Sunday, August 29, 2010

The lazy life....

Dreams of spending long days staring out the window and contemplating the complexities of life… are still dreams.

Despite my best efforts here, life seems determined to speed up, and the past few weeks have been pretty busy. This isn’t necessarily a problem, I like this speed, and I feel like I perform best at it, but I just wasn’t expecting it to get so busy so quickly. And of course the side effect is that certain things end up falling by the wayside as a result (i.e. keeping in touch with family and friends back home, keeping up with the blog, knowing anything about current events or popular culture...)

So what have I been doing the past few weeks?

Well, I’ve been training- a lot. My landlord’s frequent observation when I finally get back to eat dinner at 11pm might sum it up best, “You’ve been at practice all day again? Aren’t you tired after doing it all day?” After struggling for a few weeks to get enough rest and not over-train (which resulted in the concrete bite-mark on my shin shown in the previous post), I finally seem to have found a sort of balance in my exercise program.

Finding this balance (a development of the last month) has made me conscious of how far I’ve come in the last 2 months. It’s kind of unsettling actually; with running I had become so used to measuring improvement based on the results of a stopwatch I never took the time to notice how I felt doing non-running movements. With parkour it’s been hard not to feel the changes. It’s not that I’ve gotten bulkier (this isn’t exactly a sport for the Hulk, so yes, all my clothes still fit), but I have noticed the appearance of muscles that I definitely did not have at the end of track season a few months ago. Usually I discover them as I struggle to get out of bed the next morning or find that I can’t turn the tap without wincing due to a muscle that “never hurt before”, but is now making strong complaints about yesterday’s workout. That said, I certainly feel a lot stronger than when I arrived. Yes, part of that can be attributed to the fact that I’ve more comfortable with many of the movements, but there are only so many “muscle-ups” or “Japanese pull-ups” that you can credit purely to improved technique…

Demonstration of a muscle up... no, this is not me.

When I was asked during my first class in June to walk along a short metal railing about three feet off the ground I made two steps before falling off. I got back on, and made one step before finding myself in the grass again. This continued along the length of the railing. I know that distance runners are known for their less-than-spectacular balancing abilities (like with a bike, the faster you go, the less you have to worry about balancing, especially if you’re traveling on a track), but compared to a lot of the other people at the class I felt like I was learning to walk again. Late last week, feeling a sense of déjà vue, I found myself back at the same railing. This time I was walking along it confidently, walking backwards, doing a full turn every 5 steps, and adding in a one-legged squat just for fun. Although the revelation doesn’t usually hit until the train ride home, this sort of noticeable improvement is becoming more and more common and I give a lot of credit to my instructors.

The support network here at Parkour Generations has been pretty impressive. While the level of intensity and drive is different from in France (I will be hard-pressed to find a group of people who consistently train with as much passion and intensity as the Yamakasi and the rest of the Majestic Force team), Parkour Generations has shown themselves to be unrivaled in their superb organization and great positive attitude. Founded in 2006 by Dan Edwardes and Francois “Forrest” Mahop, today Parkour Generations has arguably become one of the two most influential parkour organizations in the world, alongside the Yamakasi and their label, Majestic Force. There is a positive and constructive attitude that underlies all of the activities here, from the 40+ school instruction programs that the organization runs, to the international gathering that it recently hosted (more about that soon in a upcoming post), to the daily classes that it runs that are open to pretty much anyone. This attitude is not only fostered as a way to keep up the “good face” of the sport, but also seems to be something that parkour brings out of people. This is shown in the evolution of Parkour Generations from a small London-based training group to a nationally accredited organization that that led the creation of an international standard in parkour instruction, but it is better witnessed in the stories that I have heard from fellow athletes about how the organization, or the sport has changed their lives.
Parkour Generations

Parkour UK - a nationally recognized governing body for the promotion and instruction of parkour in the UK

ADAPT - "Art de Deplacement And Parkour Teaching" certification program, designed to create an international gold standard of parkour instructors

This is one of the reasons that I have decided to prolong my initial departure date at the end of August until the end of October. I realized that London is probably the best place for me to establish a base knowledge and proficiency in parkour so that I can safely complete the rest of my journey. And the fact that I have a living arrangement that fits well within the narrow confines of my budget, lots of people to train with, and a big city to explore is just icing on the cake.

