London (Days 77, 78, 79, 80, 81)

8.02.2014

"The greatest pleasure of town life: rambling the streets of London. How beautiful a London street is, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all around them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley. But this is London, we are reminded; high among the bare trees are hung oblong frames of reddish yellow light: windows; there are points of brilliance burning steadily like low stars: lamps; this empty ground, which holds the country in it and its peace, is only a London square, set about by offices and houses where at this hour fierce lights burn over maps, over documents, over desks where clerks sit turning with wetted forefinger the files of endless correspondence; or more suffusedly the firelight wavers and the lamplight falls upon the privacy of some drawing-room, its easy chairs, its papers, its china, its inlaid table, and the figure of a woman, accurately measuring out the precise number of spoons of tea which— ... She looks at the door as if she heard a ring downstairs and somebody asking, is she in?" — Virginia Woolf, The Death of the Moth and Other Essays

I left for London the next morning. After weeks of gliding ever east along smooth rails and smoother waters, a great mechanical bird lifted me and my westward brethren high into the sky and undid all that work, depositing us, well before tea time, in the heart of England. As we soared, I shaved: I'd been sporting a thick black beard since eastern Europe, just the latest in a series of Europe-bound experiments in growing a beard, a mustache, a head of hair, and the various configurations of all three, and though it'd been a worthwhile endeavorjust the night before, an Estonian man outside the pub had called the shaved-head, face-full-of-hair look "fuckin' awesome"I felt silly, this strange carpet draped across my cheeks and chin and upper lip; I felt irritated, annoyed by its itch and its weight and its way of catching the sun's angriest rays. Somewhere over Poland, I decided that it simply must go, that it simply could not wait.

The tiny bathroom stood unoccupied. I stood and occupied it. I closed the flimsy door and latched it shut and pulled the shiny buzzer from my bag; I clicked it on and swooned at its dull vibration and traced a line clean across my face. Coarse black hair sprinkled down onto the chrome sink. Another dash of the buzzer, and more: flurries and hailstorms of black and brown and a little red, the shearer now choking on the hair and nearly coming to a stop. I paused, slowedthis was not the time to break the buzzer.

Thirty seconds later, five weeks of work had been erased from my face. I looked in the mirror. I felt naked, exposed; by contrast to my reddened upper cheeks and browned forehead, the rest of my face, hidden from the summer sun for over a month, looked paler, whiter. I looked away, I washed the sink clean, I stashed my buzzer back in my bag and unlatched the door. The whole sordid affair had taken under a minute. I sat back down in my empty row at the back of the plane, feeling guilty of something, though I knew not what. A passenger in the neighboring row looked over, did a double-take. I continued looking forward, smiled a little.

***

The plane touched down in Stansted, and I waited with the others in an abhorrently long line to clear customs. I loathed customs. An hour later, I was called to the window, where a stout little man had somehow found himself by the empowerment of other stout little menwhite men; it's always the white mento determine whether I was worthy of admittance to the great underused landmass that he and his stout little brothers claimed full ownership of. "How long will you be in England?" he asked.

"I'm not sure," I said. A little while?

"What do you mean, you're not sure?"

"I mean, I don't know. Maybe three days, maybe two weeks. I haven't decided."

His eyes narrowed, face crinkled. "And where are you staying? I see you didn't write an address on your declaration."

"No, I'm actually not sure where I'm staying. I'll figure that out as I go."

He didn't like my answer one bit. I wasn't trying to be difficult; I just really didn't have answers to his questions.

"Will you be in London the whole time?"

I sighed. "I don't know. I don't know where I'll be going. I'd like to get to London and figure that all out." Borders weren't made for travelers like me.

He changed the subject. "What do you do back in America?"

"I work for the government."

"Doing what for the government?"

Something of value, I wanted to say. Not this. "Housing, urban development."

He eyed me; I eyed him back just as fiercely. His fingers traced pudgy circles along his iron stamp; he fancied himself a decider of fates. I fancied him a child with a little stamp plaything he liked to press onto the little coloring books he and his ilk called passports.

Thump, click. The metal slammed down, sprang back up. "Here you go," he said, returning my passport with an air of him doing me a great favor.

I'd given him nothing. I proceeded to London.

