Friday, March 12, 2010

We Meet Our Hosts

The thing about English cities is that, unless you’re used to them, they’re incredibly confusing. In America, we like broad, straight avenues. Makes getting around easy. All this windy road stuff may work just fine for the bumpkins in the countryside, but give me a straight road into and out of town and I’ll be happy. The English have entirely too much respect for their history and culture and traditions to do what they should do: bulldoze everything in sight and put every city on a grid. Oh well.
Because the English like to hide their street signs in precarious positions (in Canterbury, one sign is just below the gutter on a roof), it took us an hour to find Lena and Dee’s flat. It should have taken us ten minutes. The building was in a nice neighborhood—the houses were detached and the windows weren’t miniscule horizontal slots and the building itself didn’t look like it was about to fall down at any moment. After driving around for another twenty minutes trying to figure out where to park, we found a spot nearby and The Traveler turned off the car.
The Drunkard woke up and showed no signs of being hung over or hallucinating. “Hey,” I said to him, “how bout them ants?”
“What?” he asked.
“Crawly crawly. Ants.”
He closed his eyes, sighed, and shook his head. “Therapy, my friend.” He reached in his jacket. “Woah, hold the fuck on.”
The Traveler, from outside, said, “What?”
“What the fuck did you do with my flasks?”
“I took care of them.”
The Drunkard was out of the car in a flash and had The Traveler by his collar. “What do you mean, you took care of them?”
I stepped out of the car on my side.
“After you tried to destroy the upholstery in the car, I put them in a safe place. Please, remove your hands from my collar before I unleash capoeira again.”
The Drunkard backed off. He scratched his chin, nodded, and said, “Okay. I’ll find em, though. And when I do? I will drink the fuck out of that absinthe.”
The Traveler shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He slung his duffel bag across his back and walked up to the building.
I put on my backpack and grabbed the sleeping bags, The Student picked up his duffel, and The Drunkard did the same.
We were buzzed in, walked up three flights of stairs, and were greeted by a woman way—waaaaay—out of my league. I mean, not that such a thing has stopped me from trying to chat someone up before, but she was MLB and I was Little League, to illustrate the gap. Blonde, curvaceous figure—about a ten. She wore dark blue jeans and a black tank top. “Hello!” she said.
And the accent! Oof! The back of my neck tingled and, naturally, I went, “Guh.”
The Traveler, the bastard, gave her a hug and they did the European cheek-kiss thing. I sent death thoughts his way. “Lena,” he said, “this is The Student—”
The Student waved. “Heya.”
“The Drunkard—”
The Drunkard tipped his ballcap and said, “Ma’am.”
“And The Narrator—”
Seeking to outdo the Drunkard and thus become the alpha male, I took off my cap and bowed. I intended to say, “The pleasure, I insist, is all mine.” What came out was a high-pitched squeak. There was no rebound from that. I sighed.
“Such interesting names,” she said.
The Traveler shrugged. “We get that a lot.”
“Dee,” she called, then followed it with German. German, I’ve always felt, is a semi-terrifying language. (I’ve considered why I think such a thing, and it really boils down to associating the language with Holocaust films.) At any rate, in walked Dee, and, once again, I could only go, “Guh.”
Seeing these two, I made a pledge to go to Germany. Not that I expected to be any sort of Don Juan but hey, it was worth a shot.
We went through the introductions again, and, this time I managed to work out a “Great to meet you.”
The Drunkard poked me in the ribs and whispered, “Nice job, Squeakers.”
“Fuck you,” I whispered back.
“Well, come in,” Lena said.
We obliged. Their flat more homey than ours. Wheras our accommodation had heavy fire doors rigged to slam shut, their flat had a much nicer, more open feel to it. The kitchen was smaller, but, then again, there were only two of them as opposed to the six to eight per flat in Woolf College. The walls were white like ours, but theirs were stuccoed and therefore pleasant to look at. They had a small round table in their dining room, a few chairs, a small TV, a couple of plants. The walls had a few posters of movie stars and musicians. It was, all around, a regular-person flat. I started thinking that maybe I should move out of college accommodation.
