Having caught wind of a certain rumor, that I had picked the lesser of two certain cities in which to spend my time, I took haste, to London, in order to rectify my mistake if it was indeed a mistake, or to prove my conscience free of any fault, in the more likely eventuality. As it turns out the means of travel least costly was to fly Air France on a ticket coming to $250. Surprisingly, every other airline ticket was over $1,000, one direction, despite the fact that there are fares from Paris to New York and New York to London that, combined, cost hundreds of dollars less. "Oh Markets You Are So Efficient! Let Me Count the Ways. . . ."
At check-in, I was given an occasion to choose which seat I wanted on the plane. I took a moment's pause. It seemed that there were about ten seats left on the plane, including four at the very back, and an entire row in the middle. What could be special about this row? It was above the wing. To be sure, a distinguishing feature. But what could it be about the wing? The noise. But could the noise in the seat adjacent to the wing really be so different from the noise in seats only slightly less adjacent to the wing? Mystery, intrigue, is everywhere in France. I had grown used to it, but always a thicker waft lies behind a yet undiscovered corner. I wondered, would I find any of this same quality of intrigue and seduction across the channel? L'air de France--it suffocates me sometimes, and yet without it, I wondered, how could I breathe?
For the moment I put such questions aside, and steel myself against the grueling carry-on baggage inspection process. A Bulgarian woman in front of me in security forgets her hot-pink purse, leaving me to argue with a French security officer, who seems to think it very strange that I didn't want to take it with me. "It's not mine," I say. "But how could it not be?" she says. It just came out of the security, and so did you. "Really? Am I such a person as to have the bag? Quelle genre de person pensez-vous que je suis?" A worried Bulgariess comes running back, and takes the purse. The confused officer begins to argue with her, saying she shouldn't take what isn't hers, giving me bon chance to steal away without the bag.
The only other piece of amusement in the airport was the discovery that perfume in French is "Eau de Toilet" which literally translates to "Toilet Water."
After sitting down in my seat, a stewardess m'approaches. She tells me that I will be the only one in this row today, and asks if I would be prepared to help people in the event of a water landing. "Ah," I realize, "so that was the problem." The idea of helping others in time of crisis sufficiently disappeals to the French that they would rather take the really bad seats at the back of the plane. "Why didn't I think of that?" I wonder. What part of the American soul is responsible for our indifference to this uniquely (or possibly non-uniquely) French dilemma? My first answer: we don't care about sitting in the wing aisle because in time of crisis we are the first to jump to someone's aid; we Americans are always ready to help. But then I realize, no, this is propaganda we tell ourselves to tell to others. Really, the source is our fierce pragmatism. We know that in the event that the plane crashes into the ocean, we'll probably have bigger problems than helping children leave a shattered plane.
One cannot really comprehend how overpriced this ticket from London to Paris is until one has actually flown it. The distance between the two cities is so short that by the time drink service had just started, the captain was already telling us that we were beginning our descent into London. Hooter's Airlines operates a longer flight, between Chicago and Cleveland for $39, and Air France has, how shall I precise, none of the advantages of Hooter's Air.
I left the airport fine, despite the most grueling Customs Card I've ever had to fill out. It included the question, "Place of Issuance of Passport." This information, thanks to the great foresight of the U.S. Departmen of State, is nowhere to be found on the passport. Frightened by the prospect of being denied entry to the country, I decide to take the safe route and copy my answer from the South Asian man filling out the form next to me. I could only pray that "Islamabad" wouldn't raise any eyebrows.
