Friday, June 4, 2010

London 2003 - Dukes Bar, WEDNESDAY night

(isn't this stolen web image JUST like me?, LOL)

[After a long day of sightseeing I spent a couple of evening hours at the Victoria & Albert Museum, where I had already had a glass of wine…one of the many pleasant features of their weekly “Late View,” where selected galleries were open late and there was food, wine and live music. K. had originally agreed to go with me but then said she was very tired and had too much work to do. I knew this was a working trip for her but it was still a little disappointing and I had trouble suppressing the thought that she had never been gung-ho about the idea anyway... I had noticed that her ideas got canceled less than mine did.]

It wasn’t all that late when I got back to the room, but K. was prone on top of her bed, in her jeans and t-shirt, as if she had had a surprise energy wipe-out in the middle of doing something. She stirred when I entered the room but wasn’t able to say much. Although her laptop was open on the sofa, the screen was dark – in fairness, that was probably a screen saver feature, but I had enough bitchy feeling left in me to suspect she might never have turned it on, because there were no papers sitting around and her briefcase was closed. However, it seemed obvious she wasn’t up for any social activity, and I admonished myself that there was little point in my taking her wipeout personally.

I shrugged off my coat, picked up the key again and stated pleasantly that I was going down to the bar. Any remaining doubt I might have had about how K. was feeling was settled by her not making any pretense of joining me, unusual for her since she is definitely the over-commitment, “Do till you drop” type (which of course I envy/admire). Instead, in response to my announced leaving, she slid down to an even flatter position on the bed, which moved her to the zone of appearing so pathetic that I felt I couldn’t (didn’t want to) have any residual resentment over finishing my evening alone. I laid the room key down on top of a spiral pad to carry both downstairs – although the prospect of attempting to get down detail on even my few days so far was still overwhelming, making trip notes was going to be my prop/justification for sitting at a table alone to have more wine.

This time I sat in the outside room – nearest the entrance, not the seating area closer to the bar. There seemed to be fewer people here. I saw clusters of fancy-looking couples out together, which was kind of depressing given my solo social state, but at least they didn’t seem too drunkenly loud yet. My waiter, the younger-looking bar employee from the night before, introduced himself as Tony. He remembered me well, asking, “No most post cards?” Hoping I sounded wittily appreciative and not too desperately grateful to have made conversational contact, I laughingly replied, “No, it’s my diary tonight…I did 20 post cards yesterday.” Tony seemed properly shocked (which isn’t the same as being impressed) at this postcard count.

I was sure this guy was the one I had seen on the Dukes web site, making a martini at a counter stagily set with a heaped silver dish of olives and an over-large lemon that had a strip missing (ostensibly cut off to make a garnishing twist for the drink). Tony himself was shown with a smirky expression that could have meant a personality disorder or just shy nervousness at being photographed for the web. Even if I hadn’t seen him on the Dukes site, Tony would have seemed familiar, because he kind of looked like a Central Casting Italian (which is probably cliched racism, but seems to reflect how people’s minds work) – meaning, medium-sized, early-mid-aged Italian type, with the expected accent but also the expected English ability, so that he could talk to you in enjoyably-accented English (enjoyable to listen to, adding to the evening ambience and whatever sense of Anglophile superiority one might have had).

In retrospect, Tony was a very significant character of my week, even if just by my learning his name. Funnily (embarrassingly) enough, when I got home and unloaded the extra business cards that I had taken in my purse (packed despite my insecurity/self-consciousness that no one anywhere on the globe would want to know Sarah) in case I made some Brit pen-pal friends, I had to admit to my socially-challenged self that I had hardly learned anyone’s name in England except Tony, “Sam Elliott” (who may or may not have really been the Gilberto so familiarly mentioned on Graffiti Wall as the go-to man for offsite Italian dining), the Canadians Mary Ann and her sister (sadly, I had no clue of the sister’s name) that I met at Tower of London, and also from Monday’s tour, guide David and John-the-driver (David’s term for him).

Maybe it was because of the hour – later than when I had come down the night before – but tonight my table top held no snacks, no nuts or crackers. I didn’t know if this was something to do with the table size (a two-seater tonight instead of Tuesday’s four chairs), or with the time of day. Maybe it was assumed that everyone in here now had already had dinner and wasn’t hungry, although I would have thought that by Continental standards, any time prior to 10:00 was too early to assume that anyone had a full stomach.

At several daytime (and sober) points of the trip, I had entertained the idea of having champagne next time I found myself at a bar – the concept seemed appropriately romantic and celebratory, since I was on a special trip (maybe even the “trip of my lifetime,” since it was possible I would never get the money together to come back after this) – but when asked for my order in an actual bar, I continued to vote for Chardonnay, even though I was never quite sure whether Chardonnay was actually the variety of white wine I was being served. Maybe I subconsciously went for Chardonnay because in the U.S. such a request often gets you a generic potion, and here I was hoping I would get a similarly cheapish bar brand of white wine, and thinking that this would be easier and better to chug than something truly special or expensive.

