Wallace Collection

The other day I went to up London and met my friend’s friend Patricia, in London, and she suggested we check out the Wallace Collection http://www.wallacecollection.org, a privately-owned house in Bloomsbury loaded with French 18th century art and furniture. I’d also been told that the armor there was the best collection in town, and while I’m far from being an expert, I have always enjoyed the occasional suit of armor or decorated sword.

So. I did the usual: I had an hour and fifteen minutes before I needed to be at the train station, and sat in my pajamas for forty-five minutes and puttered around online, and then frantically whipped some clothes on five minutes before I had to leave, frantically rummaged around for my Oyster card (for Tube http://www.visitlondon.com/travel/oyster/), grabbed my phone, cash, water, umbrella, and warm clothes for later in the evening, etc., and then, like always, I had exactly eight minutes before my train left and I’m running down the street, embarrassed, thinking “I’m going to be sweaty on the train. This sucks.”

Except that today I didn’t have to run. Can we count this as progress, gentle readers? Oh, you are the kindest readers ever.

I made the train–have only missed one so far–but wouldn’t it be amazing to arrive with a few minutes to spare instead of the panic? It would be amazing.

In the city, I soon realize that students are on a week-long break from school, which means that Oxford Station, near a major intersection packed with extra big versions of trendy mall stores like H&M, Top Shop, and department stores like Selfridges, are so slammed that I find a long line just to get up the tube exit escalator. On the street, a big crowd of dazed teenage girls and their friends gathers on the sidewalk, everyone barely shuffling. I’m so surrounded by zombies in leggings and long belted shirts that I get survival panic, “I will not die this way!” and shoulder my way out.

Whew.

Heading out of SoHo and walking through Marylebone, I pass a very cool-looking button store to check out some other time: http://www.thebuttonqueen.co.uk and also see some very nice shops that I must never, ever go in, or I’ll starve to death. Tweed and leather and lots of jackets in the windows that I do not need but for which I could definitely provide a good home.

At the museum, Patricia and I sat down for lunch before browsing. We had a nice visit although I definitely felt self-conscious. The crowd was pretty posh, and I forgot whether or not Tuna Nicoise had a silent or non-silent s. (The horror!) It was one of those lunches where things like one’s nails, sweater, haircut, or jewelry all seem up for scrutiny, and sometimes I don’t feel like I pass muster. I’m not very into wearing lots of makeup, hair product, and the like, and feel self-conscious about it in posh places. I’m currently sporting a haircut of my own doing, too, which actually seems to bring me more complements than when I have it done, but sometimes there’s a fine line between a rock ‘n roll look and mange. British women seem feminine in a very traditional way, too, and being a tomboy doesn’t appear to be a popular choice. If it is, I haven’t yet found the tomboy hangouts.

Strangely enough, conversation turned to politics and the class system in the UK vs. the divisions in the US. (Patricia’s originally from the States.) I certainly haven’t been here long enough to even pretend to know anything about local politics, but I have been thinking about the sense of shame in the US. The Dalai Lama was reported to have said, after a visit to the US, that he couldn’t believe so many people had such shame, and he didn’t understand why.*

If you don’t have a lot of money in the States, and you’re an adult, there’s this underlying sense that in some way, it’s sort of your fault, especially if you come from any situation where you might have overcome your circumstances. Of course this is not overt. It’s not like you’re told to feel bad about not being in a different situation. You just do. Mild embarrassment, at least. Kids often feel bad because they can’t dress a certain way. They can’t afford certain things, like expensive sneakers or an iPod, and they’ll feel bad about it. When you get older it’s your car or your house, where you go on vacation, or whether or not you go at all. In the Puritan era (ok, here I go again, but really, given some of the Tea Party comments lately, can one not think about America’s Puritan roots??), material prosperity was considered to be a sign of being chosen by God, of being predestined for a blissful afterlife. Is America really over such distorted thinking, or are you “good” when you’re earning lots of money, no matter where it comes from?

Where I’m from, in the industrious Chicagoland, people usually work hard and strive for some degree of prosperity. It’s very survival of the fittest, and sometimes harsh. On the other hand, big opportunities do exist in US cities, which can make for a vibrant quality in the air. You can surpass your upbringing, your birth, if you have the right kind of ambitions and the right kind of luck. How often does that happen here, especially in Medway? Doesn’t seem like it happens as often, but then again, I’m new to town.