Apparently it doesn't, although the officer does give me a hard time about whether "Friday afternoon through Monday Morning" counts as three days in London, as I said, or whether it would be "more proper to say four days." None the worse for wear, I arrive at the Tube Station and try to buy a ticket, when I realize that I had left my credit card in Paris, and I had only brought a hundred Euro with me--a hundred Euro, which I realized that I now could not find in my bag. A horrible thought flashes: "What if I have no money? I won't be able to leave the station." This is to be my vacation then: I shall stay here in Heathrow airport for three days, unable to leave because I have no access to money and no way of communicating with the outside world. Probably I'll be ejected sometime during the middle of the night and left to fend for myself amongst wild dogs and cockney vagabonds in the English fen. How to avoid this turn? I could get pick a fight with a police officer; they don't have guns, so they couldn't shoot me, and afterwards they would probably end up depositing me at the American Embassy, likely in downtown London. But no, something might go wrong--better to find an ATM and pray that my Chase Bank card actually works in the airport.
Somehow it does work, only charging me a reasonable 14% transaction fee. I pay the four pound Tube fare (London -1) and ride it to the Tate Modern stop. I am supposed to meet my friend George Tobias at his dorm which is called Bangside House on Summer Street. After a prolonged period of wandering around, I ask someone, "Do you know where Summer Street is?" "Summer street, oh yeah, sounds familiar. What are you looking for?" "Bangside House." "Oh yeah, that's near the Robert, go that way." I make my way back basically to where I started, and take something called "Sumner Street" for a couple blocks, and then I see what looks like a hotel called "Bankside House." After looking at the people coming out of the building I realize that most of these people are young people, and it has the same street number as the place I'm looking for. At the front desk I ask if George Tobias has a room there. They call his room immediately, saying that he has a visitor.
We walk around London a bit afterwards, and get dinner at a chain restaurant called Wagamama. As it turns out, London is full of wonderful chain restaurants (London +0). George goes to play soccer while I visit the Tate Modern (or Robert as I later find it's known). Lots of wonderful stuff in the Tate, including a room with a giant dining room table one can walk around and underneath. I try to take a photo of a painting and an attendant rushes up to me and grabs the camera, saying "No photo" slowly and loudly, as if I'm a retarded Italian tourist. Seizing the opportunity to actually speak coherently in public for the first time in five weeks, I say, "I see, but is it permitted to take pictures if I don't use a flash?" Surprised that I speak English, the attendant lets go of my camera and says, "No."
Afterward I return from the museum I meet up with George and we go down to a bar that is in the basement of his apartment. There I meet some of his British friends, have probably the world's least expensive/least carbonated Guinness, and play pool while the British are wowed by my feats of exploration of the "Ghetto" of Chicago. They express their most heartfelt desire to one day also have the chance to visit the Ghetto, and possibly see someone "do a shooting."
The next day I arise bright and early, and walk like a crazed maniac over the city. I have a croissant for breakfast at a place called "Pret A Manger," to which I reply, "Nope, not quite yet." Then I go to the British Museum, a beautiful building, with lots of wonderful objects to look at, although for some reason the British museum has no compunction about fulfilling the stereotype that all the African Art should be shoved into the bottom level. (London -1)
After the British Museum, I meet George for lunch at the National Gallery. Afterward, we wander the gallery, which packs a good deal more quality to quantity than the Louvre (London +0). George returns home to watch a soccer game, while I continue my walking journey, seeing the historic sights of London: Parliament and Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and Hyde Park Corner. I try to take the train back and find out that the London Subway to my stop is such down for "Improvement Works."(London -1) This doesn't sound like such an improvement to me, in fact it sounds like bullshit.
In fact, the signs on the train "Improvement Works may affect your travel at Weekends" struck me as a very concise example of the difference between British and American English. We can note that this sign is a perfect example of the British penchant for deeply evasive affrontery. "Improvement works" is certainly an Orwellian euphemism. Affect seems like an affectation too, as in, "Oh, I see, will the train ride have a more pink affect today?" Of course, the British are, narrowly speaking, grammatically correct. Affect actually means to have an effect. Why then not say just that, "to have an effect," and avoid the confusing bit of affect v. effect grammar.
After some thought, I concede that "at Weekends" is probably more reasonable to say than "on weekends." Point taken. I try to think how we would rewrite that sentence in American English, and I find it hopeless. No, it must be completely rewritten, what we would say is "Construction Could Delay Your Travel." Direct, clear, and without passive aggression.
In any event, rather than pay the ridiculous four pound fare (which by now I have determined works out to $6), I walk back from Hyde Park. It takes an hour and I see a ton of the city on the way, so no worse for wear.
After a short rest at Bankside house, George and I head out to get Indian food. George warns me that the Indian food is very different in Britain, and I say "I hope so," since Indian food in America is usually an over spiced, gastronomic disaster. We get off the Tube Stop closest to the Indian neighborhood, and immediately find a restaurant. Rather than go into the first restaurant we see, we decide to keep walking. And walking. And it turns out that after fifteen minutes of walking we've entered some kind of Cockney-Arab melting pot for the semi-destitute. George suggests that we've made a wrong turn. So we turn around and ask for directions, and it turns out we missed the turn about ten minutes ago. We keep walking, and finally we find the street we were looking for, and what should we find on the corner but the restaurant we started with. We go down the street. We are solicited by more Indian men than in any part of the world outside the Ben-Chode District of New Delhi. Finally, we settle on a place that gives us a free beer with our meal.
The Indian food is excellent--not too spicy, but very flavorful. Afterwards we pay and go to a pub for a Pint, and barely make the train back home. On the train there was a beautiful French couple sitting across from us, and next to us two incredibly drunk English women, the kind that are squinting at each other and struggling to form phrases like, "And that Bitch, that Bitch, She was a cunt." The French people are clearly amused, a little smile tugs at their cheeks. I remark to them, "Quand à Londres." They sont d'accord.
The next day it was much less clear what I should do since I'd already seen all the main tourist attractions. I went to the British Imperial War Museum, which is a museum that is not in existential crisis over its purpose, but probably should be. Ostensibly created to serve as a memorial for the war dead and to chronicle the horror of the two World Wars, actually we find that it serves as an exhibition for lots of cool war shit. Big tanks, big guns, the phallus in a panoply of manifestations. You get to see all the uniforms that people on both sides were wearing with mock ups of trenches, etc. Some of the most interesting stuff in the museum was the room where they show pictures and tell stories of people who won Britain's highest Medal of Honor. One person received the medal for running like a maniac towards a German machine gun turret that was firing at him, then somehow capturing the turret, and afterwards single-handedly capturing 43 Germans in a trench. That doesn't sound possible. The other good medal winner was some police officer without a gun who chased three bank-robbers carrying uzis and finally captured them.
I was just about ready to leave when I realized that there was also a Holocaust memorial in the museum. And then I looked at the time, and realized that I'd already been in the museum for as long as I'd intended, and I was really ready to move on. But then as I was walking to the door the guilt started talking to me, in the form of an excessively Jewish voice in the back of my head:
"What, you're not going to go to the Holocaust memorial? You can't take five minutes to remember the Holocaust? You're so busy, you don't have time to remember your people?"
"But I already remember the Holocaust."
"Remember! What do you remember! Nothing Happened to You For You to Remember! Oh no, I see what this is. You just want to forget! Don't you!?"
"No, I don't. . . I just, have other things to do . . ."
"Other things. Other things. Listen Brian, if you don't remember, who will? The goyashas! Those fucking anti-semites! Those fucking pricks!" Finally I relent to my guilt, and go to the exhibition.
Certainly it was not one of the best Holocaust exhibitions I'd ever been to, and much of it I didn't need to see. I found myself watching five minutes of a documentary, "Who are the Jewish people?" for example. Much of the exhibit was explanations of what the holocaust was, how it worked, and how horrified everyone was to discover what happened.
