Thursday, March 06, 2014

On losing someone from a distance

In loving memory of Nan Speirs: April 10th, 1920 - March 2nd, 2014

I spent the weekend frantically completing MA applications.  On Friday, I sat in front of my laptop for 14 hours and on Saturday, I ran around collecting letters of reference and desperately trying to find anywhere open on a weekend to print my forms, finally resorting to my boyfriend's kind offer to take me to his office and use a printer there.  I hand delivered one application on the day it was due and submitted the other online just one day in advance of the deadline.  I went to an incredibly powerful and upsetting show on Saturday night.  I had to be at work in Zone 4 of northwest London for an 8 a.m. start on Sunday.

That night, I crawled into bed at with my laptop at 7pm.  I was exhausted.  Monday was going to be a big day: I was hopping on the Eurostar to Paris for the night to see a cast & crew screening of a film that I am in.  I was terrified and exhilarated.  I just wanted to watch Battlestar Gallactica until I drifted off into the sweet embrace of slumber.

At 8:30pm, as I fought with my eyelids to finish one more episode, I missed a call from my mom.  My phone was on silent, and I picked it up too late.  I knew instantly why she was calling.  I rang her back, just as she called me again.  Crossed lines, straight to voicemail, finally I picked her up on call-waiting.  I was right.  She was calling to tell me my grandmother had died.

She said sorry for waking me, that she didn't think I'd be asleep and she didn't want to tell me over email.  I said it was okay, I was unusually exhausted, and that I thought that was why she was calling. We agreed to speak again soon.

I hung up and said to my boyfriend, "My gran died".  He responded with sympathy, asked me if I was okay.  I felt no sadness and turned to finish the episode that had been interrupted by the news.

I woke up Monday morning and immediately reminded myself that my grandmother was dead.  I felt bleary and drained, despite about 10 hours of sleep.  I did not feel sad.

I went and did my normal cleaning shift at the yoga studio where I work in exchange for classes.  As I rerolled mats and refolded blankets, my mind wandered.  How do I begin to miss someone I do not see everyday; someone I have not even been able to speak to on the phone since I last saw her because she didn't have the energy or capacity to remember who I was; someone who I've only seen in person once a year, at most, for the past five?

I picked up the two trolleys of towels from the laundrette and rolled them back to the studio before walking home.  I showered, packed my bag, and headed for the train station.

I arrived in Paris at 5pm, which I had forgotten is the worst possible time to find food in France.  Every restaurant in existence seems to shut at 3 and re-open at 7.  I found a natural food store, bought a spelt and tofu salad, a plunked myself on the ground outside the Centre Pompidou to eat.

I was nervous about seeing the cast and crew again.  My French was rusty.  I rehearsed little things to say about what I've been up to in the last year: "I've done the odd day of filming," and "I've started doing improv again," and "I've written a short film that we're shooting in April."

I finished up, binned my rubbish and hoisted my laptop and overnight bags back over their respective shoulders.  I made my way to the venue way too early, and after being sure I knew where it was, wandered in search of a cafe.  Within several paces of the cinema, I caught the face of the director's wife through the window and saw that there were several members of the cast, crew and their families inside.

I joined them, hugged everyone, used up my three prepared phrases, and then slipped into crippling social anxiety mode.  I knew some of these people well, but the presence of strangers that everyone else seemed to know and people that I recognised but whose names I had never learned on top of my brain trying desperately to keep up with my ears left me paralysed.

I sat mute at the table between a set dresser who I sort of knew and a three-year old child, feeling I had a better chance of communicating on a relatable level with the kid.

When my female friend and castmate arrived at the last minute, I rushed to greet her and glue myself to her effervescent side.  We embraced -- she hugged everyone in turn -- and she asked me how I was.  She said I seemed tired or upset.  I said it was just the language, and we joined the others who were now making their way to the cinema.

The film was beautiful.  As my first scene opened on the screen, my heart was making a mean effort to knock down the walls of my ribcage and make its escape, but I relaxed and stopped watching for my mistakes.  I'm so proud to be a part of it.

We all went to a bar afterwards to celebrate.  My friend once again remarked that I seemed upset and asked what I thought of the film.  I said, no, that I was just tired, that the film was incredible, as was she.

I wanted to say, "My grandmother died."  I couldn't remember how to say she had died versus that she was dead, or if there was even a difference.  That -- along with the sudden and acute knowledge that uttering those words out loud at that moment would undoubtedly trigger a tempest of uncontrollable weeping -- kept me smiling unconvincingly and nibbling on chips.

I persuaded myself that it was just the language that was putting my brain in a twist and the exhaustion of a full week that was slowing me down physically.  I socialised for a while longer, said my goodbyes, and took the Métro south to friend's flat, where we stayed up until 2 hashing out details of our film shoot scheduled for the beginning of April.

Tuesday morning, we were up at 8:30 and off to a cafe to finalise scheduling and book train tickets over strong espresso and pastries.  I headed back to London in the afternoon and straight to my evening improv class.

Almost first thing, the teacher told us how weird the other classes had been that week.  We were all in our final session before our show on Sunday, but he couldn't chalk it entirely up to nerves.  There was something in the air, he said.  Sure enough, our Harolds were good, but full of unusual mistakes we had never made before.

During notes after our first attempt, something -- I really don't remember what -- set me off, and I was struck by a hysterical fit of laughter.  I could not stop.  I could only grow louder, redder and less able to breathe.  My teacher asked if I was okay.  I apologised through my intensifying cackle.  He said it was okay, that everyone gets the giggles sometimes.  When tears started streaming down my face, I realised that if I didn't calm myself, I would momentarily be wailing wildly with grief.  I breathed deeply.  I finished class. I went out with everyone afterwards and had a nice time.  That small outburst had stirred something in me.  I felt lighter and more present.

On Wednesday morning, I went to my weekly therapy session.  I spent the better part of the session speed-explaining my week.  I said the words, "My grandmother died," out loud.  I cried.  I'm crying now.

In the same 48-hour period as seeing myself on the big screen for the first time, I lost the woman who so enthusiastically supported my aspirations and desperately wished for my success.

