Thursday, November 5, 2009

Our Trip to London, Part the Second

The trains in this part of the country—the Southeast, that is—were quite different than the way I had imagined trains to look. When I thought of a train, it was, admittedly, an outdated idea that popped into my head. Great iron snakes with a slanted bit up front with the extended part to crash through cattle on the tracks (or whatever), and a red car at the back. Possibly some hobos infesting the freight parts in the middle. However, the trains in the Southeast were none of these. For the most part, they were quiet steel-plastic things running on electricity. They had none of the nineteenth century aesthetics and were made so that a conductor could ride in both the front and the rear. (Now, Dear Reader, I of course know full well that this is the way freight trains in the U.S. are constructed, but, as I mentioned earlier, give me an absurd explanation over the truth any day of the week.)
All of that, of course, is generally true of the trains. Our first train ride in England, however, was to be nerve-wracking. We had bought tickets for a direct line to Charing Cross in London, and, further, were told that it was the quickest route from Canterbury to London. Just looking at the train, we would not have been able to tell that riding in the carriage would be enough to make a boat on a storm-ridden sea look positively grounded by comparison. Our train—dubbed the Safety Train by The Drunkard—rattled and rolled harder than a modern train should have any right to. I was quite sure that, at some point, the train would fly right off the tracks and none of us would be getting our degrees after all.
Myself, I have never been subject to motion sickness, but The Student was ill four times over the hour-and-a-half journey (the trip was no shorter than had we not taken a Safety Train). The Drunkard calmed his stomach down—paradoxically—by drinking the entire journey. What was more perplexing, The Drunkard was the fittest of us once we got off the train.
I wish I could give a description of the gorgeous agrarian countryside of Kent as we saw it that fine day, but after The Student threw up on the window, my view was ruined. I do, however, remember seeing my first glimpse of the Thames and feeling a bit of a thrill pass through me. It would be no understatement to say that the first time I saw a James Bond movie, I wanted to go to this very country, and to see this very river in person. There are times when words fail us, when we are forced to simply make a comment about our surroundings in lieu of a wider statement about the world. “The River Thames,” I said, falling prey to one of the Universe’s traps.
The Drunkard—who had somehow fallen asleep in the midst of the vomit-odor drifting off the window and the chav in the seat behind us ranting about how he was going to put his dog, Knife, in a fight against another dog, also named Knife—jolted awake, looked out a window, saw the river, and said, “Yup. Bet it wouldn’t set on fire, though.”
I turned to The Drunkard. “Why would you want a river to set on fire?”
The Drunkard shrugged. “Lived in Ohio for a while. After reading about the Cuyahoga being set on fire—and making the creek outside my house catch flame—I just kind of take it as a given that a river should be able to be set on fire.”
“Are you mad?” I asked, not for the first time.
“Completely,” he responded, taking his flask out, tipping it, and, for the first time, not getting anything out of the bottom. “Ah hell, I forgot to fill it.”
The Student wiped clean some of the window—since it was his vomit covering the window, I imagine that he wasn’t fazed by having to do this—and stared. “I’m going to have to go to The Globe.”
“Shakespeare’s home,” I said.
“I wouldn’t count you as a Shakespeare fan,” said The Drunkard.
The Student turned. “I’m sorry? Why?”
“You seemed to be one of those postmodern existentialist types.”
“Like your flatmates?” I asked.
“My flatmates aren’t human; they’re French.”
The Student cleared his throat. “I believe that the only people who would not appreciate Shakespeare are engineers—for they have a natural repulsion to reading or literature of any kind—and pretentious assholes who, in fact, have no soul.”
“The Writer,” said The Drunkard.
“I wasn’t going to mention him, but yes,” said The Student.
“Tell me,” I said, “exactly why you just don’t beat him up.”
“Ah,” said The Drunkard, “I’m just giving him shit. I’m sure The Writer’s got some redeeming qualities.”
“They’re just hard to find!”
“Fist pound!”
The Drunkard and The Student bumped fists.
The train shuddered to a halt, brakes squealing, and the announcement to disembark the train at Charing Cross came across the loudspeaker. The doors opened and we, along with the rest of the people on the train, filed out.
