from up high, and the array of green space surrounding the Observatory. Thus, after the perfunctory photo-ops, we headed back down the hill and plopped ourselves down onto a proper slice of grass, all the while basking in the sun. The ferry ride home was much more entertaining than our inbound trip, thanks in large measure to our tour guide, who, instead of giving us the history of the royal buildings and such, proceeded to give us the history of Thames workers, reflecting his own love of working on the waterway. It was kind of like taking a return flight and watching one movie on the way in and another on the way out. Think Pride & Prejudice versus Roger & Me. Hardly a toss-up.

The crowning point of my day, however, has been sitting down in my back garden and eating some dinner. Peaceful and ponderous, this city has fuelled my fire for life. I’m no longer planning to visit Paris, for reasons that are too complicated to get into, but instead of regret, I feel happy to be spending more time here. It’s a precious feeling. I wonder what’s on the Beeb tonight?

é + content

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Surfing on the Thames

There’s a little bird that sits on my shoulder, urging me to go with my gut. For months now I have ignored this bird, my instincts, much to my later chagrin. This time, I’ve decided to follow this bird’s sage advice, and go to Paris. I can hear London, envious, jealously guarding its territory. Our love affair has gone on to a new level in the past two days. In fact, I feel we have moved beyond the surface, into the crevices of our inner beings. In London’s case, Elephant & Castle. My new friend, with whom I spent a lovely afternoon wandering the city, called it London’s asshole, a bit off the beaten track, as she so elegantly put it, as we entered the E&C shopping centre. This reminded me ever so slightly of the Rexdale Mall in north-west Toronto, cheap, low-quality gear stuffed into small stores lining a one-floor walk-up. But that was before the Wal-Mart went in and the rest of the mall was razed to the ground. What can I say, it was a big Wal-Mart, with even bigger hopes. Back to my tryst with London though, having just strolled through Trafalgar Square, walked the Thames footpath and crossed the Jubilee Bridge, E&C, located in Walworth, was a much-needed slice of London’s vraie vie. No tourists, only gritty everydayness around the corner, the type that invites contempt from the authorities, indeed, have I ever seen more surveillance cameras, CCTV in security-speak, in one concentrated area? There they hang, off bridges, overpasses, street lamps, tube stations, not that there are many of these in the south, but you get the picture.

This also reminded me of the every day battle to make ends meet, it’s not all dogs and ponies in the metropolis after all, and E&C points to this social and racial inequality much better than posh-ole Notting Hill ever will, at least if you’re temporarily willing to overlook who’s working at McDonald’s and Morrison ‘round the hill. I have a feeling they don’t live in that borough. Call me cynical.

Other than my ultra-wealthy ‘hood, I had yet to walk through a London borough where people actually live. The most remarkable aspect of Walworth to me was the number of people of colour. Somehow, the city became darker the deeper into the south bank I went, so much so that people speaking Somali, Arabic and French seemed to outnumber those speaking English as I walked down Walworth Street, home of Charlie Chaplin, towards my friend’s flat. Funny thing racial segregation, for something that almost all public officials and city planners would deny occurs, it seems reliably dependable in Western urban centres.

The other noteworthy aspect of Walworth was the sheer live-ability of the place. I didn’t peak into any of the council-housing blocks of course, but the trees lining the side-streets and the green parks and squares struck me as lovely odes to a time long-since past. To my surprise, the parks were empty as we headed to the nearest tube station, Kennington, ironically surrounded by one of the wealthiest areas of the city. My friend explained that the parks were so, even at this after-work hour, as people just didn’t feel safe in public places in this part of town. This was beginning to sound familiar.

After today, I feel my relationship with London has matured. I have passed through the honeymoon stage, I can feel the passion waning, and into a more meaningful place of attraction. London opened up to me like never before, or perhaps I opened up to it, and I saw parts of it that might normally turn one off to its charm. I saw that London doesn’t always treat its people very well. But, what this has done is strengthened my resolve to get to know it even better. Tomorrow I’ll ride the Thames and go down to Greenwich, home of the central meridian. Maybe I’ll gain more insight into what makes this city tick while riding her waves. I wish I meant surfing, but despite the summery weather, the Thames hardly strikes me as an appealing destination for my surfboard. Maybe that’s another knock against London, it ain’t Hawaii.

