DAY 1, technically DAY 2 (after a day-long departure)
LONDON, PART 1
Even our happening upon the Changing of the Guard didn’t yet push into me where I actually was. The old bobby herding the Russians, the Polish, the English of course, the Indians, the Scandinavians and Asians to fashion the proper pathway was just a tourist spectacle to me, distant and valuable only as fodder for our digital camera at the time. We had just spent an entire day and an entire night on a journey from the daily grind of Cincinnati, OH to the utterly unfamiliar world of London. At least for me. My travel companion Kip (whose version of this epic tale you can find and probably have already read on this site) had been here some years ago. I was sort of like a chicken with its head cut off in that I was walking English streets, doing very English things, and it felt like just another day.
We had arrived at Heathrow in the morning, emerged from customs and hopped right into a taxi driven by a hard-bitten older man with a Cockney accent, drove on the left the entire way to Rubens at the Palace. Kip breezed on through the customs gate, but for some inexplicable reason I was interrogated for a good minute or so by some square-jawed young English agent with the most graceful and self-possessed accent I might’ve heard on the entire trip. I think it was because I had a blank passport. This was the first time in my life I ever needed one. This was the first time in my life I’d done any of the things that I was doing from minute to minute. And yet neither Kip nor I had any endurance left in our overindulged Midwestern bodies. We were running on fumes after 24 hours of travel. But we were intractable. We had been anticipating these moments for the better part of a year. So we just kept moving from the second we finally checked our luggage at Rubens at the Palace.
Our room at the Rubens wasn’t ready yet, so we had no choice at first. Waiting for a handful of hours until we were allowed to occupy a room with bed sheets and home-like comfort of any kind, we traversed much more than a handful of yards, from the Changing of the Guard which to my incredulity was right across the street and a block up from the Rubens, to a park where sleeping disheveled vagrants seemed to share the same space as a young students eating sandwiches with a good book, and up and down myriad crowded, bustling streets. The journey ended with perhaps the smallest elevator I’ve ever occupied.
When we’d rejuvenated ourselves, we began a second journey through London. It would’ve been represented by an upward spike if we were to put it on a chart. It started with such disappointment, but then suddenly took off with wonder and thrill at everything we saw and did. We found what looked like a prototypically English pub called Bag O’ Nails just up the block from the Rubens. It was a very centrally located hotel. The Royal Mewes were directly across the street. We were served by an incredibly disorganized Russian. Our stomachs were growling and he had us waiting nearly fifteen minutes before coming to our table. We had fish and chips, a kick-off to the narrative of our English culinary adventures, and my first meal off the continent. And what felt like my first real meal in 12 hours or more.
I dug in. No taste. I thought, Is my American tongue so spoiled that if I don’t have enough food in a day’s time, I lose my sense of taste? I poured a mountain of salt on this fish, and a mountain on my gigantic, rectangular chips, and continued scarfing. Maybe I’ve been smoking too much. I notice my sense of smell hasn’t been too potent recently either. But no, Kip agreed. It was like we were still in Ohio having dinner at TGI Friday’s or Applebee’s. I never thought I’d say an American chain restaurant has more taste than a British pub. Fortunately, I was later to stand overwhelmingly corrected, as I immediately began to hope. I had plenty of time to start doing that as it was a battle getting the waiter’s attention for our bill. We fought this battle, and barely won. It was more like a truce.
Only that night, when we walked through a shockingly lonesome night-time London, did I truly grasp how far and wide we walked after the debut meal. I must’ve just been so starstruck by being in and around Westminster. My actual feet were actually touching the ground of Westminster Abbey. It was made all the more unreal when reality intersected with this exotic but so classically familiar place. Kip’s mother called him, and she got to hear the ubiquitous bells of Big Ben. At that same time, I noticed signs of the strike against the Conservative government’s tax hikes, benefit curbs, and spending cuts I’d heard so much about the day immediately before we left Cincinnati. Yes, both places were real: Home and here. And I applaud that very action and cause no matter where I am, so it was all very exciting.
We then began to spread into the surrounding places. We saw an old bobby bound by duty, and nothing but, to the guard post at a gate. Nothing deterred him, even me standing next to him and having Kip take my picture with him. What’s he going to do? If something actually did happen that was a real security breach, could he still move from his post? And then when it turned out to be nothing and he comes back, a thief or someone got through because he didn’t guard the gate. No amount of effort, I don’t think, could cover all the variables, but I still admired the profound sense of duty and implicit trust instilled in this guy, who could almost be his own metaphor for England on the whole. Those were qualities that seemed to permeate the whole country in all different aspects, from pumping BEFORE you pay, to there evidently being no mandatory tip expected from patrons because the owners pay their staff sufficiently, to various other things that will probably be inherent in the story of my trip if I can allow myself to stop sidetracking.