“What do you think a Charing is?” Asked The Drunkard. “And why should it be Cross?”
“I’m not sure,” said The Student, weaving in and out of the crowd and making his way through the gates. I must say, keeping up with him was a challenge, and it was almost as if he had spent his entire life making his way through the masses in public transit. “But considering the size of this building, I would not want to anger Charing any more than it already is.”
“Fuckin Hell,” said a passing Brit, “you people are prats.”
We looked at each other. “Puns are a no, then,” I said.
“Unless we want to get two dogs named Knife sicced on us,” said the Drunkard.
“Oi,” said the chav from before. “What’s that you said about Knife?”
“Ah hell,” said The Drunkard.
“Oi!” said the chav again. “Ricky, they’s talking about Knife!”
We turned and saw, approaching from behind us, another chav holding two French Mastiffs that looked entirely too friendly to be called Knife—one of them licked a five year old for fully two minutes before its owner could drag him away—walked up and said something that, to my untrained ears and through his gold-covered mouth, was entirely incomprehensible.
“You wanna have a go at Knife, then?” asked the chav.
Knife, one of them that is, a black French Mastiff sat down at my feet, looked up at me, and then laid down and went to sleep. “I think he’s comfortable where he is, so I won’t bother him.”
The chav curled his hand into a fist and was about to strike the dog when a black umbrella struck him on the crown of his head, sending him to the ground, wincing in pain.
“I’d rather you didn’t strike the defenseless animal, young man,” said the owner of the umbrella, a man in a black suit, bowler cap, and the shiniest shoes I’ve ever seen. He reached into his pocket, took out a doggie treat, and gave it to the newly awakened dog. Knife licked his hand for about a minute.
The second chav spoke again in his incomprehensible manner, and the man blinked before smacking him on the top of his head with his umbrella. The second Knife actually, and I wish I were making this up, for it is quite improbable, bit off his own leash, walked over, and sat down at the man’s feet. The first Knife did the same, then returned to sleeping upon my feet. After this, the second chav let loose a string of what I can only assume were obscenities directed to the dogs and stormed out of the rail station.
The first chav was still playing opossum on the ground.
“Right,” said the man. “My name is Roger,” he doffed his cap.
“I’m The Narrator,” I said.
“The Drunkard,” The Drunkard said.
“The Student,” The Student said.
“I…” Roger scratched his chin. “Odd names, those.”
We collectively shrugged.
“You’re Americans, I take it.”
“Yessir,” The Drunkard said.
“If you don’t mind me asking, for whom did you vote in the last election?”
We turned to each other, remembering The Traveler’s Tale, and for a moment, I was concerned.
“Oh, Hell,” said The Drunkard. “We’re in England, not Texas. I’m pretty confident in saying we all voted for Obama.”
“Ah, the good kind, then.” He bent down, patted the two dogs on their heads, and replaced Knife II’s leash with one he had in his pocket. “So where are you off to?”
“We were thinking about going to the Globe first. Do you know the way?”
“It so happens that I have business in that area. I’ll show you how to get there, just follow me.”
And so we followed Roger down the Embankment walk. I walked alongside him and Knife, and my two companions traded off playing with Knife II as we made our way towards the Globe. “What do you do, Roger?”
“Oh, I work for the RSPCA. You know what that is, yes?”
“Sort of like the ASPCA, but British.”
“Spot on, spot on. Yes, I’m a legal councilor. I used to be in criminal defense, but the ethical constraints got to be too much for me to handle. Dogs, you see,” he said, bending down and scratching Knife behind the ear, “and animals in general, are much more honest than humans are. Nicer to us than they have any right to be, if you want my honest opinion.”
At this point, we came to the Millennium Bridge. It is a structure that looks as if it has no right to stand for more than five minutes in even a slight breeze. Even though it is quite clearly made of steel—or some sturdy sort of metal—the bridge doesn’t have the sort of supports one is used to seeing when looking at a bridge. Instead of thick columns supported by arches and steel cables and the like, the pedestrian bridge is supported by a few steel constructs that look like wishbones and, of course, steel cables. Though I’m sure there are those people reading this who would say, “You fool, that is a completely feasible design” (and it obviously is, as the bridge is in constant use), this does not allay the fact that, when I first set food upon the bridge, I saw myself being hurled over by a gust of wind into the gaping maws of the shark-infested River Thames.
