Monthly Archives: May 2013

My Favorite Place in London

No, it’s not a museum or a pub or a restaurant.

It’s my nail salon.

Getting my nails painted is one of my life’s great guilty pleasures: it is a bit of a wasteful way to spend money. It makes me feel pretty in a way that indicates perhaps my self-esteem is not as deeply-rooted as it should be.

Mani/pedis are the one thing you can get cheap in NYC. I liked to go sit in the great big massage chairs getting rolled and kneaded while an Asian lady worked away at my feet. There is something uncomfortable about it, but that’s where the guilt comes into the pleasure, right? New York nail salons work with anonymous, military precision. My nails always looked perfect: trimmed short and round, shiny with evenly-coated polish. I could sit under the hand dryers as long as I liked, and I rarely left with a smudge or a chip (sometimes I did. I’m a klutz.) The Asian ladies asked me to pay before my hands were painted, decreasing the chance of digital imperfection (see what I did there?).

None of that is my experience in London.

The salon I go to costs about as much for a manicure as the combo cost in New York – and it’s the cheapest place I have found. There are no massage chairs. The women never file my nails as short as I’d like (I ask them to go shorter three times and then have to give up and accept I’m going to have a lady nail). The polish is a little uneven and doesn’t extend all the way to the edge of my nails. And without fail they tell me the polish is dry and I’m smudged by the time I take out my wallet to pay.

Still, I love it.

First, the salon is called “Your Beautiful.” It’s on the sign that hangs outside, it’s embroidered on the girls’ aprons. As a deep lover of the English language and champion of its proper use, this should probably irritate me, but I find it endearing. The people who work there are from non-English speaking parts of Europe: Italy, Hungary, Poland. They speak two languages and I don’t, and if they don’t quite have their contractions down yet, I forgive them.

I sit in a plastic chair shaped like a hand: my butt is cupped in the palm, my back rests against the fingers – the nails of which are, of course, painted.

I could sit through my sessions in NYC and not be expected to make small talk, but here I am trying to embrace asking questions. These girls want to practice their English, and I need to practice talking to strangers without feeling terror. It’s a win-win. The Italian girl has painted my nails a few times. She told me she is from a small town where everyone is shocked that she moved to London. No one there can imagine a life more idyllic than that of the Italian countryside, but she wants to see the world.

She gets some words confused: “outside” and “upstairs” are hard for her to remember correctly, and sometimes she inverts them: “upside” and “outstairs.” She told me she was planning a barbeque for her day off; until she moved in, all her flatmates ate their meals alone in their individual rooms. Now she has created a friendly group dynamic where they share time together. I believe she has the power to do it. She is incredibly sweet and smiley. She always remembers me and says hello when I come in, even if she isn’t doing my nails.

There is another girl (I think she’s from Poland but I’m not sure) who does a lot of specialty nail work – the women who come in wanting two inch fang-like fingernails (when did this become popular? It’s totally creepster to me). She can freehand tiny intricate paintings on each individual nail, and call me sentimental, but I think she’s an artist. Anytime a person has a talent and can create beauty – even of the miniscule and ephemeral variety – I envy their joy at their own creativity. We should all be lucky enough to have the confidence to embrace our gifts.

It’s just a friendly, relaxed place, and I genuinely enjoy the time I spend there. It’s nothing fancy, but there is good energy, and I always leave smiling, smudged nails or not.

I wonder that this sweet Italian girl traveled so far from her home – in a country I personally love and can’t imagine wanting to leave – to do this rather menial job so graciously. Everybody wants to be somewhere else. I’m here as an immigrant too, right? I guess we all go to great lengths to make our dreams come true.

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Categories: London | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

I am a Domestic Goddess

In my coursework studying creative nonfiction, my classmates and I often discuss what is “truth” and how frequently “truth” gets wiggled in order to create a good narrative arc, or pretty prose. It’s kind of a fascinating question. I have recently been disappointed to learn that some of my favorite writers have blatantly made things up in order to create a good story. It seems like everyone does it – creative nonfiction is NOT journalism, so whether it is allowed in this genre is a great, debatable issue.

