Saturday, April 25, 2009

Job Hunting in Stoke Newington

The sub-borough separating Gina's flat in super trendy Angel from mine, in the heart of Hasidic culture, was a bohemian division called Stoke Newington.  

For me, it was the closest area for pubs, bookstores, a big family park, farmer's markets, local arts, and a larger (better) supermarket chain than my local Somerfields.

For residents of Angel, it was a place best avoided, as it embodied all the dirtier sides of modern London, with its large, blue-collar Irish population, its infamy in the cocaine trade, and the innumerable cigarette-fogged basements where slam poets, folk bands, political focus groups, and everything in between met with no accounting for the style, privilege, and overall propriety of Islington's artistic standards.

Since I was desperate for any sort of part time work, I knew Stamford Hill wasn't an option.  My little division of Hackney was almost entirely residential, claiming only one supermarket, a Dominos, and a few privately owned bakeries and kosher butcher shops.  There were a few other attempts at industry, including the creepiest toy store I've ever seen, full of whirring and bobbling ancient toy mechanisms grinning at you vacantly from their perches in front of the dusty shop windows, and a wedding dress boutique with options so comically horrible that it was one of the first stops I'd make when someone came to visit my side of town.

Stoke Newington was the obvious option for me, and (perhaps shockingly) the least scary of the sub-divisions in the other three directions - Finsbury Park, Hackney Wick, and Seven Sisters.  I'd spent little time exploring the area, having seen it most from bus windows coming to and from Gina's, but there were lots of shops and pubs that were probably a good starting ground for my CV distributing spree.

I decided I shouldn't even spend the 90p on a bus ride, and just walk the 30 minutes or so between my flat and the main hub of Stoke Newington.

I tried to dress relatively professionally, which perhaps wasn't the most strategic move for walking around London, and set out for Stokie's main road, which wasn't the high street, but rather the Church Street which led from the famous Abney Park Cemetery to the big Tudor steeple at Clissold Crescent attached to a renovated church called St. Mary's.

On the way, I dropped off my CV at a pub called The Bird Cage (not what you're picturing), one called The Three Crowns, which I later found out was a creepy incestuous pub operation that stiffed "outside hires," and a small organic market.  

I'd always intended to drop off my CV at Maggie's.  The little pub had caught my eye every time I took the bus home from Gina's, mostly because it looked more like an American bar than a British pub, and it occasionally seemed to sport bouncers or people charging admission for the blaring music rattling the glass doors (I'd later find out, these were just squatters having a two hour cigarette break at the table Maggie put outside).

In the afternoon, Maggie's didn't have the same glow-y bar effect it sported at night, but I noticed a petite blonde woman sweeping the doorstep out front, and decided to try my luck.

"Excuse me," I said.  "Are they hiring?"

She looked up, leaned back on her broom and squinted at me.  When she spoke, it was in a pleasant County Cork accent.  "Yep. You have experience?" 

"A bit," I answered truthfully, holding out my last CV.  I wasn't sure if serving cocktails at Universal Studios was really relevant to pulling pints at a pub in London.  I'd done one other trial night at a different pub, so I at least sort of understood the concept of pouring a Guinness at this point.

"Okay," she said, taking the CV but not looking at it, "come back at 10 for a trial."  She gave a long appraising look to my white button down and knee-length black skirt.  "Er ... wear whatever ye like," she said.  "It's casual."

She immediately went back to sweeping without looking up again. 

I took the hint, and immediately headed home to fish out my most casual jeans and a tee shirt for that night.  I hadn't asked if the trial was paid, how much she paid anyway, what hours were available, or any of the usual employment rigamarole.  I never ended up getting a straight answer about any of that anyway, but I'm not sure I would have at the forefront, even if I'd asked.

The truth was, I'd later learn that Maggie probably never looked at my CV and she likely didn't care how much experience I had.  She needed a weekend barmaid who'd be nice to look at for the gig crowds and she knew that my American accent made me a conversation piece.  I wish I'd known that my first night.  It would've helped a lot with my nervousness.

