Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Christmas in Madrid

Its mid December and Christmas has finally settled in Madrid. The un-hurried, leisurely constuction of temporary markets and festive displays has been completed. Plazas are now congested with an unbelievable array of tatty christmas decorations and kitsch toys, and the christmas lights, flicked on unceremoniously last week, twinkle brightly for an energy-efficient, budget-friendly six hours every evening.

Despite the deceptively laid-back build-up, there is nothing quite like the crazy carnival that is Christmas in Madrid - albeit the city´s festivities are more fitting for Halloween or April Fools Day than for Father Christmas. Santa Claus hats have been replaced by ridiculous wigs more suitable for 60s rockers than St. Nick, mince pies have been swapped for blocks of turrón and steaming cups of mulled wine are nowhere to be seen. Similarly, the christmas jingles lovingly recycled annually on British radio, though often a trigger of weary grumbles about premature christmas cheer at home, are poignantly absent here. For me, the old adage ´There´s no place like home´ has never been truer.

However, strange as it is, the inevitable pangs of pre-Christmas homesickness have been accompanied by a new-found appreciation for the spanish perspective. For example, in sharp contrast to the furious Christmas marketing drive of shops in England, it is refreshing that in Spain, amidst the frenzied, pre-Christmas spending, not even the leading department stores, primely located in shopping hotspots, will consider opening their doors before 10am.

There is clearly reason behind the shops opening hours. Madrid stays up late and wakes up slowly. When you stroll through the centre at night, be it Sunday or Friday, 9pm or 5am, the city is always a hive of activity. In contrast, in the morning the centre is like a ghost town, sparsely scattered with a few newspaper vendors and jaded party-goers from the night before. In fact, when walking to work last Saturday morning, I was accosted by a persistent morrocan intent on selling me marijuana. He had clearly mistaken me for someone on their return from a night on the town rather than a professional on route to work (a sad testament to my appearance early in the morning).

By the afternoon the city has risen from slumber and the central plazas throng with crowds. Locals wait in a long, winding line to buy lottery tickets from kiosks, keen shoppers jostle through the streets laden with bags, and lengthy queues outside gather the main museums. Parque del Retiro, the city´s treasured green space, is also humming with activity by the afternoon. Market vendors, street performers and palm readers line the main promenade, roller-bladers and skaters make loops around the roundabouts, runners puff their way around the perimeter and police horses patrol the main monuments.

Blessed with weather where rain is an outside possibility and sunshine is expected, spaniards of all ages make the most of being outside, be it crisp and cold or warm and summery.This weekend, when running through the rustic reds and golds of Retiro beneath crisp blue skies, I passed an assembly of well-dressed pensioners playing bowls with a slab of slate and a crumpled can of Pepsi. Although unable to understand their gruff, incomprehensible spanish, I occasionally heard a trademark ´¡Ole!´ after a successful shot.

It is promising that, despite longing for christmas festivities with family and friends, mince pies and mulled wine, I am still being charmed by spanish foibles. One can´t help but raise a smile when, for the price of a lemonade, you are dished out a plate of tapas big enough to serve as dinner! Although weary now, I hope that, following two weeks of home comforts and long, easy chats with old friends, I will be fresh faced and enthusiastic when I return to Madrid in January.

Thursday, 18 November 2010


I am now into my third month here in Madrid.When I moved, I envisaged these first three months as something of a trial period, after which I could justifiably retreat back home if it had been a catastrophe. Happily, I have survived without any major disasters and as yet, have no intention of retreat.

However, although I still cock a smile at Spanish idiosyncracies and relish waking up to blue skies most mornings, I think it is fair to say the Honeymoon Period is over. It´s not that I am no longer captivated by the bubbly language, exuberant culture and unhurried etiquette, but rather my enchantment with Madrid has been slightly tarnished by occasional longings to go home.

When gloomily pining for London over a bowl of soup recently, a friend advised me to google ´culture shock´. According to Wikipedia, culture shock is something that most people experience when moving abroad: after the excitement of arriving in a new place subsides, anxiety and insecurity set in – with physical and emotional symptoms. Perhaps this is a bit dramatic to refer to relocations within Europe, but it does have some resonance for me.

My initial enthusiasm to meet charming, welcoming locals has unwittingly been replaced by a foot-dragging reluctanct to date supposedly charming, Latino strangers; the refreshingly laid-back, everything-in-your-own-time service has become infuriatingly inefficient; sipping a Fanta Limón while propped up against a bustling bar has lost its appeal and instead I´m craving a squashy chair and a pot of Earl Grey...

Whereas I previously enjoyed never quite understanding the day-to-day happenings (considering it as something of an opportunity to live in my own bubble), after a series of back-to-back confusions I am now weary of total incomprehension and fed up of never knowing what the hell is going on. The initial enthusiasm has subsided and left me feeling distinctly frayed around the edges: permanently chasing sleep and pining for a city where I can understand the barman and a friendly shoulder is never far away.

Last weekend I allowed myself a guilt-free break from all things Spanish, indulging my pangs of nostalgia in an Irish pub in the North of the city. I spent a happy afternoon drinking pints, watching rugby on a big screen and chatting to a Londoner who could have walked straight off the set of Only Fools and Horses. Two games and four pints later, I left feeling comforted and revived (probably the result of the Heineken more than anything).

