I’m nestled in a quasi-cozy coffee shop, sipping a latte, looking at London through a frosted window. Outside the glass, purple flowers dance in a gale of wet wind. No snow freckle mars the brick red face of the sidewalk, but it’s cold. Step outside without a coat and die cold. Drop an egg on the cobblestone street and watch it freeze into a hard yellow eye cold. So cold the sky has turned into a sheet of gray ice.
Posh men and women in cleverly-tied, brightly-colored scarves bustle by, and I watch, wanting, I suppose, for them to believe I’m one of them. If I don’t speak, they will never know what I am. Which is this. A person who watches through the glass. An impostor who doesn’t own a scarf, much less know how to tie one with cleverness. An over-pronouncer of r’s. An American who will have to ask the waiter to repeat the soup of the day three times because I can’t understand a word these people say. I’m fresh off the plane, more or less. Beneath my lime-green earmuffs, the jet lag is still kicking my ass.
Intrepid world traveler. Someone called me that. I can’t say I know what intrepid means, but I’m fairly certain I’m not it. Still, I have visited around 15 countries now, give or take, which isn’t a lot, but isn’t a few either, so I should be gathering some know-how by now. What I know how to do, mostly, is run from buses.
I was raised on a mountain. My father, my mother, my brother, two cats, and a gaggle of chickens made up the collective society I called my “culture.” The most danger I faced crossing the street, if that’s what you call the dried up riverbed that wound its way up my mountain, was getting my foot stuck in a cattle guard. So, now, here I am, intrepid world traveler, insisting on hurling through the stratosphere to places peopled mostly by double-decker buses intent on killing me.
I came here with Martine, who is the most brilliant, innately sophisticated person I know. Somehow, I have managed to convince Martine that I’m smart, though I think after observing my behavior around buses, she may be on to me. Not once, but twice, she has snatched me back from the jaws of death after I stepped blithely into the path of an oncoming red streak of doom. She keeps telling me to look both ways before I cross, as if I don’t know that.
Actually, I don’t. Not innately. I think learning to cross a street is like learning a second language. If you don’t do it when you are a child, you will never be truly proficient. I’m not a fluent street crosser. I have to think about it each time I come to an intersection, which raises a gnawing sense of dread when I wander through a large city. On this trip, the fact that I am street-crossing-challenged hasn’t been much of a problem, however, as my scarf- wearing friend has been with me to save me from being squashed like a grape in the middle of Fleet Street. But today, she was busy, and I was alone in our lovely room, overlooking the courtyard of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The sun was shining, more or less, bounding off the spires like a happy, scarf-wearing British child. I had promised my British Lit professor back home a picture of Oliver Goldsmith’s grave because I wanted an A in her class. Armed with a map, a water bottle, and the hotel address, I headed out. Wearing high heels.
Before you judge me, consider this. When I was packing for this trip, Martine told me that I needed to bring comfortable shoes. So I brought sneakers. But when I got here, I found out that the only people in London who wear sneakers are joggers. So if I was going to wear sneakers and “blend,” (one of the goals of intrepid world travelers is to “blend”), I was going to have to match the shoes with a pair of Lycra spandex and walk about heaving violently and sweating. Instead, I settled on wearing my two-inch-heels, as opposed to my stilettos. The grave in question was a few blocks away anyway. No problem.
As follows is a run down of my intrepid world traveler morning:
9:14 Exit hotel.
9:15 Return to hotel. Get camera.
9:16 Exit hotel. Thrill with the glorious sensation of walking streets of downtown London, briskly, knowing I “blend.” Still, wish I had a cleverly-tied scarf.
9:18 Realize I’m lost. Turn around.
9:23 Wait, I’m not lost. Turn back around.
9:27 Come to a major thoroughfare. Have panic attack. Sit on curb. Nonchalantly take out map. Realize I have to cross the thoroughfare.
9:31 Look both ways. Look both ways. Walk. Shriek, “God, save me,” and cover head with hands. Run.