My gran and I shared many of the same interests.  She was a great lover of theatre and television and did some amateur acting of her own in her youth.  She loved the French language.  She had a wicked sense of humour, which she retained until she wasn't doing much but sleeping all day.  When I last saw her in November, she didn't recognise me for about five minutes, but when she did, she immediately laughed at herself for not knowing who I was.  She was a master of sardonic tones and pulled faces.

If she had not been born in Glasgow in the interim of two world wars; if she had not had to leave school like all girls and most boys of her social class to become a working member of the family; if she had not been expected to marry and bear children as her sole occupation; if she had been of a different time, my gran might have lived a life not so unlike mine.  She was an extraordinary woman.

This is how I begin to miss her.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Everything in America comes with cheese

... even, sometimes, when you explicitly ask if that thing has anything else on or with it, besides the listed ingredients.  Apparently, cheese is not a thing, it is a given.

I went home for Thanksgiving this year.  It was beautiful and frantic and jam-packed with people-seeing and food-eating, as well as boyfriend-introducing (mine; everyone else has husbands, come on!), and it was also my first time back in the States as a vegan.

(By the way, I'm going to breeze right past my normal paragraph of the flaky, manifold reasons I haven't written in so long, so feel free to insert your favorite excuses here!)

As I mentioned in a previous post, I gave up dairy completely about a year and a half ago, and I gave up all the other animal-y stuff earlier this year... minus a brief lapse when I was filming in Algeria and newly vegan and bad at planning.  Okay, and before that when I started dating my boyfriend and to trick him into eventually becoming vegan with me, I ate some burgers in his presence.  That's a lie.  Having never been a big meat eater, I suddenly had a couple of burger cravings when I gave it all up.  So yeah, I ate one or two.  Not in one sitting.  But not anymore!  And now he -- who used to routinely eat several chicken breasts and a steak in a single 12-hour period -- is vegetarian and mostly vegan too. And we say "Ugh, gross," together when we see commercials featuring meat counters and Christmas roasts.  Awwww!

Due to my awesome planning and/or impromtu, jet-lagged cook-a-thon, Thanksgiving was the least challenging food day of my trip home.  I made this beauty (click pic below for amazing PPK recipe), as well as a gluten-free nut roast, sweet potato bread, coconut pie, pumpkin pie, and non-butter versions of the usual TG staples: stuffing and mashed potatoes.

Seitan Roast Stuffed With Shiitakes and Leeks, pic by Isa Chandra
Am I bragging?  A little bit.  I made a lot of delicious food.  (I could not have done any of it without Isa Chandra, whose website I plugged above, and whose new book we just bought.  You should too.) When it came to grotesque overeating, including feelings of ecstasy (so much food!), panic (oh god, so much food!), desperation (must... eat... all... the food...), and finally overwhelming lethargy and immobility (whyyyyyyyyyyy), I was not going to be excluded.  I had to make sure there was enough to share, but also to ensure my eventual surrender to the couch.

Special thanks to my dad for stocking his kitchen with vegan goodies and fully turning it over to me for two days of prep, my mom for hosting an awesome Thanksgiving meal (traditional jigsaw puzzle included), and my sister for only getting a little bit cranky with me right at the end of a three-hour stretch of sharing my mom's kitchen whilst I did my "last minute" prep, which ended up being a lot more comprehensive than expected and very much in her way.

Thanksgiving was a success!  I had leftovers for almost a week; the boyfriend, having arrived the night before, survived the firestorm that was meeting lots of strangers and being force-fed portions even larger than the already extra-large American standard on 8 hours of jet lag; we completed not one but two 500-piece jigsaw puzzles.  Nobody was mean or weird about the vegan thing.

I guess if I had spent the entirety of my vacation cooking for myself, I wouldn't have run into any problems, but I took a couple of days out of the kitchen when we went up to Seattle to visit friends.  (I was not in any way confined to or trapped in the kitchen, I just really like cooking.  It makes me feel in control.  That's normal, right?)

Becoming a vegan in London was pretty easy.  I had already overcome the cheese cravings (cheese is addictive, no joke), and that was by biggest hurdle.  Some cupboard staples were pesky to find at first, but once I found which stores stocked them, I was set.  The rest was mostly reading the ingredients listed on the back of food every time, deciding I probably shouldn't be buying things with so many ingredients anyway, and obsessively schooling myself in the art of baking without eggs.

I've always assumed, nay, gloated that America (at least in the big, lefty cities) is a good five to ten years ahead of the UK when it comes to the availability of organic/gf/vegan foods.  All that bragging came to bite me in the ass.

Before hitting Seattle or even the suburban town I grew up in, I experienced one of the worst vegan food deserts I've experienced yet: the airport.  Specifically, the Vancouver airport.  Vancouver!  Canada!  Isn't it supposed to be a bastion of liberalism and the promise of what American could be if only it tried?  The only suitable food I could find on my 4-hour layover was a pack of potato chips and a container of pre-chopped carrots, celery, cauliflower and broccoli, sans the ranch dip it was accompanied by.  From Cinnabon/Burger King.  Airports are the worst. 

I expected more from Seattle.  I understand that most restaurants are not vegan (though we did go to a particularly delicious one with my step-bro and his hubby called Plum Bistro), but I guess I thought I wouldn't have to do as much explaining and qualifying with my food orders. 

We went out to eat twice with the friends we were staying with: once for breakfast (favourite meal) and once for a late afternoon session of drinks and Dominion-indoctrination.  Oh my god, have you played Dominion?  You need to. 

I usually specifically ask about dairy, I don't know why I didn't in these cases.  Maybe I was feeling some renewed anxiety about asking lots of "fussy" questions in a different environment.  Damn it, I'm totally becoming English, all reserved and overly apologetic.  In the first instance, I ordered and potato-y, vegatable-y breakfast with a side of black beans.  Exercising caution, I asked if the beans were cooked in anything (i.e. butter), or if they're just plain.  I was assured they were plain.  When they arrived, they were covered in cheese.

Similarly, a platter of pita and dips ordered later in the day for our game marathon -- all non-dairy, based on their menu description -- was delivered with cheese crumbled all over the top.  I sent my orders back rather sheepishly each time, but why?  I had no reason to be embarrassed.  I was going by the information provided, not the secret law of cheese, which is that it is everywhere.  

The ubiquity of dairy aside, going home for Thanksgiving was totally worth it.  It remains my favourite holiday.  I wish it wasn't founded in hypocrisy and offensive cartoons featuring mice pilgrims and mice Native Americans getting along despite their cultural differences.

