"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.
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.