So, bundled in my thin white overcoat, which was progressively becoming insufficient for the dropping temperatures, I splurged for the bus to Stoke Newington that night.  I even headed out a bit early, hoping to make a good impression.  

To your generic office drone type, my next few weeks at Maggie's would likely look like a pointless smudge on my career record, a waste of valuable time sliding Kronenburgs across the bar to dead-end laborers and being paid a pittance, but, oh the things I learned over the next month.

A waste of time, it might have been, but looking back on the experience objectively, I do not regret it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

When I got to London - Pt. 2

I remember waking up one afternoon to the gray haze of an autumn drizzle glowing in through my tiny window.  I remember twisting onto my back, tangled in my new red sheets to stare at the distorted reflections of dripping water on my ceiling, and thinking about how I'd adjusted so far to my new home.

Living with me in the synagogue were an assortment of other 20-somethings from around Europe, including a Polish girl named Aga whose room was across the hall from mine.

Aga had been living there for about six years and had spent the whole time working in customer service for Eurostar.  Though she seemed to like me, she had an astounding temper, and would frequently scream things in Polish and slam doors if something displeased her.  She mostly seemed to take issue with the Eastern European couple on our floor, which I resolved was better than her taking issue with me.

As far as the job hunt went, I'd been shortlisted for an editorial position at an independent film company, but was never even called in for an interview.  I'd also registered at a media recruitment agency on Poland Street, which also never amounted to anything.  So, needless to say, I was feeling pretty dejected.

A few halfhearted trips to the BUNAC offices to look through the job postings, or to send out my CV to internet listings were equally fruitless, and perhaps the truth was that I was enjoying the unemployed life a bit too much to really throw myself into it.

Gina and I met frequently to take days to places like Hampstead Heath, where we'd lay in the grass, secluded in the little glades that dot the massive reserve, and watch the clouds go by; or to sit at a fountain in Hyde Park with cheese and crackers and sink into our respective reading material.

London was golden and red with autumn, and the call of the little park across from my flat, or taking a day to explore the South Bank or trek to the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe to do research, were just too seductive.  That is, until my funds started running incredibly short.

What I resolved that afternoon, staring at my ceiling after a mid-Wednesday nap, was that I needed to find anything to supplement my income while I was still searching for media work.  

I pulled myself out of bed and into a pair of waterproof boots, threw open my umbrella, and headed out to take the tube to Farringdon, where I would print out a handful of CV's and march up and down the high street until I found gainful employment.

What I stumbled onto the next day would dramatically affect my London experience, and put me into some of the most terrifying and exceptional situations I've ever been in.  

Obviously, I had no idea what would follow when I approached a little Irish woman sweeping a pub doorstep in Stoke Newington the next day.  

Her name was Maggie.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Birthday Weekend

As though my recent moments of panic over what direction my life is headed in haven't been stressful enough, on Friday, without much pomp or circumstance, I turned 23.  

The first half of the day was rather a nightmare, as I had to get up early and clean the house, meet the girls for lunch, and find them in an unusually bad mood.  Then, to top it off, I found out that my employer seems to think she owes me 150€ less than she actually does ... this is an issue I still haven't resolved and am perpetually stressed out by.

I was pretty much living for late afternoon, when I could drive up to a little village in the French/Italian borderlands called Oulx to meet my boyfriend for his weekend visit.  My friend Mimmi managed to drag me to a French class to get my mind off of the money issue for the few hours before, but it was hard to focus, and the coursework was a humbling experience.

I ended up leaving the house over half an hour early and driving up the mountain leading to Italy.  I hit a snowstorm in Montgenevre, but, mercifully, I've made the drive so many times that I didn't feel threatened or nervous driving through it.  Soon enough, I'd arrived to the all-too-familiar view of Oulx Station.

I met James on the platform as the familiar double-decker Trenitalia service from Torino rolled into the station, a journey which we've both taken countless times, since the nearest airport to my tiny village is Turin.  