***

A quick coach, and there I was. I hadn't actually been excited for London, not in the least. I didn't think I had the stamina for another big city, another Barcelona or Rome or Prague, but all that malaise washed away the second I stepped onto the ancient streets, saw my first bright red double-decker swerving around a corner and flopping down the left side of the road. I had nowhere to be, and lots to see. I walked.

I walked a massive loop around that great big city. South to the Thames, south over the magnificent Tower Bridge, west, west along the South Bank, west straight through a waterside Festival of Love, south again, south to the iconic London Eye, west to Big Ben, north to Parliament, north to Westminster Abbey. Rain. East to the nearest Tube station for shelter. Waiting, watching. Blue skies, northward. A quick peek in the National Gallery, the National Gallery with its great big blue hen out front, north still, north then east, up and over to Russel Square. It was evening. I'd been walking for hours; I'd seen a ton.

I checked into my hostel for the night, dropped my things and got dinner. I read Candide in one sitting as London rushed by from the bistro patio. It had been a long day; I'd crossed the continent. I went to sleep.

***

After checking out the next morning, I took off to see more of London. I'd done a quick search for poetry slams the night beforeI was back in the land of the English, and I was starved for a good slamand I'd found one just the next morning, an LGBT slam in Victoria Park as part of the London Pride Festival that weekend. It didn't start until one, the slam, so I passed the morning lounging in famous Hyde Park, figuring out what my plan in the UK actually was. I did a little research, made a few decisions, ended up building myself a clean itinerary of my two remaining weeks in Europe: London, Inverness, Edinburgh, Cork, Doolin, Dublin. I had time to kill, so I booked my bus to Scotland, my flight to Ireland, my hostels just about everywhere. Rising from the grass around noon, I had the rest of my trip set in soft stone.

The poetry slam was at Victoria Park, way out in east London, three transfers of bus and rail and bus awaybut just one straight shot on a bikeshare cycle. I'd seen the blue bikes all around London the day before and missed the gentle arc of pedaling legs, so rather than crawl deep into the underground to be shot in steel tubes from one end of the city to another, I walked to the nearest bikeshare station and got myself a day rental. I climbed onboard, kicked away from pavement, took to the streets.

I've been an avid cyclist for years, so I usually feel pretty comfortable on two wheels. Give me rush hour, give me angry sweaty drivers and great big trucks, give me potholes and ice and rain; I'll best them all with a smile on my face and a grease stain on my right ankle. But not in London. No, I realized as soon as I took off in the saddle that I was wholly unprepared for a safe spin through London's inverted roads, that all my years of biking had put me at a terrible disadvantage. Try as I may, I simply couldn't bring myself to the left side of the road, just could not follow the lines on the asphalt without the cyclist inside me taking over: stay to the right, sharp corners, wide lefts. I zig-zagged through the streets and I cursed the backwards driving and I found that even if I could adhere to one side, I still couldn't adhere to one direction: all those eastbound roads curved, banked toward the river. The sun was no use sitting listlessly in the southern sky, and every time I was sure I was going east I'd wind up back on some road I'd seen before. It was noon, it was 12:30, it was one and yet I still couldn't escape the tugging whirlpool of the city center.

I gave up, disappointed. I docked my bike and grabbed some sushi and headed to a park instead. I sat against a shady tree while I ate, watched a circle of men, women, and children bang against hide drums and wooden folk instruments as they took turns part-dueling-part-dancing with each other in the middle of the pack, a yoga-based Brazilian martial arts called capoeira. The sushi was exceptional, the entertainment enthralling, the weather wonderful and the city simply full of surprises. I liked London quite a lot.

***

Imagine a world where money is worthless. Imagine a world with a much stronger form of currencygenerosity, trust, reciprocationa world where kindness gets you further than avarice, where bad people with big cash are wholly unwelcome. Imagine a world in which great people open their homes to complete strangers, in which they offer them a bed and a shower and a friend in a distant land, in which they do all this and ask nothing in return but gratitude, that you do your part to pay it forward. This world, it exists all around us. And within it, travelers have crossed the Sahara without paying a dime; they've holidayed for months and they've made great weekend getaways; they've made great friends and gone home and done just the same, opening up their own door, their own couch, their own heart to friends-not-yet-met.

