Strike One

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Too long again, I know. It seems the blogging habit just hasn’t carried over into my post-traveling life. That said, there are a few things to report on.

I had a job interview on Friday – my first real chance at a real job. Up to that point I’d simply been trying to meet as many people as possible in the hopes that eventually something would cross someone’s desk and they might think, “Hmmmm… I wonder if that Canadian woman is still knocking about?” But Friday? Friday was a real interview for a Production Management job with a small company opening a show in late October and then touring 5 different UK venues. It sounded like an interesting gig, the pay was enough to keep me going, and it might have been the foot-in-the-door that I’ve been hoping for. Of course astute GGSRED readers will already suspect, due to my subtle use of phrases like “might have been”, that I did NOT get the job.

Honestly, I was a bit surprised by this. I thought the interview went really really well – I think I asked more questions than they did, and found myself getting a bit excited about finally diving back into work again. Of course there were one or two stumbling blocks. I could tell they were nervous that I don’t have a real web of professional connections here yet, because small companies usually need to draw on every possible resource to get a show running. And there was a question about whether I’d still be here in the new year and into the spring, when they are planning to remount the show for some important festival and tour dates. Ultimately they said this was the reason for their decision – I simply couldn’t guarantee that I’d still be here. Never mind that there’s no guarantee that whoever they did hire won’t jump ship if something better comes along. And also never mind that it would have been simple for me to stretch the truth a bit on this point, something a couple of people have already said I should have done. But I didn’t, and they picked someone else, and I have to tell you that it’s kind of knocked me on my ass.

So it’s been an off few days. Naturally, I’m feeling down about things, and that’s coloured my whole attitude, making me focus on all the things that aren’t working. Yes, I’ve met a lot of people, but that’s slowing down. Also, even though I’m meeting new people at new theatres and production companies, it’s starting to feel a bit like I’m listening to a broken record. Everyone is friendly and helpful, but I keep hearing the same names over and over again, and it feels like I might already have almost reached to the edges of this particular web. If I haven’t already met someone, then I’m waiting for a response to an email or phonecall to them, or waiting to get contact information for them from someone else. There’s a short list of people and theatres that I haven’t tapped yet, but that’s getting smaller. Oh, and it’s now clear that I won’t be getting an interview for the Olympics position that I applied for before I left Canada. Most importantly, no one has yet said those magic four words to me: “When can you start?”

Add to this a growing dissatisfaction with the glories of Willesden Junction, and you’ve got a somewhat toxic mix. The neighbourhood is just sad. Even the local pub is kind of grubby and cheerless, and you know when you can’t find a convivial pub within walking distance in London then you’ve been exceptionally unlucky or unwise in your choice of location. I’m starting to regret my decision to stay at the tiny flat for another three weeks, but at the same time I really didn’t want to deal with the hassle of finding somewhere new, packing up, and moving. Yes, it’s poorly located, expensive and tiny, but I guess now it’s home. In fact, I’ve lived here for more consecutive days than anywhere else since I sold my house all that long time ago. But it does suck the life out of me a bit, and sometimes have to remind myself that in less than an hour I could be just about anywhere in London. LONDON! I really do need to snap out of it and at least enjoy being in the city.

Then again, to get anywhere requires enduring the tube, which has it’s own stuffy and sweaty brand of cheerlessness. Especially when the escalators in particularly deep stations stop working. Or when there’s a signal failure on the Bakerloo Line on top of a planned closure of the entire Circle Line… not that this scenario happened to me on Saturday night.

At least if I do stay the odds of me ending up in a nicer neighbourhood than Willesden Junstion are so close to 100% that it would be difficult to slip a slice of Tesco Value Pack Streaky Bacon between the two (and I can tell you from experience that Tesco Value Pack Streaky Bacon slices are so thin you could read the Daily Telegraph crossword through one).

This is NOT Willesden Junction. This is the sculpture gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum, to which I escaped this afternoon. You can tell it’s not Willesden Junction because it’s not full of shuttered shop fronts, internet cafés for making cheap international phone calls, and dollar stores.