By no means am I having second thoughts about moving to Madrid. On the contrary, I´m even more impatient to graduate from broken spanglish to fluent spanish: when communication isn´t such a fiasco I know I will feel more of a local and less of a tourist. As and when that happens, sporadic weekends of all-things-English and visits from friends will be sufficient to ease the waves of homesickness and to refocus my rose-tinted spectacles firmly on Madrid.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Being on the wrong side of the blackboard

Having spent an unsuccessful two months meticulously editing cover letters and labouring over lengthy job applications, when I arrived in Madrid in September and flip-flopped into a language school armed only with a crumpled CV, I didn´t hold out much hope of getting an interview. As such, I was gobsmacked when after a chaotic twenty minutes I left with a job. After talking to other teachers, I soon realised that their TEFL qualifications (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) are the result of a four week residential training camp. In comparison, my seventy hour online TEFL certificate seems flimsy to say the least. Indeed, when I started the course I never anticipated that I would actually end up teaching - part of me had hoped that my half-hearted efforts to secure a position in a language school would fall flat and I would be able to retreat to the familiarity of working in an Irish pub. Instead, I have had to confront the laughable reality that I am a teacher.

In addition to being hideously underqualified, I also feel ridiculously young to be a teacher, and I quote one of my students here: “You´re not actually a teacher are you?” To say I´m learning on the job seems to be something of an understatement. After four weeks I´m still far from comfortable with blackboard, chalk and a roomful of expectant faces. Although all of the classes are exclusively in English, I have found it hard to relax into the comfort of my mother tongue, and often find myself freestyling my way through confused explanations of English grammar. Despite studying English, when it comes to explaining the idiosyncracies and foibles of a language, my knowledge fails me. Phrasal verbs have become the bane of my life. Sometimes there just is no rhyme or reason as to why things are the way things are, yet when faced blank incomprehension, the explanation, “this is an exception to the rule”, isn´t quite substantial.

My three hours of classes with children are also something of a challenge. Although gaps in my knowledge of English are less apparent, being bubbly and enthusiastic about farmyard animals at 7pm is a difinitive struggle. After a painful few weeks inflicting worksheet upon worksheet upon reluctant ten-year-olds, I have resorted to non-stop games. I´ll take games and smiles over education and frowns any day!

Grammatical improvisation and children aside, its not all been bad. I have generally been blessed with lovely, understanding, encouraging students. One invited me to the dress rehearsal of the National Orchestra of Spain, where I spent a surreal Friday morning sitting amidst the orchestra as it played Mozart´s Requiem. Another, mortified to learn that I don´t eat jamón, whisked me off to a vegetarian restaurant for a two course lunch after class. My apprehension about intensive one-on-one private classes also proved to be misplaced. I have found myself having long chats in beautiful flats with incredibly interesting people, including most recently a journalist who travels the world producing documentaries.

I am slowly coming round to the idea that teaching could be a better option than pulling pints in an Irish pub. Despite the fact that by teaching English all day my level of Spanish is remaining stubbornly low, my standard of English is coming on in leaps and bounds, and I am slowly adjusting to being the one conducting the class. In fact, now that the tables have turned on me, I keep having nostalgic pangs for university. As an unsympathetic student I would frequently criticise stilted lesson plans or boring lecturers. Now, I know I would be much more forgiving!

Friday, 1 October 2010

Lost at sea

I have now been ´living la vida loca´here in Madrid for near on three weeks. As you would expect, it´s not been at all difficult to adjust to the long afternoons sipping sangria in a sun-soaked plaza. I´ve simply swapped the umbrella normally resident in my handbag for a pair of sunnies and bullied my bodyclock into increasingly late dinners. Now, I´m happily ordering tapas when English pubs are called last orders, can navigate the city without frequently consulting the map and have sussed out a local fruit and veg market.

However, it hasn´t been quite so easy to immerse myself into the rapid garble that is naturally spoken spanish, and more often than not, I am lost at sea amidst the surrounding Spanish chatter. It seems that briefly revising my A-level notes and watching Sex and the City dubbed into Spanish has left me ill-prepared for day-to-day conversation. My ability seems to vary hugely depending on time of day, amount of sleep and quantity of alcohol consumed. Whereas at times I´m confident with full sentences (albeit littered with incorrect conjugations) at others I find myself having to supplement my shamelessly stilted spanglish with extravagant gestures such that I may as well be playing charades.

Likewise, despite having Radio Nacional de Espana permanently buzzing in the background, my ears stubbornly refuse to digest spoken spanish. I´ve adjusted by trying to read body language - smiling in all the right places, laughing where appropriate and nodding throughout conversations. However, my already short attention span has been magnified by incomprehension and I often find myself pondering over a particular grammar construction or preparing my next sentence mid-conversation. This makes dialogue even more hazardous as it is nigh on impossible to pick up the thread of a story half way through. Only occasionally do I manage to hesitantly mumble a short sentence or question - on what I hope is a related subject.

However, although I seem to spend a lot of time in a British bubble, I´m hugely impatient to be able to seamlessly flick my brain into Spanish mode, and every successful conversation I have with a spaniard triggers a flush of pride and encouragement. I´ve recently started targeting a local café when I can attach a short conversation to every drink ordered. Obviously, success rate varies in almost direct proportion to the number of drinks consumed, but I´m slowly getting to know the spanish crowd there.

