Saturday, February 27, 2010

Our Arrival in Oxford

“What do you mean, you don’t know where we are?” asked The Drunkard.
I snapped awake, wiped the drool off my face, and looked around. We were in the middle of the city, surrounded by the sort of buildings that looked at you and said, “Yes, this is Oxford, and you’re probably not smart enough to even visit this place.” The majority of them were big and made of yellowish-brown stone (apparently called Headington and Burford stone—named after quarry sites). It was a beautiful city—one that I hope to visit again—but at that moment, seeing The Drunkard leaning forward into the front seat, the veins in his forehead popping out, and his face turning red took up all my attention. “You don’t have a map?”
“Now,” said The Student, “Drunkard, you should really calm down.”
The Drunkard contorted his body like a snake, turned back to The Student and said, “No, God damn it, this guy is called The Traveler. For fuck’s sake, you’d think that he’d remember where to go. Hell, I can tell you where every bar is in a ten-mile radius, and I haven’t even gotten out of the car yet.”
The Traveler, suddenly playing the annoyed father to The Drunkard’s upset mother on a car trip (which, I guess, made myself and The Student the children), tapped the steering wheel and said, “She said her place was by the campus.”
“There is no campus, you schmuck,” said The Drunkard. “Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, these places don’t have campuses. They’re sprawled around the city. A child would know that.”
I glanced in the rear-view mirror on my side of the car and saw The Student cringing and trying very, very hard to sink into the back of his seat.
For my part, I’d learned long ago not to get involved when such an altercation was brewing. Once, when a few friends and I were driving to Panama City Beach, the fight escalated to the point where one man pulled a knife. It was used to peel an apple, but, initially, we were all frightened.
The Traveler took a deep breath and pulled the car into a spot near what turned out to be the High Street. His voice hit a low register, and he said, “Out.” He opened his door and stepped onto the sidewalk, where he cracked his knuckles, back, legs, and neck. Then he hopped up and down and stretched.
“Oh,” said The Drunkard. “You wanna go, motherfucker?” As The Traveler was in the process of his bone-cracking, I imagine The Drunkard was doing this to psych himself up. “We can go. I haven’t been in a fight in a long time. Break your fuckin neck,” he said. The Drunkard opened up his door, stepped into the road—nearly getting run over by a car in the process—and stepped opposite The Traveler on the sidewalk.
The Traveler and The Drunkard stared at each other for a few moments. “Five quid on The Traveler,” I said.
“You’re kidding,” The Student said.
I shook my head. “Nope. The guy’s so together, he must be a complete nutcase. No one is that calm without harboring some sort of mental deficiency. In fact, I bet he rips out The Drunkard’s heart.”
The Student turned to me and raised an eyebrow. “You okay? You know, in the head.”
“Yeah.” I thought about it. “Maybe. Might watch a few too many kung fu movies.”
The Traveler bowed and then, in a movement so fluid it was almost slow motion, did a complete flip into a handstand, parted his legs in the air and rotated three hundred and sixty degrees. The Drunkard backed away. The Traveler flipped up again, this time landing closer to The Drunkard. He shifted from one foot to the other, moving in time to some unheard rhythm, and sailed out a kick that connected with The Drunkard’s left rib. The Drunkard sailed into the city wall next to him and The Student laughed. “Holy crap, he knows capoeira.”
“What? It looks like he’s dancing.”
“Yeah. It’s a Brazilian thing. I’ve never seen anyone actually use it in a fight. This is nuts.”
Apparently The Drunkard thought so as well, because shielded his head with his arms and scooted up against the wall.
Undeterred, The Traveler advanced in the almost bird-like fashion, flipped onto his hands again, and spun, his right foot landing on the back of The Drunkard’s head. The Drunkard flopped to the ground, a rag doll. The Traveler hopped back on to his feet and helped the Drunkard up, moved him against the car, and put his hands on his shoulders. The Student and I rushed out of the rented car. I shouted, “Don’t rip out his throat! I was just kidding! No one has to die!”
The Traveler turned to me and said, “What?”
“Er, nothing.”
He shrugged and returned to The Drunkard. “Count to ten.”
The Drunkard groaned. I got a look at his face. Blood cascaded down from his nose.
“Jesus,” I said. “Is he okay?”
“Yeah, just stunned,” said The Traveler. “I could have done worse, but there was no reason.” To The Drunkard: “Hey, listen. Count to ten.” He snapped his fingers in the man’s face, and The Drunkard made eye contact. He then counted to ten.
“Good,” said The Traveler. “Now, I know it’s infuriating that we don’t know where we are, but Lena is in class until five. So we’re kind of on our own until then, yeah?”
“Yeah,” muttered The Drunkard. “You got a napkin or something?”
The Student dashed into the car and pulled out a packet of Kleenex. He handed it to The Drunkard, who then stuffed a bunch into his nostrils.
“Good,” said The Traveler. “Don’t swallow too much blood. Now here’s what I’m thinking.” He checked his watch—it also occurred to me then that he was the only one of us who owned a watch. “It is three o’clock now. We take a nice little wander around Oxford’s center until fiveish, at which point, I give her a call and we can figure out where to go. How’s that sound?”
The Student and I agreed. The Drunkard nodded and said, “Sure. Just don’t go Apeshit Bird Man again.”
The Traveler patted The Drunkard on his shoulders again and said, “Excellent. Now, judging from the pedestrians right there,” he gestured to my left, where there were a lot of people walking down the street, “I’m guessing that way is the High Street. Shall we?”
We then walked down the street. The Student and I walking alongside The Traveler, asking where he learned capoeira (turns out he took classes in undergrad), and The Drunkard trailing behind, clutching the Kleenex and snorting every once in a while.