Crossing the bridge, I was very careful about how I placed my feet, how fast I moved, where moisture was on the bridge in relation to my feet, the amount of friction my shoes could provide, and all sorts of things. Everyone else, though, being normal, healthy individuals, went on as normal. Knife and Knife II, in fact, tripped up The Student by crossing their leashes in front of them. I screamed in fright, everyone else laughed. Clearly, they could not hallucinate the fifty-foot-long sharks in the water below.
After crossing the bridge, we found ourselves essentially right next door from The Globe. Roger led us the rest of the way, short distance though it was, and doffed his cap. “Hope you enjoy the country, lads. It’s a pretty nice place once you get past the assholes.”
The Student and The Drunkard were too distracted to respond. In the presence of dogs, the two tended to lose all perspective as to where they were and virtually leapt onto the animals with squeals of delight. Right now, all I could understand of them—between mock growls—was The Student repeating the phrase, “Who’s a little Puppy Puppenstein?”
“Roger,” I said, “thanks for your help.”
“No problem, my friend.” He turned to my friends and said, “Sorry to break up your fun, but I have to get these two to the shelter.”
“Woah, shelter?” asked The Drunkard.
“Yes. Don’t worry, I reckon that I’ll be taking care of them. I had a pair of Mastiffs just like these two, and they recently died. Lovely dogs, so I will fill out the paperwork and bring them back.”
“Ah,” said The Drunkard, “right.”
Roger said goodbye again and walked down a street.
The Drunkard watched him and the two dogs amble away and sighed.
“Don’t tell me you were thinking about taking them back to the Uni.”
He turned to me with the beginnings of tears in his eyes. “No,” he sniffed. “It’s just that I miss my dog and—” He cleared his throat. “Fuck no. Don’t want dog hair getting everywhere.”

It being the tail end of September, there weren’t any plays going on in The Globe, so The Drunkard’s and mine was, for the moment, purely aesthetic. The Student, on the other hand, poured over the building like a diamond dealer inspecting new merchandise. He went around the circumference of the building, looked at nearly every brick he could, tapped the wood beams he could reach, and then made his way into the gift shop. “Want to follow him?” I asked.
“Nah,” came the answer.
We leaned up against the wall separating the walking path from the decline into the river. There were quite a few people walking around, most of them tourists like ourselves—judging from the cameras hanging from their necks—but there was the occasional person eating a quick sandwich on their lunch break. A few city workers on ladders hung strings of lights on the trees placed around the area. A stiff breeze passed by, carrying on it the smell of cooking meat from a nearby restaurant.
“Feels like lunchtime,” said The Drunkard.
I nodded. “What should we do? Want to grab a few sandwiches and be on our way?”
“You kidding me? Here we are, first time in London, and you want to grab a premade, crappy sandwich from some convenience store.” The Drunkard barked a quick laugh. “Pah.”
“Well okay then, what were you thinking?” I asked, nodding towards the restaurant. “Bangers and mash? Fish and chips?”
“No and no.” The Drunkard dug his hands deep into his pea coat. “We go to a nice, kosher deli.”
I looked around me. A cascade of German flew at me from a herd of middle-aged people led by a pair of tired looking Englishmen. A French couple sauntered by, wrapped up in each other and speaking sweet nothings in low tones. (I assume that it was sweet nothings they were trading; they very well could have been insulting each other in the foulest language ever conceived by man, but their being French automatically made it romantic.) The sound of shutter clicks preceded four Japanese couples dressed in huge beige coats and gardening hats. Everything seemed distinctly European, and just about as far from the atmosphere in which one expects to find a kosher deli.
“What?” I asked. “Like a New York deli? Surely you jest.”
“Nope, and don’t call me Shirley.”
I fought the urge to punch The Drunkard in the mouth.
“I know where to go,” said The Drunkard. “The Traveler told me about the Jewish part of London before we left. Where there are Jews, there are delis. Rule of the universe, my friend.”
