"Life is unbearable only to those who are ignorant of why they are alive."
The red blanket provided by Virgin Atlantic became a sweat lodge of sorts, leeching out months of accumulated THC as I slept intermittently through the eleven hour flight. Screens adorned the back every headrest to provide entertainment, information, and a commissary to each passenger. I put all three of the unnecessary Hobbit movies on, in order, to encourage my slumber, slumping occasionally against the snoring business man beside me. (He gave up on the prequel after Part 1).
My mind cleared and my body solidified rapidly thanks to the altitude, and I regained cognizance in step with the landing sequence. It felt a lot like waking up from a dream and I got off the plane wondering how, what, and where (in that order). Disoriented, but fresh as a bathed and rested newborn.
Heathrow seemed familiar enough, even though I'd never been there. Airports are probably supposed to feel that way. The girls who had sat across the aisle made it into line behind me and it's always nice to have girls to chat with, even if there’s no later about it.
We waited in line for forty-five minutes, chatting off and on, bouncing on our heels. My flight had already been delayed by an hour, which meant the girl who I'd come to visit would be waiting. Perhaps without updated information. I did not have a ready way to contact her. Trust.
London would be the first stop on our spindly journey. She would keep me straight and on task, and I'd keep her calm if necessary, but mostly, just accompany. Shared interest in the odd, surreal, and obscure spurred us along in a worldwide search.
Brexit had triggered a mass entrance to Britain, I guess. Or maybe it just made entrance more difficult.
In any case, the immigration officer asked me more about the new Star Wars than about my visit — a perk of being a white, nonthreatening American manchild — so it was fine. I'm always nervous at immigration even when I have nothing to hide. I suppose I never got over being denied entry to Canada that one time.
Fey tried to startle me in the terminal by hiding in a crowd of Asian students wearing matching windbreakers. She did not blend in, so I grabbed her up and we hugged it out, got some tea and sandwiches, then made our move.
Another world waited outside the airport, but it didn't wait much: traffic was a concrete riptide. A tangle of cobble, stone, and asphalt streets wound through block after misshapen block, jammed full of various vehicles. The buildings towered — but few were towers —, most of them hulking and rectangular, sharing walls with their neighbors (even on curved streets), and had a lot of small chimneys jutting unevenly at their tops.
“You’ll need this Oyster card,” Fey presented me with a piece of plastic. “For public transit.”
We took a double-decker bus, tapping our cards on a pad by the entrance. It did not have an open top, as shown in movies and television, and was a regular sight on every street. Bright red, two-story caterpillars crammed the slippery gridlock. Traffic cramped the streets but moved more constantly than back home, where it’s either open space or stop-and-go.
As I marveled, she caught me up on plans. Paused to let me scan.
“You can keep telling me,” I urged her. “I’m not really thinking anything. Just in awe, you know?”
“Aw, wish I could give more of a tour.” She shrugged, then pointed, “There’s the Thames!” But it’d whisked from view by the time my head swiveled. “We’ll see it plenty,” she added.
My gaze out the window went rapidly from right to left and back, following the scenery as it passed, and quickly snapping right again to catch up with what was ahead.
Incredible history and age showed on every crooked street, facade, and alleyway, but the denizens knew how to use the limited space to full, modern effect. Old and abandoned spaces were built up, trendy and new. Warehouse apartments. Shed cafes. And food from everywhere filled trucks, stands, and alleyway markets.
London is basically all of the British Empire condensed into a single, massive city.
She graciously took me to South Bank, where a big Ferris wheel tottered by the Thames and Parliament sat with Big Ben on the other side.
"I never come here," she admitted. "It's touristland."
We took pictures of the river and the ground while walking around and through the crowds, beaming.
When you go somewhere for a short stay, you're a tourist.
This is never my goal, but actually, many tourist spots in London have good reason for being so attractive. It’d take a short visit to understand why so many people think they need to live in such a place.
If you've ever seen Parliament explode in the movies, just wait until you see it unexploded and in real life -- it's amazing. And the Piccadilly Circus, silly name aside, steals the streets with gaudy, has you spinning on your heels, head on a swivel, with no wrong place to look.
"It's basically our Time Square," said the girl when we found ourselves in the swell of the circus, the street packed with black taxis and apartment-sized buses, the square beyond stuffed with buskers and performers, noise and bodies.
"How did we even get here?" I asked, my head on backward.
