Posts Tagged With: American in England

Dear England, That’s Not Bacon

Upon moving to England, I discovered a nation that seemed as in love with bacon as I was. Every sandwich at Pret, every burger, ever salad came with bacon. I thought I had discovered my national identity soulmate, until I started buying some of this bacon-laden food, and discovered:

It’s not bacon.

That’s not bacon:

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And neither is that:

This one came with butter...it's like a little heart attack in a bun.

This one came with butter…it’s like a little heart attack in a bun.

Nope, that isn’t bacon either:

This is cheese and bacon on a bagel. Yes, that cheese is shredded and unmelted. Trust me when I say this is not what you would get in New York.

This is cheese and bacon on a bagel. Yes, that cheese is shredded and unmelted. Trust me when I say this is not what you would get in New York.

Oh sure, maybe it’s Canadian bacon, but we all know that’s just a fancy word for ham. Nobody likes Canadian bacon. Nobody.

Bacon is meant to be narrow and strippy, burnt and crispy. It should be dark red/brown, with charcoal black bits. It is supposed to melt in salty ecstasy in your mouth.

It is not supposed to be chewy. It is not supposed to have gobs of fat that taste like, well, fat, and stick in your teeth. It should not be pink like a pig because I don’t want to think about what animal bacon comes from while I eat it.

So England, it’s time to shape up. I love your ravenous, bottomless appetite for fried food, but the point of frying is to create a yummy crunchy texture…why are you constantly soggify-ing your chips with vinegar (more disturbingly, why have I taken up this habit)? Why is your bacon flat and limp and as sad as a cut out tongue?

Let’s solve this crisis, England. This is my only qualm about our long-term relationship, and it’s as heavy and demoralizing as a wet blanket…which is what your bacon tastes like. I know we can do better. And just as soon as I move out of my vegetarian house, I will show you how.

You are almost there, England. Keep on trying.

This was almost bacon, it just needed a little more time to crisp. I ate this with fried pickles, and THEY were crunchy.

This was almost bacon, it just needed a little more time to crisp. I ate this with fried pickles, and THEY were crunchy.

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Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, London | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

34×34 #27, The Pub Quiz: A Half P(o)int From Glory

A few months ago I sent a link to my blog to a friend who had expressed mild interest in reading it (don’t tell a writer you want to read their work. They will suck on like a superstrong vacuum hose (that’s Hoover to my many British fans) and refuse to let go). My friend followed through and actually skimmed around my blog, discovering my 34×34. Game and supportive, he suggested we try a pub quiz, item #27 on the list.

Nearly every pub in London has a quiz night, but I had never done one, and had no idea what to expect. Would it be mired in British history? Pregnant with current events? Soaked in obscure and arcane factoids that no one could possibly know? I didn’t do any sort of research to compare the quality or difficulty of different pub quizzes, so I can’t tell you if mine was a representative example. As usual, I dove in without looking, choosing a pub that I like very much in Crouch Hill/Finsbury Park area that has good food (three words: pumpkin amaretto cheesecake) and a sprawling, quaint interior. I believe The Old Dairy was once…well, a working dairy, but don’t quote me on that leap of assumptive logic. The building is ruggedly aged and has nifty relief sculptures on its outer walls, which you can see here.

Obviously, it’s a classy pub, and has thus named its quiz, “Not Just An Udder Quiz.”

Names are important to pub quizzes. I had no idea. I think people exert more effort on cleverly naming their team than on winning the quiz. I honestly can’t remember any of the names at our particular quiz, but I looked up a list of pub quiz team names, just to give you the flavor of what I’m talking about, and I think my favorite on the list was “Halal, Is it Meat You’re Looking for?”

I was not prepared for the crushing pressure to be creative on the spot, so I named us “Three Davids,” after my three best boy writers, which I guess was quirky since there were only two of us, and neither of us was named David. Hilarious, right? I know.

The quiz itself was divided into multiple sections, none of which was an essay, which is where I really excel, so I guess we were doomed before we started. The first part involved a handout to identify pictures of actors…mostly British and I didn’t recognize any of them. There was a section called “39 Steps” which involved questions with multiple part answers, the total of which were supposed to add up to 39. I knew all the states in New England, and the items that the Statue of Liberty holds, and the names of the women in Destiny’s Child. Wheeee! I’m smart.

Then came the part where the MC proffered questions orally, in a variety of categories, and this did not go so well. The questions were just very British, and I clearly haven’t penetrated the culture as much as I had hoped. Nor has my companion, an Irishman whose heart is still in Dublin. The only question I knew was a guess: there was a question about which English city had been named the next “City of Culture.” I have a friend who is from Hull and always talks about what a hole Hull is (say that out loud, please) so I ironically assumed Hull would be the answer…I was right, but we didn’t write that. My Irish buddy chose Newcastle instead. (No offense, Newcastle).

