Rain, rain, go away…

Overcast in the Sahara

Overcast in the Sahara.

When I was in my 20s I lived on tour with a traveling circus. For three years I moved with them from city to city, mostly in northern Europe, and no matter where we went it rained. A lot. Even the locals remarked on the unusual weather.

“It’s never usually like this at this time of year.” Continue reading

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Circus Life – all I want is a job for Christmas

I arrived in London on October 28th, and at Christmastime I was still unemployed, still sharing a bunk bed in my cousin’s house. So I was happy enough to abandon my ongoing failure and head north with my cousin to my aunt’s house for the holidays.

I always felt closest to my mother’s family, even though they lived in the UK and we lived in Canada. We visited several times through my childhood, and they came to visit us. I bonded with the aunt in question – my mother’s sister – during one particular visit late in my high school years. My family was living out in the countryside at the time, and I was deeply unhappy. My mom, my aunt, my sister and I all went for a wander down in the valley behind the house. We found a tree that had fallen, and climbed up to sit on its branches in the autumn sun. And we talked. And in that conversation I felt like a grown-up too. It was the first time I felt comfortable articulating in front of my mother how miserable, how excluded I felt around my stepfather. There was an honesty that was unlocked in those hours, just women together, with the sun and the wind and the tree. I loved that tree – always thought of it as ‘the girls’ tree’ – until it decomposed to mulch and moss and we eventually moved away. Sans stepfather.

The town in the north of England where my aunt lives is, it turns out, a wonderful place to spend Christmas. I hadn’t ever been there before – she lived in a tiny village in Cheshire the previous times I’d visited her, in a 200-year-old cottage that still had meat hooks in the kitchen and slots in the wall to hold a bar across the front door. The cottage had once been a part of the nearby estate, and we used to go for walks on its grounds to see the deer if the weather was nice. Some of my earliest memories are of visiting that little cottage – being bathed in the sink, because the bathroom was an extension on the back and only had a shower, no tub; walking to a nearby park to play, even thought the air was thick with the stink of tar being laid on the road.

My aunt’s new house was in what had once been a Victorian spa town, full of stone-built buildings and wrought iron gazebos. Up in the hills of the peak district in Derbyshire, the town reliably got a dusting of snow for Christmas, and the air smelled of coal fires in the evening. My romantic heart loved it instantly.

There were enough bedrooms in my aunt’s new house that we could each have our own. Mine was up on the third floor under the eaves and contained the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. Something about the way my aunt tucks wool blankets under the fitted sheets creates a little slice of heaven.

I missed being at home for the holidays, missed my family and our particular traditions, but I was grateful not to be alone at Christmas. Even if I did feel a bit like a fifth wheel at someone else’s celebrations. We called Canada in the evening on Christmas day, so I could talk to my mom and dad. I tried to enjoy myself and not stress too much about my continuing unemployment.

In the lazy days after Christmas, my cousin picked up a newspaper while she was at the co-op to buy milk. She wanted the television listings to see if there were any good movies on for her daughter. Later that evening, tucked in my aunt’s living room, cozy in the combined glow of Christmas-tree lights, a coal fire, and the movie playing on television, I picked up the newspaper and flipped to the job listings almost out of habit. Because that’s what you do with a newspaper, you look for work.

The paper was a slim evening edition and the employment section was tiny, maybe half a page. And down in the bottom right-hand corner was a small ad that changed my life. I wish I had clipped it to keep forever, but I didn’t know it was significant at the time.

The circus was hiring in a number of different departments – everything from sous-chefs to school teachers. They provided a website address for further information and applications. That ad hit me like a cattle prod. My whole body burned with it. A job with the circus? Yes, please. A million times yes.

The only thing standing between me and that dream was a complete lack of internet. My aunt didn’t have internet in the house, the small Victorian spa town didn’t have an internet cafe, wifi and smartphones didn’t exist yet, and the library was closed for the holidays. I bounced on my impatience for the rest of the visit, terrified all the positions would be filled, that they would disappear before I could apply for them.

We drove back to London – in my cousin’s bright orange VW camper van[1] – on New Year’s Eve. The previous night had been so cold the water in the windshield washer tank froze solid, and the van didn’t have working heat. It was a long, cold, five-hour drive, and we arrived home to a house where the heat hadn’t been on in two weeks. My cousin went out to celebrate the night with friends. I spent New Year’s Eve wrapped in blankets and pressed against the radiator.

