Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Dan's London Adventure, Part One. Or: This blog contains many dirty jokes. If you are a small child or my boss, proceed with caution. Thank you.

Hello, all. Happy New Year. I am finally back at work, after more than two weeks off. Feels a little odd, but getting back into it. There are developments in the political situation, after the elections on Saturday, which I will briefly catch you up on, but first: I have written a blog about my travels to London that could qualify as a novella, due to its length, so I am breaking it up, and will release it to you, the waiting public, in segments of three over the next three days. I am sure you are very excited. I also wish to share with you picture posts entitled, "A Year in Pictures," which will be a story-based adventure, and, "The Best of 2007," which will be my favorite arty photographs, suitable for printing and framing in your very own home. But before getting to those, since I have work to do today, I will first merely share with you Part One of Dan's London Adventure. Enjoy.

So it’s 2008. Feels a lot like 2007. I’m sitting in the kitchen of my house in Chokhatauri, typing on my computer, which is what I was doing at approximately this point in the evening almost every evening of the last few months of 2007. Village life at this point is very much a life of routine, and I doubt mine is going to change drastically just because the calendar has turned. Although I do have some New Year’s resolutions that will hopefully shake up the monotony.[1]

However, some things are different. There are two festive New Year’s trees in the kitchen, livening up the mood, and my host family is currently having a great time checking out some things I brought back from London – gifts for them, and a new guitar for me. Most of these items were purchased yesterday, in a whirlwind of a last few hours in London, before I jumped on a 9pm flight back to Georgia to begin calendar year number two of Peace Corps service. It appears I simply cannot escape the night travel.

London was terrific; it was not without its warts – no lengthy family vacation is – but I had a great time seeing my parents and brothers and getting to know the city. Despite the trifling fact that I live in a village on a mountain, I remain very much a city person, and I really enjoy finding my way around a new city, trying to rely less and less on maps as my time there goes on, and – I especially enjoy this – learning the city’s subway map. I was in London for nine days, 7.5 with my family and 1.5 without, which was plenty of time for me to start feeling, in a completely facetious and exaggerated way, that I “knew” the city. My family probably did not enjoy the way in which I would self-assuredly charge off towards where I thought we were going, only to sometimes be incorrect. Also, I led my father and two of my brothers on an hour-long search for a restaurant that seems not to exist.[2]

The vacation started off on a challenging note – my flight out of Tbilisi was delayed an unfathomable seven hours, without any explanation whatsoever. I arrived at the airport at 10am to find it, because this is Georgia, nearly deserted. Flights don’t tend to arrive or leave at normal times, here. Nobody was standing at any of the check-in counters, despite a small crowd of people who were there to board some of the few daytime flights. I sat around for a while, looking for employees of the British airline I was taking, until I finally found one walking around as another plane’s passengers were finally allowed to start checking in. I asked him where I was supposed to go for the London flight, at which point he said, straightforwardly, “That flight is delayed until 6pm. I can arrange cab fare for you into the city.” There had been no announcements of this, and the flight was not on the departure board until after this exchange. This is Georgia – time just works differently.[3] But, amusingly, since these were Georgians working for a British airline, I was handed a pamphlet, after not even being notified of a seven hour delay until I sought out an employee who was neither at the check-in counter nor at the airline customer service desk, that laid out my compensation rights with detailed explanation of how they were affected by the length of the delay and the length of the flight. If I’d been flying Georgian Airways, perhaps I’d just have been given five lari and sent on my way. To the employee’s credit, he helped store my bags in a back room and found me a taxi, which I took back into Tbilisi whence I had come, and spent two hours designing a Christmas card at McDonald’s.[4] When I got back to the airport again, the passengers were allowed to check in, but there was nobody in the departure area upstairs, forcing me to mill around and eavesdrop on the crew of the plane, which was killing time in the duty free shop, asking each other why the doors to the gate were locked, and where they could find someone with the keys.

The flight turned out to be uneventful, not even a decent test of my hypothesis that six months of Georgia have turned me into a traveler of steel, because there were few enough people on the plane that nobody else was in my aisle, and I was not left wanting for space in any way. Also, I had forgotten in the six months since our last flights how superior the service on an international carrier is to that on an American carrier – I was not only given a glass of wine to start the flight, but given a second one at the same time, in case I ended up wanting it with dinner.[5] Needless to say, I enjoyed the flight, though I did find it occasionally distracting that some people near my aisle were speaking to each other in English, which is something I hadn’t seen two strangers do in quite a while.

This was, of course, a much larger problem in England, but only for a day or so. It was pretty cowing the first night I was there, though; not just the fact that suddenly everything was in English[6], but the mere juxtaposition of everything. My family was out at a nice dinner when I got to the hotel, since I’d been so delayed, so I sat in the hotel room watching television until they got back. When they finally walked in the door, I would have expected myself (and they probably expected me) to jump off the bed, give everyone a big family hug, and start chatting excitedly. In fact, what I did was look up from the TV and go (I believe this is verbatim), “Um, hey.” I think my brain sort of shut down. I talk to my parents at least every couple of weeks when I’m in Georgia, so it’s not like it had been months since I’d spoken to them, but actually seeing everyone, in a place that’s relatively America-ish, was pretty strong mental whiplash after adjusting as fully as I was able to a situation that is so different. I was pretty quiet that night and the next day. You shouldn’t do things like this to your brain. My mistake was not spending several days working my way across Europe, carefully calculating the degrees of change, like I was a deep-sea diver. A cultural depressurization chamber, if you will. At least I wasn’t in America; perhaps the confusion of “bangers and mash,” serving beer at room temperature, and driving on the left was what kept my brain from just kissing the world goodbye and exploding.[7]

But, after a day or so, I was fine, and I really, really, really enjoyed England. I’d wanted to see London for a long time; I tried to set up a study-abroad semester there with a friend in college, but it didn’t work out, and then I took an internship with a company in LA that had a London office, excitedly – also stupidly and naively – thinking that maybe somehow I could parlay my internship into a job there, which of course didn’t work out, because it was a stupid idea. So I was excited to see if the city lived up to my image of it. It did. I could move right back there. Um, if I wasn’t so committed to the work I’m doing here. Also, if I had a large trust fund or was otherwise extremely wealthy. Because it was very expensive. All of the prices look similar to American prices for things, except the pound is twice as strong as the dollar, meaning that everything basically costs twice as much as it would in the United States. I paid what would equate to 70 American dollars for a nice scarf. Tickets to touristy attractions regularly approached what would be 30 dollars. My brother accidentally spent the equivalent of 100 dollars at a bar one night as he started feeling the effects of his double Jack and cokes and kept ordering more rounds for BOTH of us without counting how much money he was spending.[8] 100 dollars is more than half what I make in an entire month. I tried not to think much about this fact when I was there. It would just have made my head hurt.

Other than the expense, though, London was great. We got off to a bit of a slow start; our first full day there was Christmas Day, during which the entire country shuts down. It was pretty interesting; in America, we celebrate Christmas while trying to pretend like we’re not, because we must respect the heathens who don’t believe in Jesus. So we have “winter break” at schools, and “Happy Holidays” on all the billboards, and many businesses are open. In England, NOTHING is open on Christmas. The TUBE isn’t open on Christmas. And none of the signs say “holidays” or anything like that. You probably wouldn’t think that this would be weird until you actually see it. Anyway, since 2/3 of my family does believe in Jesus, we went to Midnight Mass the night before, where the Jesuit priest spent the homily railing against atheism, which was fun for the 1/3 of my family that does not believe in Jesus. The next day, Christmas day, we spent the entire day at our hotel, exchanging presents and eating all of our meals there, because there was literally almost nothing else open, even for food. The rest of the family had already exchanged their presents, in America[9], so by “exchange presents” I basically mean that everyone gave ME presents. And by “gave me presents,” I mean that one of my brothers gave me a hat, and my parents gave me enough long underwear to choke a camel.[11] This long underwear was a terrific present – I’d only brought one pair of long underwear to Georgia, which was a mistake, and I had been wearing it for about two months straight, without removing it except to shower and, very occasionally, when I didn’t need it to sleep. It’s so funky by now that I should probably just burn it. They also gave me a spindle of DVDs that they recorded from their Tivo – UCLA and Illinois basketball and football games, which made me just as happy.

The next day, Boxing Day[12], we rescued ourselves from the Christmas Day inertia, and took a ride in a stranger’s van. This is something I do occasionally in Georgia, but was not expecting to do in England. However, it turns out that the man did not offer to take me to his house for shots of homemade vodka. Instead, he was the tour guide my family had hired to take us to Warwick Castle, which is a very famous castle in the English countryside. We got there, expecting to see a dignified castle with exhibits displaying its importance to English history and such. What we actually saw was a holiday carnival in the courtyard, complete with quite undignified carols blasting from a fake carnival organ, as well as what seemed like a Halloween version of “A Christmas Carol” in one of the castle’s towers, in which various characters jumped out of curtains and things to scare the female visitors. We learned a lot more from the tour guide in the van. After the castle, we visited Stratford-upon-Avon to see various places of Shakespearean import and to eat “bangers and mash” (sausage and mashed potatoes) at a local pub called the Dirty Duck, which is apparently a favorite[13] of actors in the Royal Shakespeare Company, who have covered its walls with signed headshots. It’s like Pink’s Hot Dogs on La Brea in Los Angeles, if Pink’s served beer at room temperature and changed their name to “Pink’s Bangers.”[14] On our way back to London from Stratford, we stopped by Oxford to see the university. It’s pretty much what you’d expect – a bunch of really old Gothic buildings with spires. Interestingly, according to our tour guide, Oxford was spared Luftwaffe bombing during World War II because Hitler fancied setting up shop there when the Germans took over. I don’t know why he’d want to live there. It seems like a weird place to spend all your time. Wouldn’t it be weird to live and study or work in buildings that are many hundreds of years old and very Gothic? It seems like it’d be kind of depressing to be around all those spires and such, despite the prestige and grandeur of it. Maybe that’s why Bill Clinton spent his time there not inhaling.

On the 27th, after checking to make sure the English weren’t celebrating another holiday, we toured the Tower of London, which I’d highly recommend as a place to take a date. You can take your sweetheart through the various places where kings have beheaded their wives, or smothered their rivals, or had their 10 year old nephews killed! And you can point out to your sweetheart a suit of armor worn by Henry VIII, who figures quite prominently in the history of the Tower of London, which had a codpiece the size of a cucumber.[15] This armor was apparently designed to impress Henry’s final wife, who was 20 years younger than he. And you can show your sweetheart the Crown Jewels, and perhaps have a conversation like this:

You: Look at these jewels, dearest. I will buy you finery just as gaudy, heavy, and expensive, once I am promoted to shift manager, because you are the light of my life, and you deserve things made for a queen.
Your sweetheart: You’ve been promising that you’ll get promoted to shift manager for five years.
You: I will! I am next in line for the throne, if you will.
Your sweetheart: (bitter pause) You’re a bigger tool than Henry VIII’s codpiece.

Then you, in an unfortunate moment of anger, might make a tasteless sarcastic joke relating to the famous Tower of London caretakers, who are called the “Beefeaters.” Then your sweetheart will leave you for an Englishman, because their accents make them sound really sophisticated. But the date will probably have been very educational.

We left the Tower of London with all of our appendages intact, and from there we went to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Under English law, I am not allowed to mention St. Paul’s Cathedral without also mentioning that it is considered the masterpiece of famed English architect Sir Christopher Wren. Seriously. I don’t think I saw a single mention of the name of the cathedral that was not followed by such a clause.[16] It was, admittedly, a very nice cathedral, and I went with my father and two brothers to the top of the cupola, 100 meters up. It was pretty cool, although it was very cloudy – perhaps the vista was not as spectacular as it was atop St. Peter’s in Rome, which my only other cupola-related travel experience, and it wasn’t really as cool as the London Eye, but it was still cool. And, it will live on in history as the location of the last known photograph of me with an enormous beard, unless I grow another one.

To Be Continued! Part Two of Dan's London Adventure to follow tomorrow (hopefully). Same time same place!

[1]I say monotony, which is a word with a negative connotation, despite the fact that said monotony hasn’t yet bothered me that much.
[2]But that night ended in a pub crawl, and I don’t think I should be blamed for something that ends up being excellent. Even if it was in no way my intention.
[3] Ref: post on this blog, Every single other.
[4]If you did not receive this Christmas card: Facebook has a limit on the number of people who can be “tagged” in a “note,” I suppose to ensure that I don’t flood your News Feed with penile enlargement cream advertisements. This limit is very low. If you did not receive my festive Christmas card, send me a short note, and I will decide whether I love you enough to extend this extra effort. I mean, I’ll send it to you. Is what I mean. Although, admitting that you read this blog might reflect poorly on your taste, and the card may not be worth it.
[5]A note for those of you who have not traveled the skies with a non-American company: they have these things called meals, which they feed you on long flights, for free. This is not the same as American Airlines’ “bistro bag,” which is a cold sandwich and a bag of chips for which they charge you $37. International carriers also routinely come through the cabin to offer you more bread or drinks, instead of just throwing a pack of pretzels at you and yelling at you to stow your tray table and turn your iPod off. For an illuminating look at the difference, please reference THIS true story from a friend of mine’s blog, who has in no way approved this link.
[6]Although my hotel was in a Middle Eastern neighborhood of the city, so at least the signs included SOMETHING that I didn’t understand. This was strangely comforting.
[7]If someone wanted to play a really sick experiment on me, they’d wait two or three months from now, drug me in the night, and take me back to the US. If I went to sleep in Georgia, and woke up in my parents’ house in America, I would probably need to be hospitalized.
[8]If you are reading this, Michael, I do not owe you any more money.
[9]They are apparently too selfish to carry all their presents to London and back so their volunteer son can have a real Christmas.[10]
[10]Um, just kidding, mom.
[11]Do not bother trying to analyze this simile; it is as confusing as a parrot wearing mittens.
[12]The English take another holiday the day after Christmas; the vibe seems similar to the day after Thanksgiving. According to our first tour guide, Boxing Day is so named because, in the days of the aristocracy, the day after Christmas was the one holiday of the year for one’s house servants – obviously they had to clean up after you ON Christmas – and was the day on which you would present them with their Christmas boxes. One box on one day a year probably made up for having to clean up horse poop the other 364.
[13]Favourite, perhaps.
[14]If you were expecting to see a joke here on a blog that my boss reads, you’re crazy. But MAN are there some good ones. It’s a shame. Back to the blog.
[15]If the cucumber was horizontal relative to the floor, and not vertical. In case you were wondering.
[16]I think the tube stop near St. Paul’s is even called, “St. Paul’s, Masterpiece of Famed English Architect Sir Christopher Wren.” Also, there’s a tube stop called, “Cockfosters.” Remember when I mentioned that my boss reads this blog? What am I even doing, here?

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