When the scores were tallied, Three Davids came in third to last. Oh, sure, that’s embarrassing, right? Actually it is infuriating, because the team who came in SECOND to last won a GBP30 bar tab. We were a half point off being second to last. A half point! All that un-knowledge for nothing.

Still, the pub quiz gives a purpose to your drinking, which you’re going to do anyway, so why not contextualize it with trivia? Indeed it was a pleasant way to spend an evening, especially with a friend who cared enough about my goals to push me out of my apathy and get something done. A silly, fun, and totally worthwhile thing. To that Irish buddy I say: thank you. It means the world to have a friend who will remind you that you yourself are worth the effort of following through on even the tiniest of dreams.

I look forward to more alcohol drenched quizzes in my future. I just have to come up with a better team name.

And in case you wanted to salivate over that pumpkin amaretto cheesecake…

MMmMmmmm

MMmMmmmm

Categories: 34x34, London | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

34×34 #21: Host a Dinner Party – Expat Thanksgiving Edition

You would think by now I would stop writing the repetitively themed blog, “I had this perfect vision…but reality did not live up to my expectations. (But then it was perfect anyway).”

It’s like, so basic and self-evident, and yet I must learn my lesson over and over and over.

Sisyphus and me, the universe’s bitches.

This past November was the third Thanksgiving in a row I was missing at home, and I didn’t like it. Year one was spent on the boat, eating crummy buffet food, albeit with forty of my nearest and dearest entertainment department family. Last year Thanksgiving was in Manchester, where a deceptive online grocery store misdelivered several crucial elements at the last minute, giving my fellow expat friend and I a unique, if somewhat frustrating, meal. With that friend re-expatriated to France, I didn’t know what I was going to do for Turkey Day this year.

I wanted to host Thanksgiving for the few other Americans I know in London, but I live in a vegetarian flat. As in, I am not allowed to bring meat into the house. Not deli meat, not on takeaway, nothing. But none of my friends has a space to accommodate a group of six or more.

I do. I have an enormous kitchen. And then I found an American grocery store called Partridge’s near Sloane Square. They had French’s Fried Onions and I knew I had to do this.

American foodses in London

American foodses in London

I don’t know if it’s the delicious food or the concept of family and gratitude, but Thanksgiving is a big deal to me, and while none of my fellow Americans seemed overly concerned about the day, I was determined. I negotiated my stubborn landlord/flatmate into allowing me to have people over, as long as the turkey was cooked elsewhere, and none of his kitchenware touched it.

One American friend took charge of the turkey, gravy, and stuffing, another decided to make mashed potatoes, and our Australian friend promised cranberry sauce. That left me to make pumpkin bread, pumpkin pie, green bean casserole, and butternut squash lasagna.

In my 34×34 vision of hosting a dinner party, I cooked the full multi-course meal – an appetizer, a meat-centered main course, a dessert. Part of the point of this self-challenge was to face my strange distaste – almost fear – of touching raw meat. The reason I can live in a vegetarian house despite not being a vegetarian is that I don’t ever cook meat: I don’t like to touch it, and I don’t really know how to prepare it properly.

So was I cheating by delegating this pivotal portion of the meal to someone else? I mean, quite frankly, it’s the quintessential element – people could live without the butternut squash lasagna, but nobody wanted to do a turkey-less Thanksgiving. Also, because of the kitchenware stipulation, I had to buy paper plates and plastic cutlery to serve the meal. This did not fit into my elegant vision of hosting a dinner party either.

You know what? I’m counting it. Judge me as you must. And just for full disclosure, I cut up some cheese and dumped some crackers on a platter for my appetizer. Sue me.

At the last minute, one of my friends realized she couldn’t make the mashed potatoes because her refrigerator was broken and she had to work all day preceding dinner. Potatoes are as necessary as turkey, so I added them to my schedule. One of my goals with attempting this dinner was to learn how chefs/cooks/my sainted mother time their preparations to set all the food out piping hot at the same moment. There is a real art to cooking a whole meal, and I’ve never mastered it. Things get cold or burn, but nothing is ever ready simultaneously.

Getting down and dirty

Getting down and dirty

My day started at 9am, baking bread, two loaves of pumpkin made separately because I wasn’t sure if I could just double the ingredients and then halve the mixture into two pans – and it was 4am in New Jersey, too early to call my mother.

Pumpkin bread!

Pumpkin bread!

My mother played a prominent role in my day – I called/skyped her at least once an hour, freaking out about what order I should do things in, what ingredients I might be forgetting as I went to the supermarket one last time, how to bake the squash and mash the potatoes and what was the recipe for chocolate chip cookie pie? Really, I know nothing about cooking. My mother must be disappointed in her three children, none of whom took up her great culinary skill and enjoyment. She LIKES spending all day in the kitchen preparing a groaning table’s worth of food for her family.

Chocolate chip pie and pumpkin pie. Amazeballs.

