March 23, 2003

...and all at once, we were in London.

(If by "all at once" you mean a seven-hour flight sitting on the far end of one of those planes with eight-seat rows in three columns, next to a cigarettey old woman who all my friends, who were sitting on the other side of the plane, were convinced was a man.)

Apparently, on the video screens in the seats, they had every movie ever made and plenty of TV shows, including The Muppet Show, so I could've spent the flight reliving my favorite childhood television program, but instead I spent it sort-of-sleeping and waking up to eat the rubbery airline chicken. I think we met the sun halway over the Atlantic, and England was bathed in mid-morning light by the time we were flying over it. I wanted to go back to sleep but I really felt like I should be soaking in my first foreign-country experience, so I looked at the checkerboard British countryside and found myself wondering...where they filmed certain Monty Python sketches. sigh.

Filled out my immigration card with the pen cigarettey old lady let me use. Filled in the "Country of Birth" space with unabashed pride. Forgot to write in capitals, as instructed, thereby fufilling the stereotype everyone has about people from my country of birth. Then I enthusiastically deplaned.

The official "Enthusiastically Deplaning" face

My impression of London Gatwick airport is that it's the Tucson of London airports. Smaller. Flatter. Smellier. Of course, I have no basis to make this judgement, as I've never been to Heathrow and it wasn't on the tour. But Gatwick IS in the middle of a bunch of farms. If a cow would've wandered through the baggage claim, chased frantically like a guy looking like the farmer in Babe, I wouldn't have been suprised. But no such luck.


Truly we were in a foreign and mysterious land. They spoke the same language, but we had entirely different vocabularies when it came to snack food. Observe:

This greeted me across from the currency booth after we went through about seven different customs checks. Walkers Potato Chips? What the fuck? Everybody knows that Frito and Lay invented the potato chip in their cabin in the Mayflower on the way over to the new world, and they've had the patent ever since. Lion? Munchies? Who comes up with these things? The most disconcerting of all the candy bars in the bottom right: The Drifter bar. When I think of Drifter, I don't think of dessert. I think of a scuzzy stubbly dude who ambles into town, passes out in the gutter, makes his home in an abandoned barn then gets run out of town when old man McGunderson's chickens start disappearing. The word "Drifter" comes attached to words like "Nameless" and "Menacing" and "Smelling Of Gin," not "Delicious" and "Just The Right Amount of Nuts." Unless of course...(Insert obvious having-sex-with-the-homeless joke here.) The only isle of familiarity in a sea of vaguely threatining British snacks was the KitKat bar, and even he was dressed up in a retro costume that made him damn near unrecognizable.

I was a long way from home.


After engaging in a Seinfeldesque discourse on the differences between American and British candy, I went and exchanged my money. Pops gave me a hundred bucks spending cash, which was nice because I hadn't expected anything at all, and I had twenty bucks in my wallet just 'cause, which meant I had a hundred and twenty dollars with which to paint London red. I also had my ATM card, but the idea of seeing my balance, already puny in dollars, expressed in pounds, made me want to cry and hit things. I gave the lady a hundred and twenty American, she gave me sixty-five dollars in fancifully colored tissue paper and bits of metal in strange shapes.

British money doesn't feel like money in your pocket. Good ol' greenbacks have thread woven in them (I think) and so when you reach down in your pocket you immediately know what's your meager funds and what isn't. Not so with five-pound notes. But the coins? The coins I love. There's a fantastic array, they have about fifteen more than they probably need, but they're doing a good thing by not whittling them down in the name of effeciency. The fifty-pence coins are fun to flip, and make a satisfying "smack" in the palm of your hands, like a Kennedy half-dollar. The one-pound coins are the best. They just FEEL valuable.

I wuv you, British monetary system.

There were no cows in the baggage claim. But there was my bag. Hello bag.

Whatup.




We made our way through the place where they ask you if you have anything to declare. We tossed around ideas for funny things to say. My favorite was "our independence from YOU!" but none of us had the balls or the desire to be held up at the airport all morning 'cause of one smartass comment. We wondered if anybody ever declares that they're gay.

Then we found our tour guide among the bunches of people holding up placards. He was a spritely gent named Rob who looked just completely and totally...well, British, I guess, is the word. Bad teeth. Balding. Flushed complexion. You know, British. Anyway, Rob informed us that there were going to be two other groups on our whirlwind tour of London, one from Alaska and one from Florida. The Alaskans, he said, had flown in the previous night after twenty-four straight hours of flying. I guess it's worth it if where you end up isn't Alaska. He gave us ten minutes to walk around and go to the bathroom while we waited for the Floridians.


In one duty-free drugstore, I noticed that there were condoms. Lots of stores have condoms, but it's a rare store in the US that has them just chillin' by the register. Usually they're all locked up, because if you're going to wrap it up we want to encourage you to do so by making find a store manager to have to unlock the damn pharmacy case for you. But there they were. Clear as day, in a wide range of wonderful colors and maybe flavors, although I didn't look close enough 'cause we had to meet Rob. But I was heartened by this display of contraceptive openness. They may have strange candy, but dammit, they know where to keep the rubbers.

Then we went and got on a bus, or a "coach," as they call it, and we headed away from Gatwick Cowtown and towards central London.

Rob talked, in that pithy British way that stole my girlish heart.

Alecia and I admired the British countryside. That is to say, the concrete turnpikes and strange European cars. She noted that it looked like Utah. I've never been to Utah, but if I ever have to describe it to the blind I'll now know to say "It looks like that part of England between Gatwick and London, silly blind person."

Everyone else...

...you can pretty much guess.

First impression of London proper: So THIS is why Radiohead is so depressed. Maybe it was the fatigue or something, but the outskirts of London were sort of dreary. Mile upon grey mile of identical rowhouses, punctuated by the occasional GIANT APARTMENT MONOLITH, every other living space with a satellite dish. We have our own depressing suburbs, but they're ours. This was foreign to me. And things that are foreign are naturally bad.

Actually, some of them were really cool. The concept of a house that's been standing since before 1950 just blows me away, considering pretty much all of where I've grown up grew up with me. But here were these comparitively ancient houses, all drenched in ivy, with chimneys you half expected Dick Van Dyke to come dancing out of any second. He didn't. Our loss.

LOOK! Over there! People playing soccer!

I think this was the subject of the most ooh-and-ahhing of the entire coachride. Somehow it just wasn't England until we saw some people engaged in the sport we seem to have somehow missed out on.

Then we got to the hotel. Keys were distributed in the lobby, and we all scattered, with instructions to meet back downstairs at one.

The hotel, the Astor Court Hotel, to be exact, was a refurbished old apartment building, I think. Rob had warned us not to expect much, at least not to expect American hotels. He then described his first Holiday Inn experience, where he ran around the room the entire time because he couldn't believe how big it was. Well, Rob underestimated our culturedness. There's nothing we wanted more than an oddly shaped room with the toilet (complete with pull-chain) in a different room than the sink and shower (which had no shower curtain, just an inadequate plastic barrier covering maybe a third of the tub). I'm serious. It was awesome.

But that wasn't the best part. Oh no. The best part was found down a strange L-shaped hallway leading from our sleeping quarters to another part of Room 27, the splendor, the extravagance, the sheer hip London swank that was...

The Lounge.

We knew immediately that if any, and quite possibly all, of London's finest and most nubile "birds" were to find their way back here they'd be ours, easy. And they'd leave in the morning with the knowledge that what happens in The Lounge stays in The Lounge, right under the flimsy cot, or next to the TV with only four channels.