Holocaust memorials are unique in that the expressed purpose is always the same: "Recognize How Horrible This Was." The question is, does all the explanation really help us to recognize the horror, or does it just give us a little story to carry around in our heads. I thought that the most effective and interesting part of the museum was a large wall at the end with pictures of people who died in the Holocaust. In terms of making people feel the crime, nothing is as effective as pictures. They make the problem of the Holocaust very concrete. We can't think of the numbers and be horrified, we can only see the faces of people who look just like normal, good natured people, and then feel sorrow that they were murdered. If I were to make a holocaust memorial, I think at the very front entrance I would include an enormous, nearly endless installation of photographs of people who died. 10,000 large photographs would be enough to create the effect of near endlessness. And then we make the observation that this is really just scratching the surface. And then the expositions, the documentaries, what have you, should come. Otherwise what happens is, "Okay kids, get in the car, it's time to go see the Holocaust."
Anyway, I finally leave the museum and go back to meet George. Then we go to go by tickets for a play. We get Standing Seats for "Madame de Sade" by Mishima, a Nobel Prize winner in Literature. The standing tickets cost ten pounds, but what we don't realize is that you literally had to stand for the entire performance. I sit down and cross my legs, and after three seconds some guard comes up to me and says that I have to stand. After another five minutes I bend down on my knees, kind of in a crouch, and then she comes over again and says I have to stand. Another five minutes and I'm kind of half-crouching, and she's looking at me like, "Don't you dare, don't you dare crouch any more." And then , looking into her eyes, I crouch a little bit more, a little bit more, and then "Sir." And I stand back up.
The play finally starts, and Judy Dench is in it as the mother of Madame de Sade. The play is extremely strange. It's full of rambling monologues about "the glint in the Marquis's eyes as he touches the red face of God, and blows the great divinity a kiss with the lacerated whip he uses to torture ecstatic 17 year old prostitutes – now dead." After the first scene ends, one of the guys standing with me hops over the back of a seat in the last row of the theater and sits down. The guard comes over and is whispering furiously in his ear for two minutes, but he ignores her. Finally she goes away. Score one for the standing aisle.
After the play ends we wander around London together. We get a meal of Tapas for dinner, and then I go my separate to walk through London for the last time. Then it's time to get my things and go.
Since my flight is leaving in the morning at 6:00, and the Metro starts running at 4:00, my options were exactly two. Either take a fucking expensive taxi really early in the morning, so that I don't really sleep at all, or check in six hours early to Hotel London-Heathrow. I catch the last train that goes from Cockfosters to Heathrow, and I am at the airport at 1:00 a.m.. At the entrance to the terminal I start walking in, when I hear an Indian accented voice call out to me, "Don't go there!" And then I turn to my left and see that there was an Indian man in a miniature Zamboni driving towards me. I guess it was some kind of floor cleaner he was driving, and he says, "Five minutes five minutes." And then he starts circling around me in his Zamboni, making larger and larger circles. Eventually, when he isn't looking, I make a run for it and he doesn't chase me.
The Air France counter was totally empty, probably because between 12:00 and 5:00 a.m. they have no flights. But this means I can't get a boarding pass so I have to sleep in the departure area right before the entrance to security--a.k.a. the area that real homeless people end up sleeping in if they can get their wardrobe together enough to not look like vagrants. After about four hours of miserable sleep that keeps getting interrupted by various arms of the British proletariat, I become too cold to sleep any more so I try and see what was going on with check in. It turns out I could have done electronic check-in the entire time. Around 5:00 a.m. I go through the security check point and fall asleep on a full-length bench with no handle bars (turns out all the nice benches for sleeping are where the homeless people can't get them). But then the couch I sit on turns out to be next to the janitors' rallying point, so I ended up lying on a couch next to an open door where seven janitors are jabbering in a patois of Cockney Serf-ish, Bangladeshi, and Rastafarian. My blood-shot eyes stare at the screen listing departures, none of whose gates have been determined even up until thirty minutes before boarding. I say to myself, "alright, my plane appears to be abandoning me, fuck it, I'm getting a cup of coffee." I end up getting a delicious Cappuccino for only a pound fifty, get on the plane on time with a free copy of Le Monde, and arrive only half-an-hour late to Professor Lawler's lecture about random walks.
Sometimes, life is good!