Chocolate chip pie and pumpkin pie. Amazeballs.

Anyway, I got through it. Breads were followed by pies, which cooled all day on the counter, teasing me. I prebaked the squash and mashed it, then boiled the potatoes and mashed them – all by hand, because we don’t have a mixer or blender or anything fancy in my house (we only barely have a microwave, after much whining on my part). Everything was going well until one friend apologetically texted that she and her boyfriend would be an hour late – totally throwing off my calculations for getting everything ready simultaneously.

At that point I started drinking wine and eating cheese cubes.

Classy spread

Classy spread

But that’s as dramatic as it gets; everyone eventually arrived, loaded with food and alcohol, all of which was delicious. Everything I made came out perfectly and reasonably hot. No one even touched the chocolate chip cookie pie, so stuffed were they from the meal.

I am my mother’s daughter, wanting to be absolutely sure everyone was gastrointestinally protesting too much food.

Eight of us ate and drank together: 3 Americans, an Aussie, a Lithuanian, a Frenchman, a Brit, and an Italian. Just like the Pilgrims would have wanted.

Mmmm. Food.

Mmmm. Food.

My contribution

My contribution

After my funny little hodgepodge family left and the dishes were washed, I Skyped with my other family in New Jersey. I realized I had done all that work mainly for myself – no one else was nearly as fussed about it, no one was desperate for pumpkin bread and green bean casserole the way I was. But that’s okay. It was worth it for the leftovers alone.

I’m so grateful to my mother for all her help, even from thousands of miles away. We stood in kitchens on opposite sides of the Atlantic, cooking together, and if my meal came out even a fraction as well as hers, I have reason to be proud.

So I accomplished my goal: I brought people together, we broke bread, we laughed, we were thankful. So fuck the turkey. Maybe next year I’ll tackle “cooking meat.”

Fat now.

Fat now.

Categories: 34x34, London | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

34×34: #11 – Try 10 British Beers

I suppose it is fitting, being me, and living where I do, that the first goal I accomplish off the 34×34 is drinking a lot of beer.

I don’t really like beer. I’m a Bud Light kind of girl – weak, watery, but it gets the job done.

I’ve been amazed by the range of beers on tap here in England, though. Most bars in New York have your standard selection of American beers, with some German and whatnot thrown in for good measure. You basically always know what you’re going to get. Or maybe I just wasn’t going to the right bars.

But pubs in London offer a huge selection of small English brewery beers, never the same at two pubs. It’s always an adventure, you never know what will be available.

I tend to drink a lot of cider – which is the best part of English pub life, that cider is always on tap (you’ll be lucky to find it in a bottle at home). It’s sweeter, which suits me.

I’ve been wondering what the differences are between ales, stouts, lagers, bitters…it’s not just beer here. It’s a whole subculture I don’t understand at all. I’ve been looking to take some kind of course that explains it all, but nothing has come across my radar that is satisfactory, and finally a friend explained it to me thus (he drinks a LOT, so I trust him, but jump in if you have a further explanation of the nuances):

Most beer is lager: light yellow, fizzy, cold, and dispensed through taps. Ale is darker, not fizzy/thus flat, and kept at room temperature. It is stronger tasting, savory even, and dispensed through a hand pump (I had no idea there was a difference between taps and hand pumps. I am learning things, kids). Stout is black, and also dispensed through a hand pump. Wheat beer is cloudy yellow, flat, and cold.

All of which is really interesting, except I still can’t differentiate much in terms of flavor. It all tastes like, well…beer. I wanted to have really intelligent notes for each of the ten I tried, but mostly they tasted the same to me, unless they tasted really gross. That is about as sophisticated as my palate gets: “I can tolerate this,” or “ewwwwwww.”

There was no methodology to my drinking. I just tried to order new things whenever I went out, branching out beyond my cider fixation. Frequently I picked things based on having cool names, but sadly that rarely translated into a cool flavor. Anyway, here are the ten I tried, with any accompanying notes I managed to write down:

1. Buxton Spa Pale Ale: This one was so righteously bitter that I couldn’t even finish it. Probably my least favorite of the ten.

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2. Meantime London Lager: No notes. It tasted like beer. Bitter and heavy but not unyieldingly so.

3. Adnams Ghost Ship Pale Ale: Chosen for its awesome name. It was nice. Medium dark/copper in color, bitter but drinkable.

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4. Seafarers Ale: I drank this at a couple different pubs when there wasn’t anything new to try, so clearly I was okay with it. Not great but all right.

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5. Fuller’s Honeydew Organic Beer: I was hoping this one would taste like honeydew, but alas. It didn’t even taste like honey, which is apparently one of the main organic ingredients. I switched to something else after having a pint, so clearly not that great to me.

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6. Sambrook’s Wandle Ale: Again I just liked the name. I wrote down that it was “darker,” but I don’t know darker than what. And probably I just thought it tasted like beer.

