Travels: U.K., 2003
Tuesday, December 16, 2003
2 a.m., Madrid time -- Wed. morning, despite the date given this entry by Blogger. Freshly returned from the U.K., a late flight getting me home well past midnight. The end of a long day with too little sleep, me beginning to get genuinely stupid from the need for shuteye. Therefore I'll keep the following brief:
From a conversation in Oxford, England: "I'm experiencing a definite slippage of reality."
Sign seen on the side of a city bus in Oxford: PLEASE REFRAIN FROM LICKING THIS BUS
Seen on a chalkboard in a pub in Oxford: DOG'S BOLLOCKS -- DANGEROUSLY DRINKABLE!
A quote attributed to Salvador Dalí, seen in London:
"The one thing of which the world will never have enough is exaggeration."
Yet another quote attributed to Salvador Dalí, also seen in London:
"I'm in a permanent state of intellectual erection."
From a conversation overheard in the Victoria line of the London Underground (said through a thick cockney accent):
"I'm gonna have to say to Trish, 'Do you not flush the toilet when you go to the loo in the middle of the night?'"
Recent images from this Christmas season -- Yesterday afternoon in Manchester:
Trafalgar Square, London -- Late this afternoon, daylight waning:
To bed. More will follow in the next day or two.
Thursday, December 18, 2003
A bit about the weather during this last trip (I apologize in advance):
For a week or so before heading off to the U.K., the weather here in Madrid featured persistently gray skies, cold temperatures, rain. Day after day. Not very user-friendly. The day before I left, it gave way to blue skies, sunshine. Cold, but nice.
Thursday morning -- the plane takes off, sun beginning to poke its way into view in the eastern sky. We head north, clouds cover everything. We arrive in London to find gray skies, cold temperatures, rain. Weather that remains pretty much the case for the next three days.
Sunday morning -- I drag myself out of bed at an early hour to catch a train north to Stoke-on-Trent. The clouds are gone leaving blue sky, the sun slowly pulling itself into view to the east. As it's Sunday morning, most sane British humans are home in bed, few trains are running. Those of us foolish enough to attempt travel in a northerly direction get herded onto buses which take us from London to Northampton, where further transport awaits. From there, I find myself on a beautiful, sleek train moving through towns with names like Rugby, Nuneaton, Tarworth. One other traveler shares that coach with me, tranquility reigns. I get out my walkperson radio/DVD player, put on A Charlie Brown Christmas, pull out a Spanish magazine, pass the trip happily. As we move north, clouds creep into view. The sunlight dims, then disappears. Showers start up. We pull into Stoke-on-Trent to find gray skies, cold temperatures, rain.
Sense a pattern?
But. Next morning: clouds give way to sunshine, and that's how the rest of my time in Stoke goes. Clear skies. So nice. Cold, yes -- people bundled up, cheeks red, the mornings revealing ground and cars covered with thick, heavy frost -- but with plenty of sunshine.
Enough with weather blahblah.
High points of my time in the Midlands:
My friend Dermot taking me to an old pub/restaurant not far from Stoke for a delicious, satisfying meat 'n' potatoes style lunch, the place filled with English types, mostly young couples and groups of old folks. And one 30ish Japanese couple with a mighty active young child, a boy -- happy, curious, providing loads of entertainment.
Spending Sunday afternoon in Stoke's ceramics museum -- an interesting place, way more interesting, it turns out, than the term 'ceramics museum' might indicate.
Dinner with five of Dermot's friends at an Indian restaurant whose decorative scheme featured framed prints of Salvador Dalí paintings, along with other, more typically English, scenes (as the in-house sound system pumped out Indian techno-pop). We were a rambunctious bunch, too rambunctious for our waiter, whose low opinion of us was confirmed when we spent half an hour at meal's end playing a game in which everyone writes the name of a well-known personality on a piece of paper, sticks it on the forehead of the person sitting next to them (so that everyone but the person wearing the name knows who they are), who then asks yes/no questions of the rest of the group until each has figured out the name stuck to their forehead. Way funnier (and more frustrating) than it sounds. Two 20-something Brit males who arrived to dine went a bit wild upon spotting us paper-foreheaded types, trying to paste cloth napkins to their foreheads in mocking imitation. When it became clear their commentary had no effect on us, they turned their attention elsewhere. The waiter's low opinion of us never seemed to waiver.
A field trip to Manchester, an hour north, taking up most of my second day visiting Dermot. A mighty interesting city, a blend of industrial and modern post-industrial. Lots of energy, good fish and chips.
Stoke-on-Trent, by the way, was home to John Tolkien, eldest son of J.R.R. Tolkien, where he worked for over 30 years as a parish priest. Dermot made a point of taking me past a street named Tolkien Way, an address with some serious cachet these days. (And speaking of Tolkien, I don't think I've ever seen a film get the kind of reviews that The Return of The King is getting. I may have to experience the bugger for myself later today.)
Written two days ago:
4 p.m., Dec. 16, London -- Sitting in a café on The Strand, sipping a cappuccino, the day outside slowly giving way to twilight. Around me the minutes pass in a wash of sound and motion, people and traffic passing by without pause outside the café's windows. The sound of many vehicles blends with that of passing footsteps and voices in conversation, in a way that strangely resembles the ebb and flow of ocean surf.
