This New Road Will Some Day Be the Old Road, Too
There were many things I enjoyed about London but London was not one of them.
It was best in the earliest hours on either end of the day—before anyone had risen from sleep, as the streets were slightly abandoned, or after most sensible people had retired for the night and the only folks out were the desperate or the lucky. Even then, however, the place was too jammed in like an entire city population too fat for the skinny jeans they had been squeezed into. And dirty. Not dusty. Wichita is dusty. Sedona is dusty. This was grimy as if a layer of greasy soot coated the cracks and spaces untouched and made your skin feel like you were being slightly prepped for sautéing.
It was decades ago, but the realization that I only love New York City for a maximum of two days in a row before I want nothing more than to leave solidified over several trips to The Big Apple. To fully enjoy NYC, I need to not be staying in the city but just outside of it and for as few days as possible.
Leading up to our third wedding anniversary, DMJ and I decided at first we wanted to go to Edinburgh, Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe but decided that August was a bit too early for the trip and we didn't want to be landlocked to the non-stop activity that takes over Edinburgh that time of year. We talked it over and decided it would be London in September with a day trip to Scotland if we wanted to in the moment.
I perused the Priceline deals and things went from a $4,800 trip to a $2,600 trip and we nailed down flights (the cheap tickets included a seven hour layover in Detroit going there) and our modest hotel and we were set. Travel guides were read, plans were planned and discarded and planned again. Ten days in London, England. Rock On.
NAKED TV and PLUSH PLAGUE RATS
We stayed in a small three-star hotel on Bayswater, a few blocks from Hyde Park and the Paddington Station hub for trains and the Tube. The room was tiny but the bed was adequate. The bathroom, however, was so Lilliputian that I could rest my chin on the sink while dropping a deuce—seated sideways because of spacial constraints.
The first night found us watching British television. We landed on a strange dating show called Naked Attraction. Like any other dating show except that the chooser gets to see the six possible dates naked before he/she chooses, starting with the feet and working up. Obviously, it's the genitals that get the most on-air attention. And, of course, we were fascinated.
This show set a stage for some fairly bizarre stuff we encountered on our stay.
The documentary on penis size. I mean, a whole documentary about guys with giant dicks. DMJ loved it.
The random Persian guy who was suddenly very friendly, who thought he'd ingratiate himself to us by telling us how much he loved Trump, who tried to get us to hang out with him by quoting his father: "Where there is a contact, there is a contract." Insisting that we have coffee with him. He was holding a book—From MTV to Mecca—and insisted that the author was his girlfriend but the book seemed brand new, she hadn’t signed it and maybe the Trump-love colored my perceptions but he seemed off. I'd watched enough Better Call Saul to know where that was going so we got away from him and felt certain at coffee there would arrive a friend of his and the task of separating our money from our persons would be in play.
And, at the Globe, in the gift shop, the plush toy Plague Rats. Seriously. Someone thought in a store filled with reminders of Shakespeare, a cuddly stuffed rat that had brought the bubonic plaque to England was a real seller.
Finding Wonder in a World of the Driven
DMJ and I always have a specific source of dissonance when we go on holiday: she prefers to avoid anything touristy and enjoys walking about the place discovering things that make her smile while I prefer to immerse myself into those historic and/or gaudy places that give me a sense of the history of the city. In other words, DMJ is all about the present as discovered in the now and I am all about the past as discovered by paying a serious fee to enter and avoid being sold plastic bullshit along with the history.
There were many things we both loved about London but London itself was not among these things. The city felt like New York City 200 years after the Empire had fallen—the Center of the Universe, the Hotbed of Commerce and International Focus Left Behind. The sense of seas of unhappy faces streaming into the Tube or along the streets to their jobs, dressed for business rather than comfort, the rat race embodied, was far more standard than my expectation of Europe.
On the other hand, amidst the hustle of the business class swarming the city in search of pounds, we discovered or paid for a series of lovely experiences in London.
Madame Tussauds was the London version of the place and sort of like Wax Museum Central worldwide. For some unexplained reason, I love wax museums. So, of course, we had to go. DMJ had never been to one and now can say she's been to the best, therefore she never has to go to one with me again. This one provided one of my favorite photo ops of the entire trip.
- Sir John Soane's House was one of DMJ's planned outings. An architect and collector, his house was three floors and a basement of the most meticulous hoarder or architectural ephemera imaginable—including a sarcophagus.
The British Museum was one that DMJ passed on but I had to go experience. One of the oldest museums in the world, and free at that, this place could've taken me two days to truly explore but I managed to get a solid visit in under four hours and was amply blown away by the sight of ancient shit, mostly taken legally, from all over the known world. Mummies, busts, the Rosetta Stone, a clock made by Copernicus.
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre was kind of amazing.
Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens. DMJ loves to be outside in the sun among green stuff and people. Therefore, we toured almost every park and every garden including an incredible little Oriental Garden in the center of Holland Park in London, but the biggest and best was the giant park just blocks from our hotel. The Kensington Palace, tributes to Diana, an Italian Gardens, the Serpentine Gallery with an extraordinary exhibit on the nature of being black by Arthur Jafa. We also managed to run into Robert Neuhaus and his wife Amy—we agreed that after me leaving "Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!" it was far more likely to hang out in London than in Chicago.
Covent Garden Market was one of several open-air marketplaces in the city that we visited. This included a woman singing opera in the courtyard, some of the best gelato ever, and a Moomin store. I had never heard of Moomin but DMJ went apeshit when she saw there was a store. Of course, we bought things there.
Of course there were more minuscule and grandiose pockets of extraordinary places we encountered. Buckingham Palace, the Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, and the Leighton House Gallery with a unique Alma-Tadema exhibit that DMJ had a Moomin-like reaction to as well.
And fucking Abbey Road.
Wherein I Realize That, While I Am in Relatively Good Shape, My Body is as Fragile as a Fucking Faberge Egg
Sunday afternoon, after a quick nap from walking all creation and back, I get up, bend over to put on my shoes and my lower back goes into a spasm that is an eight on the OMG Pain Scale. Later, my mother tells me that, in her opinion, these back spasms hurt worse than childbirth. Having never given birth, I can't corroborate but it fucking hurt in a huge WTF?! surprise that left my brain spinning and my body immobile.
DMJ went out and bought me heat packs, ibuprofen, and made a makeshift cold pack. I lay on my back with my legs elevated. I slept on the floor in agony that night. The next morning, I was in pain but could get up. We went out but I realized pretty shortly that, while I could walk, I couldn't sit down for more than twenty seconds before a shooting pain went from my back down my legs and up again.
I felt like I was suddenly ninety-four years old.
We ate in a restaurant on Portobello Road called The Distillery. The food was maybe the best meal we had the whole time and they were gracious enough to allow me to stand at the bar to eat instead of stand at a table like a bizarre jackass.
I was just a walking ache but managed to muscle through it for the most part. I mean, what the fuck are you gonna do? Stay in your hotel room, lying on the goddamn floor, six-thousand miles from home? Nah.
The worst I had it was three days after. The pain was rough and I had eaten something odd the night before. We were walking around downtown London, checking things out, when I was suddenly hit with some intestinal distress. Like most major cities, there are no public toilets in London. DMJ suggested a church.
Which is how I found myself dropping a massive deuce in fifteen-second increments because it hurt so much to sit down and shit that I had to keep standing up in the bathroom of a five hundred-year-old place of worship and stretch my back.
Back in the States, I've mostly recovered with the exception that the skin on my right thigh up to the right half of my crotch is numb. Which is weird.
Scotland Makes Me Wish I Had Been Born There
The afternoon three days before we were to head back to Chicago, London had begun to take her toll. DMJ had wanted to go to Somerset House and, while it was fine, between her missing home and/or Paris and me feeling like I was being twisted in half sixty-five percent of the time from the waist down, we were both feeling less than upbeat.
I decided to head off on my own to the British Museum, she decided to go back to the hotel. I did go to the museum and loved it, she instead drank red wine for a few hours. When she came back to the room she was a bit lit and in a rotten mood.
"Let's go to Edinburgh tomorrow. Anyplace but here!"
So I booked our high-speed rail tickets and splurged on a $400 a night hotel room smack dab in the center of the city. The next morning, we packed for an overnight stay and headed to Scotland.
I had been to Edinburgh for a month in 1995 when I took two shows to the Fringe and had maintained a sense that Scotland was magical. I frequently told people that Edinburgh was the one other place on the planet I could live outside of Chicago. As we trained our way across the beautiful, green countryside, I wondered how much of my love for the place was an exaggerated thing exacerbated by the distance of twenty-two years.
It was not overblown. From the second we pulled into the station, I felt a unique calm and delight. I felt like I was home again. The hills. The green. The castle turrets. The craggy rocks. The brick streets. The sights and sounds. The smell. And DMJ felt it, too. Suddenly, the trip took on the wonder of traveling someplace amazing that we had hoped we'd experience in London.
It was lovely. We went and toured Edinburgh Castle. We had whisky and I had a deconstructed haggis that was outstanding. We walked through cemeteries and up hills and drank and talked about the things we loved about London. It turned out we had enjoyed ourselves more than the last few days seemed.
And then again, back to our little hotel room and out the next day to fly ten hours home.
The most important thing on this entire trip was that we flew out to the United Kingdom to celebrate our third anniversary and we did. The night of September 12, we walked a few blocks to a traditional pub called The Swan, went upstairs, ordered drinks and food and dessert and toasted our good fortune at finding one another.
In Edinburgh, in a quaint courtyard square that housed the Writer's Museum, there were engraved stones peppered about on the walkway. One of them nailed exactly how I was feeling:
"And yet -
And yet, this New Road
will some day
be the Old Road, too."
— Neil Munro (1863-1930)
My life with DMJ is just that—a series of New Roads that quickly become Old Roads, or at least roads we have travelled upon together. And in my imagination of what has come before and what new roads and adventures lay ahead, it is the together part that makes it worth doing.