Charlie Brown Christmas in the UK

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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 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….

Wardour Street

Tonight I was coming home from an event in Soho near Wardour Street while chatting on the phone, and when I looked up I found myself in Chinatown.   I thought I was headed towards Oxford St. but had been walking in the exact opposite direction of where I was supposed to be going, something I still do often in London.  Lit up with dozens of red lanterns and a gigantic dragon perfectly backlit high on a wall, it was all I could do to not abort my Victoria Station mission and get lost in the lanterns.   I didn’t want to be stranded after the last train though, and told myself I could come back, even though it probably wouldn’t look quite the same.

Or maybe Chinatown is always that luminous.  I don’t understand the magic of London yet, but on a few occasions now, walking by myself through the city well after ten, it’s palpable.  The streets are sort of foggy and misty, it’s not cold and not too hot at all–perfect for endless walking.  The huge, antique street lamps glow under window boxes of lush green ivy and bright flowers with names unknown to me.   Pub goers mill about in doorways, holding amber-filled glasses, casting occasional, appraising glances at walkersby.   Further along, towards the Picadilly Tube station, I pass a drag queen with a pancaked face and a black, curly wig.   Twenty-something girls wobble down the sidewalk wearing impossibly short dresses and even more impossible heels.  It’s near midnight on a Tuesday, but people seem immune to sleep.

Okay.  I could fall in love with this city.

“Canadian?” someone asked tonight for the third time.  “You don’t sound like you’re from the U.S.”

I don’t know the ways that I do or don’t sound American, only that there’s more than a bit of self-consciousness about it.   I don’t come into contact with many Americans here–have only chatted with two in my interactions out and about–and haven’t found any all the way out in Kent, where I live.   Clerks in stores often stare for a second after I out myself with speech.  They seem to be trying to place me.  If they figure it out, I hope they let me in on the answer.  I’ve left the US, perhaps permanently, having married a Brit, but I still have a lot to do to settle in here.  The lanterns in Chinatown hover, but their suspension seems much more elegant and serene than my ghosty limbo.

Despite the vast opportunity to explore London, most days I miss the sun, the trees, and the birds of Virginia–my home for the last nine years– the views, miss being able to hop in my car and drive somewhere, miss friends and coworkers, but I’m slowly coming to love watching the people on the Tube, or just walking down the street.  At night when it’s not so crowded I like to try and enter the thoughts of those waiting on the platform, especially the natty business men who seem like they have never gushed about anything in their lives.

Hummingbird Bakery, Pho, Scribbler.   The cheer of whimsy in the windows.   I am probably too old to even be on this street, I quipped to my husband when we first sauntered down Wardour.   I am craving something sweet, something decadent.   Skinny men chomp down sandwiches wrapped in foil and I envy their ease.  (Finding a non-sandwich option when one has food allergies can be tough after ten.)  Londoners don’t seem to eat out as much as US folks, which may be why so many stay so thin…?  Do they go to the pub, or eat–is it one or the other?   I consider what it would be like, in my chocoholic universe, to receive rations of butter, meat, coffee. Charlie Bucket’s one precious, gold-covered chocolate bar.   A constant rumbling belly.   But then a girl walks by with a black and white mod coat and bag, two different prints at once, and I’m in Greenwich Village, pre-Gulliani.  It’s the eighties all over again, and I’ll take it.

The promise of Wardour Street is the antithesis of deprivation.  It’s a hedonistic spree of neon cupcakes, outrageous footware and fun, natural fun.   After all the stresses of relocation, it’s just this sort of fantasy that makes me think that maybe, just maybe, there are still adventures, even past thirty (or, ahem, uh, maybe a little over that), and even wild possibility still sprouting up for no reason.  For now, this is one fantasy that I’m keeping alive.

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