Tonight I made a feeble attempt at “branching out” and instructed Tony, “A white wine…whatever you think…” He seemed happy with my pliability – or maybe he and the bar staff were tired of looking for a bottle of Chardonnay for me, since for all I know, actual Chardonnay is in short supply in London. Whatever Tony’s personal thoughts were on the matter, I have to say that the wine he promptly brought me tasted a lot like the “Chardonnay” I had had the night before (and the white wine of Sunday’s room service).

As a change from my usual procedure, I forced myself to try sipping it slowly – my previous gulping style wasn’t conducive to nursing the wine long enough to last for a decent amount of writing. The writing needed to be my focus tonight, and I wanted to get a big chunk of writing done, in my real notebook – not on the back of something, like an afterthought, as happened the night before. Just having brought down the notebook had increased my feeling of trip-recording/diary pressure, although it also felt nicely official and validating to have a dedicated notebook. A notebook that was already partially filled might have lessened the pressure, but I always pack fresh new ones for a trip…as if I might get marooned, and inspired (out of boredom due to the marooning), and write my way through all the empty pages.

The wine helped push down the curling tendrils of writing-panic – more wine would have been a stronger anxiety suppressor, but I needed to be mindful of the delicately narrow balance between alcohol-triggered creativity and confusion born of too much alcohol. I knew I had crossed over to confusion on Postcard Night – I was embarrassed to remember how after I finished each postcard I started murmuring aloud the sentences I had just written, to see if they made sense or whether I had left out key words. I wanted to stay in an anxiety-managed but still coherent zone for as long as I could manage it tonight. This zone shares a highly permeable border with the land of compulsive writing and rabid getting-down of details, but I knew there was no way to avoid all the discomforts of such proximity.

I really did have just one glass of wine, although since the Dukes bar was generous with portions (which felt almost virtuously welcome here, since as a guest I only had to stumble upstairs to get to a safe sleeping place), it was not a small one, although not inappropriately overfilled either. Rather surprisingly, Tony didn’t bring me any unwanted refills – maybe he was busy, or my table on the side of the room was away from his main circuit of other customers, but he proved to be easier to manage than Gilberto/Sam E. had on the previous night. I don’t think I sounded more insistent or stern with Tony than I had with Gilberto, but maybe Gilberto had picked up on the negation (“No means yes”) in my giggly/slushy tone, a sound that I didn’t have enough grape in me to achieve tonight. It also helped that now I was alert enough to signal by dragging my hand up to cover my glass when I saw Tony come through the doorway. Or, maybe the lesser emphasis on refills was a feature of this outer bar room, somehow related to there not being free snacks on the tables when I sat down.

Having less wine may have contributed to my somewhat negative mood, or maybe this was just a classic symptom of being past the halfway point of my trip, on the waning end. Wednesday was my fourth day of being in a hotel where clearly all the other guests had a more glamorous, affluent life than mine. Although now comfortably ensconced in the Dukes bar, I didn’t feel settled there and reflected that I was kind of ready for a change from this posh hotel. I really didn’t fit in at Dukes, although none of the staff or other guests had been rude enough to outwardly hint at this.

My lifestyle was probably several cuts above that of most of the brown-toothed Dukes employees [who by their accents I guessed were immigrants from Eastern Europe], but this perspective didn’t ameliorate my state of covetousness toward the other guests. A somehow wealthy-seeming and otherwise imposing lady (in a simply cut skirt and blouse but with real-looking gems in her necklace and earrings) came walking out from the room that was nearer to the bar, and she called out a hello to Tony as he was leaving a table near me. To her bossily plaintive comment, “We were here at Christmas but you weren’t here!”, Tony replied in a respectful/seemingly sincere manner.

The act of my writing was mostly involving, but in other ways almost boring, as I flew [well, maybe not that weightless of a transition] back and forth between a chronological listing and important/must-get-down stuff that I was compelled to add even out of sequence. Since I have shifted mental gears like this for most of my life, I was able to stay on track (such as the track was) and the wine (even one glass of it) helped the interruptions feel less schizo than they would have normally. Despite the loud conversation in the bar (the volume was high only by genteel Dukes standards), most of the words were pretty easy to tune out, except for snatches that I absorbed intermittently and reacted to in a patchwork combination of interest and annoyance.

