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Saturday, October 06, 2007
My Big, Dumb Trip to Europe Part 1 - And Then Captain Picard Killed Everybody With an M16
Someday people far smarter than I will devise a new means of air travel involving catapults and/or teleporting, effectively putting an end to jet lag. Until then, Americans like me will bumble into foreign lands, bleary-eyed, confused and sure to piss off everyone they encounter.
I arrived in London early on September 3rd after being awake for 20-hours straight on the heels of 3 hours of sleep the night before. Like many before me, I was beyond fatigue but all of London laid before me and I couldn't check in to my hostel until 3 PM. Unconsciousness wasn't an option. My first real memory of Europe is a sign featuring a black silhouette stalking a thinner, chump-ier silhouette.
"BEWARE! THEY WANT YOUR POD!" it screamed.
What a warm welcome to London, the one European city where I wasn't expecting to deal with this sort of shit. Already on edge after a cheery British lady at customs warned me of the dangers of traveling alone, my paranoia level jumped another notch. Right then and there I planned to spend the rest of the trip with one hand firmly placed on my wallet. Did this plan peter out five minutes later? Uh, yeah.
Almost immediately I was getting on the nerves of anyone I dared speak with. I incurred the scorn of a cop, the guy working the desk at my hostel, the staff of a small diner and dozens of weary morning commuters in the Tube fumbling to get around my oversized backpack in a standing-room-only carriage, all within an hour of my arrival. Irritating EuroLocals is surprisingly easy when you're half awake and have no idea what's going on.
London- a city where every waitress is French and they serve you doughnuts on plates with a fork and knife. Where sushi can be found in individually wrapped packages for take-out and bored tour guides at Parliament who look and speak like Ian McKellen badmouth the art and shake their heads at centuries-old political procedures. Where a photo of Chevy Chase's fist hangs in the world's second (?) most famous modern art gallery and an oversized Ferris Wheel is considered a major tourist attraction. And where the Tube workers go on strike within hours of my arrival.
Everyone was talking about it and every London paper had some variation of the following headline in 70-point font "TRANSIT! STRIKE! STARTS! TONIGHT AT! 7 PM!" Despite being reminded of this every ten minutes, my mind was unable to process the information. When I get tired, I get even stupider than usual. So, after being awake for 30-hours straight it seemed like a great idea to dart to the opposite side of town to catch a Modest Mouse set at someplace called The Forum, transit strike or no transit strike.
I rushed over to Liverpool Station, working through throngs of commuters, businessmen who decided to deal with the ongoing melee by chugging pints in front of pubs and homeless junkies not above calling me "gubiner" as they attempted to sell me cigarette lighters in a town with a tight smoking ban. The crowds waiting to get on London's double-decker buses that night were enormous. Despite it all, everyone remained calm and chipper, a huge contrast to the drivers assigned to get the city through this crisis. I found myself in the back of a line getting on a bus towards someplace called Camden Town, chatting with a chick dressed up for a night of clubbing. When I briefly paused to grab my ticket before boarding, the driver slammed the door on my face.
I wound up in Camden Town over an hour later, lost in a deserted neighborhood filled with graffiti-covered shops and wet newspapers. I found a hipster couple waiting for a bus. I was four blocks from the Forum. They had walked out on the band's set, labeling their music "rubbish" and told me not to bother heading up there. So much for England's supposed infatuation with Portland bands. Pitchfork's been lying to me.
The band was playing their encore when I got there so I ended the evening at a pub wedged between the Forum and another club. The London pubs I drank in looked the same and all like something that better belongs in the mock version of the UK at EPCOT. They were so uniform they seemed like they were all apart of some sort of cliched London pub franchise. Same decor, same beer selection, same food on the menu. The only thing that separated them was the color of the paint on their walls and their interchangeable names, always "_____ and ____" Insert a mammal and a random noun in those blanks and you've got yourself a name for a London pub. One of my favorites: The Cock and the Clever.
A few of the Tube's main lines were still running so I wound up on a train with a few hundred local hipster kids heading home for the night. They look the same as Portland hipsters but what do they talk about? Rugby. I listened to a group of them arguing about the World Cup all the way back to the station at King's Cross.
On the verge of curling up in a corner in the subway, I broke down and hailed a cab. Three blocks later at a stoplight, we were surrounded. A gang of drunk goth girls wanted in the cab and they wanted in NOW. Beyond exhausted, I blubbered to the driver, "Dear, God WHAT DO THEY WANT?!" One's nose was plastered up against the window, smearing her makeup all over it. Another was slapping the Michael Caine-esque driver's side window. "I think they want to share your cab, mate," he explained. I stammered, the light turned green and he made the wise decision to hit the gas, leaving them standing in the street. Who knows what horrors the Tube strike had bested them with. Maybe they were in a Warriors-style battle to get across town. Maybe moments later they were attacked by a gang of teens in baseball uniforms. Or, more likely, they probably walked three blocks and got their own damn cab.
This trip marked the first time I've ever gone on vacation anywhere by myself. My sister would meet up with me a week later in Paris. I'm sure when other people do this, they strike up conversations with strangers in pubs or try to hook up in whatever nightclub allows in tourists dressed in shorts and Nikes (Europe's all about Adidas). I'm too reserved and lazy for all that so I spent my first week overseas eaves-dropping.