9:32 Dive onto sidewalk. Scream, “Sorry!” at the back of the double-decker bus that almost mowed me down. Sit on curb and cry. Walk.
9:35 Thrill at the sight of Westminster Abbey. Take photos of myself smiling, Facebook style. See sign on front of Westminster Abbey that reads “National Bank.” Realize I’m not at Westminster Abbey and people are looking at me funny. Walk. Fast.
9:37 Gasp and lurch violently as a man leaning against wall hisses at me. Walk faster. Contemplate the meaning of hissing. Is it a threat? A come on? The London-ese equivalent of a whistle?
9:40 Realize I have walked too far. Duck into a nearby pub, hoping that by the time I finish my beer, hissing man will be gone.
10:00 Leave pub and immediately see hissing man, who says, “You are most beautiful.” Say, “Thank you.” Walk faster.
10:01 Freak out because hissing man is following me. Start to run. Think, “I shouldn’t have said ‘thank you’! It only encouraged him!” Inwardly chastise self, mentally slapping forehead and saying, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” Hear hissing man scream, “Talk to me!” For first time, wish had not worn high heels.
10:02 Come to thoroughfare. See oncoming bus. Stop. Hear hissing man pound up asking, “Can you speak?” Hope hissing man will not kill me. Hear hissing man ask for my phone number. Watch with relief as “Don’t Walk” changes to “Walk.” Feel hissing man grab hand and refuse to let go. Smell his breath, a rich aroma of three-day-old coffee with battery acid undertones. Extricate hand. Run.
10:05-11:01 Walk up and down street looking for courtyard in which said grave is hidden. I mean really hidden.
11:01-11-14 WHERE IN THE FUCK IS THE FUCKING GRAVE?
11:16 Find grave. Take photos, noting that it’s ugly, old, covered in green moss, and not worth the trouble I went through to find it. Worry that hissing man may be lurking behind monuments. Look over shoulder. Spout expletives.
11:18 Decide to return to hotel.
11:45 Realize I passed hotel and am now crossing the River Thames. Thrill at the thought that I’m crossing the River Thames, haltingly, but still blending, no problem, with or without cleverly-tied scarf.
11:45 Wander into cool building that happens to be the reconstruction of the Globe Theater. Watch highly trained actors sword fight. Thrill at the thought that I’m in the Globe Theater watching highly trained actors sword fight. Buy souvenirs.
12:35 Wander into a pub on the River Thames. Order chicken salad. Sit down and try to blend. Smile at waiter and compliment him on his cleverly-tied scarf. Listen to him ask if I need “cutlery.” Say, “What?” Listen to him say, “Cutlery, do you need cutlery?” Remember that that is what they call silverware in London. Say, “Oh, yeah,” and giggle in posh way. Feel dismayed to note that salad is covered in little dead silver fish.
12:40 Choke down little dead silver fish, hoping to blend.
1:08 Hobble back to hotel. Worry because toes are numb.
1:37 Realize I’m nowhere near the hotel, and the guy with crazy eyes in the alley looks like he wants to rip my throat out with his teeth. Try to look like I know karate. Smell something funny. Casually sniff armpits. It’s not my armpits. Oh, it’s urine. Crazy-eyed man is peeing on wall. See spire of St. Paul’s cathedral up ahead. Head for it and briskest pace broken feet will allow.
1:55 Look over shoulder. See spire of St. Paul’s Cathedral behind me. Turn around.
1:57: See spire of St. Paul’s Cathedral to the left of me. Make a left.
1:59 See spire of St. Paul’s Cathedral to the right of me. Make a right.
2:04 See spire of St. Paul’s Cathedral behind me. Curse St. Paul’s Cathedral in bitter tones. Hail taxi.