Then, at one, we embarked on what I like to refer to as Rob's Everything-All-At-Fucking-Once Walking Tour of London. The closest landmark to our hotel was Oxford Circus, which is not actually a circus, in the traditional sense. It is not a circus like Barnum & Bailey's is a circus. It is a circus like Circus Maximus in Rome is a circus, that is to say, big, and circular, and too pretentious to be called a "circle" and not square enough to be called a "square." From there, we walked to Picadilly Circus, which I had seen in An American Werewolf In London, a fact which I have no justification for mentioning. Rob said that, at the statue of the Angel Of Christian Charity in the middle, you're more likely to meet someone you know than anywhere else in the world, or so legend has it. I didn't see anyone except the people I came with. And I hate them.

Then we walked some more. There were fifty-odd people in the group, what with the Alaskans and the Flordidians, but Rob simply refused to act like he was leading a tour through the ubercrowded streets of a major metropolitan area. He'd walk as fast as he liked towards wherever, stop occasionally to grin bemusedly at stragglers, then keep right on walking nondescriptly. If you lost sight of his bald spot you were pretty much screwed. I kept up, you can bet.

After Picadilly, we ended up in Leicester Square, where there are not one, but I think three movie theatres, all facing each other, glaring contemptously. Rob pointed out where Kevin Spacey had stood not but a few nights ago as he showed up for the premier of Life of David Gale. It was at this point I realized that it was Fucking Cold. Well, at that point it was more just Ass Cold, which is cold, but I had a sweater, so were were good. It would later go from Ass Cold to Fucking Cold.

We gathered around a statue of Shakespeare while Rob rattled off places we could go for lunch if we so chose. His advice: "Don't eat British food. We don't." We (meaning me, Matt, Jack, and Tim) pretty much stopped listening once he mentioned a pub that had reasonably good food. Legal drinking plus cultural experience plus food equals four happy American teenage boys.


Jack and Timmy ordered up half-pintsof their finest lager. They didn't take traveller's checks, so Matt was SOL. I wasn't really hungry, and I'm not a beer man, so I just soaked up the casual atmosphere. And ate Jack's fries. We all agreed that London, or at least its liquor laws, were pretty much the best thing to ever happen to mankind. I listened to an old British man describe Catch Me If You Can to his old British friends.

Then Jack got up to go to the loo, leaving the last half of his steak-on-baguette unattended.

Big mistake, friend.

Matt ate most of it, I swear.

Then Matt had to exchange his traveler's cheques for tissue paper and metal scraps, so we tracked down a place for him to do it. We met back up with the group at Leicester Square, then did more of the frantically-trying-to-keep-up-with-Rob thing. Saw Trafalgar Square. Rob says if you're British and you fight the Americans, you get a little statue. If you fight the Germans, you get a medium statue. And if you fight the French, well, you get a HUGE statue, and in the case of whoever's in the middle of Trafalgar, you get your own damned square. We all posed on the giant lions, and then my camera ran completely out of batteries. Not bad considering I hadn't charged it since Phoenix all those many days ago.

Eventually we ended up in Covent Garden, which is like an outdoor mall, only one with street performers who harrass you and old hippy ladies shouting monologues about social injustice. And good opera singers. It was there, as the sun went down, that things went from Ass Cold to Fucking Cold, the shivering, take-refuge-in-any-crappy-shop-with-a-heater kind of cold. It was also there that I found an Internet cafe to e-mail my dad so he'd know I was alive (we don't believe in the telephone in my family), and get in touch with Kristin so we could figure out whether meeting up would work or not. We (the guys) spent most of the rest of the time sitting in the lounge of the internet cafe, in comfy chairs, debating whether our desire to see the sights was outweighed by our desire for warmth. The sights won out after twenty minutes or so. We're morons. It was so cold.

The day officially ended with unsatisfying bangers and mash (greasy sausage and the worst mashed potatoes) and a trip back to the hotel, and a promise that although we were going to sleep, this wasn't over yet, London, oh no, not by a long shot.

Posted by DC at March 23, 2003 04:23 PM
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