EVERY TIME I’VE FLOWN INTO Heathrow in the past year, I’ve made sure to keep copies of my itinerary and the hotels I’d be staying at on hand because I’m not keen on repeating my six-hour detainment in 2009.
I’d only had the street address and e-mail of the people I was staying with; I didn’t have their phone number. (Who uses phones these days?) It was no help that it was the week leading up to the WTO meeting and I hadn’t shaved in months. My beard wasn’t the “oh my god don’t let him on the plane, he’s a terrorist” kind of beard, it was more of the “don’t let him off the plane, he’s a foreign anticapitalist freeloader trying to take advantage of our ailing welfare state” kind of beard.
Now I was clean-shaven and wore an Oxford shirt. No questions were asked, and I was given a stamp to tour their kingdom for six months. Cool.
London transport is a breeze. Just hop on the Piccadilly Line at Terminal 5 and stay on for an hour. Get off at Leicester Square then take the Northern Line to Belsize Park and find your hotel. I don’t normally stay in Belsize Park but I thought it would be a nice place to stroll around with my girlfriend who was visiting London for the first time.
She’d already been there for a few days, but I was still recalibrating: USD to GBP, English to Metric, cars from the right to the left, center to centre, color to colour. I often stay in London long enough to feel adjusted — but just as I feel like I live there I leave.
I was in London ostensibly to network and expand my career opportunities. (That’s how I’ll pitch it to my accountant.) I came to spend a weekend with my girlfriend, a week to do fuck-all, then another weekend to celebrate a friend’s wedding. Afterwards I’d travel on to NY, another way to justify traveling 20% around the world.
In the morning we ate a traditional £8 English breakfast, except that English breakfast’s don’t typically cost that much. This was a lunch destination for wealthy Londoners and / or a tourist trap for young travelers trying to catch the views on Primrose Hill. As we dined we overheard two American 5th grade boys (or Year 6 if they were enrolled in UK schools) lunching and talking about the Red Hot Chili Peppers and international finance.
“Jesus Christ man, don’t invest in Dell, invest in Apple!”
They were poised to be wealthier than we will ever be.
We walked up the hill and tried to make out buildings on the skyline that were obscured by London fog (someone covered our faces with stylish raincoats.) We walked along the canal to Camden Locks. I told Nicole stories about how this is where I bought my first 45, when I was thirteen. Authentic 2Tone vinyl gave me so much cred to my two other ska revivalist friends.
Nicole said she wished that we’d waited to eat because of all the fusion food stalls. We remembered all of our moneymaking schemes from last summer in Berlin: Burrito Bites, Macaroni & Cheese Samosas, Sangria Smoothies, Dolma Bowls, Pizza Pinwheels.
We walked into a store called CyberDog where everybody looked like they’d walked out of Neuromancer or teenagers in the Sahara Tent at Coachella. A dancer above the cashier fidgeted to trance music. I wondered if he could write-off the ecstasy he took before going into the office as a work expense.
We took the bus into central London and took requisite pictures in front of Big Ben and uploaded them to Facebook pretending we were standing in front of “The Alamo” as a sort of half-hearted commentary on the nature of tourism. We drank our first UK pint together at a pub near Covent Garden.
British pubs are always on corners, which means the light entering makes the space really pleasant for an afternoon drink. American bars are always dank places with few windows. Colonial Puritans escaped these publicly drunk Britons to force their descendants to drink in hidden rooms.
We walked around London and I recounted dumb stories that once happened to me where we were standing. Nicole appreciated these stories more than the ones I’ve told her driving down Ventura Blvd. Somehow saying, “that’s where my sister and I saw jets flying overhead for the queen’s birthday” was more interesting than saying, “that’s where I beat Mike Moss in a race after we ate Chinese Buffet.”
We met up for some beers at Rowan’s office, then he corralled us onto the bus to East London. He calls it the “classic 38” because it’s a direct route that takes you from the wealthiest parts of the city into the rapidly gentrifying squalor of Hackney.
We got off in Dalston and Rowan pointed out buildings that were torched this summer. We passed the Nando’s that I’d seen in photos being protected by Turkish shopkeepers during the riots. Since we’d spent the summer in Berlin, we could now better understand menu items at kebab spots. We quietly reminisced about eating Iskender at the Hasir on Oranienstrasse.
Rowan brought us to a tropical drinks bar on a street that normally serves as an open air fish market. They served cheap Red Stripe in what looked like a crowded double-wide trailer. We wanted to stay longer but I was concerned that we’d miss the overground train. Three people used three different apps to give us three conflicting reports on how to get back to Belsize Park. We took the most optimistic advice and were home within 45 minutes.
In the morning we ate Sunday roast at a gastropub in Hampstead. We walked through Hampstead Heath and into some stylish shops. Nicole said, “this is going to be what Park Slope wishes it was.” It started raining and we took refuge in a well-lit pub.
The owner clowned on us for drinking tea at the bar, but we needed a boost to keep drinking. We drank more pints on the patio and talked about how easy it would be for us to live here. Except that part about finding work. Maybe we’d become rich by taking those young American boys stock tips and buy a £2.6 million flat near Hampstead Heath.
But if we had that kind of money why wouldn’t we just buy a ranchito in Michoacan, a flat in Kreuzberg, a modest home in Echo Park, and a condo in Greenpoint? But we don’t have the kind of money to settle down now, just the time to travel.