I'm glad we have it, though.  I'm glad I have a family who celebrates it so openly and generously.  I'm glad my English boyfriend got to experience it for the first time in a real, live, American home.  I'm thankful for Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies

I blagued my way onto a plane yesterday, and thank god I had no idea at the time.

Monday began like many other days in my recent life: with an early-morning trip to the airport.

(Don't get me wrong, I am not complaining. I am still in awe and disbelief and I am A) shooting a film, and B) being flown back and forth to the location, as well as C) being paid to do my job. When high-intensity moments of stress arise -- and they certainly do, especially for an already highly strung person such as myself -- I remind myself that I am MAKING A FUCKING MOVIE. Pardon my French. It is a foreign film after all.)

I was up at half past four to do my morning pages (I'm finishing up The Artist's Way at the moment and highly recommend it), then I was in the shower and downstairs to make my ritual porridge and soya flat white by 5:15. I was tired after only six hours of sleep, but after the 11-hour coma I had slipped into on Saturday night, I was feeling somewhat rebalanced.

As it turns out -- much as I needed it -- sleeping that excessively leaves me with the same symptoms as a mild stroke. I kid you not: Sunday morning, I was suffering from short-term memory loss; when I sat to write, there was absolutely no connection between the words in my brain and the letters my hand was writing on the page; the right half on my face and one arm went dead. Then I had some coffee, porridge and about three litres if watwr before making a full recovery.

Monday morning I was okay. I had panic-packed (packnicked?) on Saturday afternoon when the film production company had called to say I might be needed a day early, which meant when they ultimately said I'd be flying out Monday as planned, I was pretty much good to go. Last minute items had been added to my bag and my taxi booked the night before, leaving me time in the morning to enjoy a leisurely breakfast and even to prepare a vegan sausage sandwich for the airport. I was free and easy, ready to face the day -- six hours of travel and then straight onto set -- when I suddenly had a funny thought: I had never received the confirmation for my taxi booking.

At a quarter to six, 15 minutes before it was due to arrive, I pulled up my emails and saw that sure enough, my taxi was not booked. In my still slightly delirious, over-slept state of the previous day, I had done everything but click 'confirm' on the final page of the booking. I panicked (theme of the day, as I was soon to find out), ordered a taxi for immediate arrival. As it happened, he arrived five minutes early, as I danced around with my toothbrush frantically working in one hand, my hairdryer blowing away in the other.

A bit of a stressful start, but all in all, I was on my way and in good time, too. As I relaxed into my journey across London's quiet, early-morning streets, I arranged my bags on my lap in the back seat, pulling out my wallet to ready my cab fare... which of course was in my other wallet, in and amongst the seeming post-apocalyptic wreckage on the floor of my bedroom, where I had I left it.

"Oh no, I forgot to put my cash in my bag", I apologised, "can we please stop at a cashpoint?"

The cab driver agreed, for what choice did he have if he wanted to get paid? He pulled into a BP station where I jumped out, only to find that the ATM was mysteriously devoid of any currency. Just my luck (and his). At a rather less convenient junction, I jumped out and ran over the road to a Barclays Bank, where the cash machine was (thankfully) willing to part with £30. I dashed back to the car, and we carried on, narrowly making it to Victoria station in time for my 6:45 Gatwick Express train. I thanked and tipped the driver, procured my receipt, and hustled down to the platform.

I pulled out my notebook as soon as I sat down on the train, and I soon drifted off into my own musings. After about ten minutes had passed, I looked up, realising the train was very much still in the station, and it was very much ten to seven. After very little investigation, I found that in my hurry, I had boarded the 7:00 train by mistake.

It was definitely going to be one of those days.

Despite the morning's misfortunes, I made it to the airport and through security with hours to spare. Good, I thought, I'm here, I'm on my way, and the next thing I'll have to worry about is filming. Wishful thinking, indeed.

On my last two trips to Oran, I flew through Paris, but this time I was flying through Algiers, changing for a domestic Air Algérie flight. I was a little nervous about this connection, but I figured, I've traveled alone before, I'll be fine.

The London flight arrived on time in Algiers, and we disembarked to the only hall: passport control. Signs hanging overhead the long line of people indicated 'exit' and 'baggage reclaim'. Wanting to be sure I was in the right place, although there only seemed to be one way out, I asked a guard if this was the right place for catching connecting flights.

"No", he replied, "if you're catching another flight, you don't want to exit the airport, do you? Wait over there", he said, indicating the wall, "and someone will come and collect you."

"Who?" I asked naively.

"Don't worry. Someone will come. Just wait there."

And so I did.  I waited. And I waited. Okay, so it may have only been about 20 minutes, but in flight-catching time, in navigating an airport in a country in which neither official language is your native tongue time, it felt like hours.

I was growing anxious. The thematic panic was creeping in. I spotted another guard and called him over. When I asked him if I was in the right place to catch my flight to Oran, he responded with a definite no. Perfect. He explained I needed to exit this airport (the international one) via passport control (read, the massive queue that in 20 minutes had progressed approximately three inches) and walk 300m down the way to the national airport to catch my domestic flight.

I sputtered and fumed. I tried to argue with this man; tried to make him undo what the first guard had done; tried at least to convince him to let me join the short queue so I wouldn't miss my flight. He capitulated on the final point.

When I arrived at the passport window, I was greeted with the usual 'What is a nice white girl like you doing in a country like this all by her lonesome?' kind of question. You know, the kind of question they're supposed to ask, only with a dash of surprise and a pinch of sexist condescension. What they actually say is, 'Are you here visiting or working?' But there's a definite accompanying double take and raising of the eyebrows that says the rest.

The funny thing about arriving on an international flight in Oran is that as soon as I say I'm there shooting a film, they say, "Ah oui! El Wahrani!" It's lovely that even border control gets excited about a film being made in their town; that they know exactly which film I mean. (I realise this is because it's the only one, but it still kind if makes me feel like a bug deal.)

When I arrived in Algiers, the men at the window didn't know about the film, but their looks of surprise at my initial appearance turned to glee when I responded that I was there to shoot a film. One of them told me I had the real face of an actress. I can't pretend this didn't improve my mood, even as the perils of potentially missing my flight ran through my head.