I admit that some of my gut responses were born of jealousy… The two couples at the table near the window were having a conversation guaranteed to intimidate an American of my working class – I heard one of the guys mention “my new BMW” more than once, in a tone meant to convey that this was one of a series of the car that he had purchased. It’s not that I would never hear this in the States, but my attention was grabbed by how somehow similar and yet subtly different it sounded here. The matter-of-fact tone and brevity of his comment almost seemed to express modesty, yet the fact that he had announced a purchase and specified a brand name had to be some form of a grab for attention. It seemed to me that in America this category of rich but pretending-to-be-modest people was fairly rare – American rich people either hid their money completely or shouted the exact (or inflated) amounts of it from the rooftops.

I tried to keep in mind that I wasn’t versed on all the class complexities of London bar conversation – these people weren’t necessarily old money, they could even have been ordinary suburban dwellers, but I now had a general idea how expensive it was to park, buy and gas a car in the London area, and a BMW, while not the highest-price option, was still an expensive car. The men were wearing office-type suits and the ladies were in nice blouses and skirts which could either have been nice office clothes or cocktail-time attire. No one had on anything traditionally English-tweedy or elbow-patched, but I was kind of hoping to see or hear something English-cliched so I could more neatly categorize this group. My desire was met when the other man at the table, who looked beef-fed (with a thick head, broad shoulders and blond hair like a Midwestern football player), said in a somewhat grim tone that I think was meant to convey casual pride, something about getting a “viller” in Mustique and inviting everyone there to visit. I almost clapped my hands in glee at the classically British-Continental pronunciation of “villa” (a luxurious country house) with an “R” stuck on the end – this was the kind of people-watching/listening I had been wanting.

I realize that a broader cross-section of classes go on sun holidays from the U.K. as compared to the U.S. – since southern Europe is not so far away and there’s a big business in all price ranges of vacation rentals and timeshares in Spain and other countries that get hot and sunny for at least most of the year. However, I had a dim idea that Mustique was not a cheap resort, and it struck me that the beefy guy mentioned it in the kind of commonplace way a Texan would refer to going to Galveston or Padre Island for the weekend.

Even allowing for real estate agency hype on the sites I found in my later web research on Mustique, the prevalent adjectives “luxury, privacy, celebrity” reinforced that we weren’t talking about a place in any way resembling the Texas Gulf Coast. This “unspoiled” Caribbean island (with only one hotel but many private “villa rentals”) was originally developed by the British for its sugar trade, then purchased by a private individual, and was only opened to outsiders in 1968. Between the original development by the first British people and the 1960s opening to visitors, I was struck by a couple of timeline items – “the native tribes were quickly decimated with the arrival of European planters” and “the English fought off invading French troops.” I doubt that today’s visitor has any awareness of anything in any way turbulent in the island’s past.

Per, the Mustique development company provides a video library with over 500 movies!, a number that is meant to impress us since the island is only 1 ½ miles by 3 miles and contains less than 200 homes. explained, “The tiny island is not easily accessible without a private plane or yacht,” and told me that these private planes have carried homeowners and visitors “the likes of” Mick Jagger, Phil Collins, Princess Margaret, Kate Moss and Calvin Klein.

Even before realizing that Princess Margaret was a Mustique fan, I knew I had little in common with a person who was talking about going there. I was getting fussy from reminders of my economic and cultural status, which was definitely a part of my looking forward to a return to more modest activities and more laid-back creature comforts. When I changed hotels tomorrow I would be in a different part of town, and I thought I had seen on an Internet map that there was a movie theater near the St. Giles. I felt a disproportionate sense of excitement that I could soon enjoy the simple pleasure of seeing a movie (and not feeling much concern about what movie might be showing), which told me that I was definitely on the low end of my trip if I was craving the kind of time-killing comfort I would have availed myself of at home.

Still sober enough to efficiently multi-task, I listened to this foursome by the window while scribbling fairly furiously about what I had eaten and who had annoyed me in the last several days of my trip. I wasn’t sure what the exact mix was of my being a little trip-fussy (thinking about home and simple, non-Dukes comforts) and being more specifically annoyed with the personalities of the two couples. There was also a mixture of my being intimidated by their apparent wealth, degree of sophistication, and London-ness – and my strongly wondering how much class they really had by London standards. It was inarguable that they were from a different country than I was, but they were less surely of a vastly different class than me.

They spoke in gay (upbeat) tones and what I was pretty sure (from the brandy snifters and wine glasses in front of them) was a glibly liquored manner. I continued to struggle to categorize them – just when I became bored by the pedestrian nature of their topics, such as “We’re due for a parent-teacher meeting soon…” (spoken by a man and woman in unison) and “I’m feeling a bit nervous about having the laser surgery…” (from the blond lady, slightly plumper than the brunette one, but still very trim, with a short, smooth bob of hair) – they talked about something closer to what I would consider a human interest category. The Mustique Guy went on about a mutual friend who, according to him, continued to “Look for the wrong elements in her relationships.” This seemed a bit non-macho as a topic – I think Craig and his male friends occasionally discuss their single friends’ psychological problems, but my impression is that they have to be drunk on whiskey, and/or high on cigar smoke, to do so. Unfortunately for my piqued interest, the group immediately went from talking about the girl who loved wrongly to discussing mutual friends who had died. I couldn’t always identify the voices and I wasn’t facing the table – I was only clear that it was the beefy blond guy who had mentioned Mustique because I turned to stare when he first said that vacation word, and I also knew from that same brief look to blame him for the reek of cigar smoke that continued to permeate the room.