We stayed in their living room. Right before I ripped open the plastic confining my sleeping bag, I looked down at the floor and grinned. Hardwood floors! I can’t explain why I liked hardwood floors so much. Just one of those things.
“Hey,” said The Drunkard.
“Yeah?” I asked.
“Did you buy matching sleeping bags? What the hell, man?”
“They were cheap.”
“Fuck that. They had a Jack Daniel’s one.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t notice it. Maybe you’d like a NASCAR pillow to go with your redneck ensemble, Mr. Moonshine.”
The Drunkard, taking a page from The Stalker shot daggers from his eyes.
The Traveler clapped his hands and said, “Well. Lena, Dee, it’s time for the Southern surprise.”
Lena, standing in the doorway, said, “I can hardly contain myself.”
The Traveler dug through The Drunkard’s bags and said, “Thanks for sharing,” as he pulled out a jar of moonshine.
“Woah,” said The Drunkard, “are you kidding me?”
“Nope,” The Traveler said, unscrewing the cap and handing the jar to Lena. “If you smoke, don’t do it until much later on. Also, don’t spill any on your clothes.”
Lena took a sniff and snapped back, her face contorting in such an expression of horror that it should have been in a comic book. “What is this?”
“That’s my moonshine.”
I punched The Drunkard in the shoulder.
“That I’m gracefully sharing with all of you. Without complaining.”
“There’s another jar in the bag, too,” I said.
The Drunkard whirled on me and said, “You bastard.”
I shrugged.
Lena took a sip, coughed, handed the jar to Dee, and coughed some more. “Wow, that’s some strong stuff.”
“That ain’t the only strong stuff here,” I was going to say when, naturally, it came out as a cough. I hung my head and sighed.
Dee reacted the same way, and I was about to make some bullshit chauvinist comment when The Traveler handed me the jar.
I looked down at this new, foul beast in front of me. The purple liquid inside—decorated by some blueberries and a couple slices of lemon floating around—reeked of a chemical refinery. Indeed, it smelled much like the industrial part of Knoxville. I looked up at The Traveler, who grinned at me. The Student had some sideways interpretation of a sneer, and The Drunkard was—I think—trying to eye Dee licentiously. Fuck it, I thought. I took a sip, and two things happened.
First, right as I drank and swallowed, the inside of my mouth… well, it didn’t burst into fire. But, I can’t exactly describe that feeling other than it was a fire-y sensation. It was like drinking a strong whiskey for the first time, amplified by about fifteen. I think that there was supposed to a taste to the shine, but all I could get was pain. Utter, utter pain. To think, entire regions of Appalachia drank this like it was nothing. No wonder incest seemed like a good idea to them—they probably lost half their brain cells during one weekend.
Right after taking that drink, I blacked out. When faced with such a new, unheard-of, potent beverage, my mind freaked out. Anyway, the last thing I remember is thinking: “What hath God wrought?”

Thursday, March 11, 2010

In Which The Traveler Surprises Us

Sunlight largely disappeared while we were in Argos, and people dashed back and forth between shops. I figured it was nearly closing time for most of the places.
You see, Dear Reader, the people of Europe  view employment much differently  than we do in the States. For the European, work is the punishment for original sin. Seeing jobs in this light brings the European to the natural conclusion that work should be regulated. Americans, be patient. I know, we see the word ‘regulation’ and start screaming ‘FASCIST SOCIALISM! THE REDS ARE COMING!’ and other nonsense phrases. However, having lived in England, I can tell you that this regulation is built out of the most basic tenants of humanitarianism.