We made some jokes about Steven Spielberg (at my expense, not his), they directed me to the national airport whilst making a remark along the lines of "Someday I'll say I knew her when she passed by my window and I stamped her passport", and I was on my way.

I followed and chatted with a lovely Algerian woman who was also on her way to the national side, ensuring at least that I wouldn't get lost. Her conversation, the gentle heat of the sun and the fresh air all had a calming effect. By the time I walked through the doors, passed my bags through the first set of scanners and lifted my arms for the customary pat-down-on-entry, I was practically serene. The fact that there was no queue at the check-in counter seemed like nothing but a much needed good omen.

I approached, handed over my passport, and waited while the woman looked up my reservation.

"Sorry," she said coolly, "there are no more places on this flight".

"What?" At this point I was just as confused as surprised. "What do you mean?" I double-checked the clock. Despite all of my hold-ups, there was still over an hour until take-off. They couldn't have possibly given my seat away. "I have a reservation", I explained.

She shook her head and called to her colleague in Arabic. My brain was having enough of a time wrestling through all of these conversations in French. It panicked (motif!) me slightly not to know what she was saying to him.

He came and took her place at the computer and also began shaking his head. "You don't have a reservation", he said.

"But I do!" I remembered something else. "The company spelled my name wrong when they made the booking. It's Z-A-N but they wrote Z-E-N. Do you see Z-E-N?" 

He continued tapping away at keys and shaking his head.

"I don't understand! It has to be there!"

"How is it spelled?"

"Well really it's Z-A-N, but they put Z-E-N."

Tappity tap tap tap. A pause. A withering look.

"Do you have any baggage to check?"


Without another word, he printed my boarding pass (Zen...), tucked it into my passport, and handed them both back to me. I thanked him, still unsure of what the problem had been, and scurried through security, practically rejoicing at my second pat-down as it meant I had finally arrived at my gate.

Just as I sat down with a much-needed bottle of water and still an hour to spare, my phone began to ring off the hook. Three of four separate calls to find out where I was: at the airport; no, where exactly I was: at the gate waiting for my second flight; because there was a man there waiting for me, searching for me everywhere in the international arrivals hall, waiting to help me make my flight connection.

"I already did it", I almost laughed. I couldn't help it. It was all so ridiculous. "I already did it all by myself".

"So you're at the gate?" the third production assistant asked me, "you went to the check-in, got your ticket, went through security, and you're there?"


"Well... great. Good. I'll let him know not to look for you".

So there had been someone to collect me after all, but where? At passport control where I had been waiting by the waiting wall? In the throngs of people waiting to greet loved ones? Inside the entrance of the national airport? It didn't matter anymore. All I had left to do was board the plane.

I was at the front if the queue when they announced that boarding had commenced. I was that bloody ready to be on the plane. This, of course, caused a bit of hold up and fuss when I was told again that I didn't have a book.

"Do you have your ticket?" the gate agent asked me.

"That is my ticket", I nearly shouted, flapping at my boarding pass in his hand.

"No, not this. Your booking".

"Yes." I breathed deeply as I pulled up the confirmation on my phone, barely containing my mounting rage. "Here."

He looked it over. "Hmm", and something in Arabic to his colleague. He ripped my ticket. "Okay, I guess. Bon voyage".

Bon voyage, indeed.

It wasn't until I arrived on set in Oran that I found out I really didn't have a booking. In the frenzy of Saturday night, as they attempted to change my flight to Sunday, the production company had cancelled my Monday flight and immediately lost the spot on the small plane. After realising their error, they spent all of Monday morning on the phone with airline officials in Algiers, begging them to let me on the flight.

I was blissfully unaware of these behind-the-scenes machinations. I see this morcel of ignorance as the last in a day-long series of exceptional strokes of luck. Although I felt unjustly wronged by the universe at every juncture of yesterday's journey in real time, I actually did nothing but arrive places ahead of time and catch flights to my intended destination. I even arrived (straight from the airport) ahead of time on set.

My audacity towards the gate agents was rooted in self-righteousness (and perhaps catalysed by exhausted indignation). Had I had any inkling that there was a problem with my booking, I'd probably still be stuck in some part of the (godforsaken) Algiers airport. 

I may be here for the sole purpose of playing someone else in a feature film, but I remain a terrible liar.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

You can take the girl out of London...

But she will not leave her tendency towards bêtises behind.

My first day on set, I made a rookie mistake.

When I landed in Oran on Monday, I was understandably exhausted after a full day of travel and at least a full week of anxiety-induced sleep deprivation.  I was nervous still, slightly disoriented, and my brain was already aching from reactivating my three-years-dormant French.  The Arabic drifting through the air all around me, not a word of which I understood, was not helping matters.  I had, however, made it to Algeria, which meant that I probably hadn't dreamt up the feature film I had signed a contract to perform in.  Otherwise what was I doing there?

Strictly speaking, I didn't make the aforementioned mistake my first day on set.  I went straight there from the airport -- only stopping at the hotel to drop off my bags, brush my teeth, and spin into a five-minute panic over the presumed loss of my passport... until I remembered I had just left it at reception -- eager to see the other cast members and have a sneak peak at how things were going, although I wasn't scheduled to shoot until the next day.  Having never performed in a real movie before with real cameras and a real crew, I didn't know quite what to expect, and I wasn't about to make a fool of myself when I first stood in front of all of them.  No, no, I'd much prefer to make a fool of myself before the cameras were ever even rolling.

On that first Monday evening, I was reunited with my onscreen husband, I watched the opening sequence of our wedding run at least a dozen times (very impressed with the extras that ran past time and time again carrying cast-iron tables over their heads), and I met the rest of the cast, those who hadn't made it to our read-through in Paris.  Although offered to be driven straight to the hotel for the evening upon arrival -- which might have been wise considering my state -- I'm glad I decided to familiarise myself with the location, the crew, my fellow actors, and even to take up their invitation for a late dinner.

When my alarm went off at 6 on Tuesday morning, I thought better of the previous night's decision, but by then, it was too late.  I stumbled to my desk to write my morning pages, willed myself into the shower, and made it down to breakfast to discover that bar one, all of my options were dairy-based.

