Friday, January 30, 2009

British Sex (aka "Being Intimate")


Honestly, I just put that title there to get more hits on google for my blog. But it is true that people love their euphemisms here, and most of them are cute/creepy/sound like snoring: snoggging, shagging, getting off, buggering, or the more oblique "how's your father." (Never actually heard that last one used).

I got some real fish and chips yesterday, wrapped in paper and everything, at this place right around the corner from my flat. Flaky white cod in a springy crisp batter. It was lovely. But the restaurant, with the rather blatant name of "Fish and Chips Restaurant" (along with its connected "Fish and Chips Take-Away) is now undergoing renovations and won't be open again for a week.

Something I've learned recently about the world of blogs that has a direct relationship to life in London is that you never know who is watching/reading. It's important to be a bit vigilant, in order not to do or say something irrevocably stupid. You may have noticed a few of my entries recently disappeared. Then again, you may not have. Who knows?

What does this have to do with London? Security cameras are everywhere here. Bathrooms, dressing rooms, intersections, public squares. In fact, London may very well be the Panopticon. Observe:
So, on that note, I am not signing this entry. You'll never trace it back to me! Ha ha ha.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Now You Know What It's Like Inside My Head


Blogging has become a sort of addiction, so please forgive the frequency of updates. Better than smoking, right?

London is a different city from anywhere else on the planet. It’s a constant surprise. Capacious yet intimate, European yet English, international yet local, throbbing yet quiet, wary yet welcoming: well, you get the idea. There’s plenty to complain about over here, and even more to celebrate. There are more languages spoken here than in any other city in the world, all with a British accent. On every street sign, I’m confronted with unique names for my future children (“Ave Maria Lane, come over here and clean up this mess! And you, Floral Lane, don’t tease your sister!”)

This morning I discovered the local version of the Onion, except with a bit more topical and pointed satire. It’s called “Private Eye” and it makes fun of everything. Here’s an excerpt:
Woman ‘Born With Two Breasts’
JOURNALISTS were last night hailing a medical miracle after reports were confirmed that a woman had been born with two breasts.
The woman, who turned up to an awards ceremony wearing a skimpy dress, was featured very heavily in all newspapers.

Some other good ones are “Bush Announces ‘War on Geese’” and “Barack Obama is the most popular president of all time, according to a new survey conducted by Youmakeitup. They have seen him top the poll by some million billion percent. ‘His place in history as the most popular President is secure as long as he doesn’t do something stupid,’ said an excitable man in a bowtie, ‘like becoming President.’”

The papers are all talking about the proposed third runway at Heathrow, which is upsetting a lot of environmentalists, as well as neighborhood people who don’t want their ears ringing with thousands of low-flying planes. Look at me, getting all interested in the doings of the locals!

And why not? I may be firmly rooted in my heterosexual male perspective (which the patriarchy enforces even on the best of us) but I think I can objectively say that Londoners aren’t just unusually fashionable and accent-y. They’re also, by and large, very attractive. Men and women, girls and boys display glowingly smooth skin, bright eyes and excellent posture. It’s a smorgasbord of ethnicities and nationalities to boot. If you can’t find your type in London, then you’re probably not interested in the species. They all wear the same vertically striped scarves, in various colors:

Though I have yet to buy one myself, today I did go shopping in a native store (Top Shop) and bought some native apparel (a shirt and a skirt) with more reasonable price tags than my last shopping escapade. I also bought myself a travel backpack for my trip to Barcelona in February.

That’s right, I’ve just gotten here and I’m already leaving. Only for a week. I plan to soak up enough sun to last me for the next month and a half until the university gives me even more time off. I will miss the clouds, though.