Understand that when I speak of opening hours, it is in regards to retail. Think back on your lives. Think back to anyone who has ever worked retail, grocery—any menial, thankless, underpaid job in the service industry. Do you, dear reader, ever remember them gushing about how much they enjoyed their work? How much they wanted to deal with a person who insisted that a cell phone has reception through fifteen feet of concrete; or suggested things like all shoes in a store should be made of steel, because steel doesn’t break like leather; or… well, any other aspect retail hell will suffice. I would bet that the answer to my question is no.
With that in mind, the Europeans have gone back to the ideals of the Enlightenment and decreed that those in the service industry shall not have to work nearly as much as their comrades in the United States. Yes, this is slightly inconvenient for the shopper, and, frankly, it would be strange to not hear some complaint because of this from time to time.
I stood outside Argos in the waning light on the Oxford High Street, clutching three tightly packed sleeping bags. To my right, further down the street and about a hundred yards away, was a church, its steeple lit by yellow floodlights. To my left was the dome of something or other. It was one of those moments I got, from time to time, where I was struck with a train of thought that went something like, “Holy shit, I’m living in Europe. Holy shit, I’m standing in _________.” Yes, I know, it’s laughable because, hey, it’s just another place—but you turn down the cold, jaded skepticism for a little bit, and you start to enjoy life.
The door swung open behind me and The Student walked out tossing a red bag back and forth between his hands. “Ready?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said.

We made our way back to the car and, when we arrived, I saw the Traveler, standing under a ring of light under a streetlamp. At his feet was The Drunkard’s duffel bag. In his hands were two mason jars of a dark purple liquid. “Wuh-oh,” I said.
“What?” asked The Student.
“Keep cool.”
We crossed the couple of lanes of stuck traffic from the other side of the road, and I said, “What you got there, Traveler?” I put the sleeping bags in the trunk.
“I think you know.”
The Student coughed. “Moonshine? Where did you get moonshine?”
“From The Drunkard’s bag.” He clunked the jars together. “You know anything about this, Narrator?”
“Er,” I said. I took off my cap, scratched my head. “Nope. Wouldn’t know anything about it.”
“How’d moonshine get here?” asked The Student. “They don’t have moonshine in this country.”
“Well,” said The Traveler. “If I had to guess, I’d say our passed-out friend has a still somewhere.”
I looked around and saw no trace of The Drunkard. I gulped. “Traveler, what did you do to the Drunkard? Where is he? Did you kill him? Where’d you put the body?”
“He’s passed out in the back. You’re going to have an interesting ride back there. He’s been clawing at the upholstery and muttering about living ooze or something like that.”
I shut the trunk and saw The Drunkard. His head was tilted back, eyes shut, and I could barely make out snoring. “Oh good,” I said. “He snores.”
“Yeah, in between night terrors brought on by—what? Absinthe?”
I nodded.
“Figured. Okay, here’s what’s going on. Before you and The Student got here, I got the directions to Lena’s place. We’re going to drive there, get all our stuff set up, and drink two bottles of shine.”
My head—a reaction that doesn’t happen often, but is a result of hearing something I never understand—retreated into my neck. I turned to The Student and saw, much to my surprise, that he was doing the same sort of thing. “What?” we said in unison.
“You heard me,” said The Traveler. He bent down and replaced the jars of moonshine, zipped up the bag, and walked over to the trunk.
I moved back and let him open it. “I heard you,” I said. “But I don’t think I understood you.”
He shut the trunk. “We’re going to drink the two jars of moonshine. Get it out of the way. Not have to worry about The Drunkard’s surprises possibly landing us in jail for public intoxication.” He shrugged. “If nothing else, it’ll make for an interesting night.”
“What about the Germans?” asked The Student. “Did you ask them?”
“Well, kind of.” The Traveler took out his keys, zipped up his jacket, leaned against the car, and grinned. “I said we’re bringing a little something Southern for em. They may have taken that for innuendo, but hey, whatever.”
“Hold on,” I said. “Don’t you think The Drunkard will object to this?”