Ultimately, it’s all about the narrative. And narrative is a malleable beast.

And that’s how I get to be a domestic goddess.

Last week this happened:

I was home alone but it was Saturday night. I did not have a single soul in this blessed city who wanted to hang out with me all weekend.

I was feeling blue. I couldn’t shake the heart crunch of a break up. It wasn’t a particularly serious relationship, but I was wallowing.

I was swamped with work but my blueness was making my mind run in circles rather than towards productivity. I was procrastinating.

My baking, usually something I’m reasonably good at, did not go smoothly. First, I didn’t read the recipe carefully and mixed the flour and sugar. I was not supposed to do that. If you have ever tried to separate out grains of sugar and flour once they have been mixed – well, you’re a better man than I. I just dumped it in the trash, wasting over 3 cups of good product. I didn’t have *quite* enough butter – damn you, metric system, I was about 20 grams off. I tried to realign things to use margarine instead but I didn’t have quite enough of that either. I decided it would be fine.

It was not fine.

I then tried to soften the butter in the oven (I live in a house without a microwave, and don’t get me started on it). The butter melted way faster than I expected, making is liquid-y instead of soft.

All this added up to create some cookies of mass destruction. You could bruise people with those cookies if you had a good throwing arm or a slingshot.

I unscrewed (yes, unscrewed) a bottle of wine and proceeded to drink the entire thing. Drunk and alone on a Saturday night.

I listened to the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” musical soundtrack and sang along to every word. This is possibly the reason I’m single.

I called a friend and whinged at her about my sadface problems.

***

So that’s the “truth” of what happened.

But with a little bit of editing:

I was home alone, a rare blessing in my house of three where someone is always around and using the communal space.

I poured myself a glass of red wine and blasted my iPod, another rare treat when you share living space. I belted along at the top of my lungs while I turned on the oven and warmed up the kitchen. I baked sugar cookies, perfect for dunking in a cup of milky tea.

While home for Christmas, I only got see see my childhood best friend briefly, so I called her up – it’s so cheap to add international minutes to my mobile phone. We caught up in an edifying, deeply satisfying way. I love knowing no matter how long we go without talking, we can always pick up the phone and talk like we still converse daily. She will always be a part of my life.

***

In that version, I overcame an obstacle and succeeded in having an excellent night, embracing my domesticity and some me-time. If my life were a chick flick, I’d probably add the baking mishaps back in for a bit of endearing, slapstick humor.

And the cookies did genuinely taste good, they were just very, very hard.

Both versions are true. But the tone of each is pretty different. It’s all about shaping the narrative. Which is another way of saying it is all a matter of perspective.

Which is another way of saying fake it till you make it.

I am a domestic goddess. Come, drink wine and eat cookies with me.

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, London | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Adventures with Vouchers: You will be the falcon and I will be…

Birds!

Birds!


I don’t have any great affinity for birds. When the voucher popped up for a Birds of Prey Experience at the English School of Falconry, I basically thought: why not? The English School of Falconry sounds like one of the most English things you can possibly do. Bonus: it was in a town called Biggleswade, and oh wow did I want an excuse to say the word “Biggleswade” as many times as possible. I had visions of Harry Potter and Hogwarts and Hedwig. I want a self-sacrificing owl, you know? Plus, I always loved that tagline from the silly SNL sketch starring a falcon named Donald.
Barn owl

Barn owl


Now that I think about it, I don’t think we even hung out with any falcons.
Eagle

Eagle


My friend from Manchester drove down with her husband and met me at the Biggleswade train station (the town is so small and off the beaten track it is only open in the morning, shut and locked by 3pm). Driving through Biggleswade was sadly unimpressive. Arriving at the GPS-directed address, we drove through a strange world of hangars and muddy fields before arriving at a none-too-well marked lawn parking area and a further muddy walk to the school’s office. My friend’s husband just wanted to observe, having come as chauffeur and photographer for the day, but they made him pay GBP15 for the privilege. He’s a good sport, so he ponied up the cash and we raced to meet our group, having arrived a squinch late.
No, I'm not scared. (Yes, I am.)

