Sunday, January 25, 2009

"Now you're gonna settle your ties..."

Hi-Fi - M. Ward

"Do you mind if I put something else on?" Claire, my British neighbor asked. I was pushing undercooked pasta around my plate and wincing at chunks of what felt like artificial tomatoes. "Not at all," I replied. She stood up to manually change the channel on the 13-inch decaying black box that's perched in the corner of our kitchen. There's no remote, of course, and no designated channel or volume buttons. Some times the "+" button gives you a new channel, some times the British accents simply become louder. We get 6 channels in all, 2 of which broadcast the same programming on higher stations. Each channel comes in fuzzier than the one before, all with the same horizontal snowy lines that used to appear on our TV when my mom would cut chicken with an electric knife.

I was half-heartedly reading that day's thelondonpaper, a free evening tabloid that's literally pushed into your hands at the entrance of every tube station during rush hour. The purple-jacketed fleet of distributors is known for its aggressive tactics to increase circulation; the guy at the nexus of the Oxford Circus rat race slaps two folded papers together to startle passersby into taking his handout. I was on page 19 looking at a montage of paparazzi shots of British celebrities I haven't heard of -- except one, under which the caption read: "SHOREDITCH 3PM: Keira Knightley really gets into the hoodie look, out shopping in east London. She's even mastered the trademark scowl." Yeah, that's my neighborhood.

"It's 6 o'clock," the female anchor announced right before Claire navigated away from BBC News. Then I heard, in recognizable succession: a car screeching to a halt, a skateboard bouncing off the metal roof, then "D'oh!"..."Aaaahhhhh!"

"Do you like The Simpsons?" she asked.

I laughed. This was how I grew up, I explained, through all of grade school, most of high school and even some of college. "This" being dinner at 6 while watching Simpsons. "Me too," she laughed back "but not until I was a bit older." So we sat there, me with my cardboard pasta and she with her ominous microwaved stew, watching the yellow family who we knew like our own, the family that we apparently both ate dinner with, 5 nights a week, in different parts of the world.


"Prepare to experience an initial high, followed by an extreme low, followed by a period of adjustment when you realize that this isn't merely a vacation, but how you're going to live for a long period of time." These were the words they hammered into us before leaving Penn State, shortly after our arrival at the CIEE orientation and a few days later during our first day at Westminster. I was skeptical and put myself "above" this pattern, but it proved to be pretty accurate. While my "low" was nowhere near extreme, it did come after a few days of returning to my minimalist flat where hot showers were not guaranteed and my cabinets had food from the grocery store that seems just a little And while I'm still not accustomed to the fewer hours of daylight (it usually gets dark at 4:30), things feel pretty normal. I find myself noticing British accents less and less, and this past week I couldn't have felt more welcome as an American.

To get into the magnitude of this country's adoration for Obama would be useless, for it seems that they are more uniformly behind him than "we" are. Every day last week he was on the front page of every paper and dominated every news broadcast. TimeOut did an entire feature on "where to watch the big day in London," for which a few of us chose the official "Democrats Abroad" party at the Texas Embassy, a neo-American Tex-Mex bar in Trafalgar Square. We were among the last to make it in before they were officially over capacity just after 4pm. It seemed like a mix of young ex-patriots and Brits of all ages who knew what to do without being told; they booed Bush, scoffed at the sight of Cheney in a wheelchair and cheered emphatically for Obama, particularly after a line in his speech about accepting atheism. (Sidebar: Atheism dominates other "isms" here; there's a new ad campaign on the tube that says: "There's probably no God. Stop worrying and live your life.") I was suprised that the dozen or so flat screens were tuned to CNN, just as I was that they were tuned to Fox two nights earlier for the Eagles game at the Sports Cafe. It felt strange and homelike to hear Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper's commentary again, having watched CNN for a few hours nearly every single day between February and November of 2008. The images made me miss home and my home at Penn State, but it was the shots of D.C. that really got me. I still remember going to Bill Clinton's public events during inauguration week with my parents and thinking how cool it was to be a Washingtonian. Then I thought back to election night and the drunken phone calls and text messages flying through Andy's house in State College, or how Andy and Rob were there, right now, in that frozen sea of people, where I would be if I wasn't here.

Later that night I saw an incredible jazz trio at Favela Chic, a weird and newly-famous corner bar two blocks from my flat. It was a world away from the nightly cover bands at O'Neill's, the toursity bar in Piccadilly that people are finally getting over.

Here they are live at The Crypt in the basement of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, where we saw the English Chamber Choir and Belmont Ensemble perform Mozart Requiem: A Mozart Birthday Concert last night. It was, once again, quite juxtaposed to the afternoon I spent wandering the Camden Markets (below).

In other news, the whole group is going to Edinburgh this weekend. Pics of the Groundskeeper Willie memorial (if it indeed exists) and detailed reports on haggis to come next week.

(These reminded me of The Darjeeling Limited)