jacktellslies: (papa's in heaven)
My mother has demanded that I get back to the travel writing. She is both wise and kind, and I wouldn't dream of disobeying. So I'll continue where I left off, in London:

We felt as if we ought to go to the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert, but Gareth insisted that we go to Brick Lane. "Where are we going," the German boys kept asking, "and why?"

"We think they're shops?" Corinne half explained from our seat at the top and front of the bus. "We aren't sure. Gareth just said it was the one thing he recommended we do."

We found our way there through that combination of the kindness of strangers and blind luck on which travellers manage to get anywhere. First we found a collection of restaurants all bearing declarations of the receipt of multiple awards. One boasted of having the best curry on the street in 2003 and the best chef in 2007. But the commendations didn't seem particularly exciting, as all of the shops on that block made such claims, shuffling the awards between one another with each passing year. I enjoyed the conceit greatly. Men stood in the doors, waiting for us to slow down slightly, pouncing on us and offering a cheaper meal than we could find at one of their competitors if we did. All of the restaurants offered much the same lunch, and the same discounted price.

Once inside the market, however, we found that we'd arrived on the correct day. First there was food. The first half of the large hall was packed, every bit of space filled with exotic chefs and their wares, usually not only foreign but actually thoroughly unfamiliar. All of it was colourful and cheap. We explored every stall before making our selections and then gathered outside to sit on the curb with the rest of the mob while we ate. I'm still not sure what kind of food it was that I enjoyed so much, only that it was excellent, that there was a lot of it, and that it barely cost anything, a rarity for that city.

The back half of the hall and the roads and alleyways that snaked away from it were filled with more stalls, and the stalls with art, vintage clothing, and other interesting little objects. And the people there were gorgeous. I've never seen so many cravats in one room in my life. I've certainly never seen them worn well by anyone, let alone a few dozen attractive creatures, in their twenties. Friends in Philadelphia, I believe I mentioned that the world does not dress up as we do. Brick Lane was a clear exception to this rule. I considered attempting to create diplomatic alliances between them and us. These were people who understood the importance of the waistcoat. Corinne laughed as I found what was apparently my homeland: strangers asked to take my picture, including one with an appropriately important looking camera who claimed to be taking it for a Japanese street fashion magazine. The owner of a stall selling clothing he'd designed asked me if I'd model his work. That I was aware that the attention was more than a little absurd didn't stop me from enjoying it immensely.

I believe that was the night that Corinne and I decided to make a vegetable pie from scratch, severely underestimating exactly how much time this might take. We laughed a lot, pounding flour and butter together and chopping vegetables. We thought the process great fun, even if everyone else eventually gave up and found something else to eat. She's an academic. I enjoyed having one around to talk to again immensely, especially one who cares about much of the same theory I do, tangles of gender and class and race. We discussed the lovers whom we've left on various shores, and ate a fantastic pie just before one in the morning.
jacktellslies: (Default)
The house was covered in little prayers and kitsch Jesus paraphernalia. Corinne somehow hadn't noticed and felt a bit bad about the conversation we'd had earlier about her secular Jewishness and her recent travels in Israel. We'd spoken, not dismissively, but critically of faith while half a dozen of us attempted to make breakfast at once.

Gareth's mother is Greek and seems to return often. She was there while we were visiting, in fact, so we never met her. His older sister stopped by for a moment to flounder, confused and mostly ineffective, in an attempt to gather some vegetables and fresh herbs from their mother's impressive garden and then figure out how to cook them for a Sunday dinner. Although she was a perfect clone of the pictures we'd seen in the house of their mother, she shared Gareth's London accent, thick and a touch rough. Although I'm afraid I make her sound a bit dim, I liked her. Her enthusiasm was earnest, and she gave the impression that she was truly listening when you spoke. She was impressed with us for travelling. She'd lived in both the UK and Greece, but they were both places she knew well, and she was terrified at the prospect of being far from home in a place she didn't understand. I mentioned Corinne's experiences in Israel, and the nature of the conversation was transformed. "Well that's where Jesus was!" Her eyes grew wide and seemed to glow. "He was really there, wasn't he!" It was as if we'd seen some celebrity at a pub. She wasn't having a religious experience as much as she was star struck. Corinne and I dutifully omitted mention of our heathen ways while she carefully worded her answers about various places that she and Jesus both occupied at different times. "Jesus. Really. Aw, I wish I could go there one day." And she left, her dark eyes still shining.
jacktellslies: (rasputin)
The next day we intended to go out, but never quite managed it. I insisted that as it was raining and we were drinking truly astounding quantities of tea, we weren't being lazy so much as we were immersing ourselves in British culture. We spent that evening with our host and some of the young German boys staying there with us, including Julian, who was brilliant, ethical, and spoke perfect English. I liked him immensely. We left the house only long enough to collect sufficient chocolate and beer to last us the night, and returned to play a complicated version of dominoes and a series of card games to which only one of us at a time ever knew the rules. I longed for a Set deck. The list of impractical things I wish I could have brought with me grows by the hour. Still a bit exhausted from the wanderings of the night before, I retired to a bed (and an internet connection!) in a room that I had all to myself.
jacktellslies: (ladies)
We'd been cheering for people as they only barely made their way onto buses, the tube, and trains all day. Agreeing that watching people run only to fail was awful, we offered sincere, unseen support for every sprinter to bravely fight through the cruelly closing doors of departing vehicles we saw. Some of them were truly magnificent displays of athleticism, too. Londoners are capable of impressive manoeuvres when threatened with the possibility of having to navigate the night buses, or even just waiting an extra seven minutes for the next prospect to arrive.

