Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Adventures in 1990s house-sitting continued: Ant Attack (and angst attack)

Actually S.’s rabbit was not such a traumatic experience – the subsequent ant attack, which this blog post was supposed to be about…came closer to being the last straw, the thing that really shook my interest in house-sitting for D.

I broke the news to S. at an office Christmas party, after a few drinks had been served. She didn’t quite get my reasons – when I said, “I worry about things that happen at the house – probably overreact – because D.’s my boss,” she responded, “Oh, think of us as friends.” (Really…?) I should also mention that D. never mentioned my no longer staying there, even though I worked for him for quite a few more years. I think they had really thought they were doing me a favor – in some ways they were – and as everyone knows, it is awkward to refuse a favor.

Years later they offered their house for my wedding – such a nice gesture – but I deemed this scenario fraught with not-so-subterranean conflict (who would have really been in charge…) and refused, I hoped politely. We compromised at them hosting a wine shower (wine gifts instead of registry items) and that was a big success.

For the more than 10 years of my working for D., he and S. remembered me on birthdays, Valentine’s Day, Secretary’s Day, and Christmas. In some ways I was an extension of their family – the kids, the stepkids, and me. In recent years our paths cross once in a while, but mostly our relationship ended when I left the company in 2000. I miss him in some ways. Working so closely with a boss is almost like a marriage, and there were probably father-daughter elements too.

We used to have a saying in that office that dysfunctional females made the best admin assistants. It was a high-pressure, hierarchical, somewhat sexist environment – strong women said to hell to this and left soon after hire. Co-dependents worked long hours for minimal validation – we diligent bees would have been held up as the standard except that would have given us too much recognition and jeopardized the equation of subservience. Instead we were locked into trying to please, for which we received a slightly above-market salary and job security.

But anyway!, this blog post is about ants, not my slightly sadomasochistic secretarial nostalgia.

And, but…you know…

Sometimes when I had planned for a nice solitary weekend at the palatial manor of D. and S., one or more stepkids would show up. They were pleasant, but when you have planned to be alone, you want to be alone, and as with my own stepsiblings, I was all too aware that I had no grounds for complaint – they had plenty of right to be there. I would get all settled in with my Classic Coke, tortilla chips and Pop Tarts – and then one of the stepkids would show up and ask politely, do you mind if I use the phone for a while and sleep in the guest room, and can I have a Pop Tart? UH… It was like the way D. and S. always left a few dishes in the sink – I was under no obligation to wash them, but if I didn’t wash them I would stare at them my whole time there. HUH. Introverts get lonely but we don’t like sudden changes in our alone status, sigh.

One of my most important duties for D. was covering for him during his numerous vacations. He truly was always reachable, but it fell to me to decide what was important enough to reach him about. In assessing importance I had to respond to all calls. This was in the years before cell phones, and for odd-hour coverage it sometimes became obvious that I was staying at D.’s house. I always thought it was suspicious when I explained, “I'm house-sitting." Our company's then-COO, originally married with kids, ended up divorcing his first wife and marrying his admin, so I kind of felt I was being watched, even if that scenario was very, very, very! remote.

Before I get to ants, other animal stories…

I dimly remember something about a bird coming down the chimney into the formal living room, I think it soon died and/or I found someone to remove it before soot stained too much stuff. The flapping and squawking stressed me out of proportion on that one. Bird flying around the living room, valuable objects on the floor and walls…I must have blocked out the resolution.

Worse was the time I panicked at finding a strange, large dog domiciled on the upstairs patio and opened a gate to let it out, only later to find out stepson K. had parked it there on purpose. Ruh-roh! K. is one of those uber-nice guys but I sensed his strain that night…he had put the dog there on purpose but it was not really supposed to be there…he never said how/if he ever found it or where he moved it…one of the mysteries of that house.

Once in a while it was a bit pleasant watering the plants, feeling drizzles of water against my legs, listening to my Walkman. But usually it was a pain in the ass – an anxiety trigger, how much do I water so as not to burn or drown this once-green thing?, and of course an opportunity for mosquito bites – bare white legs, water, waning light…a blood-sucking picnic.

I hardly ever used the pool, but I liked looking at it – it was part of the undefined, undemanded, but understood package. When D. “forgot to tell me” it had been drained for cleaning before my stay, I was none too pleased.

Whatever complaints I had about the house-sitting I usually balance with my very guilty memory of the night I invited a friend over, and after we came back after a quick supper and parked in the front, I saw the front door was swinging open in the breeze. Wow. I had parked in the back, she arrived in the front, and I had not latched the front door. D. and S. maintained, at least in their first, smaller house, that their street had low crime because it was just a few blocks from impoverished apartments, and people won’t steal so close to home. (I think later on they did have an alarm system but were never obsessive about setting it.) So many things could have been carried out the door, vandalized, during that hour we were gone. Wow. Literally the door was OPEN. I still shudder to think of it. (Deep breath…) I didn’t even know that lady very well – she was our travel agent, worked on the same floor as our office…it was kind of an awkward evening, in the big picture not worth threatening my job for, may I say.

Well, the ant story will be anticlimactic now!!! But here goes…

On my last day of what I remember as my last stay I got started on laundry, thinking how much nicer to do it in a residence than a laundromat. However the few ants I had noticed during my first load grew to a wider, darker trail during my second trip to the laundry room, which was a kind of sunken converted-garage area on the way out from the kitchen.

I tried to ignore the ants but by load 3 I could not help but see they had increased to a vital cavalcade.

I called the most available, local stepson but he was laissez-faire about it – he told me about some bug stuff that if I even found the right bag on the garage shelf, didn’t seem toxic enough. Or it was for a nest, an ant hill…not a damn pioneer trail across the laundry room concrete floor!

With no external help and the prospect of another half-day and night in the house, I was forced to fall back on Sarah experience, which was, confusing the ants with chemical sprays. If it had worked in a couple of infested apartments, shouldn’t it should work here? I took the concept one step farther by spraying the visible ants with 409 and then wadding up those wet ants in toilet paper (I had learned from a friend whose dad retired from a paper company that Kleenex was not flushable, so I knew to avoid Kleenex) and flushing them down the downstairs toilet. I didn’t want any plumbing complications so I was careful to flush every few wads – the wads were rather big, to prevent my fingers touching dead wet ants. This mean a lot of flushing. I soon raised the toilet seat to be more business-like, feeling like a bulimic or at least a plumber, someone who wanted to get real close and personal to the flush.

This particular toilet had a padded beige seat that was a bit surreal anyway, and the process seemed Sisyphean – a word that’s defined by web resources as endless, toilsome, useless…Sisyphus being the legendary guy who kept trying to roll a stone up a hill.

I had gone right for the 409 spray - I knew where it was since I usually wiped the kitchen sink and counter first thing when I arrived. I didn’t always move the few dirty dishes right away – coffee cups and breakfast cereal bowls that showed the last home meal before whatever cruise or fancy trip D. and S. were going on – but I did wipe down the counter. It wasn’t obviously dirty, this was more of a territory-marking thing. They had regular cleaning ladies who supposedly dusted and disinfected all the surfaces, but this particular wipedown was more about ownership – they are gone, I am here!

Yeah, here in an ant-infested house. But eventually I had flushed all the visible ants, and the 409 that I was careful not to wipe up from the blue-gray painted concrete floor seemed to repel the not-there-yet ants. Whew. I checked again the next morning before I packed my stuff to go home, and I only saw a few ants, which I promptly wiped and flushed.

But something had been altered in the house-sitting equation. The many minutes, probably more than an hour, maybe two, that I spent flushing away ants had felt as long as an eternity and had in content too much resembled my nightmares. Yep, too many triggers of cleanliness obsession and too much pushing of childhood-angst discomfort buttons…dirt, bathroom stuff, insects, invasion…

For a paid job, maybe OK. For an unpaid job? Uh, no. I was still a fairly codependent administrative assistant at that point, but in terms of house-sitting if nothing else, I was mobilized to say, I don’t want to do this any more.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Adventures in 1990s house-sitting – Rabbit Care

Not Rabbit Care - excusez-moi!, French Lop care!

The first few years I worked as an admin assistant for my boss D., I would house-sit for him when he and his wife S. were out of town. I didn’t receive any money, because they (and I guess I, since at that time I lived in an efficiency apartment) considered that having the use of their large house and pool, in a lovely Dallas historic district, was payment enough.

It might have been enough (they had cable TV, plus I loved using their top-of-the-line washer and dryer), but it seemed I always had to water LOTS of plants (the inside downstairs and upstairs, out by the pool and on all three patios) and deal with crises (fire ants, birds in the chimney, urgent messages - both business and personal - on their answering machine that I felt I had to handle). Combine my conscientious personality with being the key-holder for an expensive home without an alarm system, and you get a tense housesitter.
One year S. was going through a pet phase [this was a decade before they got real pets – matching white German shepherds named Sola and Mia, get it?, a little opera reference – Sole, Mio, to reinforce D. and S. being sponsors of the Dallas symphony and maybe the opera too] and I was forced to maintain her rabbit while staying at the house. (Previously she’d had a bird, who died when she put him back in his triple-decker cage too soon after she’d freshly spray-painted it in designer mauve…I could say more about this, but I don’t think I need to.)