And on the positive side (which is a side I’ve had to force myself to remember in the last few days) I still have a solid application in at a great theatre in the West End, and expect to hear something about that this week. And there’s a chance of something at a busy production company, and a faint hint of something else that was really nothing more than an almost-whispered maybe. I know I need to just keep at it, but I do feel like time is running out. My return flight to Winnipeg is on Sept. 13, and if something reasonably solid and encouraging doesn’t happen in the next three weeks, then I’m not sure I can justify changing that flight to a later date and hanging on for a few weeks or months more.

That’s life in London these days, sorry I didn’t choose a cheerier time to finally get another blog post up. At least I can report that I’m now starting to look the right way when crossing the street. This is after I literally ran in front of a bus – double-decker, of course – while on a Hash just after I arrived. I’m getting used to glancing over my right shoulder when I cross the street, but I still get an odd tingling down my whole left side when I’m crossing while looking the “wrong” way. It’s like my body is bracing for the impact it can’t accept is NOT coming.

I’m also starting to get a bit more comfortable with the quirks of language. For instance I say tube (as in London Underground Train), CV (resumé), flat (apartment) and mash (-ed potates). Words I can’t yet say without feeling like a complete fraud? Trousers, as in pants. But this is one I really need to get over because here “pants” means underwear, which means you don’t want to go around casually commenting on people’s pants. Also: quid (pound sterling), spanner (wrench), boot (trunk of car), mate (friend), cheers (thanks) and chemist (drug store). And did you know that in England a “grill” has nothing to do with a BBQ, or with applying intense heat or flame to the underside of food? Nope. Here, a grill is the broiler element in the oven, or anything that applies intense heat from above. It’s upside-down world, I tell ya.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

The first report from London

Friday, August 6, 2010

Life in London is… good, I think. My tiny short-let flat has turned out to be reasonable, though it’s smaller than it looked in the pictures (All in a chorus now: “I really thought it would be bigger!”). It’s also more run down and grubbier than would be ideal, but it’s certainly not the worst I’ve seen. After a few trips to the Poundstretcher/Dollar Store I was able to supplement the supplied amenities to a point where the place is now functional. (Still, could they not give me more than one bowl? Or a toilet seat that’s actually attached to the toilet bowl?). I was amazed at how much better I felt after I was able to convince the Russian cleaning lady in the stairwell outside my door to allow me five minutes of quality time with her vacuum cleaner. At least now I know that the layer of grunge that’s accumulated since then is all mine. And really, how can you complain too much about a place where leaving the bathroom door open allows you to watch TV while showering?

The view from my window… Ahh, Willesden Junction, thy charms are uncountable.

I’ve been here a week now and have settled in fairly well. The job hunt – my main focus – has been up and down. The first few days were great, mostly because I had several meetings set up before I arrived, the first one on Friday afternoon when I was fresh off the plane and still befuddled with jetlag. Everyone has been polite, friendly, helpful and encouraging; they seem to think that my resumé is good, and agree that I’m approaching this the right way and meeting the right people. And they gave me more names of people to reach out to, and ideas of how to proceed. But it’s also become clear that I’ll really need to pay some dues here – meet the right people and learn the ropes – before I can really be functional and therefore attractive to an employer. I think my best bet is to try and connect with some overworked freelancers who might be looking for assistance, but there’s been nothing on that front so far.

So now I’m in a bit of a lull. I’ve made it through all the meetings I arranged before I arrived, and am now in the process of making contact with the people and companies I learned about in those meetings. That’s been a predictable mixture of unreturned emails, impenetrable voicemail systems and friendly people who would be happy to meet with me but are about to leave on three weeks of holidays. After the initial rush of arriving and getting all that positive feedback things have slowed down a lot, and that’s making it hard to stay positive. I know it’s still early, but it’s hard not to want it all to happen instantly.