Side note: I don't think I've mentioned it on here, but I gave up dairy completely about a year ago when I realised it was wreaking havoc on my stomach and on my skin.  Did I think I could never give up cheese?  Yes.  But I did it.  And I've lived to tell the tale.  I've also been eating (mostly) vegan since the beginning of the year, but I knew this wouldn't be easy in Oran.  I was right.  That cast dinner on Monday night?  At a fish restaurant.  I'm going to have to plan my food more wisely for my next journey over.

The only option other than (butter-based) pastries and yogurt was this pre-sliced, intentionally stale bread and some "strawberry" jam that appeared to be 72% sugar and 12% colourant.  Yum!  The coffee, at least, was as delicious as it was needed.

At 7:30, our driver arrived to take one other actress and myself to set for hair and makeup.  It was here that I realised my silly error.

Before I get into it, let me lay down my defense.  Whilst on set the day before, I had run into the incomparable hair and makeup artists.  I had mentioned to the hair stylist that I hadn't washed my hair in a couple of days, and I asked whether it would be better to leave it or wash it before the next days filming.  She looked at it (pulled back) and asserted it was better to leave it a little dirty.  

Though I had managed a shower the day of the shoot, I dutifully kept my hair unwashed, despite noticing that is was pretty greasy as I brushed it back into a fresh ponytail.  

The stylist began to pull pins out of my hair as I sat down, and I removed my hair tie.  Her face dropped and her eyes widened.  "Oh no", she shook her head, "Oh no no no, I cannot do anything with this".  My eyes widened.  I too thought, Oh no.  "Far too much grease.  Far too much grease", she scolded, "What am I supposed to do with this?"

I had the overwhelming sensation that I had ruined everything five minutes after arriving.  Why hadn't I just washed it when I myself saw how greasy it was that morning?  I will never know.  I am proud to say I did not cry.

As I have spent a fair amount of time around French people before, I know they can have a slight tendency to exaggerate, and I kept that in mind as I apologised profusely (although I also dropped in the fact that she had told me not to wash my hair the day before).  She continued to say things like, "Far too much grease, far too much oil.  What are we going to do?  I can't do anything with this.  Impossible.  Impossible".  There must be a solution, I thought to myself.

And of course, there was.  "We'll have to wash it", she concluded finally, digging a bottle of shampoo out of her bag of tricks.  "Of course it won't be easy", she continued, "This is Algeria.  There's no hot water on tap".

"That's fine with me!" I assured her.

The house was similar in style to the one I had stayed in years earlier during my study abroad in Cameroon.  With tiled floors and walls that the residents swept daily, an outdoor balcony area, and a Turkish toilet upstairs (the kind with two raised rectangles suggesting where your feet should be planted and a funnel-style slant into a hole just behind them) it brought me right back to the days I had spent drinking beers on the porch in the afternoon Yaoundé sun, punctuated by freezing cold showers to wash away the perma-layer of sweat.

The hair stylist, of course, did not know this and was very concerned about pouring cold water from a basin over my head in the downstairs bathroom.  As I bent over the sink and rubbed the shampoo into the front of my hair, I laughed and told her it really was fine.

Her concern at the state of my hair had rapidly changed to concern at the circumstances that I was having to endure.  "Can you imagine?" she clucked, "Cold water when  you are used to..."

Of course she had (has) no idea what I'm used to.  She probably didn't know that this was my first feature film and that as an actor, I've put myself into much weirder/less comfortable situations for much less reward.  A little cold water wasn't going to get me down. 

One day of filming done, one lesson learned.  I will be making the trip four more times, and I'm sure there will be many more gaffs to follow.  At least next time I'll arrive on set with clean hair. 

Monday, February 04, 2013

Don't quit your day jobs

OR My week in review.

Although the U.K. general treats the un- and under-employed (including many artists) better than the U.S., my visa-holding status precludes me from receiving any government assistance or benefits.  Boringly, this means I work a lot, earn not-so-much, don't get any government monies, and without "concessions" (benefits) status, I miss out on lots of discounts (on gym memberships, theatre tickets, etc.).  That's right: I'm poor, and because I don't qualify for benefits, I have to pay more for things!

The upside to this situation is that I work a lot of ridiculous jobs to make ends meet.  I mean, I try to see it as an upside.  It's a pretty even trade off of all self respect for a few nuggets of comic gold. I actually have a (very exciting) well-paid ACTING job on the horizon, but in the meantime, I must keep plugging away.

This is what my schedule looked like this week:

JOB TITLE: Corporate Hospitality Assistant
UNIFORM: Black, long-sleeved, button-up shirt, black trousers, black leather shoes
JOB DESCRIPTION: Set up conference rooms with tea, coffee and biscuits.  Clear said conference rooms.  Prepare and serve sandwich lunches.  Drink lots of free coffee.

JOB TITLE: Costume Waitress
UNIFORM: Silver lamé catsuit, silver face paint, purple wig
JOB DESCRIPTION: Do the same waitressing as everyone else, only in a silver catsuit and purple wig.

JOB TITLE: Football Club Hospitality Hostess
UNIFORM: Tailored red dress with matching jacket, black court shoes
JOB DESCRIPTION: Greet guests in club level dining area, check tickets against list, make sure everyone gets a laniard, food and lots of beers.  Escort guest to boxes for football match, chat with everyone, make sure everyone has a good time and lots of beers.

JOB TITLE: Cover drama teacher
UNIFORM: Whatever the fuck I want
JOB DESCRIPTION: Teach four teenagers something about acting.

JOB TITLE: In-store promoter
UNIFORM: Black suit, flouncy purple scarf, branded badge
JOB DESCRIPTION: Bother women in the vitamin aisle.  Imply that they are probably old and wish  to look younger.  Tout the benefits of a skin nutrition supplement.  Try not to gouge own eyes out with pen.

I was dreading the week.  I am really tired of working in catering.  Every time I have to pull on my black uniform and apron and polish up my service smile, I die a little inside.  It feels like a massive step backwards.  So yeah, I wasn't thrilled to be doing two waiting jobs.

Monday went shockingly well.  I turned up to do a day of hospitality at an office I worked at regularly about a year ago.  I was not thrilled for a number of reasons, the first of which was the aforementioned backward progression.  Secondly, the boss is a big racist.  Much of my time working there was spent subtly trying to dispute her generalisations without compromising my shitty but much-needed source of income.

For Example:

RACIST BOSS: She's very hard-working.  But that's Indians for you.