Back to Paris. On the tube today I spoke to a few Parisians, I don’t think I’ve heard this much French in a city outside of Montréal and Québec, and I told them I was thinking of visiting their city. One of them looked at me, and said, resolutely, “Paris est la plus belle ville du monde.” Typical French arrogance you might say. I say, on the other hand, that the look in her eye, not of pride or pretension, but of pure admiration, sold me on the spot. I can almost see the Eiffel Tower from my Notting Hill window.

é + sur le sofa

Monday, April 16, 2007

“Can you tell me which ones to use?”

The sun is shining, and the weather is sweet, yeah. Not in Kingston, no not this time. London is brimming with optimism, I heard people here were cold, very rude, distant even. But today they seem oh so kind, even gregarious. It must be my lucky day, I leave a mid-April snow forecast behind me and arrive in 25 degree sunny weather in the land of April showers that bring springtime flowers.

I can attest to those flowers being in bloom, resplendent, full-bodied. If they are missing the rain, I’ve been fooled, misled so thoroughly that showing my face in public would seem a dubious deed. My jet-lagged induced stupor has brought me out twice to appreciate the early summer tidings, and well, I had to peek into my favourite vintage shops. How could I not? I could hear Portobello Road calling my name over the perky Notting Hill roofs and through the well-manicured Holland Park gardens. Shame on me, I couldn’t wait out the first stop, I splurged on a £3 grey hoodie, a thing of beauty, that I’ll probably end up gifting to someone dear to me with longer arms. I can see my brother wearing it well. I think it was the smell of cherry blossoms that inspired my purchase, walking down Holland Park Road in this Royal Borough, my posh, adopted London neighbourhood, I could do nothing but notice the smell of flowers burgeoning around me. It was romantic. And still a bit foreign. After all, I needed to ask the clerk which coins to use in order to buy my sweater. I figured it out. Two-toned (silver and copper) and large is two pounds, while solo copper and thick is one pound. Sound familiar to my loonie and toonie friends? I wonder if I can get by without using pence, i.e. the other array of coins. I’m sure I could, but it would be a terribly expensive trip, as it already looks to become, hoodies and all.

Of course, to leave my walking-events in the realm of pure vintage fun and odiferous buds would be simply to romanticize. In order to dissuade such careless reflections, I mention the not-so-appealing dimensions of my outings: the all-too-familiar odour of raw sewage, the unspoken charm of every big city, as well as the nauseating stench of car exhaust. I thanked the cyclists who swam through the mad, multi-directional flow of traffic, and saluted their bravery in the face of what seemed like unsurmountable odds. I should drive less. Yes, I should.

Despite my gesture to the rank side(walk), the flowers have defiantly defeated the exhaust and sewage for my affection. London is once again the apple of my eye, surprising me at every turn. Ooops, that person smiled at me, that’s not supposed to happen. Oh, I’ve been here for 10 hours in April and it hasn’t rained. Hmmph, I made a joke at a grocery checkout and two people laughed! And my favourite, oh yes, my favourite, I spoke to a small child who was sitting on her mother’s lap, she was eyeing me rather oddly, which I find is very common in young ones, and her mother responded to me in three different languages, waiting patiently for my ponderous reply. Cold? I think not. It must be said though that in every one of these cases, the person in question was no more English than I. That’s the other great thing about big cities, it’s what lures me in, interpellates me into the city fabric more than anything else: people gather here from all over, to get away, to start over. It’s not always easy, if the history of imperialism teaches anything, it’s precisely that the relationships between the metropolitan centre and its peripheries are fraught with the vicissitudes of imperial ambitions, like so many capillaries running through a human body, carrying the raw materials that sustain our global capitalist system. So no, I don’t want to romanticize hope, since it is dictated by certain taken-for-granted global geo-political questions.

But, it is hope that springs forth most forcefully on this glorious London day. I look forward to getting some sleep tonight, so that I can be ready to meet those friendly gazes with my own shining eyes. I really do hope the flowers win out. From my current vantage point, how could they not?

