When Misch and I found Barrio Central, a Mexican-themed pub in Soho, we spent the night there dancing with strangers. Late in the evening I flagged the bartender down with a fiver. “I’m from the States,” I explained. “What would you recommend that’s local to Europe?”
The bartender produced two bottles. “This is Vedett,” he said of the one. “It’s a good blonde Belgian ale. And this is a beer you can’t get in the States: it’s Cuban. It’s got a …” But I was already grabbing the second bottle, throwing money at him and waving at him to stop talking. The verdict on a Palma Cristal – very tasty! And a compelling argument against lifting U.S. sanctions (take that, Mary Anastasia O’Grady).
Misch and I spent our last night in London dancing until exhaustion at Opal, an understated club near the Victoria Embankment. As I say in the review, it was just what I wanted: fun young people, nobody starting fights or being skeevy, good music, big crowds. I danced near the DJ booth most of the evening and made a request at one point, holding up my iPod tuned to Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize.” The DJ shook his head. “Too hip-hop,” he explained. That’s how you know you’re in a London club. I cannot imagine an “80s, 90s and pop hits” dance night in the States that would consider Biggie (a/k/a Biggie Smalls, the Commissioner, Frank White, etc) unsuitable for the playlist.
London has its own currency! Well, look at that. The hardest thing to get used to in London was sorting through coins. I could have a huge pile of change jingling in my back pocket that was equally likely to be 85p or £3.25. And they’re not quite ranked by size. It got me thinking about how early schools start you learning on what each coin denomination means. Quarters (25c) are the biggest ones, but dimes (10c) are the smallest, with nickels (5c) between them in size. That gets drilled into a child’s head from an early age. Without that educational advantage, you’re left standing in front of the clerk at Boots, fumbling through oddly shaped coins for the 75p you need for a bottle of water. For years I snickered when I heard anarchists railing against institutional education, “training kids to be consumers, ma-a-an.”
Though I like traveling alone, as my trip to Iceland indicated, there’s something to be said for having a companion. Misch was a second set of eyes, spotting restaurants and tourist attractions I might have otherwise missed. She was also a source of good ideas and a sounding board for mine. We spent enough time apart that we weren’t about to kill each other, but still checked in. Maybe there’s something to be said for this “human contact” nonsense after all.
You can tell a lot about a city by what sort of posters go up in its subways. London had ads for books and Broadway shows where most cities would have ads for movies and pop artists. I wouldn’t take this to mean that London’s a more literate city than Boston; rather, it means London wants to appear that way. Or whoever sells advertising space on the Tube does. Also noted: plenty of PSAs advising people to watch out for pickpockets, and warnings that assaults on Tube personnel would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I wonder at the sort of city where the latter needs to be spelled out.
I’d been suffering a great deal of wanderlust prior to this trip. I had some deep dissatisfaction with the status quo that I thought touring Europe on foot would soothe. Seeing London slaked my thirst. Maybe it’s because my writing’s started coming together and I wanted to get back to my novel in the States. Or it could have been the realization that I don’t make friends easily: not with the same guileless eagerness that Misch does. That would make traveling difficult: wrapping myself in a cocoon of foreign whiteness and not really interacting with the world.
Or perhaps it was the giant, sloshing blister that formed on the outside of my left big toe. That’s as strong an argument for settling down as I’ve ever seen.
- london part four
- sail on, sail on, o mighty ship of state