Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Back to the "new"

Although our gym has a host of treadmills on the lower level of its fitness center, I prefer to run on a solitary treadmill on the second floor. There are no other treadmills near it, and it overlooks the entire gym. I feel less confined when I run on it, free almost. It’s a good place to think, and I like to think. And today as I ran I found myself listening to Credence Cleerwater Revival, dreaming of fishing on Jim & Jim’s old pontoon boat in the searing summer heat, cold drink in hand, feeling relieved that I had no concern for fishing success, and missing America in general.

The 6th of March marked our two month point, and I thought a third entry would be a nice touch. I’ve tried not to overwhelm you with post after post. Is it working? Are you feeling underwhelmed? Good. Well I must say, living over here for two months, with another two to go, has been just about everything, including overwhelming at times. Let me give you the skinny:

London is big. It’s huge. Trying to get to know it can actually be tiring. Just when you think you’ve gained a good degree of familiarity, you get off on a new tube stop and realize that there are worlds of London undiscovered by you, with landmarks and museums and restaurants you didn’t know existed. And then you get a little anxious and ask yourself, “am I really seeing everything?” “Am I really taking advantage of this opportunity?” Well maybe you wouldn’t but I did at first. And then I remembered that I came to London to live here, which is something different than just travelling somewhere. It means you try to create a home, even if it is temporary. You begin to fall into routines, which are comforting. You have nights out, and nights at home. You go to the grocery store and look for deals. Some days you wake up and draw back the dirty curtain your landlord provided for you and think, ugghh, do I have to go outside?

I guess I wish it wasn’t so, but it is. Maybe it’d be better if I used every spare minute to admire the rare collections of a new museum, or travel to a new borough, or spend every evening in a new restaurant discovering new cuisine. But that’s more like vacation. This is life. They are not the same. In life, you live a little more with the long haul in mind. You pace yourself, and you begin to cherish downtime as you would if you were home (really home) and faced with a list of daily obligations. And it’s weird, because your mind sometimes tries to pretend like you’re on vacation, and makes you feel guilty when you take a minute (or a weekend) to relax. But your body and spirit know better. They need a minute. There is such a thing as too much “new”. Occasionally you need old.

Speaking of old, I said earlier that I was missing America. That’s unusual for me. When I was in America, I typically harbored at least a general feeling of disgust for some of the cliché American sentiments that I believed much of the population to hold. After being here for two months, I owe America an apology. I was attributing to America what America isn’t really about. People over here aren’t generally more enlightened. They aren’t more patriotic, and they aren’t more selfless or more concerned about the world. They are…the same. They vary proportionally from person to person just like Americans do. To generalize about either would be wrong.

That said, I miss America for what it represents in my memories, for the comforting familiarity that it brings to mind. America has everything. It has flatlands and mountains and beaches and deserts and almost every type of climate, something almost no other country in the world can boast. It has great cities and rural counties, great homogeny and great diversity. It has great food, and it has my family and friends, and the boat I mentioned earlier, and once upon a time it had Credence Clearwater Revival, which really it will always have. For me, now, I have realized that it cannot be replaced.

Now that I’ve gotten some rest, back to the “new”.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Birthday Video

Hey friends! My Daddy celebrated his 54th birthday on January 24th. Nathan and I made him a birthday video from London! We sent him a DVD of the video and surprised him on his birthday. He really enjoyed it and I hope you will too!

Click on the link to the right. Once you're at youtube, make it full screen by clicking on the little icon on the toolbar with the four arrows.


A valuable lesson.

We’ve been here nearly a month now, and I’d say we’re beginning to feel like locals. Lauren’s fake accent is getting better all the time, and we’re becoming accustomed to a cold flat, warm drinks, and perpetually overcast weather. Well, truthfully Lauren’s still cold.

I love London though. London is so many things all at once. Down one street you will find a picture-perfect pub where you can get a delicious steak & ale pie and chips for £5, and down another you will find a hectic mix of crowds, shops and traffic that never seems to stop. There are markets that sell antiques so beautiful you begin to contemplate ridiculous methods of transporting them back to the States, and department stores so luxurious that their “sale” items are miles beyond your budget. There are places for every interest. There is food of every kind. Best of all, there is a great diversity of people. Riding the tube is like turning a tuner through various foreign radio stations, every station being in a different language. And sometimes, unfortunately, the stations smell bad or act strangely. But usually they are a delight to observe.

The weekend pub-going crowds are another story. The cliché that “the city never sleeps” is never more true when you’re trying to go to sleep and the city is awake and has been drinking, and is waiting for its bus, making noise on the street. And by noise I mean unprovoked screaming, singing, and general ruckus. It doesn’t help when your flat-neighbor is blasting techno at all hours of the night, but at least techno has some order to it, some rhythm. Drunken screaming is particularly lacking in harmonious qualities.