"I've actually never walked this far," she revealed. "London is basically a maze. The tube, believe it or not, is easier than finding your way walking."
"The tube?" I asked.
She just scrunched her eyebrows at me.
We managed to walk a decent chunk of the city center, passing through four or five distinctly different areas in a couple hours. The sights satisfied my desire for distraction, but it didn't take long for me to begin longing for work, for purpose, a goal, a mission.
"We've barely scratched the surface, mind," said the girl.
I told her I believed her.
After the necessary tourism, we took the underground (the tube) to Camden and the overground to Soreditch, which were more our speed, although each kinda seedy -- and although public transit usually presents as unintuitive, it just added to the feeling of adventure. An element of danger is important, I think. A holiday is too gentle. Tourism too safe.
Although, global news might dispute my position.
In London, travelling from A to B was always a miniature adventure.
"It's gonna be a mission to get back," said the girl. My eyes lit up. "We want to get here," she pointed at a map on the wall, "And we're here." More pointing.
"That doesn't seem far."
"Well, it's just awkward," she explained. "We can either take the northern line down to Liverpool Street, and take the overground up, then walk -- or, we could try to find the overground station on Camden Road, but it might be far. It also might be faster."
"Uh, let's go the slow and sure route," I said, pronouncing it ‘r-out.’
"Agh! It's route," she corrected me. Pronouncing it ‘root.’
“Eh,” I rebutted. “You know what I mean either way.”
“Plus, what if you had a bunch of roots… Like, carrots and yams and turnips?”
Her eyes has widened to a point, then narrowed at the last. “What’s a yam?”
“A sweet potato. Let’s not get caught up that, though.” She suppressed a follow-up question by rolling her lips forward until the bottom and top edges touched, then let them back out slowly, which spread the red balm more evenly. “If you had a basket of roots in one hand and a map in the other, and asked me which root I wanted to take… I wouldn’t know which set of roots to address. The American way of saying it avoids any such confusing scenario.”
She seemed to consider this before laughing. Then asked, “Why’ju call sweet potatoes yams, then?”
I paused too long.
“A bit confusing, innit?” She pretended seriousness. “Nobody else calls it that…”
“Alright,” I conceded.
“Imagine,” she prefaced. “You have a sweet potato in one hand… And a lamb in the other? No, a ram! If you ask for a yam in that case, you might get rammed instead.” She laughed more.
“Damnit.” I consulted a map of the metro she’d given me to change the subject, but she still laughed.
There are seventeen different train lines, hundreds of buses, thousands of cabs, bikes, some ferries, various rentals, apps, rideshares, longboards, and your own feet if they work. Buses were a cheap way to see the city, because the top floor of each was all windows. Exit at anything interesting.
A tour guide might offer more information, but runs on a script with no reading ahead or skipping. A local and the internet provide better freedoms than that tradition. And superior accessibility, as well, because book knowledge barely assists in the navigation of another society.
Social norms and socialist infrastructures are not intuitive.
Metros, tubes, and underground trains across the planet require a certain energy and focus. It isn't for everyone and certainly not for the claustrophobic.
We used buses and overground trains the most. The tube attractive, but stressful. In an alternate reality where I have infinite time, I'd visit all two-hundred and seventy underground stations, because I’m a completionist and missions with definitive endings, and that don’t lead directly into another, are rare.
Traveling for the sake of travel is reason enough, said the girl -- but we agreed that it's preferable to have a purpose or goal.
I'd never been particularly interested in visiting the United Kingdom, or even Europe. But human connection is magnetic. The opportunity to be with a soulmate, and what’s more, on an adventure together, had compelled me across an ocean. Magnetism interferes with even the most calibrated compass and mine hadn’t stopped spinning since my dad died. This didn’t mean I wasn’t supposed to be there, of course, but without it I’d have no direction at all — and that unnerved me at a base level.
A wanderer -- even one with a fancy savings account -- still needs to be willing to work hard, be thrifty, and plan ahead. I’d done virtually zero preparation for this oversea excursion, and it’d be almost three months long. This made the initial noise of London quite overwhelming. Like most cities, everyone ran as fast as they could just to stay in place. I didn't feel any different to them even though I was on vacation.
Bouncing from destination to destination in a city made of cities was a perfect prep for the rest of our trip together. A somewhat aimless wading around certain areas of the UK and Spain. Except, we were both determined to decide on an aim, even if we have to fabricate one, and even if we had to wander in every direction to figure it out.