Friday, 15 July 2011

Location Location Location

I have now been back from Madrid on unofficial summer holidays for three weeks. Despite romantic visions of spending long summer days reading, the time has slipped by in a slightly blurry haze of gin and tonics, glasses of wine and mugs of tea. Preoccupied with dog walks, lie-ins and lengthy trips on London´s creaking public transport system, the pile of Spanish books lugged back from Madrid have remained undisturbed in a pile on my bedroom floor. Unfortunately, any spare time - potential reading time - has been swallowed by increasingly panicked investigations into what to do and where to go come September - a question that seems to have boiled down to a London versus Madrid conundrum.

Having spent the past few weeks commuting to town in reverse, spending evenings at friends´ houses and nights on their sofas, I can´t help but feel that if it came to sink or swim in London, I´d struggle to keep my head above the water. Even if you push aside the exorbitant prices and astronomic size of the city, London is stressful. For one, evenings out in London become a stressful test requiring military organisation. Though I was undoubtedly spoilt in Madrid, living on the same road as several laid-back, late-night terraced bars, I think that it is justified to feel indignant when turfed out of a bar pre-midnight. I was booted out of a pub last Friday. My glass of wine sloshed unceremoniously into a plastic pint cup and the door closed and locked abruptly behind me, I was left standing listlessly on the street outside. Unwilling to commit to a boozy night in a noisy nightclub, but equally reluctant to return home, I wandered around aimlessly for a while (plastic pint cup in hand) hoping somewhat optimistically to stumble across a pub with a late licence. It didn´t take long before I conceded defeat and made for the nearest bus stop. Unfortunately, although the night had been bought to a premature end, the wearying wait for an overcrowed night bus and the painfully convoluted route that it took meant that it wasn´t until the early hours that I flaked into bed.

For another, unless late evening or very early morning, strolling seems to be something of an impossibility in London. In Madrid, I came to love the custom of “dar una vuelta” or “taking a turn”. Though the English translation sounds distinctly 19th century aristocracy, I have come to love the practice of simply walking without purpose or direction. However, in London, the legions of people that invade every corner turn a leisurely ramble around the city into an exasperating challenge. Vision blocked by an unbroken sea of heads, seeing where you´re going is an impossibilty and the congestion is such that any attempts to sidestep the crowd are hopeless. All you can do is fall into step and shuffle along blindly behind the mass. By no means is Madrid free from crowds: the central semi-circle of Sol is always a crush after 7pm, the latin quarter heaves and swells on a Sunday and the park is rammed every weekend. However, not only are the crowds less dense, but they are confined to certain hotspots leaving nearby streets refreshingly clear to amble along. Of course, if you´re keen to stretch your legs in London, you can always make for a tubeline. Londoners are reknowned for their speedy gait and nowhere is it more apparent than when they are rushing to wait on a platform. On the Waterloo & City line in particular, shifting up a gear is essential if you want to avoid being jostled by suits jockeying for position on the escalator.

On the flip side, last weekend I remembered why I love the Big Smoke. London had its sun hat on: bathed in soft sunshine and enjoying balmy temperatures, the city was smiling. By actively avoiding the centre, targeting green spaces large enough for frisbee and the arty markets and second hand vintage shops of East London, I found the London where I could happily live. Spending a fuzzy-headed Sunday morning perusing the flower markets of Colombia Road proved to be the perfect antidote to the congestion of Piccadilly. Meandering between wide flower stalls, all crammed with leafy greenery and vibrant, multi-coloured blossoms, it was hard to believe I was in central London. Only the incessant hollers of “Come ooon gals, five roses fer five pound. Y´er not buyin´ today y´er stealin”, reminded me that I was in London. The market was sandwiched between two neat lines of small, two-storey terraces - a collection of tiny boutiques. Some sold customised homeware, others handmade clothing or antiques. A few had thrown open downstairs windows to sell cups of nibbles for a pound or had hung quirky advertisements for their shop from upstairs balconies - on one terrace I noticed a fox sitting on the windowsill sewing a tapestry. Lively trios serenaded the street with energetic, foot-tapping jigs, adding to the buzz. One such group – composed of an enthusiastic clarinettist in a tweed jacket, an accordion player with a flat cap and a barefoot double bassist - attracted a semi-circle of spectators, some perched on the kerb with a take away coffee or - the braver of the crowd - circling in the middle arm-in-arm in a bouncy two-step.