For some reason she felt this fancy rabbit had to be sunned and aired every day. She had noticed he liked to hop around on the wood chips in her rose garden, which was basically an area of flower bed next to the swimming pool that had had several rose bushes planted in it, with mixed results.

After about a half-hour in the summer sun (helllllooooo! Dallas in AUGUST) this fluffy/fuzzy thing would supposedly hop into a shady corner and I supposedly could easily reclaim him. Unfortunately, I’d have to hang around out in the heat and watch Francois (I had been corrected that he was not a mere rabbit, he was a French Lop, with of course a French name) during his half-hour of freedom - I guess to protect him from cats and snakes and from his own stupidity in general.

Insert on French Lops – my housesitting was eons before the blessed help of Google, and only now do I understand (sort of) the pride that S. felt in her pet:


“The humorous antics of the French Lop have endeared them to many people all over the world and earned them the title of "the clown of the bunnies." [I was not amused.] They thrive on attention and love, aim to please, love to play with toys and have been known to die of a broken heart. [I would have liked Francois to have SOMETHING broken…] The French Lop is a massive breed having the heaviest bone structure of the Lop breeds. Very muscular and large boned, the breed has a longer coat with roll back to enhance massiveness…. Possessing delightful personalities [in WHOSE opinion?], French Lop rabbits are the most lovable and easy to handle regardless of the weight and size.”

Counter to this charming essay, Francois did not aim to please ME – I had a terrible time getting the darn rabbit (oops, was it a problem that I did not vocalize the word “lop” to him?) out from behind bars. He was very set against me (did he, by chance, sense my hostility?) and, although an extremely lethargic creature in my observation, he would muster all his energy and spread his heavily muscled legs (he was over-fed and fat, but he WAS A RABBIT with the corresponding musculature for jumping), spreading them inside the cage - behind the cage door - so that he was firmly braced inside. With his legs extended, the total width of his lop self looked to be more than three times the width of the open door.

There I was, trying to drag the stupid thing out, against his will, so he could have his outing…his airing, his treat, his sojourn in the rose garden. (And neither of us was getting paid…don’t forget that part.)

Maybe in my next life I’ll be more highly evolved, or less evolved, or whatever change will take away some of my conscientiousness…I truly did try to “walk” this damn rabbit at least once a day. And why? Not like he would have complained about me…even fancy French Lops cannot talk!

Another question I could never fathom the answer to…how long should I leave him? It was quite hot outside. But didn’t he need time to recover from the trauma of my grabbing him and carrying him out? How much recovery time before he had heatstroke? How much heat could a European rabbit handle?

And when I looked for him – beating at the wimpy rose bushes to see if he had sought shade behind - should I call his name? I knew he wouldn't come, but it might establish some familiarity, and I felt silly moving silently (except for my cursing) to look for an animal. I am not a whistler…and I assumed he would not hear a whistler.

But geez, what did I know…


Other adventures of that particular house-sitting stay included the pool/yard man yelling up at me in Spanish - I was up on the second-floor balcony, watering plants - that he needed more toilet paper. (He always used the poolside bathroom, which wasn’t well stocked with supplies.)
It took us some time to cross the language barrier, but I guess he was really desperate because he persevered for what felt like half an hour. It took me a while to figure he had a reason to be on the premises (we had never been formally introduced), and much longer to figure he was talking about tp.

And you know, something else that I’d like in my next life is to be able to sit beside a swimming pool, unselfconscious about my much-less-than-perfect body in an old bathing suit and unashamed of my relative laziness, knowing a citizen of the Third World (i.e. the pool/yard man) toils just a few feet from my toes… But, again, would this change in my personality require that I be more or less evolved?

PS I delayed asking D. or S. about Francois after my stay, in case he had complained about me…but when I finally did inquire after his health, months later, I was told that a neighbor’s dog had eaten him. !!!!!

Friday, May 21, 2010

London 2003 - Getting There, part 2

Since the plane was a larger one the takeoff was fairly quick and very smooth, even by my phobic standards. However, when other normal flight activities followed, such as the plane angling steeply for its ascent and then encountering minor turbulence, the Ambien effect didn’t feel sufficient for my ongoing panic and I ordered a Bud Light (the only light beer they had). I’m a Miller Lite woman and consider Bud Light metallic-tasting, if not low-brow (they don’t even have the trademark “lite” spelling), but it was delicious right now and gratifyingly potent on top of the Ambien.

I was on the left aisle seat of the center row, and to my right sat a family of 5 – I actually wasn’t sure how many were in the family because the kids kept changing seats, one or another getting on the mother’s lap, I thought there were 3 kids but then it seemed like maybe the 3rd one belonged to a family on the far right row – was that one getting on the mom’s lap too or did I lose track of the brats... The father was next to me and conversationally volunteered that it was a shame American no longer provided complimentary cocktails. I pretended to agree while privately thinking I would pay any price asked of me for online booze, in fact I would have bought more Ambien onboard if that was possible.

I was kind of hoping the man would talk more as a distraction for me (in general I’m not big on conversation with strangers but it becomes more appealing when I’m drunk and/or flying) but he was busy monitoring his kids’ activities – seat-hopping, roams down the aisle ostensibly to the bathroom, and watching kiddie shows on the inflight TV. I thought they were watching kid shows – whatever they were watching seemed to have kid colors like a lot of pink and yellow – but maybe that was a distortion from the seat-back screens.

I started reading again and almost without my noticing it, the whole family zonked into sleep. I had wanted the multiplicity of kids to settle down but I hadn’t necessarily wanted things to get so quiet so fast – the silence was isolating. In my best attempt at Ambien-fueled laissez-faire spirit, I told myself this was fine, each to his own – anyway, regardless of the innocence of intent, the guy would have been unlikely to direct much more conversation toward me with his wife just down the row.

The flight continued to be fairly smooth and after gulping down my beer I felt fairly calm and mostly able to meditate on the pages of my book, but anxiety signs were still there – such as my inability to follow any of the TV channel choices and my compulsion to stare at the flight path graphic, a visual of a little white plane traveling across the U.S. map. The graphic map was so small that the plane didn’t constantly move but would jerkily update position every few minutes. Alternating screens showed current time and temperature at various locations – DFW, London and the area we were flying over. Other screens showed our changing altitude, which I ridiculously tried to keep track of (wondering, should we be this low?, this high?, why did they change altitude again?). (As if I am any kind of aeronautics expert, or scientist, or engineer, or anthing other than an anxious person...)

The book I started out with, Ann Rule’s Every Breath You Take, immediately got my interest – I don’t take that for granted, you never know if a new book will really work out, and it was a relief that my first trip book seemed promising. I’d like to call it nonfiction but it was more accurately a true crime book: Allen Blackthorne was convicted of hiring someone to kill his ex-wife Sheila Bellush in this “true story of obsession, revenge and murder.”

I always enjoy “#1 NY Times Bestselling Author” (to quote the cover blurb) Ann Rule, who’s known for the sensitivity (I say this without irony) and attention to detail she brings to her tales of true crime. I wasn’t overjoyed by the trashy-looking cover art (breathily parted red-lipsticked lips) but the book was small enough to fit into my purse. Our petsitter Claudia doesn’t just cover vacations but also comes every weekday since we’re at work too many hours for the dogs to be inside without a break, especially our puppy Billie, who is crated for everyone’s good – Claudia spends a lot of time in our house, had seen the book sitting on top of my proud pile of “trip reading” and left a note asking if she could borrow it. I now kind of felt pressure to finish the book so I could loan it to Claudia, but in another way it was pleasant to have a “mission” (defined as finishing it promptly for Claudia) in reading something that wasn’t otherwise edifying or educational material, unless you would call it educational to learn how “not” to have your ex-spouse killed.

Still struggling to get across the ocean, I couldn’t yet face the thought of whether I would create a journal for this trip, but it was hard to avoid early comparisons with one of my inspirations in previous attempts at travel-diary writing, the novelist/travel writer Paul Theroux. Paul often includes his impressions of the books he reads while on his solo tours of various off-beaten-track locations. He doesn’t just read historical and cultural/sociological books about the countries he’s visiting, he also reads semi-classic literature related to nothing specific that he never quite got around to reading at home. My impression is that most of his reading choices are fairly high-brow, certainly when compared to my lipstick paperback. However, I would consider as an exception a book he read during his 1980s trip through China (Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China) – I was a bit shocked by how much he had to say about an ancient erotic novel that had apparently been banned in China since the Ming Dynasty. Paul tends to take a lot of train trips, which understandably require a lot of reading material (I remember him saying in another travel book that he kept putting off finishing the last book he had with him, for fear he would be left with no pages to read), and 2,000-page “The Golden Lotus” struck him as a good choice, lengthwise and I guess, interest-wise. He introduced this book to the reader as quasi-cultural research but I was taken aback at some of his enthusiastic quotes from it – one scene involved an intimate act with ripe plums. Paul marveled at Golden Lotus' “blend of manners, delicacy and smut,” and I decided that if a writer of his reputation could admit to reading smut on a trip through a Communist country (which China unquestionably was in the 1980s), I could certainly mention my London exposure to a true crime book.