For those that might be worried that I’m spending all of my time practicing- don’t worry. I’ve also managed to see some of the sights of London and to take some time to wander around this amazing city. At the suggestion of a fellow traveler (who was full of good ideas) I treated myself to a show on my birthday. I ended up seeing “Into the Hoods”, a hip hop adaptation of the Grimm fairy tales, complete with a breakdancing Little Red Riding Hood, a drug-dealing Giant at the top of the “beanstalk”/projects, and a DJ-ing Jack. Even without the bias I have for anything with good dance moves and music (which might explain why I liked Step Up 3D so much despite its complete lack of a plot), I thought that the show was a great re-interpretation of an age-old story. The mix of good “British humor”, overlayed onto good beats, and a fresh storyline made for a pretty great performance. I actually enjoyed the whole “theatrical experience” so much that I’m already trying to figure out how I can see another show, although the ticket prices will mean that I’ll have to get creative.

Speaking of dance, I also recently started taking capoeira courses at a local dance studio. I don’t want to go into too much detail yet, since I’ve only been to two practices, but I’ve found a lot of similarities between the movements of a capoeirista and a traceur. It’s also been a great way to kind of do some “crosstraining” since it doesn’t involve the impact of parkour but is a great workout and works the muscles in a different way. I’ll elaborate further once I have investigated some more.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

London - 1 month in

I realize that my blogging since my arrival in London has been mediocre at bestbut now that I have finally settled down for a while I’m trying to get back into gear.

One of the reasons for my lack of blogging was that I was trying to manage bouncing around between hostels while trying to find a more permanent place of residence that fit within the narrow confines of my budget. Over the first 3 weeks I got the full spectrum of hostel experiences, with my first hostel being one of the best hostels that I’ve ever stayed in. It had a great atmosphere, a good mix of nationalities, interesting people, a place to store some food in the kitchen, basic cooking equipment, clean showers, bed units with curtains… so despite my being crammed into one room along with 19 other people I had an enjoyable experience. Unfortunately my budget could only handle food or lodging at that hostel’s price so as usual my stomach handled the decision making.

My first hostel: the Smart Hyde Park Inn, definitely recommended.

My second hostel allowed for a much more reasonable diet, but that was probably the only thing that improved. It was primarily a “long-stay” hostel, meaning that people would stay for weeks, months, or years at a time (one gentleman in my room had been staying there for 9 years). Besides the lack of toilet paper or soap, and the worn-out look of everything from receptionist to the bed sheets, it was the atmosphere of depression and a soul-sucking lack of hope that forced me to go elsewhere in an effort to preserve my sanity. Everyone seemed to have resigned to this lifestyle and it just seemed like one of those places where dreams and aspirations go to die. After only 48 hours in this hostel I frantically stepped up the search efforts for someplace different.

True to form, my new living arrangement was arranged at the very last minute but has turned out to be pretty sweet if I have to say so myself. It’s located near Wembley stadium in Zone 4, which is only about 45 minutes from the center of London. My landlord is an elderly British gentleman who travels regularly between London, New York and LA but I don’t know much more about him since I moved in on the 18th, and he’s been traveling since the 19th. The house has a beautiful view of North London from the roof as well as a huge garden (with lots of fruit trees) in the back. The garden has become my sort of study/exercise area, and is complete with a fish pond and peacocks. The deal is that in return for a very low rent I spend 2 hours/day feeding the menagerie of fish and birds inside and outside the house, as well as watering the small jungle that is steadily taking up the interior, and the basic maintenance of the garden. This works out well for me because in addition to having my own room and a shelf in the fridge I finally have some sort of “work” that keeps me outside and mucking around in the dirt.

The one drawback to this living arrangement is a distinct lack of human interaction. I’m living with another boarder/gardener, but it’s definitely not the same as the diversity offered by a hostel. I really enjoyed meeting and getting to know the people there, from the crazy Mexicans, to the Texan that managed to convince me (the Bostonian) that maybe the Lone Star Republic isn’t as bad as we make it out to be up north (or at least Austin isn’t), to the small hordes of Italian teenagers that led me to invest in better earplugs, and to the constant flow of Frenchmen that I managed to fool into thinking I was French until about 60 seconds into a conversation. This has sent me into a search for new activities to occupy my time and also to fulfill my quota of human interaction for the day.

So how about the parkour? Since that is what I’m here for in the first place. The parkour has been going great, and Parkour Generations has turned out to be just as well-managed and established as I had hoped. There are classes offered every day of the week but Saturday, so since my arrival I’ve been to about all but 4 of the sessions. I’ve also progressed from the beginner/intermediate level to one of the more advanced ones, and I’m starting to feel a noticeable improvement in my movements and confidence.

The class schedule offered by Parkour Generations. More details on the classes can be found here.

