London Thames Architecture Tour

Last Saturday C. and I had tickets to an architecture tour along the Thames.  Even though the warm, sunny weather we’d been having disappeared and our winter coats, hats, and gloves were out again I was still excited. Whole days in London with C. are rare so I really enjoyed sharing his city with him. C. has all the photo credits. My hands stayed in warm gloves the entire time we were on the boat so were not at all photo-ready.

Tour starts near the London Eye.

Sorry about how dark these are. When it’s cloudy in London, it’s really cloudy.

Big Ben.

I learned two more British pronunciations on this tour. Baroque is pronounced “barok” and “quay” is pronounced “key.”

Houses of Parliament. You can't see the gold detail in the photo, but it was nice to see it close up. Quite stunning.

Millbank Tower

View from Altitude 360 in Millbank Tower, December 2010

The night views of the Thames on a clear night are my favorite and most magical moments in the city. I’d discovered Whistler’s Nocturnes in the Freer-Sackler Galleries in D.C. A much different river in his day, but the ethereal quality remains.

One more--I took this in 2009 the first time I came to London. The sunset was gorgeous that night.

St. George's Wharf

The tour guide told us that this series of slick, greenish buildings has many harsh critics.  She also said that the structures have been likened to “three massive owls,” and she really went out on a limb by confessing that she found them “quite jolly, actually.” I have to agree, although I don’t think the word “jolly” has ever come to mind. I’ve often admired the wharf from the train.

St. George's Wharf detail

MI6 Building--British Secret Service.

Where rich people live

The now empty Battersea Power Station, an iconic London site.

Didn't get a name for these but have admired these from the train too.

Battersea Park Buddha

Freezing for architecture

Very cool building but couldn't hear the name of this one. Too windy.

Vauxhall Bridge Detail

Lion protected from all the changes made to the banks during the 1940's London Fair. Everything else was built up around the lion and people protested to save it.

View of Big Ben on return

Royal Festival Hall. Very pretty at night all lit up but not so exciting during the day.

In a nearby building, the Southbank Centre, there are tables with excellent views and the Saison Poetry Centre Library, a huge auditorium with musical shows, readings, talks, etc. The annual T.S. Eliot readings are there–great venue and event if you’d like to get a taste of the current British poetry world. I’ve enjoyed hanging out at Southbank on a number of occasions.

The famous OXO tower and building.

At night the Art Deco tower lights up with a red OXO. Oxo is an English company that makes beef stock cubes and the like. They requested a permit for an Oxo ad but were turned down.  On the Thames, advertising was banned. However, in a “coincidence,” architect Albert Moore created a design that included the letters o, x, and o. They got their ad after all.

Unilever House

Didn't catch the name of this one unfortunately

Cool art deco spot.

The Globe

A guy singing in the water for passersby. Brrrr.

I don't know the name of this building but it's one of my favorites.

Hay's Galleria

Tower Bridge and ship. London Bridge itself is dull and ordinary, missable. Tower Bridge, however, is one of the most iconic of the many bridges of the Thames.

Tower Bridge at night. I took this in 2009 the first time I came to London. C. and I had just met and he took me on a walk along the Thames.

The Shard--soon to be another staple in the London skyline. The glass is treated so that it changes with the weather and light.

Small view of St. Paul's Cathedral. Also gorgeous at night.

HMS Belfast

Tower Bridge

Where the mayor and other civil servants work

The More London area toward the east end of the Thames. An especially modern section.

Tower Bridge detail

Another one of my industrial favorites. Love the glass balconies.

View from Greenwich observatory

Does Greenwich have a Waterstones? Unfortunately for C., the answer is yes. Great way to end the day, in a comfy leather chair with a pile of books on my lap.

Borough Market, Whitstable, a Vineyard. The question of context.

Right now I’m in transition. We don’t know exactly when I’ll head back, but it will probably be in about a month. C. will hopefully follow a few months later. With a ton of things to get done but no definitive deadlines I’m a bit at loose ends.

The visa process (for C.) is another uncertainty. The website seems to be a wonderful source of misinformation, so any time I want to get completely freaked out, I can always go there an find ten reasons why our plans will get messed up.

We’re working with someone at C.’s work though, and fortunately after a brief call to the guy today, I feel so much better. And grateful that we’re not alone in the process.

But back to the Things to Do Before Leaving the UK List. Borough Market was at the top.

I also went to a Sussex vineyard (thanks Groupon!), the Yayoi Kusama show at Tate Modern, and to a new seaside town for me—Whitstable—for a walk and to see some short plays.

St. Paul’s from Tate Modern lawn on an unseasonably warm day.

Borough Market loaf. This is bigger than my head. Sad day for the gluten-free visitor.

Nut bread? C’mon. You’re killing me here.

No kitchen should be without goose fat.

Gorgeous views as one’s walking around the markets.

Uber brownies! I would like a badge for not getting one for C. and sneaking a bite with a handful of gluten-ease pills.