When the flight was smooth I almost enjoyed the inflight experience – I had reached a pleasant kind of awake but zonked state where I alternated between reading (yes, sometimes having to reread sections of my book for full comprehension, but what the heck) and semi-obsessively monitoring our activity on the flight graphic. A couple of times the TV flight image went dark and of course I became concerned until it reloaded. I got more and more into my book and was disappointed to realize when the main lights were dimmed that there was no reading light above my seat – I asked the flight attendant what was going on, and after pretending to stare upwards (as if she had never been asked this before) she reluctantly admitted, “I think the light cutoff must be this row.” My section of seats had armrest light controls like all the others in the plane, but they were dummy-style only – apparently, due to the curved shape of the ceiling and overhead compartments here, no lights had been installed above me. I continued to try to read in the dark – I wasn’t having full comprehension anyway, so squinting and missing a few words here and here were maybe not so much worse.

At exactly halfway through my flight, I allowed myself to take a second Ambien but I had no more beers – I considered this fine self-control (as if I would have turned down a beer had one been offered to me, Ha!). I was actually able to doze a little, although the cabin was cold. I kept trying different positions for my airline blanket and finally had it over the back of my head for a while, so that it would cover my chilled ears.

I always feel a pull back to my childhood with things like this over my head, bringing memories of my mother going through a phase of sewing me matching fabric scarves (a 60s thing) for clothes she made me. I try to avoid the memory of my preteen self wearing a blue bedsheet head wrap to play Mary in the church Christmas pageant – I didn’t feel right in the part because I knew Mary didn’t wear glasses, although back then I did at least have the requisite long hair, but there were very few girls in my Sunday school class and the others were not reliable church attendees or had taken their turns the year before…yep, I can see why they made me Mary...slim competition.

I wondered if the coldness had to do with our high flying altitude – that seemed more travel-romantic than the fact that American Airlines wasn’t aware of the discomfort of its passengers. The cabin was very quiet and many people seemed asleep – in fact, my family-man neighbor accidentally leaned on my shoulder for a while. I assumed the etiquette for this situation was to leave him alone until he moved away on his own. (Yikes!!!)

The success of my Ambien-beer combination was confirmed by the fact that my inflight toilet experiences were less traumatic than usual. In addition to the knowingly-irrational fear that the plane will develop a mechanical problem and rapidly hurl to earth before I can get out of the bathroom stall (leading to thoughts that the inside of the stall looks like a coffin), I have some kind of neurological maladjustment that makes it hard for me to go when I don’t get the sound feedback of my water hitting the water in the bowl, so that going in an empty bowl requires a lot of calm and concentration. But, with my travel friends Ambien and Bud Light, I was able to handle things satisfyingly while in the toilet coffin.

I was still nervous about managing my logistical arrangements when I got to London, but more of my positive excitement was breaking through my negative (guilt and superstition) barriers – it was gratifying, actually exciting, to be on a plane going over the Atlantic and not screaming in terror as I had always imagined I would be. In fact, it was almost a surreal feeling to be somewhere I had always had trouble thinking I could manage to be.

Fear of flying was probably the biggest reason I had not seriously pursued a European trip before, and now it felt like I was had really broken down a barrier. I realized I had created a bad phobic image by not paying attention when people told me that many Atlantic flights take a route over land for most of the trip – my imagining thousands of miles of roiling (I like that word roiling, so much better than rolling) ocean being crossed by a plane was not completely on target. It was relatively reassuring to be on a smooth flight over the North American continent, but I was not a calm camper when we left Newfoundland and flew over open ocean for the last few hours of the trip.

The descent was a little bumpy due to cloud cover but this didn’t get in the way of my gladness that we were landing. I knew I was a baby to feel so tired of sitting on a plane, since even I realize that 9 hours is a short international flight.

I continued my mental rehearsal to make sure that when I walked off the plane (hopefully not stumbling) I would retrieve both checked bags, purchase my ticket for the Gatwick Express train to London, then take a cab from Victoria Station to K.’s hotel. I might also need to manage the situation of K. checking in later than me and I needed to find some kind of Internet hookup so I could send Craig an “I’m here!” email (my 10 am arrival time didn’t work too well phone-wise with the 6-hour time difference in Dallas).

Also, I needed to eat something since I had had only pretzels, Ambien and Bud Light on the plane. I had watched, heard and smelled the other passengers sawing with their plastic cutlery at the pizza squares and steak?/chicken? (hard to tell which from the color and smell) that had been served to them, but I didn’t partake – this wasn’t just from a snobbery about airline food, but more a desire not to dilute the Ambien effect by putting protein mush in my stomach.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

London 2003 - Getting There, part 1

How does one launch into a very personal and overly detailed (“personal” for me meaning overly detailed, since that’s my personality) travel narrative with an interesting bang – the kind of bang writing experts say you need? My personality makes me want to laboriously scribe all whens and wheres of the trip’s start, instead of following the more dramatic convention of first describing me mid-trip, plunked down in some embarrassing or dangerous location.

In the case of my London trip, I would have to choose between scenes like my tipsy bar evening writing postcards and trying to remember how to spell words of more than two syllables, or maybe trying to eat an un-tasty Cornish pasty (“pasty” does not rhyme with “tasty,” as I learned) that was so hot it burned my mouth... Are these sorts of descriptions, used to start the narrative, really any better than the boring “How I got there” details?

Of course I feel compelled to start out by saying I went with a friend – I think I’m uncomfortable that people might think I made such a glamorous (at first breath, it sounds glamorous, although the reality was more mundane and Sarah-like) trip on my own, without majorly contributing circumstances. My friend K. goes to London several times a year on business, and I had fake-suavely told her (pretending I wouldn’t have to jump a high stack of anxiety hurdles in order to make such a trip) that I might go with her sometime, she should keep me informed of her schedule. In early January she told me about a trip a couple of weeks away, offering to share her company-paid hotel room, and timing caught me in a weak moment of January boredom and post-Christmas claustrophobia/angst – with some seriousness and intent, I checked with Craig, and surprisingly, instead of telling me to save my money for something he and I could do together, he suggested I go ahead and investigate airfares.

And since people will wonder why my husband didn’t go and, according to the thoughts of some of my more backward relatives, will wonder how he allowed me to go without him, I must early-on mention the Craig angle of things: I have trained Craig to operate on a marital “point system,” and I think he had a good idea of how many points he could get by saying “yes” to me on this. We had talked in theoretical terms about going to Europe together, but my first choice was England and his was Germany, and we couldn’t quite figure out how to compromise on a destination – or to budget for a two-person trip. Actually, I had occasionally fantasized about going as a single member of a tour group when Craig sounded especially Ameri-centric in his rants about why he did not want to visit the rude, ungrateful French (who didn’t appreciate what we did for them in WWII) and why he saw no need to go to countries where people smelled bad – after his 2002 trip to see his cousin in Sydney, his outlook couldn’t help but become more global regarding travel, but he still drew a line around his requirements for Ameri-gratitude and personal hygiene.

I also find it important and think it cute to mention a physiological reason why I said “yes” to the trip: I had a medical procedure (routine but invasive) that required anesthesia the day before K. invited me and although the procedure’s findings were normal, I didn’t feel normal for the next couple of days but rather staring-through-muddy-waterish from the drugs, a little out-of-bodyish, and I guess it was easier to think I could overcome my fear of flying when I was feeling like somebody else.

Attractive off-season airfares propelled me further, and I felt savvy for figuring out that it was cheaper, and more convenient laundry-wise, if I left Saturday and returned Friday. I was increasingly failing at keeping my pre-fear dread (pre-dread fear?) of flying at bay, but I kept on with these plans, hoping that outward circumstances would move me along. If I had already bought a ticket, I would feel forced to get on the plane despite my terror. My work responsibilities hadn’t slowed the momentum either – the first Monday of my trip was conveniently a holiday and my boss immediately said that I should feel free to take advantage of this terrific multicultural opportunity, kindly not reminding me that I was a new employee and had little accrued vacation time.

K. laughed when I told her how supportive and pleased Dallas coworkers and friends had been about my going, saying “London is a big deal for people in Dallas…it’s not a big deal in New York, people from here go there all the time.” She has lived in New York, and been gone from Dallas, long enough that I don’t find it too patronizing for her to say things like this. Her New York orientation has also slanted her take on the London weather – she said it was “pleasantly warm,” which (after purchasing my ticket, and only then looking at Yahoo weather) I realized meant only warmer than New York, i.e. 40s as a high. She had had an easy time convincing me about the weather because on the London soap opera East Enders (said to have been one of Princess Di’s favorite shows, if that’s a recommendation) that I watch on BBC America on Saturdays, the weather (on the show’s outdoor stage) looked pleasantly breezy but far from frigid. I knew the BBC America broadcasts were delayed several weeks from the filming but seeing characters wear only light coats and jackets while I was watching the show in December and January was still persuasive.

As with the weather, K. used New York as her frame of reference for London prices, saying London restaurant prices (meals etc.) were even higher than in NY. I was appropriately frightened but intrigued on hearing this, figuring that I could find some kind of cheap snack food if necessary – and big-picture, I had always wanted to see Europe and I figured this trip was probably worth going into some degree of debt.

When I felt I had weighed enough options/concerns and been whipped around enough by my anxieties, I officially committed to going and decided I would buy my ticket online that day to lock in the price (and hope that my formalized commitment to this decision would allow my energies to settle toward accomplishing a goal of travel sanity). This decision brought a brief calm but I still had to get a confirmation on dates and other details from K. – we didn’t connect until after work, so in order to meet my self-imposed anxiety-accommodating deadline, I had to buy the ticket on our home computer.

Our computer has such a slow connection that even on a normal day when I have no transatlantic plans, watching the almost motionless, graphically straining screen makes my nerves raw. I wasn’t just nervous about the ticket’s lack of refundability, I was also hyper-aware about the thought of spending time alone in Europe (I would be staying a day or two after K. left and I would arrive before she did) and of course the fearful thoughts of the flight itself had not dissipated a bit. I felt almost physically shaky when I typed in my name as the passenger – this wasn’t my first online ticket but the experience felt intimidatingly uncharted, as if I saw vast, dark, churning ocean waters behind the computer screen where I was entering my travel details.

Not quite jokingly, I wished I had the meditative skill to "wish”/metaphysically move myself to London without flying over the ocean. Purchasing my ticket as an external catalyst felt psychologically proactive but I continued to experience anxiety undertows – such as waking in the middle of the night with to-do lists scrolling across my consciousness and a racing pulse. I knew my pulse was racing because I checked it a couple of times with a blood pressure cuff and then verified through worried web research that the number was at least a little high. Also, my teeth became very temperature-sensitive, which I was pretty sure meant I was grinding them in my sleep during this time of pre-trip trauma.

Usually before a trip I accidentally channel-surf into TV movies about real-life airplane crashes (there seem to be a lot of them, usually with stars like Donna Mills or Shelly Hack, who for some reason are late 20th century casting of choice for flight attendants) – I managed to avoid that this time, but one night I did happen across a computer simulation of what “A plane crash on Mars” would be like. I learned that if a plane tried to fly on Mars it would inevitably crash (in boiling red clouds) because the atmosphere isn’t conducive to flight – this was a Discovery channel show that I think was meant to discuss Mars and not the safety of air flight. I knew that a plane going down on a strict vertical in computer-generated red clouds and high winds was a ridiculous image to keep in mind when contemplating a North American flight, but I had trouble dismissing it.

For anxiety variety, I worried about things such as whether I should wear my newer pair of Payless clunky fake-suede black shoes or my older pair. They were identical models but the older pair was unattractively stretched and creased – however, I had a strong premonition that the newer pair would give me blisters. I showed them both to Craig, asking, “Do the old ones look OK?” and he immediately said he couldn’t tell the difference – but I’m pretty sure that in an anxiety management situation like this he goes more with my tone of voice and the look on my face than the item I’m asking his opinion about.

K. was honest about how busy she would be while I was there and tried to be cooperative about her schedule and, but I continued to worry about my arriving before she did (me on Sunday, she on Monday a.m.) and whether the hotel would let nonpaying-me into her room. My mood continued to swing between the fairly positive, at least by my standards: “I’m going to a place I have always wanted to go!” (which it truly was, since I considered London my #1 travel destination) and the certifiably anxious: “K. hasn’t answered my email yet, maybe she hasn’t given the hotel my name yet, maybe the hotel won’t let me in her room, and the hotel is too expensive for me to get my own room!!!”

A few days before departure, K. announced she was leaving London on Thursday, not Friday (Friday being my departure day) to go to Paris and asked if I wanted to come to Paris and somehow find my way back to London for my departing flight. Despite Paris being another city on my fantasy-travel list, I could feel even the prospect of this rushed mini-trip pushing me toward the anxiety precipice, so I immediately said no. I had already researched hotels before I knew she would be able to confirm the room for her early arrival Monday (meaning it could also accommodate my Sunday arrival) and said I would change to one of them on Thursday.

I was a little frustrated though because I had been fantasizing about taking an all-day tour called “Edinburgh in a Day” on Thursday which started at 6:30 and ended at “22:16”, meaning an after-10 pm return at a train station. This schedule wouldn’t combine well with checking out of one hotel and getting to another, dealing with transportation, check-in and checkout times, hotel luggage storage, etc. I wasn’t sure which other days I could do Edinburgh because I didn’t know how tired I’d be after I arrived and also thought that since I was dealing with tour operators I had found on the Internet, I should probably prebook/prepay only one tour in advance and see how that went before confirming more of them. Intellectually, I knew I could reshuffle my other days’ plans (which were all tentative anyway) but despite having at least a limited focus on the fact that being on my own so much meant I could be the leader of my own day, chooser of my own schedule, I kept experiencing a control-freak panic over not being able to confirm everything in advance. In fact, the level of my anxiety over this was giving me a pretty strong impression that I was displacing my trip concerns from flying onto other aspects of the travel plans.

I had to acknowledge that my pre-trip research had gotten a bit frantic and anal-loopish as I went back and forth an embarrassing number of times between discount sites and London maps, trying to guarantee (with no surprise and no last-minute changes) that I would be in an area where I could walk to sights and making sure the hotel was big enough to provide a private bathroom and other American-style amenities such as phone and TV – it was maddening that the discount sites wouldn’t give hotel phone numbers (because of course they wanted you to book through them) and gave otherwise limited information on addresses.

I emailed one site with a question on ground transportation from the airport and got a return email that didn’t answer my question and more disturbingly, was signed by someone at a hotel reservations center in Singapore. At another point I had dizzyingly clicked back and forth between several hotels but despite my eye inertia, I was almost positive that I had seen sample hotel room photos for two different hotels that were identical in the pattern of their pale chintzy bedspreads, the dark headboards and small curtained windows, in absolutely every detail. Both hotels had the exact same photos? Trying to investigate this deception, I hit the back arrow and returned to an Internet hotel map whose price-organized links I had been clicking from – I remained convinced that something bogus was going on with the photos but I couldn’t recreate the same images when I clicked on what I thought were the same links.

In any case, I had pretty much decided on what seemed to be a more modern, or at least bigger hotel (“Europe’s largest independent hotel [whatever that meant] with 700 bedrooms”) and the duplicate photos were from smaller places where I felt my private access to a bathroom was in question anyway.

I did receive a response to my email from Dukes Hotel, where K. had made her business reservation, confirming that I could store my bags with them if I arrived before check-in time. Dukes didn’t come out and say “We’ll let you in your friend’s room before she arrives” but more importantly, they didn’t respond with confusion or negativity to hearing my name, so I felt better about the hotel aspect – however, who knew if the person at the desk when I arrived would be savvy on all my arrangements, so I felt that I still had quite a bit to worry about.

I had wanted to use American Airlines for this trip to beef up my miles with them, and Gatwick is the only London airport where American flies direct. I saw no reason I should subject myself to a plane change, meaning a longer flight, if I didn’t have to – and since I had such a strong concern about being able to drag myself onto the plane in Dallas, it didn’t seem wise to plan a transfer. Additionally, I targeted only flights that would give me at least one weekend day at home at each end of the trip. This worked out well fare-wise, and it really helped my peace of mind to know that if I wasn’t leaving until the evening of Saturday the 18th, I could run errands, do laundry and pack that same day. [Yes, I know this blog post mentions laundry several times but as I remember it, the laundry planning was a calming thing for me.]

Despite this intellectual affirmation I still had a nightmare two nights before the trip that I was late for my flight and had nothing packed, and I still set my alarm for 7 a.m. on Saturday in case by some mysterious relaxation of pre-trip tension I overslept and my obsessive-lengthy packing consequently ran too close to my 7:10 pm flight time.

So now my intro has gotten the reader to trip departure day, which will presumably be the start of more interesting reading, although since I’m the writer, the narrative can’t help but be told in continued overly detailed style. My desire, and to be cornily honest, my mission, is to capture all details for my reader. I want the reader to be/feel they are on the trip with me, not just skimming through artsily described “wow” highlights and silly-me incidents of clutziness.

Probably there are good reasons that travel writers leave out all but the most resonant details, but I’m firm that my mission requires me to include even the mundane stuff. Experiencing, retaining and analyzing details is how I live, and how I want to write. Ahem...

Despite my fears of oversleeping, I did wake up before 7 – I was totally bright-eyed and my nerves were running at a high pitch before my alarm even went off. I got my laundry, packing and other domestic tasks regarding our dogs, my bills, etc. handled by noon and Craig and I even had time to see an early afternoon showing of “Narc,” with Ray Liotta and Jason Patric (Patric being an actor whose major claim to fame, as far as I knew, was running off with Julia Roberts three days before her 1991 wedding to Kiefer Sutherland). The plot-murkiness and violence of this movie forced a pleasing involvement of my mental faculties (pulling my thoughts away from images of the Atlantic churning beneath my frail plane), and with the bonus of knowing that I had two suitcases of clean clothes packed and ready at home, I was able to focus on the movie to a surprising degree.

Despite his personally liking to cut things close (he considers sitting in a waiting room in anticipation of boarding time to be a colossal waste), Craig got me to the airport by the airline specified early time although he still didn’t quite believe what American had told me, that for international flights you couldn’t check in curbside. I admit I kind of liked the feeling that I knew sophisticated international travel info, such as this important check-in info, that he didn’t understand.

Our parting was a little bittersweet in a marital/protective way – despite my anxiousness to get this trip underway (and end this anxiety) and his desire to get rid of prickly-nervous me, we were very aware that we would miss each other, and he wasn’t completely convinced I could navigate the start of the trip alone. He doesn’t trust me when I take Ambien, maintaining (exaggeratedly, in my opinion) that when he’s traveled with me and I’ve taken it, I stare into space and all but drool.

My doctor is very conservative and doles out this very small dose of a relatively mild sleeping aid only when I insist to her nurse that I have already purchased an airline ticket and am really going on a trip. The nurse always asks for details, “And how many hours will you be on the plane?” For this trip’s prescription, I emphasized that I was going on “an international round trip” but didn’t specify the actual destination of London – most people, even those in Texas, know that London is a fairly accessible part of Europe and my doctor might have shaved off some milligrams.

Somewhere (not real close to the top) in my layers of anxiety/excitement there was “good excitement,” because I did want to make this trip, but the good stuff was mingled with a superstitious fear of disaster. The disaster fear seemed to be some kind of Puritanical, almost-religious view (odd considering my moderate Methodist upbringing) that I come up with in times of stress, where I have the thought that a pleasure trip might meet with disaster because of its self-indulgent (at least, far from selfless) aspects. This stringent line of thought would probably only be satisfied by a trip that was something like a Red Cross/humanitarian type mission, whereas the only conceivable way my London trip might be seen as of benefit to any of mankind other than my selfish self would be that my not going would disappoint K.

I was so grateful that Craig got me to the airport at a fairly early time, because the check-in line at the ticket counter took forever. I couldn’t figure out why it was so slow – it took me less than 2-3 minutes to do everything, so I have no idea what those other passengers were doing at the counter for so long and what crackpot questions or issues they had come up with. I started out fairly near the front line barrier but within a few minutes the line of people behind me got very long. I thought I felt relatively sane, even this close to my major flight over the deep, freezing cold ocean, but I noticed that I kept staring at a bandaid on the floor – this behavior didn’t make sense except as obsessive behavior because the bandaid wasn’t all that disgusting (didn’t have noticeable blood on it) and it was to the side of the people path, so I didn’t really need the constant reminders I was giving myself to avoid stepping on it. I also used a lot of nervous energy staring/glaring at a chubby black lady in very tight stretch pants who I first thought had cut into the line but then realized had just rejoined the rest of her family – there’s nothing like getting annoyed by other people to serve as a distraction.

After I made it through the check-in, baggage screen and gate security process, I did feel a little more relaxed but still had a somewhat obsessive determination to change some dollars at the airport – I was planning to take a train from Gatwick to London but I wanted to be sure I had British pounds in case for some anxious/logistical/apocalyptical reason I ended up taking a cab to London, which my Internet research told me would take 80-90 minutes and cost £50-60 pounds, with the current exchange rate being approximately 1.6 dollars per pound.

I had only just discovered that Britain does not use the Eurodollar like I thought they did, and felt that my not having known before was an example of how Americans are really nation-centric or more specifically, how we lump together news and happenings about the European countries. Apparently there has been significant controversy over the Euro in Britain, but despite Tony Blair’s strong advocacy, the Brits have said “no” (although Ireland did adopt the Euro). I thought Internet research would further clarify British currency for me but although I read that there were 1 penny, 2 pence, 5, 10, 20 and 50 pence coins, also a pound coin and two pound coins, with paper notes available in 5 pounds, 10, 20, and 50, I couldn’t find pictures since pictures of actual currency are considered a violation of something-or-other. I stupidly (or at least, with American-centric conceit) thought it sounded simple enough – meaning, close enough to American dollars – that I should have no problem.

Since I had 200 American dollars and wanted to get at least 100 pounds before landing in London, I walked up to the Thomas Cook desk at DFW thinking I knew what I was doing, telling myself this was a different scenario from when we went to Acapulco and my mother-in-law browbeat us not to change dollars in the U.S. but to wait until we got to Mexico. In true stupid-tourist style, I shoved my dollars through the window without even looking at the posted rate, but as soon as the counter person began counting out my money, I felt uneasy – with a Thomas Cook fee and a less-than-bank rate this was quite a suck-down of my $200.

However, I rationalized that I needed to get used to my dollars not buying much of what I might have liked them to and anyway, my time of worries and concerns was drawing to an end. After a pre-trip snack (for which I had already spied a McDonald’s, just the sodium addition I needed after 2-3 Dr Peppers that day and movie popcorn), it would be almost time to take my Ambien – I could feel myself regarding this event with the schedule importance of a doctor appointment but a lot more joyful anticipation. The McDonald’s food would be my early dinner, and things were feeling more and more like evening, or twilight – or metaphorically, shrinking horizons and increasing darkness. I was about to take a sleeping pill…

I had had frustrations on previous flights that Ambien wasn’t “strong” enough (basically, I would like to go unconscious until the plane arrives at the arrival gate) but it does have some effect and a couple of trips previously, I had decided that since combining Ambien with alcohol didn’t lay me too low (despite the pill bottle warning), I would continue to do that. Despite a small glitch when my doctor’s office had accidentally called in one pill for the entire round trip, they were quite cooperative – I had obtained four pills for my 9 hours out and 10 hours back. A friend of Craig’s and mine who has taken Ambien during an emotionally difficult time stated, “It clears your mind so you can sleep.” It doesn’t necessarily put me to sleep but it slows my anxious mental churning to one track, which I can divert with reading or happy thoughts, and on evening flights it has occasionally helped me at least briefly shut my eyes. Our friend’s description also sheds light on how I can focus on one paragraph of a book (sometimes, I admit, with what is probably a tipsy smile on my lips) for much longer than it would normally take me to read that same paragraph – I probably average a half hour per page under peak Ambien conditions.

Considering that I could spend so long on just one page I brought way too many books (four new paperbacks) for my 5-day trip, but in my view the most nightmarish trip is the kind where one runs out of books. I won’t go into my buried-alive teenage experience of visiting my stepmother’s family with only 2-3 sub-par library books as escape from the Nebraska winter – a more recent example would be my getting deeply into a new health food cookbook during a flight that was fairly turbulent and provided nothing better to read. I almost always buy a People magazine in the terminal too – sober, the magazine’s content is too flimsy to distract me from the flight’s horrors, but on Ambien, People with its dumbed-down articles and highly recognizable celebrities is good fodder for my drugged brain. If given a quiz on the stories I’d read in People while on Ambien, I would probably fail it – I’ve experimentally flipped back through the pages at the end of a flight and been unable to remember whether I actually read this piece on…Madonna, Janet or Marky Mark. That isn’t important though because my life wouldn’t be changed whether I did or didn’t absorb that content and I could always reread the thing, anyway. However, today I might have passed the People exam, because I finished most of it during the pre-flight wait before the Ambien really took hold.

Friday, May 14, 2010

London 2003 - Thursday Evening excerpt, part 2

Although I (surprisingly) still had some beer left (it was a large-size glass) I couldn’t help forming the survival-oriented question: Does the beer tap still work after this power outage? I had no more idea than when I ordered my first drink whether I should hail (whatever that means for an introvert) the waitress, wait for her to amble over, or whether I should go on over to the bar if I wanted another drink. With the zero pace of being waited on at my table and the slow pace of my being acknowledged at the bar, I couldn’t see how this whole roomful of people had ever gotten drinks, but some of them had what looked like fresh ones. (Craig said later in response to my whining about this experience, “Maybe when you stood at the bar they thought you were waiting for someone,” and I hated the fact that even from home he had a better grip on the bar experience than I did.)

Now I noticed that the corner lights I had seen over the metal pizza counter had gone off, although I did see dim emergency-looking light (backup lighting, so the cooks didn’t burn themselves at the stove) through a swinging door into what I thought must be the real kitchen. It wasn’t pleasant to be given thoughts of a kitchen right now, since I envisioned partly cooked food sitting on cooling cooktops and unpowered refrigerator units. If the kitchen was not closed, it should be.

The bar in general looked darker now, with the darkness somehow reflecting off the dark TV screen, whose grainy image I had been staring at earlier (before it lightning-zipped off), reflecting in annoyance that a talking head newsperson viewed while listening to bar music wasn’t much of an entertainment package – but now, it would have been great to see any type of show flash back to life on the screen. I was comforted that I had at least a little (warming) beer left in my glass, which defined me as a person in the moment, a still-consuming customer waiting for things to resume.

However, the rest of my planned evening was in question – venturing back toward the restaurant was no longer an option, since I could tell it was dark down that hall. Someone in a hotel uniform had shut the wooden swing doors, with only darkness showing through the small round windows at the top. I didn’t understand why they needed to be closed (other than to keep bar customers from noticing that the entire hotel was dark), but I hoped it was a temporary thing – I didn’t like my budding thoughts on whether the closed doors might signify fire safety, panic control, or what.

Despite everything, I was glad to be on the ground floor and not power-stranded in my small-windowed room or, worse thought, in the very box-like shower. Continuing to look around the room for comfort and distraction, I noted that only a few tables of people had left and the people currently sitting (there were only a few bar stools) and standing at the bar seemed unfazed by the power outage, probably because they all had visible drinks. I didn’t feel an immediate urge to leave…since tripping with my candle earlier, I didn’t think I was sufficiently in command to walk back to that bar down the street, and despite this place having no power, I (with some shame at my provincial-ness) liked its American-like openness, with an outside wall of windows and double doors to the street outside. I also liked the relative lack of smokiness, even though by choosing low smoke I was surely depriving myself of anything near authentic pub life on a Thursday night.

I felt comfortable now, but I pretended I was at least toying with the idea of going outside to that other pub, by now almost mythical to my imagination, although I knew exactly what street it was on (hardly mythical) since it was so close to the St. Giles. After all, I could have set my parameters to have one glass of wine, which I wouldn’t glug like beer, and which wouldn’t render me incapable of protecting myself from any pub or street dangers. I could then return to the safety of my hotel for more wine, if I wanted it, as a nightcap. (Uh, yeah.)

The St. Giles bar tap did seem to be working, since I saw a guy bringing drinks back to a girl at their table. Probably the beer tap wasn’t electric, and I guessed the staff could do at least cash transactions manually. Actually the guy I watched had a bottled beer but his female companion’s was draft. The draft glass had no foam head on it, but I didn’t know enough about the physics of draft beer to extrapolate much about the beer setup from this…bar power on?, off? Who knew.

Other than being down to my last sip of Heineken, I was surviving well and felt no rush to leave – the room temperature didn’t seem much colder than before, and I had my coat with me anyway. If I got tired of staring at customers who had the fresh beer I coveted, I could go back to reading, squinting in the dark like I did on the plane coming over when the lights didn’t work for my row. Admittedly, it turned out to be a little difficult to concentrate on reading, especially after I drained my beer glass, but I hoped that if I went through the motions (i.e. glancing through the same book page three or four times with only slightly increasing comprehension), the repeated act would eventually bring me more fully into the moment at hand. The concept of using forced repeated activity to enter the moment (a useful tool for the shy person who can’t think of much to say to strangers other than a rote, “Where do you work?”, which fortunately is usually a well-received question), was one of the points I liked to ponder in my writing, but in tonight’s context, it seemed rather futile and more lonely than usual.

No level of management ever made any kind of announcement to the customers, but I did see men in hotel uniforms and cheap-looking suits walk briskly (yet somehow conveying worry) through the corner of the room and in and out of the doors to the lobby. While I was feebly trying to manage my slightly fussy thoughts that back in the U.S., someone would have come out and given us a status report (and/or, at least a few customers would have rudely demanded a report), a young woman that I hadn’t noticed before (she wasn’t in uniform and she wasn’t taking drink orders, which was why I hadn’t noticed she was an employee) came around with a tray of lighted votives and replaced the one on my table that I had killed. I thanked her with enthusiasm – immediately getting the impression she didn’t understand much English, but I wanted to thank someone anyway – and immediately basked in the cozy glow that my marble-topped table re-assumed with this little flame. (This votive was in the more traditional round-bowl holder, not as pretty/glam but a sturdier set-up than the flat-bottomed votives in the tapered-bottom martini-type glasses I had struggled with earlier.)

Although my table had now been recozy-fied, I was feeling less content there. I was getting hungry and wished I hadn’t left my snack nuts in my room, where they felt inaccessible right now – even if I wanted to hike up the stairs, would the card key work without electricity? I really wasn’t sure what to do about my hunger, since I assumed that the restaurant was still dark. Speaking of that, the lobby was probably dark – what a scary thought, a dark lobby open to a busy and less than genteel street. The bar doors to the hallway were now open again and I slowly walked out to check the lobby. I went far enough to see that the automatic doors to the street were staying open, with several employees hovering protectively in the front-lobby area including the blond doorman with glasses who had given me the soccer map when I arrived that morning – what a long shift this was for him. I could have asked the nearest employee what the extent of power outage was (concerning elevators and room electricity) but I felt I didn’t really want to know. Walking back toward the bar, I saw through the restaurant windows unhappy-looking people in the dim dining room sipping wine in front of dirty, empty plates – definitely the bar seemed to be a better, warmer atmosphere than a dead restaurant.

I stopped at the hall bathroom, which happily was fully lit (I considered this an excellent allocation of emergency lighting), although it took me a minute to figure out that I needed my card key to get through the outside bathroom door. There was a bumpy slant in the slick-linoleumed hallway back to the bar that was marked with colored tape, but I almost tripped on it anyway, both going out and coming back in – not surprising by my usual clumsy standards, but not impressive on a sobriety continuum. I realized that about an hour of main-power darkness had now gone by, a time unit which felt like a kind of milestone and mathematically helped convince me that I needed to eat before having a second Heineken (which I figured was stronger than my usual Miller Lite, accounting for my near-pratfall antics with the votive and walking in the hall).

My conscious combination of hunger, acknowledged inebriation and need for safe-seeming comfort took me no further than back across the street to Subway for a cheap, filling sandwich of predictable quality. On this second trip to the combination Subway-Internet cafe, I realized how little of the space was dedicated to eating – just a few not-quite-cleared tables near the front window. Obviously the primary focus of customers was to get online. Thinking of keyboard cleanliness, I did my best to wipe the tuna and mayo off my fingers with the single napkin included in the Subway sandwich bag, and then went over to a computer. I didn’t look for a place to wash my hands before joining the crowd of typists, but my lazy rationalization was that it would have been more disturbing to touch the keyboard first and then eat my sandwich – eating first (with hands recently washed at the hotel) and then sliming a keyboard for the next person (in a country I didn’t live in) was selfishly less of a concern.

This time I was more savvy about my money timing out and I felt in control as I ended an email to my sister-in-law Belinda, “I’m going to log off now, I may get some more bottled water at the grocery store next door and then try the bar again – hope their beer hasn’t warmed up too much.” I had neared – or probably crossed – the point where I was acting out things I had written about in my script, rather than just documenting what had happened.

Sainsbury was less crowded than when I went in earlier, or maybe I was just in a more relaxed mood from my beer and the warmth of email connection – I drifted around a bit and gawked at the multiple selections of Old El Paso chili mix and sauces, refrigerated cans of Dr Pepper that I hadn’t seen all week, anywhere, and two sides of an aisle full of premade sandwiches. Few of the sandwiches had much visible green stuff in them, and I was glad I had already found myself a healthier, crunchier sandwich at Subway (tuna on wheat with fresh veggies). The store did have quite a few ready-to-eat entrees and frozen things that I guessed I could have heated up here in the store’s microwave and schlepped back across the street, steaming in a plastic bag, perfuming the elevator (assuming the elevator worked) and attracting curious stares at the food smell. Considering the Sainsbury options, a Subway sandwich seemed even more suitable in retrospect, and in fact, my overall reliance on sandwiches on this trip seemed wise.

Going back to the bar, I had a rather silly sense of anticipation – I was convinced that for my earlier inconvenience, my venturing out (although that was not so impressive since I had only crossed the street), and most of all, my having waited to get a second drink…that for those things, I truly deserved, guilt-free, another beer. (This kind of reward thinking is probably close to being included on the classic “Are you an alcoholic” checklist.)

The bar looked a little less cohesive now, with fewer customers in it and a sense of people drifting through and waiting for others. I held out cash at the bar counter and quickly received my Heineken from a rather lost-looking woman. She was a far cry from the perkily rude ones that had been working here earlier – either those had run off to a more happening spot, or the stress of the power outage had drastically changed their demeanor. With its now more vacant atmosphere, the unelectrified bar looked darker. However, it wasn’t really any darker and was lit primarily by light coming in through the picture windows, the same ones I had earlier mocked as being painted with pizzas and coffee mugs. Although the outside light was welcome, this wasn’t really a well-lit street, since office buildings and hotels, not retail, filled the blocks on that side of the hotel.

I sat down in my same area, got out my paperback to pretend to read and my red-covered book in case I wanted to write more gossip about my surroundings, but I couldn’t settle into reading or writing and instead kept gazing around. At first it puzzled me that a trickle of people kept coming into this relatively dead place, but then I realized that from the outside, the dim lighting probably looked like normal bar ambience. After all, there was no kind of warning sign on the door and certainly no staff waving away newcomers while explaining the problem. Probably the St. Giles’ assumption was that if people wandered in and found their way to the bar with correct change for their drinks, well, business was business.

There was a group of young white guys downing pints who I eyed several times because they almost had a punkish troublemaking look, from their posture and ghetto-imitating dress. However I felt less intimidated after they gave me a good laugh – one them got a cell call with a girlishly musical ring, and I couldn’t quite believe it was what it sounded like – the beginning chorus for the R&B/hip-hop Nelly/Kelly “You’re my Boo” duet so overplayed in America – but when the phone rang again a few minutes later, I was certain.

One reason that I put those song lyrics in the humor category is that we sometimes call our dog “Boo” (short for Marley-Boo, which is even sillier). The actual song is called “Dilemma,” by Nelly (from his 2002 Nellyville album) and features Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child, with a chorus that goes: “No matter what I do…All I think about is you…Even when I’m with my Boo…Boy, you know I’m crazy over you.”

I was rather ashamed of my lack of political correctness as I stared at an interracial couple that turned into an interracial group – it started out as a woman wearing a tight, low-V neck top that caught my attention because the leopard print was so like things that the character Kat (Kathleen) wears on BBC TV’s East Enders. Kat has a heart of gold and more IQ than she gives herself credit for, but she dresses in a lot of animal prints, feather accessories and skimpily cut leather. Around the time of my trip (on the BBC America weekend rebroadcasts before I left Dallas), Kat had gotten involved with the neighborhood doctor, who happened to be a black guy (and coincidentally, her illegitimate daughter’s ex-fiancee…yes, really). Continuing the East Enders tableau, almost immediately a business-dressed black guy came into the bar to join “Kat” and her East Indian-looking companion. The St. Giles Kat was more trim and slim than her TV counterpart but was noticeably the only person at the bar wearing anything near to a leopard print.

At 10:00, the bar was still dark but I realized that didn’t really matter, since I was done with food and drink for the night. The 10:00 time was remarkable only as a point of pride that I had ended my solo day with a solo evening that kept me out of my room until 10 pm, considering that I often nod off at home before 9:00 – I won’t say how much before – I thought this was pretty good.

There were uniformed St. Giles employees at the lobby counter in their usual position when I went up to ask about the power situation – I can only imagine how arriving guests reacted when they came into this dark place, but the counter ladies tried to maintain an attitude of normalcy. My question sounded a bit whiny but after they asked what floor I was on, they immediately said that floors such-through-such had maintained power the whole time, although the lifts were still not working.

I wasn’t sure whether I considered this news to be good, knowing my room with my stuff in it had never been dark, or whether it made me feel silly, having killed time in a dark area before getting back to a lit place. I walked toward the stairwell, which still smelled of pool chlorine from the basement, and with what I hoped was a moderate amount of self-pity, trudged up clanky metal-and-concrete stairs (nothing like Dukes’ wide carpeted ones – I missed my last hotel) to enter my room hallway through the fire doors. My heart rate got really rapid – I was only on the 3rd floor of rooms, but since the lobby ceiling was so high they must have skipped a level before numbering floors. It wasn’t cold in the stairwell but I immediately took my coat off, and the weight of carrying was not welcome.

By the time I reached my floor, I was only slightly gasping but ready to drop my coat and water bottle. I checked my reaction to the room again since I was much closer to feeling the right degree of tired for bedroom appreciation. The room did seem more welcoming now that it was dark outside and since I had had to hike up to it. It became easier to think of the small size as cozy for small me, although I kept wondering how this room, supposedly designed for two people, could fit two people, not to mention their luggage, with any degree of comfort – there would have been no place for my second suitcase if I hadn’t put it on the other bed. I still couldn’t avoid noticing that the beds were narrow and flat and the carpet was stained.

Due to the questionable power situation, I didn’t even try calling down to ask about a wakeup call but fished out the alarm clock that I had packed, only now realizing that I had dragged the small plastic thing to Europe with a dead battery. I had not used it since I bought it when Billie was a puppy, attempting to find something that would make that supposed help-the-puppy-sleep sound, a ticking that frantic (sleep-deprived) shopping had taught me was difficult to find in today’s age of electronic timepieces. Even with a dead alarm clock, I thought I would be OK – my flight time didn’t require me to get up super-early anyway, and by combining my jet lag sleep disruption with some obsessive can’t-oversleep stuff (must-catch-flight) mixed in I would be up in plenty of time.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

London 2003 - Thursday Evening excerpt, Part 1

(I so love FotoSearch...when I looked up “woman bar beer,” none of the results look like me – they have manicures/toned bodies, one lady smokes – but they look like they are having fun! Which means they are not quite right to illustrate this story…but I couldn’t resist using two of the generic images anyway.)

Here is my journal from Thursday evening – after a day of changing hotels from the nice Dukes to the marginal St. Giles and of going to the British Museum, which is huge, and of struggling to find a lunch restaurant and seeing a movie and getting lost at least once, maybe more times depending on how you define lost…

I felt good about myself as a jaded reporter, but I felt like a self-conscious tourist again when I passed a very popular-looking pub – its open door and window were jammed with people, and loud glassware clinks and pub chatter carried toward me. The pub was in the ground floor of a warehouse-looking building that was set back several hundred feet from the sidewalk, with grubby cracked pavement in front of it, like a partial alley – maybe one of London’s odd streets that had been dead-ended by construction of buildings around it. Surprisingly, there was only one car in the paved area – either this was due to some odd zoning rule, or all of the pub’s customers had staggered there on foot.

This place looked fun (at least other people were having fun there, whether or not I would) and it was very near my hotel, but I knew I wouldn’t have the nerve to walk in here alone. The sad certainty of this knowledge led to poignant thoughts of Craig, who would have eagerly led me inside if he had come on this trip – I don’t mean to imply an inappropriate eagerness to drink, but he would have been eager for the experience. Craig shares almost none of my hangups…I felt sure that if he had come to London on his own, he would have had absolutely no hesitation walking into the pub alone.

So far I had spent no time in a pub this trip (the Dukes Hotel bar was clearly not a pub), which was surely a devastatingly wimpy admission for a drinking person – and as a possibly even worse admission, I had not pursued any of Rick Steves’ book or online suggestions. In my distant observer/wallflower way I had formed the theory that there were two types of pubs here – almost empty ones, and ones with people spilling out of the windows and doors against a background of cigarette smoke.

I felt very certain that Craig would be intimidated by neither pub scenario, but that knowledge didn’t really help me now, other than to compel my umpteenth resolution that I should try to get Craig to make a trip to London with me. I didn’t necessarily want to delve into the question of whether my need to share with Craig was more of an altruistic urge to introduce Craig to authentic British pub experiences I was sure he would enjoy, or the more selfishly specific reason that I would have had a comfortable passport to pubs myself if he had been my companion.

Partly because of this alley-end pub sighting and the accompanying angst, partly because I continued to be intimidated by other dining and eating places I passed, and also (not least) because I needed a drink, I now felt even more determined to go out and have a beer around people tonight. Not surprisingly, I had quickly come up with the wimpily safe idea (which I was trying to re-label as convenient or efficient) of going to the St. Giles bar-restaurant. Never mind my thoughts about it earlier this afternoon, that it looked like a pancake house/coffee shop – after all, I had only seen the outside, the interior might be full of charm.

Even though I tried to reframe this plan as being bold by Sarah standards, I couldn’t escape the thought that it was a poor-second, an also-ran, and did I mention wimpy?…idea in comparison to even theoretical thoughts of going to the alley-end pub by myself. Trying to get my plans back to an appropriately adventurous mix of the safe and the semi-scary, I told myself I would check out the St. Giles bar first, and if nothing was happening there (or I felt otherwise uncomfortable) I would go outside and down the street and maybe/potentially visit the alley place. this point I was feeling more good anticipation than negative nervousness, which small feat of confidence-normalcy I felt inordinately good about. I was able to counter my nerves pretty well by self-repeating forms of, “I am a paying guest at this hotel…it’s my right to visit the bar.” The murky image of me potentially going to an outside bar required that I experiment with higher though more vague forms of self-talk…which raised my level of overall optimism but didn’t convince me I was ready to charge out into the street.

My going-out ensemble was more carefully chosen than it would have appeared, had anyone glanced at me (which, sorry to tell my then and present self, was doubtful) – I thought it would be safe to go back to my black suedeish shoes that caused blisters, since they only did so on long walks (which tonight would not be). I also revisited the gray shirt that I thought now seemed aired out from Monday night’s smoky wine bar (I felt it had aired out, if only by absorption, from sitting on top of cleaner clothes in my suitcase), and slightly creased black slacks which seemed better (cleaner, dressier, or at least different) than the day’s jeans, which were now stretched out, subtly stained, and otherwise ready for nothing else but wearing on the long flight home.

Comparisons with my other dirty clothes elevated tonight’s outfit – for example, tonight’s gray shirt was a fashion gem compared to the sweatshirt I had worn all day, a gray button-neck, loose-bottomed, Old Navy sweatshirt circa 1996. I knew the year for a fact because the day we bought it was the same (dramatic/traumatic) day that Craig and I made our first experimental trip to look at wedding rings (pretending our interest in rings was all very theoretical).

While dressing, I maintained my positive going-out attitude despite the mild wrinkles apparent in every item I put on, but it was a bit harder to rise above the shoes – I had packed them up this morning without thinking about my Dukes Hotel room-freshener concept of shaking talcum powder into them as they sat beside the bed, and the powder had now (in suitcase transit) made it out of the shoes to join other dust and dirt on the shoe tops. The white powder between the laces, over the tongue, and in the crease of the sole, was especially difficult to brush off.

I carried my coat downstairs with me, still telling myself I might go to the place down the street – I really felt I was, for now, reserving judgment on my destination. Open, freewheeling…yeah.

The lobby directional signs for the hotel bar first took me to the hotel restaurant – that was scary, first thinking this well-lit, half-empty place was the bar – but when I reoriented myself, I realized I was supposed to walk past the hotel restaurant. The bar itself was down a hallway patterned with scary-smooth linoleum, past restrooms that I, with proud practicality, made mental note of for future use. Although the bar was large and had a far wall of mostly windows, the general look was not very open, because the place was dimly lit and crowded with small tables. However...there were enough empty tables to make me feel comfortable coming in with my book but not so many vacant seats that I felt I had entered a backwater.

I picked a table near the edge of the central cluster of seating and sat still for a few minutes, with my book spine-mashed open in front of me but not quite concentrating (being more than aware enough of my surroundings to once again lament that Ann Rule’s paperback publisher had chosen tacky lipstick lips for the cover illustration). I maybe-not-so surreptitiously watched the (surprisingly few) bar employees in an attempt to figure out their routines.

None of them came anywhere near me, and I thought maybe this meant that I was supposed to do some version of bellying up to the bar – but I didn’t want to make a mistake of where/how to order that was in any way reminiscent of my aborted pub lunch experience earlier [humiliated over being ignored, I had fled a real pub to eat at a coffee shop that didn’t have great service either].

Unfortunately (or maybe it was a good thing, since I could blame the lack of service on the bartendresses not seeing me instead of them being rude cows), despite there being little seating in front of the bar there wasn’t much empty space to stand near the bar (another possible sign that the bar was where one was meant to order).

At first I stood near the spot where the two barmaids who actually seemed to be circulating at some of the tables came and went to pick up drinks, but after a couple of near body-bumps with them, I moved and stood behind some guys who were holding money in their hands, hoping that after they were waited on, I could move up to their spot and be waited on. I didn’t exactly manage my body language right to move up (several other people pushed in front of me and got several other drinks) but finally a guy next to me, who a bartendress was smiling at very encouragingly, gestured that I was next and should be served before him.

When the petite brunette standing as short behind the bar as I did short in front of it finally asked my order (after first looking right and left as if there must be someone else more important in the near vicinity to wait on – or maybe I just felt self-consciously unworthy because she had to look down and over the tall bar to see me, but she really did seem especially unenthused that short, female me was next in line), I had had plenty of time to decide on a Heineken as my first drink. I did notice Budweiser bottles on display (not my favorite Miller Lite, but at least from the same continent as Miller, unlike Dutch Heineken) – but the Heineken had looked light as I watched it coming out of the tap for so many other people’s glasses (pints), so I figured I could choke it down.

I had had plenty of time to get my pound coins together in the proper amount for a pint as per the chalkboard behind the bar, but unfortunately, by this time I had missed happy hour by 10 full minutes, as the barmistress didn’t seem too disappointed at telling me. I wasn’t sure if she was yelling this fact out of annoyance or whether she realized I was having trouble making out her non-British accent (a British accent would have been bad enough) over the bar noise and recorded music. She held up a glass, gesturing the question of whether this large size was OK, and I nodded in response (what a stupid cultural exchange this was).

I felt silly for my surprise that the beer was served cold – maybe it was only the real home brews, at truly local pubs (dark beers served at bars that really have locals in them) that are served at what we Americans screechingly describe as “room temperature!,” i.e. warm. I mentally enthused that my Heineken tasted really good after the four days of drinking wine and all my previously beer-less meals (namely/primarily sandwiches), which would have been enhanced by beer. I hoped my lip-smacking impulse was only mental and not audible as I thought how light and refreshing the Heineken was as it went down. I immediately worried that I must really miss my home routine of drinking Miller Lite while writing – I had to admit I was guzzling this London Heineken.

Maybe it was partly in an attempt to slow (to find a new perspective for) my guzzling that I dug my red-leather bound book out of my purse to make notes. It was a beautiful Italian leather blank-page book that I bought at Barnes & Noble in the late 1990s for traveling. Just picking it up made one feel like an author – but what I didn’t think through at the time of purchase was, not only was the book heavy and an awkward shape (squareish) inside one’s purse but it was also impossible to tear out the elegantly thick pages (which is necessary to give a note to someone, or to dispose of something embarrassing that one has written) without destroying the book’s binding. I had been dragging around this bound book all week in the bottom of my purse while using more convenient things like the backs of Internet printouts to make notes on – but this seemed like the right time to set out the book on a tabletop.

This evening was not exactly momentous in the big scheme of things, but there was a ton of previous trip stuff nagging at me to be recorded, and tonight (in the end zone of my trip, with little action left ahead) I felt I could (comfortably, in this setting) scribe the more persistent memories thus far and make some good in-the-moment notes about what was going on around me in the bar.

It wasn’t just the alcohol helping me feel warm in remembering that sister-in-law Belinda had said she really liked my emails. Despite the effort required for scribing, I was grateful for Belinda’s push at launching me toward documentation mode. I tried not to put too corny a point on this, but in thinking of Belinda (and potentially others, but with Belinda as the ideal) as my avid audience, I felt that I had better than virtual company. As my gulps of beer continued (I attempted to gulp slowly), I couldn’t help feeling a nice glow that it was almost as if I had a mini-mission in London – making reports to Belinda in Ft. Worth.

The menu I had picked up from a neighboring table turned out to be a lunch menu, but I kept it since I thought maybe visualizing the hotel food choices could get me thinking about what I might want to order for dinner later. My new mission of reporting to Belinda enhanced my reading of the otherwise not-so-interesting menu. For purposes of sarcastic reportage I was happy to see that the menu had a cliched-British tone, with almost every item accompanied by chips (which actually were called “fries” here at the St. Giles, obviously for American tourists).

I immediately decided that the menu was so classic, for purposes of sarcasm, that I should copy down the whole thing in my Italian leather book. It started out sounding fairly sedate, with the expected several kinds of specialty pizzas (there were signs inside and outside the St. Giles advertising pizza) and then sandwiches: ham and tomato (tomah-toe); the Brit-classic “tuna mayo”; “vegetarian Cheddar” with salad (apparently if you wanted vegetarian they thought you would want salad too); Chicken Coronation (I thought I had read in Rick Steves or elsewhere on the web about this Brit-invented sandwich filling, which I was pretty sure was very high-fat), which specified after its name “and lettuce” in case people needed to be forewarned that there would be something green with their chicken, mayo and bread; smoked salmon and cucumber garnished “with salad and crisps” (the “salad” designated this as another health choice – the last such healthful item).

The menu then moved on to entrees, starting out with the St. Giles’ rotisserie chicken: ¼ chicken and fries; ½ chicken and fries; whole chicken and fries; Italian mixed salad (I wasn’t sure where the mixed salad fit, unless maybe with the following steak & kidney item), homemade steak and kidney pudding, served with gravy and fries (my mind and stomach were boggled at the stodgy combination of steak/kidneys/”pudding”:/gravy/fries); homemade lasagna, salad and fries; homemade cannelloni, salad and fries; and lastly (presumably, the best – or the heaviest – for last), “bowl of fries.” Even without having copied this down, I knew I would have remembered to tell Belinda and other U.S. friends about the lasagna served with chips (fries) – I was already formulating my witty reportage, something like, “This being a decent hotel, a salad does accompany the lasagna and the chips.”

I guess I have a love-hate relationship with french fries, which puts them into a guilt-charged private category – regardless of how much I like them, I have always recognized they must be the first food to be jettisoned (at least avoided) when I feel the need to go into some sort of diet mode. Craig likes to tease me about my liking for them, which always gets an indignant reaction out of me, since he has no idea how many times I want to order fries but don’t allow myself to.

Not surprisingly, I hadn’t been able to get out of my mind the most chip-related posting from Graffiti Wall (acerbically titled, “Another use for fries”), about a Chicago woman’s visit to the British town of Banbury. The item said, “My host family had gotten the traditional fish and chips one night, and my host-mom wanted to show me how to make a ‘chip butty.’ It was white bread, spread with margarine, topped with fries, and rolled up. She offered it to me but I politely declined. I want to live to see my 30th birthday, after all.” I loved the high-fat baroqueness of the Chicago woman’s comments but I resented the correlation of fried foods with middle-aged mortality.

As I copied down the restaurant menu and started on other notes, my Heineken – alternately sipped and gulped as I tried to control my consumption – did much to enhance my feelings about myself and my handling of today. I had gone out and seen things and I had functioned well alone in this city. Maybe more importantly (for writing-oriented me), my emails and notes would later remind me how much interesting detail (of all the specific experiences and angst) I had gotten out of it all. The beer was even starting to lend an almost-philosophical perspective to my earlier moments of panic in the hotel room and my less-than-confident, less-than-joyful treks in the crowded streets.

I had worked hard not to let the tendrils of lonely panic remind me of non-brave scenarios I would like to forget, parts of long-ago trips…an afternoon in downtown San Francisco where I didn’t feel like exploring alone but had to kill time while waiting for my friend Q. to get off work – after a frustrating ten minutes in Macy’s (everything seemed too petite-sized or too expensive) I dodged street people and entered the public library, where I read romance novels for three hours…and my foreshortened trip at age 20 to Washington DC, when my uncle Homer had flown back home after our first day and I immediately got a giant case of homesickness, waking up feeling horribly displaced and anxious, such powerful feelings that I took a cab straight to the airport.

The almost-professionally therapeutic powers of Dr. Heineken helped me realize that I had been too harsh on myself. I needed to keep in mind that I had grown up in a very small town and then moved to a middle-class part of Dallas – although not spoiled, I had been sheltered. Even if I avoided saying or thinking things like, “Dallas was never like this,” it was impossible not to admit that I wasn’t used to such a vibrant urban life, with crowds of diverse people, lots of street noise, and traffic-intense street crossings.

Suddenly, my chemically rebalanced orientation was disrupted by a ripping, zipping type noise and the bar’s music and lights dramatically flipped off. I thought for a minute that the bizarre noise might be some kind of disco promo (a startling song intro) but when the lack of sound and lights continued and people around me remained stilled in a befuddled way, I realized it was a power problem.

It took a few minutes to sort out what lights were still working – the hotel had an emergency lighting system, so there were still lights on in the pizza-kitchen corner of the bar. Oddly, although the bar’s big-screen TV had gone dark, the cigarette machine under it was still lit. I could still see lights from the street outside, so thankfully this wasn’t a city blackout, just a St. Giles one.

(To be continued...)

(No, this image is nothing like me, that night or any other night – but I kind of wish it was.... )