I hit the local internet cafe in our suburb of London bright and early on January 2nd, when it finally re-opened after the holidays. I found the circus website and the jobs were all still there. And there was even an admin position available – assistant to the tour manager. I spruced up my resume and sent off my application and tried not to get my hopes up.

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1. My cousin, who is a dozen years older than I am, was a punk when she lived with us in the early ’80s. I remember sitting on the back deck of the house I grew up in, watching her earrings swing as she chatted with my mom. The earrings were so long the bright silver bobbles on the dangly ends brushed her collarbones. She was the coolest thing in the world when I was four. Her hair changed shape and colour regularly – first long, then short and spiky, scarlet red, half black/half white.

When I moved in with her that fall, decades later, her hair had been its natural colour for many years, she was a mother, she was putting herself through university, but her wild streak still showed through in her choice of vehicle. I kind of loved that van. (BACK TO POST)

Circus Life – I am a geek

Confession #1: My friend J moved to London a month before I did, so I was not entirely alone when I arrived. (She made the far more practical choice to enroll in teachers’ college in the UK rather than my wing-and-a-prayer approach.)

Confession #2: I am a geek.

My social life, for those first two months in London, revolved around a pub called Pages. This was the first (and only) scifi pub I had ever encountered, with Star Trek-themed decor and a model of the Starship Enterprise hanging from the ceiling. I believe that during the week it was a relatively normal place, but on Saturday night, it belonged to the geeks.

£3 got you in the door, and if you didn’t turn up early – particularly on Buffy-themed nights, called Nos (Nosferatu) Nights – you wouldn’t get in at all. Inside, some folks were in costume, others were just dressed up – my friends had a distinct goth flavour, with corsets and lace, chainmail and vinyl. We were there to hang out with people who loved the thing we loved, to be geeks together in a safe space.

We were also there to watch the newest episodes of scifi TV shows, played on bootleg discs mailed from North America. These episodes wouldn’t air in the UK until months, or even years, after they aired in the States, and going to Pages was the only way to see them. (This was back in the infancy of the internet, before iTunes or streaming or pirating.) When you’re passionate about something, patience is not so much a virtue.

It being a bar, there was also booze, which helped me to be a little less awkward. And once the episodes were over, they jacked up the music and we danced until the end of the night. I sprinted for the last tube home more than once – London is a giant, sprawling, international city, but even on Saturday night the tube shuts down before midnight.

A decade later, I still miss Pages. I still think there should be scifi pubs just like there are sports bars. In fact, I think there’s functionally very little difference between the two. There has never been another social space where I have felt so accepted, so at home.

I grew up in a small, conservative private school. My graduating class had only thirty-nine people in it, and I’d known about half of them since I was four. I left that school very well educated but socially… challenged.

I lived at home through university, so I never had the explosion of self discovery that seems to happen in that first year out in the world. But, free from all the expectations and assumptions of high school classmates who had known me my whole life, in university I began to slowly unfurl.

I realized that I was probably gay, or at least bi. (The moment when it clicked that being a lesbian didn’t make me something else, but rather explained who I had been all along was an epiphany. It was freedom. But that is a story for another time.)

I also began to read about paganism, and Wicca in particular, and found it fit my worldview much more closely than either of the organized religions I encountered as a child.

(I felt bad for my parents sometimes – rather than outright rebellion, I just grew progressively stranger.)

I met J during this time, and she was the first friend I had with whom I felt safe to explore that side of myself. (Not sexually, just for the record. J and I never dated, or ever wanted to.) Back in the dark ages of the Internet, when the online world was just taking its first steps beyond CompuServe and AOL, we used to hang out on the same mIRC chat room. (It was devoted to the television show Babylon 5.) In addition to both being scifi geeks, J and I also shared a love of theatre, and books, and travel. Years of not fitting in at school conditioned chameleon tendencies into me, and spending time with someone so much closer to who I was on the inside was a profound relief. I didn’t have to hide nearly as much.

