Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Midnight Walk (Or: How I Fell in Love with London)

It is perhaps, tonight, that I’ve fully let myself fall in love with London.

A long day of class and suffocating inside had lead to an imprisoned and eventually depressing night of cross-stitching, reading and half-hearted attempts at blogging. And, of course, the later the hour, the greater my melancholy and sense of doomed loneliness became. I needed a cure, and staying in the cramped quarters of the dorm was not the answer. So I walked.

The familiar path toward the Thames was not the most enchanting of London streets, it being a main road, and already desolate at this hour of the night. But a bright orb of a full perfect moon lit up a mostly cloudless, velvet sky, and with the soundtrack of comforting songs, I could at least let my sadness slip in silent tears in peace. I wondered if strangers noticed, but likely not, and that was okay. It was a delightful balance, that of the pleasure of the night air, and the slight danger of reality—playing a game of I wonder when/if I’d get run over or mugged. I, usually lacking sense of personal safety, at least followed traffic signals even when I didn’t have to, and made the slightly cautious decision to veer away from the darker, smaller streets.

And, in time, I came to the river. The sight of it was a near instant cure (though even the journey there had helped), and the motions of the dark waters, the sprinkling of blue and white lights woven in the trees across the water, and the silhouettes of buildings I already recognized well bade me to take in a deep breath of precious relief. I walked, slowly, down the riverbank. This was the same stretch that I had walked through a few weeks ago, amongst crowds to watch the midnight carnival parade and await the explosions of fireworks above the river. Now, the bank was entirely deserted, except for the ghosts of imagined figures I thought I glimpsed in red telephone booths, or waving from boats. The heavy, brooding masses of the docked boats seemed only inviting, their entrances unguarded except for a few easily stepped over chains. I passed the old monuments and touched their intricate metalwork, smiled at the sights of the dragons guarding the boundaries of the old London city. On my side of the river, too, outlined in subdued lights towered the majestic and elaborate architecture of old, made all the more wondrous by their contrast to the modern neon signs on their opposite side.

It was a pleasure like few others, and when I reached the entrance to one bridge, I turned around to begin my walk toward the other. London is quite a romantic city, especially at night, in this light. The empty, old-fashioned benches along the river begged for the warmth of two bodies entwined, nestled scarves and clasped hands. My real romance was in New York, but it struck me that if I could allow myself to be seduced by the magic of this city, I hardly needed a real romance. I could play pretend. And it wouldn’t be hard, would it, to create a three-month affair to remember? Not with those glittering lights and enchanting buildings as the backdrop. The birds quietly bathing in the river might have agreed.

So, it was, back towards Waterloo Bridge, and when the expanse of both sides of London came into view, and the glowing face of Big Ben smiled next to the bright lights of the London Eye, the dimly visible outlines of the palaces held their eternal ground, I felt weak and dizzy at the impossible beauty of it all. Even the National Theater, so plain and strange, too modern, in the daytime, at night, cast in its coats of bright lights, and its outdoor terrace, its expanses spotlighted, empty, became a place of make believe.

When I found my way to the bus stop on the other side of the bridge, I sat next to a couple who smiled and said hi. Sing us a song, he said. Really? I asked. We would love that so much, she said. They were both smoking cigarettes. I promised to look through my iPod for a suitable performance, uncertain. They made small talk, I told them I was studying literature and writing. Do you write stories then? He asked. I said I wrote many. Do you want to tell us a story then? I said I would. That I knew I was good at. It took a few moments for me to think. Telling stories are hard, she said, you don’t have to tell us one if you don’t want to. Oh I can, I reassured. Just give me a prompt. Tell us a story about people waiting for the bus, he said.

As prompted, I told them a story. Two people waiting for the bus, a boy and a girl. I told them it’d be morbidly depressing and they were okay with that. He pretended to lie on the road, in front of a slow moving milk truck. The driver said something to us, I couldn’t make out what. Probably laughing. So I told them a story about a girl in a floral dress, cold, alone, writing in a notebook. And a boy in an university sweatshirt, who watched her, and tried to ask her questions, offer her his jacket, a cigarette. But she always looked up, smiled, and said no. He asked her what she was waiting for, and she said, nothing. He said you can’t be not waiting for anything. He suggested possibilities: a bus that didn’t run during the night, the newspaper, a sunrise. But she shook her head, smiling, clutching her arms together in the cold, I’m not waiting for anything. He kept asking questions and she kept answering them the wrong way. His bus came, and he got on, sat at the very back so he could watch her from the back window, still wondering. He watched her until she was a barely perceivable figure, slowly rising to walk to the railings of the bridge, pausing, disappearing as the bus drove further. And he realized then that she had been telling the truth, she was waiting for nothing, and she would be there all night.

Nearly right on cue, then, my bus came. They thanked me for the story and bid a hurried goodnight. What’s your name? He asked. I told him. My name’s Sonny, he said. They waved from the bus stop as the bus began to lurch forward, and I waved back.

I couldn’t stop smiling all the way home (and overhearing, and understanding snippets of the conversation the two cute French boys who sat in the seats next to me helped). All my nuisances and complaints about the city seems so pathetic in this light, and perhaps, unlike New York, which is a whirl of excitement and adoration the moment you set foot on the island, London is the sort of lover that takes time to appreciate. The longer you learn the shapes and whispers of the streets the more she opens her arms, revealing infinity of history, beauty, & darling, fantastic life.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Music Monday: Definitely Not a Nashville Party

Miley Cyrus- Party in the U.S.A.

So I still haven't quite found the proper soundtrack to my adventures in London yet (mostly I've been too concerned with marveling at the beauty of the buildings and being lost)--Belle & Sebastian feels too tired, all the Robyn I frantically listened to in New York seems too frantic, my collection of French pop drifts through my head now and then, but feels like it'd be better suited when I head to the streets of Paris. What, then? The Cure, The Smiths, sure, but that feels outdated. Maybe it'll take another week or two to find it, but in the meantime, there's this. (And no, it's not a joke, though a bit of a remainder from California.)

NYU threw us a get to know your fellow NYU in London students/come to the LCKSU waterfront bar social on Saturday night, where it seemed like the DJ tried a bit too hard to play songs she thought were American. (Think "Bad Romance" and "California Gurls," and later, inexplicably, "Don't Stop Believin'") Familiar, sure, but so was everyone I saw, and even the free Budweisers as part of our package. I get the feeling that we didn't come to London for a taste of American culture.

Luckily, I stumbled across the an indie dance night upstairs, and free from the confines of familiar faces and accents, with the spiked and pink haired DJs playing infectious songs I hadn't heard a hundred times before, I could dance without fear, and even chat with strangers and make friends who knew next to nothing about NYU. It was rather elating, and a bit like what I imagined my experience to be here all along. But best were the moments when the DJ played songs I knew, be it The Cure's "Close to Me" or Daft Punk's "Digital Love" or a familiar anthem from Sleigh Bells, when I could sing along to the lyrics and smile at my new friends, who were also singing along. It wasn't Miley's Britney or Jay-Z, but there is something fantastic in dancing to a familiar song in an unfamiliar place, this faint sense of belonging, of comfort in release.

"Party in the USA", I think, more than just an absurdly catchy pop song, hints at something bigger. The inevitable discomfort and anxiety of new beginnings, and finding solace in something so simple as a song, and finding delight in that reckless dancing, is very much a real and wonderful delight. And though that was far from a party in the USA (and, surprisingly, not as many girls here wear stilettos), the comfort of a song I love made everything feel that much easier.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Sunday Love: Anna Gillette

This is a long belated post, but I did a photoshoot with the lovely Anna Gillette a while back, (a mutual friend, Wendy, my talented illustrator for that darling monocled cockatiel you see up there, introduced us) au naturel, I loved Anna's work the instant I saw her portfolio, and was delighted to model (plus, we soon learned that we had a shared love of taxidermy and morbid beauty). The entire shoot was done with various experimental film polaroids, and there is something so wonderful about the process that made the whole thing all the better. Here are some of my favorites from the shoot...

See the rest on Anna's website, and visit her Flickr for more of her dreamy work.

Friday, September 3, 2010

On London (and a rough start)

The journey to London had not been easy. In fact, things started getting hard even before I left. There was the matter of various health issues (including an unpleasant and far from poetic infection on the toe and some bloody procedure that accompanied it the day before my departure), losing my wallet (and quite a bit of extra cash aside from that, and mysteriously a single slipper), and a seemingly endless stream of things to get done before I rushed off. September first went by too quickly, and instead of the joyous sendoff I envisioned with all of my friends, farewells came as one small thing after another. My last few hours in New York, after the panic of the week before, the boyfriend and I had a lovely dinner at Balthazar, then we rushed home (where the car service was already waiting outside), to stuff my last few belongs in my suitcases, and it was off to JFK, where there was hardly enough time for anything except a seemingly too short, tear stained goodbye.

The process of landing, immigration, suitcases and waiting for the NYU bus didn't make anything easier. Weary, jet lagged, sick from the plane, all I could remember were the luxuries of New York. The journey to the residence took forever (interspersed by spells of sleeping and not), and when I arrived, the tiny room with its twin bunk beds (sans bedding) and lack of storage space seemed hardly welcoming. The next two days weren't much improvement: everything was daunting, expensive, intimidating. Practical issues abounded, and the constant stream of introductions and reintroductions and the company of NYU students simply made me feel like I was repeating Freshman year. It felt like everything I had built up in New York had shattered, and I was helpless, small, desperate for approval. I hated it. Hated the sickening essence of being locked in this bubble I was so ready to leave behind...hated the lack of excitement and the slow climbing dread I felt.

Bloomsbury, where I'm living, is a beautiful part of town, and though full of charming buildings at every corner, quaint shops and discoveries, I was far too focused on all my problems to notice any. I walked past Russell Square endless times to run errands, but still hadn't stepped inside the delightful park. I headed off with strings of NYUers to places I didn't really want to go, not thinking, not noticing. My suitcases sprawled across my tiny room, unpacked, daunting. I was in terror of being run over on every street, looking right and left and back each way again, convinced of my inevitable doom. The British accents I heard around me only reminded me of the American accents that imprisoned me everywhere else.

What did it take to wake up? An email from my boyfriend (every reminder of him brought more tears, my comfy apartment, the familiarity of New York)? A breeze that stirred me just so, to look up, and notice, and remember where I was? At some point I stopped to take a deep breath. I took a walk. It was a small thing, pointless, really, but it was that: buying four tangerines from a fruit vendor on the street for a pound, stepping into an unfamiliar grocery store and marveling over the tea selection, staring at titles that were still familiar in a bookstore, looking at intricate churches and architecture, French windows, little red flowers in pots on windowstills, the green of the parks, the slower pace of London. I took a breath and remembered why I was here. Remembered London's history, culture, beauty, all that was waiting. The British friends I'd yet to meet, the familiarity I'd yet to achieve. I took it slower, soaked it in.

It's the night of day three, a Friday night, and I've made it through unpacking, through buying a few necessities, sleeping through orientation, stumbling through lunches, and had time to explore a bit, finally, the way I should have been. This afternoon I stopped by a sidewalk cafe to have a somewhat proper meal: English tea and a croissant (and it seemed entirely likely that that'd be something I survived off this semester). And walking through the narrow streets, I noticed the buildings, heard piano music coming from behind delicate white lace curtains at a room on a lower level, passed through bookshops, narrow alleys that seemed too historical to exist now, in between modern shops. I stumbled into a discount bookstore where every book (including an array of classics I'd been meaning to read) at £2 each, and then, found the British Library. Where I found the literature collection that took my breath away, and standing in front of those glass cases, beneath which, the exquisite handwritten manuscripts of Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, Chaucer, Shakespeare spread...the history of literature so close, I trembled and remembered exactly why I was here.

When I wandered back to my room I was in a far happier mood, floating on the discoveries I was making on every corner, delighted that I could find my way back at all. This evening my roommate and I went out for dinner (tip for future travelers: don't ask for still water but for tap...water will cost you £3 and make you want to die), and another walk that took us to Soho, Oxford Street, and the nightlife seemed marvelous, the shops energizing, and the city so alive in a way different from New York. Every pub on every street looked packed, and though the long stumbling walk back was not as fun, London shines a new light, and I can hardly wait to make its proper acquaintance.

Next week, classes start. I'm hoping desperately NYU's program upholds London's rich intellectual tradition, and if not, I'll seek elsewhere. Next week, I've arranged to meet a few locals (through lots of proactive attempts at socializing with strangers online!) and might, perhaps, get better at knowing how to cross the streets. I expect to be taking my books to plenty of these parks outside, and I'm giddy already envisioning the rest of London (and Europe) to discover.

PS: do you live in London? Around there? Drop me a line please! I'd like to be friends.