London, England. Part I: Goodbye America
The decision to leave America was not very difficult for me. In fact, I will claim that it wasn’t a decision at all. In my non-scientific, spiritually-based, easily-challengeable opinion, the universe made the choice for me, and I just chose to finally listen. I actually began feeling the signs that it was time to leave, years ago, which is why I selected the 2009 Indian Adventure Package from life’s online ordering system, hoping that it would address the questions I had about my life path. When the package arrived, and I returned home from that powerful experience, I spent most of 2010 with a feeling that I was still missing something. So my difficulty was not in making the decision itself; it was in telling people I personally and professionally care about, that it was time for me to go. It was in quitting my job without having a single interview scheduled. And as brave (or stupid) as it may look to just quit your job, toss everything you own into storage, and fly away with some clothes and a laptop, I assure you I spent a significant amount of time wondering if I was going insane. Thankfully, I have a belief-system that claims the universe takes care of people who perform leaps of faith. I know; convenient to believe this, it is indeed. But if there are millions of people who believe the Red Sea physically parted, or that a snake literally talked to Eve, then I get to have my friendly-universe story.
I understand that amateur philosophy, and fluffy explanations of the universe aren’t sufficient explanations on why I chose to have an international lifestyle. So I will also offer the explanation that I am overwhelmingly interested in people, societies, and cultures different than my own. An avid student of our human race, I often go through intense bursts of time studying the various religions on this planet, researching science books on human evolution and origins, and even trying to understand our minds by obsessing over psychology material. Because of this, I have a profound ability to put people to sleep at dinner tables, and definitely know to not carry on about such topics in this travel blog. However, reading will not allow me the opportunity to have those cultural people-moments that I always cherish. For instance, I loved asking the driver in India if he’s nervous about marrying a girl he’s met only once, or now, the waitress in London where she’s from, and then getting a 5-minute update on her hometown in Poland. Books and audio programs also don’t help my interest in understanding language and the way people speak around the world. My co-workers here could easily argue that mocking their British accents all day long doesn’t help either, as I’ve now become a source of comedy when doing so. It’s all in good fun, but my lameness should not be mistaken for an actual attempt at trying to practice communication style. No matter how hard I try though, my “thick American accent” reveals the fact I come, not from England, but from a place that refuses to pay tax on tea instead.
You can’t accomplish any of this, visiting a country during the American 15-minute recess break (10 days paid vacation). You need time to become homesick; to somehow find a way to feel at-home in a land that, quite possibly, may not even like yours. People do things differently away from your place-of-comfort, and during a two-week vacation, these differences are cute. So you take plenty of pictures, walk around the touristy areas, go home, and then tell your family and friends how great the people are. We’ve all done this. When you move to that country, however, I assure you it’s extremely easy to let these differences wear you down, and to become uncomfortable with the way things are done. I am nowhere near that point in London yet. But I do know the day is coming where I’ll be tired of having the tip included in the restaurant bill (they call it a service charge); or the fact that every shirt or jacket I buy has the zipper on the left side. I eventually won’t care about London bridges, learning British accents, or thousand-year old churches. But that time is nowhere near here, and for the foreseeable future I am an American living in England. It is now time to end this personal babble, and share what this is like.
London, England. Part II: Old Routines, New Scenery
As my human transport device ascended into the sunny blue skies above southern California, racing towards England’s december clouds, I felt sadness at saying goodbye, and excitement for the adventure ahead. And when both my plane and infinite supply of Los Angeles t-shirts landed, I can tell you that those conflicting emotions very quickly disappeared the second I was punched in the face by a strong burst of English Wind. My first impressions of London were formed during one of the worst snow storms in its history, a tube strike by union employees, and a week-long case of extreme jet lag. I spent the first few weeks stocking up on a lifetime supply of warm clothing, calculating ways to prevent my coffee from getting cold during my walk to work, and wondering why everyone was always saying “cheers” to me.
By the end of the first month, I was well on my way down the London-adventure path, often reflecting how I missed this feeling of living in a new country. Unfortunately, however, no matter how hard I try, the warm glow, wide-eyed promise of adventure seems to always fade into the coldness of routine’s blindness. Regardless of where you live on this planet, you’re probably going to be working, eating, or sleeping the vast majority of your time. And now, five months into my London experience, waitresses know my name, and ask me if I want the usual. The bartenders at PJ’s in South Kensington say goodbye to me with the sentence, “see you tomorrow Jeff.” In other words, I am already a creature of habit. They say you take yourself with you wherever you go. I’ve often wondered who “they” are, and I can’t wait to meet them some day. But they are absolutely right.
The completely new experience of my living situation has also faded into the realms of comfort. Not used to having roommates, the universe quickly handed me 3 of them. I am now living with a 66-year-old retired Korean man, a Buddhist monk from China who’s learning to speak English, and an Irish man from Ballymote, a small town in northern Ireland. Just a few months ago, I was alone in the american-sized spaciousness of my Hollywood, bachelor apartment. Now I am living in an old, but beautiful Victorian home. And I need to stress the word, old. Built over 150 years ago, every step that you take in this house, alerts the entire neighborhood to your location. I love playing the game where I try walking around the house without making a sound. I always lose on the second set of stairs, during the 3-flight trek to my bedroom. The mine-field of sound always gets me, and the Queen is quickly alerted to the fact I was just in the kitchen. I am not complaining in any way. I love the creaking floors, the crackling fireplace and a hot cup of English tea on a cold, winter night. Buildings are old in Europe, and that is part of the experience of living or visiting here. There’s amazing history attached to just about everything you see as well. And, in fact, my home had a near-death experience with Hitler’s bombs during World War II. Just a block away, the houses weren’t as lucky, and were renovated into a pile of rubble by Nazi interior decorating experts in 1940.
My journey to work is a combination of nearly every possible method of travel in London. I walk from my house in Chelsea, to the bus stop in front of the Westminster Hospital. As I ponder the National Healthcare System (NHS) for a few minutes, the 14-bus arrives, and I step onto the red, double-decker bus for the driver’s daily 10-minute game of try-to-make-Jeff-fall-over. They love accelerating the moment I am walking up the stairs, or about to stand up from my seat. At some point in the journey, I exercise the only control I have in this life, and press the red “stop” button. The driver usually agrees to do so, and ejects me near the South Kensington underground station (In the U.S., we call it the subway. In London, they call it the Underground). I get on the Piccadilly Line, and 15 minutes later, I exit at the Leicester Square station. Which, by the way, if you visit London, always make a mental note to pronounce it “Lesta Sqweh.” Otherwise you may get a lecture from a local on the right way to speak English. And while we’re on the topic, if you decide to live here, you’re going to have to learn how to spell again as well. You’ll be watching the behaviour of others, not their behavior. And you won’t recognize anyone, you’ll just notice that you recognise them instead. Back to the commute, once I battle my way through the crowds at Lesta Sqweh, I then walk through Chinatown, denying all offers for a massage, narrowly escape my death by crossing Shaftesbury Ave., grab a coffee at Costa Coffee while fielding a complaint from the server that I’m “losing my American accent,” and finally begin my day’s work in the office, which thankfully has windows overlooking Soho.
When it’s time for lunch, my absolute favorite routine is to grab my piano book, take a 5-minute walk down Wardour Street, and practice the piano in Soho’s local music store, Chappell’s. Opening their doors in 1811, they are now celebrating 200 years of business this very moment. I sometimes fantasize, pardon me, fantasise that musicians like Hayden, Holst, and Elgar spent time in this store, not too long ago. And now here I am, a century or so later, struggling to run my fingers over an Eb minor scale, wondering, if I’ll ever be able master an 88-key instrument with only 10 fingers. When I first started running this routine on repeat, I made the mistake of sitting down in front of a $95,000 Boesendorfer piano. Pecking and poking on the Ferrari of all pianos, it was interesting to notice how fast a 60-year-old British man can move across a showroom floor. I couldn’t even play a complete C major scale, only able to throw down 5 notes before I heard the booming echo of someone asking, “can I help you sir?” I guess I’m blind to the kind of signs and messages that tell me I’m not allowed to do something. So now I spend my time in the electronic keyboard section with a pair of headphones blissfully strapped to my skull. I gave up acting like I was about to buy a keyboard a long time ago; around the same time they started noticing I went to the same one every day for a month straight. And God bless them for not interfering in the only thing that makes me feel at home in distant lands; music. Now they greet me with a warm smile, and when I’m finished, they too say, “see you tomorrow.”
So it turns out there is nothing you can do about at least two things in this life: the sun rising in the east, and the fact that no matter where you’re living, you will settle into a routine that runs on repeat in an infinite loop. The only difference is that the background scenery changes. And depending on the choices you make in life, it can be very beautiful scenery indeed. There is that rare day that comes along, however, when a Prince asks a pretty local girl to marry him. Then you may feel obligated to wake up early on your day off, and see what this whole monarchy thing is about.
London, England. Part III: The Royal Wedding
In complete honesty, I wasn’t interested in anything that had to do with the royal wedding. All of England had a 4-day weekend because of the event, and so I spent nearly every minute leading up to Will’s wedding day, debating if I should participate in English history or take a weekend trip to Spain, Paris, or anywhere else on the planet for that matter. And out of pure obligation, I crawled out of bed half-way through the ceremony, walked down three flights of stairs, stepped into the kitchen, and arrived just in time to watch Kate say “I do.” It was at this moment I concluded that I should start behaving like someone who actually lives in London. I decided that I was being a hypocrite by claiming that I love other people and their culture, and yet yawning at the idea of joining them in their history. I made the correction rather quickly, because 30 minutes later I found myself standing in the middle of extreme chaos, just outside Green Park and Buckingham Palace.
When I stepped off the subway at Green Park Station, and slowly ascended into the light of day, there was no denying the energy I felt from the hundreds-of-thousands of people gathered in the area. You should basically imagine New York City, Times Square, New Years Eve, multiplied by at least ten. The sad news is, that by the time I arrived, all entrances to Green Park were closed. The area surrounding Buckingham Palace was overflowing with so many people, police forces weren’t letting anyone, anywhere near the Palace. This explains why streets normally littered with vehicles, were instead overrun by human beings, myself included. Again, oblivious to the idea that I’ve been told I can’t do something, I decided it was time to pretend like there was an entrance not too far from where security was standing. And by pretend, I mean climbing up a fence, and then launching myself over some shrubbery. The landing barely went alright, and soon enough I was on my way to congratulate the newlyweds on their 45% chance of not getting divorced.
The next few hours were spent blending in with a few hundred-thousand souls or so, breathing in the energy, and watching the continuing events unfold on large screens dispersed throughout the park. World War II fighter planes roared overhead as the crowd erupted in thunderous applause. The announcer could barely be heard, broadcasting the fact that these very planes “heroically made a stand against Hitler’s army.” I am in no way British, but will admit I was a moved by this awesome and powerful display of national pride. Conflicting emotions always crop up inside of me during moments like these. I mainly consider myself a citizen of the human global race, first; and second, an American. But when I watch the Superbowl in London’s Sports Cafe (near Piccadilly Circus) and all the ex-pats starts screaming “U!”-“S!”-“A!” in unison, or I witness thousands of Britons crying with pride at their heritage, I start believing it might be better to love your own country first. I’ll stay undecided on this one for the moment, and just claim that I am extremely moved by witnessing passion and love in other people, regardless of where they are from and what they believe in. And in a strange way, taking part in British history made me love America more than I already do. I remember walking away from that day thinking, “we’re pretty cool too.”
London, England. Part IV: Off I Go
“Ready! Steady! Off you go!” That is the British equivalent of “On your mark! Get set! Go!” Regardless of which phrase you use, this European journey of mine is off and running, and I am excited to experience and report as much of it as I can. To many people this journey may look like I am living a dream. However, I can say for sure that the path I have chosen for myself doesn’t always feel like one. The choices I’ve made will definitely bring on periods of homesickness and occasional bouts of loneliness. But it will also bring adventure, new friends, and an infinite supply of material for what’s morphing from a travel blog to a personal journal. My father always told me, “nothing is free.” I’ll add on to this and say, “dreams included.”
And to answer your question, I am searching for something.
Cheers, my friends. Cheers…