Panic on the Streets of London, or, How To Spend Five Hundred Dollars in Three Days
Okay, I am skipping ahead in my story here, but this part of my story might just be the best part, or at the very least the most important part, and since I’ve recently made sense of everything I experienced in London, I feel the need to skip ahead a bit—I will fill in the blanks of the other two trips later. This all happened in a period of three days, from April 23rd, 2014 to the 26th. Let me be clear once more: chronologically, this takes place AFTER my trips to Florence and Rome, right at the tail end of my spring break.
My trip to London, I decided to go alone. Most other places, you can go and people will want to do the touristy things that everyone does, and fun is had for all and you see everything that you wanted to see. London, I was a bit more picky in what I wanted to see. I didn’t want to feel rushed. I would’ve went with other people, and probably would have been pouty for half the time, but it just seemed to work out that I would be on my own for my London adventure.
As I got off the bus at Victoria Station, I knew I was in for a wild ride. I was down the street from Westminster Abbey—a quick stroll, and I would be able to cross something off of my list. Or I could take a ride on the Underground to find my hostel. I had two giant bags of clothing and supplies (including my laptop), so I was torn between what I should do. Deciding to brave the journey, I walked down the street towards Westminster Abbey, with pounds of luggage weighing down my already tired shoulders.
Westminster Abbey was certainly a sensory overload (and a wound on my bank account—for students, it’s 15 pounds to enter). So many famous people, so much history. Coronations, crownings, royal weddings—it was all at my fingertips. An obvious highlight was Poet’s Corner, where Geoffrey Chaucer is buried. Touring around the building, I knew that there was just so much that i was missing, or that I would never understand—significances I couldn’t even hope to understand. It’s simply a building with too much history. I was in shock—I, the lowly little Long Island boy, was in the same place as some of the most important people in history. I endeavored to see as much as I could, but eventually left for my hostel, not wanting to spend a whole day living in the past.
My hostel was the worst part of the trip—built into a bar which was probably on the verge of bankruptcy, there was no care or sympathy to be had at the Arsenal Hostel. You had a bed to sleep in and simply hoped for the best in all other respects. Supposedly, there was a free quote unquote breakfast, but I never saw a crumb of cereal, or anything resembling sustenance. The room smelled of dirty unwashed hippies (and not the good kind). The shower had two temperatures—cold, and ice cold. Luckily, I planned to spend as little time in that sinking establishment as possible, so I didn’t worry too much about it. I had a bed to sleep in at night, and that was all I could hope for.
Heading back into the city center, I came upon the Piccadilly area Waterstones, the “largest book store in Europe.”
I was quite subdued for a few hours, sifting through foreign versions of books I already owned. The red, complete UK copy of Lord of the Rings was calling to me, but I resisted. Instead, I picked up a copy of Morrissey’s Autobiography for half price (it had a single rip in it). It was a book I had been craving to buy for a while, and London seemed like the perfect place to buy it. It accompanied me for the rest of the trip, and fit the constant soundtrack of The Smiths that was blaring somber tunes in my ears.
Next, I took a pilgrimage to Denmark Street, the site of the Sex Pistol’s old flat. I expected to see a plaque, a dedication—anything to signify that the punk giants who had proclaimed “Anarchy in the UK” had made their mark on London. Instead, I saw a basic guitar store, and no stamp of greatness. I guess Johnny Rotten’s last words on stage with the Pistols fit well with their legacy: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
Just as my disappointment had hit critical max, I turned around, and right behind me, directly across from the flat, was a bar with a sign for live music. Live punk music from Finland. Was this a dream come true? I entered the 12 Bar Club, unaware of the spiritual journey I was about to go on. Up first were two acoustic acts: a Dallas Green-style guy whose voice touched the airwaves like whiskey-stained piano keys; and a tall girl who towered over the place with her anger against the men who had wronged her. I loved every second of it. The highlight, though, was the touring band—The Blush, all the way from Finland. Elements of Joan Jett, Peaches, Gwen Stefani, Green Day, influences I will forever be perplexed by— they all combined in front of my eyes to wake everyone in the room up from their respective comas.
After the show, I went up to the band to compliment them. I bought a copy of their demo, and they seemed so pleased to meet a kid from America. They signed it excitedly, and asked if I could hook them up with some places to play in New York if they ever came. I gave them my contact information, and went to bed that night dreaming of my own place in punk history.
The next day was part of my reason for coming to London when I did: the opening night of Titus Andronicus at Shakespeare’s Globe, the reconstructed circular open air theater along the Thames. Getting my tickets in advance, I was to be a groundling—a commoner standing in the yard. When I got to the Globe, my heart stopped; it was perfect. The outside took me by surprise at how it towered over the Thames in its Elizabethan conjuring way.
Inside, I was greeted by a more morose set than is typical of the globe. The ceiling as adorned with a circular black awning, mirroring the domed Pantheon in Rome. The stage was covered in black silk, setting the tone for the gruesomely bleak performance. Smoke poured out of the stage as actors emerged through the clouds. Unfortunately, the lighting for stage and the smoke did not make for great photography, and the Globe doesn’t let you take pictures when actors are on stage.
Watching Titus Andronicus was the best performance of my life. I’ve never been so moved by a production before. People always ask, “Why is Shakespeare so important?” Seeing this in front of me, I had empirical evidence as to why. The play was not for the faint of heart, and people have been known to faint. Having the highest bodycount of any of the Bard’s plays, the blood really piled on. A girl next to me had to leave at one point, crying. It was that emotional. As Lavinia came out on stage, hands chopped off, covered in blood, tongue cut out, a crazed look in her helpless eyes, I think every single person in the room wanted to run up on stage and comfort her. There was no nagging notion in the back of your head that this was all staged—this was pure pain personified, and it hurt to watch.
I can say without a doubt that this was the highlight of my entire stay in Europe. I had felt the magic of the stage like never before, and was transported to a whole other world.
I experienced more during my stay in London—way too much to name or describe here. The Crown Jewels, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, fish and chips, strawberry beer, breakfasts with baked beans, the absolute worst coffee I’ve had in my life, aimless wandering, and stories to be told. I can’t fit them all here, but feel free to ask—I’m dying to tell. I also have over a hundred pictures from the trip, a testament to the duty I felt to document my stay.
As my bus left London in the hours between the late night and the early morning, the city lay still. I passed Westminster Abbey under the cover of night as The Magnetic Fields sang to me about a butterfly that could never be made to stay in one place. All My Little Words. I realized that this trip taught me that I could truly survive on my own, with the comfort of no one else to fall back on. I was self-sufficient and could fend for myself. In my head were all of those strange fantasies everyone gets from time to time, about just slipping away to some unknown city and leaving everything behind. These are the kind of thoughts that comfort us when the weight of our constructed world seems too much to bear—they aren’t a representation of our real desires, just shadows on the cave wall to get us through. I slept the whole way home.
Traveling alone is hard—it’s emotionally draining and very isolating at times. It’s certainly not for the easily stressed or the easily frightened. If you don’t talk to anyone, you’ll find yourself helplessly alone. In my experience, though, all you need to do is to have the openness to that solitude. I’m a pretty solitary person, I’ll admit—so it wasn’t hard for me to adapt to being a fly on the wall. Others, I would say that you should just make sure you’re in an emotionally sound place when you go. I recommend traveling alone heavily. I learned so much about myself just by existing in a foreign environment on my own. Loneliness can be underrated sometimes. Travel alone, if you can. They don’t romanticize it in folk songs for nothing.