I can now say I’ve been all over England, literally. I’ve traversed the country, north, south, east and west. Along the way, I’ve taken over a thousand pictures, some good, a few awesome, but I still wish I could’ve gotten this trio of Jamaican guys on that very first day. They were leaning by the Thames, rocking all-black suits, complete with G-man hats, even the one with one leg, resting his stub on his crutch. The middle guy had horn-rimmed glasses. Everyone over there’s got class, but of course leave it to the black guys to set the bar high for coolness.
Anyway, somehow, we ended up approaching Trafalgar Square. I think Kip was intending to find it, but I never had any idea what was next. Kip was the man with the plan, and I was tagging along. This made it all the more disorienting when, passing a McDonalds which was one of myriad shops, restaurants, pubs, ad infinitum on this increasingly bustling street approaching Nelson’s Column in the distance, we heard a shocking cacophony of screaming and crashing dishes. It began to be overlapped by some enraged yelling. Kip and I peered into the McDonald’s warily, and shirtless young man was brandishing something I couldn’t quite distinguish, and a flock of young “chav” girls hustled out onto the sidewalk, shepherded by one of them, who was continually screaming profanity at the top of her lungs. Still inside, it seemed two uniformed servicemen were very calmly ordering their food. One of them was standing in front of the hallways that must’ve led to the bathrooms, perhaps because the shirtless aggressor had followed his rage into one of them. Kip and I carried on, I think feeling like we’d gotten a healthy, refreshing shock to sustain our full wakefulness, but it was only the beginning of what is surely the most concentrated chaos I’ve ever beheld in my entire life.
I’ve been to Times Square. No explanation or comparison required, except that at least on this particular night, Times Square had to have looked like Monument Valley in contrast. We gathered from interactions throughout our travels that the term chav apparently refers to a certain variety of hostile and arrogant teens and young people of underclass background, who occupy their time street drinking, abusing drugs and being rowdy and confrontational. That we had to ask this question after facing hoards of them storming the Square this very night, occasionally offset by drag queens and effeminate gay caricatures. Offset, meaning they were the more normal element to me. That’s something I never expected to see, especially the very first day I set foot on other soil. That an unending procession of teenage mosh pits sharing whole bottles of wine and straight whiskey, wrestling, spraying each other, and pantomiming sex acts covered every inch of the National Gallery’s front lawn is a spectacle all its own I never expected to see in my life.
And this doesn’t even count the literal thousands of pigeons, possibly feral, the incessant traffic pushing and weaving angrily through heaps of j-walkers and curbside loiterers, and of course, the fights! One chav was so incensed by a passing car, she managed to punch the window as it passed. The people occupying the car were so incensed by her being incensed, the car screeched immediately to a halt as a passenger emerged and engaged in a dance of swinging fists, not one of them landing, until their respective companions hustled them away from one another. The elderly couple crossing the street in front us: “Bloody chavs.” Mind you, since the sideshow at McDonalds, this has all transpired in a span of ten, fifteen minutes.
And yet, neither Kip nor I felt even remotely scared or alarmed. Somehow, despite our identities as a vulnerable American tourists, neither of us seemed to sense much in the way of fear about our personal safety. These people didn’t seem dangerous or intent on any malice or harm, just wild and reckless and all in the same place. We even ate dinner at a remarkable pub just around the corner. The names of the place and the indigenous beer we drank have completely escaped us both. But the brilliance of the Ploughman’s Board meal has not. It’s the most perfectly, meticulously balanced meal I’ve ever eaten. So healthy, so quaint.
And indeed (one of the many words I have a newfound enthusiasm for since this epic excursion; most of the other ones I should probably refrain from using here), that walk back to the Rubens was a long and eerily solitary one. Once we were clear of that central vicinity of Trafalgar, people became uncannily scarce. Gradually, the more we walked and the less clear we were on where we were and which direction to go, the more it felt as if we owned the city, like it was just ours and we could roam freely. We did, of course, find the Ruben’s and fell into a deep, practically transcendental sleep after a long double-day of nothing but new things, one after another, and never slowing down in between.
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DAY 1, technically DAY 2 (after a day-long departure)