It was nearly 11pm when I finally arrived at my Couchsurfing host’s studio apartment in central London a few Sundays ago. I’d left Cambridge earlier that same day, after going to see one last afternoon show at the Cambridge Folk Festival. A long-time friend of mine from Montréal and his band, Le Vent du Nord, were performing their last show of the festival that day, and there was no way I was going to miss it; there are few things I enjoy more than a good dose of French-Canadian folk music and dancing! But after a fun weekend of late nights and more pints of Old Rossie cider than I can count… well, let’s just say it was a long 95km ride to London.
Though I’d already spent the entire weekend speaking French with my Québécois friends, while rolling into London I was secretly pleased that I’d made arrangements that would allow me to keep it up in this city too, at least for a little while. (Bear in mind that until I’d arrived in England, I’d spent all of my time on this trip in countries where I couldn’t speak the language; suddenly being able to communicate freely with people, in both of my native tongues no less, was a real treat!) When I’d spotted Elvis’s profile on CS the previous week, which listed one of his languages as “French (Canada) – Expert” and his hometown as Montréal, it was impossible for me to resist the urge to put in a request for a couch with a fellow French-Canadian. He must have shared some of my sentiments, because soon after I’d put in the request, Elvis accepted to host me. And thus it came to be that my first night in London consisted of a whole lot of chit chat en français over a tasty Italian-style pizza. (Go figure.) Noting the irony of my situation, I told myself that I would henceforth make more of an effort to get involved with the ‘real’ locals and have a more genuine British experience, so to speak.
But as it turns out, spending time in London with people who are actually British isn’t something that is as commonplace as you’d think, for London is as multi-cultural a city as can be, with millions of its citizens having come from all corners of the world. The city is also a revolving door for people, mostly young adults from neighbouring EU countries, who come to experience life in the UK by working or studying there for a year or two. In fact, over 70,000 of the 8.2 million people living in London are short-term citizens. And it would appear that a whole bunch of them are big on Couchsurfing!
Over the course of my two-week stay in London, I had the pleasure of tattooing six lovely young adults, none of whom (surprise, surprise) were British. The first was Elvis, my Couchsurfing host, who at the time of my visit was only days away from leaving London to do some travelling before returning to Canada. He’s a student-at-law working for a Canadian law firm that has a few offices around the world, which is how he’d ended up working in London for a year.
Two years ago, Elvis and three of his close friends set out on a sailing trip from Grenada to Trinidad and Tobago while on holiday. What they thought would be a leisurely 17-hour trip was cut short in dramatic fashion when only two hours into their journey, a violent storm rolled in and threatened to sink their boat. The wind was fierce and the waves were relentless, ultimately shredding the rope that held their life raft in tow. Each of the boys would later recall that in those terrifying moments when they were frantically working to steer the vessel safely back to port, they felt a very real fear that they wouldn’t make it out alive. They did, fortunately, and having shared one of the most intense experiences of their lives, it wasn’t long before they decided that they would all get a tattoo of a sailboat to serve as a reminder of two certainties in life: That they will forever share a special bond as friends, and that death comes for us all at one time or another… Elvis was the first of the four friends who fulfilled his vow; he’s sure that this will motivate the others to follow in the near future.
As Elvis prepared to move out of London, I moved on to a house in Canary Wharf, where I would stay with Davide, an Italian man from the same village as Marco, the winemaker I met and lived with in Faedis for a few days back in June. Davide is working in London as a chef, and shares a house with four other Italians who are here to work for a few years. They were all so very nice and welcoming and it was a pleasure to live with them for a week.
Before my time in London was through, I had the pleasure of tattooing one of the girls who lives there, Maria Luisa, and her best friend Marco, whom she’s known for 13 years. They’re from the same hometown, and now they’re both working in London (Maria Luisa works for a center that helps newly landed immigrants find work, and Marco is a sommelier.) They got matching friendship tattoos of a feather (which is extensively related to dreams in Native American cultures) to represent a dream that they share.
While in town I met another young Italian woman through Couchsurfing, and this young lady wanted to add to a tattoo she already had on her shoulder. When Sara moved out of her parents’ house at the age of 19, she got a tattoo of a swallow to symbolize her new-found freedom. Now, having lived abroad and having had a taste of what it’s like to be out in the world on her own, she’s come to understand that as wonderful as it is to be free to explore and develop as an individual, it’s also important to stay in touch with your roots, and to have a safe and comfortable place you can always return to when the going gets tough. So we added a branch of cherry blossoms to her shoulder, to symbolize her family, her culture; in essence, her home.
Yet another foreigner I met in London was a man from Lansing, Michigan, who was travelling in the area after having finished his Masters in Educational Technology in Ireland. Dan got a tattoo of an Irish trinity knot to commemorate this most recent accomplishment. He decided to get the trinity knot because in addition to liking how it looks compared with other types of Celtic knots, the trinity also seemed to be an appropriate symbol on several levels. It was a tattoo that marked the end of a 3-year program, at the beginning of which he’d turned 30, and which he sees as having played an important role in his professional, educational and personal development (through the experiences he had during his travels). I really enjoyed getting to know Dan, who’s done a bunch of things I too would love to do one day, including hiking 3200km along the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine. It’s always a pleasure to meet people who’ve spent so much time out there exploring; they always have such interesting stories…
The last person I tattooed in London was a man who was over from Australia to work as a sous-chef at the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens. Though he lived most of his life down under, he was born in the UK, so he thought he’d take advantage of his EU citizenship to work and travel around Europe for a few years (maybe more). There were three tattoos Matt wanted to have done, one of which was having two words written on his fingers… which I told him up front I wouldn’t do. (I have a strict policy when it comes to tattooing hands: I won’t do anything below the wrist, as a matter of principal. Tattoos done on hands never look good for more than a few months, or a few years at best. They all fade, blur, spread out and get thicker. They generally look like messy blobs in very little time, and they can’t be fixed. Most people I know who had something done on their hands at one point regret it now. With all that in mind, I can’t, in good conscience, do a tattoo that I know will be ugly within a few short years, and that will most likely be a source of embarrassment or regret for someone down the line.)
When I gave Matt my reasons for not doing the tattoos on his hands, he told me that I wasn’t the first tattoo artist who’d declined to do them, though local tattoo artists in London had given him a different reason for their refusal: Apparently, people’s heads and hands belong to the Queen, and therefore can’t be permanently modified without her permission. This bit of information was a part of the inspiration for one of the tattoos I did do on Matt that day. He wanted to have a dotted line drawn around his wrist, with a pair of scissors, much like the ‘cut here’ instructions you’d find in a children’s activity book. He thinks it’s sad that all our body parts go to waste when we die, and hopes that in the future we’ll be able to do hand and foot transplants… In the end we moved the line further up his arm, where it will eventually serve as a border for the lower part of a half sleeve he’s slowly building up.
When I first started thinking about doing this trip, never would I have guessed that in every country I visited, I’d do a tattoo on at least one person who was from a different country and just passing through. But as it turns out, I tattooed 4 such people in Greece, 1 in Italy, 1 in Slovenia, 1 in Austria, and so far, 5 in England. To me this just shows to what extent people are taking advantage of the privileges they have as members of the European Union. For people holding passports for EU countries, moving to another country to study or work is as easy as it has ever been, and for that, I am truly envious of them. Alas, as the bearer of a Canadian passport, the most I can do is make the best of the ‘3 months in-3 months out’ travel allowances I’m given, and be grateful for the freedom of travel I do have. And I am, for it has allowed me to meet such a wonderful and diverse group of interesting people over the past five months. Not much to complain about these days… except maybe for the weather. It is a national passtime, after all!