7. Cornish Coaster: I have this minor obsession with the idea of Cornwall, so would like to say I enjoy beer that comes from there. But I don’t think I was able to finish this one, although that might have just been because I had had five or six pints already that night.

8. Moor Top Pale Ale: I have no notes. Clearly not a leader among the pack. Just something to try. I believe I switched back to cider immediately after.

9. Redwell: Well, I thought I took a picture of this and I have the vague idea it was indeed reddish, but I have no idea. I remember thinking it was crisp and lighter than most beers, and drinkable.

10. Young’s Hummingbird Pale Ale: This one was probably my favorite, I drank four pints in rapid succession. Even though it didn’t really taste like passion fruit like the tap claimed, I still thought it was light and tasty.

So there you have it. It’s not much of an experiment, but it is that ever important kick in the pants to try new things and broaden your horizons. I’m embracing the culture I live in and trying to understand what’s important to them.

So go forth, and quest, friends. Try something that you know you’ll think is gross. You’ll be a better person for it. And keep trying, because you never know when you’ll stumble onto something not half bad (the British are also teaching me to be litotic. It’s okay).

For now I’ll probably go back to drinking New Zealand sauvignon blanc. And maybe this really good Scottish cider called Thistly Cross. That was a new experience too, and a high alcohol content one to boot. Or Pimms, this beer and lemonade thing that comes with fruit: delicious and nutritious!

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There are always options. It’s a beautiful drunken world.

Categories: 34x34, London | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

My Favorite Place in London

No, it’s not a museum or a pub or a restaurant.

It’s my nail salon.

Getting my nails painted is one of my life’s great guilty pleasures: it is a bit of a wasteful way to spend money. It makes me feel pretty in a way that indicates perhaps my self-esteem is not as deeply-rooted as it should be.

Mani/pedis are the one thing you can get cheap in NYC. I liked to go sit in the great big massage chairs getting rolled and kneaded while an Asian lady worked away at my feet. There is something uncomfortable about it, but that’s where the guilt comes into the pleasure, right? New York nail salons work with anonymous, military precision. My nails always looked perfect: trimmed short and round, shiny with evenly-coated polish. I could sit under the hand dryers as long as I liked, and I rarely left with a smudge or a chip (sometimes I did. I’m a klutz.) The Asian ladies asked me to pay before my hands were painted, decreasing the chance of digital imperfection (see what I did there?).

None of that is my experience in London.

The salon I go to costs about as much for a manicure as the combo cost in New York – and it’s the cheapest place I have found. There are no massage chairs. The women never file my nails as short as I’d like (I ask them to go shorter three times and then have to give up and accept I’m going to have a lady nail). The polish is a little uneven and doesn’t extend all the way to the edge of my nails. And without fail they tell me the polish is dry and I’m smudged by the time I take out my wallet to pay.

Still, I love it.

First, the salon is called “Your Beautiful.” It’s on the sign that hangs outside, it’s embroidered on the girls’ aprons. As a deep lover of the English language and champion of its proper use, this should probably irritate me, but I find it endearing. The people who work there are from non-English speaking parts of Europe: Italy, Hungary, Poland. They speak two languages and I don’t, and if they don’t quite have their contractions down yet, I forgive them.

I sit in a plastic chair shaped like a hand: my butt is cupped in the palm, my back rests against the fingers – the nails of which are, of course, painted.

I could sit through my sessions in NYC and not be expected to make small talk, but here I am trying to embrace asking questions. These girls want to practice their English, and I need to practice talking to strangers without feeling terror. It’s a win-win. The Italian girl has painted my nails a few times. She told me she is from a small town where everyone is shocked that she moved to London. No one there can imagine a life more idyllic than that of the Italian countryside, but she wants to see the world.

She gets some words confused: “outside” and “upstairs” are hard for her to remember correctly, and sometimes she inverts them: “upside” and “outstairs.” She told me she was planning a barbeque for her day off; until she moved in, all her flatmates ate their meals alone in their individual rooms. Now she has created a friendly group dynamic where they share time together. I believe she has the power to do it. She is incredibly sweet and smiley. She always remembers me and says hello when I come in, even if she isn’t doing my nails.

There is another girl (I think she’s from Poland but I’m not sure) who does a lot of specialty nail work – the women who come in wanting two inch fang-like fingernails (when did this become popular? It’s totally creepster to me). She can freehand tiny intricate paintings on each individual nail, and call me sentimental, but I think she’s an artist. Anytime a person has a talent and can create beauty – even of the miniscule and ephemeral variety – I envy their joy at their own creativity. We should all be lucky enough to have the confidence to embrace our gifts.

It’s just a friendly, relaxed place, and I genuinely enjoy the time I spend there. It’s nothing fancy, but there is good energy, and I always leave smiling, smudged nails or not.