No, I’m not scared. (Yes, I am.)


So then we held some birds. They were big and heavy and pretty. They were species of eagles, I believe, but I wasn’t paying that much attention. They were just big and heavy and pretty. Then we went to a little fenced in area where we got to catch some kites (maybe?) and owls, little ones. By catch I mean we held out our gloved arm, and one of the trainers called the birds (each bird has a name, like Trevor) and they came and landed on us, knowing they would get some food for obeying. Some birds were less obedient than others, and at one point I had two little owls on my arm. Which was pretty cool.
Two for the price of one

Two for the price of one


We moved to a bigger field for some hawk catching. At this point I got a close-up look at what they were feeding the bigger birds: torn up pieces of tiny, fluffy chicks, their yellow down smeared with blood. I didn’t want to think about that too much.
IMG_8754
We watched a flying show, in which our tour guide, a cheerful and well-versed young Englishman who seriously looked like he was 12 years old, gave a running commentary on the different types of birds he showed off – egrets and pelicans as well as more owls and eagles. Maybe a falcon.
IMG_8790
We went into a caged in area where we go to hold, bare-handed, little five week old owls. Four of them perched sleepily on a diagonal wooden rod, and it was awfully rude of us to disturb them. But they were very cute, sitting on my friend’s shoulder and nibbling her hair and ear, burrowing into the furry hood of her sweatshirt (as usual in this glorious land, it was late April but cold, cloudy, and windy.)
It tickle-hurts.

It tickle-hurts.


We were then free to wander about looking at the caged birds, most of whom were lazing about for their midday siesta. Birds are tremendously pretty. Who knew?
IMG_8786
I actually had a lot of fun – it was great to see my friends for a couple of hours, and I fought off my terror at allowing birds to fly at my body (I have walked through New York City on more than one occasion and felt an imminent pigeon attack strategizing around me.)
Blue eagles are awesome

Blue eagles are awesome


I got some fun photos, which is, unfortunately the point of the experience. Despite our well-educated guide, who could spit out facts at the rate of four a minute, I didn’t get a sense of why the English School of Falconry exists. Why do they train birds? What purpose do the birds serve? A glance at their website listed “conservation” as one of their goals, but conservation from what? I imagine if I had read the little placards near each bird station I would have a better understanding of which birds are endangered, and how the centre helps breed and repopulate them.

But do they ever free them back into the wild? Could they even survive? These birds are so dependent on humans for treats, why would they even want to leave? I know I wouldn’t. Is that good, or bad? Ecotourism in a paradox. I’m just not sure if I agree with it. Near the beginning of the day, as we waited to hold some of the bigger eagles, we watched a bunch of enormous birds nestling in their feathers. Occasionally one of them would start to flap its wings and launch itself off the perch where it rested. Inevitably, they landed two feet away, their feet tied with rope to that same perch. There was something sad about watching birds try to take flight and failing. It was a terrible living metaphor.
IMG_8730
Still, I had a good day. Does that make me a bad person? I pushed the metaphors out of my mind and just enjoyed the beauty of the birdies. I am uneasy with myself for this unthinking submission to a photo op. The twenty or so cheery English who were part of our group didn’t seem to be overthinking the moment, oohing and aaahing as the birds sailed around us. It’s just hard to know if the centre does more good than harm.

Baby!

Baby!


But how else was I going to pretend I was Harry Potter for a few hours?

What do you think? Is this kind of “interactive” nature experience good or bad for, you know, actual nature?

Scorecard: Vouchers – 1 Me – 1

Categories: London, Travel Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Adventures with Vouchers: Acupressure Massage

I should really read through voucher offers before I buy them.

This week I got an acupressure massage.

