Friday, March 27, 2009

[The Life of Shaun #335] Barcelona 2 + 999

I had this thought while writing about Barcelona the first time, but that eMail was tomeic enough, so I decided to hold off.

I had a little relapse into the excitement of Europe while I was there. I was invited to a dinner party the Saturday night (official start: 21.00; first course: 22:45; last drink and exit to the first bar: 01.45 - Spanish agendas are hard on us Northerners.). There were seven guests: two Spaniards, two Frenchmen, an Irishman, the multinational and multi-lingual host and me. As I was there, the American shame dictated that all common conversation was in English. When in Spanish, I could understand nothing, but the Irishman enough to get by; when in French, our roles reversed.

As conversations morphed and splintered off between topics and parties, they passed from one language to the next. It felt so foreign and unfamiliar, so distinctly not home. This is a feeling that has dwindled while living in Europe; it doesn't feel nearly as exotic or monumental to get on a plane and be in Rome, Berlin or Amsterdam in 120, 60 or 30 minutes as it does to hole yourself up for twelve hours, trying to sleep overnight, dozing off in one world and waking in another. It's thrilling to get to travel to so many places relatively easily, cheaply and frequently, but it can't be escaped that the thrill is unavoidably diminished by doing so. You become sort of a travel junkie, having to go farther and to less convenient places to get the same high - China, Australia, Brazil, Zambia - after a while, a long weekend in France starts to sound like a long weekend in Ohio.

Disapropos, I helped a lady get an ambulance yesterday! She was walking and just tripped and fell over forward, hard (kind of like you, Lottie!). Unable to brace her fall, her face smashed into the sidewalk of Commercial Road and she started bleeding all over. She was totally dazed, so I helped her sit up, asked if she needed assistance and called 999. Bit crazy to see someone go down like that rather than being the one tripping, but now I know how you all feel hanging out with me!

OK, it's the weekend - HOORAH! I am off for TVpalooza in Crystal Palace with the Watkinsons (less one) - have a great weekend, all!


Shaun H. Coley
Shadwell, Tower Hamlets
London, UK

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

[The Life of Shaun #334] Europe's San Francisco

My first trip to Barcelona was in April 1999, just after moving to the New York area (Hoboken, for the geophiles) to go to Stevens. My sisters had moved there after stints in San Francisco and Toulouse and my Mom and I went to visit them for Easter. I liked the city well enough (and fatefully met one miss Natasha Rankow my first night there), but did not feel driven to go back before now.

I had a sense I would like it better in my 30s than I did in my 20s and I was right. I wasn't sure what didn't quite gel with me back then, but I do now. Barcelona is much like San Francisco in spirit, mood and real estate; it's set between/on mountains and the sea, is perfectly manageable in size, laid back, easy, relaxed, pleasant, pretty - basically, how you think a city ought to be if you could design it from scratch.

Only I had just left San Francisco, a city where I had all those things, 18 months before as, lovely as it was, it just didn't speak to me - it's almost too nice. I needed something more frenetic, faster, crazier, edgier - just more. I had just landed in the home that would provide that for me, but hadn't realised it yet, but something in me felt it wasn't in Barcelona either, so it stayed pretty fairly deep in the back of my mind since then.

After more than a decade gorging myself on the more of New York and London though, I am full enough that I've added new things to my palate - dinners with friends, wine on a terrace, long, lazy days with no intents at all. In sating those pangs, but without losing the vibrancy of a city, you'd have to go far and wide to find a better place than Barcelona.

The original plan was to go with my friend Rachel Klem. However, her grandmother died the day she was supposed to come to London and she ended up going home to Vegas instead. I was very sad about that, but my trip instantly became a different one, a weekend for just me rather than reexploring with Rachel.

Freed from any potential need to do touristic Barcelona again, I could do as much or as little as I felt - and I stuck with the latter. Don't get me wrong, it was a gaycation so I was out till the wee hours of the night-stroke-morning (then again, all of Spain was), but I was at liberty to nurse my hangovers with reading, The Wire, Sopranos, Howard's terrace and everything else amateur tourists shouldn't be doing.

And I had a lot more fun out now than I did ten years ago. I am not sure if it's because I've aged into a comfortable place with what Barcelona has on offer, if its scene has grown, or I am just more comfortable being out in an unfamiliar city, but there seemed to be a whole lot more agreeable ways to pass the time between sun-down and -up than I remember. For me, this is the best and most important part of any trip I take (I will have plenty of time to look at tile mosaics, flying buttresses and Sistine Chapels when I am 60, thankyouverymuch). So with this improvement, Barcelona is now frontal lobe.

I feel recharged, and I am enamoured with Barcelona. I still couldn't live there, though - I have a few more years of gluttony left in me.


1) DSC00399 - Me out with the boys

2) DSC00400 - The only picture of the city I took. I knew Howard's & Sergio's place was central, but I had no idea they'd be around the corner from this!

3) La Sagrida Familia - lifted picture, but including it because it's just so damn cool.

Shaun H. Coley
Shadwell, Tower Hamlets
London, UK

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

[The Life of Shaun #333] A lesson 34 years in the making

The second smartest thing I've ever done in my life is taking tomorrow off work.

Shaun H. Coley
Shadwell, Tower Hamlets
London, UK

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

[The Life of Shaun #332] Flatshare in Hoxton


Taking a break from my three Bs in Barcelona (Yo amo Barcelona! I am trying to figure out what motivated my sisters to leave here for Miami, but I am not capable of such irrational thought.) to send this on. My friend Alexi's flatmate has gone lesbian and is moving in with his boyfriend of five minutes, so Alexi has a room to rent out.

I've spent many happy hours at his flat, several of which I even remember. The flat is great, sprawling in a way very uncommon in London, making it ideal for sharing. The location, "Shoreditch Heights", is ideal for said neighbourhood and the other essential postcodes.

Alexi has become a good friend in London and I can recommend him as a flatmate whole-heartedly. His disposition is very similar to mine, so if you enjoy my company, then you will probably enjoy his.

To see the ad with full-sized pics, you can go here:

Text and small pics below. He is CCed here,, so contact him directly if you're keen or know someone who is. Please feel free to pass along to those you are willing to vouch for.


Shaun H. Coley
Shadwell, Tower Hamlets
London, UK

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Alexi Cawson
Date: 2009/3/21
Subject: outlet ad
To: Shaun Coley

Hoxton, Greater London (North)
Rent: £150pw (£650pcm), Available: 01/04/2009

Outlet ID: r24724

view map »

Search for tenant »

property description
Type of Property: shared
Building type: flat
No. of bedrooms available: 1
No. of bathrooms: 1
Nearby Transport: 2 minutes (walking)
Contract available: Yes

About the property
Double room to let in brand-new 2 bedroom flat in Hoxton N1, 10 mins walk from Old Street and 20 mins walk from Angel, Islington and Upper Street. The flat is on the sixth floor and has great views. There is a balcony and all usual mod cons. There is a small park with tennis courts/football pitch opposite, and a larger park 5 mins walk away. Frequent buses to the City/Waterloo/London Bridge/Lewisham leave from right outside. Old Street station is 10 mins walk or a five-minute bus ride. Generally takes 30 mins to West End off-peak. Black cab home from Soho is about £12.
room description
Size: 4m x4m
Furnished: yes, with double bed
Room amenities:
TV Phone
En Suite Broadband
About the room
Double room with great view (6th floor), 18 sq m (4x4.5m). Furnished with double bed, desk/chair, full-length mirror, wardrobe, bedside tables.
current flatmates
Number of other flatmates: 1
Age Range: 34
Gender/Orientation: Gay/bi males
Pets: None
Children: No
Smokers: No
Occupations: University administrator
Couples resident: no
Landlord resident: yes
Languages spoken: English/Greek
About current flatmates
34, gay male, own the flat. Tidy, reliable, go out fairly frequently. Work 9-5 in public sector. I'm not as much of a party animal as I was in my 20s but still do the odd all-nighter. Occasionally smoke but mostly outdoors. I have a piano but it works with headphones too, so you won't have to listen to too much of it (unless you want to).
Rental Details
Rent: £150 pw or £650 pcm
Deposit: £650
Utility bills pcm: £40
Available: 01/04/2009
Agency letting: No
Furnished Washing machine
Shower Dishwasher
Central heating Broadband
Television Disabled access
Garden Cleaner
Off street parking
Ideal homeseeker
Acceptable pets: None
Smokers OK: Yes
Children OK: No
Couples OK: No
Acceptable Genders/Sexualities:
Gay/bi males
About Ideal homeseeker
Looking for a reliable, tidy, sociable and thoughtful person to share with. We don't need to be the best of friends, but I would rather not share with someone who's in their room all the time and/or only ever cooks their own meals.
contact landlord
You need to create a profile to receive the contact details for this 'fast track property

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

[The Life of Shaun #331] The Eternal City

So, finally, this past weekend I got to make a trip three years in the making to decide which European capital is the hottest. Berlin, my spiritual home, is undoubtedly the sexiest. A trip to Madrid shocked Russ's and my libidos to their cores. Parisian men, of course, have a certain je ne sais quoi. But who can make a list of lucky genes without bringing up the Italians? My first visit to the boot was pleasant, but certainly showed diluted evidence of Italy's claim to fame; but I was in the North, and I wouldn't want to rank Britain based on Middlesbrough, so a trip to the capital was, for scientific purposes, necessary.

Fortunately, Mary Keany had a drive to go to Rome as well - something about some old buildings, art, fountains and the such. In the spirit of bipartisanship that is the manner of today, we set out on a joint mission on our separate journeys as a commemoration of Mary's imminent departure to Sydney for 10-12 months next week. (Did someone say Mardi Gras 2010?)

So - Rome! Stepping off the plane you can tell you've left the more industrious, richer North, but the fading, wear and minor crumbling are all part of the charm. You don't get to have both a relaxed life eating, drinking and being merry and gleaming cities. The Romans came to that fork in the road millennia ago and have stuck fastidiously to their decision, and for that, I am thankful.

From the airport, after driving through open fields, regrettable new multi-use developments at highway exits miles from the city centre and an uncomfortably long series of 70s office blocks, we rounded a corner and very suddenly I had my first impression of Rome proper: "Wow. The Coliseum is really small." The rest of the drive was similarly uninspired. It was agreeable enough, don't take it wrongly - pleasant Mediterranean architecture interspersed with ruins and monuments, but it lacked that indefinable something that made me want to jump out into the streets the way other cities had. It was Lisbon on too much cappuccino.

We checked into our continental-sized room, unpacked and headed out into the city to try a restaurant that sounded good in the guide book Mary brought. Sadly, it was full for the night. Unsadly, it was just around the corner from a square that we thought was going to be hyptertouristed, but which turned out in fact to be - wonderful. Over the next three hours, at dinner, I learned what my Rome was all about and my hesitation with the city faded into a happy, gastronomic pleasure. Rome is a city to feel and taste more than to see. It has its dramatic vistas (The Vatican, Trevi Fountain and, admittedly, the Coliseum at night), but it's meant to be lived and played in - it is not a museum, despite its antiquity.

Mary did get me out on a stroll the Sunday night past some of the highlights, and Monday we did a whirlwind pre-flight tour through the Vatican. I was more interested in the geopolitical fact of a country that is less than half a square kilometre in size than in any religious or artistic aspect, but I capitulated to touristic pressure and gave my donation to the Holy See to see Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.

I've known this for quite some time, but this confirmed it: this is not the sort of thing that thrills me. Of course it's gorgeous and amazing, but I just don't get the pleasure out of museums and their variants the way others do. And it's certainly impossible for me to have an inspired moment, no matter how amazing, if I am surrounded by hundreds of other people busily checking off an item from the to-do list in their guidebooks. I'd've been happier spending that €30 on two bottles of great wine, talking with Mary Keany and people watching in a piazza tucked away in some corner of the city. I prefer the people's Rome.

So the official verdict? Berlin is sexier, Madrid is hotter, Rome has better food.

Ciao bello,

Link to all the pics:

Signage at Fiumicino airport

The palace Parlamento - they got these beds from France, obviously

Ancient Romans having fun. Actually, the guy doesn't look too interested - he must be Greek

Trevi Fountain, where you're only allowed to make one wish: to come back to Rome

Mary threw about €25 worth of coins in

Look! Rome has that lived-in look of pre-Giuliani New York!

Me getting close to God

Shaun H. Coley
Shadwell, Tower Hamlets
London, UK

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

[The Life of Shaun #330] Natasha

It was Natasha's going away dinner tonight. A commemoration. It was her, Chris, me, and Chris's parents. And as everything has been for our time here, it was relaxed, and easy (even when it wasn't), and wonderful. It's hard to separate Natasha from London, and I certainly cannot separate the good about London from Natasha. My friend Mary, who moved here a bit over a year ago, said it appropriately: "You and Natasha made a home here". London has never felt like home to me the way New York did. But walking into 23 Rosebery Court always felt like coming home.

She's leaving back to America in two days, with her amazing husband to follow, once Homeland Security gets its head out of its ass. So we had dinner at one of the best places she found in London, Lorelei (No, I didn't break Lent; "going out" in Soho means going gay, not having pizza). Then a drink in a great bar in Chinatown, as only she could find. And then, then, thankfully, a very quick goodbye as both our buses came at once (unheard of in London) and we scampered on, her South, me East.

So perfectly melodramatically gay, as my bus pulled out of Trafalgar Square, and drove past Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and the London Eye, James Blunt's "High" came on my iPod. Long before most of you heard of him, and definitely before he became tedious, James Blunt guided us through a smelly Gloucester Road studio, 30 days without beds (or a TV), three newspapers and bottles of wine per day, and jobs that only newly-arrived immigrants could love.

But then Apple paid its dues; as my 15 bus wandered through the streets of The City of London, past Lloyd's, the Gherkin, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, the music changed, picked up tempo, and reapplied some of the shine that can be lost in the day-to-day of this city. I rode the eight floors to my flat, looked out at the city in front of me and remembered how lucky I am to live here. And how especially lucky I am to have made my life here with her. I will miss her something terrible. But wish her absolutely nothing but the best in her next chapter.