2:05 Listen to taxi driver note that I’m American and listen as he talks about American Idol with much aplomb. Wish I watched American Idol so I could make a friend. Listen as driver points out Parliament Building. Listen as he adds that “Parliament” (he says this word slowly, as if I’m very young or mentally deficient) is their “government” (he also says this word slowly).
2:35 Hobble into hotel. Toss shoes in trash can. Go over pics from days adventures. Wonder if I can crop bank picture to look like Westminster Abbey for Facebook.
Eventually, I mustered the courage to leave the hotel again. I donned my sneakers and hobbled off to the coffee shop, noting with dismay that the weather had changed. There was wind. And rain. The sky was threatening to snow. I got out my umbrella, and, of course, an angry gust turned it inside out. I tried to yank it back down. Didn’t happen. Wandered along like that, getting soaked, wondering what I was trying to prove, leaving my little adobe domicile, coming to this posh place that so obviously hated my guts.
Now let me wax, if not philosophical, at least explanatory for a sentence or two. This self-doubt is not new. There is this moment, a heart stopping conglomeration of acute unease and profound mistrust of self, on every trip. (And who could blame me for not trusting myself, hobbling about as I was, blistered in my uncool shoes and lime-green earmuffs, sporting an inside out umbrella?) The first steps, off the plane, the bus, the train, whatever metal womb gestated you during your journey, are always the hardest. “I don’t know how to do this,” you say. “I don’t know the rules.” You tell yourself you don’t need no fucking rules, but the guy hurdling down the street in the double-decker bus thinks you do.
You cry. You always do. At the beginning, the first day, or the second maybe, of any trip, you cry. You cry and you wander into a coffee shop with your inside out umbrella, and you blush when you order your stupid latte, because when the lady says, “Cash only,” it takes you a good minute to understand what she means. These people speak English, for God’s sake, and still, there is a language barrier.
Utterly beaten, you hobble to a corner, plop yourself by a window, and watch. Out there, those delicate purple flowers have somehow managed to survive this London winter, and they are dancing in the wind, perky as ever. The flowers have survived, but you can’t do it. You resist the urge to bury your head in your hands and wail.
A businessman behind you is talking on his mini-cell-phone, stacking orders like heads on a pike, and you listen. He says this: He says, “Don’t just sit there. Do something. It’s always better to do than die. Bloody hell.” And he isn’t Dr. Phil, and he sure isn’t talking to you, but you take it to heart anyway, you just need something, anything, right now. You congratulate yourself that tear-stained and ear-muffed you is sitting here in a quasi-cozy coffee shop in London instead of idling at home. You are doing, not dying, and even if your umbrella is fucked up beyond all recognition, it feels good.
A song you used to sing in seventh grade chorus is playing on the speakers, and suddenly, looking out the window, you are just like the song says, on top of the world looking down on creation. You are wrapped in this warm thing that has nothing to do with the fire. For a minute, you own you, you know? You own your freaky earmuffs and your scarf-less neck and your shaking hand holding your inside out umbrella and your eyes looking out at the bustling, posh people and the unbeaten purple flowers. You realize you were wrong. You are just like the flowers. Just like them, because you are doing, not dying. You rock your lime green earmuffs and inside out umbrella, and all those posh people in their brightly-colored scarves stand up and take notice.
“Are those Bugle Boy jeans you are wearing,” they ask, and you say, “No, Wal-Mart,” and the way you over-pronounce that “r” rocks the £30 argyle socks off their cleverly-tied world.
And that otherworldliness you have, that accent that is a dead giveaway that you are not from around here, stops embarrassing you and you talk more because, holy shit, these cats think you, you in your uncool shoes and freaky green earmuffs, you with that inside out umbrella, you who have to ask the waiter to repeat himself three times, you who almost got squished like a grape on Fleet Street. You. Yeah you. The one with no scarf. You. Are. Exotic.
Author’s Note: Those last three paragraphs may not be an entirely accurate description of actual events. I finished my latte in silence, and no one, in fact, stood up and took notice. Except me. I noticed. Then I stood up.