Saturday, July 30, 2011

City Animals

“There was a great hurry in the streets, of people speeding away to get shelter before the storm broke; the wonderful corner for echoes resounded with the echoes of footsteps coming and going, yet not a footstep was there. ‘A multitude of people, and yet a solitude!’ said Darney, when they had listened for a while.”

--Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

“I think I know why Americans got so fat,” Husband said as we nudged our way through the crowd on Oxford Street. I walked in front of him with my head tilted back as if admiring the gothic architecture. Really, I was trying to breathe air not tainted by the cigarette smoke wafting around us.

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“We all quit smoking,” he coughed.

Today we planned to spend exploring the city, perhaps taking in a museum or two. We started in Trafalgar Square, watching kids grab bronze handfuls of the famous lion’s mane to pull themselves up and perch on his back for a picture. I loved cities; I love the movement toward entropy, the collective decision-making (we shall all cross this street against the light—now), the blur of faces like a pointillist mural, and the sudden shock of singling out one point, one face, to focus on and absorb. I also like recognizable smell of big cities—New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Madrid—and now, I confirmed, London as well. Stale beer, hot pavement, warm fruit, and a fluttering of various perfume notes with each passing woman.

In Trafalgar Square, we got sucked into a busker’s act. A young man with a concave chest and curly, long, brown hair hollered at passers-by who wondered into his “performance space,” a rectangle pressed against one wall of the National Gallery and bordered by 20 foot lengths of metal chains. “Clap! Scream for me!” He directed the baffled crowd. He called for volunteers, and no one answered. Finally, Husband stepped up with an air of “do I have to come over here and do everything for this country?” The kid’s name was Aj—our son’s nickname. I believe that may have been the factor in Husband’s decision to step forward and subject himself to ten minutes of routine/predictable/overwrought street performer jokes and tricks. He and a guy named Paul from Belfast wrapped Aj up in the chains, and Aj pretended to struggle against them for a few minutes before “breaking free” with all the conviction of a bored circus ape. One little boy yelled out above the noise of the city, and Aj asked him where he was from. “Scotland!” shouted the kid. “No wonder,” said Aj. Tourists on the balcony of the National Gallery emerged from walking through the halls of Picassos and Vermeers, blinking in the bright sunlight. “Hey! You up there! Look at me!” Aj shrieked at them. Husband’s performance over, we picked up lunch and then made our way down Charring Cross to the Millennium Bridge.

At the Southbank Centre on the south side of the city (Shakespeare’s side, the Globe’s side), we confronted the deep hazel eyes of an urban fox. The massive straw fox sat on the top of the Royal Festival Hall with his head slightly bowed as if apologizing for showing up unexpectedly. Whereas the north side of London seemed all befuddled tourists and needy buskers on a Friday afternoon in July, the south side seemed thrilled with warm sun, blue sky, sunglasses to shade the shards of light reflecting off the Thames, and public art. Passing under the straw bits at the end of the giant fox’s tail, we found a row of tiny beach houses, each with different themes on the history and culture of London’s shores, lining the embankment walkway. Above the beach house walkway, an installment on the poetry of children seeking asylum in the UK rattled and whipped like seagulls’ wings. The young poets’ words had been printed on large sheets of white canvas and woven into metal tension wires in the shape of a boat, and the entire display sang and fluttered in the breeze off the river.

We heard the low hum of skateboarders’ wheels. Teenage boys popped and tricked, their crashes echoing through the concrete bunker, while younger kids sat around the top edge and pretended not to notice. One little girl in a purple skirt puttered along on her scooter, singing to herself, as the teens whizzed around her.

A horrible, out-of-tune, out-of-date guitar player with nothing important to say, except that he planned to say it loud, and continuously, set up his stand and hat along the Embankment and howled his deepest darkest fears about humanity. “Aw, go on then, shut up whydontcha,” someone shouted back.

I felt like it might be time to eat again. I found Husband near the river, watching an old guy with a long bamboo pole and a spark plug as a weight on his line. He asked the fisherman what he liked from the Thames. “Oh, evertin,” said the red faced man with a bouncing Cockney lilt. He allowed as how he mostly caught eels, some bootlaces, but some good sized for eating. He sat down his tall can of Guinness to pull a worn photo out of a waterproof case. It showed him standing in the same spot, holding up a shiny black tube. “That’s me biggest,” he said. We made the universal noises of admiration. “Yea,” he said, “do this all day, go home and feed me cat, then go to the pub.” We watched him cast again, the line like a spider’s filament reaching for the opposite bank. “Not a bad life,” he sighed.

Friday, July 29, 2011


"London is a city of eight million separate dreams, inhabiting a place that tolerates and encourages them….The city, which has long attracted tourists, seems perpetually at your service, with an impressive slate of sights, entertainment, and eateries, linked by a great transportation system."

--Rick Steves' London 2011

Husband and I landed on a Thursday afternoon after flying overnight from Atlanta. "Landed" is not the right word. We drifted through the industrial grey, dark halls of Heathrow, hovered between countries at the customs counters, and bobbed along with the other eight million some-odd (and some very odd) minding the gap along the Piccadilly line of the Tube. Since last Christmas, when my often amazing parents had given us this trip, we had each daydreamed our destination like any traveler does: while fulfilling menial tasks—washing dishes, driving to work, folding laundry—we wondered, what will it be like?

Any new city seems somewhat surreal for the first few hours, but add anticipatory excitement plus only a handful of hours of sleep and it becomes a collection of hypnagogic hallucinations. The Tube map posted on the wall at Heathrow looked like a colorful tangle of kitten yarn. We stood in front of the board staring, and I think we both forgot our purpose for a minute to watch the chromatic lines weave and twist upon themselves. "Let's ask," I finally decided.

We found our way to the Hoxton Hotel in Shoreditch, checked in, and turned back to London via the #55 bus down Old Street to Oxford Circus. Rick mentions that one should check in with the tourism office there first, but by the time we reached them they had closed for the day. The next day, when we tried again and still found them closed, I started doubting Rick's love of a tourism office. I'm not sure why one needs to visit such an office, anyway. Is it an attempt to own one's temporary title? A place to reclaim the "tourist" label? I suspect it has more to do with supporting the glossy brochure industry.

We turned down to St. James Park, nodding at a statue of Admiral Nelson on the way, and made our way around the lake to Buckingham Palace. Still wobbly, I felt maybe checking in with the Queen would help me feel more grounded than registering our gullibility with the tourism barkers. Besides, it seemed the proper thing to do, since she had been lovely enough to allow us into her kingdom. We meandered through families sitting on the grass; one little boy dropped his pants and watered a tree while his mother and her girlfriends gossiped. We passed the old birdkeeper's cottage, tucked into the park like a mottled brown egg in the reeds. At the Palace, I tried to figure out which window HRH might be nearest based on curtain movement (employing skills I picked up from watching too many episodes of MI-5 on Netflix), and Husband watched the Palace security detail sweep down a car that wanted entrance. We wandered down Diana's walkway (there are so many of these named for her around England—the Lady must have enjoyed a nice stroll. We saw no Diana bikepaths.) I slipped off my Eccos for a minute to feel England beneath my feet. Still not quite—I still felt like I was drifting above the experience of it, unconnected, unblending, like a little bubble of oil skimming the surface of a pool of water.

"Let's eat," I finally decided.

We took another bus back to Bloomsbury, Virginia Woolf's old stomping grounds and location for some of the more collegiate pubs (collegiate = cheaper, but still hospitable). We had no idea what time it was. We had no idea there was such a thing as Time anymore, we only knew frayed edges of sunset draped the edges of the city bed, and the air held an expectant weight of impending rain. One pub told us the kitchen was closed, so we walked to the next stop.

Pub culture figures so prominently in the England mystique; we had high expectations for some type of experience—we did not know exactly what kind. Still suspended, I squealed to find linguini with fresh prawns on the menu. Husband liked the idea of a nice chicken tortellini. Not pub food, I know, but we figured part of the London experience incorporates worldly eating. And no food grounds me (in emotional state and physical weight) more than pasta.

Husband stepped up to the bar to order. With his back to me, he couldn't see the very drunk, very tall Englishman land heavily on the leather bench next to me.

"Cheers," said Tall Drunk Guy. Only it sounded more like "churrs." I smiled.

"Hey, hey, hey…" he stammered, "guess where I work?" I thought to myself, oh fun—trivia night.

"You work at a local gym selling memberships to chubby business types and housewives," I answered. I could have said anything; Tall Drunk Guy was not going to follow more than the first few words, anyway.

"Heeeey. That's right!" Only it sounded like "thas rye."

He wasn't even looking at me now—his eyes wandered in middle space like he was tracking a neurotic bat. As Husband turned to come back, Tall Drunk Guy got up to follow the bat. He knocked a glass vase off the table next to ours. Crash.

A put-upon waitress in jeans and a pink t-shirt stretched across her chest came over to sweep up the glass at our feet. She rolled her eyes at us, as if to apologize for her countryman's antics. Not three minutes later, we heard another glass shatter. Crash. Tall Drunk Guy dropped his pint. The waitress appeared again with her broom and dustpan, again with the look toward our table.

Our first pub experience seemed as disconnected and estranged from reality as our long, transatlantic day. The two dropped glasses signaled some sort of break with gravity at that point, and people of all shapes and sizes suddenly began to fall down. First, predictably, Tall Drunk Guy did a flopping pirouette in front of the bar, landing on his side. A bouncer appeared from somewhere and held him, gently walking him out. Then, a young woman in a black dress suit and heels performed a half split in front of us. Her companion reached down to scoop her up, one-armed, like an ice dancer. A man in fitted trousers slipped and yelped. Everyone laughed. Glasses crashed, the waitress appeared, tables yelled for more wine, more wine.

We finished our pasta (another story, explained in the food blog, here). I tested putting weight on my feet to see if I could connect, if gravity was indeed still a law even in this pub where everyone seemed to be sloshing from side to side like deckhands on a careening ship. It seemed secure. After feeling suspended, unconnected, flight/y all day, Husband and I were obviously the most stable places on this strange pub moon. We held hands and walked back out into the soft London rain.