é + à Londres, où il fait beau temps, de très beau temps

“Nous entrons dans la zone de perturbation”

Flying over the clouds, literally, they seem like a concrete jungle. Except for the hint of deep purple, the pinkish hue that penetrates the barrier. Except for that. The colour is remarkable, seared into my memory. Or is it?

My attention is called away: “Please return to your seats. The captain has put the seatbelt light on.” The troubling turbulence has returned, un-hindered. We’ve hit a jet stream, and for a split second, nothing more than a glimmer in the eye of a smiling child, which is everything really, we ride the roller coaster and the baby next to me, so adorable with her pig tails and messy mane of black hair, cries out, whether in enjoyment or terror I can’t tell. A part of me believes she’ll grow up to love roller coasters, or extreme sports perhaps. Yes, that’s it. In 25 years I’ll be reading about Nazira Mair, world-champion bungee-jumper. Twenty-five jumps over 100 metres in 3 years. Yelling and crying all the way down every time. Delirious with joy.

There she goes again, crying, loudly, as the plane bucks down rather violently. I, on the other hand, feel calm, somewhere over the Atlantic. It’s a nice change.

é + par dessus l’Atlantique, dans la noirceur d’un Boeing en vol

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Champlain n'a pas calé

Les manoirs chouets, le château sur la colline, le vent certain qui danse dans les cheveux des amoureux…c’est parfait, parfaitement idéal.

Une fois, j’ai oublié quand exactement, mais une fois, j’ai vu des amoureux descendre au Fleuve, à pied. Ils ont embarqué sur un vieux navire délaissé, une chaloupe vraiment, je dirais une chaloupe de pêche. Ils marchaient main en main, et se regardaient de temps en temps, avec ce regard magique réservé pour l’amour, la passion, le désir, l’obsession même. C’etait la ville la plus romantique, et les gens d’la place parlait une langue très chouette, ils étaient tous et toutes, ben cute.

Ils ne s’en faisaient pas par contre, de l’état de leur navire, parce que le soleil descendait glorieusement sur le fleuve, l’eau était vive, et la chaloupe ressemblait à un des nombreux cruise ships dans le port. Fort, fier, folie. L’amour ne s’explique jamais.

Une fois embarqués, les avirons grignotaient dans le vent sous la force musculaire de l’amoureux, je les ai entendus les avirons, de ma cache-cache dans les arbres…ben, vraiment des arbustes, mais peu importe. L’amour était palpable, oh l’amour fantastique. Il était partout, en un instant déjà rendu à l’Ile d’Orléans, que l’amour voyage vite.

Ils se regardaient dans les yeux profondémment, Charlie de Tennessee et Quinn de la Floride. Ils s’aimaient, c’était clair. L’autobus avec tous leurs nouveaux amis rednecks les attendait, mais l’appel du bateau, naufragé sur la plage, était trop puissant. Donc, ils se sont perdus. Ensemble.

Rendu au milieu du Fleuve, le bateau, la chaloupe vraiment, devenait de plus en plus instable. Très instable, et comme plusieurs auparavant, ils ont tombé a l’eau, allo, vous êtes la, loin de moi? Allo, je suis prêt, tout comme toi?

Les deux, amoureux, romantiques, dans la belle, vielle ville sur la colline, sont morts dans le fleuve. Tout s’est passé tellement vite, un petit cri, porté sur le vent, Quinn je pense, mais qui peut dire? Quel dommage extrême. Je pleurais et je pleure encore. Je pleure encore, car Champlain lui, n’a pas calé, il a survécu, et il y a maintenant de nombreux monuments en son nom où il y avait auparavant des actes de violence terrible fait en nos noms.

Morts, sont les amoureux, les gens en amour, les gens qui résistent encore Champlain, Leroux, Larocque, Cartier. Résistent du fond de leur Coeur, durcit avec 4 siècles de célébration intime. Pourquoi célébrer, nous nous demandons? Pourquoi en effet, célébrer la mort de tous ces jeunes gens?

La belle ville sur la colline, la plus belle ville sur le continent on nous dit. Belle. Vieille. Fortifiée. Hantée partout par des vies éteindus avant qu’il devraient l’être. Des fantômes, j’en ai vu moi, dans les fenêtres du château.

é + dans la ville de québec, pratiquement désenchanté