It's called couchsurfing, and for decades, millions have benefited from this generosity-based economy. It's quite simple, the way it works: you join a site, you make a profile. If you're home, maybe you post a few photographs of your couch or guest room and let others know they're welcome to inquire about it. If you're traveling, maybe you take a look at those profiles and photographs, maybe you find someone who seems to have a few common interests and maybe you tell them when you're headed their way and why you'd make a good guest. Maybe, if you seem like a nice person or have hosted couchsurfers before, they'll tell you to come on over: couch is all yours.

You go, and you stay, and you aren't charged anything. Sure, it's nice to bring them a bottle of wine or pick up some groceries or make them dinner or help them fix a leaky sink, but this exchange isn't about making a profit from the weary travelerit's Airbnb for communists and communalists. You stay, and you sleep, and maybe you spend a little time getting to know your host, maybe you share your tales of travel and maybe you let them know that they're welcome at your place if they ever find themselves in your neck of the woods, and then you leave. Oh, and after you do, if they've been nice and hospitable, you leave them a positive review on their profile, so other couchsurfers know they can be trusted, so other couchhosters know they've given back to the community with a couch of their own.

It's a wonderful concept, a great community, and for years, I'd meant to try it out. But I travel quickly and spontaneously, and as I rocketed across America the summer before, I could never seem to get a sense of where I'd be, at least not with enough notice for a generous host. In Europe, too, I moved where the winds took me, I stared up at departure boards in crowded train stations and picked my stops minutes before I barreled toward them. I simply hadn't had the opportunity to give couchsurfing a go. But a week prior, I knew I'd be in Londonindeed, I'd booked a flight to carry me overso I logged on and paged through the kind British souls offering to put up folks like me; I messaged a few, and I waited.

Of course, I expected nothing. I was owed nothing. I hadn't paid my dues; I hadn't hosted anyone in my home. I'd wanted to, but I had excuses: for one, I didn't yet have a couch. For most of the past two years, I didn't have a working shower, or running water, or lightbulbs. I vowed to change all that when I got homeit might still have a composting toilet, but the tiny house was nearly done and I'd be happy to open it to anyone who dared to try ityet I knew it was a paltry promise against a community of couchsurfers who had dozens, hundreds, of hard-earned recommendations.

I misjudged their generosity. Only a day later, I got a reply from a woman named Flipfellow photographer, fellow do-it-yourselfer, fellow travelerwho graciously offered me her couch in central London for three full nights. I was excited, overjoyed. Thank you! I said.

That was a week earlier, and now it was a week later, and I'd arranged to meet Flip in front of the Tube station near her flat. I left the park and I walked over to Angel station and sat on a planter, waited. A voice: "Are you Jay?"

I turned, smiled, greeted the Flip I'd only seen in one small thumbnail online. I liked her immediately: she seemed sharp and witty and unpretentious. I thanked her for her kindness; she swatted it away and led me toward her apartment. We took the scenic path, which was so scenic, a gorgeous stroll along London's sole canal, all lined with garden beds and trendy coffee shops and adorable little houseboats themselves adorned with lush green planters, solar panels, tiny porches. Pedestrian bridges arched overhead, styled graffiti etched onto their underhangs.

Ten minutes along the canal and then we veered up a small ramp toward Flip's flat. It was lovely: small but cozy, well-decorated with scores of photographs and mementos from her extensive travels. She gave me the grand tourkitchen, shower, toilet, her bedroom, my living room and my couchand put a pot of tea on the stove for us. The kettle whistled, the tea steeped, and we sat on the floor as we sipped its strong black tannins; we got to know each other, compared travel notes, compared living in the UK and living in the US.

It was late afternoon when our conversation wound down, and Flip asked me what I planned to see while in London. I told her I wasn't really sure, that I'd seen the big sights from the outside and maybe fancied a museum for the evening. She recommended the Tate ModernAbbilyn, too, had recommended the Tate Modern before leaving Europeso I decided on the Tate Modern. "Splendid, I can walk you down there," she said.

My phone could have guided the way, but it was a generous offer and Flip insisted, so we left as the sun dipped behind the highest stories, Flip with her bike in tow. We talked more as we walked the forty minutes to the Thames, and as the crowds thickened and Flip began struggling to maneuver her bike, she gave me the last set of directions to the Tate, straddled the seat, and pedaled back home.