Cheers from Shadwell, East London,
Shaun H. Coley
Shadwell, Tower Hamlets
London, UK

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Milton Keynes: Britain Does America

After World War II, London was maimed; its housing stock was severely depleted from the Blitz (especially in the East), and much of what remained was Victorian-era near-slums with no running water or facilities. To cope with this capital crunch, the British government dutifully scripted a plan to move 1.5m of London's residents to 28 master-planned new and expanded towns that were to be built outside of London. The largest and most well-known of these is Milton Keynes.

Having read about it in Bill Bryson's "Notes From a Small Island", I decided I needed to see this city that so offended my favourite author. Britain is, after all, the home of Edinburgh's famous and universally-loved New Town, and the government is largely run by MPs from North of Hadrian's Wall. I went through my rolodex of urbanist friends (numbering one) and Alexi and I set off on our 1960s utopian adventure this weekend.

The design of mk (as it is hiply trying to rebrand itself) is such: a business centre core of gridded streets, surrounded by many dozens of interlinked neighbourhoods, each approximately one kilometre square, and designed to have a local village centre, church and school so the residents could remain near to home for most needs. All the major streets run around these neighbourhoods, not through them, so roughly speaking you have a checkerboard pattern. The roads all have two names - their Christian names and then either an H or V (for horizontal and vertical) and a number, starting with one in the North/West and increasing as you go East/South.

Seems innocuous enough.

Well. I am considering suing the British government for not erecting warning signs upon entering Greater Milton Keynes to keep away. The city is inexplicably soulless, lacks any sort of vibrancy, charm, character or anything that could possibly endear you to it. Pick a large American city of your choice. Now pick out a nondescript, heartless business park in one of its exurbs. Surround that with parking. Now, if you've chosen a Midwestern city you're on a good course, as now you should surround that parking with acres and acres of identical, uninviting brick housing on streets which seem to take their improbable and misleading names from fairy tales.

Welcome to Milton Keynes.

Though they have one-upped themselves, for the city has the misfortune of having its roots in 1960s Britain, a decade where it was each architect's sole intent to inflict shame and heartache onto whichever city they were casting their pox upon. As such, much of the downtown and the inner ring of housing is unforgivable, a shocking amount of it built out of cement. You can drive for miles (which you must, even to buy a pint of milk) without seeing a single person engaged in their lives outside of a car. The City Centre is lifeless and lined with chain pubs and restaurants from bottom to top (there are even two Wetherpoons across from one another so you don't have to be inconvenienced with crossing the street for your Fosters or Stella), and then crowned with an outsized shopping mall (the longest in Europe!) so everyone can park their cars and then wander its "arcades" rather than the streets of its surrounding neighbourhood.

My litmus test for any city I visit is, of course, its gay life. As a joke, I sent out one of the pictures enclosed below to some friends when we arrived in the city with the tagline "Excuse me, is this a gay bar?" as it was brashly in-your-face, decked out in rainbow flags as if it were on Castro & 18th. Turns out it was more prescient than humorous. This "gay, lesbian, transgender" bar was 50% straight women, 25% straight men and 25% GLBT. Once more, Milton Keynes managed to disappoint and offend.

Perhaps I am harsher than others might be; obviously many people like living there - 8 in 10 residents are pleased with their lives, according to the propaganda materials. But for me it brought back everything I loathed about where I grew up. The whole time I was there I was uncomfortable, a sort of irrational fear of being trapped again: "What if I get stuck here? What if I have to live somewhere like this again?". Thankfully, we found our way to the A4146, to the lovely Leighton Buzzard, where we had lunch, and onward safely to London. Shadwell has never looked so good.

In summary: if proximity to London weren't a consideration, I would sooner live in Middlesbrough.

Firmly Old City,

01) The grid system lives outside Manhattan

02) Excuse me, is this a gay bar?

03) The hustle & bustle of central Milton Keyes

04) Art for the mind & spirit

05) Ah, who can resist faux TexMex d├ęcor and enchiladas in sweet & sour sauce?

06) A little vernacular reminiscence

07) MK is well-known for its pedestrian tunnels, ensuring motorists never have to be inconvenienced by foot traffic

08) MK's natural surroundings

09) I say, we could hardly move, it was bumper to bumper!

10) The 'city' takes its name from one of the towns it devoured. Here is the old pub in old Milton Keynes Village. It's from 1952.

11) The British dream realised

12) Original Milton Keynes at its best

13) No wait, this is its best; who wouldn't want a home built of concrete bricks?!

14) Leighton Buzzard, a gorgeously-named historic, organic market town, just South of MK

15) Apparently, they are better at architecture than spelling in Leighton Buzzard