I´m going to give myself until Christmas...

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Sunshine, tapas, beautiful plazas… and unnecessarily complex grammatical gobbledegook

I have recently returned from a long weekend in Madrid. In preparation for uprooting to the Spanish capital in September, I spent the few days I had there optimistically searching for flats and potential employers.

Although my search was fruitless, after flip-flopping my way through the various barrios in Madrid, map in one hand dictionary in the other, I do feel I got a basic hold on the geography of the city. Having walked in disorientated circles for the first few days, by the end of the trip I had discovered short routes to my favourite people-watching hot spots – the Plaza Mayor being the prime location.

The enormous square seems to have been purpose-built for watching the world meander past, and with buskers serenading tables at restaurants, artists showing exhibitions of their work and a curiously out-of-place, overweight Spiderman flogging photographs to Americans, there is no end of entertainment for interested onlookers. I also got a good feel for ‘la vida en españa’. I enjoyed lingering over ‘tortillas de patatas’ at lunchtime, soaking up the sunshine with a beer in the evening and dining out when English pubs would be calling last orders.

The language however was something else: my A level Spanglish was wholly inadequate. I was totally nonplussed when listening to the rapid garble that is naturally spoken Spanish and was completely incomprehensible to any native speaker, stuttering nonsensical sentences that were littered with incorrectly conjugated verbs and limited by a miserably small range of vocabulary.

As such, on returning last week I was compelled to delve into my old Spanish grammar notes with a certain urgency. The prospect of returning in September to a job hunt with only a stilted command of Spanish was a powerful incentive to go back to the books.

Sadly, my dip into Spanish grammar has revealed a general knowledge of grammar that is severely lacking. A complex jumble of possessive adjectives, prepositional pronouns and reflexive verbs, multiple past tenses, auxiliary verbs and subjunctive moods, I can barely understand it in English let alone Spanish. I can’t help but feel hopelessly out of my depth!

Not to be put off, I have decided to adopt a different style of self-teaching. Rather than bash my brain with over-complicated grammatical jargon, I have resorted to a less direct approach, relying on ‘learning by immersion in the language’. This tactic has enabled me to abandon the tortuous monotony of grammar drills in favour of watching episodes of ‘Sex and the City’ in Spanish, listening to Spanish radio and perusing Spanish magazines.

Watch this space…

Friday, 30 July 2010

There is something to be said for not being in the know

With the prospect of a job interview looming uncertainly on the horizon I was recently prompted to delve into the newspapers, resolving that it was time to abandon my current self-imposed oblivion in order to appear well-informed.

It was only a brief foray. There wasn’t much in the paper that didn’t make me sink into a moody glumness and, before long, I was desperately searching for a valid distraction to justify chucking it into the recycling. The front page read: “Fit to work test blocks 76% of benefit claims” and “Energy revolution could put bills up by a third”. S n o o o o o o z z z z z e e e…

Sadly, the pace didn’t pick up as I leafed through the subsequent pages: depressing trends from yesteryear to further compound the recession-blues, demoralising predictions about everything from the moral worth of our children to the property market, spine-chilling horror stories about grizzly assaults, ‘pioneering’ medical research that either confirms the bloody obvious or conflicts with every grain of common sense (the latest being a report that alcohol can reduce arthritis, which was ironically juxtaposed next to an article about closing pubs earlier).

Amidst this humdrum jumble of dreary news I did stumble across a couple of livelier stories. My favourite part of the paper was undoubtedly the small corner of space headlined, “Mother finds five-foot snake in the laundry”. In fact, it wasn’t just a good corner but a good page, the rest being taken up by a large, colour photograph of two swallows having a spat. Another page that stood out from the dull offerings featured an article about a woman who ended up swimming 64 miles when crossing the 21mile Channel. Now that is the sort of thing I want to read over breakfast to ease me into the day - not that authorities are planning on closing pubs early!

In addition to rooting out the upbeat reports sandwiched between the monotony, I also discovered that once you have trudged through the national news, World News is a breeze in comparison. What’s going on in China is generally much more interesting than happenings in the UK. In optimistic anticipation of this potential interview, my new tactic is to fast track my way through the papers straight to World News. At least that way I will look up-to-date globally.

I recognise that it pays to be well-informed, and that papers can't just print light-hearted, annecodotal stories to make the public smile. I can understand that unfortunately, more often than not, important issues make for boring reading. However, does the British press need to be quite so cynical and negative about the future? Do they really need to devote so much space to stats about last year? Does the public really need yet more conflicting medical advice?

However, perhaps my frustration with national news is misplaced. Maybe I am just reading the wrong paper!

Friday, 16 July 2010

The gothic fantasies of Gormenghast

Keeping faithfully to my pledge to avoid the doomladen headlines about graduate employment emblazoned across the papers this summer, I have been slowly wading through a stack of dust-coated books languishing on shelves in the attic. Despite stellar recommendations from my Dad, when I approached Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, it was with a certain amount of trepidation. With over 1200 pages of small print and narrow margins it looked to be a weighty undertaking. Initially, my hesitation seemed to have been justified: curling up in bed to the opening chapter I found my mind frequently sliding off on a tangent and I ended up having to read the first page several times.