So perhaps she and I shouldn't have been too surprised that we barely made the last train leaving that night despite its best attempts to throw us off. Having claimed for over an hour to be arriving on the platform on which we'd deposited ourselves, the information screen changed its mind only once the train had already stopped on the opposite side of the station four tracks over, or up a fight of stairs, down a hallway, down a flight of stairs, and a ways across the appropriate platform. Corinne screamed, "Oh, you have got to be kidding me."

I shouted behind me, already halfway up the stairs, "Don't read the screen, run!" Unfortunately I'm a well-kept and bookish young thing, and she overtook me almost instantly.

We fell onto the train, barely missing the pool of vomit awaiting us inside the door, and laughing hysterically. Our dash had to have looked absurd. Those other desperate creatures moved like tigers on Vaseline. We were stunned porcupines slipping on something lumpy and far less pleasant.

While waiting on the platform, still ignorant of our fate, Corinne had asked nervously, "Do you think the tube is still running?"

"I'm sure it is. It keeps running, doesn't it?" Dear readers, at some point in the course of my eight or so years as a blogger, you may have noticed a faint, wafting underscore of hubris. Alright, listen. I'd not been in London for years. I'd really only been to London twice before this. Stop laughing at me.

Thus began a series of misadventures involving several more or less randomly chosen night buses, my insisting a great many times that the tube map really doesn't bear much resemblance to the actual shape of the city, and a great deal of wandering. We got to know one another very well.

One of the best things about our improbable meeting was that we could admit to one another the completely embarrassing things that we would never say to anyone save another American with whom we were travelling. The coins still remind us of Harry Potter money. I've spent months riding the buses that are significantly taller than the sort to which I am accustomed, taking at least two every day when I lived in Dublin. I confessed while sharing the top front seat with her for the half-dozenth time that riding on the top is no less exciting now than it was the first time; I could barely be more thrilled with a palanquin carried by lithe Moroccan eighteen year old boyslaves. She taught me that French toast is called eggy toast in the UK, which I hadn't known, and is completely adorable.

We saw a drunk tourist get hit by a taxi, and tried to help lift her out of the street while cars piled up behind her and their drivers shouted. I was appalled. Who yells at an injured and crying girl for blocking traffic? I busied myself with assisting in useful ways rather than offering poetic and devastating admonishments, and I only regret my inability to have done both at once a little. We met two unpleasant and drunk Polish men, and a very nice stripper with an outrageously thick London accent who claimed to have only arrived in the city a month earlier. Together, using our superpowers of rage, feminism, and the stripper's impressive footwear, we chased the drunks away. By that time morning bus service had resumed, and we got back to Gareth's house just after five in the morning.
jacktellslies: (circusfolk)
The next day we went to the Horniman, which is one of those creatures that began as one gentleman's collection of things that interested him, and shortly after his death decided on its own that it was so extensive and fascinating that it couldn't help but become a museum. Although we'd been warned, Corrine and I hadn't entirely realised before going the extent to which it was a children's museum. They were everywhere. Miniature humans climbed on the benches, on the exhibits, on and in the fish tanks in the aquarium, on their mothers, and on my trousers. Even the crowds of babies not yet born, in their uncontrollable excitement at finding themselves in this place, kicked their poor mothers wildly from within their swollen abdomens. We found fish, masks, and musical instruments. I was thrilled to find the natural history section, which shared much of the delightful strangeness of the Wagner, even if it couldn't quite compete with the Wagner's dusty, dated charm. We learned about ritual and magical artefacts from Africa, the Caribbean, and North America. I liked the African sculptures, little men made out of wood and filled with rusty nails. We learned about the European and North American used clothing that is recycled and becomes fabric that is sold as new in India, and about the Indian used clothing that is recycled and becomes fabric that is sold as new in Europe and North America. From the balcony that connected two galleries we watched a bit of children's theatre in the auditorium down below: a young boy was dressed as the emperor of China. One woman was dancing like a dragon, and the other as some sort of sneaky spirit. We agreed that they had the best job in the world.