As I mentioned above, J moved to London a month or so before I did. Shortly after she arrived, she spent the weekend at a science fiction convention and made friends with all the most interesting people there. (J is very much NOT an introvert.) When I finally turned up, J couldn’t wait to introduce me to them all.

Exactly one week after I arrived in London, there was another convention. It was for a show neither of us watched, so J and I didn’t go for the whole weekend, but J insisted we turn up for the dance on Saturday night.

It was too cold to wear my party clothes for the long schlep out to the hotel by Heathrow airport, so I packed them in a bag to change into when I got there. Once I was all dolled up, though, I ended up with a heavy bag of everyday clothes slung over my shoulder as I hovered on the edge of the crowd.

The dance hadn’t started yet, and  people were just milling. J disappeared to say hi to another group of friends, and I ended up by myself, surrounded by people I didn’t know. They were all very nice and welcoming – J had told them all about me – but they were also cooler and prettier and more confident than me[1]. I felt painfully awkward. I’m not good with new people and I don’t do chit chat well. I perched on a chair on the far side of the table from everyone else, listening to conversations about people I didn’t know, and tried to look nonchalant. I felt like the dorkiest dork in the world.

It was easier at Pages, though. In smaller groups, and with a shared passion for Xena to start us off, I got to know these new friends. I got to see them geek out just like me, not just about tv shows, but about books and theatre. Most of them were pagan in one way or another. And a majority of the women identified as bisexual.

They were my safe space. I was still shy and I was still awkward, but I had such freedom to explore. I tried on so many different pieces, just to see how they fit. I wore leather trousers and metal bras, lacy goth, and revealing cyberpunk. I wore too much makeup, or none at all. I drank rum coolers and danced to cheeseball pop music. I played pass-the-icecube in the pub late one Saturday (mouth to mouth, with a little kissing, until there was nothing but a melting sliver on a cold tongue), with half a dozen other girls – no boys allowed – just because it felt good.

Saying goodbye to those girls, walking away in the middle of that exploration to go on tour with the circus was a shock to my system. In retrospect (and with huge irony, given the story of how I got the job) it was the worst possible timing.

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1. I sent this post to J, so she could read it before I made it public. I wanted to make sure she was okay with what I was writing. (She is.) And she replied:

“You know the funny part about this line? If you’d asked pretty much any of them, they’d have said the same thing about everyone else. [We] had a long talk about that once. And none of us ever realized we were the “cool kids” at Pages and at the cons until someone from outside the group told us. We were just being who we were and dressing how we wanted to. Perception is a funny thing.”

(BACK TO POST)

Circus Life – moving to London

I moved to London, England, after I graduated university.

My degree is in Archaeological Sciences, but by the time I graduated I knew I didn’t want to be an archaeologist. My only marketable skills were clerical in nature, acquired during various summer jobs – I once spent three months typing (on a typewriter) endorsements for a large insurance company[1] – and I decided if I had to have a boring office job, I was going to go and have it in London.

So I applied for my work visa, saved a little money, packed my bags, and left.

Because when you’re twenty-two, it doesn’t occur to you that an international move might be a complicated undertaking. And I’m so glad I went ahead and did it when I was young and stupid, because if I had known how hard it would be – to open a bank account, to find a doctor, to get an interview as a foreigner – I would have just stayed home.

My cousin, a single mother and putting herself through university at the time, lived in London, and she invited me to stay with her while I sorted things out in my new city. I shared a bunk bed with her six-year-old daughter and lived out of my beige vinyl suitcase tucked in a corner on the bedroom floor. It was a cozy and welcoming place to land, but I was anxious to start building my own life.

I had saved just enough money to be a little choosy about the jobs I applied for. Even back then, just out of university and hunting for an entry-level admin position, my work had to be something I could love. It had to be something I could take pride in. I pored over the Media section in The Guardian every Monday and applied for anything even tangentially related to theatre or publishing. My two loves. I was very clear about that, even then.

Every potential job in my chosen fields gave me a little thrill. I daydreamed what my life would be, going to work every day in the offices for the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Judi Dench’s name was listed on the theatre’s letterhead as one of the trustees (my mom and I watched As Time Goes By on PBS together for years), and I imagined I might get to meet her one day while I was sitting in a board meeting taking the minutes. I imagined going to the opening night of a play or a musical and knowing that I had some small part in bringing it to life.