Some other things I will miss:
- Passing by the Via-Agra café on my bus route. I realize the italic pronunciation is different, but isn’t it cute the way they don’t know what they’re referencing?
- The concise and beautifully informative lectures by my professors. I actually feel compelled to take notes in class – the profs are that good.
- Listening to students read aloud from the plays in my theatre class. They’re all born actors, with their fantastically natural-sounding British accents.
- Wondering why English girls wear so much eye makeup, and whether or not it makes it more difficult to see things.
- Watching everybody read the daily newspapers on the bus and the tube. Even children! Even little boys! They do the crosswords too!
- Spotting tourists from the less obvious indicators (they’re the only ones who ever wear white, they look the wrong way when they cross the street, they smile more)
I’ll be back soon enough, sloshing around in Piccadilly puddles and making tea in my curry-scented apartment. Despite my relative assimilation to London life, I still carry around a certain traveler’s agitation in my body, a buzz of excitability and eagerness that propels me forward even when I should be sleeping or doing coursework.

To close, here are some little London facts:

There are no rubbish bins in central London because back when the IRA was active, they tended to throw bombs into them. The logical anti-terror response was to remove the bins, thus making it very difficult to dispose of food wrappers. And yet, the streets have no litter.

The Royal Courts of Justice (equivalent to the Supreme Court in the US) look like a big turreted castle.

It's even guarded by a dragon:

This is right across from my university campus.
Ta ta for now, y'all,
Ali

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Story of the Dress, or An American in Harrods


What I am about to write is strictly confidential. It must stay within these infinite and unfathomable digital walls/screens. Promise?

This is the dress:


100% pure silk, by Elie Tahari. It is a 400 pound dress. About, I don't know, $566.84 at the current market rate.

In an effort to preserve anonymity, this is me in the dress:

(The belt was 40 pounds)

When you buy something at Harrods, they wrap it up in tissue paper, place it in a navy green bag, and tie the bag shut with a green silk ribbon. Across the ribbon, "Harrods" is written again and again in gold leaf. I'm scrapbooking that ribbon.

I bought the dress for an inauguration party at the flat of an ABC news correspondent who my friends and I met outside a gay bar in Soho. I don't know why they call the neighborhood Soho, since I'm pretty sure there's no Houston street in this city. The party was ironically American themed. We ate white trash food with our expensive champagne: hot dogs and hamburgers, peanut butter and jelly on Wonderbread, candy bars and jalepeño poppers. I spilled on the dress twice. And then someone else spilled on it.This morning, before class, I headed over to Harrods to attempt the return. In my oversized men's shirt, I felt a bit underdressed for the Mecca of Luxury Consumption. Walking through room after room of designer showpieces, I felt all the slick sales chicks staring at me.

I had re-wrapped the cold slinky cloth in its original tissue, but when it was handed out by the sales lady, it looked hopelessly rumpled and sad. A skin shed from an exotic breed of lizard. The belt showed a bit of strain too. "What happened?" she asked. It was Veronika (*names have been changed), the very same sales lady who had sold me the dress the week before.
"Well, the party I was going to got cancelled. So I never had the chance to wear it," I said.
"So you didn't wear it?" she looked at me blankly.
"Um.. no."
"Because if you wore it, we cannot take it back."
"Um..."
She picked up the phone. "I will have to talk with my manager."
I waited as she made the call. Then she put her hand over the mouthpiece and turned to me. "We will just tell her that it didn't suit you," she smiled. "Isn't it exciting that you have a new president now?"
"Yes. It really is."
Barack Obama is president and it's good to be American again.
p.s. I do have a conscience. Like many things I've done in Europe, I never plan on doing it again.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

There Are No Gangstas in England


Three weeks into my London life, I've developed a taste for fiery ginger beer, flea markets and full disclosure. Perhaps the latter of the three needs the most explanation, but I'll tackle all of them in order.

Fiery ginger beer is the extra-spicy and not-as-sweet British version of root beer.

Flea markets are ubiquitous, especially in charming neighborhoods on weekends. At the one on Portobello Road, I bought a 100-year-old copy of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Lewis Sterne for only 3 pounds 50.

In terms of full disclosure: British people are rightly known for being reserved, but when they actually open up it's beyond any sort of intimacy I've ever experienced in the US. It's a crisp, roaring gush of truth, tingling in your soul just like fiery ginger beer; neither too sweet nor too self-indulgent. It's not the emotional exhibitionism of American reality TV, but a pure, innocent sort of exposure. It's not to be taken lightly.