A bit wilted but still pretty.


Still life.

Being a sort of tourist for a year and a half is starting to feel weird.  I’m not quite as excited about the amazing historical thing I’m touring or which fantastic garden or cultural site I visit. Instead I’d like to just have a normal day where I get dressed, go to work, and do something tangible, whether it’s frustrating, exhausting, or productive, and then come home to a place that feels like home. Wanting this makes me feel guilty and dull.

Sometimes there’s the sense of killing time, which can happen anywhere.

Spring in Whitstable.

Whitstable castle, built in 1700’s.



Last weekend, C.’s two pals and I walked around the town of Hastings after doing the vineyard thing. I expected a big site for the Battle of Hastings (1066! English language changed forever!), but I was told that there’s a town called Battle where they do reenactments, and that’s where the official marker is. Instead there were just some signs basically describing what happened in 1066, who the Normans were, etc.

What was funny was that at the tasting our guide razzed on the French for a while until this lone woman with a classic French accent said “Excuse me Monsieur, but I am French and I do not agree,” about the quality of French wine, and the rest of the afternoon went on in this manner. She was joking and so was he, sort of, but sort of not.

I can’t remember where, but I heard someone say, weeks before, that the closer you get to Hastings the more they hate the French. Well, I wonder if this French woman knew that the wine tasting she was going to was in Hastings.

One of the guide’s jokes about the French even worked the Americans in. (The American in the story was loud.)  Two for one special!

After the tasting we had a walk along the coast and then a nice meal at Pomegranate (killer risotto). Then mini-golf which was fun but freezing.  We chose “Pirate Golf” which involved various water-spirting holes.  It was after dark by the sea. I had clothes for weather about twenty degrees warmer.

“Is getting wet…avoidable?” I asked the ticket guy, in what I thought would be the least likely manner to invite a snarky remark.

“Well you can look at see where the cement is wet and then not stand there,” he replied.


But back to my point about the outing. I loved being in the vineyard on such a warm sunny day and learning about how they grow their grapes. (The guide was especially interesting and is retired, having previously spent decades working in the lost luggage room at Gatwick airport. I’d say the guy deserves a few free bottles.)

So while I certainly can’t complain about the day, I started getting into a funk during mini-golf which was weird with skulls lighting up and saying pirate-ey things to us about how poor our shots were.

There was this sense of frivolity without the context of work so I kind of felt like it wasn’t deserved or appropriate or something.

Wine in the making.

I know that most people my age would kill to have so few obligations, and so in that regard, I am fortunate. But all told, I would say the hardest thing about being an expat or a trailing spouse is not knowing how long you’re staying or what you’re doing to do next. The problem of context.

Without a clear role and a sense of rootedness and community, context kind of drops out. “Fun” things can feel strange.

And of course there’s a bit too much time for rumination in the middle of a transition. I’m wondering when exploration becomes indulgent. When it is wise? How do we know which “games” are childish and which are childlike?

When is it necessary to leave behind the pursuit of exhilaration, of newness, and fully accept the quotidian, as that too brings a type of joy?  I’m guessing there’s no right answer to any of it.

Hastings coast, dusk.

Coupla Parks & a Priory

After almost a year here, I’ve learned two things:  in England, the weather can rotate through all four seasons in one day, so you’d better bring layers galore, and two, the countryside does bring a little bit a heaven to go with the little bit of hell you might have to endure with the weather, etc.  I can’t drive on the motorway yet so haven’t been able to go to the gajillion nearby gardens I’ve been dying to visit, but today, I’m afraid for C., he was cornered.

Now that the house is pretty much done, C. and I can have time together on weekends to do things as he’s not so busy with DIY, which = significantly less fantasizing about fleeing to South Carolina.  Last weekend we got to go see the X-Men movie (great, definitely worth paying the $ to see in the theater), and we visited a Priory close by.

Today we went to Groombridge Gardens in Tunbridge Wells (pics in separate post).   Last week I walked through two parks in London–Regent Park & Green Park–on my way back to Victoria Station.  It’s been a nice, green week despite the rain.  Or, maybe because of it.

Regent Park, Queen Mary’s Gardens

Green Park, London

Aylesford Priory, Kent

Aylesford Priory is just about a half hour from us, and it’s a great opportunity to see a thirteenth century site with some gorgeous grounds.  If you’re into quiet contemplative places, they have spots for folks to find a little peace, quiet and solitude.  Aylesford Priory was also a resting place for pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, which is about a 45 minute car ride away.

Friar. And me.

The Old Lady of Soho

I’m always surprised that I am allowed entry in the über-trendy section of Soho where I’ve been temping. Everyone, and I mean, everyone, is under thirty, with most denizens between 22 and 26.  Of course all the kids are sporting the same 80’s fashion that I wore back in *cough* the 80’s, so I’ve been having this bizarre sense that I’m A) back in high school, B) just starting high school since everything’s so unfamiliar and new, and C) a neighborhood R.A. for adorable London kids.