At a Soho pub where a famous journalist supposedly drank himself to death, I decided to order absinthe. A bad move This immediately sparked a round of snide comments from a group of men in polo shirts at a nearby table. I could hear one of them mutter, "Probably spent the whole time waiting to get on the London Eye." "Naw, I spent the whole day at the British Museum, looking at all the loot your people outright stole from other nations." I wanted to spit this back at them but I kept my mouth shut.
The tiny Amelie French girl working my side of the bar looked confused. "What is....absinthe," she asked aloud. She wandered over to a gruff-looking bartender who rolled his eyes and dusted off a spoon and a bottle filled with green liquid that looked like it had been sitting on the top shelf for decades. She brought it over to me, telling me to step outside if I wanted to light up the sugar.
Years ago, a friend smuggled some absinthe back from London in a Scope bottle. One boring February night, we sat around his dorm room melting sugar and dipping it in glasses stolen from the university's cafeteria. I remember it making feel like I was floating and providing a pretty pleasant sense of euphoria for about fifteen minutes.
This was definitely not the sort of thing I should have been drinking in a pub filled with spiteful locals. I downed the absinthe, ordered a beer chaser and keep my eyes on the bar, listening to the conversation of two young businessmen next to me. One was drunk off his ass, lamenting a decision to hire "a bird" he desperately wanted to sleep with. The drunk owned a small design firm and the girl was later assigned to deal with two representatives from a store in the states called Target.
He and his staff had no clue what Target was when they were first contacted. Needless to say, she botched a deal that could have netted the company hundreds of thousands of pounds. The drunk struggled to explain what Target was to his colleague. "I think it's like Wal-Mart but the Americans don't protest against it. They like it more but there's fewer of them about."
The absinthe was tugging at my shirt-sleeve, imploring me to explain the Target chain to these two men but I kept my mouth shut. The drunk was still wondering if he should fire her when a dreadlock'ed bartender kicked us all out the door at 11:30. I read somewhere that pubs can now stay open late in London but, even in Soho, many of them still shut down early.
Unwilling to shell out another $25 US for cab fare, I hiked back to my hostel. The walk took an hour and half. Somewhere along the way I came around a corner and spotted a fox eating a hamburger out a Styrofoam container. On an empty street in a foreign land, half-drunk and dazed, it was the last thing I expected to see. I stared at the fox and it stared back before begrudgingly darting off into the shadows, annoyed that I had interrupted its meal. "Fucking tourists," I'm sure he was thinking. "Haven't you ever seen a fox eat a burger? Wooo! How exciting! Why don't you take a photo, wanker?"
And so I did.
I caught two radically different Shakespeare productions in London. One night, after getting kicked out of the Tower of London for sneaking in five minutes from closing, by an elderly man in a Beefeater uniform no less, I wound up at the Globe Theatre. It's a recreation of Shakespeare's old digs located 900 meters away from the original. I had no ticket and that night's performance of The Merchant of Venice was sold out. While hunting for scalpers at a back gate, two drunk women approached me and gave me a ticket before wandering back to say, "Would it be terrible of us to ask you for money?" I gave them the 7 pounds and the $10 US in my wallet, all the cash I had on hand. They seemed happy to get anything for it two minutes from curtain call.
With the exception of electrical lighting, the theater is supposedly a faithful recreation of the original, right down to the hardwood seats. The audience on the floor has to stand, just like in the old days. By hour three, many of them were clearly weary, especially as the play drags on for another 30 minutes after a climatic trial scene.
While the play only had one guy dressed in drag, this was no stiff, "Shakespeare in the Park" production. All involved seemed determined to keep the show as lewd as it would have been in the 17th century. Any twist of verse that could be turned into a sex gag was, allowing the actors to hump the theater's columns and wag their pelvises around like Elvis during an epileptic fit. At another point, an actor fell over and puked fake vomit into the crowd. Despite the play's alleged subtext, I'm sure a deep kiss between Antonio and Bassanio wouldn't have gone over 400 years ago. On the walk back along the Thames, an elderly woman flagged down a girl on a bike. It was Nerissa, who was apparently heading home for the night with the Prince of Morocco. He patiently waited up ahead as the elderly lady repeatedly told her that the evening's performance was "brilliant."
Three weeks later before flying home, through circumstance, I wound up outside of a theater in Piccadilly Circus where Danny "Harry Potter' Radcliffe stripped down for a production of Equus last winter. I shelled out 20 pounds to watch Patrick Stewart star in a bloodsoaked Macbeth. While Captain Picard was probably too old for the role and paired up with a woman 25 years younger than him, he gave it his all in a twisted production that moved the play to a Bizarro World version of 50s Scotland overtaken by fascists. The stage was set in a mental ward. The Weird Sisters were portrayed as nuns, coaxing their prophecies out reanimated corpses in body bags instead of cauldrons.
Throughout, video projectors covered the walls in images of blood and marching soldiers and during one scene, a soldier flashed his penis at the crowd for some reason. Once the production rolled into act five, Lady Macbeth found herself contending with a water faucet spewing blood. As odd as it was to watch Professor Xavier brutally massacre a family on stage, it was even stranger to see him run around with an M-16 and shooting extras in the head. The show closed with him getting into a knife fight before a blood-covered Malcom returned to stage triumphantly holding his truncated head.
That's what I think Shakespeare in Love could have used more of: machine guns and beheadings.