Once critic described the trilogy as ‘a gargantuan feast’, which is an apt metaphor. Though initially daunted by the scale and detail of the books, it wasn’t long before I was swept up and adrift in the mysterious fantasies of Gormenghast, devouring chapter after chapter. Like nothing I have ever read before, the Gormenghast books conjured images beyond my imagination - a creaking kingdom hiding a wealth of secrets and housing complex, idiosyncratic characters, a vast world with an overwhelming aura of mystery, an atmosphere heavy with suspense and anticipation.

I couldn’t help but be amazed at the breadth of Peake's imagination and marvel at how he managed to translate his visions into such stark visual images. He seems to have used words as a painter would experiment with different colours and textures, and I was frequently groping for a dictionary. Curious about the man behind Gormenghast, I recently read ‘A World Away’, a biography of Mervyn Peake written by his wife, Mauve Gilmore. My admiration for Peake grew as I was temporarily immersed in the exciting, artistic bohemia of 1930s Britain, discovering him to be not only a novelist, but also a poet, painter and playwright. However, his wife regretfully describes him as "A shadow. A man with a shadow”. Tragically, he was diagnosed with premature senility at only 46.

Pondering Peake’s sad fate, I began to question whether great artists are prone to suffer or have suffered from some sort of mental turmoil and ostracism from society. Certainly lots of the big names seem to be marked out from the crowd, whether it is by some tragedy in their past, a distinguishing characteristic or an illness. To mention some of those I have studied: the novelist Hermann Hesse was deeply immersed in mental physchoanalysis, journalist Joseph Roth was a Jew living in Germany and author Christopher Isherwood was a homosexual foreigner in 1920s Berlin. Does their artistic insight and sensitivity result in their being slightly removed from the mainstream? Or does their being removed from the mainstream stimulate their art?

I mulled this over for a good few days before realising that I was in fact debating the topic that I wrote my dissertation on. 15,000 words analysing whether the artist is an outsider. Should I be disheartened that I so easily forgot the result of 9 months hard toil? Or should I be reassured that my fascination with the artist still holds strong despite those 9 months?

Either way, I clearly need to reread the conclusion!

Saturday, 26 June 2010

A bruising bump back to reality

When I was lounging on the sun-kissed shores of South East Asia, lost in a carefree, take-every-day-as-it-comes bubble, the thought of returning home and actively seeking out the humdrum routine of a 9 to 5 office job filled me with mortal dread.

As it turns out, I couldn't have picked a better time to return if I'd tried. I stumbled groggily off the plane into a bustling house full of family, flutes of champagne and a tableful of Mediterranean delicacies, and after a night cocooned in a fluffy cotton duvet, I awoke to a blissful mugful of steaming, strong Yorkshire tea. Over the next few days I soaked up an England basking in the glorious sunshine of a long overdue heat wave: pristine blue skies, long, balmy evenings and summery breezes that carry aromas of freshly mown grass and sausages sizzling on a BBQ - a far cry from the smoggy humidity of last weekend in Bangkok.

However, although the World Cup revelry and festival fervour of this British summertime has undoubtedly cushioned my return home, it has been a bruising bump back to reality. The happy-go-lucky mindset I accrued when travelling has already been swept away by the pressing uncertainty of what on earth to do next. I have attempted to prolong my relaxed-and-in-limbo psyche: reading novels rather than newspapers, wearing flip flops instead of high heels and avoiding makeup and smart clothes. However, my efforts, though admittedly meagre, have been fruitless. Despite pledging to carefully research working abroad before embarking on the inevitably demoralising job hunt, I have unwittingly become immersed in a frantic job hunt. Within a few days of my return I was wading through endless job listings, panicking over rapidly looming application deadlines and attending gloomy careers fairs that lamented on budget cuts.

This week I have resolved to take a step back. Armed with sunglasses, a bikini and an unread copy of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast I'm planning to revive the tranquil, serene approach to the future that I found in South East Asia. Recruitment websites, job specs and application forms will be carefully stowed in a draw for at least two days in the hope that, whether I end up working 9 to 5 in the city or on a flight out of Europe, it will have been a carefully thought out decision!

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

A peaceful paradise by day, a non-stop party-goers haven by night

Cystal clear, turquoise waters twinkling and glistening in the sun as they lap softly against the shores; crumbly, white sands curved in a gentle semi-circle; beaches enclosed by dramatic, craggy cliffs spurting tufts of jungle and fronted by gently swaying palm trees... There's a reason why travellers are always reluctant to leave the islands of South Thailand.

As the sun sets on this peaceful paradise the beachside serenity of the day is transformed. Sleepy shores become the crazed centre of drunken debauchery and all-night dancing. Nonchalent locals wow with daring fire display that mesmerise onlookers with hypnotic spins and swirls and the shores are cluttering with stalls selling lethal cocktail concoctions by the bucket.

It wasn't exactly authentic Thailand, Westerners substantially outnumbering Thai people, but after 9 weeks of exhaustive sight-seeing we were more than ready for such beachside hedonism. Although we crossed paths briefly with loud gaggles of those on a post-uni booze-up, when the islands felt more like Magaluf or Marbella than East Asia, dancing until the sun rises is something I can't wait to do again. I am already planning my next trip!

Monday, 24 May 2010

The contrasts of Cambodia...

I was slightly apprehensive about traveling through Cambodia, expecting a bruised country still reeling from its terrible history. Indeed, walking through the bare corridors of S21 - a school that became a torture prison - and visiting the Killing Fields - where the grassy meadow hides exhumed mass graves and features a tower of human skulls - a chill ran down my spine despite the scorching temperatures.

However, when exploring the cosmopolitan Phnom Penh, soaking up the beachside hedonism of Sihanoukville or sipping a drink on the bubbling streets of Siem Reap, such horrors seemed far away. In fact, the towering temple ruins surrounding Ankor Wat, now slowly being digested by the Cambodian jungle, herald another history entirely: a forgotten age of splendour and magnificence.

As much as I enjoyed bouncing through the tourist hotspots, I do feel that I only glimpsed slices of the real Cambodia: a solitary man with a chequered cloth wrapped about his waist laboriously ploughing the stiff, dry fields behind two cows; clustered lines of tin shacks and thatched huts; lethally persuasive child vendors; family homes used as factories to produce rice, mushrooms or noodles.

A nation full of friendly smiles, I'm only sorry not to have seen more of authentic Cambodia.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Seven weeks gone, six to go...

Despite having spent the last few days beach-bound and engulfed in the eloquence of a Charlotte Bronte novel, when pondering how to express my impressions of Vietnam I struggled to find the words, let alone fit them into comprehensible sentences. However, with only a few days left before entering country number four of this trip, I have tried to get something down before my before my brain becomes addled by more new sights, sounds and smells.

Occasionally disheartened by a hostile scam and at others blown away by seeing first-hand the scars of an incredible history, I was fascinated by the buzzing culture of the Vietnamese people. From a war-scarred Hue, where hills are pockmarked with countless unnamed cemeteries and American bullets still litter the surroundings of bomb-shattered ruins; to the Parisien charm of Hoi An, abound with talented tailors, handicrafts and fiercely shrew barterers; to the hoardes of motorbikes teaming along the cluttered streets of Hanoi; to the sleepy, unconcerned lethargy of the Mui Nee coastline, Vietnam is incredibly diverse.

In a country of such contrasts - fertile pine forests in the mountains, home to row upon row of carefully manicured vegetable patches, rolling hillocks of coffee plantations and death-defying ropewire bridges; watery fields of fresh-green rice paddies; sandy red plains near the coastline - the journey through 'Naam' was a rollercoaster ride in every sense of the word and I felt like I was in a different country at every turn!

On a different note, in my nervous anticipation of travelling for three months I expected that, however much I would enjoy exploring unknown cultures, cuisines, coastlines and countrysides, I would inevitably resent lugging around a backpack full of musty smelling, discoloured clothes. On the contrary I have found that, after seven weeks, I have come to love the scruffy simplicity enforced by living out of my pack: snatching any old pair of shorts and a mismatched top to wear for the day, having only two outfits to choose between each night and never feeling obliged to put on make up.

Sadly I expect that these remaining weeks will fly by, such that I'll be brought back to reality - a wardrobe full of choice and the commencement of the demoralising job hunt - with something of a bump!

Monday, 12 April 2010

The backpacker trail...

I have been on the backpacker trail now for about a month, and have slowly relaxed into living out of a rucksack, general grubbiness and being, more often than not, slightly lost and disorientated. I don't want to bore with travel diary annecdotes, and so instead I spent my last bum-numbing bus trip musing over how I can sum up some of my impressions in as few words as possible...

BANGKOK seems completely bonkers: a sprawling confusion of towering high rise blocks and ominously low slung cables, overflowing roadside bars and clusters of street vendors, glittering temples and cris-crossing markets. Bustling and bewildering, chaotic and crazy, its smoggy humidity and non-stop buzz sapped my energy but left me wanting to explore more.

LAOS seems ridiculously lethargic: the drink and drug addled Vang Viene aside, Laos was relaxed to the max and the Laos people were so laid back they were horizontal - literally, given their penchant for Thai soap operas and hammocks. Bottom-bruising, horn-happy bus rides and unrelenting temperatures were alleviated by hammock-happy days that rolled into lazy evenings (curtailed by the strict 11pm curfew). Although we didn't get much refreshment from the steamy heat in the murky waters of the Mekong, the scattering of breathtaking waterfalls and surrounding jungles were an oasis amid the scorched earth.

Friday, 12 March 2010

"Life is not measured by the breaths you take, but the moments that take your breath away" - Anon.

Exasperated by the trickle of rejection e-mails and unanswered applications, having flitted between different temp jobs since graduating, I am taking the plunge and fly to Bangkok this afternoon. I insisted for years that I simply didn’t have the travelling bug, but when a friend mentioned chilling out on a beach for a while, I didn’t take much persuading. With little booked (a hostel on arrival) and a very basic itinerary (Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, South Thailand) I am excited, if a little apprehensive. As much as I’ll miss family, friends, my dressing gown and English food, I am looking forward to trying life at a different pace: being temporarily unreachable, exploring exotic cultures and distant lifestyles, not knowing the time, having no plans or deadlines, finding inner peace…! Hopefully, when I come back in three months time I’ll have oodles of interesting thoughts to put in my blog… Watch this space!