There are two basic types of class offered by Parkour Generations, indoor classes and outdoor classes. Both seem to have their own groups of followers, and many only attend one or the other (I’m one of a few crazy people that go to both). Indoor classes include lots of conditioning and we spend a lot of time getting comfortable with different movements. Imagine if you moved a bunch of padded obstacles and mats into your usual aerobics classes- lots of stuff to jump over and tumble on, intermixed with sets of squats, push-ups (called press-ups here), ab exercises, and all manner of painful modifications to the normal exercises. Many of the regulars treat it as a fun exercise class, and since all the equipment is fairly soft and forgiving, it makes learning new movements easier. Outdoor classes are a different story. Usually for the more adventurous or hardened athlete, the location of these classes changes between various “hotspots” around the city. These classes focus on the real “meat” of the sport, with lots of jumping, climbing, conditioning, and working on the fluidity of one’s movements. Some spots are gentler than others, and there are one or two locations that will pretty much guaranteed you a few scrapes by the end of the class (or more if you don’t pay attention- see photo below)

The result (minus most of the blood) of not enough days off, not enough sleep the night before, and not paying attention- hopefully I learned my lesson.

All classes are taught by members of the Parkour Generations team, and many of them also teach classes during the day to the various schools that have parkour PE classes offered. Although I haven’t been able to check out any of these classes yet since I’m focused on my own training at the moment, the adult classes have afforded me a great way to network with other traceurs and people involved in the sport. I haven’t taken any photos of practice yet since I’m always participating, but hopefully I’ll have some soon.

So, London…

I’ve decided that London is now my new favorite European city. It has all the beautiful women and culture of Paris, except minus the frosty glares. The people are also much friendlier (perhaps due to the heat wave and lack of “British weather” that started upon my arrival), and the city feels like one big melting pot. Unlike Paris and many other large cities that are ethnically diverse, London does a good job of mixing the cultures (at least on the surface). Traveling the Tube is a global experience, since English is often the minority language and it took me 5 days after I arrived to encounter a stereotypical “Englishman”. There is also a very dedicated parkour community here and in the surrounding region, as evidenced by the “Off-the-Wall” events held the last Sunday of every month. These all-day parkour “jams” (noun: a gathering of traceurs that get together to practice) were started by Parkour Generations three years ago, and they include people coming from all over Britain. I was able to participate at the June and July events and both were a lot of fun in addition to letting me meet a bunch of new people. It also gave me a chance to see the extent to which parkour is becoming a mainstream sport here.

One of the most interesting aspects of training in London has been the fact that people don’t really treat us as a circus act and start ooo-ing and ahhh-ing with each jump. Maybe it’s the English character, or the respect that Parkour Generations has within the community, or the fact that people are used to seeing traceurs jumping around on stuff, or maybe people just have better things to do here, but I haven’t seen the crowds that this sort of activity would generate back in the States. Sure, we have the neighborhood kids that will stop a football (real football- not American football) game to watch some big jumps, but to a large extent people react in the same way that they would to a group of people playing pickup basketball or kicking a football around. We also haven’t encountered much of the animosity that I was expecting. In the past 5 weeks I have only encountered one disagreeable property owner that asked us to leave (we were on public property, but left anyway), and the police here don’t seem to bat an eyelash when they pass us training. Maybe I’ve just gotten lucky, but I suspect that there is something different here, and it’s something that I’d like to duplicate back in the States if possible.

Some other random observations that I’ve made while I’m here:

- Cultured?: Scratch the ads for Coke and Pringles in the subway, I’ve been astonished by the number of ads promoting book releases and museum exhibits here. If it wasn’t for all the beer ads I’d say that they were more cultured….
-The lack of trash cans: apparently due to fears about them being used as bomb receptacles, but surprisingly London seems as clean as Paris, and certainly much cleaner than Boston or NYC.
-Museums: Museums are free here, which is great, so instead of slogging it out in the National Gallery to justify the ticket price, it’s great to go to an exhibit or two before escaping to the sunshine.
- English: Supposedly we speak the same language but there have been a number of times when I feel like the person on the other side of the counter is speaking vastly different. The jury is still out on whether the English women like the neutral American accent…
-The pound (£): the exchange rate sucks and is getting steadily worse- enough said.

-Londoners: they seem to be a pretty cultured lot, or at least like visitors to think so, with lots of billboards for book releases and museum exhibits in the Tube stations, and a prominence of bookstores throughout the city.
-French: I think that most of France comes to London at some point during the summer, since I seem to hear French as much as I hear English here (which isn’t helped by the fact that it took me 5 days before I met any actual “Englishmen”.
- The weather: My month in London has coincided with lots of sun and a drought, a phenomenon that I’m assured will not continue, but I think that it’s rained about 5 times my whole stay.

“Typical” London weather so far…