Interactions with restaurant staff and shop-owners are a favorite. It’s incredible how few people here speak intelligible English (London is a haven for foreigners from every nation). English speakers are so rare that sometimes I forget that the national language of England is English, and I go into establishments and feel guilty for not speaking the native language of the employees, as if I’m causing an inconvenience. Repeating yourself is no guarantee for getting your message across. I asked one waitress if refills were free at least three times, and she assured me they were—only to charge us for every refill. I was sure that one waitress we encountered was an alien, in the literal sense. Her attempt at English produced choppy robot-like sounds that I wouldn’t be able to replicate without a voice-modulator. And if I’m really lucky, I’ll ask a shop-owner what the price of a particular item is, only to have them tell me that “for you, £2.29.”

The bustling, melting-pot atmosphere that London provides is nicely balanced by the rich history behind it. You cannot help but stand in awe before many of the buildings, the architecture itself inspiring—not to mention the fact that whatever you’re looking at is potentially centuries old. Much of London represents what some might call our “world heritage,” in that the figures who inhabited its buildings or walked its streets shaped the development of the world’s civilization in remarkable ways—both for good and for the worse. On certain occasions, as I’ve walked the halls of Parliament or Westminster Abbey or the British Museum, I remember again that we are not the first, and will not be the last. It’s comforting and frightening at the same time.

Speaking of the British Museum, I should mention that they have in their collection of ancient artifacts a very old rock (allegedly an old tool used by very old people). While the exact age of the rock is not known, it is at least, they say, 1.8 million years old (that’s B.C. now). While I haven’t actually verified the scientific process of carbon dating in my own research, I would like to believe that the rock is as old as they say. Anyhow, I was naturally taken aback by such an incredibly old piece of the world, and for some reason I felt compelled to talk to the rock, to tell it about the state of the world as it is now, which the rock could never have surmised from its small glass prison inside the vast halls of the British Museum. I realized, as I tried to tell the rock about all the pertinent history I could remember, that I didn’t remember very much at all. I had all my dates and times confused, not to mention names, and inevitably ended up talking about World War II the whole time, which is so typical. I was embarrassed of course, and my embarrassment led me to tell the rock about my own life, something with which I am much more familiar. After I had finished telling the rock all my biggest hopes and dreams, and deepest fears, I stopped, and waited in silence. The rock did not return my gesture however, and the museum was closing. So I walked away, and as I walked I thoughtfully acknowledged how little I had to tell the rock which didn’t involve myself, and how lamentable it was that I couldn’t remember more after all my years of schooling. And so I've learned a valuable lesson from the rock, and from the city in which it resides: that we are not the center of the world, and that there is much to learn.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Week's Worth

We've only been here just over a week, and if I tried to recount every memorable experience we've had I'm sure I would leave some out. Our first week in London was important though, as it marked our attempt to find a temporary home in a city where we arrived as foreigners with few contacts and limited resources. It should not go unrecorded, as it was revealing to us and will hopefully be interesting to you.

Before I go into that, however, let me introduce our little journal here. In case you didn't know, Lauren and I have come to London, England, to live for 4 months as I finish law school studying abroad. We've begun this blog partly for ourselves (so that we can have a record of our experiences here) and partly for our friends and families (to keep them updated on our travels and to reassure them that we're alive and well, and not captives of the trafficking trade or victims of all the other dangers that our imaginations convince us lie abroad). This will be a joint blog, as in both Lauren and I will contribute individually. Hopefully our dual (and sometimes maybe dueling) perspectives will make for a less one-sided account of all this, and will provide us with some insight on how we view a set of otherwise common experiences differently. We hope this blog will prove beneficial for us and anyone who takes the time to read it.

That all said, let me try and capture the last week or so with some brevity.

We arrived at Heathrow Airport, as many of you may have, grateful for the end of a tiresome but crash-free flight. Our trip from the airport to the hotel was an easy one, except for the part after we exited the tube station and proceeded to pull our luggage through an inch or so of snow, once or twice in the wrong direction, to our hotel which probably took 15 minutes of walking. I only got lost of course because I couldn't see the sun, which I regularly use a directional tool.