Monday, 8 March 2010

The puzzling appeal of air-conditioned, digitally monitored training sessions

I am the first person to admit to being an exercise freak. I am one of those nutters who enjoys getting up at ridiculous o clock to go swimming before work, or who will shoot out for a cycle ride even when temperatures are wallowing below zero. However, whenever my gym-aficionado, protein-shake-drinking boyfriend suggests I join him at his gym, I struggle to find any motivation.

My aversion to the one he frequented last summer was understandable - it was called Winners, had life-size cut outs of Arnold Schwarzenegger plastered on the windowless walls and was dominated by oversized brutes grunting as they pumped iron. I was more optimistic when I recently visited his replacement, Esporta Health & Leisure Club, featuring big windows (albeit overlooking the car par) and a pool complete with Jacuzzi and sauna.

Kitted out in a borrowed, oversized tracksuit, I was mindful to approach with an open mind. However, after shifting restlessly between different machines, I found myself on the conditioning mats doing exercises that could be performed just as well on the comfort of my bedroom floor. After a few half-hearted, poorly performed stomach crunches, paranoid that those working on balance balls with hand weights would be criticising my technique and somewhat put off by the pot-bellied man in the spandex all-in-one (I’m not joking), I plodded off to bother the boyfriend in the weights section.

This body building workshop was slightly removed from the general gym. Filled with ominous- looking, clunky machinery and walls of mirrors, which revealed every angle of my unshapely tracksuit, it was filled with the jaw-clenched and testosterone-fuelled. Needless to say, poignantly out of place, I bid a hasty retreat to the sauna.

I can cycle happily for an hour in the fresh air getting splattered with mud and battered by the elements, but on a stationary bike in an air-conditioned room surrounded by others in intense training… that’s a different sort of willpower.

What most put me off was, ironically, the emphasis on exercise: the hypnotic red digits charting the number of calories burned with painstaking slowness and timing your workout with lengthy, prolonged seconds, the huffs, puffs and grunts of the others around you and the rhythmical pounding of treadmills in action…

It may be that one day, after one too many sodden, cold cycle rides or an icy, cold spell that lasts too long, I am converted to the comfort of carefully controlled, measured, indoor exercise. However, for now, I certainly sympathise with those who would rather savour an extra hour in bed or stay warm on the sofa than haul themselves to the gym. In fact, I’m in awe of those dedicated gym-goers who actually enjoy a daily workout.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Present pessimism versus fond reflections...

During the few weeks that I was working for TellyLinks.com, a website that serves live links in sync with television programmes, I spent a vast amount of time searching the seemingly infinite internet for links relevant to the programme. It was an illuminating experience to say the least - I stumbled across interactive LAPD crime maps that mark exactly what crimes have happened where and sincere accounts of personally experienced alien abductions, to name just a couple.

However, the websites that I most enjoyed perusing were the loud, colourful jumble of sites that spilled out of google when I searched for links on the 60s. It didn't take many clicks to confirm that the Austin Powers-style depiction of a flamboyant, bubbling decade was true to many. In fact, it wasn't just the nostalgic musings of aging swingers that convinced me – sites that simply catalogued key 60s moments also heralded a certain fizzy excitement.

Martin Luther King had a dream, JFK was assassinated, Neil Armstrong took 'one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind' and the Concorde took off… …England won the World Cup, the Berlin Wall appeared, flower power and festivals blossomed and popular politics exploded…

Clicking my way through wistful websites brought to mind a module that I studied at university: Youth Rebellion in the 20th century. Even fairly dry academic description - 'the first era of extended youth that rejected the parental generation' – didn’t completely nullify the period. The course portrayed a groundbreaking decade of pushing boundaries, shaping the future and making history.

In comparison, the land of the noughties gets little positive press and the capacity to shock and push boundaries has been stunted. Revolutionary rock stars have been replaced with endless streams of celebrity nobodies, students are villainised as binge drinking wasters cushioned from reality by their student loans, idealistic passions have been replaced by dismissive resignation and apathy, and cynicism abounds.

However, despite a pessimistic press, to unquestioningly shelve the noughties as a lacklustre, humdrum era is unjust. It is rare that the media seizes on the positive aspects of the age, such as the passionate environmental protests of the clean and green, or the astounding fundraising fervour of some celebrities.

In fact, the reality of the 60s was probably less upbeat than current perceptions of the decade, which forty years later, are largely informed by rose-tinted reflections. I am sure that, forty years from now, the scathing social commentaries of today will also be diluted by the nostalgia of a reminiscent generation.

The swinging sixties are recalled as decade of hippies, rock stars and liberation. Maybe the noughties will be fondly remembered as an era of diversity and tolerance, glamour and stardom… Only time will tell!

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Will Terrible Terry trigger transformation?

Although I spent a year living with a houseful of football aficionados, when lazy Saturday mornings featured Football Focus and late night comedy was vetoed in favour of Match of the Day, I have never taken more than a vague interest in the premier league jostling. In fact, even though footballer hedonism has long been sandwiched between the pages of gossipy glossies, I have remained blissfully ignorant of WAG-fueled social scandals.

