uk 2010

UK: Alone with the magic.

The HMV Forum is, from what I can tell, in absolutely-middle-of-nowhere London. This shabby little concert hall lives in an area called Kentish Town, which our tour manager later assured me it was a very posh neighborhood — to hear him tell it, so was most of London — but I didn't see it. People live there, sure; mostly, though, the area I saw was little more than a sad stretch of cracked pavement, bars and convenience stores that sell alcohol.

A few men stood on the sidewalk near the Tube station, mumbling on about the cheap tickets they had to that night's show — like it was against the law to speak clearly or audibly — and occasionally, a harried businessman weaved through the bar crowds, hefting a messenger bag, rushing to get home.
Otherwise, all the activity in the neighborhood centered on a pub called the Venue. Which was teeming with revelers decked out in vintage tees and skinny jeans — some things are universal. I went in, pushed my way through the crowd and ordered a glass of wine; the bartender poured the contents of a tiny plastic bottle into a glass and slid it across the bar. I counted out pound coins and change; I knew I was paying too much for something that wouldn't taste quite right.
Before I could put my wallet away, another bartender accidentally dipped his pinky into my glass while reaching used glasses on the bar. He looked me in the eye before wandering away to serve someone else.
I drank more than usual while I was away, and ate a lot less. The alcohol I could trust. The food, not so much. Though it was tempting to attempt to survive on Thai sweet chili crisps and Magnum ice cream bars.

Outside the bar, I stood mute on the sidewalk, watching other concertgoers spill onto the sidewalk together with their beer, chatting animatedly. This wasn't like the William Fitzsimmons concert I went to in Paris. There, I didn't mind being alone; I was grateful to sit in silence after several embarrassing attempts at conversation with Francophones. There, I watched with curiosity and felt like the brave American who'd ventured out on my own. Here, I was just another American tourist in London. I could understand what everyone was saying and was simply too afraid to walk up and start talking with them. I don't think the I'm-charmed-by-your-acccent phenomenon works both ways.
So I finished my awful wine, set the glass by the light pole, next to stacks of empty pint glasses, and wandered to the box office. A surly Goth girl rolled her eyes and handed me my ticket after yelling at me for my surname about five times. I just. Didn't. Understand. (Even after getting a lesson from the hotel doorman in Scotland on which name was, in fact, my surname.) Why can't you people just use the same words as the rest of us?!

I made this pilgrimage and forced down that Sauvignon swill because I'd managed to score tickets at the last minute to see Jónsi, Sigur Rós' lead singer, perform.
Sigur Rós' albums and Jónsi's new release, Go, are among the few I own where I can't understand a word of what's being sung; the lyrics, when there are any, are either in Icelandic; "Hopelandic," a made-up phonetic language Jónsi concocted; or garbled, woozy English. And I love them despite that. Possibly because of it. The music is magical, like pure joy and heartbreak translated into black dots and lines on a page.
I missed the opening act while I was drinking my terrible wine, and I saw few empty spaces as my eyes adjusted to the musty darkness of the auditorium. I climbed the steps to the general-admission, standing-room-only area and leaned against a tiny corner of the balcony. The temperature in the room rose with every step I took, with every new person who entered the room. With no iPhone to check, no more drink to sip, I was surrounded by strangers and prickled again with loneliness.
But eventually, the lights went down, plunging us all into darkness and leaving us suddenly alone with the music. Jónsi acknowledged the audience once, in trembling English, halfway through the concert.

No one sang along — no one knew the words.
The crowd swayed silently, wide-eyed, and roared with applause in adoration of the brave, slight man on stage at the end of each song.

How do you explain magic to someone who didn't see it firsthand?

For his encore, Jónsi emerged wearing a bright, feathered headdress. His last song, rambling and wailing, ended in a deafening storm of drums and feedback and beauty and desperation. He dropped the microphone and walked off stage, spent.
We knew the feeling. All together, we were alone with the music, a mass of little black lines and dots in the darkness that had diffused into pure joy and heartbreak.
And that room in middle-of-nowhere Kentish Town was, briefly, the center of the universe.

UK: Off.

I checked Twitter this morning and was suddenly reminded that LOST ended last night. Having never watched the show, I…don't get it. But I don't really understand all the people who are so adamantly, violently against the show, either. The Twitter dance between LOST disciples and anti–pop culture backlash is always hilarious, especially when I can look back on the raging battle, blissfully unaware, as I'm waking up on a beautifully sunny and cool morning in Edinburgh.

I would have been fast asleep either way.

Today, instead of the long, arduous Monday-morning commute into the Chicago suburbs, I'm on a bus headed north into Perthshire, where we'll visit a "Plant Hunters'" garden full of rare specimens, feast on traditional fish and chips, and visit a whisky distillery.

Yesterday, we boarded a different bus, with a different driver, and made our way through a driving rain along the A1, southeast into England. The sky was grey, the asphalt shrouded in a fine mist; at times, we couldn't even see the North Sea off to the left for the fog. Every so often, to our right, there were tiny, woolly sheep everywhere grazing on grassy meadows and craggy hills. In other places, the ground turned a brilliant yellow with fields of rapeseed in full bloom.