The High Street, like everything else in Oxford, was much larger and filled with more of the trappings of a city than Canterbury. Until now, my experiences of England were limited to Canterbury and London, and now I realized just how much of a country town Canterbury was. That, of course, didn’t mean that I liked it any less. It was just that now I realized that there was an alternative.
It’s a tricky business, thinking of a British city and attempting to come up with an American counterpart. Suffice it to say that Oxford has the shopping that Canterbury lacks; has different neighborhoods that are quite distinct from one another—some of which reminded me of Nashboro Village back home; has even more history; and, most important for me, has several multi-story bookstores. (The sort of bookstores in which you can spend five hours without getting through the fiction section.)
Walking down the High Street, we were surrounded by buildings that I describe as Gothic architecture—but that might, in fact, be completely wrong. Clearly, I was in a new league of city. “Posh” would be the word. “Man, you can just smell the wealth, can’t you?” asked The Drunkard.
The Student shook his head. “No, this is beyond class distinctions. This is a city of history, of learning, of culture. My friends, this is where I should have gone for a Master’s.”
We passed a group of chavs. They wore the track suits, gold chains, and gelled hair typical of their species, and, like the rest of their ilk, spoke entirely too loudly. “No, Reg,” one of them—wearing a red track suit and holding a lead on a bulldog, “you’re wrong. The cost-benefit analysis of selling ganja to selling cocaine brings the equation leaning heavily towards marijuana.”
Reg, wearing a green track suit and pulling along a lady chav—frantically texting on her slender mobile phone, her hair pulled back so tight I thought I could see her scalp cracking—said, “What are you on about? With my connections, the profit I can make on cocaine far surpasses marijuana.”
By this time, our two groups had passed each other, but I caught a little more. “Ah, but consider the repercussions of getting caught with cocaine compared with those of getting caught with marijuana…” And then they trailed off, having entered a McDonald’s.
“You see?” asked The Student. “Even the idiots are smart!”
The Drunkard shrugged. “Yeah, sure, cool. Hey, a pub.” He shot off and walked into a place called The Eagle and Child. The colors featured, you guessed it, an eagle carrying a diaper-clad baby through the sky. What this meant for families with children, I had no idea. “Think we should follow him?” I asked.
The Traveler grunted. “If we don’t then we may lose him for good.” He checked his watch. “Fuck it, we’ve got a few hours.”

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Proper Road Trip

I imagine that, on the day we left—a Friday—those of us who went on the trip went a bit mad. The Drunkard—who, despite always carrying a whiskey flask and being slightly wobbly half of the day, was normally the most sensible out of us—didn’t say that renting a car would be a bad idea. Why should it be? We were going to be going for a pleasant drive to just north of London and we had each prepared a CD or two for the trip.
I am not one to make a claim out of habit. I believe that every time I form an opinion, it is built upon experience and fact. I can now say that you should never rent a car unless unless you are in a country with a very clearly marked highway system, or you are driving with a native of that country. I am sure that there will be some Brits reading this who will knock their tea and crumpets over in shock at that statement. “What?” they will ask. “It is the clearest thing in the world! Why, to get to London, one simple must go up the A-1, meet the A-123, then get back on the A-1 at Cheltsbuckworth, follow the roundabout until the poppy field, then get on the M-1, at which point there will be another roundabout and you’ll take the third exit to get on the M-2. Simple!”
For the English, it may very well be. However, I say to the Englishman: Drive in the United States. We have straight lines that you follow for the length of England before you have to make a connection with another straight line at a slightly different angle going across the country. The inherent difference between the Briton and the American is that, in the U.S., roundabouts are something out of a Monty Python sketch.
Do I blame The Traveler for our journey of four hours—when it should only have taken two and a half? No. I blame society.
We left Canterbury at eleven o’clock and started on the labyrinth of roads and highways around eleven thirty. Everything started well, aside from The Drunkard’s musical fare of hardcore punk. (This wasn’t a big deal, though, as the 60-track CD only lasted twenty-five minutes.) It was around the time that we found ourselves in Dover that I realized that something was wrong.
I drummed the Ford’s dashboard and glared out at the sunlight reflecting off of the ferries at the port. “Traveler,” I said.
“Mmm?” he asked. He, like everyone else, was staring in disbelief at the ferries. He dug a map out of the sideboard.
“We seem to be in Dover. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t London in England, and not France?”
I heard the unmistakable snap-hiss of a can being opened from the back seat, turned around, and started saying, “You are putting that Guinness away right now,” and stopped at “putting.”
“What?” asked The Drunkard. He took a sip from a Coke can. “If you’re going to blame me, forget it. You’re shotgun, you’re the navigator.”
I grumbled. The CD started playing again. The first track—from a L.A. band called Rancid Sinkhole, the track was called “Fuckfuckfuck”—screeched into existence, bounced around the car for ten seconds, and stopped. Seagulls flew around outside. “Why a red Ford Fiesta?” I wondered. “We should have gotten a Toyota. Toyotas have good gas mileage. Petrol mileage. Do they just say ‘mileage’ over here? ‘Petrol’ is too many syllables.”
“Right,” said The Traveler, balling up the map and chucking it at The Student, who had fallen asleep right as the engine started. The map bounced off his forehead, his eyes fluttered, and he began snoring again. “I know what we did wrong,” said The Traveler.
“Went to Dover?” asked The Drunkard.
“Yep. Keep your eyes on the lookout for signs reading ‘North’ this time. Can’t be hard.”
He started the car again, the second song (“Rage, Death, and Pancakes,” a thirty-second magnum opus by the same band) soared out of the speakers, and we pulled out from the port’s car park.
Around the time when we hit a medium-sized town after leaving Canterbury for the second time, we came across the utter, utter Hell of trying to decipher a roundabout exit sign for the first time. Imagine, if you will, an interstate sign that shows the upcoming exits. A roundabout sign is about the same size, except white and with a diagram of the roundabout in the center. The diagram shows exits in the form of lines jutting out of the center circle. The trick of figuring one of these things out lies in understanding which line you’re coming from and which line you’re going to. The first time you come upon one of these, driving in a circle at twenty-five miles an hour, it is a very confusing concept. We circled the roundabout five times before we finally figured out which way we needed to go.
“Guys,” said The Drunkard, “for the love of God, you need to figure this out.”
This was on the third orbit. “If,” said The Traveler, “you have any hints as to how we can do this, then please let us know. Otherwise, shut up.”
“That’s the one!” I shouted, leaning forward and jabbing my finger at an arrow-shaped sign that read ‘London.’
We drove past it that time, but, by God, on the next orbital, we made it. The three of us who were conscious cheered and briefly woke up The Student, who shouted, “Gah. What? Pen—” and fell back to sleep.
After this, we hit the M-25. The M-25 is a giant, roughly circle-shaped ring that runs around London. It’s eight lanes of traffic, with signs every hundred yards warning drivers that they are being recorded by CCTV cameras—for their safety. During the day, it looks like every interstate in the United States. During the night, the CCTV warnings illuminate the drive with red neon lights. The day we drove into it from the South, the M-25 was in its usual state of immobile traffic. The British, it seemed, loved queuing so much that they decided to queue on their motorways for no reason.
We pulled onto the M-25, drove ten feet, and stopped. “Fuck,” said The Traveler.
I grunted and put my feet up onto the dashboard. “Wouldn’t be a road trip without a traffic jam.” And then, the gray skies opened up and torrential rain attacked the M-25. “And it wouldn’t be England without rain.”
The Traveler took The Drunkard’s CD out of the drive (The Drunkard didn’t complain, as after we left the roundabout, he, too, fell asleep) and replaced it with his roots rock album, put it on shuffle, and the opening licks of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “I Put A Spell On You” came on. “I spy,” I said, “with my little eye—”
“No,” said The Traveler.
“There are some things that should not be spoken over. Creedence is one of those things.” He reached over, turned up the volume, and let the music wash over him. I watched the wipers move back and forth over the windshield.
Traffic moved a few feet. I noticed the distinct lack of honking in the traffic jam. I shuddered. Lately, I’d been feeling homesick. Hearing Creedence come from car speakers did it, but the absence of any sign of driving aggression did it even more. “This isn’t the way people behave,” I thought. “Drivers should be leaning out of their windows and screaming obscenities. They should at least be honking. What kind of civilized country doesn’t have road rage?” The song ended and I leapt at the silence. “So where are we staying?”
“Rickard—the guy from Munich—has a friend going to Oxford. She’s letting us crash at her and her roommates’ apartment. Shh, I think I kno—yeah, it’s Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band.” He turned up the music. This one sounded like some meth-fueled shine-stillers had picked up some instruments and formed a band. Still. Pretty good.
The traffic crawled along the M25 and we passed by places that looked a lot more interesting than sitting in a car. As we passed Super Fun Land—a place that looked like a castle, but was crawling with children, I thought back to my childhood and remembered a place not unlike that in Tennessee. Of course, the difference was that this was England, and there was torrential rainfall, and still the children continued to play. You had to give it to the English: they were resilient. “Traveler,” I said. “Why don’t the English just leave this country en masse, get away from the rain, and go to, say, Marseille.”
“Ah,” responded my companion. “Well, in order to find the proper answer to that question, we must turn briefly to genetics. There is a rare gene. So rare, in fact, that it really only appears in people whose roots in this country go back two hundred years. This gene, which forms as a result of generations of people drinking hard water and legitimately enjoying black pudding, is responsible for hating the French. And, if the English were to leave England, they’d find that the closest land is France. And that, to them, is unbearable.”
“Fascinating,” I said.
The traffic moved on, my head nodded forward, and when I woke up we were in Oxford City Center.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

In Which I Jew Out

I’ve been keeping things from you, Dear Reader. Many things. Some interesting, some not so interesting, some juicy, some, in fact, quite dry—for example, I’ve been conducting experiments as to figuring out how much Yiddish one can introduce into a conversation with a Brit without them losing all understanding of a conversation. Quite dry in my opinion, but there you have it.
One of these hidden cards—somewhere between interesting and Why-Are-You-Telling-Me-This,-It-Is-Dull—is that I fell in with a couple of Brits and started a drinking/screaming club around two weeks after I arrived in Canterbury. The screaming aspect of the club comes from one of them being a fan of both Bon Jovi and the Confederacy—two institutions for which I hold no love. So, inevitably, I’d go out with Dixie (as I called the man) and Chuckles (who had a tendency to launch into spiels that seemed ripped from the pages of either H.P. Lovecraft or Ayn Rand, depending on how he felt that day) and we’d get to talking. Generally, we’d start talking about music and Dixie would bring up Jon Bon Fucking Jovi, and it would all devolve into mayhem.
Now, you see, Dixie was a good guy. Really, he was—except for Jon Bon Jovi and the Confederacy. I’m sure that you, dear reader, have friends who consistently surprise you with their ideas. I have several. I, in fact, have a history of these sorts of friendships. Once, a long time ago, I was friends with a neo-Nazi. In my defense: I never claimed to be a smart man.
At any rate, Dixie was in the Musical Theatre Society. I am, at best, lukewarm towards musicals. Yes, one might say, “How does every one know the dance that starts up out of no where?” and follow it with a hearty “Hurr hurr.” I try to convince myself that my reasons are more intellectual. I find that, most of the time, the song and dance routines break up a perfectly good narrative. However, Dixie was a friend, and I decided to support him in his endeavor—at the time, I viewed it as if I were helping a friend go through withdrawals. (Besides, it was in the building right next to my flat, so I didn’t have an excuse not to go.)
The Society put on a showcase consisting of songs from The Blues Brothers, Avenue Q, The Producers and a bunch of others which I’d never heard of before. By and large, it was very well done, especially considering how they were performing on a lecture stage in an academic building. Now, the reason I bring all of this up, aside from my goal of giving a proper account of my time abroad, is that afterwards, Dixie mentioned that the Society was putting on Fiddler on the Roof and would begin casting in a few weeks.
My brain went into hyperdrive. This was no ordinary musical—this was Fiddler on the Roof. The musical every Jew is forced to watch at birth.[1] And I would be Tevye! I stared at Dixie, still wearing his Hitler outfit (they’d finished the show with “Springtime for Hitler,” complete with a terrifying Aryan-looking man in a flawless SS uniform) grabbed him by the shoulders, and said, “What?”
“Casting’s in a few weeks. Starts on Thanksgiving, actually.”
He then started talking about the American Society, which was going to have a Thanksgiving dinner. I may have told him that myself and the other five were coming, but I’m not sure. I was too excited.
In fact, I ran out of the building, to my flat, knocked over Zaf along the way, and blared the soundtrack sixteen times. It should be noted that this is the extent to which I Jew out. Yes, I could go to synagogue on Shabbat. Yes, I could keep kosher. Yes, I could volunteer and fulfill some mitzvot, but, honestly, that’s a lot of work and I like bacon.

[1] And thou shalt view Fiddler on the Roof, and seek to be like Topol. –The Book of Culture, 3:12