ME: Mmmhmm.

RB: Don't you think? They're very hard-working.

ME: Um, yes, some of them are, but I would not say that about all Indian people.  But yes.  She is very hard-working.

And then the same again for laziness, trustworthiness (or lack thereof), etc.  Charming, right?  I know.

Then there was the time when I was bullied mercilessly by another agency co-worker for no reason that I could ascertain and was essentially told (by the same boss) that she was a good worker and that I should therefore grin and bear it, at least until they could find someone else.  This was a woman who blanked me when I said Good morning, shushed me and said, "Shut up, you're too loud", when I'd ask a work-related questions, and humiliated me in front of guests by leaving me without assistance in service and then loudly accusing me of doing nothing.  I survived two brutal days of this before vowing never to work there again.

When I did return, it was to a change in middle management (I didn't even mention how the former floor supervisors used to bicker and try to get me to take sides).  I was told by the big boss that my bully had been in the UK on a false passport and was consequently deported, "Typical Indian!"  I did not receive an apology for having withstood workplace harassment.  Nor for having poor management excused with a racist remark.

But, January is a quiet month in the events biz, and needs must, so I plastered on my finest grin and decided to make the best of it.

And, whadayaknow?  The big boss was in the office all day instead of the kitchen.  There were several events going on throughout the day, and (as I could do the job blindfolded underwater), I was left to look after the conference rooms all by my beautiful, peaceful, zen-like lonesome.  I had some lovely chat with the (film-loving) manager, and I got the job done.  Bam!  Monday done.

I was expecting Tuesday to be ridiculous and slightly humiliating.  I was not really being paid enough to wear a skin-tight getup while everyone else wore normal catering gear, but again, needs must.

After having my makeup done in a baby changing station, I went to collect my costume and wig.  The  package featured a buxom blonde woman, seductively unzipping her catsuit.  On me, the size small costume was simultaneously too loose and too short.  The stirrup feet gave the baggy zip-up catsuit a comically taught effect.  I did not look sexy.  I looked like a five-year old in a onesie, post-growth–spurt.

The management also found it pretty funny (which was fine by me), and gave me an apron to complete my "future waitress" look, but more practically to give me my waist back.

I was fine with rocking a goofy look.  In fact, I'm much more comfortable playing goofy robot than sexy waitress, and I was only attracting the strangest looks until the BUTLERS IN THE BUFF arrived.

Yep, it's exactly what it sounds like.  Until instructed that they would be required to wear trousers for this event, they were sporting only bow-ties, collars, cufflinks (didn't know before you could get them as separates), and napkin-sized, front-covering-only aprons.  I did not gawk at their bare bottoms.  Much.  Not as much as most of my colleagues.

Naked waiters!  Sexy onesie robots!  I was allowed to change for the last hour and help with the heavy lifting in the back.  I was grateful.  Tuesday done!

I'm actually loving working at the football club.  Because it's actually a regular gig for me, I see a lot of the same guests, people remember and ask for me, and this week I got moved to the boxes, which meant I actually got to work during (not just before) the match.  I looked after a fabulously friendly group of guests, and I got to watch a good bit of the game, and I met some football Legends.

Thursday was even better.  I was really nervous, as I'm used to teaching little little kids, and teenagers kind of scare the bejesus out of me.  I also hadn't had to make up any kind of a lesson plan in over two years.  The regular teacher gave me free reign to try out my improv workshop ideas (the ones I've been sitting on forever).  This was spectacular in terms of forward progression and doing the kind of work I want to do, but forward progression is also terrifying.

I had nothing to be worried about.  The potential for apathy was diminished by the fact that those kids wanted to be there.  It was a one-hour private class, and I could have taught them for three.  They were game for what I brought and smart as shit.  I want more of it.

Friday I wanted to gouge my eyes out with a pen.  I resisted.

Could I work a 9 to 5 job and have more financial security/less day-to-day insanity?  Yes.  Would I be bored shitless?  Yes.

I'll take the occasional catsuit over a desk job any day.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

SOB: Part Two

In the months leading up to and following my sister's marriage, I — as sister of the bride and maid of honour — learned absolutely nothing about planning weddings, bachelorette parties or showers.  I haven't even showered today.  I thank my loving, understanding sister for the kindness of limiting my responsibilities.  I do know if you want a kick-ass wedding, you should totally give her a call.

The day of Mara's wedding, I woke up grumpy.  I had managed to go for a run the morning before, but on the day itself, jet-lag was exacting its cruel, delayed revenge and getting the better of me.

Funny story, actually: I went for a run the day before my sister's wedding — the day of the rehearsal — at our local track.  I felt pretty darn good about myself.  I'm on vacation, I thought,  and I'm doing exercise.  It was a Friday morning, and no one else was at the track, save one blonde woman who had entered the park on the other side.  She was running towards me, and I didn't clock her until she was was about five feet away, at which point I realised that this woman — the one other jogger out on a Friday morning — was my sister.  We laughed and shook our heads as we recognised one another.

This is the kind of person my sister is: she gets up early the day before her wedding — the day she has to bring together a large number of people for a rehearsal and a meal, deal with any last minute disasters with poise and panache — to make sure she has time to exercise.  So, as it turns out, is her (then) fiancé, who rocked up sweaty a few minutes later from wherever he had been exercising.  No wonder they threw a kick-ass wedding.

But I digress.  I woke up grumpy the day of my sister's wedding.  I was jet-lagged, yes, but I was also reverting to thoughts and habits of adolescence.  The rehearsal lunch had been much more fun that I had anticipated.  I had, admittedly, been dreading the high school reunion aspect of that weekend.  You see, my sister's (now) husband was in my graduating class.  He was a star football player, a good student, well-liked.  He was (at least in my mind) one of the cool kids, and so were most of the guys who comprised his half of the wedding party.

Despite my anxieties, I found that ten years had been plenty long enough to level the playing field.  I don't mean in a Romy-and-Michelle-my-life-is-way-better-than-yours-now-revenge-plot way, because they all had taken interesting paths, too.  It seemed, thankfully, that we had all left high school far behind and had more in common than not.