I think it was the Mustique Guy who said in a loudly heartfelt way that so-and-so was “a great chap…” and “You know his wife died of cancer…?” Everyone murmured appropriately after hearing the C-word, and when someone mentioned that the specific disease was breast cancer, they uttered a group “Umm-hmm” at the unfortunate commonness of this disease. When the guy continued, “He calls my son every morning, to check in with him,” this comment got a few approving-type murmurs too, although it sounded odd to me. How many male family friends call someone’s young son every morning, to the approval of the parents? Maybe these people were desperately looking for any type of positive socialization for their kids – all four of them went on about how their kids watched “too many DVDs,” a complaint which certainly put them closer to an American-middle-class range of parental problems.

They conversationally ended their evening with what I felt was a letdown of jet-setting class – the brunette lady with slightly past shoulder-length hair cut in an expensively casual/girlish style giggled that she had had too much wine, and oh dear, now she had to make her way on foot to the Tube. My surprise at hearing this went along with my disdain at the OLDH tour agent’s Monday question of what tube stop Dukes was near, but I was beginning to realize that my dismissal of the subway was misguided snobbery – how silly of me to think I knew what was and was not within proper social parameters for an upper class of people. And how logistically narrow-thinking I had been – probably their fabulous/palatial (historic?/inherited?) London homes were right by a tube stop and they had learned it didn’t make sense to drive and have the hassle of parking…or maybe they lived in a suburb that was very ritzy but near enough the city to be on a tube stop. My never having ventured onto the subway didn’t show any kind of superiority, it just made me look more like an ignorant American tourist.

Belatedly, my limited degree of altruistic concern for my fellow man kicked in and I realized it was doubtful that these people were sober enough to drive their own cars home anyway. I assumed that Britain had little tolerance for drunk driving, and in this (as in few other U.K. cultural and legal things) I was correct. Per the U.S. Department of State’s Consular Information site, “U.K. penalties for drunk driving are stiff and often result in prison sentences.” A novelty site with semi-serious travel info, “American Girls Are Easy” (subtitled, How to Find a Man in Europe and Leave Him There) says that the British are “extreme” about drunk driving and gives the interestingly practical example that if your date is “caught with keys in his pocket and he’s within 50 feet of his car, he can be arrested for a DUI.” I’m not sure how reliable a source “American Girls” is for U.K. facts, due to the goofy meanness of some of its tips and insights (example: “There’s nothing noteworthy about the dogs in Britain, but you might be curious to know that the nation’s number one road kill is the hedgehog”) but I was impressed that the site went to the trouble to clarify (in its acid tongue) a common subject of tourist confusion: “Great Britain is England, Scotland and Wales. The United Kingdom is Great Britain plus Northern Ireland. Most people don’t understand this technicality, nor do they care.”

Tony didn’t protest my request for my check much more than he had expressed disapproval (with a small frown and a slight shake of his head) at my refusal of more wine. I was gratified that I felt clear-headed after my one glass of wine – this made it easier than usual to figure out how much British money to leave, and I felt more confident than usual about my calculation. Maybe I had drawn energy from the process of writing out my inner thoughts (having finally started in earnest to belch forth a degree of detail that it was unlikely anyone would even pretend interest in)…and/or maybe I had finally arrived at the exactly optimum amount of alcohol I should consume in order to have a solo evening with a doable amount of creative output. I felt I had at least a little more writing in me still, even without having another drink (this lesser than usual need for alcohol signified true inner fire), so I went across the small hallway to the drawing room, a new setting for my creativity.

There were no other guests in the drawing room at this weeknight hour of 10 pm, but the empty room had a better vibe than on Monday – that night K. and I had had to look at other people’s dirty dishes on some of the low tables, but tonight everything was completely clean and quiet. The peaceful atmosphere didn’t immediately make me sleepy but it didn’t encourage my work ethic either – I was suddenly moved to fold shut my notebook and pull out my trusty purse book. I did pretty well at managing my guilt that I had stopped writing, because I was feeling rather kind to myself, given my mostly successful solo adventures of the day and my numerous countable pages of writing output this evening. It also seemed possible to make a case that although four days in London had provided me with enough material to potentially keep scribbling all night, for sleep and health reasons it would be better to set a limit on writing and concentrate on reading Ann Rule’s published words.

No comments: