February 08, 2009

Drift Away

approaching sunrise

As I write, I'm bedridden with some horrible illness that I succumbed to shortly after returning from London. Someone asked me if I thought it was the plane ride, subjected to all the recycled air breathed in and out by hundreds of Virgin Atlantic passengers.

I think it was the boat.

London is a cold, damp, depressed town. And it's not just the credit crunch (their version of our recession): Londoners are naturally downtrodden, as I quickly remembered upon arrival. But I was visiting two very happy friends who have somehow made a life for themselves on a houseboat on the Regents Canal, mooring in a different spot every two weeks. Despite the fact that everything is even damper on the boat, my friends still seem really happy, and when it got even colder with a record snowfall and the first winter storm of its size in 18 years, Jesse was downright giddy.

The Bobby Dazzler in snow The Bobby Dazzler in snow

I don't think I'm hardy enough to live on a boat. I was always freezing and wet, and to be frank, I'm just too big for that narrow of a living space. I kept banging my head on the lanterns hanging above - the lanterns that conserved energy when they didn't have the time to run the engine and charge up the battery. I was too big for the shower stall, so I didn't bother shaving my legs or washing my hair. And I was way too wide for the path between the bed and the wall, which led to the control panel full of switches for the voltage inverter and the pump that sucked water out of the shower floor.

But boy was it an enlightening experience. When your resources are really limited, and you only have access to fresh water every couple of weeks, you really think about how much water you waste when you run the faucet to wash your hands or the dishes, or when you run the shower til the water gets hot. Jesse and Max have found ways to catch all of that water and reuse it for something else. Out of necessity, it's a total eco-friendly way of living.

It also gives them access to nature in a way that city living normally doesn't. The morning after the snowstorm started, Max was feeding bread to a duck that was tiptoeing around the icy top of the frozen canal, right outside the boat window. Wherever they moor, they're usually near a park or greenway, and the canal system itself is lined with a towpath (originally for horses towing the boats) that's friendly to bicyclists, runners, and mums with baby trolleys alike. This is a side of London that you would never see as a tourist.

As for me, I love living in London, so this was a perfect visit for me to see how other people live there. In 1995, I lived in a flat in Kilburn Park (an ethnically diverse working class neighborhood that's become somewhat gentrified over the years) with a bunch of American students, and my only complaint was that I didn't feel like my experience was immersive enough. The last time I visited, in 2002, I stayed with two Germans who'd moved to London for work. They had their own way of living but it was still as visitors, and they moved back to Germany shortly thereafter. This time around, I got to spend a few days living in London like a Londoner. Though, a very unique Londoner experience.

Because I'd already spent so much time there, I didn't care to do many touristy activities in the city. Instead, we explored new places to eat (something I rarely did when I had no money for food), saw a Japanese play called Shun-Kin at the Barbican, and went to a benefit for Colombian children at Fiesta Bar in Brixton. You don't normally find a lot of Central or South Americans in the UK - more Southeast Asians and North Africans - but somehow we stumbled upon a bar whose Colombian bartenders enthusiastically made me a Havana Club/ginger beer/lime cocktail and then twirled each other behind the bar, eventually dancing on the bar and jumping off into the boisterous crowd, who met them with cheers and high-fives. The margaritas they made were served up in martini glasses, and didn't taste much like tequila, but the partiers didn't seem to mind and everybody was having an amazing time.

I wasn't sure whether this was a manifestation of a changing tide in London nightlife (which, 13 years ago, was pretty much about pubs or nightclubs) or whether it was a side of London that I'd just never experienced before. After all, it was my first time in Brixton - where I discovered the origin of Electric Avenue and the song it inspired - and, as our two hour journey back to the boat on the wrong Night Bus proved, there were still lots of areas of London that were unknown to me.

I was sure that other areas of London had changed quite a bit. I kept insisting there were more tube lines than seven years ago (what is the DLR??), and when I arrived in Soho to drop my luggage off at Jesse's office, I didn't even recognize Oxford Street. I had to convince myself I was walking the right way when I finally spotted the HMV. I was also glad to see that the proliferation of Starbucks, which astounded me in 2002, had come to a halt and spurred some chain competitors, making a cup of coffee as easy to find as in NYC, or even Seattle.

Could coffee be taking over tea in London?

Seeking some familiarity was important to me while in London, like reacquainting myself with Soho, Covent Garden, Charing Cross Road, Shaftsbury Avenue... My heart skipped a beat when I spotted the Palace Theatre, where I'd seen Les Miserables and used to watch fire-eaters and other street performers late at night, as I walked by on my way to or from the Limelight or the London Astoria 2. It's closed now, in anticipation of the opening of the Pricillia Queen of the Desert musical. The Limelight is closed too, taken over by an Australian sports bar in 2003. By 2002, the LA2 was called The Mean Fiddler but it was still running their Saturday night indie dance party (read: Blur, Manic Street Preachers, Black Grape, Chemical Bros), which I went to despite discouragement from my German hosts. I'm glad I had one last night there. It was sold in 2006.

My last night in London, instead of going clubbing, I found myself back on Oxford Street, and I stopped into Zavvi, one of the many music chains going out of business, for some CD bargains. They were playing techno dance hits from the early- and mid-90s, and as I sang along and browsed the shelves, I remembered how much I used to look forward to new release Mondays. How I would listen to all the listening stations, and buy compilations of the songs I danced to at the LA2. How I would sometimes stay up all night listening to the radio on my Walkman, discovering new music, listening to the DJs' British accents, which were way too exciting to put me to sleep. I loved music back then, and my experience in London led me to my career choice in the music industry. Unfortunately, my work in the music industry has led me to love music a little less. I hope I can get that love back while I'm not working.

Here in bed, I can still feel the rocking of the boat that cradled me at night, as I cuddled under piles of blankets to stay warm. But the sound of the water sloshing next to my head is gone, and my fever has left me hot.

For more photos of the Bobby Dazzler, click here
For more photos of London and beyond, click here

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