Although I was getting on swimmingly with the groomsmen, I had a creeping, distinct, and most certainly fabricated and self-perpetuating feeling of outsiderness when it came to the bridal party.  Let me reiterate, THIS WAS COMPLETELY IN MY HEAD.  All of my sister's bridesmaids were lovely, friendly, welcoming and generally the kind of people that I'd expect Mara to hang out with, but their presence made me realise: I don't really hang out with Mara.  She's my sister, I love her, and we've come a long way from the days of psychological torture (her) and physical retaliation (me).  We get along really well, but I felt (in my own overly-anxious, -analytical head) that I couldn't compete.  These people were her best friends.  I was just an accident of parentage.  I had to be there.  She had to ask me to be her maid of honour.  I was family.

Old insecurities were accompanied by new obstacles.  My expired driver's license necessitated a reliance on my parents' transportation and an adherence to their respective schedules that I wasn't loving.  I left the rehearsal lunch with my lovely, kind, wonderful cousin, who gave me a ride home and helped talk me back from the ledge overlooking self-effacing, pity-party land.  At that point, I was dealing with reoccurring and aforementioned (in the previous post) feelings about being some kind of weird, non-marriage–wanting, hometown-leaving pariah (all completely self-inflicted titles).  She talked sense to me.

I only found out later that night (curse you Facebook and your truth-telling photos!) that after we had left, my sister, Ben, and all the rest of the bridal party had carried on revelling together, and even in their imbibed state, had managed to work together to place all the name cards for the next day's reception.  I was livid!  (Privately.)  How could they exclude me so thoughtlessly, I lamented to myself, I'm the maid of honour!

(Maybe because my cousin kindly drove me home when I would have had no other way of getting back across the river to my mom's house, as everyone else in the bridal party was staying in a nearby hotel?)

Oh, the humanity!

So yes, I woke up grumpy.  I felt a little left out.  All the ladies had stayed in a suite together the night before.  I bet they had lots of fun and exciting late-night conversations without me.  Was I invited to sleep on half a couch or one-third of a bed or the floor with the rest of them that night?  Yes.  Did I independently and sensibly decide to sleep in the comfort of an unshared double bed at my mom's house instead?  Yes.  But still.

I decided to shake it off.  This was not about me, I reminded myself, just as I had when I was considering the best punchlines for my non-traditional maid-of-honour toast.  This was Mara's day, and I was just a small part of it.  The most important and helpful thing I could do was behave and butt out.

My step-dad gave me a ride to the hotel in Portland, and we swung by an ATM so I could get some cash for whatever booze/taxi situation was to arise later that night.  I scuttled into the shop, inserted my UK card, entered the pin, and was denied.  Several times.  Idiot.  I completely forgot to tell my bank that I was travelling.  Idiot.

I returned to the car, frustrated, fighting a mounting sensation that the world was against me, but determined not to let it get to me.  My step-dad kindly offered to lend me money, as did my dad over the phone, and all was well again.  I was dropped off outside the Marriott hotel, bridesmaid dress bagged and draped over my arm.

I proceeded to the 16th floor where I knocked on the door with the room number I'd been given.  No response.  That's funny, I thought, but they're probably all just having such a great time that they can't even hear me.  Or they were at breakfast.  One of those.

I called my sister and told her I was at the door.  'That's weird', she said, 'I thought you needed a key card to get to this floor'.

'Nope!' I replied confidently.

'Okay I'm coming', she said, so I hung up.

Still no one at the door.  Hmmm.

I called her back.

Mara: 'Which Marriott are you at?'

Me: 'I don't know, the one I was dropped off at.'

Mara: 'The Waterfront?'

Me (becoming frantic): 'I don't know!  Is there more than one?'

Mara: 'Oh my gaaaahhhd, I wrote City Center in the email.  Why did he take you to the Waterfront one?'

Me (nearing tears): 'I don't know!  Where's the one you're at?  Is it far?'

Mara: 'I don't know.  Can't you get him to drive you here?'

Me (eyes burning, indignation rising): 'No!  He's gone and I don't have his number in this stupid phone!'

Mara: 'Don't panic.  The hair and makeup girls aren't even here yet.  They went to the wrong hotel, too.'

We agreed that I would get there somehow, and that it couldn't be to far, as downtown Portland is fairly small and walkable.

I burst into tears and called my mom.  Yes: 27 years old, wearing shorts, flip-flops, no make-up, and carrying a very fancy dress, I cried for my mommy in an upscale hotel lobby.

She answered the phone with, 'Hello?  Oh no!  I can't believe he took you to the wrong place, but I'm driving so I'm going to have to pass you to your aunt', at which point I tried really hard not to cry over the phone to my aunt, to whom I hadn't spoken since the previous Christmas.

'It's okay,' she assured me, 'Where are you?'

Drawing on my vague recollections of local geography from my high school and college summers of working in Portland, I described my location (I had walked a few blocks from the wrong hotel) and the address my sister had given me of the correct hotel.  At this point, my aunt made the extremely logical suggestion that I go back inside the lobby and ask them for directions to the other hotel, as it was part of the same chain, and they would know how to get there.  She also suggested I take a taxi.  I thanked her, hung up the phone, and did neither of those things.

It wasn't far to walk — maybe 20 minutes — and I was glad for the fresh air and the time to decompress.  I even impressed myself slightly with my memory of street names and landmarks in downtown Portland.  When I finally arrived at the City Center Marriott, I was slightly frazzled, but ready to do whatever was needed to help out.

Mara was composed, drinking gallons of water from a SuperGulp-style cup, and saying, 'Oh my god you guys, I'm freaking out', in an incredibly calm voice.  I delivered Ben's ring to the boys' suite downstairs, made some unwanted suggestions, got told, 'I don't need another mother!', tried not to cry, and drank champagne as it arrived — one bottle at a time — in the room.

(I was sharing the champagne with 8 or 9 other women in the room.  I was not drinking bottles on my own.  I was aware that I still had to stand in front of a crowd of people and speak twice without embarrassing my sister, so I was well-behaved.)

Everyone was having a good time, getting hair and makeup done, discussing the day's schedule, but there was a palpable tension in the air.  Weddings do make people a little bit crazy.  My sister was remarkably calm.  She only nearly lost her shit when Ben almost (or so she thought, actually) saw her in her dress before the ceremony for the second time, but she apologised later.  As this was my first 'behind the scenes' experience, I was struck by my sister's ability to remain calm while trying to act as the organiser and main event in one of the most important experiences of her life thus far.  Considering I nearly broke down over a malfunctioning debit card, a little bit of misdirection, and a hackneyed, sisterly insult, I am not cut out for such serenity under pressure.