They really are cute, though.  All angsty, navigating their very first jobs.  I wish I could take twenty pictures on my way to work, or when I dash into Mark & Spencer’s at lunch to wade through the labyrinthine queue.  I don’t think they’d appreciate being photographed by a random creaky lady with a probiotic smoothie and “stay full longer” M&S salad in her hands.  In the meantime, here are some things that you may recognize from the first time around that are ubiquitous in Soho right now.

#1:  New Wave asymmetrical haircuts. For girls, very androgynous.  For boys, big and moussey.

A lot of this

#2  Flats.  All colors.  Frankly I don’t understand how they walk for miles in them; they seem so flimsy.  But I guess that’s what I used to do too.

#3  Oxfords and skinny jeans.  Brown ones, for girls or for guys.  Lace-ups.  This seems to be the London uniform, the staple.  Brown lace-up oxfords with anything.   This guy (C. snapped pic from bus) sporting his own variation with striped trousers:

Am very curious about the hat, and the scarf tucked into the pants.  Not sure which part of C.’s bus route that was on, but it looks more like Piccadilly St. than Soho.

I used to have a white pair of oxfords that I loved, especially with my pants that got skinnier at the ankles.  (What were those called again?  Tapered…?)

#4:  Tights and leggings.  Oh boy.  Maybe 85-95% of females will be wearing black tights or leggings.  With brown loafers and maybe short jean shorts.  There’s that.  Or the skirty look. In any case, I feel the need to explain why I’ve wandered into their territory, as if I’m browsing in a Forever 21 store.

And it’s weird to be working at the same place as my husband, but my strategy is to kind of avoid him and now it seems fine.  The first few days we had lunch together, which felt like being at the “new kid table” in the school cafeteria.  Everyone eats their lunch at their computer, but I always want to go stretch my legs a bit after sitting still most of the morning. One of the guys that we’ve hung out with at an off-site work thing (back in the fall, spouses got to go) joked that instead of a helicopter parent, I’m a helicopter wife, making sure C. doesn’t need anything.  Which is kind of a perfect title since C. is surrounded by single twenty-something cuties all day, prancing around barefoot in breezy tunics and jeans.  Not to mention that he’s the guy who rescues their files, etc.  (Read: HERO.)

With my tendency to overthink things and then sleep on them and then run them through the mill maybe one or twelve more times, it’s actually kind of nice to be able to run things by C. about my first UK work experience.  Of course I’m self-conscious sometimes about being Too American.  At this company though (digital media), everyone’s just really young so it kind of seems like its own entity anyway.  The atmosphere is very “Hey, my parents are away this weekend–do you want to have some people over?”  The handful of over-thirties might serve a dual purpose of making sure everyone stays hydrated and no one burns anything.

I’m so glad for a bit of income, but the day is really, really long when commuting from Medway.  We get up before six, leave by 6:30, drive to C.’s mom’s to park in her drive, take the train (a mere 12 pounds instead of the whopping 32 it would cost from Medway) at about 7:45.   We get in to the London Charing Cross station at about 8:25, and walk to Soho.  Normally we’d leave work between 6 & 6:30, catch a train around 7 and get home about 8:30.  Today we got home later since  I had a Dr.’s appt. in London and took the wrong train around the District/Circle lines, backtracked, got off at another station and as a train was arriving that seemed like my train.  I’d hopped on, only to discover that was also the wrong direction.  It took me an hour to get to the Embankment stop, where I was meeting C.  Not such a nice journey.

Sometimes not easy to figure out on 3.5 hours’ sleep.

The day’s trek was starting to feel more like a pilgrimage.  I’m an insomniac and rarely fall asleep before two a.m., unless really heavily sedated.  So each night there’s the choice: do I want to feel drugged or frantic for sleep tomorrow morning?  Either way there’s rarely more than five hours when I have to get up early, and lately getting something like 3 hours of sleep is more common.

I’d been in a car, a train, and four Tube trains so far that day.  After Embankment, another train, another car trip, sunset, and then home.  Fifteen minutes of Zzzzzzzzzz on the couch and then, thinking that I was actually going to fall asleep at a decent hour, I get my second wind around 11:30.  Wide awake.  I realize that one of the guys at work has eyes just like an octopus–reclusive, deep-sea dwelling, intelligent. Plus he’s bald, so that helps the octopus look.  I wonder if he’d take it as a compliment. Probably not.

By now I’m really awake. So I might as well mention one last thing, which is that the other reason things have been feeling high schooley is that two of my friends from HS were just in town visiting their friend (who I knew then as well) N., who lives in London and works, get this, two blocks from where C. works.  Where I’m temping.  So we’re all in the same little section of the world, after all these years.  How weird is that. We got together for drinks last Friday and it was really great to go out, but strange in that I’ve been thinking about how people don’t really change very much.  How can it be that so much has happened–I’ve been through quite a few major events/life changes in the last twenty-five years–but there we were, having drinks and talking about how much we love Zach Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns.”   (Very dark and quirky humor; you kind of have to be in the mood for it.)

