Tuesday, March 30, 2004
A funny thing happened on the way to not finishing that last entry: I caught a plane Friday morning, flew up to the U.K. for the weekend. To Stoke-on-Trent, to be exact, in England's midlands. Left a Madrid beginning to cloud over, found myself crammed into the equivalent of a Boeing 727 with a bunch of British football fans, here for a Champions League game between Barcelona and Celtic. Guys in their 30s/40s/50s, torsos thick from years of professional beer drinking, most wearing big, nearly shapeless green/white striped Celtic jerseys. The game took place in Barcelona the night before -- why this group flew out from Madrid I can't say. Could be they came to after post-game partying, discovered they'd wandered some distance during their revels, stumbled to the airport, booked seats on the first available flight. Whatever happened, they turned out to be blessedly quiet during transit.
The fallout of Madrid's recent events were evident at the airport security checkpoint. I'd never been body-searched before in Spain. This time: an almost defiantly grim, startlingly complete pat-down, followed by a demand to remove my boots, which were immediately tossed through the x-ray machine. Getting out of Madrid felt much tougher than getting into the U.K., where they scanned/stamped my passport, asked a couple of questions, waved me on.
Two lovely women picked me up at Manchester Airport, the first words out of their mouths were a phrase I literally heard countless times during the next three days: "Y'allright?" The phrase Americans call out to someone who's fallen down a flight of stairs is the way folks around Stoke-on-Trent greet each other. Felt like a sign of an extremely cautious approach to life. Over and over, I saw people say it to each other on the street. Friends said it to each other when one entered another's house. A phone rings, someone answers, they find out who's calling then say, "Y'allright?"
They also call each other Duck. ("Y'allright, Duck?") For some reason, not a single person called me Duck during the course of the weekend, though nearly everyone asked me if I was all right.
V. (ignoring the jerk with the camera):
T. (wishing the jerk with the camera would go away)
Before heading north I'd stopped in at a couple of weather websites, both predicting a pleasant weekend in the Midlands -- clouds/sun, mild temperatures. Complete horseshit, of course. (Lying bastards.) Friday's weather: gray, cold, drizzly. Saturday's weather: gray, cold, drizzly. Saturday a.m., my hostess -- one of the sweetest, most quietly remarkable people I know -- commented happily on the morning's mild temperature. I stepped outside into gray, raw conditions, my breath misting every time I opened my mouth, me grinding my teeth at the persistently high quantity of weather misinformation flying about. (In the case of my hostess, it could simply be a matter of wildly differing conceptions/experiences. She'd get up in the mornings saying how cold she was. An hour later, post-caffeine, she had the back door and various windows open, the temperature in the house sliding far below that of 60 minutes earlier.)
Stoke: a city composed of six towns (Stoke, Hanley, Burslem, Tunstall, Fenton, Longton) with a heavy-duty industrial history (ceramics -- Saturday's edition of the local newspaper featured the headline 'THE END,' about the sudden decision to close one of the handful of remaining potteries). Why they adopted the collective name of Stoke-on-Trent, I don't know. The municipality took its name from member town Stoke. Hanley is considered the city center. Found within the city are other places: Trentham, Blurton, maybe more. Villages? Districts? Don't know. I inquired about it all, but the answers to my plaintive, pleading questions remained cryptic, elusive. (Everyone asked me if I was all right, though.)
Saturday: spent most of the afternoon with my hostess, wandering around a shopping district in Stoke's neighbor, Newcastle-under-Lyme. Saw many, many folks flouncing about, enjoying the day, completely unfazed by the weather's rawness. Saw an amazing number of children/babies, something that held true throughout the weekend. Also saw a degree of affection between adults and kids far in excess of everything people have told me about the English. And in fact, much of what I experienced contradicted stereotypes. Very friendly, Midlands folk, very kind.
Stopped in at a local restaurant, had a pretty tasty plate of fish and chips. Stopped in at a popular tea joint, had a great meal of sandwiches/tea/scones. Went to a restaurant that night with this entry's two poster women, plus an old friend of mine, winding up in an old Pullman car with excessively comfortable seats, now a wing of a restaurant cranking out extremely good fare. (That ongoing stereotype re: godawful English food? My experience over many visits to the U.K. generally doesn't support it. Except for one nearly lethal croissantwich choked down during my first visit to London, 1986.)
Late Sunday afternoon, cloud cover began to break up, allowing glimpses of blue sky, sunlight pouring through whenever it had the chance. Monday morning brought more of the same, prompting me to pull out the camera, something that had remained packed away during my stay.
Yesterday morning, Stoke-on-Trent:
The same two lovely women drove me back to Manchester Airport Monday morning. One highlight of the drive: a discussion of Motorway Tourette's, punctuated by the following:
[Driver of our car, loudly addressing an 18-wheeler ahead of us:] "You're not supposed to be in this fucking lane! The other bastard's not going to let you pass -- now fuck off!!" [Then to me, casually matter-of-fact, referring to the person in the back seat:] "That's nothing, she gets Premenstrual Tourette's."
Sign seen in lavatory of small Iberia Airlines plane during the return flight to Madrid:
Bolsa de Mareos (literally, Bag of Airsicknesses)
Friday, April 02, 2004
Within minutes of arriving in Stoke, I found myself in the driver's seat of a loaned vehicle -- an old, weary Nissan Micra -- veering down the left-hand side of the road for the first time in this existence of mine, staring ahead in terrified concentration, hands clutching the steering wheel in classic white-knuckle fashion. Planted in what would be the front passenger seat in the States, giving me little sense of the car's left side in relation to the edge of the pavement. Leading to jolting, curb-scraping moments frequent enough that my hostess/guardian angel, seated next to me, began crying out "Not so close!" every few minutes. (Followed immediately, in quintessential English style, by apologies: "Sorry! You're doing great! Really!")
The steering had zero power-assistance, meaning turns required full-body exertion, me pulling desperately on the wheel, praying I'd make it around the next corner without leaving skidding tire furrows across nearby front yards. My guardian angel -- not a car owner, driving infrequently -- traded off driving duty with me, producing turns identical to mine (wide, looping, flirting with zipping off the road), moments whose comic value I appreciated far more when someone else's hands were on the wheel.
I don't know about the rest of the U.K., but at some point -- in the Stoke area at the very least -- a decision was made to use traffic circles in lieu of stop lights. Meaning roundabouts can be found everywhere, in gleefully excessive overabundance. Big multi-laned circles, cute little toy-sized buggers. Which actually seem to work pretty well, most folks yielding courteously to the car to the right, a display of manners in wild contrast with the general free-for-all around Boston-area rotaries where drivers lean toward the "hit the accelerator, ignore everyone else, lean on the horn whenever possible" method. Kind of nice after I began acclimating. Not many red lights to sit at, though I appreciated the few I encountered as opportunities to unwrap hands from steering wheel, take a calming breath, wipe perspiration from forehead.
I don't have or need a car here in Madrid. The local drivers seem to approach getting around like a hopped-up videogame, local mass transit meets all my needs. So I haven't voluntarily piloted something on four wheels since last autumn, back in the low-pressure universe of northern Vermont. Not that Stoke-on-Trent is high pressure. It's just that there's a substantial difference between rolling sedately along unpaved country roads (or even the occasional paved country road) and flying down any city thoroughfare, squirting in and out of traffic circles every thirty seconds, trying not to cause any pile-ups among other unsuspecting motorists as I frantically attempt to master the left-handed gear-shifting thing while fending off the panicky impulse to slip back into the right-hand lane, where nature intended me to be.