I waited for weeks, impatient for the application’s closing date. I waited for weeks beyond that. And finally, when I had forgotten the application, given up the daydream, the rejection letter arrived to remind me of my failure all over again. Every position I applied for played out the same way.

The only responses I got in the first couple of months were from the positions advertised through employment agencies. A handful of agencies called me in for interviews, although they turned out to be interviews not for specific positions, but for representation by that agency. I wore my grey wool suit and too much liquid eyeliner (I was twenty-two) and took the tube into central London to run through my tricks like a show pony. Speak French, typing test, Excel proficiency, and so on. Three agencies signed me on, and it felt like my first success.

In the meantime, I investigated London. The tube terrified me the first time I had to ride it by myself. I ended up going completely the wrong way at least once, because Earl’s Court Station makes no sense. But there is no alternative to the tube in London – buses are slow and taxis are expensive – and I learned there is no shame in pulling out a map to work out where you’re going. Locals do it, too.

I began to learn the different neighbourhoods; which ones I could afford to live in (very few) and which ones I shouldn’t even dream of (pretty much anything convenient to any of the jobs I was applying for), which ones I loved (Camden) and which ones I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole (Seven Sisters).

In the end I fell in love with Stoke Newington, a really lovely pocket within the scuzzier borough of Hackney. My cousin took me there for a visit and a wander. She suspected I’d like it. The neighbourhood felt villagey, in an indy-lesbian-vegetarian sort of way, with cafes and bookshops and lots of green space. I liked the vibe. And the lesbians.

I made the mistake of daydreaming all over again. I started looking at listings for rooms and apartments to let. I started going to view them and fell in love with one in particular – a shared loft conversion that was being made over into a kind of artists’ commune. I imagined myself living there, spending lazy Sunday mornings in the nearby cafe, meeting a nice girl over a cup of hot chocolate on a damp afternoon. (I tried to ignore the fact that the only transit option was an overcrowded bus to the tube stop in Seven Sisters.)

But I couldn’t do anything to make my dream come true. After two months in London, I still had no job  and only slim prospects on the horizon. Without a regular paycheque, I couldn’t take the risk of signing a lease. Someone else rented the room in the artists’ loft, and I continued to spend my nights in a bunk bed.

I don’t remember if I was homesick, if I was lonely. I must have been both. Did I worry I had made a huge mistake? I know I believed that having to go home when I ran out of money would be abject failure. I don’t remember, though, if I wished I’d made a different choice in the first place.

I had lived at home through university, lived in the same hometown my whole life. Now that I had this degree I couldn’t use, now that school was over and real life had begun, I still felt as directionless as I had at thirteen years old the first time the guidance counsellor asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I still didn’t have an answer. And I think I felt there wasn’t anything more for me to learn in my hometown. I needed to go someplace new to work out who I would become.

So I had made my big move. I was ready for my big adventure, for my new life. Ready to define myself. I was in London now! And yet, my life was still on hold.

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1. I’m still proud that I did not at any point hurl myself out the window of the 18th floor fluorescent-lit cubicle farm I worked in. (BACK TO POST)

Circus Life – an introduction

When I was twenty-two years old I ran away with the circus.

One day, that will be the first line of my memoir, I think.[1] For two years and seven months I lived on the road, with no fixed address, travelled all over western Europe with a hundred and fifty other people who became my whole world.

It was a time in my life that changed me and defined me in ways that I’m still trying to understand more than a dozen years later. I hate goodbyes, and yet I’m far too good at them. I can’t stay in one place, in one job, for any length of time without getting restless, and yet I long for a home and a family and some stability. I’ve built a life that I’m happy with, and yet I still check the circus’ job listings on a weekly basis.

I’ve tried to sit down and write about those years of my life half a hundred times. I struggle because it’s too big, because there are too many digressions, too many explanations, too much backstory. How do I even start to turn those three years of my life inside out to let other people in? Do I start at the beginning? Start at the end and look back? How much information is too much information?

And, more crippling, there’s a part of me that feels like I don’t have a right to tell this story. I worry about what the people I shared those years with will think. That they’d scoff that I might have anything to say about our adventures. I worry that I disappeared from the collective memory and that that means I don’t get to lay claim to it.