I slept on and off — jet lag and some particularly wonderful episodes of Angel on DVD had gotten the best of me the night before — waking at intervals for lessons on history, geography and various British accents from our tour manager, Chris. (Try this one in your best Scottish: "Och! My toes are trampled to a pulp!") We spent the entire day in Alnwick, a beautiful little town whose main attractions are a small garden and a castle. As somewhat less of a garden enthusiast, I made it through the garden in about an hour and set off into town with my camera. But Alnwick is no Paris; the photography is slim pickings. After another hour of wandering about and walking up to stores I wanted to visit only to find them closed for Sunday, hanger had overtaken me and I needed lunch. I settled on a tiny restaurant with courtyard seating.

The British frown upon solo diners. Hmph. Well, I frown upon British food. Ugh. I ordered a bacon and brie Panini, the only thing on the menu that sounded even remotely appetizing, and was promptly poured on as soon as my food arrived. I played Sudoku on my iPhone — God bless my iPhone — and waited out the rain.

Yesterday was an off day.

It's lonely here, despite the fact that I'm traveling with a group. The first couple of nights, I went out with Chris and his friend Sarah, who lives in Edinburgh, for drinks and dinner. Which made me feel very much part of the "in" crowd. But it's hard to relate with my fellow travelers, given the age gap and my level of gardening knowledge; being here as a journalist, it doesn't always feel like I'm part of the group. Which is fine.

One of the things I'd looked forward to about this trip was all the time I'd have to myself. Except I haven't used it very well: one trip to Sainsbury's supermarket for a bottle of Evian and a visit to Marks & Spencer for a new handbag, after the zipper busted on the one I bought for Paris last year. Stupid $19.99 deal from Target. But last night, I was exhausted to the point of antisocial, and I embraced it. I went straight to my room, logged on to Yelp and started looking for takeaway Thai. Turns out, one of Edinburgh's highest-rated Thai restaurants, Dusit, is around the corner from my hotel in tiny, one-way alley called Thistle Street.

I walked past sweet boutique shops with fancy purple leather handbags and posh little restaurants I could kick myself for missing until last night, until I happened upon this hole in the wall that smelled like…home. I ordered green curry with chicken and sat in a folding chair by the front door until they brought my bag to me. I ate in bed and fell asleep at 9:30. I was more content last night than I have been in any quiet garden grove since we arrived.

UK: What an Entrance.

Our tour manager called it "zombie day." It was the first night we got together as a group, and we'd all been up for at least two full days once time changes have been accounted for. There's no telling what sort of brain-snacking rage machines you'll run into on zombie day. But our group was the happily undead, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with cameras at the ready. Already.

Hotel management finally had my room ready at 3 p.m., hours after I'd actually arrived at the hotel. I stood under the scalding water in my poorly draining, drafty shower for what felt like hours, then I stumbled down the stairs and back out to the lobby just in time to walk out the door with 35 strangers — most of whom are inching toward 35 years my senior.


It occurs to me that I haven't actually explained why I'm here: This is a work trip. (Paid. In. Full.) I'm traveling with a group of Master Gardeners from Orange County, Calif., on this trip called a Garden Getaway Tour. Sounds fancy, right? The connection to the magazine I work for: The company is hoping to entice garden centers, my readers, to get involved and invite their customers on these trips. Which means more sales for the travel company and better customer relationships for the garden centers. Which is important in such a highly competitive retail marketplace. Oh, it's so easy to slip into Publicationese. I'm doing double blog and photo duty, plus covering the event afterward in the magazine.

I chatted with a few of my fellow tour participants by the time we'd wound our way through downtown, across George Street and down Hanover Street until the castle was in full view before us, a wide expanse of meadow stretching out and down to our left as we stopped to pose for a photo.

I made my grand debut at our welcome reception, in an airy restaurant decorated with spare blond wood fixtures. There were bottles of wine and trays of passed canapés; our tour manager read an inspired poem about paying attention to the small miracles around us; I straightened up to introduce myself properly.

My fellow travelers was suitably enamored, given my age and looks and relative cheeriness. The white wine certainly didn't help. I said I looked forward to getting to know all of them, and I actually meant it. A table of four lovely people — two Master Gardeners, two spouses — invited me to sit down and chat, then tried to coerce me into training to become a Mater Gardener myself. Whoa. (I still kill everything I touch, despite two and a half years in this position; they assured me that's not what the program is about. Bah.)

The reception was particularly nice, not because of the fried haggis balls or the mini shepherd's pies but because they kept filling our wine glasses. Suddenly, it was nearly 7 p.m., I was very nearly "pissed," and I very nearly hadn't mingled at all. I rushed over to another table to say hello to another four lovely people. Not two minutes after I sat down, I offered my most proper introduction: knocking a full glass of red wine over with my clumsy, half-drunk ape-armed bear paw.

My lap monopolized the spill, and I stared in horror at my favorite white and khaki cotton skirt, which now sported a massive pink stain. "Better you than me!" the woman next to me shrieked. I hate her.

I ran to the server station and dumped table salt and club soda all over it — I’m still not sure what that's supposed to do — then made a hasty exit.

I changed for dinner and took my skirt to the front desk to be cleaned. They've lost my skirt now, by the way. Maybe this was the United Kingdom's way of telling me I'd packed like an idiot and had no business dressing for a garden party, planning to be traipsing around like some wood nymph, when I'm really supposed to be slogging through the grounds with a bunch of hardcore gardeners.

Maybe. Or maybe I’m just clumsy.