Nevertheless, the tale of Terrible Terry has been hard to avoid: his narrow-eyed glower has been splashed across almost every national newspaper. After the entanglement with his team mate’s ex-girlfriend was exposed, reporters gleefully chronicled Terry’s swift dismissal by a brusque Capello, and opinion columns swelled with didactic editorials, tinged with tones of smug satisfaction.

In fact, the past two editions of The Sunday Times have paraded Terry’s troubles on the opening pages. Last week their magazine featured an exhaustive four-page spread detailing an out-of-date interview with him: the journalist initially describes Terry as a likeable, vulnerable Cockney, before coming to the predictable conclusion, in tune with the times, that he is in fact a skanky-lying-bastard.

Another article, published a week earlier, is entitled, ‘Charity begins at home for Oxshott’s local hero’. The headline itself is a misnomer: far from Terry being a local hero, it is more likely that residents know nothing more of Terry than what they have glimpsed of his £3 million mansion. Indeed, it is clear from the outset that in his ‘neighbourhood community’, what goes on behind his 10ft electric gates stays behind them. So why on earth does the journalist bother to interview the village vicar, the owner of a beauty salon, a resident in the pub, the local butcher and a ‘good, churchgoing member of the choir’?

Admittedly there is popular enthusiasm for gossipy slander, but since when have broadsheets pandered so whole-heartedly to a public appetite for celebrity scandal? Granted, the dismissal of an England captain - particularly when training time for the World Cup is rapidly dwindling - is newsworthy to say the least, but such a plethora of press attention seems misplaced.

Clearly for journalists the woe of Terrible Terry is an opportunity too good to pass up. Terry is not just a self-promoting graduate of reality TV, but is supposedly a symbol of England’s football prowess and an icon for millions of aspiring players. Whether Terry deserves such an onslaught or not, his latest escapade has granted journalists a license to delve into the exclusive lifestyle of footballers, to lament bloated egos and swollen paychecks. His fall from grace has not only prompted dogmatic catalogues of all his previous misdemeanours but has unleashed a general bewailing of English footballers as a breed of overpaid pre-Madonnas.
But will this exposé help to rein in footballer excess? Sadly, football is no stranger to social scandals (Beckham’s interlude with Rebecca Loos and Gerrard’s nightclub scuffle spring to mind) and so far, none has succeeded in deflating overlarge egos. Players have been able to simply sit tight and wait for the media storm to pass by. However, the reaction of Capello – a prompt, unquestioned dismissal - is more promising. The fact that he has banned WAGS from proceedings in South Africa is further encouragement. By linking off-pitch antics with sportsmanship and performance, he can hit players where it hurts. Perhaps he will be the one who will manage to puncture footballer pretension. One can only hope!

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Dongles and bellyvision versus helical wind turbines…

Although the latest computer gadgets have always been unaffordable irrelevancies to me, I recently experienced life on the frontline of new technology when I started working for a pioneering internet innovation. Engulfed in the milieu of ‘dongles’ (portable internet devices) and ‘bellyvision’ (the bizarrely named phenomenon of watching TV while surfing the net), I have been temporarily shaken out of my indifference.

I was working to help launch TellyLinks.com, a website designed to serve links in sync with whatever is on the television. As the project developed, the office was awash with murmurings of internet and television merging in a two-screen revolution. A fledgling idea at the moment, currently only operating for channel FIVE’s CSI-style series Numb3rs, the industry-wise are predicting that it will revolutionise the television experience by uniting two of the biggest media of the 21st century. TV viewers and internet users will morph into ‘viewsers’.
However, even after experiencing the first-hand frustrations involved in developing pioneering technological ideas, the fast-moving frontiers of computer innovation still baffle me. From the paper-thin apple ipad screen threatening to make books redundant, to the revolutionary Microsoft Surface (seemingly an interactive, touch-screen coffee table currently featured in cafes in Las Vegas), I just can’t motivate myself to keep pace with the rapid succession of advances.

On the other hand, mention urban agriculture (super-green, self-sufficient buildings inbuilt with food-growing ecosystems) or solar groves (raised solar panels that shade vehicles while powering EV charging points) and I am instantly curious, envisioning futuristic technologies able to transform polluted, congested cities into clean, green hubs in sync with the world's natural resources. Even seemingly mundane press releases detailing vertical-axis wind turbines for urban areas stir my enthusiasm, and I find myself imagining terraces of self-sufficient houses with vertical turbines installed next to their satellite dish.

My selective enthusiasm for new technology seems to confirm suspicions that I have become an eco-geek. Or perhaps it just confirms a genuine concern about what happens to us in the future. I am not a fear-mongering alarmist, but in the face of a looming energy crisis (frequently forecasted by experts in the news), something needs to change to make our way of life more efficient. It seems implausible that people will make drastic sacrifices in the name of distant environmental benefits. As such, cutting-edge technology glamorising greenness and making sustainability manageable is undoubtedly the best option – and something I feel I can justify being excited about.

(Curious about Tellylinks? Check out my Suite 101 profile for a more detailed article!)

