What England Means to Me

Corfu to Athens

I started this blog in the middle of the story, as though it were some sort of Homeric epic. While I can hardly claim to have accomplished any heroic feats, my journey spanned several nations and exposed me to new cultural experiences. It was pretty epic in my book. Towards the end of the trip, on the ferry ride from Corfu to Athens, I watched the water trail behind the ship like white, frothy fingers splaying across the surface of the Ionian Sea. I was transfixed by the way the water churned in the ferry’s wake, the way it was pushed away after being pulled in. It hit me then that I wasn’t like the water, I wasn’t violently crashing and quickly subduing. As I said, traveling isn’t a Herculean task, but I was on the cusp of completing a goal I’d had for years. I’d seen London, this remarkable city that always felt a fingertip out of reach, and then I’d ventured even further.

Do not attempt. London phone boxes smell like public urinals.

Do not attempt. London phone boxes smell like (and most likely function as) public urinals.

Bobby and Ben

Bobby and Ben

Ceramic Poppy War Memorial Installation by Paul Cummins. 1914-2014.

Ceramic Poppy War Memorial Installation by Paul Cummins. One hundred years: 1914-2014.

Though I had never set foot on UK soil before last year, I have always felt connected to England. Growing up, my parents subjected me to the cruelest of first world kid problems. They refused to get cable. I had no insight as to what Clarissa explained and no earthly clue who Stick Stickly was until I entered the fourth grade. Consequently, I watched a lot of British comedies on PBS. I loved Keeping Up Appearances for Hyacinth Bucket’s oblivious social mobility aspirations, Red Dwarf for the tongue-in-cheek approach to science fiction, and Mr. Bean for the largely silent, bumbling antics. For years, all I had access to were these Britcoms and others like Absolutely Fabulous, Are You Being Served?, Fawlty Towers, The Thin Blue Line, Blackadder, Chef!, and The Vicar of Dibley. These shows informed my sense of humor, and in a way they ostracized me from my classmates on my own terms.

These shows were a portal to a world where I wasn’t obligated to explain myself. My entire life, I’ve watched people peer at me through narrowed eyes as they try to resolve my provenance. My tan skin confuses people; it makes it difficult for them to figure out where I belong on their internal value scale. It’s exhausting to always have to answer the same degrading question every time I meet someone new. “What are you?” Human doesn’t suffice as an answer, and neither does American. They aren’t interested in my nationality, but they also can’t be bothered to sit through a lecture on the implications of African diaspora and intersectionality. “No, what are you really? Where are you from?” It doesn’t matter that I was born in America, that’s not the answer they’re looking for.

The mind is always calculating. People tend to subconsciously box you up when they meet you, so they can assess your worth. Sycophants might wonder, “How much respect do I owe this person?” They want to mentally place you on a hierarchical rung, so they can keep tabs on those who are of value and dismiss those who they deem worthless. Granted, we can’t all be friends, but I am suspicious of those who regard ethnicity to be of greater import than identity when exploring affinity. Being biracial, I straddle the line between being black and white every day. I am frozen in a constant state of cultural liminality, where I am not quite Jamaican, not quite Irish, and yet not immediately accepted as an American. Growing up, I was told I couldn’t possibly be black because you got that good hair though, and I couldn’t claim to be white because wait, you don’t wash your hair every day – that’s gross. My hair has always defined me, for reasons I can’t understand.  

My hair, doing what it wants.

My hair, doing what it wants.

As a kid, I eagerly crossed the threshold of any door that helped me escape the marginalization I felt. Steeped in history and culture, modern England was as much a fantasy realm to me as any kingdom plagued by dragons or evil wizards. Britcoms, though rooted in reality, held the same appeal as the books I loved that were set in fictional universes. After following these shows for years, and tirelessly cheering on Chelsea FC from the confines of my home, I think I had this deluded notion that I belonged. It was pathological, like stalker fan levels of compatibility false logic.

Getting from Heathrow to my hotel was easy. I studied a map and plotted a course. Problems arose, however, once I left the hotel. I had no idea where I was going. Not one clue. Equipped with a checklist of sights to see and places to go, organized by general location, I set off looking for an entrance to the Underground. After walking a considerable distance based on the advice of a street sign, I began to worry that I’d gone too far, or that the sign was posted as a cruel social exercise in futility. I determined to ask for directions from the next moderately friendly-looking woman I saw, so as to minimize my chances of being abducted. (Because I’m too crafty to get capital T Taken, duh.) I spotted two petite girls around my age, and politely veered into their path, not unlike a crazy person.

British queues are no joke. I waited in line to use a trash bin in Westminster Station.

British queues are no joke. I waited in line to use a trash bin in Westminster Station.

I blanked. “Where is the…underground…station?” I prayed they would assume English wasn’t my first language. They pointed across the street and gave me a bless her heart smile before wishing me good luck. When I got back to the hotel room later that night, I told my two Australian roommates. One laughed, but the other corrected me.

“You should have asked where the tube was,” she haughtily explained. I rolled my eyes at my own foolishness, nodded, and repeated tube to myself. “No. The CH-ube,” she stressed.

That one stupid word peeled back the protective veneer of my illusory British identity and exposed me for what I truly was – a stranger in a foreign land. Suddenly this country that had always felt like a second home became distant. I was physically in England, but I finally felt fully rooted in America. Once again, I felt a transatlantic detachment from my surroundings. You cannot choose where you come from, but if you’re lucky you can choose where you go. I’m not done with London yet. The next time I go, I won’t feel like an outsider, I’ll simply be picking up where I left off.

YES, YES, YES at the British Library

YES, YES, YES at the British Library

Buckingham Palace gate

Buckingham Palace gate

King's Cross Station, Platform 9¾ . I want his job.

King’s Cross Station, Harry Potter Platform 9¾ . I want his job.

St. Pancras

St. Pancras Station and Hotel

St. Pancras

St. Paul's, a beautiful cathedral with a storied history

St. Paul’s, a beautiful cathedral with a storied history

St. Paul's Cathedral

St. Paul's Cathedral, from the Millennium Bridge

St. Paul’s Cathedral, from the Millennium Bridge

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The Best-Laid Plans

H eathrow Sculpture

Last year I quit my job to travel from London to Athens. In the weeks leading up to my trip, I scavenged travel blogs, seeking scraps of tourism enlightenment. Suitcase or backpack duffel, which burden would I choose? At what point does one have too much underwear? Could I walk a mile in those shoes? Packing loomed over me like an unanswerable kōan. I prayed for a Mean Girls moment in which the culmination of all my efforts would produce clarity. I would suddenly understand, “The limit does not exist!” Of course, the limit did exist in the form of a 29” x 20” x 10” suitcase size restriction. I micromanaged every aspect of my trip, but I was not prepared for the litany of unforeseen obstacles I encountered.

As I learned at Heathrow Airport, sometimes the unforeseen is just your own incompetence. Grinning like an idiot at 7:40 a.m., I handed my passport to the UK Border Force officer. I’d been to Canada a few times as a kid and I’d been to Jamaica, but I’d never needed a passport. There I was, waiting expectantly for my stamp, like a toddler with an autograph book at Disney World, and the Immigration officer was just staring back at me. When I opened my carryon bag to retrieve the information he asked for, the zipper snagged and I could hear everyone in “the queue” behind me groan in exasperation. In my haste at Newark Airport, I’d stuffed all my travel documentation into my checked bag, which was now waiting for me just past the apathetic gatekeeper. All I had on me was an itinerary listing all the places I would be staying during my trip. He actually stepped down from his podium to zip my bag and physically remove me from his life after reluctantly stamping my passport. Clearly I was too inept to be a threat to national security.

Arc de Triomphe

Overcome by the sheer power of my pink hair straightener, my travel converter clicked once and died on the first night in Paris. Unable to charge my camera or phone, I wasted valuable time racing up and down the Champs-Élysées, miming the act of plugging an electronic device into the wall. Each response was the same. Security guards and cashiers alike carelessly flicked their wrists towards the door, shooing me out with the single word, “Fnac.” In hindsight, I began to worry that I may have come across as an aggressive American threatening to stab employees with an imaginary knife. Then I stumbled upon Fnac – which happens to be an electronics store, not a French expletive. Seven days and several annoyed sales associates later, I found a replacement not in a shop but in the lobby of the Generator Hostel Barcelona.

I was so consumed by my mission that I failed to realize I was out of clean underwear until I settled into the small, Jack-and-Jill-style campground mobile home I slept in while in Antibes. There were only two washing machines, and one was broken. As a result the remaining one was constantly in use. I went back to the camper, determined to wash at least three pairs in the sink. My bunkmate found me rifling through dirty clothes, trying to find the laciest, most displayable underwear to line dry in the bathroom that connected our room to the other girls’. She asked me not to leave wet clothes laying around, citing her asthma as a concern. Ok, but you’ve left wet clothes hanging and a dry cycle costs €4. That’s more than a euro per panty, plus extra when you factor in the exchange rate. I didn’t bother getting into it; I bit my tongue. Since I only had detergent pods with me, I scrubbed my knickers with a mandarin guava shower gel I’d purchased at Target on a whim. When I returned to the laundry patio, a small child popped out of the lone available dryer, like a creepy human jack in the box, and that was a wrap for me. No way in hell was I going to spend €4 to subject my organic-mandarin-guava-infused intimates to a dryer that had just housed the filthy feet of a screaming child. Nope! I was back in France frittering away valuable time. I marched my way back to the bathroom and MacGyvered a clothesline out of a shelf, a length of cord, and two clips.

Along the Canal

The minute I arrived in Venice, I sought out a washing machine. The laundry tides had turned, my clothes were clean, and all that was left was the dryer. How could things go wrong? Well, for starters, I could be €1 coin short, and have to walk a mile uphill to ask for change at the information desk. Oh, they don’t have change at the information desk, even though that’s where they sell Wi-Fi? I should go to the bar, you say? Ok. Oh, you don’t do change at the bar either? Well, fine, I’ll have a tequila sunrise, and can you please make sure I receive coins in change? I slid €4 into the dryer slot, pressed all the relevant buttons, and left. Little did I know, I would be back later only to spiral into a whirlwind of laundry despair. THE DRYER WAS BROKEN. It took my money – money that cost me a two-mile hike, an unwanted drink, a mosquito bite to the face, and a seat at dinner – and it didn’t do the only thing it was manufactured to do. You had one job, dryer! I lost it. I sank to the floor and sobbed until a kind tourist helped me up. Fortunately, one of the girls in my group came in to dry her bedbug-ridden clothes, so she offered to throw mine in with her load.

In the wake of my laundry struggle, I returned to the bar. All I wanted to do was get drunk, multiple U’s drunk, but it wasn’t in the cards for me. The person sitting beside me knocked into the table as he stood up, sending my drink into my lap. With nothing else to change into, I decided to go sit in front of the dryer and contemplate life as the clothes spun. Aren’t we all individual articles beaten down by the agitator of life? (Yeah. That’s where I was at, psychologically.) It was 1 a.m. before my clothes were clean, and as I set them down on my sleeping bag I realized I felt more homesick than tired. I needed someone to commiserate with me and I needed a laugh. Though I was nowhere near as intoxicated as my affected British accent suggested, I felt better after calling a friend.

I climbed the two wooden plank steps that led to the door of my cramped, mobile residence, moving gingerly to mitigate noise. As I bent down to open my suitcase, I heard a snore come from my bed. Assuming the roommate who walked past me as I was on the phone had accidentally gotten into my bed, I walked over to hers only to find her in it. I checked the third bed for our other roommate, and found her asleep as well. As much as I wanted a storybook vacation, I wasn’t expecting a Goldilocks experience. If they were in their beds, who was in mine?

Let me preface this by explaining that I am not a germaphobe. I’m non-confrontational. When you put your feet on my pillow, or touch my food when I know you don’t “believe” in hand washing – like, bro, it’s soap, not a unicorn – I might laugh along and agree that I’m neurotic, as I set the pillow aside to be torched or throw the food in the trash. Deep down I’m questioning your upbringing. So when I flicked the light switch in that little Venetian trailer home, and discovered a seemingly naked random dude curled up in my sleeping bag, it was too much for me.

“Hey. HEY,” I started clapping above his ear, “HEY, WAKE UP.” No response, except from my roommates. That’s when I noticed my clean laundry scattered across the floor. My. Clean. Laundry.

“Who is he? I thought that was you in bed,” ventured my soft-spoken British roommate. “I put the bin there by your bed because I thought you might be sick.”

I cap out at about 5’2 on a good day, whereas this dude was easily 6’ tall. No clue how she confused the two of us, but apparently she’d stood over the bed for a while in the dark, consoling this guy while he’d hacked up his lungs earlier. For a solid five minutes, the three of us stood there yelling at this possibly comatose stranger, while he continued to sleep off whatever had landed him in my sleeping bag. He looked like shit. If a sentient pile of excrement had a fairy godmother that could transform it into a nebulously human-adjacent creature, he would be the end result.

“Mate, you’ve got to get up,” she tried again. When he finally stood, ludicrously clutching my sleeping bag to his chest in an attempt to preserve his modesty, she asked, “Have you got any clothes on under there, mate?” He checked. He checked. As in, he was not sure and had to peek down into the sleeping bag to ascertain whether or not he was clothed. He offered a single drunken nod of confirmation. I stood there, quietly fuming, unable to speak. She continued to gently ask him where he came from, and if he wouldn’t mind please returning there. As if lulled by the suggestion, he turned to the door and carefully shuffled toward it, still wearing the sleeping bag. When she asked him to leave the sleeping bag, he became obstinate. No, he would not leave. Suddenly he didn’t know where he was, or where to go. I lost it.

“GIVE ME BACK MY SLEEPING BAG AND GET THE FUCK OUT.” I was beyond charity, the way my freshly laundered clothes were beyond the confines of my bed. He toppled out of the sleeping bag, and stood defiantly in his boxers. He seemed to believe that it was my civic duty to help him navigate his way home, though he hadn’t needed any assistance tearing through my belongings to crawl into my bed. “I don’t know where you came from, and I don’t care. Get out,” became my personal mantra, as I attempted to push his nasty sweat-slicked body over the threshold. All I could think about was the transmission of trichomoniasis through wet cloth, something I learned about in seventh grade health class. He clung to the doorframe, refusing to leave. In my mind, I was Chun Li seconds away from performing a Spinning Bird Kick. At nearly 3 a.m., the situation was too absurd. Tired, frustrated I’d have to spend €20 to wash my clothes and sleeping bag, and livid that my roommate hadn’t locked the door, I tried to comfort myself with the fact that the situation could hardly be more farcical. Then my roommate proved me wrong.

“Poor thing, he’ll be eaten by the mosquitos. Maybe we should let him stay? He could sleep just there on the floor,” she said, pointing to the tight space between our beds. For one infinitesimal moment, he slackened his grip on the doorframe to look longingly at the spot, like a dog invited in out of the rain. I seized my chance to get rid of him. Without a second thought, I shoved him out into the night like Uncle Phil evicting Jazz. Maybe they don’t teach stranger danger to children in the UK, but I was terrified by the notion that he could have forced himself on me had I chosen to go to sleep rather than call my friend. Personal safety is paramount; it blows my mind how negligent people are about locking doors at night. Aware of the bedbugs two trailers down, I chose to curl up at the foot of my roommate’s sleeping bag like a cat rather than risk sleeping on my exposed mattress.

I learned a few things about the world on this trip, but I also learned a lot about myself. While I am still objectively young, I am not carefree. 4,200 miles from home, with another 800 miles ahead of me, I finally understood that it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you will always be yourself. Unless you’re clairvoyant, you won’t always be prepared for what happens, but I guess that’s part of what makes life interesting.

Venice

Santa Maria della Salute on the Canal

Rain smells different in a sinking city. That distinctive smell, usually earthy and comforting, elicits childhood fears of lost civilizations and forgotten history. After a lifetime under the vague impression that the city would one day collapse under its own weight, Venice wasn’t what I expected. With its winding pavement and irregular intersections, it’s easy to lose yourself in Venice. There were times when I forgot that I was surrounded by water, times where I didn’t silently consider each raindrop another nail in the coffin of a watery grave.

 

The Gondolier

 

Piazza San Marco

 

Venice Shop Window

 

Scala Contarini del Bovolo

 

Santa Maria della Salute

Venice is beautiful. Everyone should go at least once, to experience the gondolas, the architecture, and the shop windows. I was supposed to visit a Venetian glass-blowing demonstration, but I got lost and missed it. I did, however, pick up an intricate, lace masquerade mask from a street vendor. My advice: don’t be afraid to ask for help once you realize you’ve wandered too far into the labyrinth. Make note of the following, and you’ll be fine.

PRO-TIPS:

  1. Watch your back. The cobblestone roads are too narrow to accommodate trucks, so deliveries are made by handcart. Deliverymen are on a mission; they don’t care if you’re having a life-affirming moment, gazing out across the vast expanse of tomorrow’s Atlantis. They give fair warning by yelling at those in their way, so expect to be bowled over by more than the beauty of the city if you don’t move.
  2. Don’t fall into the canals. Two words: raw sewage.
  3. Carry extra cash. By the time I made it to Rome, I’d learned to look for signs outside restaurants boasting no cover charge. I wish I’d known in Venice. When we received our bill, there were several extra charges, including a service charge for the cooks and cover charge for entrance. Gratuity was added, though it was a small group, and our waiter suggested we also tip on top of that. Basically, they saw us coming.
  4. Enjoy your water taxi ride! I regaled everyone in my vicinity with the story of The Mystery Man in My Bed.

I’ll save that story for tomorrow, though. It deserves its own post.

Food for Thought

travelchannelshows

Clostridium botulinum – or more specifically, the botulism toxin it produces – will kill you. Botulism triggers paralysis; first arresting your extremities, before seizing your respiratory system, and effectively asphyxiating you. I took Food Science 101 in college under the false assumption that it would be easy. Each lesson was like watching Investigation Discovery, only the killers weren’t Wives with Knives or Evil Twins, they were listeria, E. coli, and salmonella. For most people, food safety concern begins and ends with a cursory glance at a use by date. Water treatment has washed cholera from our minds.

Far from being afraid, modern society is obsessed with food. Instagram hosts hundreds of thousands of in memoriam photos of dinners gone too soon. I’m pretty sure Yelp exists solely as weapon of emotional blackmail over restaurateurs. Food is shared amongst our social media plates, but it’s also consumed on TV. Between Food Network, Cooking Channel, daily Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares marathons on BBC America, The Taste, and every other MSG-fueled grab for our attention, we should be full. Somehow there’s room for more. Travel Channel, despite seemingly devoting itself to the subject of travel, has devolved into a veritable smörgåsbord of food programming.

I understand that food can be wonderful and terrible, sometimes simultaneously, as in the case of deep fried lemonade. Food is colorful and varied, and in some ways serves as a metaphor for the people who eat it. We are what we eat. Eating is often a shared experience, a way to bring people together and forge connections. Cuisine is intrinsically linked to culture, yet it is only a fragment of a nation’s identity. Entomophagy, the human consumption of insects as food, fascinates those of us who would much sooner run from a bug than put it in our mouths. Though insects are eaten on every continent, we cling to the narrative that the practice is unique to places like Thailand. We satisfy ourselves with this glimpse into their culture, the Bizarre Foods they eat. I wish Travel Channel would live up to its name, but food is easy, right?