Inside the café, Christmas music drifts through the air -- sometimes pleasantly jazzy, sometimes teeth-grindingly hopped up, brassy, difficult to tune out -- along with the smells of coffee and the sounds of customers coming and going, staff at work, counter transactions. Life going on all around, ceaselessly.
This day started for me at 6 a.m. in Stoke-on-Trent. A two-hour train ride south had me in London by 10:30, an amazing transition of darkness giving way to rolling countryside and towns whizzing past (flashes of church steeples, dark rows of tired looking homes), daylight slowly revealing a dramatic mid-December morning, turbulent skies looming over fields blanched with frost.
And then London -- packed Underground trains, streets and stations filled with rivers of people striding intently on to their day. The loudest sounds: the fast-moving footsteps of many, many people, voices talking into cellphones, discussing meetings, deals, papers that will or won't be signed.
Stashed my luggage, hoovered down a plate of pretty good breakfast food at a greasy spoon near the station, gravitated to the South Bank. Checked out an overhyped Dalí exhibition, passed the rest of the afternoon wandering about, watching people, activity.
Saturday, December 20, 2003
Woke up this morning fully intending to be good, responsible, productive. (Go to the gym, get errands done. Write email, make phone calls.) Made the mistake of turning on the 'puter before doing anything else, the morning pretty much went to hell from there.
There are those days when sitting in front of my laptop becomes my personal equivalent of zoning out in front of the T and V. My own personal time machine -- one minute it's 9 o'clock, next thing I know it's closing in on 11:30 and nothing of any substance, much less import, has gotten done.
When I finally dragged myself away from the 'puter screen, out the door, into the street, I discovered a whole world carrying on life beneath gray Saturday a.m. skies. Stores open, cafés serving wake-up liquids and morning finger food. People walking in couples (hetero and otherwise, this being the Greenwich Village of Madrid), stopping in front of tienda windows, conferring about things seen there. Others sitting together at café tables, slowly coming to.
I've been short on sleep these last 2-3 weeks, to the point that I could feel the swelling drain of it during my waking hours. These last two nights, however, brought long stretches of lovely, satisfying shuteye, and I can feel my body wanting more. The lack has produced an odd feeling of disconnect, something the holiday season has amplified. I am not part of any religious tradition or belief system. I don't have much in the way of family. And right now I am not part of a romantic partnership. Without those ties, I find myself drifting along as the days of this season slip past, enjoying the lights, the store displays, the general growing sense of anticipation. Living my own little existence -- going to classes, writing, passing time with various people, pondering what I need to do with myself in the coming months. Nothing wrong with any of it, unless I choose to distract myself with worrying thoughts of one kind or another, something I recognize to be a complete waste of time.
One of the nicest angles of this last trip to the U.K. was hooking up with friends not seen in a while, spending sizeable chunks of time with them, often in places I've never been before (Mayfair, Hampton Court, Oxford, Stoke-on-Trent). Being ferried about either on public transport -- on my own, checking out the people around me -- or in friends' cars, watching the local version of the world sweep on by.
Meeting one old friend at her office in Mayfair Thursday night, going to a middle-eastern restaurant, ordering a sampler meal, then watching plate after plate after plate of food materialize in front of us. An amazing, table-covering display that we pretty much demolished in no time flat.
Taking a train out to Oxford Friday morning to rendezvous with a friend from Bristol, where we talked nonstop, wandering from museum to pub to café to restaurant beneath skies dark and gray, rain coming and going. Christmas lights shining through it all. (My friend, N.: five feet or so tall, with an impressive head of thick, wavy red hair -- quite a bit more of it than the last time I saw her, nearly 2-1/2 years ago. Me to her: "You have more hair!" Her to me: "You have less!" Given that I am blessed with abundant naturally-occuring head insulation, I can only assume she meant my haircut. Probably shorter than the version she saw in 2001.)
Meeting C.and J., a friend and his wife, on Saturday -- post visit to the Saatchi Gallery, a place whose overriding goal may be to provoke and/or gross out -- for a ride on the London Eye, followed by a trip out through London's western reaches to Hampton Court. A beautiful, impressive place, probably spectacular in warmer, sunnier seasons, when the gardens are in full, extravagant bloom (and which now seems to be the site of a Christmas haunting).
And this is something else that stood out for me on this trip -- Londoners are often characterized as distant, unapproachable. Not my experience. I am not shy about asking questions of folks around me on the street or in the underground, and did so regularly during this trip. Without fail, they answered my queries as best they could. I find the Brits to be warm, generous, interesting. C. and J. pushed the generosity thing, not just taking out a Christmas season afternoon to show me around, but insisting on paying for my tickets to the Eye and Hampton Court. Don't ask me why -- it's not like I'm impoverished. I had to sneak in payments for a couple of smaller expenditures, stuffing money into C.'s hand for parking before J. could drag her own cash out, paying for my own food/coffee at the Hampton Court cafeteria before J. realized what was happening. (This is not a complaint, by the way. Please, all those who want to buy me meals and pay my way into attractions of all kinds, send email and propose traveling fun.)
I have the feeling I'd enjoy living in the U.K. Apart from the climate.
Speaking of which, as I've written this, the Madrid sky has lightened up. Clouds have thinned, sunlight pouring through.
Must go outside.
The South Bank, London, by the Royal Festival Hall -- wind generator, the London Eye, Charing Cross train trestle, Christmas tree