I thought about pointing out that we were no longer in the universe, that we were in England, but I’m not quite sure that my companion would have understood me. (There are times when I do not understand myself.) At any rate, The Student stepped out of the gift shop clutching a bag to his chest. “Hi,” he said. His eyes were dilated and he wore a gigantic grin on his face.
“What you got there?” asked the Drunkard.
“Oh, this?” The Student looked around him and blinked a few times. His gaze returned to us. “It was beautiful in there. Imagine what the inside must look like if there… my God,” he said, coming to a full stop. “I have to sit down.” He did so on the pavement. “I have never seen so many pictures of Shakespeare in one place. The Bard, gents! The Bard!”
The Drunkard picked up the bag and looked inside. “Good Lord,” he remarked. “You bought the entire library of plays, didn’t you?”
“Don’t be foolish,” said The Student. “Just the First Folio and six others.”
“Looks like seven.”
“Six, seven, what’s the difference?”
“Well then,” I said. “You feeling up for a good kosher deli sandwich?”
“I’d be up for eating bark, at this point.”
“Well, hopefully it won’t come to that point,” I said.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Our Trip to London, Part the First

The next day, The Drunkard and I decided that it would be as good a time as any to go to London. Unlike many people we had met, the two of us had no assignments to complete before our seminars and, to sweeten the deal, our seminars were not held until the following Thursday. So, the next morning around ten, we met outside The Pavilion and started walking towards one of the train stations in town. On the way, we ran across The Student, huddled behind a bush outside the main café on campus.
The Drunkard motioned for me to stop, crept up behind The Student, and crouched down. “Piss off another boyfriend?”
The Student leapt up and let out a squeal sort of like one which a trod-upon hamster would emit. He turned, saw The Drunkard, and said, “Ah, you. Well, if you must know, yes.”
“Misdirecting your mojo, my friend.”
“Thanks for telling me,” The Student said, peering over the bush. “Good, he’s gone. Hell of a big Scotsman, this time. I’m thinking about just giving up hope. I was on the verge of being in five fights in rapid succession last night.”
“Never fear, my modern-day D’Artagnan,” The Drunkard said, standing up and slapping The Student on the back, “one day the law of averages shall work in your favor.”
“Thank you, that is immensely comforting,” The Student said, shooting a glance towards the Registry building.
“Say,” I said, “The Drunkard and I are making our way to London for the day. Going to go for a nice meander and see if we can get some challah. How about you come along? It would certainly beat hiding in bushes all day and jumping from tight spot to tight spot.”
The Student nodded and said, “I don’t see why not. The only thing I had planned today was an extended walk around town, and I’ve already done that three or four times this week.”
“Besides,” said The Drunkard, “now you can hit on taken girls in another city!”
“I’d quote Job,” said The Student with a voice that only the sufferer could manage, “but I’d be worried that God might take that as a challenge.”

Canterbury had—and, barring a catastrophic implosion of the rail system in the United Kingdom, I would imagine still has—two train stations: Canterbury East, and Canterbury West. One, the East station, was across from the bus station, next to a snooker club (snooker is a game similar to billiards, but different enough to be completely confusing), and seemingly infested with chavs—the individuals who summoned a then-unknown Brooklyn aspect of my personality that was, apparently terrifying. The other, altogether much nicer on account of its proximity to a farmers’ market (it is a well known fact that people who go to farmers’ markets are completely and utterly harmless), was closer to the University and, it being early in the morning, we decided to go to the West station.
So, we paid for our tickets (“Extortionate,” said The Student; “Ri-fuckin-diculous. Next time I’m walking,” said The Drunkard) and waited for our train on the second platform. It was a crisp day, but sunny. If I had to guess, I would have said that it was around sixty degrees outside—quite different from the weather in Nashville, where it was probably still eighty degrees despite autumn’s presence. We checked the arrival time, noticed that the train still had five minutes until it arrived, and I began to hum. On a personal note, I’ve always hated waiting for transportation to come. Even something like an elevator—I couldn’t stand it. How are you supposed to come up with conversation that will last for a couple minutes and then stop? It is really—
“So,” said The Drunkard to The Student, thankfully cutting short my train of thought, “what was this one like?”
The Student, I noticed, had a face he made when he had to ask someone to repeat themselves. He was the only person I’ve ever met who had anything like it. Raised eyebrows, a self-conscious grin, and a very sudden politeness (not that The Student wasn’t the most polite out of our group, he was; it was more that the politeness spiked to twice the normal levels of politeness). “Sorry?” he asked, making the face.
The Drunkard quickly checked his watch and took a drink from a flask. “The girl,” he said, with a wince from whatever it was that he just finished. “What was she like—and, next, what was the boyfriend like?”
“Well,” said The Student, digging his hands into his blazer pockets, “the boyfriend’s an easy question. Body build something like Fabio with the temperament of Mr. Hyde. Thankfully, he wasn’t altogether smart, as I managed to hide from him behind a bush. The girl, though. Ah,” he remarked, glancing down the train tracks with a bizarre smile on his face.
A few moments passed until The Drunkard gently coughed into his hand.
The Student snapped back to reality. “Ah, right. Well, she was Belgian. Beautiful, beautiful girl. Pale skin. You might call it an alabaster hue.”
“Alabaster?” asked The Drunkard. “You hanging around The Writer?”
The Student blushed. “No, I do have some taste in friendships, thank you. It’s just… the language. Er, the emotion. Got swept away. Don’t you get that feeling?”
The Drunkard took another swig from the flask. “What feeling?”
“You know, like you’ve been thwacked outside the head with something. You see stars, but none of the pain you get when you’ve actually been thwacked outside the head. Extreme happiness, I’d call it. Closest to nirvana you could get on Earth. I don’t know, Drunkard, I just start talking like I’m some damned Romantic poet; strange thing is, I hate reading those besotted opium addicts more than most other sort of literature. You don’t ever feel like that?”
The Drunkard stared at The Student for about a half a minute, grunted, took another swig from his flask, and said, “I’m going to have a quick piss. Hold the train if it comes.” He went inside to use the toilets.
The Student turned to me. “I think I hit a cord in our inebriated friend.”
I nodded. “That would make sense. There are a few things which drive a man to drink as much as he does and rejected love is definitely one of them--though, truth be told, I'd bet that he's suffering from all three of them.” I looked up at the screen. The train was delayed a further five minutes. “Belgian, eh?”
The Student shrugged. “Doesn’t really matter, does it? Borders are artificial constructs, and language is a temporary hindrance.”
The Student snorted. “The last time I was in synagogue was—oh shit, Yom Kippur was yesterday, wasn’t it?”
I checked my calendar on my phone. “Ah,” I said, “sure was.”
“Sure was what?” asked The Drunkard, returning from his restroom excursion.
“Yesterday,” said The Student, “was Yom Kippur.”
The Drunkard shrugged. “Last year, instead of fasting, I ate bacon and sausages on a hike. Doesn’t really matter. Superstition’s superstition regardless of what name it goes under.”
Normally, I would agree with him. However, growing up in the tradition like I did, I was slightly surprised by what he said. Even the Jews-turned-atheists I knew fasted out of habit on Yom Kippur; it was just ingrained in our personalities. That’s not to say that The Drunkard wasn’t making sense—because he was—it was just… well, it’s Yom Kippur!
“Anyway,” said The Student, “religion isn’t a big deal. I’ve been shot down over much more inane things than religion. And, honestly, except on Sunday, who gives a damn?”
“And Wednesday,” said The Drunkard.
“Friday for the Muslims,” I said.
“Wednesday and Friday, right.”
“Oh, fuck, Friday night through Saturday night,” said The Drunkard.
“And the Sabbath, that goes without saying.”
“And then Lent,” I said. “Lent’s a pretty big deal for the Christians.”
“Easter,” said The Drunkard.
“Christmas,” I said.
“Then you got all those saints’ days sprinkled around the calendar for the Catholics.”
“Oy,” I said, “there’s a lot of them.”
Thankfully, the train arrived at this moment and spared The Student from further listing of reasons why religion would matter to some people on, it turned out, an increasingly larger portion of the calendar.