Because, I’m an introvert. Clinically. Chronically. Any time one of those memes comes around Facebook – How introverted are you? or whatever – I tick every single box. I observe the world more than I interact with it. I internalize it. I need alone time at the end of the day to recharge. So when I was on tour, I didn’t go out partying as much as the others, or chat at the dinner table as much, or sit in the hotel bar after work as much. I wasn’t out to make a mark on the circus; I let it make its mark on me.

We used to say, ‘it takes a certain kind of person to go on tour,’ and that kind of person is usually pretty extroverted.

But… when I was twenty-two years old I ran away with the circus. I was paid to travel through Europe for nearly three years. I lived in a series of hotels, moved every six or eight weeks, picked up two languages, and packed my whole life into three suitcases. It was amazing, and adventurous, and lonely, and difficult, and exciting. And I have stories to tell.

The blog format frightens me a lot less than sitting down to craft a full-blown memoir. So for my half-a-hundred-and-first attempt, I’m going to tell some stories here. In bite-sized pieces. I’m going to begin at the beginning, and digress as much as I want to. Maybe a few people out there will be kind enough to tell me when I stagger over the line into too much information. And we’ll see how it goes.

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1. The eventual second memoir, about my time working in Canadian theatre, will be titled, “’Do You Have Your G-String On?’ And Other Tales from Backstage.” (BACK TO POST)

This is why I shouldn’t be on the internet at three in the morning…

I applied for a job in the circus today. It’s been eleven years, almost to the day, since I left, but I still check the job listings, daily, weekly. It was the right choice, then – when I left, why I left. Even if I hadn’t had a project to move on to, two years and seven months on the road is a long time. But I can’t get over the feeling that I left a piece of myself behind, and I can’t stop trying to go back to find it.

The circus has always been the job I would drop anything, everything for. I’ve done it once. Continue reading

Eurovision Melancholy

Yesterday was the Eurovision Song Contest and I’m still sad that I couldn’t watch it this year.

For those of you in North America who may not have heard of it (I hadn’t before I moved to Europe), the Eurovision Song Contest is kind of like a bigger, campier version of American Idol, where every contestant comes from a different country and the whole thing happens in one night. Also, campier. Did I say campier? So. Much. Camp.

I was first introduced to Eurovision while I was on tour with the circus. My colleagues were initially appalled that I’d never heard of it, and then felt the need to induct me into the cult. The circus was the perfect environment in which to experience Eurovision for the first time. The group was largely made up of straight women and gay men, and we were from so many different countries that it could get nicely competitive. We all gathered in someone’s hotel room (I can’t remember whose) with plenty of snacks and lots of wine, and it’s possible we laid bets on whose country would win. Since Canada doesn’t compete (the definition of ‘Europe’ in Eurovision is flexible and includes in this case both Russia and Israel, but it hasn’t bent far enough to yet include North America), I rooted for the UK, my second home, and I think I ‘won’ that night, as the UK placed second overall, higher than anyone else’s home country.

That was 2001. I stayed with the circus until mid-2003, and then remained in Europe until mid-2005. Eurovision was a party every year. But in 2005 I moved home to Canada, and Eurovision doesn’t even air here, so it mostly fell off my radar after that.

Until last year. Last year I was on tour with a show in the UK for the first six months of the year. In May, I happened to be renting a room from a lovely married gay couple in Liverpool. I got home from work one evening after the show, and was greeted by Adrian as I headed upstairs.

“We were out earlier, so we taped Eurovision and we’re just about to watch. Do you want to join us?”

“Oh my god, I think I do.”

There were snacks. There was wine. There was slightly bitchy commentary. It was awesome.

So I’m missing it this year. I’m told a bearded transvestite from Austria called Conchita Wurst won it this year. I’m looking for a way to stream the contest from Canada, but failing that, I may just need to look up Conchita’s performance on YouTube.

In closing, I’m going to leave you with my favourite performance from last year’s Eurovision, which was Greece’s entry:

And, just for good measure, the most WTF moment from 2013. This is Serbia’s entry:

WTF ARE THEY WEARING?! I can’t even understand. And I didn’t even show you the entry with the giant in it. Or the one where the woman’s dress telescoped up while she sang.