As you can tell, in the throes of a love-hate relationship with London, I am no further forward in solving my September quandary. However, given the growing pile of unanswered cover letters for jobs in London, I can´t help but feel that the decision will be taken out of my hands. The option of a bohemian lifestyle and easy employment as an English teacher certainly trumps months of rejected applications and failed interviews!

Friday, 1 July 2011

Gotham City

It was only after I had booked a four-day stint in Naples and bought the guide book that a friend forewarned me it was a city infamous for its filth and notoriously dangerous. Told that it was alive with rats, stagnant garbage and organised crime I was quickly made aware that, though the city is a World Heritage Site, I wouldn´t be sight-seeing my way around a series of polished and picturesque monuments. As such, I arrived with mild curiosity about what a Mafia stronghold looked like and fairly low expectations about the city´s urban facade. To be honest, I couldn´t think much beyond a Peroni and a plate of pasta.

Fortunately, my food and drink cravings were satisfied almost immediately - within an hour of landing from Madrid I found myself in a local trattoria that was brimming with rowdy rabbles of local Italians. In fact, though I had booked a full four days in Italy´s third city, the lure of spending a few days beach-side on an island meant that my Napolese experience was squashed into this one evening - a jam-packed night kicked off with generous servings of Peroni and red wine sloshed into plastic cups, a succession of antipasto and spaghetti and a family of big-bellied, broad-smiling waitors who sporadically cranked up the volume of the music and plucked girls from their table for a two minute salsa-style spin. It was the perfect introduction to the other half of Latino Europe (which also confirmed that shouting to the person next to you is a trait shared by Italians and Spaniards alike).

Perhaps fittingly, the bubbling trattoria where I ate was in the Spanish quarter of the city. A vast, chaotic jumble of criss-crossing streets that, unsurpisingly, echoed the old quarter of Madrid. However, compared to the sleepiness of Madrid´s narrow lanes, where cars are an infrequent occurrence, the ongoing assault of Vespas zipping along the streets of Naples was overwhelming. Luckily, the general rule seemed to be that if you walked, motorists waited – or at least swerved easily around you. Notably,when exploring this labyrinth of narrow lanes, it was actually quite difficult to find a bar. Instead of the array of small locals that are scattered across Madrid, the doors and windows of downstairs flats were simply thrown open, revealing families lounging in the kitchen, sipping bottles of beer or preparing the food, occasionally shouting across the street to their neighbours. Though probably the result of an over-active imagination fuelled by mafia stories, it was all too easy to imagine that the whole district was linked in some kind of Godfather-esque extended family.

Walking home that night provided a taster of the different districts in Naples, revealing just how big and sprawling the city is. On route, we stopped for a coffee (in a classy, late-night cafeteria) and a cocktail (on a bustling street overflowing with drinkers), passed through an enormously grand, indoor market and along streets awaft with the mouldy, sweet stench that emanates from decaying garbage. On the way to the bay, we passed several small mountains of said garbage. Apparently a hangover from a 15-year-old problem with the binmen, such mounds, which are slowly but surely devouring the pavements, are commonplace in the city. Interestingly, in some areas it seems to be randomly categorized – the bus station looked like a recycling depot for old shoes. The sheer size of the city became even more evident when, after following the distinctive curve of the Napolese coastlines for over half an hour, we still had to hitch a lift to the station to catch the once-hourly bus (albeit it was a 50 minute wait until an antique model rattled into the station).

As much as I´d like to contradict the fairly negative press about Naples, from first appearances, the city certainly fitted the briefing I´d been given- un undeniably dirty, sprawling mess. However, though a far cry from the picture-perfect elegance of Rome or Paris, Naples had an appealing charm. It was raw and gritty, and free from touristy pomp and pretension. It wasn´t necessary to visit one of the 448 historical and cultural monuments to appreciate Naples as a historical centre - it was so steeped in its past that it was literally crumbling into memory as I walked around it. Completely unsanitised by even the slightest efforts at conservation, it was a dilapidated muddle of crumbling buildings and rubbish-strewn passages.

As such, it was fertile ground for the imagination: throughout the evening I spent there I found myself repeatedly envisaging a shadowy, smokey underworld more reminiscent of Gotham City than one of Italy´s Big 3. Indeed, far from feeling disappointed that I hadn´t spent a weekend perusing the Southern equivalent of Florence, I left hungry for more.