The Tate was lovely, a massive arthouse in an old power plant, and I kept busy in there for hours. I lost track of the time; I remembered I'd made plans to meet up with Allie and Hugh from Copenhagen and rushed out toward London's northern parts. An hour later, my feet slowed outside of our rendezvous point; I scanned the crowd and spied the couple, greeted them on their home turf. We caught up on the past weekhad it really only been that long?as we walked to dinner, chatted about life in London over Indian curry. After eating, we took a short stroll to a cider tapan entire pub selling nothing but cider!and were joined by a few of their fencing friends. Allie, Hugh, the friends, they talked shop a bit, and I didn't really mind. For years I'd wanted to take up fencing, so it was great to hear about it from seasoned professionals, to learn the lingo and, well, to sit next to a gorgeous six-foot blonde with a sabre tucked away in her bag and a ranking of fifth in the nation under her belt.

But the night ebbed and I didn't want to get back to Flip's too latethe worst offense a couchsurfer can commit is to use a host's place as nothing but a crash pad, and that certainly wasn't my intentso I said goodbye to the group and walked back (so much walking in that big city!) to Angel. Flip was sitting around when I returned, asked me how my evening was, asked me if I wanted a glass of the Estonian wine I'd brought for her. She popped the bottle, poured two glasses, and we sat on the carpet and drank the sweet wine as we talked into the early hours of the morning.

***

I spent the entire next day following street art around the city. After heading to the grocery and chopping up a fruit salad for us, I asked Flip if she knew where I might find some good graffiti, and sheonce again, so generouslyoffered to walk me down to a decent jumping-off point in East London. So by noon I was on my own; I followed the canal until it became all weeds and marsh, I steered south and wandered down to Liverpool Station. From there, north, east, east-west-east, south, north again, a great winding maze through the city's streets and alleys and little lanes. I saw entire buildings canvassed in bright colors, clever creations embedding right into the urban geography, wonderful works of gorgeous graffiti that led the London eye from corner to corner. I got to know the repertoire of London's street artists, I saw a famous Banksy and a million infamous tags. Beyond the art, I saw a whole side of the city I hadn't previously seen, hip and gritty and a world away from London's western edge. Another day, another twenty miles, maybe more. Weary legs, I returned to the flat that evening. More tea with Flip, a little more wine, more sleep.

***

I woke early the next morning and left while Flip was still in her room. She'd recommended the British Museum, and so had Allie and Hugh, so I headed over early to beat the crowds and failed miserably in that pursuit, the museum already swarming with sweaty legions of tourists by 11AM. The museum was filled with stolen artifacts, and people needed photographs of this or that, didn't really matter what it was. No time to read the captions; there's more to be photographed! I sought refuge on the top floor, a place the elevatorsconsequently, the touristsdidn't go. There was a nice peaceful exhibit on Japan. I walked through it; I imagined Japan. Flip had been to Japan; Flip loved Japan. I decided sometime that year I'd bike across Japan.

I left the museum as the heat of the masses began to reach the upper floors, and I wandered south to the river once more. The South Bank was awash with buskers, so I spent the afternoon watching contortionists bend themselves into bowls and pretzels, watching men juggle machetes on ten-foot unicycles. The afternoon passed in a flash, and I walked back to Flip's sometime that evening. We talked some more, sipped some tea, and I slept one more night on Flip's couch.

***

It was my last day in London. I said goodbye to Flip, thanked her a million times for her kindness, returned her house key and set off into the city one more time. A morning spent at the National Portrait Gallery, an afternoon spent writing in St. James Park. For dinner, I met up with Sarah and Isaac, old friends from DC who had relocated to the UK two years earlier. It was lovely seeing their bright, smiling, familiar faces again, catching up over more terrific British Indian curry and a few bottles of wine. The hours flew by and I was sad to leave, but I had a bus to catch.

I had planned to walk to the bus stationI'd walked everywhere else in London, so why notbut had lost track of the time over dinner and was running late. Sarah and Isaac, great people they are, gave me a ride in their cab to the nearest Victoria-bound Tube, and I hurried down the endless escalators, jumped the turnstile when my ticket didn't seem to register, and caught the next train to the bus station. Minutes later, I emerged near Buckingham Palace; an hour later, I was onboard a northbound coach, off to Scotland.

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