I speak from the experience of my first creative writing class, in which each of us had to speak for two uninterrupted minutes about ourselves. I went first, babbling uncomfortably about being new to London and not really saying much. I had no idea how honest and therapeutic the class was about to become. The girl who went next was from Wales. She talked about meeting her best friend, her soul in another body, who knew her better than she knew herself. It might sound trite on paper, but at the time everyone around the class nodded in complete comprehension. The next girl discussed her disconnection with her Ugandan heritage, and the girl after that talked about attending both church and mosque regularly in a secret effort to overcome a spiritual crisis. She said she suspects her Muslim dad has found out, and that's why he's not speaking to her anymore. One guy admitted to not having any friends. Another girl told us she had run away from home twice, once to live with a South African barman when she was 16, the other time just to go to India and work in various charities. Another girl was 22 and married with a child. She went to Oxford and hated it, and worked in China restoring antique motorcycles with her husband. One American talked about the death of two of his close friends in high school and how he become a pothead in order to deal with it. In each case, the person speaking managed to be fascinating, surprising, insightful and honest. When the class was over, we all emerged wide-eyed, in awe of what a few minutes of full disclosure can yield.

These stories are supposed to be confidential and kept within the walls of the classroom. Our teacher, a tiny man whose hands are bunched by arthritis, told us that the class is a "safe space" in which we can do or say whatever we want (including booze it up). But since I haven't named any names I suppose I'm not betraying any confidences. The class really taught me, in a rapid and memorable way, that first impressions are utterly misleading. Every single person in that classroom had a story, even the girl from Idaho (she's looking for a home to identify with and be proud of). I feel like I've learned to be less judgmental and more admiring of all people -- they're such mesmerizing creatures.

So that was my first week of class. Besides creative writing, I had Jacobean Theatre (in which everyone knows way more about the history of England than they ever bothered to teach us Americans in school), Spanish Travel Writing (conducted in English, despite the Castilian readings) and 18th Century Travel Writing (yes, there's a theme here). Up to this point I've learned more at the campus bar than I have in the classroom (excepting my Friday morning creative writing class). What sort of things have I learned, you might wonder. Well, since you ask: I have a very low tolerance, and should stick to half-pints. There's an entrenched culture of alcoholism in this country, and people regularly "don't remember" their weekends. After a certain time of night, one should assume that everybody in London is drunk, and act accordingly.

In terms of nightlife, I've done more than just hang out at the campus bar. I've been to my fair share of pubs, clubs and bars, preferring the pubs above all. They have a wicked sense of grandmotherly fashion to them, the best ones decked out in mismatched crystal chandeliers, overstuffed couches and stodgy floral wallpaper. There's a place right near my flat that is the epitome of this decorating style, plus free live music every Sunday. Needless to say, it's my new favorite hangout. Here's a pic:

The pub is the quintessential British meeting ground, intimate and alcohol-soaked and sufficiently dark to provide the ideal sense of cover. It's a safe place to be British. Speaking of British, as I said before it's not the real term for the people of this island, all of whom are so different from each other. Going by their accents, I'd say the following: the English are smart and sophisticated, the Irish are friendly, and the Scottish are just ridiculous. All of them add and drop r's in exotic and divergent ways.

To close, I'd like to describe my walk through Northeast London at 7 in the morning. London early in the morning is like a quieter city at midnight. The sky is still an inky blue-black and nothing is open. Cars pass by on the streets like secrets. They whisper on the gleaming pavement, slick from the invariable nightly drizzle. It makes one remember that things in every country are regulated by the sun -- England opens late and closes early for this reason.
I take a route I've never walked before, down High Holborn Road and through the Smithfield Market, a big arching fin-de-siècle wrought iron structure. Despite the fact that I've never been to this widely spaced part of town, I'm frustrated by the familiar repetition of coffee and sandwich chains. Isn't there any inch of London untouched by Pret, Starbucks, Tesco, Costa, Pizza Express and Caffè Nero?
When the day breaks, at 8, things look different. The light lifts itself from the sparkling pavement to the sky, and that uniquely British form of daylight takes hold. A gray instead of an indigo hue prevails. It's hard to fathom, unless you live here, how a perpetually gray sky can inspire such affection. A soggy love for the clouds has soaked through my heart these past few weeks. The sky is just so consistent and unassuming, like English people, holding back until absolutely necessary. Sheilding us all from UV radiation.
At the end of my walk, I find myself in King's College chapel, a gaudy-beautiful room decorated in an obscene mix of styles. There are byzantine portraits on the walls, scarlet and gold corinthian columns, austere wooden pews, and spaceship chandeliers. Everything is inlaid, brassy and/or floral. I've found my new writing retreat.