I wonder that this sweet Italian girl traveled so far from her home – in a country I personally love and can’t imagine wanting to leave – to do this rather menial job so graciously. Everybody wants to be somewhere else. I’m here as an immigrant too, right? I guess we all go to great lengths to make our dreams come true.

Categories: London | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

I am a Domestic Goddess

In my coursework studying creative nonfiction, my classmates and I often discuss what is “truth” and how frequently “truth” gets wiggled in order to create a good narrative arc, or pretty prose. It’s kind of a fascinating question. I have recently been disappointed to learn that some of my favorite writers have blatantly made things up in order to create a good story. It seems like everyone does it – creative nonfiction is NOT journalism, so whether it is allowed in this genre is a great, debatable issue.

Ultimately, it’s all about the narrative. And narrative is a malleable beast.

And that’s how I get to be a domestic goddess.

Last week this happened:

I was home alone but it was Saturday night. I did not have a single soul in this blessed city who wanted to hang out with me all weekend.

I was feeling blue. I couldn’t shake the heart crunch of a break up. It wasn’t a particularly serious relationship, but I was wallowing.

I was swamped with work but my blueness was making my mind run in circles rather than towards productivity. I was procrastinating.

My baking, usually something I’m reasonably good at, did not go smoothly. First, I didn’t read the recipe carefully and mixed the flour and sugar. I was not supposed to do that. If you have ever tried to separate out grains of sugar and flour once they have been mixed – well, you’re a better man than I. I just dumped it in the trash, wasting over 3 cups of good product. I didn’t have *quite* enough butter – damn you, metric system, I was about 20 grams off. I tried to realign things to use margarine instead but I didn’t have quite enough of that either. I decided it would be fine.

It was not fine.

I then tried to soften the butter in the oven (I live in a house without a microwave, and don’t get me started on it). The butter melted way faster than I expected, making is liquid-y instead of soft.

All this added up to create some cookies of mass destruction. You could bruise people with those cookies if you had a good throwing arm or a slingshot.

I unscrewed (yes, unscrewed) a bottle of wine and proceeded to drink the entire thing. Drunk and alone on a Saturday night.

I listened to the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” musical soundtrack and sang along to every word. This is possibly the reason I’m single.

I called a friend and whinged at her about my sadface problems.

***

So that’s the “truth” of what happened.

But with a little bit of editing:

I was home alone, a rare blessing in my house of three where someone is always around and using the communal space.

I poured myself a glass of red wine and blasted my iPod, another rare treat when you share living space. I belted along at the top of my lungs while I turned on the oven and warmed up the kitchen. I baked sugar cookies, perfect for dunking in a cup of milky tea.

While home for Christmas, I only got see see my childhood best friend briefly, so I called her up – it’s so cheap to add international minutes to my mobile phone. We caught up in an edifying, deeply satisfying way. I love knowing no matter how long we go without talking, we can always pick up the phone and talk like we still converse daily. She will always be a part of my life.

***

In that version, I overcame an obstacle and succeeded in having an excellent night, embracing my domesticity and some me-time. If my life were a chick flick, I’d probably add the baking mishaps back in for a bit of endearing, slapstick humor.

And the cookies did genuinely taste good, they were just very, very hard.

Both versions are true. But the tone of each is pretty different. It’s all about shaping the narrative. Which is another way of saying it is all a matter of perspective.

Which is another way of saying fake it till you make it.

I am a domestic goddess. Come, drink wine and eat cookies with me.

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, London | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Taking Taxis in London

When I arrived at Heathrow in September, with eight-five hundred bags and no place to live, a guy at a counter booked me into a hotel, and got me a shuttle to boot, cheaper than the cab I assumed I would need. I don’t really remember what the shuttle driver looked like, but I have this vision of him as Hal Holbrook in the old English man uniform: golf cap, cardigan, baggy trousers. In my jet-lagged memory he is smoking a pipe, but of course he didn’t smoke a pipe with a dozen bleary-eyed passengers swaying behind him, did he?

This old gentleman loved driving his shuttle and talking to the tourists aboard, pointing out the sights. Driving from West London into the City, there aren’t really many sights: neutered motorway, exhausted, dark brick row-houses. It was raining, an appropriate baptism for my rebirth into British life, but there was even less to see as water streamed down the windows in defiance of the semiotics of “drop.” As we drove through Chiswick, our driver told us not to pronounce the “w.” He pointed out the Mercedes headquarters. We passed a pub as we honed in on the western edge of London proper (near the West Kensington Tube; I started my painful reckoning with London’s geography a week later when I returned to this intersection to look at a flat). The pub was called the Famous Three Kings. He made us guess which three it referred to, and told us one was Elvis. I don’t think that was true.

We drove through central London, dropping various passengers at various hotels. As we puttered along the northern border of Hyde Park, I knew we were close to my undergrad housing on Edgeware Road. Out the window artists sold their wares against the park fence, huddling under tarps, deflecting the blood-letting-ish streams of rain from their paintings. Finally Marble Arch rose to our right and the Odeon cinema on the left and I had such a strange feeling of familiar and unfamiliar rubbing elbows in a way that was bound to produce an Indian burn.

The driver mentioned to someone directly behind him that the “Arabs” had taken over Edgeware Road recently, and he didn’t seem too happy about it. Later, when it was just me and him, and he motioned me forward so he could chatter and entertain me the final few minutes to my hotel, I didn’t mention that when I lived on Edgeware Road a decade ago, it was already full of fluorescently-lit shwarma shacks with their spinning spits of meat, as well as more elegant Lebanese restaurants. The guys running the front desk of our student flat building, who always smiled at me as I passed, were certainly “Arab.” I told the driver why I was in London, to study, to travel, and he wished me well, helping me lug my eight-five hundred suitcases through the sepia puddles and up my hotel’s eleven unnecessary steps.

Several days later, admitting defeat in my magic plan to magically find a magical flat, I switched hotels for the duration of the search. Apparently I wasn’t going to avoid that monstrously expensive taxi ride after all. It wasn’t a proper black cab, either, not the quintessential London taxi experience, but just a car, a compact silver everyday car with a reasonably sized trunk.

My journey west to east across the city continued with those eight-five hundred weary bags, concluding at a small hotel in Walthamstow, all the at the end (or the beginning?) of the light blue Victoria Line in Zone 3 – but I had a private bathroom. This time my driver was a thirty-something Iranian dressed in business casual: white button down shirt with rolled-up sleeves, black pants. The same questions came up: why was I in London, what was I studying.

I asked him about himself; his English was excellent but not quite inflected with Britishness, despite the twelve years he had spent in the country. He had intended to stay for five, to study finance, but the economy had collapsed. He warned me to be careful or I’d find myself with a mortgage, as if mortgages were insidious grass-covered pits hidden throughout the city, something I might fall into unawares and find myself trapped for life.

He had friends who were doctors, and he claimed even they couldn’t save money in London. He drove the taxi part-time while also working at a gym; he wanted to become a personal trainer. We reinvent ourselves, then reinvent ourselves again.

As we continued east, far beyond the edges of everything I had ever seen of this urban sprawl, the Olympic Stadium loomed up on the right. It gave me a little thrill; Michael Phelps and the Fab Five still danced like sugar plums in my memory. But no, no, the stadium was a mistake too. My driver didn’t understand why “they” had built it here, in this part of East London, where no one comes. People don’t even go to all the casinos in East London; they prefer betting on dog fights.

I didn’t say that the gentrification “they” were hoping to attract around the stadium probably didn’t include him anyway.

He lived on Edgeware Road. He hated it there.

He dropped me off just around the corner from the hotel’s entrance, and helped me carry my eighty-five hundred bags to the door. I was once again hunched over against an implacable rain. My luggage begged me now to stay still, to unpack, to lighten their load. But not yet. For all our journeying, we still weren’t home.

I was hopeful that we would find one soon. A home. But my drivers had me wondering: the first, a native, cheerful, proud to show off his city. He was born here, he owned this town, he would never not have that deep sense of confidence inherent in belonging. The second, an immigrant, hoping for a better opportunity, a new life, a rebirth. Like me. After twelve years he still didn’t feel like he was home.

I wondered (I still wonder) if I ever would either. But still I dream. I burn myself to ashes and wait for something new to rise.

Categories: London | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

On My Second Marriage

For twenty-five years, I was wed to theatre.

In second grade I saw Godspell in the high school auditorium attached to my grade school. My sister’s friends were in it, and I have a – probably incorrect – memory that they acknowledged me somehow as I sat in the audience. In any case, because I knew their real names, I felt somehow “in.” It’s an intoxicating feel, the giddiness of those who become intimately involved with the stage: the feeling that we belong somewhere. I developed a crush on theatre that day.

I saw Les Miserables on Broadway soon after that. Who knows why my parents let me go (I wasn’t even allowed to watch Doogie Howser). I guess they didn’t want me to feel left out, having missed so much family action because I was born much later than my teenage siblings. A need to belong permeates most of life, yes?

I didn’t understand half of Les Mis (French Revolution? Prostitutes?) But my god did I sob when it became clear Val Jean would die. I was hysterical for the last twenty minutes of the show, leaning into my sister and not even watching. Sitting close to the last row of the balcony, I had a visceral emotional experience such as I have only ever felt at live performance. I fell deeply, earth-shatteringly in love that day.

But last year, theatre and I broke up. The manic romance of the lifestyle was no longer enough.

Theatre is romantic: that determination of pluck and passion overriding limited resources. That group effort, a unity of direction and focus. That chance to touch a life, an audience member who feels the words and actions taking place in real time in a deeply resonant bone marrow place. That sense of belonging.

