Fringe, Day 2

Here’s the thing about Scotland.
As Kj and I walked around both St Andrews and Edinburgh, a frequent exchange was as follows:
Me: “Oooh, a castle! What is it?!”
Kj: “That’s a [chapel/church/bank/hotel/house/grocery store/pub].”
Me: “But…. HOW DOES EVERYTHING LOOK LIKE A CASTLE?!?!”
Then, finally, toward the very end of our stay in Edinburgh, Kj (possibly out of mild exasperation) hauled us to the top of a rise, and said: “Ok, stand here… now look through the trees… over to your left…. do you see it? THAT’S a castle.” To which I responded: “…OHHHHHHH. Ok. I see now. Big, isn’t it…”
Scotland, man. They’ve got castles just lying about the place.
We started our day with a visit to Yankee Candle Scotland, wherein I rediscovered my deep and abiding love for the lawnmower candle (I’m sure it has a more poetic name, but whatever, it smells wonderful) and then went to the Sir Walter Scott monument. It’s a really impressive monument, especially given that it’s to an author, as opposed to, say, a king or whatever. It was built by some unknown semi-amateur architect and fellow freemason of Scott’s (though much his junior), and includes a small museum as well as four balcony levels that you can climb up to, depending on your level of comfort with progressively tinier spiral staircases and dizzying heights. Obviously we went to the very top. One critic said that it looked like someone had plucked the spire off a Gothic cathedral and plunked it down in a park, which is a bit cruel but I must admit, quite accurate. We also saw a fire from the top, or at least a copious amount of smoke from one, so I had fun for a minute pretending to myself that I was a fire lookout in the olden days.
Then we had a bite to eat and went to our first show of the day: Menage a Trois, presented by National Theatre of Scotland at a venue called Paterson’s Land. It was a lovely, lovely piece of dance/ theatre by a dancer choreographer who dances with crutches and who used text (spoken and written) within a dance piece with absolute success. She collaborated with a video artist and that worked quite well. The piece was about a lonely girl on crutches imagining them as her lover, but feeling that she can’t be touched or loved etc, and eventually coming to terms with herself. That’s a fairly trite synopsis, and the show deserves much better… it was really good. The movement was excellent, the story was poignant, and the piece on the whole was, though very accessible, extremely well done.
Afterward I did a tiny bit of souvenir shopping, and then we went to high tea at a charming antique shop/teahouse called ‘Anteaques’ but it was so absolutely adorable that the name didn’t make me want to die. I had an excellent smoky tea that I recently discovered thanks to Brendan’s sweet Indian/Australian aunt Pam, and a scone with violet jelly and clotted cream, and a chocolate-covered earl grey biscuit, and a couple truffles. We drank our tea from an antique tea set amid Victorian furnishings and lamps and fur coats, and it was exquisite.
Then we went exploring a bit, and visited Grayfriars’ Kirk and Kirkyard. It’s an old abbey with the monks’ herb garden still intact (or recreated, I suppose) and a gorgeous cemetery, and a very moving grave for a famous dog that wouldn’t abandon his master’s grave and was buried nearby.
The next show on the books was our most mainstream attempt, from a theatre company called Wet Picnic. The show was a comedic theatre piece about death called ‘Death & Gardening’ though there were no references to gardening as far as we could tell. I think both our feelings on the show can be summed up by Kj’s initial comment, after a bemused silence between us that lasted for about a block after we left the theatre: “Well” she said, “there had to be one.”
Yep. It wasn’t terrible but it felt unfinished, and it came from a company that seems enthusiastic but young and perhaps slightly lacking direction.
Next we headed out to another pub for dinner: The Last Drop on a recommendation from my friend Rich. It was quite good, and I tried my third Islay whisky (the first was amazing, the second was a sweeter variety that I disliked, and this third was very good but not quite as good as the first). I also had my first Yorkshire Pudding (I think — the UK understanding of ‘pudding’ is deeply confusing). It was sort of a beef stew with a flaky pastry lid. It was pretty good but not something I’d eagerly search out again.
Then we went back to our favorite venue, Summerhall, for a third show in the autopsy room. This one was from a quartet of female dancers from all different countries, who had met at the Lecoque institute and began working together. They did a positively brilliant post-feminist (not a term I feel wholly comfortable with, but I think it fits) piece of surreal dance theater. We LOVED it. I’ll be very interested to see what they do next. It was fresh and invigorating and creative and technically excellent and… just great.
After that we had a little time to kill but not enough to venture far, so we sat on a corner of a model viking ship in the courtyard and played a few rounds of Evil Pineapple (a game we created together at The Garrison and that I’d brought with me). It was wonderful.
Finally we went to our last fringe show, also at Summerhall but in a different space — an upstairs room with an old wooden floor. The piece was by a Belgian company called Abattoir Fermé and it was the one I’d been most excited to see. As we walked in, we noticed that the first two rows were taped off and marked ‘reserved.’ Kj mentioned it and I answered, only semi-jokingly, that it probably wasn’t for audience members, but was the blood-spatter zone. I was close.
The performance was my favorite of the Fringe – 90-ish minutes of bizarre Belgian surrealist non-speaking theatre, lots of nudity, a bathtub full of water that, by the end of the piece had been variously colored and liberally sloshed out onto the stage (the fact of the ankle-deep onstage puddle we had to navigate on the way out still makes me shudder for the integrity of the building), and generally lots of weird shit. It reminded me a bit of Jan Fabre and a bit of Hey Girl! at OtB, and I would LOVE to see more work by the company. I got the impression that they’re quite established. IT WAS SO GOOD. Yaaaay Fringe!!!
At the end, we made our way back to the flat, I did my first and only load of actual laundry (as opposed to handwashing clothing in sinks with whatever soap/shampoo was handy) and we got ready for an early start the next day.

 

Fringe, Day 1

Apologies in advance if I get some of this out of order — Kj and I had a wild two days together in Edinburgh that included 4-5 pubs and 7 shows, with other attractions tucked in here and there. It was great!
We got up at a sane hour and went to pick up my “Arts Industry Professional” pass from the festival office, which was pretty awesome but conferred, as far as we could discover, no real benefits other than some street cred and once I was mistaken for another Arts Professional and I guess that’s cool. But still. TOTALLY LEGIT, YO!
We had stopped at an amazing Italian deli for sandwiches on the walk into the city center (our flat was lovely but it was on the outskirts of town), so we ate them in a park before attending our first Fringe show, at Summerhall (which instantly became our favorite venue) by a company called Dudendance. It was an AMAZING way to start our Fringe experience. We picked up our tickets and were directed out back, and told to look for the sign for the queue for the ‘Demonstration Room’. Turns out that was a 19th century autopsy room (though I think primarily for veterinary science as opposed to human dissection). We lined up in an area that looked like, as Kj put it, “the back lot of Sesame Street… I keep expecting Jim Henson to come around the corner.”
We were eventually beckoned into an antechamber with a legit abattoir by a masked figure, where we filed in awkwardly and watched ten minutes or so of dance with weird mutant organic costuming, then were beckoned into the main chamber. THE MAIN CHAMBER OF THE AUTOPSY DEMONSTRATION ROOM. It was rad. The audience was seated in high semi-circular wooden pew-like benches with the back of the pew in front of you serving as a shallow desk for note-taking. Our feet didn’t reach the floor. It was uncomfortable, but brilliantly so. We proceeded to watch 40 minutes or so of a post-apocalyptic dance investigation of the cycle of human violence, and it was VERY good. Then we were beckoned back into the antechamber, where we stood on raised rows and watched a mad scientist-type do a grotesque autopsy on another character. Kj viewed it (correctly, I believe) as the completion of an experiment on violence — the scientist dissecting his still-living subject to see what had happened to it. I, perhaps perversely, also saw a sort of Frankenstein/Pygmalion aspect, and had moments of wondering if he were trying to resurrect his damaged creature… but I tend to look for the positive side of things. Anyway, it was a really good show.
Then we decided to return later in the evening for a second show in the same venue, this time a multimedia puppet show entitled Feral by a company whose name escapes me at the moment. We wandered about a bit in between, I think we visited St Giles Cathedral at that point, which was great. I especially liked the way all the seating faces the center of the cross, rather than the altar, which I think is meant to show that the Word is central to that particular belief system? We also visited a bar where we played a game of Scrabble (she trounced me) and I had my first glass of Islay whisky after sampling a taste the previous night (more on that later).
At some point we also visited the museum (I think maybe the National Museum of Scotland or something), which was in this amazing Victorian building and totally great. It was arranged in sort of a cabinet-of-curiosities style, which worked really well for the time period and made it really fun to explore.
Anyway, then we saw Feral. It was stunningly constructed. Absolutely lovely. A team of four puppeteers, a video artist, and a sound artist (some Foley stuff, yay!) created this incredibly detailed world… they built it before our eyes, all out of paper, lit it expertly, and then filmed it live with two mini cameras which were projected on a screen above and mixed live by the video artist to create this seamless live film, but you could also watch everything happening below, including all the setup for the subsequent shot. It was beautifully, beautifully done. The story left a bit to be desired, which is a common issue I have with puppetry — I just find that, naturally, the best puppeteers aren’t necessarily playwrights, and could really benefit from working with one, or with a dramaturg, as they have a tendency (again, naturally) to get caught up in these incredible worlds they’ve created and show us excerpts from life there, without always forming it into a story that an outsider to the world will especially care about. Sometimes (and I realize this might seem offensive but I don’t mean it that way) it’s a bit like being taken by the hand by a small child and introduced, in great detail, to each one of their dolls. “This is Joey, he’s afraid of the dark so he has to sleep on my pillow, but Jill here gets jealous because then she has to sleep in the toy bin…” Anyway, story aside, it was brilliantly done and I would absolutely love to see more of their work.
Then we went to procure tickets to the last show of the night — I had walked by a poster earlier proclaiming that The Tiger Lilies were performing at the Fringe, so of course I had to go. We first had some food at a pie shop (meat pies, yum! I had a haggis pie with mashed potatoes — it was my first introduction to haggis and I found it to be delicious). Then we went to a pub called Library Bar, which was quite nice, and had a drink. Then we went to see The Tiger Lilies.
I’ve seen them twice before and they weren’t as good this time, unfortunately. The venue was small and mostly empty, and there were maybe five to ten other fans in attendance, plus some randoms who had wandered in for something to do. They also appeared to be working on some new material. It was fun to see them in a small space, though, and I was in the front row! Also when they did their encore they solicited requests from the crowd, and granted mine (“Gin”), which has never happened to me at a concert, so that was super exciting! And afterward I got to meet them and had my picture taken with them, which was fun 🙂
As mentioned earlier, today Kj introduced me to Islay whisky (‘Scotch’). I really dislike whisky and bourbon and brown liquor in general, so I expected to hate it… but, um, it’s AMAZING. It tastes like woodsmoke and campfires and the night on a Scottish moor and history and old leather and magical wardrobes that lead to impossible lands. It’s definitely a thing to take tiny tiny sips of, but the flavour is really quite wonderful.
Then we made our way home and got ready for the next day…

 

St Andrews

I got up super early to catch the train to St Andrews to meet Kj. I’m still not used to the simplicity/efficiency of train travel… I had asked my host the night before how early to arrive at the station: “is one hour early enough?” — she looked at me like I was crazy. “…five minutes is enough, maybe ten if you want to be certain…” “Oh.”
I got there 45 minutes early anyway, because it’s me, which meant that I had time to buy my ticket, find the pasty shop, buy a cheese & mushroom pasty (not the same as a pastRy!) that also contained, I think, potatoes and onions, and eat it in front of a bizarre monument that turned out to be for Sir Walter Scott.
Then I got on the train to Leuchars (a word that looks ugly on the page but is perfectly delightful when pronounced by a Scottish person) followed by a bus to St Andrews, where the lovely and wonderful Kj met me at the bus station. It was as if we’d just seen each other last week, as opposed to almost exactly a year ago… I think that’s the mark of a true friend: that you can see one another after an extended absence and pick up just where you left off.
She showed me all around St Andrews, which is a charming little hamlet (it might be slightly too large to be called a hamlet, but I’m going for it) with three streets: North Street, South Street, and Market Street. We saw some ruins, including a ruined cathedral; I went up a ruined church tower and looked all around; we went out to the pier and looked at the North Sea; explored the town; visited a surprisingly good little museum; played putt putt golf at the St Andrews course (I technically played golf at St Andrews! One of the first and most famous golf courses in the world!); and had dinner together in her ancient communal dining hall. Then we made our way to Edinburgh and settled in at our flat, to get ready to attack our Fringe experience. It was a beautiful day.

 

Edinburgh!

After a hustle through the train station in London (though I did find time to stop for trifle at Marks and Spencer), I was on the train to Edinburgh. It was a pleasant ride, lots of sheep and coastline. I arrived in Edinburgh around 5pm, and went looking for my homestay. The directions I was given were fairly clear, however they assumed you would leave the station through the front door, and what fun would that be? Assuming one could find the front door…? Anyway, I asked a construction worker where I might find Leith Walk (mispronouncing it of course), and he replied with something I can only approximate: “Well darlin, ye joost goe oot thar, past th’ pasty shop, oop th’ stair, toorn t’ ye left, goe a wee bit more, an’ ye’ll find Leith Walk joost thar.”
WELCOME TO SCOTLAND!
Sooooo I’ve discovered that my obsession with British television didn’t prepare me for being fully surrounded by an assortment of British accents in London. Some British accents are lovely, and most are charming in small doses, but some are a little grating and when they’re all around you, it loses some of the charm.
But.
Scottish accents.
It’s just the opposite: on screen/stage they tend to set my teeth on edge a tiny bit… but in person? SO LOVELY! I could quite happily be surrounded by thick Scottish brogues all day every day. I had to warn my fella that if a gentleman in a kilt (possibly with bagpipes [which, holy shit, BAGPIPES EVERYWHERE]) referred to me as a ‘bonnie lass’ I might never come home.
Fortunately for everyone involved, this didn’t happen…
Anyway, I eventually found my homestay (the fact that Scottish streets curve frequently, change names at approximately every other intersection [and then sometimes, but not always, change back], and are very casual about posting street signs in the first place made it a tiny bit challenging). I was greeted by my absolutely lovely bohemian host, who was like your favorite young Scottish aunt, and who gave me lots of helpful advice along with her tour of the apartment. Our room (for me and Kj, who was joining me the next day) was lovely – a platform bed for me and a cozy mattress on the floor for her). The building was approximately a million years old, but perfectly lovely — the entrance stairs in the hall were so worn that walking up them felt like being on the deck of a ship in high seas (I’m not exaggerating and I truly doubt that I could have navigated them if I were even slightly tipsy). When I left it took me about ten minutes to work up the courage to attempt to open the main entry door, which had a latching mechanism I’d never seen before that was opened by pressing a giant red button that looked for all the world like it would instantly summon the fire department and/or police while making loud siren sounds; in fact it just made a tiny click and opened the door. I didn’t dare press it until I’d checked every other possibility, though.
I asked my host for a recommendation on a place to get ‘proper fish & chips’ as I’d missed that in London, and then set off to explore.
I went up and down the Royal Mile, which is thick with souvenir shops and even thicker, during the Fringe, with all manner of street performers (trending heavily toward the magician/circus act variety), piles of off-street performers handing out flyers for their shows, and a zillion tourists/audience members tootling about more or less aimlessly.
A note on roving audiences: Edinburgh has, simultaneously, an international book festival, the Edinburgh International Festival (classical music, straight theatre, etc — self-consciously highbrow), and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which is staggeringly enormous and encompasses every type of performing art (and is approx 50% stand-up comedy). So the massive crowds roaming around this not-so-massive city are… eclectic.
Then I sought out authentic fish & chips (“garden peas or mushy peas?” “ummm… garden?”). It was quite tasty, though definitely not something to eat every day. I ordered a side of bread & butter without thinking about it, though (and having freshly come from Paris…), and was surprised when it arrived — one slice of white sandwich bread with butter. Ha!
Then I went back and settled in to prepare for an early morning departure to visit and fetch Kj in St Andrews.

 

Art in Paris

I went to the Pompidou Center, an amazing (and huge!) modern art museum. I checked in my backpack, which felt amazing, and went exploring. I tend to visit museums like I’m on a treasure hunt. I go pretty quickly, waiting for something that will catch me, and hoping to discover something new that will change my world. It’s remarkably successful 🙂
This time I discovered Simon Hantaï. They had a whole special exhibit on him, which was massive. It was chronologically ordered, so his early work was first… I was initially unimpressed. Vaguely surrealist, not particularly interesting.
Then he started using little animal skulls, and I perked up a little, but it still wasn’t earth-shaking.
Then he did a bunch of repetitive-patterned large-scale paintings created over long periods of time. These weren’t great to look at, but some of his process started to interest me. There was this one massive pair of paintings (each about 10-15′ square) being exhibited side-by-side for the first time ever… he had created them both at the same time over a period of months, but one he worked on every morning and the other he worked on every evening. They were somewhat interesting.
Then I turned a corner, and… wow. He had made this total break with his existing process (in the late 60s I think?) and started crumpling up and knotting these massive canvases, and only painting the parts he could see. Then he’d open them up and restretch them. It sounds boring, but it was… amazing. They’re huge, and the colors are incredible, and they maintain some of the crumpled texture so they aren’t flat, and they just sort of… explode off the wall. They look natural, and organic, but also dramatic and very very aesthetically conscious. Some are like looking into a wall of jungle with dappled sunlight between the leaves, some look like sunshine on water, some look like cloudscapes…. in all cases there’s a nagging sense that something has been captured and illuminated, and you just need to look a little bit longer, and the sun will break through and you’ll be able see through the leaves/water/clouds to what’s on the other side. It’s intense.
I didn’t even keep going for awhile. I picked this one painting and sat down in front of it and I think I may have said out loud “You. Hi. We’re going to be friends.” I must have stayed there for close to half an hour, before I finally stood up, shook myself off, and kept going. The rest of his work was equally fascinating, but I didn’t linger as long with any of it. There was a little room that was showing video footage of him working, and I was interested in that but it was so crowded I couldn’t get in. I went through the rest of the exhibit, and then strolled through a big Lichtenstein exhibit they were having. Then I went back to visit my painting friend again, and stayed about fifteen minutes, then went through the rest of the exhibit a second time. There had just been some sort of medical emergency, so most of it had been closed and they were only just reopening it — brilliant, because it meant it was completely empty! I got to be the first one in the video room, so I watched footage of the artist for awhile. It was AWESOME. He’d knot and paint and re-knot and paint, for ages, then he’d flatten them out with this big concrete roller, and then he’d spread them out — lots of them — in his garden/orchard and let them dry in the sun. His darling little blond daughter would run across them as she was picking flowers. It was positively idyllic.
After I finished my second trip through his exhibit I went through part of the next floor down, but at that point I was so exhausted that I couldn’t think straight. I found an outdoor sculpture garden with a reflecting pool up near the roof, so I went and laid down on the concrete in the sun next to the pool for about an hour or so. I dozed a little, and read a little, and looked out over the city. After that I felt so much better that I was able to finish the museum, which had some really great stuff and was arranged beautifully.
Then I went and met the girl who checked me in to the apartment where I was staying. She was so sweet and pleasant! The apartment was great — on the top (6th) floor of an old building just down the street from the Hotel de Ville in the center of town. It was small but cozy (although the elevator was SO small that the other girl and I were practically cuddling), with a skylight over the bed that opened. It was a bit stuffy but when I opened the big front window and the skylight it got a lovely breeze.
The girl who checked me in also walked me to the nearest grocery store, where I bought cheese and wine to go with my bread. It was passable but unexciting — certainly not a cheese shop. Then I went back, relaxed, fell asleep, and woke up early to catch a train to my next stop: Edinburgh!

 

Paris!

So first I have to say that I had like five blog posts written and was just waiting for WiFi to post them, but Google decided that since someone was logging into my account from random places all over Europe it must have been hacked, so they locked it. When I got it unlocked all my unpublished blog posts were gone. Curses!
On the other hand, that’s the only bad thing that’s happened to me on this trip, so I can’t really complain.
Anyway, Paris!
So…
I barely caught the bus, but I did. Naturally I ended up sitting next to the weird dude, but whatever, that’s why the good lord gave us headphones… then I took a ten-hour bus ride (my bus rode a ferry!) napped a little, read a lot, and arrived in Paris at 7:30am.
Now, here’s the thing about cheap buses (Megabus exists in Europe, too, so that’s what I took)…
If you take a plane, you land at an airport, with transit connections, info booths, currency exchanges, kiosks, waiting areas, WiFi, duty free shops, and in the US, invariably the damn Hudson News (which I hate with an unreasonable passion).
If you take a train, you come in to a train station, most likely a main one, with mostly the same stuff.
If you take a bus… you wind up at a shitty little bus depot, typically on the outskirts of town, pretty much always in a seedy area. It might have a kiosk, but it will probably be closed at whatever bizarre hour you arrive… the ticket counter might have a surly person who will answer a question or two, but then again there might not even be a ticket counter, just a few automated machines. If you’re really lucky, there might be an indoor waiting area and maybe even toilets, but don’t count on it. Even if these things exist, the toilets will be filthy and all the seats in the waiting area will already be claimed by people who have been waiting much, much longer than you, and who will go on waiting indefinitely (it’s entirely possible that they might actually live there). Just sit yourself down on the floor, sister, and keep your mouth shut. If you’re extra-fortunate, you might find a bit of cleanish floor in a corner where you can lean up against a wall, but don’t count on it.
I’m not a huge fan of bus travel, can you tell?
Our poor UK bus driver, in a giant coach with the steering on the right, got lost on the way into the city, so we had some exciting moments driving through tiny windy streets and over curbs, but eventually we got there. Then I eventually found the nearest subway station, and bought a street map, and I was off!
First I bought a pain au chocolat and went to the Arc du Triomphe, planning to sit up on top in the middle of that massive traffic circle and watch the madness. Turn out the top doesn’t open until 10am, though, so I sat underneath instead — still fun. It was just me and about ten thousand Japanese tourists.
Brendan sent me this article on how Japanese tourists in Paris tend to lose their minds (like in a legit psychological disturbance/psychotic break sort of way), because Paris is so revered as a cultural center in Japan. I can’t speak to that, but there are SO MANY Japanese tourists there! So many. Crazy.
So yeah, I bought a PASTRY at a SUBWAY STATION and it was the best I’ve ever had. Flaky, buttery, soft, delicious… You definitely win at pastry, Paris.
Then I went to a random park and found some free WiFi, and resisted a very strong urge to take a nap on the grass (part of the reason for the overnight bus trip from London was to save on the cost of a hotel AND spend less than I would for the train, and just sleep on the bus… which sounds great in theory but I didn’t sleep much at all).
Then I made my pilgrimage to the original Poilâne bakery, which, oh my god, BREAD! It was AMAZING. They wouldn’t let me see the ovens but it was still amazing. I bought a bunch of bread, and then headed to Sainte Chapelle and Notre Dame to look at some stained glass etc.
My main takeaway from pretty much every tourist sight I visited (Arc du Triomphe, Sainte Chapelle, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, Montmartre…) was this: Very pretty, very crowded, very impersonal. And this on a Monday morning, too! Notre Dame is smaller than I expected, but interesting based on age if nothing else.
Anyway, after visiting Sainte Chapelle and Notre Dame I went to Montmartre and visited Sacre Coeur. Most of Paris is pretty flat, but that area is very hilly. When I came out of the metró there were about a million signs warning tourists to take the funicular up to Sacre Coeur, because it was so steep/so many steps/you would probably die/what are you thinking/take the damn streetcar! So I figured I’d better, since it was really hot and I had my 20lb pack with me… so I stood in this massive line for ages, and finally got up near the front and turned the corner, and SAW the funicular I was waiting for and the million steps I was avoiding… and started laughing. I mean, yeah, it was pretty steep, but it was so short! To a Seattle person… it was like the worst 2-3 blocks of Denny. That’s it. Ha! I was so close to the front at that point that I still rode the funicular, but it was hilarious. I walked down.
Everything I’d been told about the view from the steps in front of Sacre Coeur was true, though. That view is spectacular. I even saw the Eiffel Tower (though it took me much longer than it should have to figure out what it was).
Then I walked down and had lunch at a cafe in Montmartre. Paris absolutely wins at food, my god. SO good. I had a croque madame on baguette with a perfect little salad and exquisite dressing, and a glass of sauvignon blanc. Delicious, and fairly inexpensive too.
Then I made my way back to the city center, and still had over four hours to kill before I could check in to my apartment, when the girl with the key got off work. I was feeling a bit wrung out — lack of sleep, carrying my pack around in the sun all day, no dinner the night before, and I was fighting an ear infection — so I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Obviously I chose art!
More on that later…

 

London, continued

My bus from the airport (a story in itself, see below) dropped me off at 221b Baker Street.

For real.
Well, not EXACTLY, because there is no 221b, but right directly in front of where it would be. So my arrival into the city of London was to be dropped off at 1am, a woman alone and post-slightly-distraught, at Sherlock Holmes’ address. It COULD NOT BE MORE PERFECT.
About that bus ride from the airport:
I allllllmost started crying at the bus driver. All the other buses were huge coaches, and then mine showed up and it was a shuttle van. I was first in line but the lady at the information desk had told me I didn’t need a ticket, I could just pay the driver… but then the driver said he had to take all the ticketed people first and could only take cash if there was still room, and there was a big line behind me because I’d been waiting for 45 minutes at that point and they all had tickets but I’d been waiting so much longer than them! And so they all filed past me and got on and I was getting a little distraught at the thought of being the only one left behind at the airport to wait another hour for another bus, but then it was ok, there was exactly one seat left(!)
And I got a seat all to myself with no seat next to me, unlike everyone else 🙂
VINDICATED.
Anyway…. Then I arrived and checked in to the cutest, tidiest, TINIEST hotel room ever. I slept a little, and woke up early-ish to explore the city… in brief, I went to:
•Marks & Spencer (AMAZING grocery/food shop, I’ve now been three times and I’m hooked)
•Picnic on the south bank of the Thames (real nice river you’ve got there, London)
•The Tate Modern (amazing and, shockingly, free! Saw another great Beuys piece called Lightning with Stag in its Glare, among lots of other great stuff)
•The wobbly bridge (I think that’s what it’s called?)
•St Paul’s Cathedral
•Houses of Parliament (see note below)
•Westminster Abbey
•Marylebone High Street
•Another picnic
•Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man (3-hour fantastic promenade performance by the creators of Sleep No More)
•Paddington Station
•Canals (!! Actual legit canals!)
Not too bad for a partial day… I definitely have to come back though. Oh, and my sincere apologies to the entire driving population of London, because there’s a fairly good chance I walked out in front of you at some point today. I just couldn’t get the hang of looking in the appropriate direction for traffic… British people are so polite, though, I only got honked at once!
Here’s what happened with Houses of Parliament…
A few people had suggested it as a place to visit, but I was like “oh, whatever, that’s like going to look at the White House… boooooring….” and had no plans to go.
But I decided on a whim to go to Westminster Abbey — I’d forgotten it existed and then noticed it on a map and got excited. So I went without prior research, and walked out of the Tube on the wrong side of the street. Normally that would be fine, but all the streets were blocked off for some massive bicycle marathon, so I had to go the long way around. I was sort of thinking ‘abbey’ meant ‘modest but cool old building where monks once lived or whatever’ — NOT ‘giant cathedral’ as it turned out to be. So I was distracted by that, and I was coming up on Houses of Parliament from behind without knowing what it was, and talking to myself out loud, as you do at a certain point in a solo journey (which I tend not to realize I’m doing until I notice people staring at me). Anyway, this happened:
“Ooooh, what a pretty church! What is it? It can’t be Westminster, that’s over there… it’s so BIG! And it just keeps GOING! And it’s so ornate, and… oooh, statues!
“Wait a second…
“…where are all the crosses……?
“Oh, WHAT. That’s Houses of Parliament? THAT?!?! Oh fuck you, England. That’s not cool, man. Fuck off. Jesus Christ. Seriously?!? ….assholes.”
Hahahaha but yeah, their state building is waaaaaay cooler than ours. Westminster Abbey was cool too, but it was closed to the public so I couldn’t go inside. Apparently I missed Big Ben, which I’m told is right there… like, I think I may have leaned against the base of it, but I was looking for the graveyard at the time. Sometimes I have a truly zen ability to, as Salinger put it: “[make] sure of the essential, [and forget] the homely details… [to look] at the things [I] ought to look at, and [neglect] those that need not be looked at….”
Calling it a ‘zen ability’ is nicer than calling it ‘tunnel vision’ just as saying I’m ‘focused’ is nicer than calling me ‘single-minded,’ so let’s go with that.
Then I went and had a picnic in a park (the restaurant I’d planned to visit was closed, but I had a rec for a great nearby grocery store, and THERE WAS TRIFLE which is hands-down my new favorite dessert).
Then I saw the show (lots of thoughts and some issues with how they chose to end it, but overall it was super great and I really like what the company is up to). Then I made my way to Victoria Station, and discovered that Victoria Coach Station is NOT the same thing, so I had a nice mile-ish flat-out run with my backpack for the bus to Paris and very very nearly missed it. Caught it though, so hurrah!

 

 

Hiya, London!

Yay! I’m in England!

The gentleman at passport control was a little confused by me (I seem to get that a lot at border crossings…). 11pm:
“How long will you be in the UK?”
“Umm, a day. Sort of. But then I’m coming back.”
“What?”
“Well, tomorrow I’m going to Paris but then I’ll be back in the UK the next day to go to Scotland.”
“Ok…. where did you come from?”
“Berlin just now! But via Oslo. From the US…? Wait, is that the question?”
Poor border guards. I always seem to complicate things for them… Plus I’m usually pretty exhausted at border crossings due to my standard mode of traveling, so I don’t explain things very clearly… Oh well 🙂 He stamped my passport, hurrah! Now it has three stamps (Norway didn’t show any interest in it whatsover; they never even looked at it. Sadness).
I keep trying to get on the wrong escalator, and I’ve been walking into people on the sidewalk… I knew that Brits drive on the other side, but it hadn’t really occurred to me that that would translate over to things like escalators too. And riding in this shuttle bus on the wrong side of the road is super disconcerting 🙂
I’m listening to Bowie for the drive in, because obviously 🙂
And I’ve officially reached that lovely time in a backpacking journey where everything in my pack sort of smells like everything else.

Note on the photo: welcome to the tiniest hotel room I’ve ever seen! I couldn’t close the bathroom door when I brushed my teeth because the sink comes up to about 4″ from the doorway. Super cute 🙂 And super clean!

Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin!

I really want to watch The Darjeeling Limited again. I’m listening to to soundtrack now, on my way to the airport, and it’s making me supremely happy. I can never decide how I feel about Wes Anderson; I think we don’t quite see eye to eye, but I can never get his films out of my head.

I’m leaving Berlin now, moving on to a late-night arrival in London. I’m surprised (and made a bit uncomfortable) by how much I’m looking forward to being in an English-speaking country again. It’s fun to be somewhere where you can’t understand most of what’s said and written, but it’s also a little bit exhausting in a way. Like, in that “I’m exhausted and hot and thirsty and I really just need to buy some toothpaste, I wonder if this is toothpaste or not…” kind of way. That said, it is quite fun to shop for essentials in a foreign land (something Rick Steves often suggests, and rightly so).
Public transit in Berlin is the best I’ve yet encountered. The system is incredibly well-organized and intelligently interconnected, and everything runs CONSTANTLY. I haven’t been on a packed subway or bus yet, and I’ve ridden during peak hours. I’ve also never had to wait more than 10 minutes for a train (usually more like 2-4 minutes). The signage is fairly good, though occasionally a little bit more of it would be helpful. And although the subway mostly shuts down for a few hours around 1am, when it does a nighttime bus network takes over, so you can still get wherever you need or want to go. SO GREAT. I can’t wait to live in a city with intelligent mass transit someday… I love Seattle but it truly fails in a massive way on that front.
So this is my first time flying on an intra-Europe ‘low-fare’ airline. Schönefeld airport is… TURRIBLE. It’s small and dirty and ugly and it smells funny. I didn’t know this going in — I thought it was a ‘real’ airport — so I arrived waaaaaay too early, to make sure I had enough time to find my gate. You see, I flew in via Tegel airport, which is old and smallish, so I assumed Schönefeld must be the big one to serve a big city like Berlin. Nope! I got here too early to be allowed through security, in fact, so I had to sit in teeny-tiny pre-security for an hour and then move to slightly-bigger-but-still-unpleasant post-security. There was a duty-free shop on that side, at least. I’m reminded that this airport is old and in East Berlin and it looks like it. Anyway, soon I’ll be in London, hurrah 🙂
Update: I’m riding my first ‘budget’ airline. It’s weird — the seats are hard plastic, the safety card is glued to the seat in front of you because there’s no seat pocket, there are no assigned seats so you have to fight for it if you don’t want to sit in the middle seat, and it all feels very off-brand. It’s like the Greyhound Bus of airplanes…
I don’t mind the lack of luxury, but it occurs to me that of all the things to save money on, maybe airplane travel isn’t the best one. That’s the last of these flights I’ve booked though, I think — it’s all trains and buses and ‘real’ airlines from here. Whoop whoop!
Last thing: I got up waaaaaay early today. See this picture? This is the Brandenburg Gate. On a Saturday. In the summertime. Note how there aren’t any people…. because it’s RIDICULOUSLY EARLY IN THE MORNING. Oy.

 

Various thoughts while getting drunk in East Berlin

It’s hot here, guys. Like stiflingly, deadeningly, damply hot. Like East-Coast-in-August hot. Today it’s about 95° in the shade, and I don’t even want to think about the temperature in the sun.

I guess a positive aspect is that I’m sweating so evenly and so completely in the humidity that I don’t have any specific sweatstains on my clothes. I’m just sort of uniformly damp. Yay?
Earlier today in Prenzlauer Berg a couple boys in their late teens came out of a building, dripping wet, in tiny little swimming bottoms and nothing else, one carrying a big homemade sign that said ‘POOL PARTY!’ and the other carrying a super soaker, with which he proceeded to soak random passers-by. No one seemed to mind in the least, including me.
Now I’m sitting at Renata in Friedrichshain, famous for its surrealist labyrinth. Unfortunately I can’t go inside — I got here when it was supposed to open at 6, but it was all locked up tight. Then I tried to go to the opening night of a modern dance performance but it was sold out — I waitlisted but didn’t get in, so I came back here to try again. This time, at 10pm, the bar is open but the list for the labyrinth tonight is already full and they aren’t taking any more names. The rest of the bar is good, though — it’s very Williamsburg [Brooklyn] in this part of Friedrichshain. This bar is mostly weird garden spaces outside, with some shacks here and there and a couple swimming pools. Good lighting, lots of trees, very gritty but almost self-consciously so. Just down the block I passed another bar that looks like the front yard of a ramshackle house, filled with sand and a ping-pong table and beach chairs. Pretty sure Michael and I went to the same bar once in Williamsburg with Fiona 🙂
I like it.
Back to the dance performance — I must say that my notions of classic German organizational skills have been challenged a few times. Managing a full house and a stand-by line isn’t nearly as difficult as they made it look… I and many of my coworkers could house manage circles around them single-handedly. Ha!
So today I walked by a Haagen Dazs shop. You know me… ice cream is my great weakness, and Haagen Dazs is my favorite. How could I NOT have it on a hot sunny day, in GERMANY?! So I went up to the counter, chose my flavors, and ordered, and had the following exchange in broken English and German:
“Ein scoop vanilla und ein scoop cookies and cream, bitte, in a cone!”
“Ja. For eating here or takeaway?”
(At this point I wondered if he had understood my request for a cone, so I pointed, helpfully, at the cones)
“…Ja… you are sitting here, or walking?”
(How could this possibly matter?)
“Ummm… for sitting down? Bitte?”
“Ja, I bring to you!”
So…. table service ice cream? Ok, I thought, that’s kind of bizarre, but whatever… I went and sat outside, under an umbrella to wait. They really understand cafe culture in Berlin, I have to say. Then, after a surprising amount of time, given that I was the only customer, He brought me my ice cream cone… LIKE THIS (see photo). I mean… whoa. This is a new level of ice cream. STEP IT UP, MOLLY MOON, is all I’m saying. Whoa. He also asked me if I’d like anything to drink, so I ordered sparkling water, and from there on out it was like a restaurant. CRAZY.
Next subject: I’m getting rapidly tipsy on one drink here at Renata. It tastes like shitty vodka, but they pour heavy and also I just realized the only ‘meal’ I had today was a [delicious] bagel sandwich at like 3pm… Yeah, eating regular meals isn’t my forte. But! I discovered amazing chai in Prenzlauer Berg! Which is way too full of families and children for my taste, but otherwise pretty great and seems to have a fair amount of small performance venues.
Related: I discovered in a coffee shop today that I’m missing seeing Iggy Pop and the Stooges in BERLIN by like three days. Shit. That would be AMAZING. Anyway….
I’m now at that exciting point of tipsiness where I have to decide if I’m stopping or continuing — continuing means I’ll have an amazing time and get home sometime around dawn with a vague memory of what happened (hi mom and dad!! Don’t worry about me traveling alone in a foreign land!), while stopping means I’ll cut myself off like a good girl and make my way home shortly. Given that I have an appointment to tour the Reichstag at 8:15 tomorrow morning (the only available time), the second option is probably wiser, but we’ll see. I’m in Berlin, for God’s sake…
But also I’m constantly aware that as a woman traveling alone in an unfamiliar place, there are certain things that are… less advisable. It sucks being a lady sometimes… if you’re a dude traveling alone, sure you should still be careful, but drinking alone in a random pub in an unknown area of a foreign city is infinitely safer for you. As a lady, even as a remarkably self-confident one, it’s… different. I’ve never forgotten what my first real martial arts instructor told me when I was eight: “the first rule of self defense is to not put yourself in a situation where you’ll be forced to defend yourself.” Sage advice. Rule one: don’t be dumb. Rule two: learn how to absolutely destroy anyone who tries to hurt you. Rule three: if you’re in trouble, you should yell “get the police!” instead of “help!” — always give people clear instructions that require minimal thought on their part. Ladies, are you paying attention? Good. Now excuse me while I proceed to get drunk alone in a foreign city where unfortunately I don’t know how to say “get the police!” in the native language. Or “help!”, for that matter. Prost! Salud! Cheers! 😉
Temperature update: it’s 11pm and my thermometer (YES I carry a thermometer, it’s attached to a compass which is clipped to my purse [NERD ALERT but also hey, I NEVER get lost]) says it’s about 87°. Well, the nice thing about backpacking in the summertime is your clothing takes up much less space in your backpack! This is good, because tomorrow is the first day I have to fit everything in one bag (including my purse) for a shitty off-brand intra-Europe flight to London. I pack LIGHT, my friends. SUPER LIGHT. It also cuts way down on my shopping expenses, since I have no room to carry anything I buy… so for anything I add, I have to throw something out. Today I almost bought a dress with the full intention of throwing out another outfit in its place but I couldn’t understand the seller when I asked the price, so I chickened out. Yay budget travel? It was super cute, though 😦
Update: I’m headed home, at 11:30, having chosen safety and sleep over debauchery. Hey, speaking of Iggy Pop – I meant to bring some Iggy to listen to here, but somehow failed to fully sync my phone (SADNESS). I did, however, bring the Siouxsie and the Banshees cover of The Passenger, which I’ve been listening to a lot. I mean, fuck. The horn section. HOW WAS THERE NOT A HORN SECTION BEFORE THIS COVER, is all. It’s PERFECT.
Alright, I think that’s all for now. Gut Nacht!