The Traveler snorted. “It’s not like we’re taking it and not giving him any. Quite the contrary. It’ll be a communal affair. We’ll all have us some moonshine.” He ended with a strange East Tennessee accent that left me worried.
The Student shrugged. “Well, fuck it. I’d rather have it all off in one go than see The Drunkard have his stomach pumped for downing two jars of the stuff. Besides, it’s been for-fuckin-ever since I’ve had some shine.”
This shocked me. I assumed that The Student was too erudite to drink moonshine. People like him, I thought, wouldn’t drink anything that had the possibility of making you go blind. Hell, people like me wouldn’t do it, and I was a moron compared to The Student. I’d seen the man’s essays on liberal literary guilt in the United States—the man did not, should not, drink moonshine. “When was the last time you had some of this shit?” I asked.
He scratched at his mustache. “Freshman year at UT. A guy two floors below me had a still set up in his closet. Never changed clothes, but he made moonshine. I think he failed out in one semester. That’d make sense, wouldn’t it?”
“You telling me,” said The Traveler, “you’ve never had moonshine?”
There are some things that, when pressed about, a man will lie a hundred times over rather than admit. For whatever reason, moonshine was mine. “Fuck, course I had moonshine. I swill that shit all the damn time. Mouthwash. That stuff’s like mouthwash to me. Here. I’ll fuckin prove it. Down a jar right now.”
The Traveler and The Student burst into laughter. “You’ve never had it,” The Traveler said. “What the hell’s this stuff about mouthwash?”
“Dude,” said The Student. “It’s not a big deal. I don’t blame you.”
And, naturally, being the upright American man I am, I took this as if they were saying I wiped my ass with Old Glory, or went frolicking in a green field with a rainbow-colored cape. “The hell did I just say? I drink this stuff like water. Doesn’t bother me.”
“Right,” said The Traveler. “We’re calling you Jethro, then.” He opened the driver’s door and said, “Jethro, Student, shall we depart?”
“Shoot her!” shouted The Drunkard. “Shoot her!” If you concentrated, it sounded like he was trying to be Australian. We stared at The Drunkard. He was still sound asleep. After a few moments, he whispered, “Clever girl.”
“Okay,” said The Student. “Let’s head out, shall we?”
We piled into the Fiesta and started off.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

In Which We Shop

I don’t normally like shopping. One might say I find it repellent. It’s not that I don’t see the point in it; it’s more along the lines of: I’d rather do something else with my time.
The point is that the store completely threw me. The lobby—interior, really—looked like the sales floor of a cell phone store: sparse display, a few red podiums laden with objects, a couple workers on the grey sales floor, and two or three people behind a red counter scowling at customers. The walls were blue, and on a couple of them, there were some advertisements. Soft quasi-Muzak leaked out from wall-mounted speakers. From time to time, a voice would interrupt and announce a number—at which point, a customer would approach the counter and walk away with a shrink-wrapped this, that, or the other.
The objects on the podiums were these massive multicolored catalogues. Imagine the Sears catalogue multiplied by three. The only browsing was flipping through these catalogues. You would choose your item, pay for it at a self-serve kiosk or at the counter with the scowling people, and then, a few minutes later, your item would appear at the counter via a conveyor belt. There might have been places like this in the States, but not where I’m from.
We walked into the store and, as you’d expect, our reactions varied. The Traveler darted straight for a catalogue and, as I learned, to the camping section. The Student went, “Huh, interesting.” Then he, too, went to a catalogue. The Drunkard put on a huge grin and snuck a drink from one of the flasks in his jacket. (I had heard that there was a special way one was supposed to drink absinthe involving everything from a silver spoon, to sugar cubes, to, from one man who insisted he was a sorcerer, the blood of an eagle. I assumed The Drunkard knew what he was doing.) “Finally,” he said. “They took away the salespeople.”