Nothing beats the high of these experiences.

On the other hand, theatre is like a bad relationship: it never pays the rent. At the end of every production, that manic high slides sharply into tears and soul-crushing emptiness. There is no stability; theatre is never satisfied with you. As you peddle yourself in one job interview after another, you get an overwhelming sense that you are never enough.

There is little opportunity to get ahead in theatre. Even after ten years of professional work, I had to fight like a newsboy to get paid fairly on one off-Broadway show. My experience mattered little in an industry that will cut corners by undervaluing people. While I loved my long-ish term part-time theatre gig in NYC, I was constantly looking for something else to survive. That job was a microcosm of a relationship you stay in too long: I loved it and appreciated it, but we were just meant to be friends. No matter how much of my heart I gave to it, I was just not the “one” for it. I would never be full-time.

Now I’m doing this other thing: narrative nonfiction. It’s why I’m in London, to study a craft I only became aware of a few years ago. Theatre is so obvious, it’s a crush on George Clooney. Any old seven year old can have an affair with theatre. Theatre is kind of a whore.

No seven year old wants to be the next Paul Theroux or David Foster Wallace. Complexity of thought and awareness of the wider world only come with age; you learn there are more career opportunities than doctor or ballerina or policeman.  Les Mis was broad enough that even my seven year old self could fall victim to its emotional manipulation. Narrative nonfiction is a personal, hard won discovery. It’s subdued, not flashy. It creates the same kind of life-transforming resonance, but in a private, eternal form: you can touch and carry a book. This writing is more satisfying: it suits my innate confessional need. I can write a story or essay or book and it will live fully on the page, a complete entity. When I wrote plays, I always needed a crowd of others to make my work live, and those crowds were hard to come by.

This is a typical second marriage. I’ve grown up and better understand what is important, what I want. I want a sense of gratification that is less dependent on others. This marriage involves sitting quietly alone in a room most of the time, and being content with being alone. How mature, right?

But I saw the Les Mis movie earlier this week…I mouthed every word to every song, stuck in the recesses of my memory from years of detailed soundtrack comparisons. My god did I cry.

I wish I could have been a part of that movie, to act as one small but necessary facet of group creation. I miss theatre. I ache for that sense of belonging, no matter how ephemeral and fabricated it may be.

My divorce was the right decision for my mental health. Theatre could never love me as much as I loved it. I love narrative nonfiction much less, and my smaller investment of emotion means there is less chance of getting hurt. There is a chance for a mutual and deeply satisfying, if reserved, relationship. Partners who sleep separately, I suppose, rather than having mind-blowing sex every night (a metaphor that is weird but appropriate).

But I guess I’m learning that clichés are annoyingly true. You never really get over your first love.

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, New York City | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Wilds of London

The first time I saw a fox in London, I was waiting for a bus on a side street in Islington. It shot past, low to the ground and tail streaming, racing toward the Angel Tube station across the street, as if it were desperate to catch a train. It was running toward a highly congested (even at 9pm on a Tuesday night) area of London’s Zone 1. “Was that a fox?” I said out loud to the woman also waiting at the bus stop, who laughed along with me in strange delight.

I have since discovered urban foxes are a “thing;” Mary Poppins wasn’t a scam. I’ve seen them several times in my own neighborhood, and I love it: “View Halloooooo!” I like to think they appear just for me, a good luck charm, a symbol that things are peculiar and wonderful here in London.

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I haven’t seen a fox in a while. Maybe they’re hibernating for the winter. What I am becoming acquainted with in these early-darkening, ceaselessly gray days are the well-known, much-feared poisonous spiders here in the wild jungles of the London metropolis.

Haven’t heard of them? Oh, right that’s because they don’t exist…well, they only exist for me. They are a bit of a bad luck charm, a symbol of something. I just don’t know what.

Since moving into my flat near Stoke Newington, I have been bitten in my sleep four times, presumably by spiders, though I have never seen one in my bedroom. The first three were spread out over three week intervals. Then I got bitten two nights in a row: once on my arm, once on my face. I am not someone prone to allergies; I have never had a bad reaction to food or animals or insect bites. Yet here I sit with a ballooning left arm and a goitery face.

I have friends in actual exotic places like Australia and South Africa and Japan who aren’t experiencing this kind of wildlife.

Right now my arm is swollen and red from my wrist to my bicep. It’s sore and I’m experiencing waves of intense itching.  The texture of my skin has changed to sandpaper, oddly tacky and firm. It’s like my arm isn’t my arm. When I touch it I can’t believe it’s part of me.

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Last time I went to the hospital, when I was bitten on my right wrist, smack dab in the middle of my cherry blossom tattoo. They gave me antibiotics, but I don’t think they sped up the recovery. I just have to wait this out. I will survive it, it’s not that big a deal in the grand scheme.

