Twelve hours after leaving Cape Town on Friday the twelfth, our plane lands in London. I hug Brian and others goodbye for the last time, and while they hurry away toward their gates which are their portal to America, I make my way leisurely to the baggage claim.
I’m about to make my solo debut into Europe.
I miss Cape Town, I miss my friends there, the death of my life there; I am so full of reaction to the irretrievable nature of life that I cannot pick apart emotions and examine them. Rather, they exist all together in my body, somewhere near my intestines or my heart or the constricted balloons of my lungs or my soul, they’re all the same and filling me up, and it’s been so long since I’ve last slept that my body cannot cope.
Yet I find myself alone in a strange country, with no clock and no rules.
Cue mischievous grin.
I retrieve my luggage and roll clunkily into the women’s toilet near customs. I brush my teeth. I change into the brightest summeriest skirt I own. I wash my face. I brush my hair. I get strange looks from the pregnant Czech woman manning the bathroom.
Clearly, if I’m going to be in Europe for the first time, I have to look good. This is my wall against the world, my protection, my unofficial passport.
I take the Tube into central London and emerge into the city without a hitch. It’s 8 a.m. and I am high on the fact of being someplace I have never been before; it’s a joy like none other, one to which I am fast becoming addicted. It is 8 a.m. on a Saturday and everyone I pass on the street looks glum. They look at me curiously, taking second glances, and it’s because I’m wearing a summery skirt on a cloudy morning, it’s because I am buoyant in my walk, it’s because I nod at them which they do not do to one another, it’s because (I surmise), at this moment, I am pretty and happy and the bouncing personification of life.
It is the most freeing thing in the world to be the only person you know in a whole country.
I get mildly lost looking for my hostel and so clunk into a hotel several light-years above my budget to ask the German behind the counter where my street is. He smiles at me, shows me on the map, and sends me on my way. I find it, drop off my luggage, and ask directions to Westminster Abbey.
I walk, and accidentally-on-purpose lose myself again. I don’t mind; this part of London is clean and prosperous. Londoners are awakening and opening shops, and tourists are marching purposefully through the streets toward some common goal. (I am reminded of the Pied Piper.)
I notice ahead of me a blonde, middle-aged couple; the man has socks with sandals and a heavy black Canon with about 35 lenses dangling around his neck. I focus on it in shock.
Won’t it get stolen?
Good God, we’re not in Cape Town anymore. I haven’t been asked for money once. No one has solicited me for sex or any other dubious purpose. No one has tried to sell me “ethnic” goods.
On the contrary, most people are white. Most people have expensive haircuts and artfully cheap-looking expensive clothes. A man passes me in the opposite direction, his jeans razored beautifully and falling exactly tightly enough over his hips, his goatee perfect. I catch part of his sentence as he barks into a silver cell phone with no buttons: “…possible to meet at quarter past…” I blink after him. What an idiot. Everyone knows you have to find a non-sketchy shop to go into if you want to talk on your cell phone in public. If you even leave home with it at all, which I rarely did in Cape Town.
But this place is different.
You can dangle your $2,000 camera nonchalantly around your neck. You can talk on your several-hundred-dollar Blackberry on the sidewalk. I don’t see anyone who is even below middle class. If you go by exchange rates, I’m in the wealthiest country in the world, and I can take pictures in public without a care in the world.
An enormous weight lifts from me, and I wave it goodbye cheerfully.
I have made it to Fleet Street, which does not look at all like a place Sweeney Todd would inhabit, and wonder where the hell the Thames is. I jingle into a tiny law bookshop (est. 1700s) and ask the man behind the counter, a (suspected) grad student with long hair and an eyebrow ring. He shrugs easily and directs me nicely back the way I’ve come; apparently I’ve made a wrong turn.
I find the Thames and take my first picture.
Then, crossing the bridge and thunking down the steps, I am distracted by a used book market under the bridge run by a friendy mom-and-pop team. I choose a book (A History of Tractors in Ukrainian), pay my four pounds, and set off. To my left is a rolling cement landscape of graffiti’d wilderness; teenage boys with neon trick bikes and skateboards (or longboards, or J-boards, or whatever) roll almost upside-down before swooping to the other side. To my right, kids take turns flipping backwards off the stairs onto the grimy Thames sand below.