So–once again, the question.  Is massive change possible, or are people’s lives fixed at a certain point?   I still feel like I have so far to go to even approach where I want to be, what I want to do.  But if people stay the same, is that realistic?  C. keeps saying that we’re not really on the same timeline as most other people, that we had other things to deal with in our twenties, and some of our thirties, and we’re sort of just now able to work on the house and home thing.

Who knows what will happen.  C. and I debate this daily, if not hourly–he thinks we can move; I say there’s no point in going through with it just to be in a *slightly* better neighborhood with less space in the actual house.  I’m a pessimist and he’s an optimist, which is supposedly a nice balance, but we do drive each other crazy with our different perspectives sometimes.  I don’t just “hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”  I fantasize outrageously and imagine the apocalypse.  C. just functions and goes into hibernation mode when necessary.

The vibrancy of Soho and a cramped terraced house in what may be one of the most notorious sections of Medway.  Such different worlds.  When I’m in London I feel like a great pretender, glancing in bakery windows as if I’m just on my way home in the city.  On our block where we really live I’m usually frustrated without a clear plan to leave the house we intended to leave after six months, max.

For now we masquerade as a couple just welding our lives together, walking through Chinatown back to the Charing Cross station.

Update with More London, a Poetry Reading with The King’s Poets, a Burlesque Show at the Brickhouse, and Rainham houses

Last week was sort of insane.  We got back from Tunisia around two in the morning Monday, and then Monday I had an appt. in the early afternoon to talk to someone about a possible counseling program.  (To become certified to do it, not to get some, even though I probably need it.  😉   Sounded very interesting, and would do it if I had 625.00 pounds/year for over four years to drop on it.)

Tuesday eve. I went to The King’s Poets meeting, chatted with some very smart people about some poems, Wednesday…ugh, can’t remember Wednesday but I’m sure I did something, Thursday got a spontaneous last-minute appt. to meet with a recruiter in London about teaching jobs, and Friday got a spontaneous offer to do some admin stuff at C.’s very cool Soho office.  Saturday we looked at two houses in nearby Rainham, attempted to go to the carpet place and get Murphy’s second round of shots (those things didn’t happen), and dashed off to the King’s Poets reading in London.

Bloomsbury Waterstones

I freaked out about what to read, that everything was old, too dark, or just too American (“snap–can’t read the one about Soul Train–no one will know what that is here!”), but it was hot in the bookstore and I think by the time I went (second to last), everyone’s mind was just on getting some air.  I probably could have read a poem about watching The Brady Bunch while eating McDonald’s wearing my Nike tennis shoes and it all would have been good.

The cool thing about the Thurs. chat was that it was in the More complex near the London Bridge.  That little section of the city is futuristic and crazy.  Loved it.  Turns out the mayor works in an egg:

Where the Mayor Works

I did not take this.

Anyway, I met with a woman in one of the nearby buildings of the complex, which is called More London.  Really loved it over there (note intersection of Tower of London) and the egg.

Which building would you want to clean at night?  I’ll take the egg, thank you very much.  Every time I look at that section of London, all I can do is think about how many ghosts must be in there.

Friday, working at C.’s office was good in that I was out of the house and finally catching a glimpse of London work life.  I know it’s a hard-working office, and I was impressed at how focused everyone was, even at four on a Friday afternoon.  Folks were wearing jeans, as is the tradition there on Fridays, but people weren’t too chatty.

After work we stopped in for a snack at Yalla Yalla, Beirut Street Food, a few blocks away from C.’s work.  Incredible food for cheap (London cheap, anyway).  Very tasty.  Then we met up with one of his coworkers and his gf and had a rare night out (thanks, Keynoir–only like 15 pounds!) at Brickhouse in Brick Lane for a burlesque show.  Plus, who knew it would be Prince burlesque, no less??

I was still wearing my “officey” attire, and definitely felt the need for a little trashy glam, but after a few mojitos I didn’t care.   “Prince,” a solid lookalike (Syrian?   Indian?  We weren’t sure…)  sang “Raspberry Beret” while a businessman changed from his suit to drag, all from his briefcase.  Very good.  Purple Rain, both the album and the movie, were sort of my coming of age soundtracks, but I did feel a bit odd knowing all the lyrics as the two Brits and a German that I was with had never seen the movie and weren’t too familiar with the album.

And then a woman wearing an Empire State Building outfit shot fireworks out of her pasties, which I think she’s getting ready to do in the second shot:

We sat upstairs in this loungey space and hung over the rails to view the show.  At 11:30 (far too early for me) we had to go though, missing the last act, since our last train left Victoria just after midnight.  *Bummer!*

Saturday the house viewing was a bit of a crash into the reality of Rainham homes.  While the first house had excellent renovations (the owner was a designer), it was just so small.  Smaller than our current place, which to me feels very small.  And you’re talking to a girl who’s had some pretty modest digs, including three tiny, roachy studio apartments in Chicago and one very dangerous roach hole in Richmond, VA.