While investigating Indian musical instruments, Corinne began to pine rather intensely for India, which is where she'd lived last summer. I suggested that we declare it India Day, that from the many Indian sections of the museum we march on to find Indian food, and then one of London's several (several!) all-Bollywood cinemas. This we did: we found our way to the Indian neighbourhood in which the theatre was located easily, although in more time than we expected it to take. We ate in a cheap South Indian and Sri Lankan restaurant that offered food better than that which she'd experienced in that part of the the subcontinent itself. Staying for dessert and tea and conversation with the servers, we missed the film we'd meant to see. We went for a walk while we waited for the late show, stopping in the shops and flipping through the imported records while she related gossip about Indian pop stars.

The film was called Singh is Kinng, and was a Bollywood musical comedy about love and Sheikh gangsters living in Australia and Egypt. I recommend it highly. During one of the dance numbers I noted the similarities between Bollywood and a certain brand of nineties rap video: Biggie Smalls would feel at home here. So during the credits, when Snoop Dogg was suddenly on screen rapping about the film we'd just seen, Corrine and I screamed and high-fived. It wasn't his best work, I'll admit, but his making an appearance made me feel practically clairvoyant. I've never been so happy to see Snoop in my life, and I assure you, I've been pretty happy to see him before.
jacktellslies: (bear girl)
I arrived in London and made my way to the house where I'd be staying; it only required one hired coach, two tube lines, and a bus, which isn't bad at all, given the nature of the place. I imagine this would change after a decade or so of monotonous commuting, but as an occasional visitor at least, finding one's way through the city is one of my favourite parts.

The door was opened by a seven year old French boy. He was too young for any English, and as this trip has been reminding me with embarrassing frequency, I'm far too American for any useful French. I worried that I was in the wrong place, but I uttered the correct passwords: "couch surfing" and "Gareth," which was my host's name. Actually, I hesitate to publish anyone's full name on the internet even if they've already done so, but his middle name is Alexis, and his last name begins with Brink and ends with worth. Never in my life have I heard a name more perfect. His absurdly wonderful (read: British) name is, in fact, most of my reason for requesting to stay with him.

Theo, the young French boy, led me to the kitchen where I found a pretty Asian girl who, it seemed, could speak nearly any language in which one cared to greet her; the boy's mother; and another American. Gareth, I learned, was not home, nor were the other members of his family who lived there, but several of the nine other couch surfers besides myself staying in the house were. I considered leaving. But the French boy was funny, and gave me a tour of the house despite the fact that we were both left deeply confused by our attempts to communicate with one another. And the Asian girl, who is studying in Paris, was leaving for Dublin the next morning. She gave me her map, and I gave her advice on travelling in Ireland.

And I learned that the American, whose name is Corinne, is practically from my neighbourhood back home. She's from Doylestown, which is where all of my former roommates on Catharine Street were raised. In fact, she worked with Bill, and they were good friends for years. She was at my house once for a barbecue; I remember meeting her. She used to work at the other Whole Foods in town, so we also know some of the same people through that. More importantly, when asked where we are from, both of us respond, "Philadelphia," and a moment later, when we remember or when we are forced, we'll add, "in The States." Once we'd both said it and laughed and squealed a bit over the coincidence, it was obvious to both of us that it was true, that we are Philadelphians before we are many other things. I'm surprised we didn't recognise it immediately, her in her thrifted sweaters, me in my rent boy clothes. (An aside to my beloved fashionable Philadelphians: exceptionally few people in the world do it like we do, and those who don't cannot begin to understand us. The poor fools. I make them nervous, and they make me nervous, and it's just impossible. I've been missing your tastes, your ties, and your encouragement terribly. I'm also missing the rest of my closet.) There were other similarities, too. She's queer, and she's dated trannies at the early stages of their awkward metamorphoses. She dates straight boys too, and knows intimately how awkward that can be, how much you can like them even while knowing that there are parts of you they do not see. She and I were friends immediately.

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jacktellslies

August 2009

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