So far, through the semester, I’ve realized that I overreact a lot. I didn’t drop to the floor, cursing man’s predilection for destroying time-honored traditions such as the sales floor. I didn’t Brooklyn out—thank God. I did, however, have a minor panic attack. What would happen if they didn’t have what I needed? Could I ask workers for their recommendations? What sort of connections did they have with products that they never saw? Just what in the hell did they think they were doing?
I did, however, manage to calm down, take a deep breath, and follow my companions’ leads. I jammed myself between The Traveler and The Student and said, “What do I do? What do I do?”
“Calm,” said The Traveler. He took a slip of white paper from a blue box next to the catalogue, took a golf pencil from another box, and handed them to me. “You choose what you want and write the number here.” He pointed to black squares separated by a couple of dashes.
“That kind of takes the joy out of searching, doesn’t it?”
The Traveler cocked an eyebrow. “You want this should be having to hunt through stacks of boxes, searching for one particular item only to find that it’s out of stock? If so, we can go to ASDA and—”
“What’s ASDA?” I asked.
The Student leaned back, looked at me, and said, “You’ve been here two months and you don’t know what ASDA is?”
“Did I commit a crime?”
“Essentially,” said The Drunkard, a podium to my right. He flipped through the pages manically, never settling on one for more than a couple of seconds before emitting a tiny squeak and moving on.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“The ants,” he said. “The ants are everywhere. Can’t stay on one for long, or they’ll crawl.”
Yep, he’d prepared the absinthe.
The Traveler sighed. “What?”
“Nothing,” said The Drunkard. He’d broken into a sweat. He rubbed his forehead with his jacket arm, took off his baseball cap, scratched his head, and hummed some unnamable tune.
The Traveler turned to me and whispered, “What’s he got in that flask?”
“Er,” I said.
“Will it get us landed in jail?”
“Motherfucker. I knew this would happen. I fucking knew it.” He closed his eyes for a moment, nodded, opened his eyes again, and said, “Okay. I need you to write down this number,” he pointed to a blue sleeping bag, “and bring it to the counter. I’ll pay you back when you get back to the car.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to nip this in the bud.” He walked over to the Drunkard slung his arm around his neck.
“What are—” The Drunkard said before crumpling to the ground.
A hush passed through the store and a couple of workers ran over to check on The Drunkard.
“No,” said The Traveler. “It’s okay. I’ll take care of it.” He pulled The Drunkard up, slung his arm around his neck, and said, “You okay, buddy? We’ll head back to the hostel.” He shuffled out of the store, The Drunkard moaning on his shoulder, and winked at me on the way out.
The Student, oblivious as usual to all of the preceding events, watched the two move out of the store, turned to me, and said, “What was that?”
“The Drunkard,” I said in a whisper, “has a few flasks of absinthe in his jacket. Since we left the pub, he’s been sneaking drinks from them; he started hallucinating and The Traveler did some ninja move on him.”
The Student processed this information with a raised eyebrow, shrugged and said, “This’ll be an interesting few days.”
“Oh,” I said, “he’s also got a few mason jars of moonshine.”
“An absolutely fascinating few days, I should say.”
I picked cheap sleeping bags for myself, The Traveler, The Drunkard and went to the counter to pay. Soon, The Student followed suit, and we looked through the catalogues. It was, definitely an interesting array. Right next to sleeping bags, you could purchase an eight hundred quid charcoal grill. Diamond rings. Video game consoles. Many, many other things.
I began an interior monologue addressing the wonders of the modern world, and was only interrupted by a computerized voice intoning my number. I shook myself out of my reverie, walked over to the counter and was presented with three shrink-wrapped blue sleeping bags the size of small pillows. “No way I’m fitting in one of these,” I said.
“’Sat, mate?” asked one of the red polo-clad men behind the counter.
“These. They’re tiny.”
He studied my face. “They expand, mate.”
I smacked myself in the forehead and said, “Ah. Of course they do.” I took my items and passed by The Student.