Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Down and out in London and Leeds!

So on the 16th I decided I would hit the road, due to a lethal combination of boredom and self-hatred. Self-hatred may be too strong a word, but let's face it, I've spent the past few months getting paid to not work, and the last exciting thing I did was ordering underwear online. My life was lacking a certain energy. I'd been mulling over the idea of heading back to good old Blighty for awhile now - numerous reasons (the need to see family and friends, the need to get out of a country where sales staff refuse to put change in your hand), so I decided on the sort of last minute trip that fills you with a real sense of purpose, and fills the people you're visiting with a sort of dread ("Oh for fuck's sake, right, okay, so you'll be here tomorrow....right....").

Being, somehow, in a continuous state of borderline poverty, I opted for the glamour and panache of travel by coach. Lille to London with Eurolines takes about 6 hours, so on I hopped, off I hurtled, towards England's drizzly shores. I enjoy travelling by coach because I like the sense of distance covered. I like to look out the windows, read the signs, visualize where I am on the map, watch the landscape change, look at the houses and countryside and the people, and imagine their lives. I chose the seat just behind and across from the driver, and settled in with my pauper's picnic, the paltry remains of salvaged food from my fridge that ''had'' to be eaten: a piece of cheddar, two pears, and a hard, stoic bread roll. Well, guess what people? You don't put pears in with other food, as my grandmother later - and uselessly, at great length - informed me. You know why? Because it TURNS THE REST OF YOUR STUFF TO SHIT. I opened my plastic bag to find a mushy purée of brown pear and sweaty cheese congealed around that trusty old bread roll. Picnic = fucked. I settled back into the chair, and prepared myself for the journey ahead. A peaceful, relaxing, mind-clearing journey. Except not, because in that unique, special way I have, and despite myself, I made friends with the bus driver, who spent the whole 6 hours jabbering away about his views on university fees, the London riots, different parts of London ("Camden? It's full of witches and that!"), DIY techniques ("See, now when I didn't have a shower at my old flat, I just used a hose-pipe and the sink"), places to live ("Amsterdam! Amsterdam is where it's happenin' mate!"). Arriving in London, he then took the coach round the long way, through Lewisham, so that he could point out and stop in front of each and every little shop that had been disturbed during the riots, slowing the bus down and, "Do you see the boarding? Do you see that boarding there? Riot, innit!" over and over again. In all fairness though, when we stopped in Milton Keynes, he bought me a muesli and honey yoghurt pot. Now that's what I call service.

I hung around Victoria waiting for my friend C to get off work. I squatted down by the side of the station rolling a cigarette, and he arrived, dressed smartly, with an umbrella and gold-tipped cigarettes. The thing about C is, we were at uni together but never really hung out very much at all. In fact we probably only every really saw each other 2 or 3 times, and yet we've kept up contact which has always been very easy. He made me a present of a packet of cocktail cigarettes - incredible things, a work of art, to be honest: they come in pastel shades, purple, green, pink, yellow, all mixed up together, in a sumptuous box. I almost felt bad smoking them, like writing on a book, or kicking a little white Persian kitten. We took a bottle of wine to outside the Queen's house, and sat there for awhile, catching up, drinking, checking out the various feats of nature (squirrels, ducks, etc), and then off I went to Oakwood, to meet my friend B. C accompanied me, and so we were on the tube, gawking (at least I was, provincial peasant that I am) at a huge man sat opposite us, his multiple stomachs spread across the seat, his bloated tongue lolling out the side of his mouth, a web of drool vibrating in time to his snores. Ah, London. You get some crazy folk round those parts.

And so I was at B's, which was a fairly bittersweet experience. Unfortunately, the B-ster has fallen upon hard times. A far cry from the glamour and excitement of the London she had dreamed of, she hates her job and is living far out in a neighbourhood that seemed nice enough, but which wasn't perhaps as close as she'd hoped. I felt completely useless in terms of being able to make her feel better: we've all been there, dissatisfied to some extent or another with how our lives are. It's passing moments, and is a dissatisfcation no one but yourself can cure. Hopefully us catching up had some soothing effect, at least that's what I'd like to think. She did say it made her feel much better to see a familiar face, and sometimes that's all you need to start feeling more positive.

After a night on B's sofa, up I got to continue on, further into the wilderness of England, into that dark, dismal, yet strangely soothing land - Yorkshire. Ah, God's Own County, as it has been called - the sweet, vaguely depressing, yet despite that, somehow cheery stuff of my memories. I was off to see my dear old Gran, and Mad Aunty Pip, as she's known in the family. Onto another coach with me, this coach a far cry from the socialist 'life's too short' vibe of the punchy Lille to London crew. This coach was more like a state living under a dictatorship, as we sat there, clutching our Ribena bottles to our chests, cowering under the bellowing of the Yorkshireman dictator who would be driving us up to Leeds. This total knob cheese of a man came to relieve the initial driver, about 45 minutes into our journey. The old driver said "Alright there ladies and gentlemen, there will be a driver swap now if you'd like to get out and stretch your legs. We will be departing in ten minutes". Up we got, off we hobbled, except the doorway was blocked by this huge, towering, beef of a man, who screamed "Where the bloody hell do you think you're going?"..."T-t-the driver...he said....well, he said we could get off for ten minutes, you see". "SIT BACK DOWN!", the new driver roared, "this is a driver swap, not a stop!" Jobsworth!

Anyway, I arrived in Leeds, got on the train to Skipton, populated by it's usual mix of housewives right out of the 70s and weird, chavvy results-of-incest people, and off I stepped, in Skipton, into Gran's car, and away we go, to the fair land of Barnoldswick. Let me tell you something about this area: you should go. Okay, sure, you're bound to get bored, if you stay up in those parts for anything more than, oh, say, a day. But the countryside is truly beautiful. Dark, gentle, wet, OLD. I love it. And I love staying at my gran's. The thing with me and my gran is, we haven't had a particularly smooth relationship in the past. Memories of her chasing me round the house with a broom, calling me the devil child, and I laughing in her face and screeching "you can't catch me though, can you?!" But with time, people mellow, and people become more accepting of each other. She has relaxed a lot these past years, and I'm also not a cheeky, difficult 8 year-old anymore (right?). The thing with Gran is, she's very political, and a feminist. In fact, she said to me in the car, on our way to one of those never-ending shopping trips, "Do you know, I think I would have been very happy to live without a man. Very happy indeed. In fact, if I were of your generation, I don't see that I would have married at all". Fair play Gran! I spent two days there, watching programmes like 'Village SOS', and 'Totnes: discovering life in our towns', eating comfort food, and just enjoying being with her. I wish I could see her more often, I really do. My panic "Holy fuck, what was that, is someone trying to break in?" mode kicked in, but I think it may have something to do with the book I was reading before bed (about a killer who preys on a psychologist's patients, driving them to commit suicide....OMFG!)

Gran, my uncle who lives down the road, and myself all went out for tea at the pub (bangers and mash, bien sur), I struggled with law and order in small village England - two different shops refused to sell me rolling papers. The second one was in a petrol station, and when I was refused since I had no ID on me, I leant on the counter, smirked knowingly at the shop girl, sniggered, rolled my eyes, nodded my head towards Gran who was coming in to pay for the petrol, and said "Well, I'll just have to get my Gran to buy them then, won't I?", to which the girl told me she would then have to refuse my Gran. Uhhhh-----whaaaat? My gran was fuming and I could see she was about to embark on the trusty old war path, so quickly huddled her out. She was even more pissed off than I was. In the end, I old her I'd just have to use her St John's Bible paper to roll, she nearly had a bloody heart attack.

The next morning, my uncle came to pick me up to take me back down to Leeds (which was a wonderful time for a heart-to-heart, and a beautiful morning), to stay with Mad Aunty Pip and Uncle B. These two I love. They're both artists, and therefore live by their own rules, in a way. They're both individuals who reject a lot of the values modern society tries to impose on us, and for that I love being around them. It's just amazing to be able to share ideas, any ideas, to discuss all sorts, art, politics, to be around two people who are so happy together although life isn't always easy when you've decided to make your art your living. They were back from a work trip to Japan, and it was fascinating to hear their take on what they saw over there, the differences in the way their culture operates. I truly love staying with them, because I feel so free. They also cook some amazing food, especially their home made pizza, and I tried ribs for the first time (it was actually at their house that I stopped being a vegetarian, after 12 years...that roast lamb was my downfall). We had a film day: we went to stock up on food and snacks, and then got out 4 films: one had Liam Neeson in it (Uncle B's review: 'shite'), one was about a soldier coming back from Iraq ('shite'), one was about the deportation of British kids to Australia in the 60s ('alright'), and the most interesting one, and one I heartily recommend for some good old-fashioned family viewing, is called "I Spit on Your Grave", and features two parts. The first part, lasting an hour, shows a girl getting raped over and over again whilst being forced to act like a horse. The second part involves her getting her revenge on the gang-bangers, by putting them in bath-tubs full of acid and raping them with guns. You should check out the trailer! I also made the most of being in Leeds by catching up with my old friend DJ W, which was nice although faintly disappointing. I've perhaps moved on from smoking spliffs in the park and necking down pints of cider in old man pubs. Still! No harm in a quick sashay down memory lane, every now and then.

With deep sadness, I departed Leeds, after 2 days of relaxing, warm company. Back on that old coach, back down to London, back to Victoria, for a brilliant Sunday with C. I think, to be honest, that Sunday was possibly the best Sunday of my life. Waking up in Leeds with my aunt and uncle, eggs and bacon in my belly, homemade cheese sandwiches (this time, sans the pear), and then the afternoon/evening that followed. The first thing was, C presented me with an Oyster card. I held it up, dazzled by the rays reflecting off its shiny blue surface. Now, I could pretend to be a real Londoner. I could sneer at the noobs using their single fare £5.60 tickets. I could roll my eyes at people blocking the escalators, and give world-weary sighs whenever I bloody well felt like it. This is such a useful thing to have, but more to the point, what a thoughtful thing to give. We wandered around Spitalfields Markets, which if you haven't done yet, you should. It was the first time I'd been there, and it was incredible - these mazes of little clothes stalls, and street food...we stopped off for a pint at this big outdoor beer garden thing in the street, and then carried on walking, through this area which is such a far cry from the usual London haunts you normally end up dragging yourself around. We went for cocktails (I picked the right ones, ones that seemed to be basically 100% alcohol) and had some trendycool snacks: 'cheeseburger crostini', and mini cumberland sausages with chilli. We then moved on to this simply amazing bar - from the outside, it appeared to be an old, rundown pub, but when you climb up to the very top of the building, you emerge onto the rooftop, and can see all the lights of London....and I saw a shooting star! So corny, I know. But still, those little things never cease to bring out the childish wonder in me. The main thing I loved about that night, however brilliant the atmosphere, and the drinking establishments, and the life of the people we saw in the streets, was just being with C - how magical. We talked about everything and nothing, it seems. My hatred of Anne Hathaway (must watch One Day to get more bitching material), quantum physics (let's get real - he talked about that, I was more like ''oh really? (clueless), religion, socialism, university, just having a laugh. It was wonderful, so fluid, it makes me sad to think we live in different places, but then that sadness is fleeting, because I know we can do it all again, especially since I've got an Oyster card now, right? I remember at one point we were talking about where we would love to live - what kind of place would we imagine is best? And now, all I can think is - I would love, wherever I end up seriously living, to have a sumptuous guest room, so I can give back to people who have welcomed me, that same warm welcome and kindness. Aside from the gift of the Oyster, C also gave me his bed, wine and strawberries when we got home, breakfast in bed (I mean, I can't remember the last time that happened to me), and most touching of all, a luxurious coach picnic, my third, made up of a chicken salad, some tasty berries, and - so heartbreakingly thoughtful - a fork. I had checked out the salad, thought ''Hmm, there's no plastic fork'', and considered my options. Should I eat it with my fingers? The Indians do it. But I'm not Indian, and would probably fuck it up. Could I work  out some kinda chopstick way of doing it, using a pen and the end of my toothbrush? Or should I just dunk my head into the tray, and chomp it up, like a goat? No need to worry. C had thought of it. Reader - he gave me a fork.

And now I'm sitting here, as the rain pisses down over the arsehole of France, hearing the apeish guffawing of the men outside, watching in awe as the lightening crashes down over the town - I actually stared into the centre of the lightening, like I was looking into the eye of God! And the thunder just set off a car alarm. A coincidence? Maybe. But I prefer to think it was His will.
Strasbourg in a week!

P.S. That was fucking long, I feel like I deserve to get paid for this.

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