In the mean time I’ve been running, wandering around a few areas to try and find where I might want to live, and spending a bit of time being a tourist. What can I say? Old habits die hard, and that’s why I’ve been on three different walking tours since I arrived. I mentioned them back when I hit London last June, but they’re so good I’m mentioning them again: London Walks are fantastic. The guides are incredibly knowledgeable, fun, and friendly and I always come away feeling that was two hours well spent. Also, the selection of walks is incredible – about ten different ones on offer each day. And they all start and end at a tube station, and are utterly reliable – I’ve never shown up and been disappointed. All that for just £8. (Or £6 if you invest £2 in a discount card, which I did.)

Part of Regent's Canal, which I saw on the “Little Venice” walk on Wednesday. The canal also runs through my neighbourhood. It’s much less picturesque there – more backsides of industrial yards and graffiti and fewer million pound flats - but there’s still an even, open towpath alongside the canal which is an excellent place for a run, and only five minutes from my door.

But back to the work situation, or lack thereof, which is what this whole business is mostly about. Here’s a quote from an episode of the original UK version of “The Office”, which I watched last night on the computer. These words resounded in my head like a gong when I heard them:

“It’s better to be at the bottom of a ladder you want to climb, than half way up one you don’t.”

Or is it? That’s the question these days. I knew when I decided to leave my job and travel that I’d be starting over when the trip was finished. But what I pictured at the time was fetching up in some large, convivial Canadian city - maybe Montréal or Vancouver - with a new, exciting, well-paying job and a cache of money to set myself up in reasonably high style. Instead I’ve landed in a pocket-sized worn out studio in an unloved corner of northwest London with a whole lot of resumés in the “Sent” box of my Gmail, and a cache of money that’s dwindling daily. Sometimes this “I’ll regret it if I don’t give it a try” business wears a bit.

What I’m starting to realize is that I need to figure out how far I’m willing to go to make this work. And I’m not just talking about how much money I can afford to spend supporting myself while I’m looking for work. I’m also talking about quality-of-life kind of things like:
  • How small a flat could I be happy living in? The room I’m in now is about 10’ 6” x 12’, and I’m pretty sure that’s too small. But how big is big enough? (I think that answer might be “Big enough that you don’t have to fold the bed up every day”.)
  • How far outside the centre of the city am I willing to go to live somewhere nice? Conversely, how tiny/grungy/sad a place would I put up with in order to be close?
  • Or, am I willing to share a flat? Is having more space, better amenities and a nicer location more important than having complete privacy? It’s pretty common here, even among actual grown-up people, but it’s been a long long time since I lived with roommates. Is it something I need to consider?
  • And on the work front: How far down the ladder am I willing to go? Would I take work outside theatre to support myself while trying to break in? Actors do this all the time, but I think I’d really struggle with it.
  • Or if I stay I’m able to get work in theatre, how long can I be happy in an entry-level job, and how long will I have to “pay my dues” before I really feel like I’m doing what I came to do?
  • And, fundamentally, is this the right thing for me? For my career? For my life? If I spend a year or two or five here in London, what does that mean for my career when I eventually go back to Canada?

I haven’t come to any conclusions yet, but these are the questions I struggle with in between crafting friendly, engaging emails to anyone who might help me get a foot in the door, trawling endless real estate listings, and walking to, waiting for, or sitting on tube trains. (Which is a whole other post. Or possibly a whole other blog.) I’ll try to keep writing about my progress, and to tell you some of the funny, quirky things I’ve already noticed about living in London, because there are a lot. Like why can’t I find any cream for my coffee? There seems to be nothing in between whole milk and pouring cream. And why do I have to flick a switch on the wall behind the stove to power the whole thing up before turning on the individual burners? Should I call a licensed electrician to disconnect the power to the stove when I’m finished, just to be extra cautious?

And now, let me leave you with these profound words, which I’ve already heard so often they now echo in my dreams:

“This is a Bakerloo line train to Elephant & Castle. Please, mind the gap between the train and the platform.”