The city is a playground on a sunny June Saturday. How fabulous.
I make my way at last to Westminster, stopping only for sustenance and pictures, and ease into St. Margeret’s with peace.
This right now right here is why I love being alone in a new city sometimes.
If you have never been alone in a strange beautiful cathedral, GO.
I slide into a pew in one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world and there are dead bishops, bodies of clergymen that were dust before the printing press. There are candles lit by pilgrims for people who are dying, people who are living, people who are deciding, people who are leading countries and people who are being born. There is furniture the function of which I cannot determine. There are carvings and there is stained glass and there is an enormous soaring ceiling and embroidered knee pillows. There are tourists murmuring, separated or maybe affected.
There is me.
I am there but I forget, I don’t exist anymore, there is something mystical, I am allowed when I am alone in a strange city to be the least lonely I have ever been in my life, the most hopeful, the happiest.
There is no such thing as a perfect life, never, and there are things wrong with mine, but at this moment, right now, I am fulfilling my potential, and that is all I ever need.
So I sit there and I look into the mystic and it looks back.
And then I nod and I stand and I take a breath and I walk out the door.
Westminster Abbey has a lot of graves. There are dead people everywhere, marble pious hands, demure holy faces, un-relaxed sleeping sculptured people, wooden people, painted people, faceless people, flowered people, people who have no likeness or words but just a name cut into a coffin-sized marble tile:
CHARLES ROBERT DARWIN.
Queen Elizabeth I with her ridiculous collar which attaches itself to her even (or especially?) in death, and opposite her Mary Queen of Scots, whose execution Elizabeth ordered. There are choir rooms and altars and cloisters and temples, all magnificent, all unbelievable in their architecture and expensive detail.
My breath skips when I see the tomb of Geoffrey Chaucer. Then there is Alfred Tennyson, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, and an unholy altar, a veritable shrine, when I reach William Shakespeare.
I meander into the College Gardens, pausing to receive some strange looks when I refill my water bottle in the loo, and find the Rose Garden.
This is what this day is about: the difference between that sweet light intoxicating smell, and the other deeper spicier one. The first is pink with wide traditional petals, the other darker, closer to a sun shape, with smaller, more numerous petals.
Today, I am alone in London, and I smell the hell out of those roses.
Their scent remains with me still.
I leave happy and with no plan.
I walk along streets, vaguely back to my hostel but mostly just toward whatever seems interesting. I see a circle of blacks wearing black, green, and yellow colors singing familiar-sounding music. I stop on the fringe of the circle, the only white person. “‘Ello, gorgeous!” There is a table with flyers, and the man behind it, about my age with dreads, hands me one. We are outside the Zimbabwean Embassy, and they are promoting a petition against Robert Mugabe and for fairer elections in Zim. I immediately sign it.
Next to occur before me is Trafalgar Square, which I have heard of but to my shame do not know why. There is an enormous phallic tower with some kind of bronze figure mounted atop it, high over the surrounding official-looking buildings. (With a jolt I see the South African Embassy.) Surrounding it is a fountain and the National Gallery and a mix of tourists and people promoting some kind of cause–in an effort to read the sign I bump into a kindly-looking middle-aged woman, who hands me a flyer. “There you go, love,” she says, smiling. It reads, “DARWIN WAS WRONG.” A man climbs unsteadily on top of one of the enormous lions guarding the penile monument and reveals a megaphone. “In the modern world,” he intones, “we have moved away from the Lord…”
After consulting the map, I meander onwards. I briefly pop into the British Museum and consider Virginia Woolf’s brain as I search for the elusive Reading Room. When it closes at 5:30, I purchase a salad from a Romanian woman in a shop, then make my way to one of the ubiquitous parks in this part of London. I sit on the grass and watch: the couple in front of me is slightly nerdy but undeniably in love, the two girls at the far side pick at a guitar ambitiously, the hipster near me is sitting against a tree quietly, the fashionable father kicks a soccer ball to his two young sons, the thirty-five year-old daughter pushes her mother in a wheelchair along the sidewalk.
I have become so used to being another country that London, as a major city in an English-speaking, powerful Western/Northern country, seems like home. It’s a perfect break between South Africa and eastern Europe, the beautiful beginning to a backpacking trip through Europe that I can’t wholly predict.
Tomorrow is Greece.