What I loved the most about my sister's wedding was that it was her.  Okay, I'm sure there were some compromises and attempts to please both families, but what she wanted, more than anything, was to throw the best party ever.  And she succeeded.

Monday, October 15, 2012

SOB: Part One

(Sister of the Bride)

I've been trying to finish this post for weeks, but a combination of performing in a show every night of the week, having lots to say, and general laziness have kept me from doing so.  As a result, I have decided to recap the events surrounding my sister's nuptials in instalments.

I give you: PART ONE! (Being Maid of Honour)

So, my sister's married.

Let me not spend too much time saying that it's a little bit weird when one's sibling gets hitched -- let alone one's only sibling, let alone one's younger sister -- because I pretty much always knew Mara would get there way before I did, if I did.  Like, always always.  Pretty much since she was born almost 25 years ago.  Even then.

That said, when I got the text just under a year ago that said 'I'M ENGAGED!! Call me', I did have moment of hysterical, stereotypical, older sister life-choice-questioning.  This was only exacerbated when I went home over Christmas and spent an evening with my sister, her fiancé, my cousin and her husband, in which the entire conversation revolved around weddings and babies, and I thought (for a brief second), What is wrong with me? Why don't I want this? Why am I so weird?  There was no Lamaze breathing involved, but I did feel momentarily like an alien, and my life outside of my home town seemed to exist in another dimension.

Also, in my head, my sister is still this age, so it's hard to think about her doing anything grown up.

(She's the cute one, by the way.  I'm the one with the over-sized, unnecessary glasses that were prescribed by a quack eye doctor who was trying to make a quick buck.  We both, however, suffered the indignity of bowl cuts at the hands of our father.)

But I got over it, got over myself, and tried to be as involved in the conversation and planning as anyone who knows nothing about marriage and only has a vague, vacillating desire to procreate can be.

Before my visit home, when I finally got to talk to her on Skype, Mara asked me to be her maid of honour.  I cried.  Well, I teared up.  For some reason (possibly related to childhood nerdiness insecurities), I did not think that out of my sister's throngs of super cool friends, she would ask me.  Also, I live really far away and was concerned that -- aside from not grasping the concept of 'showers' or 'bachelorette parties' -- I would not be able to lend a hand or plan things very well from that distance.

My sister patiently responded, 'Of course I was going to ask you', and then assured me that I didn't need to do anything but show up.

And so, aside from a brief discussion at Christmastime, I proceeded to forget about the whole thing for the next 10 months.  Yes, I briefly considered joining (though never planning) the bachelorette party, until the other five bridesmaids informed me Mara wanted to go to Vegas.  That option was slightly out of budget/time constraints, plus I'm not much of a Vegas girl anyway.  At least, I'm pretty sure I'm not, having never actually been there.

I heard about the shower, sent some flowers, and also sent in my measurements for a dress.  A week before the wedding, Mara asked me if I wanted to do a reading at the ceremony and a toast at the reception.  I said 'Sure', because talking in front of people is my job.

I arrived the Tuesday night before the wedding completely jet-lagged, but ready to jump in and help with any last minute ribbon-tying or paper-folding, but as ever, Mara didn't want my help.  Or anyone's.  She's pretty self-sufficient, that sister of mine, and like me (I suspect), would rather do something herself than let someone else screw it up.

So all I had to do before the wedding day arrived was practice my reading, and write my toast.  The reading was fine.  I decided not to memorise it, because forgetting the words would be super awkward, so I just familiarised myself with the text, and then moved on to panicking over what I was going to say at the reception without talking for 9 years, forgetting to mention Ben (the groom), or embarrassing my sister or myself.

I laboured over my notebook for days.  What to say without sounding cheesy, or worse, inadvertently envious?  I wanted to joke about our fights and my jealousy when we were kids, but without making it seems like I still secretly resented her (I don't).  I did not want to be that Maid of Honour, the one who gets drunk and says, 'Isn't my sister pretty?', but with an evil glint in her eye.  I wanted to be funny!  I wanted to impress.

But then I remembered that it wasn't about me, and that made things a bit simpler.  This wasn't my wedding day, and it wasn't my stand-up show or my story at a party either.  This was about Mara.  I typed up a page of things I thought it would be nice to say, we did the whole wedding thing (more on that later), and I arrived at the reception, ready (if nervous) to say my piece.

I thought, based on the few 'traditional' weddings I've been to, that the toasts would be done right away.  I was wrong.  My sister and Ben spent an hour taking photos (as scheduled) while the bridal party hid upstairs so we could make a grand entrance together.  That was one extra hour to panic slightly, and not drink too much so as not to become nightmare MOH as described above.

(These photos happened much later in the evening, once I did allow myself to start celebrating.  Heavily.)

Once we did get downstairs, dinner was promptly served.  I expressed my growing concern to my sister, asked her whether or not I should bring up my bit of prompt paper, and once again, she responded patiently and sagely: 'Anne, you know what you want to say, and I know it's going to be fine.  You don't need the paper'.  I felt reassured, but still did not know when these toasts were happening.  I chatted and ate, all the while sure I would be called into action at any moment.  More courses kept arriving.

It felt as if hours were passing.  Mara and Ben had decided to try to get around to greet every one of their 180 guests.  The dinner had finished and the tunes were picking up.  It was the first wedding I'd ever been too where guests started dancing before the bride and groom had their first dance, but no one seemed to mind.

The best man and I were finally called up when I had finally relaxed into conversation and started in on a glass of wine.  Mara and Ben were with us by the DJ's table, and he handed me the mic.  As I do at a stand-up gig, I had a few notes written on my wrist in case I drew a total blank, but I'm pretty sure I got through most of what I wanted to say.  I don't really remember, as it really did happen very quickly, but I was praised later on the brevity of my toast, so I think it was as much reality as my adrenaline-clouded perception.

I saw my sister's face go cold for one second when she thought I was going to say something embarrassing, but I didn't, and she immediately looked relieved.  She hugged me afterwards and said, 'That was really good'.  And it was.  It was all really good.

Coming soon: PART TWO!  All of the other things that a sister's wedding entails.