I Miss the Bus

In London, Z’s extraordinary school was about 20-30 minutes each way on a city bus. I used to write on the way back from the school drop-off each morning. I found this today on my phone, which I must have written an month or so before we left London. 

“What a ghost town around here! Seriously, where is this mythical “Pure Pulp” blogger?

The answer, sports fans, is trying to reassemble a life after it was chewed up by a blender. So, I’ll just leave you with that metaphor.

The truth is, I am moving. AGAIN. And it’s a new adventure that fills me with equal measures of loss and the promise of new possibility.

Lately, however, I just want to fill my time writing extended love letters to London. These letters will be about TRUE love because the warts I see here are very much a part of my adoration, and I don’t enter into my affections as a tourist. I’ll miss all of London.

In an effort to be succinct, though I could make lists for days of the quirks and treasures and mysteries of this city, here’s the short of it:

I love London because it is so many things all at once. It doesn’t allow for myopic living.

Here’s the thing (bear with me): I love public transportation. For a girl who grew up just outside Flint, Michigan, the following is practically heresy, but I hate driving. I don’t like to be secluded in my own private box. I like to be in the world. The bus, the tube, they force you to look at, sit next to, smell, etc. people who are not like you.

Public transport offers a microcosm of the city, in that whatever tribe you travel in, you must constantly engage with others who have allegiances to other tribes. No matter how you classify yourself, you’ve got to interact with other faiths, cultures, languages, classes, etc. everyday.

Suburban living is, sometimes, a way to minimize these kinds of interactions by settling with a distinct tribe (as are the lifestyles of the super rich.) There’s nothing inherently wrong with choosing to live among like-minded people. Humans have gathered into like-minded groups for centuries, but doing so can come at a price. It can lull you into complacency. It can convince you that your ways are the best, that your perspective is the truest, and that your experience of the world is the most valid.

So, I’ll miss the bus–with its overheard conversations (sometimes full of joy at a finally summer kind of day, or even sorrow as the city sometimes puts the private on public display.) I’ll miss the international fashion show, the strange alliances brought about by bus diversions, hilarious children, and even occasional frightening misbehavior. I’ll miss the sense of being poured into the city’s infrastructure, rather than fighting it for personal gain.

I’ll miss. . .”

And then I wrote no more, but even this fragment seemed worthy of sharing–particularly as I’m fighting against the inward gaze that is commanded by chronic pain.

And now, sports fans, I begin shopping around: “I Miss the Bus: A Memoir of an Expat American in London.”

Suddenly Stricken

There’s lots to catch up on: For example, I moved. From England to America. TO WISCONSIN. I returned to academia. I bought a house. FOR THE FOURTH TIME. More on that in the days to come. However, let’s start with now. . .

Saturday, I was suddenly stricken, but not with the assaultive love found in a pulpy romance novel, but with debilitating shoulder pain. So it was like Fabio stabbed me in the back with a kitchen knife, rather than a sweeping story of love and regret and happy endings.

imageI don’t recall ever having been in so much pain, so quickly–without injury or warning. Some friends kindly took Z for the afternoon, and my husband took me to Urgent Care. (I just moved here, so, of course, I don’t yet have a GP, and doubly OF COURSE, this all happened on a Saturday.) At the Urgent Care, when I checked in, I thought I was playing it cool, but the receptionist said, “We’re going to triage you. We’re going to see you next.” This is not what you EVER want to hear when there’s a waiting room full of folks at the Urgent Care, because the translation is, “Lady, there’s a lot of sick people here, but you are the sickest!”

Let’s just say I was offered an array of modern pharmaceuticals to manage the pain–one of which caused an extreme reaction which required MORE pharmaceuticals. (The result? I can cross “Alma Garret” and “Mary Tyrone” off as role models.) The diagnosis is cervical radiculopathy, which essentially means that I have a compressed disc or nerve (or both!) in my cervical spine that is causing the pain. I was referred to a physical therapist, given prescriptions to manage the pain and sent out to the car in a wheelchair. I spent the rest of the day focused on getting through the next 60 seconds, then the next 60 seconds, then. . .

The thing about pain is that it’s all consuming. Your world shrinks and becomes about no one but yourself, and even if you’re aware of this myopism, you can’t to anything about it really, because, well, all you’ve got is the pain. A friend of mine recently had a flare-up of a painful illness, and he was able to make some connections between his pain and living under social, cultural or racial oppression. His thinking was along these lines: When you’re in pain, you just want it to stop and you’d do anything to get relief. In the same way, when you are oppressed, you are in a kind of painful state, and your actions from the outside may appear extreme, but from an internal perspective, your actions are motivated by the very human desire to preserve the self and to live free of pain (or oppression.) In this, it is a very human desire, need and right to be MORE than our pain. I respect him greatly for this insight and his compassion. I, however, found no such great lessons. For me, the lessons were perhaps also myopic:

I’m teaching a course in verbatim theatre this fall, and in the first couple of weeks, as we defined what theatre is, we started with the basic equation: Actor + Idea + Audience = Theatre. For verbatim work, a bit of tweaking creates something a bit more accurate to the genre: Technology + Actor (the body) + Text + Audience = Verbatim Theatre. In its purest form, verbatim work has great faith in the power of embodied communication to communicate truths–emotional truths over intellectual truths. The body as the means of transmission (rather than as a tool of the actor’s art) becomes of supreme importance. The body can hold paradoxes and contradictions in ways that lead us to unique parts of being human (in ways that are often counter to factual conclusions or intellectually-based arguments.)

It’s troubling work, of course, because the body is messy. It never does exactly what you want it to, and as a means of transmission, it is both the richest medium around and completely unreliable. That’s my body these days–full of information that is hard to read and painful to decipher.

As a theatre maker, I’m always trying to listen to my body (and to those of other artists.) “The body never lies,” is something often tossed around in the rehearsal room as you search for physical truths. The body gives away a false statement readily if the actor isn’t committed, but the thing about pain is that you can’t commit to anything else. Your truth is only pain, and it’s embodied, and it’s without an idea, and it cares not for audience, and it equals nothing.

To better days and to release for all those who suffer.

Perhaps there’s a lesson about compassion in there after all.

Visit Scenic Gunnersby!

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Every once and a while, I feel like a real Londoner. Someone asks for directions, and I offer advice like a boss. Getting through Seven Dials is nothing to me. I can get to Battersea and Bermondsey (and have pub recommendations in both places.) I can navigate the exits of Old Street like a native. Someone asks someone else for directions, and the answer is dodgy and I step in and give pro tips. (“Don’t wait for the 271–any bus will take you up the hill to Waterlow Park, and frankly, it’s close enough to walk,” I whisper.) I navigate without a map. THROUGH COUNCIL ESTATES. My sense of direction is strong. I can recommend coffee shops and where to get a real ale all over town. I can name some magical tourist sites off the beaten path, and I know that you can use your Oyster card on National Rail within the city–take that Overground weekend closure!

But then, as soon as that feeling arises, I have to travel to Gunnersby. There (only in Zone 3 for goodness sake,) I am reminded how big and sprawling London is, how my knowledge is really based on false pride (and in the end is so small as to be insignificant,) and how many pockets that I have never heard of hold treasures I never imagined.

And I guess that’s what it means to be a Londoner: To have a tight grip on a corner of the metropolis and to live in the knowledge that your corner is tiny and your grip tenuous.

For me, however, this is exhilarating and inspirational. Like staring at the ocean, I find the sense of how small I am in the vast universe strangely comforting.

Which brings me back to unexpectedly scenic Gunnersby. I was early to an event there a few weeks back, and I got off the tube at Acton Town. Walking directions took me through residential streets and along a motorway, but a giant park was close by, and the weather was lovely, and I had time to kill, so there I found myself in Gunnersby Park.

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It’s a ruin, really, a classic pile. It’s even on the English “Heritage At Risk” list. It’s crumbling, it’s decayed, and it’s magical. Off the tourist path, it’s a place where the didactics are so faded and so damaged as to be nearly unreadable. Because of this, Gunnersby Park seems to ask for the full Lettice and Lovage treatment, inviting you to make up the story of the place.

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I look at my photos now, and they in no way capture the peaceful nature of the place on a cloudy spring day. It’s a spot paradoxically inviting by way of its neglect.

I went to the Ruin Lust exhibit at the Tate Britain last month, which explored (the title is the spoiler!) the obsession we have with ruins, both real and imagined. I’m like that: obsessed with ruins. I just got back from Crete, where I spent days pacing out ancient sites like I was going to buy them (to paraphrase Our Town.) What I love most about London is that wherever you look, there’s a story. Even my garden, for example, turns up 17th-century clay pipes. Places I love all over the planet are often repurposed spaces made up of ruins, whether they are on the tourist map (The Highline) or not (Clipper Mill and The Patapsco Female Institute in Maryland.)

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Gunnersby is not quite yet fully repurposed. There’s a museum (which is sadly closed on Mondays, the day I visited,) and a kitchen garden (located within the original walled kitchen gardens of the estate,) but the decay is still marching in and there appears to be no concerted effort to stop it.

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I’m not against restoring Gunnersby Park to its former grandeur and full potential, but I am saying that something magical is happening now–in that ruins reveal stories that were there all along, but are uncovered only through neglect.

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And I guess if I was a different kind of blogger, I’d conclude with some grand metaphor about life, but instead, I’m just going to leave this here.

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It’s falling apart, and it’s beautiful.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rainbows

I swear to bloggergod that I was going to post last week, but then last Monday kicked off like this:

March rainbow over Regent's Canal
March rainbow over Regent’s Canal

And not to get too “Vanessa Redgrave narration in Call the Midwife,” or anything, but after something like that, any words I could have written about London just felt superfluous.

Then I decided I could simply talk about the weather.

Become a parent, and you will suddenly care about the weather, whether you like it or not. Before I had children, I could have cared less about the forecast. Sure, snow days held a bit of magic, and I remember a hurricane day in Florida when the storm never came and I spent the day driving around town with the top down in my convertible. I remember the summer of 1995 in Chicago where the heat was like a suffocating blanket, and for weeks, the only place you could breathe was at the movies, so I saw EVERYTHING that came out that summer. (I saw the horrible horror/sci-fi film Species, for example.  Twice.)

But ultimately, weather was something that happened outside of me, in a necessary way sure, but something that impacted my life hardly at all. Like sleep, it only mattered when in extremes–otherwise, it was just background.

Once I had my daughter, weather suddenly was the over-the-fold headline in my personal imagined newspaper. Was it nice enough to go for a walk? Did I need the baby snowsuit AND a hat? Did I need the golf umbrella to cover me AND my manually powered all-terrain vehicle that masqueraded as a stroller? Would the stroller’s plastic cover be enough? Where is that plastic cover anyway? GOOD GOD! How is that I have six changing pads that match diaper bags I’VE NEVER OWNED, but I can’t find that plastic cover for the stroller amongst all these squeaky toys and bungee cords that have fallen to the bottom of the coat closet? WHY DO I OWN SO MANY BUNGEE CORDS?!

As my daughter got older, the weather forecast was really the playground report, as in: Can we go to the playground today? Will I need a towel to wipe the slides? (Because if there are wet slides, there will be tears. AVOID TEARS.)  Does she need wellies? What do you mean freezing rain AGAIN? For the second time in as many paragraphs, GOOD GOD! What do you do with a toddler all day in January? Why don’t they talk about this in birthing class? I BEG of you to raise my taxes and conjure me up an indoor playground immediately! Don’t make me go to the Livingston Mall again! The Livingston Mall is where mom dreams go to die! J’ACCUSE LIVINGSTON MALL!

In the city, too, regardless of whether or not you have children, you are forced to care deeply about the weather. This is because unless you are a movie star, a foreign princess or David Cameron, you walk a lot–even when you didn’t plan to in your diary. So your mornings are filled with questions that only the weather forecast is fit to answer: Do I need something with a hood? How many layers are required? What valued member of my boot team should I take out and about today? Do I need the long underwear TOP, as well as the bottoms? (You always need the bottoms, or at the very least wool tights under everything. If you think you can get away with neither, then you, dear reader, are freezing.) Do I need my umbrella? (Why am I even asking this question: YOU ALWAYS NEED AN UMBRELLA.)

There’s an interesting book about English culture by the social anthropologist Kate Fox called Watching the English. It’s full of “well that’s kind of ridiculous and somewhat obvious, that can’t be true and culturally specific. . . wait a minute: SHE’S RIGHT!” moments. It’s not a perfect book, but Fox talks about the weather as a vital part of social glue here in England. Discussion of the weather merits agreement, and agreement signals social cohesion.

I come from a land of crazy weather, but there, disagreement about the forecast and the battle of the worst snowstorm experience are contests that show state pride. Alternatively, in New Jersey, the currency of small talk is traffic–most importantly, any conversation about traffic is an invitation to compete as to who has it worse. Fox posits that the weather is the way to connect here in Britain, and the superficial connections of small talk are made here through agreement.

It must say something culturally about my experience as an American that even small talk is competitive. Even the ubiquitous American “get to know you” question (which is never asked here)–What do you do?–is underpinned by a sense of competition. Isn’t there always a hope that your answer will impress?

Here the generic “How are you?” is replaced with “Are you alright?” It’s a very British question that asks for agreement, rather than the American equivalent that asks for assessment.

So, I’m not saying that the weather is grey and rainy here because we all agree it’s grey and rainy, but I am saying that agreeing that it’s grey and rainy makes one British. To counter such an assessment with your own worst rainy day story makes one an American, which reminds me of THE MOST AMAZING RAINBOW PICTURE OF ALL TIME that kicked off this post.

The thing is that the more you examine another culture, the more you just end up revealing your own. So, our talk about the weather is really talk about our cultural biases, both of which are very difficult to control whether you’ve packed your umbrella–or your self-awareness–or not.

The Secrets of the Squirrel Whisperer

I’ve always loved old houses, but man, they come at a price.

In my last house–my own private 1910 house in New Jersey–squirrels wanted to live in the house just as much as I did. They preferred living in the walls, rather than taking up in the master suite, but still, their love for the place was just as true and relentless as mine. No matter how far they roamed, they always came home.

This led to my employing a “squirrel guy,” because when you own an old house, you collect guys like this: a squirrel guy, a plumbing guy, a porch guy, a window guy, a lawn guy, etc. Old houses take a village.

Our squirrel guy–I’ll call him Steve–was a man of many talents. He knew how to show rodents and other pests who was boss, he was a world traveler, he was a musician, and he was also a kind of zen master. Squirrels brought Steve into my life, but he was brought there for a greater purpose than eradicating some of “the most dedicated squirrels he’d ever seen” (his words.)

On one of his visits, we were standing on my patch of a front lawn looking up at the house, wondering how and why in the hell the squirrels clawed around a wire and steel cage to get back into the walls of my home. Why could these squirrels not be peaceably evicted? It was a sunny summer day and peaceful on the street.

My husband and I been having some concerns about water in our basement, and we didn’t get have a waterproofing guy OR a basement guy–clearly terrible holes in our roster. I asked Steve if he knew anyone to recommend. He thought for a minute. “No,” he said. “Sorry. Not my area.”

“But man, I love old houses too. Thing is, you gotta deal with a little water in the basement to get all that great stuff upstairs.”

Then we stood in silence for a minute staring up at the sky and the curved eaves of that 1910 house.

I think of this exchange a lot living on the city. Sure, this is London. It’s a giant city–cramped and full of invitations to misbehave. There’s dog poop at times on the sidewalk on my street. I have to pick up trash that blows into my bushes and sullies my street view from time to time. I’ve seen vomit in the road. I saw a fight recently. Yesterday, I heard a woman yell “Shut up!” to her son, and my heart cracked. These things are part of the city, and I’m not going to sugarcoat them.

However, the V and A is here, full of staggering beauty to see and it costs nothing at all. After the fight I saw on the street (I was on the bus,) I cried and the woman next to me reached out and asked me if I was ok and offered words of comfort to soothe my embarrassment. At my tube station last week, an accordionist was playing the chicken dance and two women were laughing and singing La Danse des Canards (as it is in France,) making the gestures that go with it, their veils flapping in the breeze. There is mid-February spring. There is the best baklava I’ve ever had, fresh and honey drenched everyday, just two blocks from my house. There is a sudden glimpse of St. Paul’s from the bus, or the Millennium Bridge providing foot passage over the Thames to some of the greatest art institutions of the English speaking world just south of the river.

Early February Spring at Kenwood House
Early February Spring at Kenwood House

The city is messy. In many ways, it is the oldest of houses, and that comes with centuries of costs, both hidden and obvious. Writing this as I am riding on the misery line, I guess I just see all the great stuff upstairs.

Confessions of a Ghostsign Hunter

I admit it. I love a good ghost sign. I’m not quite a trainspotter yet, and I haven’t yet become a Shipping Forecast aficionado, nor a fan of Great British Railway Journeys. Still though, you can count ghostsign hunting as my first slow hobby. (I should note that I’m well aware that it’s a slippery slope from here to watching a 134-hour Norwegian ferry route on live TV, but I’m willing to take that risk.)

Let’s get back though to the thin edge of the wedge, shall we? Ghostsigns are old hand-painted advertisements that used to grace buildings just about everywhere. They are small voices from the past inexplicably preserved to speak to us now. Not knowing why a particular sign has remained is part of the attraction. Did the building owner want to preserve a piece of the building’s history? Was it just a “meh” attitude that left the sign intact?

There’s even a free, searchable UK archive of these signs at The History of Advertising Trust Ghostsigns Archive. There’s an international Ghostsigns Flickr group too–careful about following that link. I got lost in there for nearly an hour. So many ghost signs! So little time!

The most famous ghost sign is probably in York, gloriously preserved to remind us all of the power of Bile Beans. (You can get a great view of it walking the York city wall, FYI.)

Not something I'd recommend as part of your York dining experience.
Nightly Bile Beans keep you healthy, bright-eyed and slim!

Here’s one right around the corner from where I live:

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Auction Rooms & Depository. . . Furniture, Poynings Road, London N19

And here’s another a couple of blocks from my daughter’s school:

Warings, From London Wall, Wilton Factories, Shepperton Road, London N1
Warings, From London Wall, Wilton Factories, Shepperton Road, London N1

London alone is full of these signs, and the Londonist has a pretty great top ten to inspire exploring. Next up in my obsession is the Ghostsigns Walking Tour (currently booked until April.)

What interests me here are the revealed layers. London (like most big cities) is simply buried in its history, and the layers are there for peeling away if you just know how to look (and are willing to slow down to do so.) A ghostsign is like the history that sometimes gets uncovered after a storm inviting us to look at two things at once: what is and what was/what might have been and what might be in the future. Putting those layers together makes for the best kind of critical thinking about place, because the magic of a city is that it’s so many things–past and present–all happening at the same time, whether the ghostsign is visible or not.

This is not a post about drinking. This is a post about drinking at the theatre.

When Americans come to the UK, they are often shocked at the far more relaxed attitudes towards drinking here. (I will forever be known to some at my daughter’s school as the woman who was dumbfounded at being offered a glass of Proseco at the first parent’s night I attended. Reader, the answer to your next question is: Of course. I had two.)

This casualness extends to lots of places where, as an American, you are shocked to find drinks and/or a bar. Like children’s events. Like theatres.

Most every theatre I attend in London has a bar, and I don’t mean a place where cheap champagne is offered in plastic cups on folding tables on opening night OR an overpriced bar-like structure that sells $10 glasses of wine and $15 martinis that you need to suck down at intermission because GOD FORBID YOU SHOULD TAKE A BEVERAGE INTO A PLACE AS SACROSANCT AS A THEATRE! (I’m going to blow your mind now at the convention of ice cream being sold INSIDE THE THEATRE at the interval here. You can buy it in the theatre, and you can eat it in the theatre, even sitting comfortably in your own seat. Ah, the humanity!)

Theatres here have REAL bars, with full drink, beer and wine offerings, sometimes cask ales, always bar snacks and generally even light meals. These bars also include a full compliment of coffee and tea drinks like you’d find in any coffee shop. They are gathering places (that often feature free wifi) and are open well before and after the show. These bars are destinations in their own right.

At The Southwark Playhouse, for example, the bar/cafe is open 9 a.m.-midnight weekdays and 1 p.m.-midnight on Saturdays. At the Hampstead Theatre, their bar’s hours are similar, and you can book a table.

At first glance, you might think: Who cares? So you can get a real drink and some food AT the theatre instead of a slice or a beer at the bar across the street? Big deal.

Honestly though, I think it’s a major deal. The integration of a bar. . . ok, let’s say cafe. . . reinvents the idea of what kind of gathering goes on at a theatre. Rather than just a place where you line up to enter, sit quietly and laugh or cry or judge and file out to talk about how you could have done it better with your friends, the theatre becomes a place where you can actually hang out without the start and finish time of a play dictating your experience.

When you need to meet a friend to chat or a colleague to conduct business informally, where do you go? A coffee shop, a bar, a cafe, right? Why can’t the theatre be on that list too? Don’t forget that this enhanced sense of welcome and expansiveness of the meaning and function of a theatre’s physical space extends to the auditorium as well. You can have a beer while watching the show. You can have a ice cream. You are invited to be comfortable. The theatre here is another kind of public space that invites comfort and reflection and communication, both like a park (offering comfort and reflection) and like a bar (inviting communication.)

When I have time to kill in central London, I often find myself hanging out at the National Theatre. There’s free wi-fi, a fantastic bookshop, loads of food options, fascinating people watching and amazing theatre in the air. I see lots of plays at the National too, and I’ve attended many discussions and tours and exhibits there. The National’s openness makes me feel a part of this massive institution in a way that just buying tickets definitely does not.

I’ve been to the theatre in the U.S. many times where I couldn’t be ushered out of the theatre fast enough, and for goodness sake, don’t go early! Sometimes there aren’t more than 1-2 seats in the lobby! I know there are exceptions (and I’m certainly generalizing here to make a point,) but in the U.S., the show starts when the house opens and ends at curtain call. Show’s over, folks. Nothing happening here until 7:30 tomorrow night.

The flip in my experience in London is that the theatre doesn’t want you to leave, and it would very much like you to come early–yes, to buy drinks–but more importantly to enrich your experience, because you are welcome, like you are part of the ensemble, not just a member of a monolithic audience.

Years ago, I went to a fantastic PR workshop that focused on where to start when promoting a show. The first question was: Who is your competition? Everyone answered with other theatres and arts events. The real answer though is: just staying in and watching Netflix. You’ve got to convince people to leave the house in the first place. Sports teams are good at this: even if the game sucks, you can have a beer and a chat with friends.

It’s time theatres realized that the play isn’t the only thing and built welcoming homes, instead of monuments to be worshipped at appointed hours.