Cheerio mates,
Ali

post script: Anne from Idaho is fucking awesome!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

And So I Buttered the Crumpet


Hello all,

For those of you just tuning in, I've been in London for 2 weeks now. It's enormous, and spread into many extremely diverse regions full of extremely diverse people. Case in point: one night out this week I found myself speaking French, Spanish, Italian, German, learning how to say hello and thank you in Lithuanian (lodosh, ah-cho) and "I love you" in Turkish (sini siviyouro). [Forgive the inaccuracy of my transliterations]

Yesterday I took a walk through Borough market, a famous farmer's market under London Bridge that supplies most of the produce to the fine restaurants here. It also sells a lot of specialty prepared foods, baked artisan breads, coffee and tea. I oggled and nibbled at the acres of samples: greek and spanish cheeses, butternut squash with saffron, roasted eggplant ten different ways, tiny caramelised egg custard cups, almond cherry fruitcakes, fish and chips (of course), and sandwiches dripping with chutney and relish. It was a whole crowd of happy people eating things.


Later I walked to Tower Bridge, the most majestic old bridge in London. From the top you can look out at the gray-blue noblesse of the Thames and the regal gray buildings that surround it, with the gray sky hanging above (in all fairness, the sun did come out twice this weekend). While touristing never really impresses me that much -- I don't enjoy the kitsch artificiality of watching a place attempt to fulfill outsiders' expectation -- I was duly pleased to observe, after walking out of the "bridge exhibition" and back onto the street, a woman draped in a gray peacoat over a bright green and gold sari and a pair of sneakers. Now that, I thought, is the essence of London. All that was missing was a complaint about the weather in the beautiful tucked-in phrases of Anglo-Indian speech.

Indian-ness really has permeated almost every aspect of English culture. It's basically equivalent to the way Latin/Mexican influences are everywhere in America. There are ads for Bollywood movies on the tube, dazzling costumey sari stores on the streets, and the supermarket is just packed with India. You can buy pre-prepared tandoori sauces right next to the tomato sauce, and its easier to find all the spices needed for an Indian meal than to locate salt and pepper. If you're too lazy to cook it yourself, half of the frozen food is Indian. Wherever sandwiches are sold there's always a chicken tikka masala option for the filling. I get the impression that this is because English people LOVE Indian food, since real Indian people probably wouldn't need all that pre-made rubbish in order to cook for themselves.

Certain things about London incorporate themselves into your consciousness immediately, and become a part of the routine that makes a visitor into a regular. The tube is definitely one of them. It's a really easy and interesting way to get around, a rich ground for people-watching, and a vibrant canvas of weird advertisements, civic art projects and hilarious graffiti (one vandal proclaims "Clit!" on the Piccadilly line). There is always at least one slim, fashionable man in pointed leather shoes and a sharp-looking scarf tucked into a tailored black coat; one group of French tourists, their speech flowing from their noses into their curled upper lips; one muscular West-Indian looking like he's returning from a championship cricket match; and a handful of people who cannot be seen through the free tabloids held in front of their faces. The free daily newspapers here are actually quite good, thick with interesting stories as well as a minute analysis of Amy Winehouse's travails.

British people read. They advertise Salman Rushdie's new novel and other real literature on public buses.

British people also hate being called British (it's either "English" or "Scottish" or "Welsh" or "Irish," and make sure to know which is which!) They like eating take out sandwiches from wedge-shaped cardboard containers, and they love using the word "rubbish" (it means bad or garbage or silly or unwise or any other censure of medium-strength harshness). Lots of people walk their bony greyhounds around dressed in doggy jackets, and if I get in their way they instinctively go left while I go right, leading us to walk into each other again and again until we figure it all out.

In my continual quest for interesting street names, I've found "lamb's conduit", "saffron hill", "herbal hill" and "crouch end" to add to the list.

I love the London cinema. It's a bit more grand and padded, with deeper-set and larger screens than back home, and attached cafés or bars. It also has awesome snacks (french pastry, white chocolate-covered raspberries, beer and wine, organic popcorn in both salty and sweet varieties). I go a lot and plan to go more. So far I've seen Che: Part One, Waltz with Bashir and Slumdog Millionare.

Now, I have to go do my homework.
Hope this wasn't too boring.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

First Impressions of the Milky Tea Country



As I write this, I am doing laundry for the first time in the History of England.

I've been here in London a week now, and thus far, these are my findings: "Cheers" is the British "Shalom," used all the time, meaning everything and nothing at once. People really do constantly start conversations with the remark "cold, inn'it?" Everything involving transit goes the opposite way of American expectation: the cars, the pedestrians, even the doors (you push to go in and pull to come out). There is fog, and mist, and the pavement is always wet, even when the sun is shining (generally possible between 10:30 am and 3:30 pm). The streets narrow randomly into cobblestone paths, with the buildings leaning anciently towards each other, even down in the financial district. A city of nooks. It's definitely a "beautiful" city, full of monuments and regal stone edifices and gothic churches, but you can read about that in any guide, so it's not what I've been noting down. Instead, I walk around reading all the signs on storefronts and intersections. A pub called "Fuzzy's Grub." A chip shop named "Fishcoteque." Streets sounding dreamed up by Lewis Carroll and Beatrix Potter: Garlick Hill, Cottons Lane, Furnival, New Fetter, Poultry Street, Cowcross, Rawstorme, Whetstone, Tension, Carnaby, Bridle, Queentithe pier. Named after peculiar objects, provincial events, underused words, from literature. And these are the places I actually walk, where people hail taxis and haggle for mobile plans at Carphone Warehouse.

In terms of food, ale & pie houses dominate, fish bars are everywhere, and the jacket potato (aka baked potato) is as ubiquitous as hot dogs are in New York. Here, "pickle" is not a delicious briney cucumber (that's a "gherkin") but a sweet and tangy chutney-like spread that tastes quite wonderful on a cheese sandwich. The kebabs are excellent. Tea bags are mystically better. Everything is indeed Expensive. I plan to live on tea and promises. (Promises being my word for yogurt). There are lots of cheap outdoor vegetable markets, despite the weather. British people might complain about it a lot, but they seem rather impervious to the cold, sitting outdoors at a cafe for lunch no matter how bracing the air. All the London men dress very well, with a sleek dark coat, leather shoes, and a tidy well-chosen scarf to accent. Londoners are very thin, despite all the pies.

I live in a cosy studio apartment in Islington, with a pint-sized kitchen and a pod-like circular bathroom that reminds one of being on an airplane, if airplanes involved showers. Perhaps "pint-sized" isn't the proper word, since pints here are enormous. Classes don't start for another week, so I haven't met very many actual Brits yet. I've been spending my time with a clique of American study abroad students, and I met a Spanish girl in my dorm just now while doing laundry. She's here to study English, while I suppose I'm here to study English-ness. Last night we all went to a pub quiz in the on-campus bar, and our team won best name (I had suggested "Fishcoteque") and a free round. I have made an elaborate and ambitious tourist itinerary for this week, visits to all major landmarks and such, (every museum is free), though unsure of how much I will actually get done. Taking the public bus and riding on the upper level is enough to entertain me for a day.

I have developed a truly excellent inebriated british accent, which I have been told is styled after "Received Pronunciation." I have been alternately told that it sounds a bit Scotch-Irish, verging on South African.

Cheerio