London – Lawns, Luggage and Markets

(photo: Hyde Park’s Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Walk)

Last night I met my new roommates: two graduate students from Brasil, one in a film program in Paris, and another studying in Germany. I came back yesterday to find neatly placed luggage and crisp, folded men’s polo shirts in the lockers. I was a bit baffled by the neatness of everything, thought there was only one other roommate, and maybe that this man was not from Canada, Australia or the US, just neat because he was from a culture where men kept things thoughtful and tidy. Or maybe my roommate was a woman who liked to wear men’s polo shirts. Or maybe he was gay. Look at all those stereotypes fly! At the risk of supporting my stereotypes, it turned out that one guy is gay (the other didn’t discuss this with me at one in the morning). And both are very friendly. So despite only have met them for 30 minutes before going to bed in the wee hours, one still gave me a friendly and platonic hug and kiss before he left in the morning. It was so lovely to be around genuinely friendly, affectionate, open people. I miss this a ton in the US and especially at work. People are just not friendly or open in this way and it feels stifling.

I spent the day not rushing to get into subway trains. I made it to the Camden Market, the Inverness Market and the Camden Lock Market, which are all in the same neighborhood. It was huge. And it was hugely repetitive, sort of like the markets in China, only ten times more expensive and with only the chichi-est of merchandise. With mostly South Asian, some Southeast Asian, some East Asian, a handful of black folk, and probably 50% white sellers. And, importantly, no one seemed to be bargaining. I thought I was going to get away with walking through the whole market and managing not to buy a single thing. I was reveling in this accomplishment, when I spotted the kind of hip pack that I’ve been trying to make for the last three years. It was hanging up at a store with goods from India- lots of cotton, hand-dyed, but made of hippie-bobos in developing countries. The hip pack was sleek, simple in neutral cotton canvas colors, and just the right size to stash some cash, my Housestaff Handbook, my Clie, my stethoscope on his holster, and my cell phone. I wouldn’t look exactly badass, but much more comfortable and cooler than wearing 1) a white coat or 2) a shoulder bag. Blah blah blah. I have no excuse; I broke down and bought it. And I didn’t even try to bargain for it. I paid the whole 12 pounds with a 3.5% credit card fee since I had run very low on cash in pounds. I forgive myself for this transgression. After all, aside from the necessary food, room, transportation, internet access and a single (unnecessary) hilarious postcard, I did not buy anything in London.

I went to Harrod’s next. I felt like it was necessary to visit the world’s largest department store. This was a dubious honor, but I was curious, and had not been inside of any of London’s big stores yet. It was like a very clean, very expensive wealthy person’s amusement park. The food court had oysters on the half shell and cavier and 20-dollar pieces of chocolate from France. The women’s department had 200-dollar versions of shirts I saw with similar fabric being sold at the Camden Lock Market for 30 dollars. It was so amazingly absurd that it didn’t even cross my mind that I would purchase anything. Instead, I used their “women’s luxury washroom” (yes, it is really labeled that on all the store signs), got a free sample of Aveda hand relief lotion for my cracked dry hands, and sat down for half an hour in “Denim World” on a leather couch, reading a book on the history of blue jeans. Did you know that it wasn’t really Levi Strauss that made the first blue jean but a man in Reno, Nevada named Jacob Davis? Sometimes it’s nice to be invisible. Or maybe that’s just how they are at Harrod’s. No one bothered me for the whole time I sat there with my shoes off, propped up in a fancy leather chair and reading right next to the Denim World cash register, where people were purchasing 400-dollar jeans.

My final London tourist adventure (besides getting to Heathrow in rush hour with my weight in luggage) was at Hyde Park. The British really know how to garden. Lemme tell you. My mother would be enraptured to wander through their lawns and talk to the gardener about how s/he did everything. I walked along the Lady Diana Memorial Walkway, which was planted with a great array of tulips and pansies and loads of flowers I don’t know the names for. I didn’t even mind the blindingly white (and suburnt) Brits sitting right in the middle of these flower gardens, sun bathing. The flowers in London, although artificially introduced and tightly controlled, are both fragrant and beautiful. Hyde Park and the house gardens I’ve seen completely destroy my previous image of London being totally foggy, cold, gray and dull. Hurray for flowers!

Today my luggage went through a multitude of transformations, from the moment I got up and dragged it all down the 3 flights to the Ace Hotel lobby and devised a way to use my laptop cable to lock my documentary studio (i.e. my laptops and video camera and equipment) to the soda vending machine. I returned from the above described last-day journeys and found… whew… everything still there, untouched. Although I must say that traveling with my most expensive possessions (my laptop) has made me think about how I would feel about losing everything. Mad at myself, but fine otherwise. Being mad at myself is definitely the worst. I had been dreading dragging everything to the Underground Station again at Barons Court, but I made it just fine. Even carried everything myself down several flights of stairs without anyone’s help. No one offered to help anyway. In fact, the worst part was that it was rush hour, and the Heathrow train was paaaacked. And despite the fact that I was clearly carrying the most luggage on my back, no one budged to give me space to put anything down. They certainly could have. But they didn’t. Instead, they rolled their eyes and made stuffy British noises about when I bumped into them while still carrying my heavy pack. They only person who remotely helped me was towards the end of the trip, when a black dude lifted my backpack for me momentarily when I finally got a spot to put down my large pack. I suppose I shouldn’t be that surprised that in a big city that people are unfriendly, but it definitely makes the trip less pleasant. In any case, I made it. And was told at the British Air counter, after meticulously repacking my bags while waiting in line so that I could check in my large backpack, that I couldn’t bring both my small backpack and shoulder bag on the plane with me. “Only one bag, miss,” the South Asian lady at the counter adamantly told me. Another South Asian staff woman spotted me and told me the same thing in a very motherly tone. Sigh. Both of these packs were completely full. And I had thought out very carefully what I was going to bring in them. Enough stuff to allow me to survive and work in Kenya even if all my other luggage was lost. So I repacked yet another time, and did this ridiculous thing of carrying my laptop, charger, and video camera in hand so I could pretend I only had one bag and get through security without getting harassed. The worst part of it all was that despite the rigid scolding I got at the British Air counter, no one at security cared, AND they encouraged people to buy all sorts of large crap after in the airport terminal at their duty-free shops. Yuck. Stupid rules that are variably enforced and mainly for the benefit of making money. Free market capitalism at its finest.

Now I am flying over the Sahara Desert, having just finished watching The Pursuit of Happyness, the Will Smith movie version of Chris Gardner’s life. There were so many references and scenes in San Francisco that it managed to make me feel homesick. It also reminded me of the ridiculous, dehumanizing things people have to do in order to make life work. I cried, I miss home, I miss Young Whan. But I am still whole, and in fact doubled in size, after lugging my weight in luggage during rush hour across London. Another adventure survived. Another one en route.