The snow had started to clear, so the drive back to Serre Chevalier was a quick 45 minutes.  

Both too exhausted to bother with much in the way of dinner, we ended up at the local McDonalds, which has been an adventure in ordering in French for both of us over the past few months, and slumped into the plastic booth, just happy to finally be together again.

The next day was when actual festivities were planned to celebrate.  Originally, we'd wanted to have a bonfire in the woods with my fellow au pairs, including lots of cheap wine and snacks, but the spring weather here in the Alps has been quite rainy and cold, and it became apparent pretty early in the day that it wasn't going to work out.  

So, we decided that we'd go for tapas in the historic Old Town instead, and then maybe head out for drinks following.  James and I spent the day around Briançon, the biggest village in the resort.  

I brought him to my favorite burger place, where we both promptly consumed far too much, and then up to the Old Town to buy gifts for our moms (blueberry mustard for mine, handmade french soaps for his), and one of the villages patented sundial necklaces.  It started to rain, giant, sharp dollops of freezing water, and we were forced to race back down the stone steps to my car, attempting to duck under as many shop canopies as possible to stay dry.

Needless to say it took some quick repair work to be ready for my birthday dinner.  I opted to wear the shoes James had gotten me for my birthday - a beautiful pair of turquoise brocade shoes with see-through heels.
We met some of the other au pairs at a tapas bar across from the giant church in the Old Town called Spirit, and tucked in for dinners of chili con carne or curry with a big bottle of French rosé provided by the restaurant owner at a discounted price.

Dinner was an emotional affair for me, as the music selection in the restaurant twice played songs I strongly associate with my late stepfather, who passed away on my sixteenth birthday, seven years ago, including the song we chose for his funeral procession.  This was a bittersweet thing, both a painful reminder of loss, and a comforting sense of presence at my dinner, halfway around the world from where I'd lived at the time.

Afterward involved going for drinks at our favorite haunt, a Danish bar in town called Saloon, and a brief trip to a night club across the street.  We parted ways agreeing to meet the following day for Saloon's farewell bbq, as all the bartenders are headed back to Denmark this week.

To wrap things up in a less-than-graceful manner, the bbq was probably the highlight of the weekend for us.  We got there in the afternoon and stayed for about twelve hours, drinking for free, and making conversation with anyone nearby.  

It serves as what will likely be remembered for me as the finale of my time here (allowing I don't come back in the summer), from watching people dance on bar chairs to in depth conversation with people I thought I already knew, to the end of the night playing fetch with a giant stray dog outside of the Saloon while we waited for the guys to finish evicting an enraged drunk girl.

It was hard to say goodbye as James headed back to England yesterday morning, knowing it'll be almost three weeks before I see him again, and we're headed to Florida for our big holiday, but I think that I can safely say that I've finally had a birthday that lives up to the year that I turned 20 ... which I thought I'd never outdo.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

When I got to London - Pt. 1

The last I left this blog, I was about to board a second plane into the unknown with about £1000 and two suitcases.  

I spent my last night in Florida in a hotel room on International Drive with  my mom, whom I'd been arguing with non-stop since missing the initial flight, and her girlfriend, Diane.

Unable to sleep that night, I left the hotel room to walk around the cheesy, resort-style pool, an area decorated with a bunch of over-groomed palm trees, strategically lit water, and ping pong tables.  I sat on a plastic beach chair, staring out at the water with a mixture of blind fear and excited apprehension.  I knew I was making the right decision, terrifying as it may have been.

My mother and I managed to make nice before I went through the international terminal at the Orlando airport the next afternoon, and parted happily at the gate. Somehow, I managed to walk with composure through the boarding gate and onto the plane, right to the emergency row, where I'd spend the next eight hours chatting with my neighbor, a fun Canadian girl off to visit family, and being repeatedly bumped into by drunken first-classers wanting the toilet.

Gina met me at the airport, looking as sunny and fresh as I looked haggard and exhausted.  We boarded the Heathrow tube and took it to a subdivision of Islington called Angel, where she'd recently moved in with a seemingly-normal couple comprising of a Cuban man and a German woman with a decidedly bohemian disposition.  Refusing to let me nap, Gina immediately started emailing potential landlords, and pushing me to put on something warmer so we could go get dinner.

I know now that we were at the Spaghetti House in Covent Garden, but at the time, everything was just a blur of total exhaustion.  I had some pasta dish I probably couldn't afford then allowed Gina to literally steer me down the street, back onto the tube, and then mercifully, into bed.  

The next morning, after figuring out how to activate my timewarp of a cell phone, we started to look at apartments.  What we saw ranged from the terrifying (half a room with a washing machine inside shared with four Eastern European guys), to simply uncomfortable (bedsit with an elderly gay man in a renovated council flat in Whitechapel, who had only a bathtub with no shower, and required his flatmates to also be his friends).  

I'm not sure when it registered that we'd hit gold upon finding my home-to-be.  It definitely wasn't an instant thing as we tentatively walked through the largest Hasidic community in Europe, even passing by a yellow house with a massive Menorah affixed to the front wall, or when we met my future landlord, a portly Hasidic man named Asher, who shook my hand, even though I was later to realize it was a taboo for him to touch the flesh of a female he wasn't related to.

The house was a duplex, half of which was used as a synagogue, particularly for Sabbath worship (which is Saturday in Jewish culture).  My room was located at the top of the narrow boarding-house division, up a flight of very stereotypical crooked stairs, with red ermine carpeting that may have been there for the past hundred years.

On the top floor, we had a small kitchen with a tiny wooden table, suited for one or two people, and two bathrooms.  My room came with a desk, a television, chest of drawers, and a twin sized bed with no bedding.  My window faced only the roof of the adjacent house, and there was a working sink tucked behind the door with a small medicine cabinet.  It was perfect.

I agreed to move in the following day.

A Bashful Return

So, I know it's been almost a year since I moved to England and abandoned this blog completely.  It's been an eventful eight months, during which I've seen a great deal of exotic places, entertained three jobs, and gotten into my first adult relationship.

Truth be told, for the first five months or so, I was just cheating on this blog with another blog, but that didn't work out so well.  So, now I've come crawling back - for the time being - though I still might just import this whole thing over to wordpress, since my brief affair over there did expose me to some advantages that are pretty hard to ignore.

Presently, I'm sitting at the kitchen table in a little cottage nestled deep in the French Alps, eating salted fries (or chips) off of a plate, and debating what my next step will be.  James, the aforementioned other half, thinks it's a good idea for me to start recounting all I've been through over the past several months, in order to re-stimulate my writing processes (which have admittedly gone a bit stale over the winter) and to help me reflect on what I've gained out here and what I want to pursue next.

Right now, I'm an au pair in a ski resort for two beautiful girls with a Scottish mum and a French dad.  They're bilingual, which helps me on the professional level, but doesn't do much for my French learning curve.  In fact, it's even started to affect the way I speak English.  ie. Why you is not meet us at thee bus?

My original plan (as far as it went), was to stay here until September - with a two month break in May and June which I'd spend visiting home and doing a bit of backpacking to the homes of some of the international friends I've made over the past few months.  However, I'm not sure if that's going to work out, and even if it does, money is running out and I haven't got a plan for what follows.

So, my options are in a continual juggle.  Am I moving to Australia to try to find media work?  Getting my TEFL and teaching English in Prague?  What about graduate school?  Why not just go all in and move to a hut in Bali for the next two years, selling seashell sculptures to tourists?  Etc. etc. etc.  It's really a great big vortex of confusion.

I don't know how to even begin to sculpt seashells.

Anyway, maybe James has a point, and I should reflect.  It looks like I'm reflecting in that photo above, but really, I'm just asking my friend Catharina if she's taken the damn photo yet.  I aspire to reach the level of zen that is portrayed in that photo. 

Anyway, sorry for the short absence to my spattering of readers.  Let's get this thing going again.