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Divine grace, Brideshead Revisited, Stephen Fry and Berlusconi’s cathedral-borne injuries…

I was unexplainably apprehensive about reading Brideshead Revisited, the classic novel by Evelyn Waugh. Although the TV adaptation was a firm family favourite, albeit one I had never watched, delving into the weighty hard-back gathering dust on the bookshelf seemed an unappealing prospect. In fact, my misgivings seemed justified when I read Waugh’s description of its theme: “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters”.

However, from the opening sentence my reservations dissolved and I became absorbed in the meandering tale of the protagonist, Charles Ryder. Throughout, I felt as if Charles himself was softly relating his tale to me over a cup of tea. I was gradually immersed into his ambling account of idle college lunches, hedonistic weekend jaunts and carefree merriments.

As well as being an indulgent foray into a world tinged with luxury bordering on gluttony, it also delves into the murky swathes of Catholicism and atheism. Despite obediently reciting my Hail Mary’s at a Catholic school for five years, I had never thought much about the hazy debates surrounding Catholicism until I became engrossed in this book - each character’s actions are defined by their attitude to religion.

One evening, midway through my Brideshead adventures, I was surprised to find myself hooked on a televised debate about Catholicism, where the mighty Stephen Fry, paired with razor-sharp journalist Christopher Hitchens, argued a motion that the Catholic Church was not a force for good in the world.

The bumbling ramblings of Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, and conservative MP Ann Widdecombe were no match for articulate Fry and bulldog debater Hitchens, and the duo mercilessly lambasted the church. Fry’s final punch, which centred on the notion that celibacy is fundamentally unnatural and leads to a distorted perception of one of the body’s most instinctive instincts, reverberated with the conclusion that the Catholic Church is paradoxically obsessed with sex.

Following this verbal onslaught I read Brideshead with sharpened interest, closely following each character’s inner turmoil and their sensitivity to religion. Some surrendered to devout, unquestioning piety whereas others were ensnared in a paradoxical moral debate, trying to rebel from stifling moral expectation but remaining tied by embedded Catholic loyalties.

Post-Brideshead I have taken more interest in the debates swirling around Catholicism that feature in the media, which have most recently been awakened by the peace-threatening passions of staunch Catholic MP Iris Robertson for a 19-year-old. Other occasions when the church has appeared in the unflattering light of the media, aside from tragic cases of child abuse, range from the bizarre (Berlusconi’s unfortunate encounter with a model cathedral) to the demoralising (the attack on the pope on Christmas day).

Overall, glimpses of Catholicism in a positive light seem far and few between - whether that is the flaw of a pessimistic press or a reflection of the church is anyone’s guess. Either way, such a sparse smattering of praise for such a powerful religion is not particularly encouraging.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Suite 101

When I started this blog, I pledged to avoid didactic preaching, fact-filled essays and ranting diatribes, and to stick to a more light-hearted tone. However, in an ambitious bid to improve my writing, I recently applied to write for Canadian website Suite 101. The site requires a fairly demanding ten articles every three months, and I am slightly unsure so far as to whether my commitment to them is over-optimistic. However, I have at least managed to get my first article published: 'The Case for Green Change'. I admit the title is less than inspiring (I was under strict “use key words for clicks” instructions) but please click away if you’re interested - hopefully you will find the article a bit more colourful than the title!

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Tramp-Stamp on a Muffin-Top

“Tramp-stamp on a muffin-top on a chav”: the expression supposedly emblematic of the decade. The phrase, used to refer to tattoos on the lower back, has a certain ring to it - particularly coming from the well-spoken lips of Andrew Marr. Marr was speaking on BBC1’s ‘History of the Noughties’, an engaging, though slightly premature, analysis of 21st century society.

The programme is hardly uplifting: charting the rise of ‘chavocracy’ and ‘celebrity-itus’ it creates a denigrating picture of modern society: a world where award-winning actors share the limelight with shameless, self-promoters, Cowell-manufactured singers monopolise the charts and the Prime Minister spends his time making official comments on Britain’s Got Talent and Big Brother.

Unfortunately it seems to be a fairly accurate portrait. When musing over the opinion that the society of the noughties had recklessly and extravagantly spent itself into oblivion, I happened to overhear an ambitious teen pronouncing: “when I get married I’m going to tell my husband to buy me two Ranger Rovers: one black and one white - to match my outfit.”

While on the subject of blind extravagance, it seems fitting to mention Dubai’s colossal, man-made, floating, palm-leaf island, featured on the programme as a sun-spot gradually being colonised by the super-rich. The epitome of opulence, it features a restaurant accessible only by submarine and a water slide through a shark-filled lagoon.

Another symptom of the decade discussed was globalisation: from the meteoric rise of low-cost airlines exporting drunk Brits to an unsuspecting Riga, to the relocation of call centre staff. One particularly funny scene shows staff at relocated call centres being made to analyse episodes of Eastenders, take elocution classes and study British weather reports in an optimistic attempt to fool British callers that the centres were based in Brixton and not Bangladesh.

Amidst all these trends the nub of the noughties seems to have been that, although many had a bloody good time, they were an era of “delusion and folly” - none too reassuring when this decade is meant to predicate where the 21st century is heading.

For me, such reflections have prompted the paradoxical conclusion that the recession can only be a good thing for humankind. By no means am I revelling in still having to work wage-free six months after graduating, but maybe a generous dollop of reality is just what everyone needs.