I had just seen the word “massage” and the cheap price and thought, “Sign me up!”

Ordinarily, I would have spaced out the acupuncture and the massage, but please see previous post about procrastinating and facing expiration dates.

I knew I was in for a different kind of experience from the acupuncture as soon as I walked through the door: there was my soothing fountain, resting on a mat of fake turf.

The waiting room was spacious, white walls and melon-colored faux leather armchairs. Expansive and generically inspiring nature shots hung on the walls: a mass of trees in blossom, a clifftop view across misty mountains. A very different vibe from the acupuncture place.

I was gently asked to put on some little white slippers, which these spa-type places should realize is not particularly relaxing, at least if you’re me and wondering who else’s funky feet have tred in these slippers previously.

I was introduced to G., my qi master. The staff wore white gis, which I imagine is a comfy work outfit, even if it did make me think of The Karate Kid.

G. spent a good ten minutes talking to me about qi/chi, or the body’s energy system. It all does make a lot of sense, really. That the body and mind and spirit are actually interconnected and one affects the other. Why is that an Eastern philosophical idea? Why isn’t it just a human philosophical idea? Why are Westerners so cynical about this intermingling, why are we embarrassed by talk about the spirit, why can “New Age” ideas only be considered with irony?

Of course, I couldn’t help but think how disappointed I would be if I ever saw G. in a Starbucks. So I guess I’m just another cynical, overly-ironied Westerner, a revelation which will come as no surprise to anyone.

Acupressure massage is not a medical, physical kind of massage. It’s all about unblocking blocked-up qi. It is performed fully clothed (me – well, and him too), and involved deep fingertip-rubbing over the entire body, head to toe, sternum to butt.

As part of the qi stimulating process, G. made noise while he worked me up. It is supposed to be a cosmic noise, a sound that encourages qi flow from master to client. The best I can do to describe it is as a prolonged “shhhh” except it was “chhhh.” It was the sound an aerosol can makes and it would be really bad for the environment if you continually sprayed a can as long as G. had to make this noise.

I get the meditative qualities of chanting, and I have an album of Tibetan Singing Bowls that is supposed to hit different bodily chakras, and I get that too, I can feel the vibrations in various parts of my body. This just sounded like spraying an aerosol can. I may have mentioned that.

But bless him, G. motored his mouth through my massage and dug his hands so hard into every inch of my body that two days later, my sternum still hurts. There is obviously no way this kind of rubbing can be bad. It might be painful at the time, but it does loosen up all your muscles and tensions, and I felt pretty nice afterward.

We chatted again after my treatment, and G. told me that I have huge blockages in my kidneys, which are the body’s battery packs of energy, as well as my stomach, which blocks energy from getting to my lower half. Maybe that’s why my feet are always cold. (G. repeated several times that he is not a licensed medical professional and there is nothing physically wrong with me. Phew.)

Seriously, I don’t want to be cynical. I want to believe in magic. If we don’t think our own bodies are capable of something mystical and special, it’s really hard to expect it from any other part of the world around us. Qi could just be another part of physics: atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons, it’s all swirling around inside us. The idea of energy, positive and negative, is the best way to describe any sort of spiritual views I have.

I want to believe in qi, I want to get in touch with my qi, but I didn’t have any sense of energy release or free flowing radiance in my body. I enjoyed the treatment, but. Sometimes it’s just nice to get poked and prodded. Realistically, I can’t have expected all my qi to start cheerfully flowing after one forty minute session. (But I probably did expect that because I am not realistic.)

G. did a soft-sell for the center’s holistic chanting/movement/meditation class. And I will really consider it. It’s just sort of a pain in the ass to get to the center from where I live. If I’m going to harness my qi and unblock my energy, which sounds like a lot of work in and of itself, I’m really going to need it to be superconvenient.

G. was too genuine and sweet for me to feel that this voucher was a scam, but I don’t know if I really got all that much out of it either. So here’s the new scorecard: Vouchers – 1, Me – 0, Qi – 1

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, London | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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