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.
Yes...at 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.... )