Patricia and I enjoyed our chat so much that we had to move through the Wallace Collection pretty quickly. One of the rooms held Marie Antoinette’s furniture, which was decadent and over the top, as one would expect. Most rooms were covered with stripey silk wallpaper, and then the walls coated with prints in heavy, elaborate frames. Everything was too much–very Versailles–haven’t been but that’s the feeling. Sort of like you just ate way too many chocolates.

There was too much to see, and I was anxious to get down to the armor. I just had time for a glance, but it was incredible, and I’ll be back to imagine the lives of the men in the suits, how they may have died, and how they may have lived.

*Certainly I could go on here for eternity about all the things that Americans are ashamed about, and all the things they could or should be ashamed about–a culture that enforces rampant consumption and materialism, the religious right’s insistence that knowledge is somehow “bad,” etc. I could go on, but I’m sure you know and I know what words would go here….

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Finally–What’s Wrong with Americans.

“This is what’s wrong with Americans,” my husband said the other day, emerging from the bathroom with a New Yorker magazine in tow. He pointed at a cartoon of two little girls in a playroom. One had moved all her toys into a pile and she stood holding as many as possible, hoarding them from the other girl. She explained, “I would share, but I’m not there developmentally.”

My husband pointed at the cartoon. ”Americans know too much,” he said.

This was the proof he’d been waiting for in a weeks-long discussion about Americans, psychobabble and self-scrutiny.

“What’s that?” he’ll say, wrinkling his nose, when a word like passive-aggressive finds its way into the conversation.

He seems to think that I’m talking about the psychological version of the Tree of Life–-something I’m not supposed to touch, let alone consume or digest.

The notion of analyzing oneself or someone else, or discussing relationship dynamics, doesn’t seem to be the order of the day here. Some Americans, on the other hand, might find pride in brandishing psychological terminology. The topic came up a few weeks ago at a dinner in which those around the table were mostly British. Many had lived in multiple countries.

“Americans seem very interested in understanding what’s happening emotionally,” one woman said. ”What’s up with that?”

Fortunately I’d wondered the same thing at one point, and had come across a theory that self-scrutiny in America goes back to Puritan doctrine and our supposed inherent shamefulness. Followers maintained a constant search for moral flaws that one might then seek to absolve by the grace of God.

Could this Holy Grail of pathology explain our relish for diagnoses and labels?

“Brits don’t know anything, and we’re cheerful as hell,” my husband claims. “Ignorance is bliss, right?”

I can’t argue with the cheerfulness. I often feel like a surly, complaining jerk and wonder if it’s too late to become a more stalwart person.

Uh-oh. Scrutiny.

So–-any thoughts? Is too much self-knowledge a bad thing? Would we be better off in the dark?

Driving.

Today I had my second driving lesson with the calm and intrepid Mr. Anderson of Gillingham driving school. When I first arrived in town, I swore that I wouldn’t get near a driving instructor until maybe, um, spring of 2011. But then I rode C.’s 25 year-old mountain bike that weighs about 400 pounds, and since we live in a valley one has to go up a very long hill to get anywhere, so I thought, hmmmm, ok, maybe driving lessons earlier.

Commence terrorism of locals.

As you all know, Americans and Brits drive on different sides of the road. It’s a big joke in the States, when finding oneself on a completely isolated country road, maybe on a bright sunny day, to veer the car off to the left a bit, scaring one’s passenger(s), and exclaiming, “Look! We’re in England!”

That’s all very good fun and no one gets hurt.

But here, driving on twisty turny roads now accommodating two sets of parked cars half up on the curb, traffic going both ways, and various cyclists and pedestrians, there’s no room for such Tomfoolery. Not even for a second.

Kansas this ain’t.

My instructor is much younger than he sounds on the phone, but he’s got a confident air and has clearly driven with frightened new drivers before, which puts me at ease. His mother is a friend of my mother-in-law, so I figured that the chances of him declaring me unteachable and banning me from ever driving in the UK are perhaps a bit less with the connection.

Good stuff, as he says often during our hour and a half lessons. Good stuff. I think this is his very kind way of saying, “Thank you so much for not killing me today even though we went up over the sidewalk three times and you almost hit half the parked cars.” Either that or he can’t think of anything I’ve done right, hence the general declaration of some positive elements existing somewhere.

Somewhere.

After two lessons I can say simply this about driving in the UK: “The roundabout is your friend, the roundabout is your friend….” This is my new mantra. I don’t believe it for a second, and am absolutely terrified every time I approach a roundabout, but, as the Queen suggested, I’ll Keep Calm and Carry On.

Or at least take enough anti-anxiety medication to appear calm.

The other thing I’ll say about driving in the UK after three hours of professional instruction is that I am terrified not only when I approach a roundabout but also every second I’m in gear and on the road, as everything about it–driving on the left side, being in the passenger’s seat, shifting with my left hand, and about twenty other counterintuitive patterns–make me feel like I am going to crash. So, in other words, my experience of driving in the UK can be summed up as “We’re all gonna die.”

Good stuff, good stuff.

Foxes of Medway

I’ve always gone for walks at night.  Walks during the day are nice, but I feel so much more at home with the creatures of the night–owls, tree frogs, bats, raccoons, nighthawks, and my new nocturnal companion, the fox–than I do with the animals who wake with the sun.

Foxes are vermin here, hanging out in the trash bins, so people don’t get too excited about seeing them.  Of course they’re novel to me, as big as dogs, and much slower to scurry away than a possum or raccoon.  They always look right at you too, almost like a deer.

I’ve finally found a night walk in Gillingham that doesn’t involve dodging ready-to-puke drunks or ready-to-brawl clumps of young, single Russian men ripe from the pub.   In Darland, a lofty neighborhood in upper Gillingham, I’m afforded a gorgeous view of lights in the valley below, and in the last few nights, a balmy breeze while walking along Kingsway Road.   I’ll leave out the part about how, the first time I visited Darland, an orange cat came running right up to me and sort of leapt into my arms.   To avoid being the cliche cat lady sans cat, I won’t talk about how I go back to that street now for a repeat rondezvous.  Once, I was told that I had too many cats in my writing. Maybe now and then it was ok, but one had to be careful with cat appearances.   Of course my teacher was right.  So…how about some foxes?  Cats just sprinkled in?

It doesn’t seem like there would even be room for all the foxes I’ve seen in my new neighborhood.  It’s weird to see a large feral animal in such cramped quarters.  It’s strange to see anything, especially something nearly the size of a coyote, just emerge from nowhere.  It’s almost as if they must slip between a crack in the scenery, cartoon-like, after finding some dinner.

There are paths, I think, leading down from Kingsway, and I might go check them out tomorrow.  I still miss the enormous oaks and pines of Virginia–such a radically different landscape–but I’m starting to bond with the smaller trees here which look like overgrown scrubby monsters in the dark.  In the mist tonight above the valley, lights of the town below, the blob-like trees/shrubs covered with an extra, almost hairy layer of green, seemed as if they must begin to walk as soon as everyone’s gone to bed.   I love the thought of them now, back here with the abandoned council flats and kebab stands.  Along the edge of the hills they might shuffle through grasses long past midnight, then stop just as pink spreads out along the streets.

It’s Midnight at Gatwick: Do You Know Where Your Husband Is?

Two pieces of advice for all those moving to another country:  1) memorize contact numbers like your life depended on it, because it kinda sorta does, and 2) always be clear on where you’re meeting if you’re ever separated in an airport.

Why am I dispensing such sage advice?  Because last night I lost my husband.   At midnight.  At Gatwick airport in London.  Just call him on your cell phone?   Of course, cell phones.  I do have one!  And I’ve managed to finally memorize my own new cell phone number, after making a song and dance out of it.   (No one will ever see, or hear, this dance.  Don’t worry.)   But I’d yet to manage memorizing my husband’s cell phone number.  It was on my list of things to do–a very long list with a lot of exclamation points.

But back to the phone.  The phone had died after two days of our long weekend away on my husband’s off-site work trip, and he had the charger in his conference room.   The last day of the trip was a bit crazy as we checked out in the morning, were in different places all day, and our luggage was moved around by staff.   Packing was haphazard, and we were rearranging all of our liquids/not-allowed stuff into check-in bags and carry-ons on the airport floor minutes before check-in closed.  Needless to say my phone didn’t get charged.  It actually stayed into my weekend bag which got shoved into my check-in stuff.

All this should have been fine, right?   I was with my husband on the flight home.  But we got into separate customs lines since I have a non-EU passport*, and when he got through first, he waved from the other side, which I took to mean that he would head towards baggage claim.  Usually I get through the line first and get the bags, but it was at least twenty minutes before I got through.  I assumed he would have the bags and would be waiting for me, then we would go, both of us tired and we still had to find the shuttle to our parking lot and then drive an hour home.

But he wasn’t anywhere in baggage claim.  All the others from the trip were gone, and I saw a few lone pieces of luggage riding the conveyor belt.   The status for our luggage on the board read “ARRIVED.”   There were only three different carousels, and I was definitely at the right one.  Still, I waited a few minutes thinking he may have just stepped away to the facilities.  After about 5-10 minutes, I decided to head out as we’d met before at a coffee shop right outside.  I figured that I must have misunderstood where we were to meet and as I am absentminded, he probably said something about the coffee shop earlier but I’d forgotten.

But he wasn’t there either, and after I waited about ten more minutes I started to panic.

I realized that without my cell phone, I had no way to get home that night, that I didn’t know where the car was parked since he had the ticket and I had no way to contact my husband and no other memorized numbers of people in this country.  The crowd at the airport was becoming thin, as one would expect for past midnight on a Monday.

No problem.  I’ll find someone on airport staff and see if he or she can announce a page.  “Mr. M., please meet your party at the Costa Coffee Shop.  Paging Mr. M….”   We’d have a little laugh and then be on our way, luggage in tow.   Ha, drama, hee.  Hee.

But I couldn’t find anyone and the Airport Information office was closed.

Finally I asked the Costa workers if they knew where I might find someone to help me with a page.  At this point it had been about an hour since I saw C. wave at me from my line at Customs.  There was no way that he was still in there.   I’d checked the missing luggage office to see if he was there dealing with any missing luggage, but he wasn’t.

Instead of picking up the Magic Airport Phone that I’d imagined, the Costa guys, who looked like they were about twelve and had never had that pre-cell phone feeling of sheer terror when losing someone in a ginormous mall or parking lot, just looked at me like I’d requested their livers.  They waved me in the general direction of Departures, which was completely deserted.  Not one staff person anywhere.  I was afraid to wander too far from the Costa in case C. went there looking for me.   The rational thing to do seemed to stay put, but that was becoming difficult as I imagined that perhaps something bad had happened to C.  Of course I’d read the recent, vague terrorist warnings so immediately began mentally flipping through various possibilities.

This is the point at which having an active imagination is not fun.  Especially if your brain moves very quickly.   About ten really scary scenarios flashed through my mind in less than a minute, and soon I’d convinced myself that my husband had vanished.   Add a little adrenaline habit and you’ve got yourself a film starring Jodie Foster or Franka Potente.

I started planning for the worst.  I would just have to spend the night in the airport, and eventually get in touch with my mother via her cell phone to get my husband’s cell phone number (I was envisioning a collect call, but later realized this was probably impossible due to the lack of pay phones).  The next day I’d take the Gatwick Express train to London and from there go back home to Kent.  At least I had some cash, and I had a key to the house.

Finally I found a maintenance worker who directed me to some secret supply of airport staff all safely hidden behind door #3.  There were about twenty of them all huddled behind a small desk.  Maybe they were having a meeting?   Maybe they were hiding from freaked out expats who couldn’t find their husbands and didn’t have cell phones?  Too bad.  I’d found them.  I explained the situation to a woman who seemed nice, asked about a page, and edged toward the Costa again so I might avoid missing C.

She asked me to tell the story again, in what seemed like an attempt to buy some time. What was the deal with pages?   Was it like declaring a person missing–did you have to wait 24 hours?   Why wasn’t the Queen notified that I COULD NOT FIND THE ONLY PERSON I REALLY KNOW IN THE UK?

After what seemed like an eternity but was probably only about 20 minutes, lo and behold, off in the distance (rapture!  little pink flowers!  bunnies!), there was C., talking to another airport staff person!   He’d put his jacket on so was in beige, while I’d been looking for a blue plaid shirt.   Duh.  And he said he’d thought that I got held up in customs, so had gone back to find out if I was still in there.   It seemed like we were both at baggage claim at the same time and never figured out how we still missed each other.

Oh.

Long moment of appreciation, relief, etc., followed by the inevitable Whaaa??  How could we really have not seen each other?   Then the trek to find the right parking bus stop which took about another hour.

I recited C.’s cell # all the way home, wrote it down before bed, and vowed to keep a list of contact numbers in ten different bags.   No song or dance required.

*Word to the wise:  we just found out that spousal visa couples can legally stand in the non-EU line together.  They allow this to prevent fellow travelers from getting separated.  Great idea….

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