But in my current state of my mind, these bites are a perfect metaphor for how I feel about London: like it is rejecting me, attacking me, needling me to give up and leave. What if somehow I’m allergic to London, a city I have longed to live in?

I know this is homesickness talking. I’ve arrived at that point where the adrenalin and novelty of figuring out a new place have worn off, the bleakness of winter has settled in, and I have learned that even more than New York, London is a distant city. It’s not a great big friendly invitation to a “cuppa” tea. It is a jungle, a space overcrowded but hidden. It’s hard to meet people and make connections.

I suppose it’s a byproduct of that polite British aloofness. No one will be rude to you here…they just won’t talk to you at all.  I’ve done an informal study of pub culture compared to American bar culture. English people go to pubs, with their friends, to drink. Heavily. Period. There aren’t men leering at women, trying to chat you up. They are too immersed in their mates and cups.

I almost miss the unwanted attention. It was nice to at least feel visible. The grass is always greener, right?

These, my friends, are first world problems, though who has ever classified a poisonous spider bite that way. I’m trying to look at my life patterns, the time of year, and recognize that I’m just in that wistful slump after the initial romantic has mellowed. I’ve only been here four months. Is it surprising that I don’t feel completely settled, that this isn’t quite “home” yet? I’m at a low point that aligns with the winter solstice. As the days slowly (so slowly) get longer again, so too will my desire to get out and explore come out of dormancy.

As with these treacherous spider bites: I just have to wait this out. I will survive it, it’s not that big a deal in the grand scheme.

I look forward to seeing another fox, though. Those are pretty cool.

Categories: London, Travel Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Controversy: The Great “XO” Debate

As I have dedicated this blog to the serious, reflective, and thought-provoking study of subtle and significant cultural differences, it’s about time I took on the most controversial topic of all: xogate.

In the interest of thorough, hard-hitting journalism I’ll briefly explain that in the generally accepted American parlance, “x”s stand for kisses, and “o”s for hugs. Because I’m not that interested in thorough, hard-hitting journalism, I’m not going to bother looking on Wikipedia right now to discover the genesis of this strange custom, though I believe “o”s have the encircling nature of a hug, and when you kiss someone your mouth puckers into an “x,” lips crossed as if disembodied from your face. At least if you’re doing it right.

Before I moved to London, I had some friends who spent time in England who tended to sign messages and letters with an “x.” I don’t mean as a signature like they were illiterate, I mean in place of “Love,” the way most Americans would use “xo” (times however many are appropriate to your level of affection for the recipient of said message or letter.) I didn’t put two-and-two together until I met some actual British people and almost from the first Facebook comment or message they sent me, I got “x”-ed. It seemed a bit forward, but it made me feel good, like I was special, significant, that these people sought my “x” back.

Then I came to England and discovered EVERYONE “x”s EVERYONE over here.

Basically from the first message from a British person, you’re likely to get an “x.” I imagine they sign their inquiries to customer service and government representatives this way. Sometimes you even get an “xxx,” but I don’t honestly believe this has any emotional significance, it’s more like a tic. Maybe that button on their keyboard is stuck pressed down.

I’ve never seen an English person “o.” All this is rather amusing to me, given the standoff-ish nature of the Brits, who would never “x” or “o” you in the world of physical contact. This isn’t Europe with double and triple-cheek kisses for your postman. You’re lucky to get a curt nod from the English, let alone a hug, God forbid a kiss.

So perhaps it’s all rather hypocritical of British people to hand out written “x”s like they are a warm, physical people with a lot of extra love to give. In any case, I didn’t want to get involved. Before I got here, I was determined to continue signing my emails and messages with the patriotic “xoxo” formula my American breeding dictated. I considered “x”-ing the transcribed equivalent of a Madonna-level faux-English accent. I didn’t want to be a poser. I’m not British and I still say trashcan and bathroom and zucchini and comforter. I want to hold on to the all-encompassing generosity of the “o.”

But now I find myself seduced by the “x” alone. There is something sleek and sophisticated about it. It’s just more grown-up than that desperate reach of the “o,” which begs “LIKE ME!” The “o”s roundness makes it too inclusive. The “x” is sharp. Its slashes say “no.” The “x” doesn’t care. It is exclusive. The “x” kisses you – an intimate gesture, but only on paper. It actually is the perfect English symbol. It’s aloof, easily withheld through deletion, but still, it’s cooler than you are, like how a kiss would sound if kisses had hot Northern accents.

So sometimes I just use the “x” to sign off. Just one, simple and elegant, not trying too hard. Not screaming for acceptance in a country where I speak the language but don’t understand the customs. Every time I end an email, I’m tortured by a sense of betrayal for my native land, which opens its arms to envelop me in infinite roundness, no edges or hard, definitive lines to hurt me. It hugs me and lets me known I belong.

I blow America an “x” and turn my back.

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, London | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

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