BY LAURA JANE
The photograph seen above was taken by my amazing boyfriend Mark Rothen; I stole it from his Instagram, which you can and should look at by clicking on his name. Mark is a genius photographer and I am in love with him. We have lived in London for three weeks now. I feel like I wrote these words a very long time ago, but I only wrote them three weeks ago.
Day 1 (Monday, July 21st, 2014)
Mark waltzed through customs before I was even a quarter through my line I mean queue. He has a British passport. The British passport has a little microchip built into the page with the picture of your face on it. You wave it in front of a machine and the machine’s like “Yeah, okay, you’re cool,” and then you coolly walk away from it like the calm, breezy British person you are. I was so jealous of him for not having to talk to a person even though my person was fine. He was a cool, breezy Irish guy who looked like the stereotype of what an Irish person would look like. He asked me if I had a Visa and I said Yeah and he said “Well that makes it easy then!” and in my head I was like “Does it?!?!?!” because I had very earnestly assumed that the full one hundred percent of this process would be the worst and most boring and inconvenient hassle I’d ever endured.
I pressed my fingers against a piece of computery glass and my fingers confirmed that they were a part of me and then the Irish guy said “Have a great adventure!” because I’d told him I was on an adventure five minutes ago. I was groggy. I thought about how people who work at airports talk to groggy people so much more than any other faction of society and they must think people are so silly and cute because of it. They must like people.
(I doubt most groggy people are silly or cute. Airport employees probably hate us.) I bought us coffees at the Gatwick airport Costa and ordered myself an iced latte because the last time I was at that exact airport-Costa I’d ordered myself an iced Americano and they’d given me an iced latte anyway. But somehow this new iced latte had even more milk in it than the kind of iced latte you’d get in North America AKA a normal iced latte that I don’t know why Great Britain feels it has to fuck with. It was an iced latte hovering atop an extra float of white milk at the bottom. I drank a couple sips while eating a cup of boogery blueberry yogurt and then threw it in the garbage, because it was garbage. I liked the boogery yogurt though.
When we arrived at our airbnb in Stoke-Newington the cab driver insisted on getting out of the cab and physically watching me make sure that we were where we were supposed to be which couldn’t have been as well-intentioned as it was annoying. I rang both the house’s buzzers and a very flabby set of shoulders protruded from the first floor window. The owner of the shoulders had a fat pointy nose poking out from the number one mop-top I’ve ever seen that was most reminiscent of an actual mop. He looked like the cartoon version of Ringo from the Beatles cartoon. He asked me what we were looking for and I strung a bunch of words including multiple instances of the non-word “airbnb” together in a whiny, high-pitched tone that I feel did a huge disservice to all North American accents everywhere. Thanks to me, that Ringoey guy will probably think all North Americans are desperate idiots for the rest of his life.
The girl who owns our airbnb let us into our airbnb and then I napped the afternoon away. I am writing this two days later but it feels like a thousand years have passed in a way that two days ago has never previously felt like. Obviously it is an exaggeration to say that two days ago feels like it was a thousand years ago because I am a human and can’t perceive a thousand years like that. But when I think about what was going on in my head then versus what is going on in my head now, honestly, I feel like I’ve made eight to fourteen days’ worth of progress. It’s amazing what can happen to the inside of your brain when you rip yourself away from everything you like and know and fly across the ocean in a heavy machine and then wake up in another country. And the sun says it’s the afternoon when your blood and body know it’s actually the morning.
I have had worse jet lag than Mark which comes as no surprise to anybody since it’s a sleep-related ailment and I can’t even sleep properly through a night in the city I’m from after having lived a non-stressful day with no pressing issues on the horizon. Thinking of the way the jet lag is still a part of me is the only thing that binds me to two days ago being two days ago.
I woke up and we walked to a coffee shop a few blocks away. The girl working at the coffee shop was American and she made us iced Americanos with no milk. We talked about how it’s so hard to get a normal iced coffee here and then the next morning we went back to get more normal iced coffees from our in-the-know friend but, sadly, she wasn’t there. The new guy made us iced Americanos but they cost us three pounds which is like six dollars and then one of the other coffee shop employees had to run out and buy a new bag of ice for us crazy North Americans. We walked up the Stoke-Newington High Street and I realized I hadn’t eaten anything since the boogery yogurt. We went into a pub because there was a sign that said KITCHEN OPEN in the window but when we asked the bartender about food he seemed disoriented. I ordered a whiskey sour and he cracked an egg against the rim of the shaker cup and cleanly separated the white from the yolk and dumped the white into my drink. The drink was pinkish for no reason. I counted it as food.
We took the Overground into the city. We didn’t care where we went. We just took the Overground until we got to the Underground and then got off at the first stop we’d heard of, which was Baker Street. There were silhouettes of Sherlock Holmes with his pipe and signature hat mosaicked into the walls. At this point in human history those little hats make me think of a little dog dressed up as Sherlock Holmes for Halloween.
We ate dinner at a slightly better than mediocre Italian restaurant where I had a bowl of seafood risotto and a glass of Prosecco. Mark had a spicy pizza with a gross glass of Cab Sauv that was off but definitely also bad wine before it went off. After dinner we wandered around more and London looked like London and smelled like nothing and Mark pointed at a palace and said “That’s where Prince George lives!” and I asked “The baby?!!??!”
He said Yeah the baby and I wondered why he’d shouted out Prince George instead of Prince George’s more relevant parents. On the plane there was an article in my tabloid about how Prince George and North West are both turning one this summer and I thought North was cuter but Mark thought George was cuter. In real life they are probably two equally cute little babies but it’s a really good metaphor for me being the wilder member of our relationship and Mark being the one with the British passport. Of course he would have the Royal Family’s back. And I would have Kanye’s.
I was trying to get us to this pub I’d been to twice when I went to London last October. I meandered us along in the vaguely right direction like I was a chill old hound on a hunt that counted for very little, shrugging “I’m just along for the ride.”
We walked past the Dutch embassy. People had left bunches of flowers outside of the Dutch embassy. I wondered if the people who left the flowers were people who knew the people who died or if they were just nice people. We walked past a museum and I used my eyes to take an imaginary picture of everything my eyes could see and then in my head I chose a random picture that my eyes could have been seeing in Toronto and I wanted to Tweet about how happy I was to finally live somewhere that feels beautiful enough but didn’t, because I didn’t want to be an asshole to my friends in Toronto.
We made it to the pub and I drank a kiwi-flavored cider and pointed at the bird on the label of the bottle and asked Mark “Do you know what bird this is?” and he said “A kiwi bird!” and I said “Oh.” He asked me what I thought it was and I said “A kookaburra.”
We walked through Knightsbridge. London looks like the future invaded the past. Like you went back in time to eighteen hundred whatever and everyone was just loping along through a city that looked like a sardine can packed full of gingerbread houses and then in marched the future and the future killed all the poor lopers and then took over their gingerbread house community. Parked its silver sedans out front and tacked on some glass and metal flourishes and opened up a cell phone store.
We looked at all the listings posted on the window of a real estate agency. In Knightsbridge it will cost you five million pounds to buy a flat. We walked further down Brompton Road and wondered why you’d bother wasting five million pounds on a flat in Knightsbridge when you could live in a neighborhood just as charismatic for way cheaper and then walk through Knightsbridge for free. Harrods and the gingerbread houses surrounding it were all lit from the bottom up and they looked like they were made of caramel and chocolate. You’d pay five million pounds to live here because you’re rich and it’s glorious.
That thing happened where they had to buy a bag of ice to make us our iced coffees. I ate a salad which was quinoa and a big scoop of hummus artfully/nineties-fully arranged on a bed of whole lettuce leaves. The dressing was a lemon wedge and a mini white pitcher of olive oil.
I did some exercise videos in our airbnb bedroom. All of our suitcases were pushed against the perimeter of the room. I had to arrange my body in a weird diagonal formation if I wanted to do a plank or crunch. It was a hot sunny day and the room was so stifling hot I felt like I couldn’t take a full breath in. There isn’t any air-conditioning in England; I mean, maybe there is some air-conditioning somewhere, it seems like there’s got to be, at least once, but it hasn’t been anywhere I’ve been yet. Right now I am sitting in a tapas restaurant on the Stoke-Newington High Street and I can hear a whirr implying that there might be a fan in the restaurant somewhere but no air is touching my body but still hot air. Doo Wop (That Thing) by Lauryn Hill has been playing on a loop since I arrived three rounds of Doo Wop (That Thing) ago. All this hot still air is making me like summer less than I usually would. Maybe the Universe brought me to England to revolutionize its stance on air-conditioning and also crack down on the confusing and unnecessary amount of digits in their phone numbers. A three-digit area code followed by a seven-digit phone number is a flawless system that I have only ever taken for granted.
I didn’t have a straightening iron so I tied my hair up into a lumpy ugly knot. I got my eyebrows waxed at a place on Kingsland Road that had pictures of Alexa Chung with all her different hairstyles up on the wall. I wasn’t sure if you were supposed to tip so I didn’t tip. When I go into pubs or restaurants or stores here I feel a kind of shy I haven’t felt since I beat my crippling teenage shyness into submission ten years ago. I feel like any question I might have is something to be embarrassed about even though I know the worst anyone could think of me is the true fact that I am not from here.
I bought a straightening iron at a store called Argos, which is a very high-concept store. On one side you’ve got little kiosks equipped with thousand-page catalogues, flatscreen computers, slips of paper, and tiny pencils. The pencils are a robin’s egg blue. You flip through the catalogue looking for what you want to buy and once you find it you type its serial number into the computer to see if they have it in the warehouse. If they do, you write the number onto the slip of paper with one of the tiny pencils and take it up to the cashier. You pay for the item and are given a number and assigned to one of two Collection Points. There is a warehouse at the back of the store and a person who is not meant to be seen by you travels off into the gulf of it to find you your straightening iron or tea kettle or dumbbells or toaster or tent and then once they’ve found it they call out your number and you show them your receipt and they scrawl on it with a ballpoint pen and they give you your thing and you go home and leave. It’s an extraordinary place.
I walked all the way up the Stoke-Newington High Street to the Stoke-Newington Church Street. I saw a girl with a sloppy ponytail wearing black platform sandals and little shorts and a big men’s t-shirt that said ISTANBUL across on the front. She was the first person I’d seen in London who dressed like me.
Stoke-Newington Church Street is cool and cute; so cool and cute, in fact, that your mom, you, and your (maybe-)hypothetical teenage sister (I don't know; maybe you've got a real one) would all think it was good for different but also a lot of the same reasons. I went into the Whole Foods to buy Mark some coconut oil. It was the tiniest Whole Foods I have ever seen! Every time I write anybody an email about “what London is like so far” I work in the detail of the teeny-tiny Whole Foods. It’s really cool to me. I love Whole Foods and wish there were as many Whole Foods as there were Starbucks or houses and this Whole Foods gives me hope. And it was Londony for it to be small. London is all about nooks and crooks and tall skinny houses crushed into other tall skinny houses that all have attics. The Stoke-Newington Whole Foods is like if you crammed the entire fancypants Whole Foods from Houston Street in New York City into one eccentric old poet from the past’s attic.
I bought myself a container of pineapple chunks and a bottled juice made out of coconut flesh and water and some fruit. It was the bad kind of boogery. I threw it in the garbage.
The pigeons here are slimmer and more elegant than Toronto pigeons but only about three percent less disgusting. While I was walking home a little girl with pigtails and a unibrow approached me on the street and asked me if I wanted to buy a loom band necklace she’d made for two pounds. I told her I’d buy it for one pound and she agreed but as I was fishing around my change purse she went back on her word and said “No, actually, two pounds,” so I paid her two pounds for it.
I came home and Mark and I spent about an hour on the phone with a robot British lady trying to set up mobile plans with our new o2 SIM cards or whatever. Like I even know what a SIM card even is. Mark and I have an in-joke where we call ourselves The Busybuddies and are the stars of a fake TV show called The Busybuddies about our lives. The season premiere of season 3 of The Busybuddies began when we arrived at the airport in Toronto last Sunday night. Before then The Busybuddies had been on hiatus since the season 2 finale, which was my birthday if I’m remembering correctly. It’s nice to have The Busybuddies back on again; it makes life feel more meaningful. We talked about how on Busybuddies the dumb hour we spent talking to the robot British lady would have been condensed into a hilarious montage centered around how insanely fucking frustrating it is to move to another country and get a phone and address and a bank account and all that. And it was soothing to think about, how nice it would be if you could boil all the most difficult parts of your life down into a well-paced montage about how hard they were and then only have to show up for the parts where you’re sight-seeing in Knightsbridge or whatever.
Eventually we got our phones to work and then went out to eat Turkish food. We had never eaten Turkish food before. We went to a cave-themed restaurant that had a picture of Fred Flintstone on its business card and ordered a meze platter for two, which was a basket of hot bread with blackish bubbles protruding from the bread and little dishes of hummus, tzatziki, tabouli, a scarlet couscous and an aubergine ragout, maybe something else cold with chopped up cucumber or I could just be thinking of the tabouli, and then a plate of grilled halloumi and dry falafel I didn’t eat and another couple types of fritters and a lamb meatball that I called an albondiga. There was a dish on the menu at our old restaurant called albondigas, which is Mexican for meatballs, so now it’s funny to call every meatball an albondiga forever. I had a boring glass of wine that tasted like the concept of minerality and then we shared a main course of pulled lamb set atop of a disc of smoked aubergine mash. The aubergine mash was loaded with heavy cream. It was my favorite thing I’ve eaten all summer.
After dinner we played a game where Mark quizzed me on the values of all the different coins. Five pence are weak and thin like Canadian dimes, ten pence are thin but bright silver and bigger than a quarter, twenty pence are fatter and octagonal, fifty pence are big and octagonal but thin and very convenient. They don’t have quarters. Pennies look like pennies and two pence (tuppence, maybe? Is that still a thing that’s said? Is it 1870? Who even knows) look like giant pennies. One pound coins are stout and gold. Two pound coins are toonies.
We walked across the street to a Tesco Express and mooned over the beer and wine selection. We come from a place where you can’t buy even the crappiest booze imaginable at a grocery store. You have to go to special stores that are run by the government, which seems a little unnecessarily 1984 or whatever. I bought a bottle of Beaujolais from the cru Fleurie and a little breakfast for the next morning, a cuplet of thin vanilla yogurt that you pour from a hole you rip into its foil lid into an interlocking plastic cuplet of strawberry granola. Mark bought himself a gigantic bottle of Heineken and the next night I wrote about Monday in a pub while he drank it in the park.
Days 3 & 4
It’s Sunday and I’m hesitant to write about these two days in any crazy amount of detail because they still make me so sad to think about. Tuesday night I was up until dawn grappling with my vicious jet lag-insomnia blend and so on Wednesday I slept in until one in the afternoon. Mark had promised to wake up early and make us coffee using our host’s French press and then entice me to wake up with the beguiling aroma of the French press coffee. But two of our host’s friends from Beijing were sleeping in the living room, so he couldn’t. He woke me up around eleven and I groggily asked him if he had coffee and he said, “I couldn’t make the coffee, which is why I came back in here in a depressed slump,” and I loved him so much, in my sleep, for that stunning use of “depressed slump.”
At one I sat up in bed eating my cuplets and a banana. I drank coffee out of a pink Pantone mug. I wore a blue dress and my nails were ragged. Mark said, “I can’t in good faith tell you that your nails are the best I’ve ever seen them,” and we walked to a place called the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden, a scrappy biergarten half-covered up by a ragtag array of wooden beams and half-exposed to the whims of the sun and sky. Crapped-up wooden tables and rusting-over patio furniture were hidden behind or beside semi-attended-to puffs of greenery and wild, overgrown bushes of sweet six-petalled flowers my head is remembering as being pink and purple and blue.
Here is the sad part: we walked to a place and in the place was a perfect flat and all we wanted was to live in it but we couldn’t. It was on a Green like the Green of Village Green by the Kinks. The next morning I cried in bed. I don’t want anything to ever be hard again. I don’t know why humans had to go and make the world such a hard and crappy place to live in except for I guess it’s satisfying to have to overcome shit.
I wanted London to throw me a parade but London is indifferent and everyone who lives here is significantly better-dressed than me. I keep thinking “I have to step up my game” but I don’t really want to step up my game. I want to be the same.
I saw this lady walking down the street yesterday. She was minorly chubby and majorly tan and her hair was dyed blonde with black and grey roots piled up into a crappy knot that no one would ever think was a stunning example of how a topknot could translate into being a cool professional hair look. She wore a dark grey tank top and boyfriend jeans with one pant leg rolled up to mid-calf because she was rolling a bicycle along next to her and she had aviator sunglasses and a Broadway Market tote bag stained with an exploded pen stain near the bottom and she just looked really cool and easy and comfortable in her surroundings. I feel like I’ve spent the past year of my life coolly existing as the Toronto equivalent of that lady and it was GREAT! I was untouchable but not in a dark way and I didn’t care about the Instagram gossip I was privy to knowing but never really had to be a part of and, on top of everything, I was about to run away, which is sexy. And now in London I am beginning to exist in a regressive state of feeling like the mousy fat teen I had to suffer through living as back in Williamsburg, Brooklyn circa 2005.
To everybody in this city I am a nothing stranger. I am a person walking down the street and if I open my mouth they think I’m an American. I wish I could be walking down the street and I’d make some easy natural eye contact with some vaguely cool-seeming person and they would see my face and some flashers would go off in their head and my eyes would transmit the message I am an exceptionally good writer who is an above-average level of funny and likes dogs and is fucking fantastic to go out to dinner with into their brain, and they’d think “Irresistible!” and then approach me. I'd tell them what Beatles song they'd be if people were Beatles songs, and, all my new friends, they'd all be Fixing A Hole. Or Sun King. Flying.