We arrived on the evening of the 6th of January, classes to begin for me on the 12th. We hadn't rented a flat (or apartment) in advance, as we were wary of sending money overseas to people we'd never met to reserve a place we weren't sure really existed. What this meant of course was that we had little time to find a flat and move in. After getting settled in the hotel room, I set out to the nearest free-Wifi location (which happened to be the hotel Radisson about three blocks away, whose staff seems weirdly okay with random people sitting in their lobby for hours using their free internet) to call people offering flats for rent in London, whose numbers I'd found on UK websites. After getting in touch with several, I was able to set up viewings where we would be able to meet the landlords or renting agents and see the flats in person. This process- walking to the Radisson, connecting to their Wifi, calling people and setting up viewings- this was what we did for 3 days, really without much luck. We saw a number of flats, some of them brand new, others very old, all very small and very expensive. And may I please emphasize the word small- 150-200 square feet were the dimensions of several places we viewed. Nevertheless, on Friday evening we came upon a 1 bedroom flat just around the corner from the hotel (and incidentally the school where I am studying) which was big enough (several hundred square feet- I kid you not!), was the right price, and the right location. Despite some of "our" hesitations about the cleanliness of the flat, we shook hands on it (not literally) and put down a deposit.

Unfortunately our flat didn't really become "our flat" right away, since on Saturday I managed (in an attempt to turn on the electricity) to damage our electricity meter by sticking the wrong key into it. Here in the UK (as they might do in some parts of the States, unbeknownst to me) they sometimes provide electricity to flats by giving the tenant a key (a sort of plastic key with computer chips embedded into it) that they can take to any number of "pay-points" (convenience/junk stores) where they can pay to "charge" the key or put a certain amount of money on it. Once the key is charged, the tenant takes the key and inserts it into the designated meter for their flat (which is probably in the flat or the building which houses the flat) and the meter reads the key and gives the tenant electricity credits corresponding to the amount of the money on the key. When I inserted the wrong key into the meter, it became stuck, and upon wrenching it out I damaged the meter so that it would no longer read the correct key. This resulted in the electric company coming out and replacing the meter on Wednesday, a mere 4 days after it happened. The only reason the electric company came so soon, I've been told (by a nice man who works in the restaurant downstairs) is because the electric company was informed that a very old and fragile woman lived in this flat and would simply freeze if her electricity was not restored promptly.

Now I mentioned that there is a restaurant downstairs, and this is indeed true: our flat is above a restaurant called the "Shaftesbury Bar and Grill." Some time ago this restaurant was originally called the "Moulin Rouge," and in our very flat was born a man who formerly went by the name of Cat Stevens. When Warren, the manager of the Shaftesbury who showed us the flat told us this (with some enthusiasm), I became rather excited and Lauren simply asked who Cat Stevens was. If you don't buy it, follow this link and you'll see that we are most certainly living in the birthplace of Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam: http://the-shaftesbury.net

With an electricity powered and somewhat warm, much cleaner than it was when we moved in place to call our own, we began to assimilate. Unfortunately our flat didn't contain many of the items we realized we would need to survive comfortably, so we spent the next few days supplementing the flat's furnishings. This was a somewhat laborious task, in that finding the items we need is made more difficult by a language barrier that we didn't know existed before we came. This is exemplified in the varying names that the English have for every type of thing, some being things you would think couldn't possibly have any other name in English than the name we give them. For instance, a pot (as in a cooking pot) is here called a hob. An oven is called an electric cooker. A laundry rack is called an indoor airer. A curling iron is called a curling tong. A weatherstrip is called a draft excluder. And meat is called dead animal flesh.

I made that last one up. But seriously, there is a small language barrier that doesn't hinge on pronunciation (although Warren, an individual mentioned earlier, did pronounce Wifi as "wee-fee"). Luckily for us, we found all the items we needed at a store called Argos, which is essentially a catalogue store: in the store there are probably 40-50 catalogues, all identical, which people come and look through. The catalogues have every item (except food items) that you might find at a Walmart. All you do is write down the number of the item, take it to the "tiller" or the cashier, and if it's in stock they go and retrieve it from some invisible warehouse-like room where they keep everything in the catalogue. The area for customers is probably not much bigger than a store you might find in a mall. Argos' slogan is "Argos-it".

After all the cleaning and furnishing and getting settled, we're beginning to feel like we have a home here. I've finished a week of class, and I feel confident that class is a whole separate sphere I will write about in the near future. Fortunately for me, my classes are peppered with interesting characters who I'm sure I can safely describe using pseudonyms. And fortunately for both Lauren and myself, we've met at least one couple who look to be a promising set of friends for the next 4 months, not to mention a number of individuals who we look forward to knowing more thoroughly. Of course, no one can replace the people we left behind at home, and by the time this is over we will be so ready for the incredibly lavish party that everyone will throw for us in honor of our homecoming.

This entry really being an effort to "catch-up," I hope the rest are more current and about more interesting things than the story of our arrival in London. As time passes I'm sure Lauren and I will entertain a wide range of thoughts, emotions and perceptions about this place and others that we visit, and if nothing else this blog will give them a place to be aired, much like the clothes hanging on our indoor airer.