So both houses wouldn’t allow for our bed (double or Queen, not sure) in the main bedroom.  Those who had the second house had the bed crammed in there, and I don’t even think one could have walked around it in any direction, so I don’t really know how they got out of bed and got out of that room.  (A little gymnastics to start the day?)

Where the bleep do people get dressed?   Clothes were crammed into the second “bedroom,” which was a closet that couldn’t have even fit a twin bed.  Since the clothes took up all the space, there wasn’t room to also get dressed.  I guess one could take the clothes to the bathroom, but I’m sure with two people getting ready in the morning, bathroom time is of a premium.

Both kitchens also had almost zero counter or pantry space, and no place for a dryer, which is considered by many to be a luxury in England.  I’m all for saving energy like the next guy, but our place is usually quite chilly in the winter, and clothes have sat on our racks for about a week without getting dry.

So, not so exciting.  Not to mention the fact that we couldn’t fit our kitchen table in the tiny “dining room” space, so we’d have to ditch that.  Probably the bookshelf as well, and certainly the wardrobes, which would mean we wouldn’t have anything to eat on, dry clothes in, or put clothes in for who knows how long.

I didn’t really have time to think about the house thing though until Sunday, since we were flying to the reading, which was fun and I felt honored to have been included in the company of such skilled poets.

Back in Medway, which feels like my real life, and anything in London feels like a fantasy tangent, tonight we opted not to call the cops on the domestic argument outside (at neighbor’s?  hard to tell).   I’ve lost track of how many times we’ve called.   Territorial tiffs, domestic ones, or just plain drunken brawlers pounding back from Priestfield Stadium–add that to the neighbor’s litany of complaints and one has a nice beginning orchestra.  Then, add the Polish rap from two houses down, a little London rap from the adjoining neighbors on the other side, and how about a dog barking for a few hours, a fox, plus a bunch of kids screaming on bicycles?  Excellent, ah, you’ve got the Gillingham soundtrack.

This soundtrack put me in a horrible mood when I woke up Sunday, despite thinking I’d in a very good mood with the past week’s fun activities and the sunny, warm weather. But the noise was doing me in.  Unable to get a moment’s peace I’ve stayed quite bummed for the last two days, especially after my little hope bubble of moving to Rainham has burst.  I can’t see getting excited about spending all that cash to move when it might only be slightly better, in the less calls to the cops kind of way.   Quieter, yes, but less annoying?   No.  I think we’d have to call a summit to decide if we had room for a new pair of socks between us, or a bag of economy-size potato chips.  (Yes, crisps if I must be local.)   What to do, in-between bouts of attempting to unpack from the holiday, doing my “made insanely complicated by being unable to e-file” expat taxes and making gluten-free lasagna?

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  That’s right bitches.  Dee is my new hero.  Whenever I feel provincial as hell (daily), too loud, or too brash, I think of Dee and what she would say about living in Medway.  Any ideas…?

On having space

About ten years ago, I fulfilled a lifetime dream of going to Paris with the aid of student loan funds. I knew I’d be paying for the trip for the rest of my life, but I don’t have any regrets now, and don’t think I will when I’m ninety, probably still with student loans.

Anyhoo, when I returned from the trip, there was a new employee at the library where I worked. She was from Paris. I was intrigued to find out how she wound up in DeKalb, Illinois.

DeKalb, in the middle of cornfields and more cornfields, boasted two claims to fame–a famous corn variety sold to farmers all over the country, and the legacy of the barbed wire barons. Cash from the barons brought a few rich families to the area, and they erected a few large homes. There was a tour. Like a lot of little towns, though, it had been reduced, by the nineties, to a Walmart and a bunch of boarded up storefronts on the Main Street. If you weren’t from there, the only reasons you might move to the little town would be because you got gentrified out of Chicago, or because you were a student at Northern Illinois University and just sort of stayed on. I was the later, waiting for my boyfriend to finish a computer science degree so we could get out of dodge.

But back to the lady from France who’d landed in Cornville.

“You moved from Paris to here?” I asked, incredulous. I couldn’t imagine how she was faring, but she seemed happy.

“Yes,” she said. “My sister did too. We both married men in the service. We wanted to be where there’s more space, where there’s more green. It’s less stressful here, a different pace, even though I’ve gained a lot of weight.”

True, she wasn’t in miniature, as all French women seem to be, especially Parisiennes.

Then, a year ago, on the plane to London to visit C. for the first time, I met a woman who’d moved to the remote American South from the London area. Again, I wondered about her reasons.

“We wanted the children to have space, and to have a yard,” she said. I nodded, not really understanding exactly what non-yard reality was. By then, I’d spent most of my life living in apartments without a yard, so I got that. But I didn’t really understand what it was like to be without any grass anywhere in the entire town except for a little patch by a public playground.

Now I get it. When locals say space, they mean square feet, or square meters. Or centimeters. Things are tight in the way that people often ditch their couches on the sidewalk when they move since they won’t fit through the door of their new place. (Why they wouldn’t measure first I don’t know. Too much trouble, I guess, but there always seems to be a ton of furniture on the sidewalk around here.) Plus, folks seem to favor overstuffed couches, which is not a good direction for cupboard-sized lounges. Things are tight here in a way that makes my old studio apartment in Chicago look like a bloated mansion.

My entire experience of the London area could be described as being in a very small, crowded store, in the holiday season, with a bulky purse and backpack, trying not to knock anything down or hit anyone in the face with my elbow. Everywhere I go—the train, the sidewalk, the street, the grocery store, the Tube stop, a pub—anywhere—one is constantly negotiating space. Walking on the sidewalk to the train even forty-five minutes outside London requires some serious spatial intelligence at times. Shoulders become a liability, and I imagine myself as the Sears Tower, Prudential Building, or some other City of Big Shoulders monument trying to navigate the squeezy sqoonchy nooks and crannies of the UK. Near our train stop, negotiating space becomes especially important, because if you underestimate, you’ll literally be on the street, under the tires of a double-decker bus. Really–a few times a car has brushed by my body and I’ve felt it shake my frame. Or, since no one cleans up after their pooches, you might land smack in the middle of a large doggie present, always left to festoon heavy pedestrian areas, or the pink and white puke sploshes that decorated the sidewalk during the holiday season in a festive, almost snowflake-like pattern. Hmmmm….too many candy cane cocktails? Let’s just say that on some seedier blocks, like our train station section, the sidewalks are a serious diet aid. A ten minute walk can leave you nauseous for hours.

At home, space is a constant issue, and everything almost always looks cluttered. Folks seem used to it, going up stairways sideways or squeezing themselves into airplane-sized bathrooms in their own houses. I’m not sure whether I’ll get used to it or not, and I now understand the sense of possibility so often associated with the States. Granted, that possibility remains bittersweet, given our means of establishing ourselves in already inhabited territory. Still, I get it now, the fascination and longing for expansiveness, and what happens when one is constantly enclosed, constantly vying for every centimeter. Without physical space, nothing new is possible. There can’t be any magic unless it’s Harry and his wand. Instead, it’s bump, “oh, so sorry,” and “pardon me,” and “please excuse my protruding body parts that I think may just have bumped/or ground against you in a way that could be construed as suggestive.”

Sometimes even the expansive thoughts of night feel fenced in, or muddled, as they mix with the thoughts and conversations of the neighbors, just inches from our head on the other side of the wall, the woman coughing now, or calling to her husband, or closing the wardrobe door. The people outside on the street aren’t really on the street, either, but actually in the lounge given that there’s less than a foot separating them from us. The concepts of privacy and shelter get revised, not so much a dwelling as some windows and a place to keep our stuff (relatively) dry. Fortunately I’ve finally stopped pining for my old roomy two-bedroom apartment with the balcony and fantastic view. I must be adjusting somewhat, and do like the fresh air that comes in off the North Sea sometimes. Today it’s quite brisk, and anyone who’s been out in it will likely sleep hard, at least for a few hours, under their duvet.

My So-Called Glamorous Life

Along with the jealousy some folks have expressed when I tell them I’ve moved overseas is this bizarre assumption that my life is automatically somehow glamorous and star-studded. I don’t really understand this. Is it because falling in love with someone from another country is a bit of the ordinary? Because of the extremity of the change? Or what?

Well, this post is just for anyone who might have pined, even momentarily, for the diamond-spiked grass that invariably grows in abundance in Kent, the Garden of England.

Here’s how a “glamorous” evening really goes. The night in question: London Zoo for C.’s work Christmas party, December 22, 2010

The first query: what to wear as plus one to semi-formal event.

The first issue: most female party-goers will be between the ages of 23 and 27, from France, devoid of a gram of fatty tissue, model-gorgeous, and fluent in ten languages. Ok, maybe just three, but still. I may as well go in a gingham tablecloth, spouting lines from Hee Haw.

Weapons of choice: an old but great little black dress, Spanx (ladies, give me a shout-out if you have a pair), vintage bag, and heels.

Problem: the London Zoo in late December right after a freak snow/ice storm. Heels and ice+darkness could = embarrassing old lady wipe-out surrounded by horrified Francophone hotties.

Solution: demand that C. find out what’s on the docket for the evening, and try to gather what the other ladies are wearing.

Problem #2: Company likes things to be a “surprise.” Awesome. Surprise trip to hospital for broken ankle? Yay! Committing major espionage, C. discovers talk of a trip to one of the indoor animal houses. Exhale. No major trek around giraffe house with flashlights, wearing l.b.d., heels, and safari hat. Could be safe.

Problem #3: Ice and snow have now melted to slush in our town, and temps have dropped precipitously, which will require very warm outfit for trek to C.’s office. The trip will take at least an hour and a half and will involve a few walks, a train, and a bus.

Solution: Wear one outfit through slush to train then through the frantic pilgrims flocking to the pre-Christmas shopping mecca of Oxford Street, and change at C.’s work bravely prepared for bathroom onslaught of 25 year-olds in spiked heels and ultra-trendy dresses sans Spanx.

Strategy: Don mask of “mature” womanhood, i.e. “I have been through it and yes, little missy, you will too.”

Problem: Cannot find vintage bag, Spanx, or overnight bag to carry semi-formal wear to C.’s office. Do not want to travel to zoo with something less appropriate, such as plastic carrier bags. Backpack is also ratty.

Solution: Go up into loft to look for bags and Spanx, which looks exactly like a pair of beige underwear (or pants, for UK readers), and could be any-fortheloveofallthingsholy-where. Driven by some sort of newlywed hormone that makes one want to appear especially appealing to new spouse for his first holiday company event, I journey to the loft, armed with a flashlight and a vague, recently-acquired knowledge of the loft light’s location. The ladder rocks as I creep up, and I flash to an image of me in crutches for the next three months. There’s barely room for the ladder, and it wobbles on the slanted floorboards and against the railing. One must perform a gymnastics sort of vault to get up at the top of the ladder, hopefully avoiding planting both hands in insulation.

Once up, I dig through every box and every suitcase. No Spanx. No vintage bag, no overnight bag. Just books, some starting to get damp, which makes me panic. Now in a Hollywood “save evening or save books quandary.” Cannot leave them up here to ruin, but bringing them down will take forever.

Added crisis: The clock’s a-tickin’! I should be getting dressed right now, but instead am performing Medevac for books, bringing down small stacks, and hoping I don’t break my neck.

Will our heroine make it to the zoo intact? Find out in the next installment of My So-Called Glamorous Life….

Charlie Brown Christmas in the UK

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After five months in the UK, my crowning achievement is that I usually know where I am when I wake up. If not, it doesn’t take quite as long to fill in the blanks as it did this fall. My unconscious doesn’t seem to have caught up though, as my new-ish husband doesn’t yet appear in my dreams, nor does England.

Instead, I dream about the school where I used to work, the English/Literary Arts department and shades of my days there. Maybe snippets of those I left behind in Virginia. My decision to leave and to marry C. happened so quickly that once it was decided, there was nothing but a very long list of things to do in only a few short months. Realizing what the bleep had just happened would have to come later.

So, the little home I’d slowly made for myself back in the States is gone, but I do get to see my husband every day. Much less pining and adolescent rushing home for a Skype call. Very simple things like being able to sit next to him while we watch the news, or a visit to the gym together, can be pretty spectacular after subsisting on phone calls for months at a time.

Still, day to day life is a constant challenge. I am forever figuring out train schedules, train stops, and which way to go once I get to my destination. I call C. about five times a week for directions, which I’m sure is precisely the reason he married me. Who doesn’t want to be a live, on-call GPS system? He loves it when I tell him that I’m “near a Vodafone shop, a Boots, and a Café Nero.”

In-between bouts of mad self-promotion in cover letters that I imagine are all going to the Island of Lost Job Applications, I sometimes indulge in a serious helping of self-pity, sitting alone in the house on a dreary day. (And most days are dreary.) This time of year, no one says it better than Charlie Brown: “I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?”

Oh, Mr. Brown. You’re the Charlie Browniest.

Speaking of Peanuts characters, last year I’d all but insisted that C. watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, as he’d never seen it. I was curious to see his reaction, as well as to The Grinch. Of course, as a fellow curmudgeon, I was hoping that he would be delighted with the Grinch’s meagre little heart enlarging and breaking the frame, and that he’d appreciate the whimsy of the Peanuts dancers.

Two Sizes Too Small.

Peace, love, and happiness.

But when he didn’t react at all (nada!), my own fairly Grinchy heart sank, and I wondered if the non-love of the Peanuts dancers would come between us. In the end it didn’t, but for many Americans, it’s a consistent point of connection. Add a little “You’re a foul one, Mr. Grinch….” and you can bond with even the most Scroogey American stranger. C. didn’t get Charlie Brown’s introspection, and Lucy’s faux analyst role. What he loved was Sally’s “All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.” Ah, entitlement. Schulz really manages to cover quite a bit in a 23 minute piece of animation–existential malaise and dread, unrequited love, stages of child development, religion, materialism, psychoanalysis, individual alienation, and peer relations. I’m sure I’m missing something. With such a wide range of issues, why wouldn’t any of them ring true to a Brit? Is it just because we watched the show first as kids? Maybe if I’d only seen it as an adult, I’d be straight-faced too, but I don’t think so.

I love the dry British sense of humor, and also feel like there must be something bright in my local landscape, despite the infinite shades of gray, and rows and rows of terraced houses surrounded by drifting garbage. I just have to keep looking. I also haven’t quite figured out what joy looks like in reserved England. A few weeks ago, while in the city for a visit on my birthday, C. and I happened on some carolers in Trafalgar Square. I was beside myself, as I’d been wanting to hear the Christmas classics–“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Silent Night,” all that, but we kept missing the local services. Some of the singers looked pretty into it, and one even bordered on animation during a few notes, but all in all folks caroled in a very sensible manner. Of course I was waiting for the one unbridled number where everyone went for it, belted it out, gushed, got jiggy, whatever. I guess this sort of sums up my experience of being in England–I always feel like I need to take it down a notch, especially in comparison to the reserved Brits. What would George Costanza or Elaine Benes look like in England? Probably pretty uncomfortable, as they would definitely stand out and I can’t imagine people commiserating with them about anything. Strangely, one of the things I love about C. is that he never complains, but I will never be so stalwart. Having perfected the art of complaining in the last thirty-some years, I do miss a solid complaint session with another skilled devotee of This Horrible/and or Embarrassing Thing That Happened to Me. C. never got Seinfeld at all, so sometimes I catch myself when I start to make a reference to an inspired holiday like Festivus.

In another Peanuts-related episode, while checking out a possible relocation neighborhood last week, I played the snowflake/ice-skating song on the Peanuts Christmas soundtrack, hoping to conjure that whole magical wonder thing. Instead of winter la-la land, though, I had to stop and consider the blocky renovated council flats of this not-so-inexpensive commuter spot. A few strands of lights blinked on and off at random intervals in scattered windows, and a few Santa outlines, slapped onto dark brick, cluttered with reindeer and a sleigh, offered a gas station/convenience store sort of cheer. Spotty Happy Holidays lights in muted yellow glowed like ads for cheap beer at a roadside bar. I turned the music off. It didn’t go.

I knew I was spoiled in Richmond (VA), as it’s a gorgeous town with incredible architecture, and one can live a reasonably decent life there on a humble wage. The general consensus about Medway is that it’s pretty bleak, and bleak places tend to look more bleak when lit by a few random strands of lights. C. calls our town the Hell’s Kitchen of the UK, and I think he’s right.

Can Santa fit a new place to live down our chimney? C’mon, Santa. We’ve been extra good this year. Just in case, I’d better get going on some cookies, and make sure to leave out some seriously spiked Nog.

Thanksgiving in England

Last week was weird. It was my first Thanksgiving week out of the US. Usually on Wednesday things start to shut down, and everyone scrambles to get to the grocery store, grabbing items before they disappear. Or, if they’re like the majority of people who have to travel, they dash to the airport, or hit the road to try and beat the worst of the traffic.

Last Wednesday, instead of getting ready for the big meal, C. and I trekked over to Camden (in London) to see a show at the Electric Ballroom. We’d purchased tickets back in September for The Tallest Man on Earth, and it just so happened that The Drums played the next night, on Thanksgiving. I figured we wouldn’t be doing the traditional thing, especially since everyone would be at work, so I got a ticket to The Drums.

I was a little concerned that I’d feel self-conscious and old, as I rarely go to shows anymore and The Drums were bound to have a pretty big trendy teenager contingent. I soon spotted a woman with silver hair, though, who looked to be in her sixties. Ah, she must be a chaperone, I thought, and felt certain that one of the giggling girls nearby was hers. Later, though, on the Northern Line headed south, I saw her again and it appeared that she was just out with her friend.

It also happened that I’d been a bit obsessed about the recent tragedy (stampede) in Cambodia, and during the solo show, which was packed and in a fairly large venue, I started thinking about how I would exit if people started to flee. The opening band had only just left, so I had about forty-five minutes to think about this. Ample time to decide that the best strategy from where I was standing would be to get to a wall as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, I was standing right in the middle, so this would take some doing. How to avoid getting knocked over? I thought about those What to Do If… books that detail what to do if you’re getting eaten by a hippopatamus, etc., and sort of wished that I had read something about stampede death prevention before this evening. I recalled moving in horse stance in martial arts classes, and thought that would also be a good strategy to employ. Try to stay grounded. I ran through a few mental trial runs, trying to keep as much distance as possible between me and the rapidly encroaching crowd as I backed out of the auditorium. I also realized that since I was obsessing about the stampede, I just might be too old to attend big trendy shows, even though my hair hasn’t all turned to silver. Hmmm, wonder if they get Lawrence Welk on UK cable….

The show was great, though, Jonathan Pierce a blond skater cartoon with skinny jeans–completely over the top. I needed something outrageous to keep my mood up. After the show, I grabbed some chicken and rice from a late-night street vendor and ate it on the way back to the Tube. I was grateful for a lot of things, but a bit bummed to not be having a Thanksgiving dinner.

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, 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, 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.


Heading out of SoHo and walking through Marylebone, I pass a very cool-looking button store to check out some other time: 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….

Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: