How exciting it is to meet someone from a different country in another country and meet up with them a year later in yet another country. Last summer with the animals in Ecuador, I worked with Ane from Denmark. We had a high-pitched-squealing, bear-hug-
squeezing, I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening reunion in… London. I told Ane way back in December about my decision to travel Europe. She wanted a little vacation, too, so we somehow settled on London as a meeting point.
But first things first. Late in the night, Ane arrived at the hostel before I did. Once I made it to Camden Town, the section of London where the hostel was located, I stood outside the underground attempting to decode my hand-drawn map. Feeling futility pulling in the reins, I resigned to hail my first ever personal taxi. I have been in a taxi exactly six times before. I remember where and when for each time, but I never had to call for one myself. I couldn’t whistle if my life depended on it, so I stepped to the curb, raised my gangly arm and waved my dainty fingers. Evidently too daintily. I watched three empty taxis pass me by. How was I ever going to stop a cab without having to jump in front of one?
That’s when Roy appeared at my side. I’d been avoiding whatever paper slips he was soliciting. But he had the pleasure of watching my feeble taxi cab solicitation, so I took the paper he held out to me hoping that would make him leave me be.
“You need a taxi,” he said, more of a declaration than a question.
“Well, yes, but–“
He walked away from me mid-sentence, following the sidewalk.
“Where are you going?” he said. “I’ll take you there.”
“No, that’s alright.”
“It’s okay,” he assured me. “I’m a taxi driver.” Roy pulled out a set of keys from his pocket and headed to a nearby parked car. “Where to?” he said again as I stood non-committally on the sidewalk.
“Camden Town Inn,” I muttered. “Bay Street.”
“Oh, that’s just right down the road. I’ll take you there.” He opened the driver door.
I hesitantly walked up to the passenger door, then paused. “No, that’s okay,” I said when I couldn’t find a sign saying “taxi.”
“There’s no meter,” I pointed out.
“Look, my name’s Roy. I’m certified. I work right over there. You can ask them.” He gestured to a building behind me.
I smiled awkwardly. “Okay, well, thank you, but it’s alright.”
By now he was sitting in the driver’s seat. He pushed open the passenger door, starting to get frustrated. “You can drive with the door open. I’m not a kidnapper.”
I eyed his gold velvet sweatsuit with a matching cap. Not dressed for crime, but I wanted to trust my gut. He got out of the car.
“Where you going? Bay Street? It’s just down there. Five minutes walk. You come back tomorrow and you ask them about Roy. See that I’m a taxi driver.”
I thanked him for the directions (which proved correct–no more than five minute on foot). “I’m new at this,” I said. “I’m sorry. But thank you very much.”
I left Roy standing there next to his car looking like an angel in all that gold. I walked fast to the hostel.
Is there something about me that attracts creepy (albeit seemingly nice) men? I’m just not used to males being so… forward. That’s what made me uncomfortable on a bus ride in Ecuador. But I’d rather trust my gut never knowing than go against my instincts and be in a real pickle.
That was how my first two hours in London began. But from there on out, it was gleeful. And the next day, I trusted my gut which told me that the locksmith guy offering to walk to the hostel to break my stuck lock–“to save me the trip”–was a nice guy. Plus, I had Ane with me. He said no customers would be in the store for awhile anyway “on account of the football game.” He was indeed a jolly fellow. We talked about his growing up in India and what brought him to London. And then I was on a high for the rest of the day because I just love (non-creepy) nice people.
During my time in London, I saw the big attractions. A giant clock. A giant ferris wheel moving at the pace of an ant. Woohoo. The Prime Meridian on the Greenwich Line. Red phone booths. But these things are not what made my time in London memorable. In fact, I was disappointed sometimes. Why is there a children’s song about the London Bridge when it’s so normal I didn’t even know I was standing on it?
Ane and I stayed at Alison’s apartment the rest of our time in London. Alison and Ane’s mom met thirty years ago and have seen each other four times since then. But when they get together, it’s like no time has passed. Ane and I were lucky enough to have a kitchen for cooking quality dishes and free beds.
The Greenwich International Festival kicked off during the week we were in London. One of the events took place in a small dark box with room enough for only fourteen people. We participated in an interactive global warming crisis simulation, the audience acting as London’s response team. Our simulation was compared to others that took place throughout the week. In addition to this attraction, we watched an outdoor acrobatic/theatrical/musical show in a small park. I was impressed with the troupe’s inclusion of persons with disabilities, both actors and the audience. The entire cast knew sign language!
My favorite parts of Ane’s and my London experience were our self-routed treasure hunts for art–graffiti and pianos. Banksy, the graffiti artist with a name but no face, hails from Bristol. Much of his artwork is in London, though he has painted all over the place, from Palestine to Copenhagen to California and New York. The stencil graffiti always makes a political statement, and, even in crowded, public, heavily-screened places (by London’s CCTV surveillance system), Banksy hasn’t been caught. Some of his graffiti only lasts hours. The police or other artists can be quick to make it disappear. But buildings with his art often increase in value to the point that building owners create protective boxes around the art before power-washing or more graffiti can get to it. Ane and I found maps noting places where Banksy had graffitied, but we could never be sure we would find the treasure at the end of the trail. Graffiti comes and goes all the time. There’s even a rival group called “Team Robbo” who has attempted to deface Banksy’s art. Team Robbo is ill-favored among Banksy enthusiasts, i.e. the general London public.
Along with the search for graffiti, Ane and I included the musical realm in our treasure hunt. We read about an art project involving pianos, in its second year in London and this year also going on in Manhattan. Twenty-one pianos were placed around London, decorated and labeled with the words, “Play Me, I’m Yours.” The art project calls upon the community for participation. A map showed their locations and we sought out three of them. At one location, I played a modified version of the Titanic theme song on speed. While I was playing at our final piano stop, a little girl sauntered over to me. I asked her if she wanted to play. She nodded, so I scooted over and patted the open spot. As soon as I lifted her onto the bench, she began her improvised melody, first slamming her hands onto the keys and then alternating an unsteady rhythm between two keys. I died inside on account of the cuteness level.
With the British being avid soccer fans, we didn’t have to be in front of a TV to know how the matches were coming along. Walking by pubs, there were only two types of shouts: positive (hoorahs!) or negative ([insert swear word here]). After one of the matches, Ane and I met up with Fergus, a Londoner we worked with at AmaZOOnico as well. We tried not to rub in England’s 4-1 loss to Germany too much, but it was difficult.
In addition to seeing Fergus, Ane contacted two England friends she met on her post-AmaZOOnico travels in South America. I could have been the odd one out while Gemma, Dan and Ane recounted the glory days, but I wasn’t. We all shared stories. By the end of the day, I felt like I gained two new friends in four hours.
I lied before. I have another favorite part of my trip to London: willingly (and ever so ungracefully) making a fool of myself in public. It all started at the London-Hong Kong Regatta when Ane “offered” to pay one pound for me to get my face painted like a butterfly. Of course I accepted. On the tube–the London term for “subway”– Ane and I were headed who-cares-where post-Regatta when Ane suggested I perform Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” dance, Prior to, I mentioned proudly to Ane that I know the moves. Only semi-reluctantly, I danced the Single Ladies dance on the London tube, singing part of the time. I had everyone staring at me before I started because I stood clutching a pole trying to work up the nerve to do it. My face was still painted with the butterfly mask.
Somehow, that little routine turned out to be a mere warm-up. The tube car wasn’t crowded enough, so I danced again later in the day in a crowded car. This time, though, Ane and I acted like we didn’t know each other. I stood up, put on my poker face and started dancing in the middle, planning on continuing the dance until our stop when we would exit through different doors. That was one loooooooong transit. I ended up improvising. And… my face was still painted like a butterfly. Ane couldn’t see the people in the car behind her standing up to check out the action in our car, which served as encouragement for me to continue posing as the psychotic loner with an internal I-pod. Upon minding the gap as I exited the car, I continued dancing until the platform cleared. Then, I ran to Ane and said we should get the heck out of there.
I put myself to the test once again, this time posing as a street performer in South Bank, London along the Thames River. I sang a horribly wonderful operatic falsetto “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I even put coins on top of my purse near my feet to encourage people to pay as much as they thought my beautiful rendition deserved. I received nothing. Ane even took away my coins mid-song.
Luckily, all the escapades were captured on video (click the links above), and for once I will praise technology. If I can make a fool of myself in London, why not let the world view it on You Tube? Oh joy!
Needless to say I left my mark in London. Let’s see, in Ecuador, I got my ears pierced in the market (of a third world country?–bad idea). In London, I danced on the tube. And then I did a literal interpretation dance in a bar on karaoke night in Wales… Oh, but that
Whatever will she do next? Even I can’t answer that. Spontaneity is the name of the game.