Leicester Square Station, London
December 28, 2004
By the time I arrived in London yesterday morning, I had not spoken English for five months. Well, that’s not completely true, I had spoken a lot of English, just not in any English speaking countries –places where the movie posters and the supermarket ads were in completely unintelligible tongues, but people still addressed me as “hey, dude” when they talked to me. But still, for the most part, I have been traveling in foreign lands, and living for five months in this language bubble, mostly unaware of my surroundings, able to walk and think at my leisure without any intrusions from the world around me. Some people might think such a thing frightening. I found it liberating. And peaceful.
So on first arrival in the UK, my first reaction has been utter shock: I feel violated, intruded upon, my peace is shattered. All of a sudden, I can understand the people chatting alongside me as I walk over the river, across the bridge to Charing Cross Station, and, trust me, I have no interest in knowing why Auntie Sarah has suddenly decided to up and leave Uncle Charlie after thirty-three years of a seemingly happy marriage, or what some fat chick in a tight fur coat wants delivered for dinner tonight (my guess: every deep-fried dish in the menu). People squawking into cell-phones, people blabbing to each other, everyone talking very loudly in an English that anyone around them can understand. All these gaping mouths forcing their conversations onto strangers’ ears, and, most important of all, onto mine.
As much of a relief as it is to finally be in a country where I speak the language, I pretty much want everyone to shut the hell up.
See, one of the things you should know about me is that I have a shamelessly American accent when I speak English. It’s not a conscious thing, it’s a direct result of my international high-school education. When I’m in America, my accent is a distinct advantage –people never suspect that I’m actually a Latino boy from the jungles of Panama. But when I travel –especially in Europe- it tends to become a distinct disadvantage: the French sneer at me, the Germans tend to take pity on me, and the British, as soon as I open my mouth, regard me as someone who’s lacking an important chromosome. (Oh, and everyone else, everywhere else in the world, immediately asks me about George W. Bush). Because, in England, to speak like an American is, at best, to sound amusingly unsophisticated, and, at worse, to instantly sound like a blubbering idiot.
The British can be insufferable about their language –they can never shake the annoying attitude of “We invented this, you know,” like it was every single one of their grandparents sending entries to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1884. “It’s not ‘baath’”, they’ll say with their smug little mouths puckered, and their lips barely moving, “It’s ‘bauth’.” Its not “daance,” they’ll say, their American imitation coming entirely straight out of their noses, “it’s ‘daunce’.”
The funny thing is that because English carries such an important social value in the UK –the slightest variations in speech reveal reams of information about social class, education, wealth, and the ability to forecast the weather- even the unlikeliest persons become jealously protective of their adopted language.
I’m wondering around Leicester Square earlier today, killing time before my performance of “Sweeney Todd” begins at a nearby theatre, when I decide I’m hungry, and that nothing would be better right now than a 15-Pound Chinese fast food meal –London is ridiculously expensive, and even cheap Chinese fast food, the bottom-of-the-barrel food everywhere else in the world, still costs more than a four-course meal in most countries. So while I’m sitting there, attempting to make this lo-mein delicacy last as long as I think the money I paid for it deserves, a group of unfortunately uni-lingual Spanish tourists walks up to the store-front counter to order some dinner.
The following scene ensues: Spanish tourists try asking questions about the food in elementary, broken English, while the Chinese woman behind the counter –an obvious recent arrival to the Commonwealth, with a very tenuous grasp of the English language, and a heavy accent that renders her practically unintelligible- shrugs in confusion; more questions, more shrugging. They are having serious communication problems, and… seriously, all these tourists want is some fried rice: how hard can that be? The tourists point, they try using the international sign-language symbol for “kum-pao chicken” which, interestingly enough, looks exactly like the international sign-language symbol for “kitty-cat.” All to no avail.
The Chinese woman starts to angrily shake her head, and there seems to be no likelihood of any nourishment exchanging hands here anytime soon. In their bewilderment, the tourists start mixing Spanish into their broken English, and this aberration tips the Chinese woman over the edge. She loses it. “Wai kant yu lern Engrich!” she yells. “Yu com dis contri, yu spik de languech!”
Time stops for a fraction of a moment, and thirty-three different levels of irony collapse on each other with a loud clang. No one other than me seems to notice the sound.
Humiliated and beaten, the Spanish tourists meekly point at a dish that resembles tofu stir-fried with blades of grass and those little metal balls that make the clicking sound inside cans of spray-paint. They hand over several hundreds bills (each) as payment, and slink off to eat their high-sodium food in shame, somewhere where the language requirements are not so strict. They didn’t even ask for chopsticks or plastic forks –or napkins for that matter- so I can imagine them hunched in a dark corner, shoveling their meal into their mouths with soiled fingers, like Early Man. Assuming Early Man ever ate cheap Chinese food in Central London. I have a feeling that after that dinner, the Spaniards will cut their vacation short and jet back to Segovia in a hurry.
As for me, I slip out the back, without asking for a refill on my Coke, unnoticed by anyone. I speak fluent English, but between the Chinese lady’s passion for the language and this damned American accent I carry around… I wasn’t gonna take any chances.
January 1st, 2005
It’s late in the day to wake up, I know, but last night was a rough night. New Year’s Eves, as far as they go, don’t get rougher than this. This is the first time I’ve spent the turn of the year in London (they call it Sylvester, here!), and, in a way, I think I had the quintessential British New Year’s experience: I’m still reeling from it, it was a little mind-boggling. I know the Brits are supposed to be known for their partying and their drinking, but this was ridiculous. I had to keep reminding myself that this is what these people do every year. Also, I had to keep going to the loo a lot (that’s what they call it here: the “loo” isn’t that funny?).
You simply cannot drink that much tea –only tea, all night- without it taking a heavy toll on your bladder.
My friend Andrew invited me to spend New Year’s Eve with him and his friends. I don’t really know anyone else in London well enough to end the year with, so I agree. Plus, the friend who is hosting the party is supposed to be a great cook. And his flat has a clear view of the London Eye –and of the fireworks.
Turns out, the food is truly good. And the view is right on –I swear, the sparks from those fireworks will land on my cheap cotton sweater and ignite it, that’s how close they seem.
But really, the most important part of the festivities is that, the entire time, we have been drinking tea, eating biscuits, and talking about drinking tea and eating biscuits. All night. A good six or seven hours. On New Year’s. Eight perfectly intelligent, well-traveled, cultured human beings sit around and dedicate their evening –an evening that most people in most other countries fill with lavish parties, bottomless booze, and/or kinky sex acts- to tea.
Every single stereotype you’ve ever heard about the British is completely true.
Andrew’s friends have a coffee-table book that discusses the British traditions of “a sit down and a cup of tea;” a book that’s meticulously researched, wittily written, and, get this, beautifully photographed. With many loving, colorful pictures of biscuits and cups of tea.
Throughout the night, the group uses several types of tea services –casual, elegant, for special occasions, porcelain, glass, gold-banded cups and saucers.
They have two kettles –one for strong tea, and one for a weaker brew.
They have three kinds of sugar: cubed, granular, and brown… as well as honey, cinnamon, and lemon wedges. No artificial sweetener, mind you: these people are purists.
They are also VERY serious about their tea.
The funny thing is that, in a strange, twisted way, it’s been a perfect evening. We laugh a lot. We listen to amazing music –Morrissey, jazz, some old British bands I had never heard of before- all on scratchy 45 vinyl discs. We look at old photographs of Andrew when he was young and crazy(er). And I get to know these other seven souls who are eccentric, and quirky, and, most amazing of all, completely unapologetic about being eccentric and quirky. And for one, tea-drenched night they pour me into their decade’s long bond, soak me with their familiar jokes and their nicknames for each other, and allow me to steep in their warm lives.
It’s probably the best cup of tea I’ve had so far in this country.
January 9th, 2005
Epping Forest, London
Today, Andrew came home for lunch on a horse. A real horse: the kind that whinnies and eats carrots and gets euthanized when they break a leg in a race. Ok, maybe everything except that last part.
But still, I was washing the dishes (the Brits call that “washing up,” isn’t that funny?) in the kitchen, when a real, honest-to-goodness horse rode up to the front door, and Andrew dismounted for his ham sandwich and cup of tea.
Actually, I wasn’t that surprised, since I have wanted to meet Comet (that’s the horse’s name, by the way) for about a week now. I bug Andrew about it every day.
Andrew is a good friend in London –I’ve been staying with him for almost two weeks now, and will probably stay here for another week or two. I like him because, in a country that prides itself on holding on to tradition while also dedicating its energies to plumbing innovation; where conforming is the norm of the land, but non-conformists inherit the biggest fame and adulation; Andrew manages to embody all the contradictions of being a British man, and yet, he still holds on to his own person. He insists on doing his own Home DIY, but pays someone to take in the hems of his pants. He has fish and chips for lunch, and curry chicken for dinner. He has hair everywhere on his body, except for the top of his head. And he’s a forest ranger in London –thus the horse.
Because he’s a true-life park ranger, everyday he wears a khaki shirt with upturned cuffs, an olive green tie, a black sweater (they call it a “jumper,” funny, huh?), a stun-gun, and, get this, a hat. The wide-rimmed, triangular-looking kind. The kind you would expect to find on the head of a cartoon guy who spends every episode chasing one very clever bear.
But also, because he’s a park ranger –seriously, he’s a park ranger in London, ok?- he gets to live in a two-story wood cabin in the middle of a forest. This is in London, a two-minute drive from the nearest tube station, but also in the middle of an oasis of pine trees and moss, and rock outcroppings from where one can, wrapped in a plaid blanket, go out and see the moon on a full night. This might be the luckiest man in Great Britain. That’s why I’m visiting him.
And the whole time I’ve been here, I’ve only gone into London proper twice: once to watch “Sweeney Todd” at the West End, and once for a New Year’s Eve get-together. The rest of the time, I endure the lack of hot water, go on many, many walks along the shady paths of the park, wash lots of dishes, go birdwatching, not once watch television (or, as they call it here: “telly”), and spend a whole of a lot of time wondering how on earth this truly rural lifestyle manages to exist in London, and how Andrew manages to always find such incredible things.
It takes a strong, resolutely human country, at ease with its history, and proud of its potential, to populate itself with immigrants who jealously guard the language, to model a society that festively revolves around water and flavored leaves, and to gives its citizens the chance to ride their horses home for lunch. And it takes a rare breed of human to inhabit it, and thrive, exploiting its natural and unnatural resources equally. A rare, and brilliant breed of humans, indeed.
Did I mention that Andrew owns goats? He does. I fed them every other day.