Sunday, March 2, 2008

a pence for my thoughts

The ticket agent's fingers shuffled over the keys as she clicked back and forth between screens, a scowl between her eyebrows. I stood across the counter, deciding if she was taking longer than usual, and finally asked, "Do I exist?", wondering if my Airmiles ticket side-stepped the United Airlines computer system to leave me marooned in Calgary.
"Oh, you exist," she assured me. "Your Chicago connection is delayed, th
ough, so we're re-routing you through Vancouver."
I blinked and took a breath as I tilted my head and asked, "Isn't that in the opposite direction?"

From the waiting room at the gate, I look across the tarmac at the wind whipping the Albertan and Canadian flags to attention: they salute my departure from Calgary. The brown brick that compliments the golden prairie wheat gives way to Vancouver's cerulian coastline and lush green. The windowed concourse guides me through the airport's renovated glass and metal, where I sit beneath a mural of waves crashing on rocks and look out the window at the mountains, the clouds whisping around the peaks. Two hours later I board my flight across the pond, and sleep most of the nine hours and ten minutes to London-town.
Flying over England, I watch the villages crop up on the countryside and the parcels of land ripple outwards. The feudal system's roots still run under the crops and pastures; the lines of fields meander around rivers and pay no attention to roads. Calgary's farm land turns at right angles, the squares and rectangles reflect the abundance of space and the luxury to make it and take it as needed. Here, with finite space and hundred-year history, the land follows ancestry rather than city planning.

The city crawls into view. The football fields hold soccer players rather than CFL, and the river carries oarsmen rather than ice floes. The London Eye, a ferris wheel of observation compartments, circles above the bank of the Thames and Big Ben looms, keeping time over its city. The red chimneys jut out of the shingled roofs, the license plates stretch yellow with black lettering.The density seeps out of the one-lane streets, narrow houses, bricks stacked upwards instead of sideways.
The airport neither seethes with the chaos they warned me to anticipate, nor says hello with any "Welcome to the UK!" banners. It could have been any hallway, any immigration line, where she nods and stamps and tells me to move along. After my last Asian adventure, to find all the signs in English and everyone speaking the same, I am anti-climaxically at home.
Following clear labels to the tube station, I buy an "Oyster Card", load it with a one-week unlimited pass for Zones 1 and 2, and hop on the Piccadilly line (making sure to "Mind the Gap" - an announcement still made due to 53 injuries last year, advertising signs proclaim).
We travel mostly above ground on my way to Earl's Court. Neighbourhoods vary from grand expanses of parks with wrought iron benches to crowded tenements with rusted tricycles and bits of scrap collected in the yards. A man with a back bent like a cane's handle wobbles to a post box, a cylinder of bright red on a street corner. A family sits across from me and converses in French, or Russian, or German...whichever language holds both "cinq ans" and "da" - but none of the clicks of Japanese or the cacophony of Hindi, just a lilting exchange of letters. The tube aisles are narrow, and the two pairs of feet on either side need to pull back to allow my suitcase through. When I alight and find my way to Platform Number 3 of the District Line, I decide I've packed too much in my backpack and my suitcase, and vow to send some things home before I hop over to the Continent.My friend Ismail, whom I've known for over ten years and call Izzy, meets me wearing a jaunty London cap and a wide welcome grin. Two stops later at Parson's Green, we wander down Furham Street to Munster, stop at the Tesco to buy a half-loaf of bread and a tomato (no Costco cards or bulk purchasing here), and head down Wardo Avenue to number 60A, half a house with a blue door inlaid in whitewashed brick and crown molding. The kitchen and bathroom both double the square footage of the ones I left behind, disproving the notion that all things in England shrink and squish. A gorgeous walled-in garden sits at the bottom of a curving staircase, surrounded by a brick wall climbing with ivy. After a relaxing afternoon of egg and cheese on toast, a shower, and a nap, a collection of Canadians join Izzy, his two flatmates and me in the living room before we head down the street to Mudme, a Thai restaurant with tofu substitution options. The generous group treats the newbie to dinner, and by 9:30 I pass out on the hideaway bed.
Now I sit in the sunshine (yes, sunshine in London. It's glorious.) and wait for the man who's coming to fix the boiler. Then I shall have some museli and milk before I trod off to the collection of three museums at the South Kensington tube station (all with free admission).
So where am I in all of this? I have no notion at all. For the past few weeks I've been putting one foot in front of the other, fulfilling last minute commitments and waiting for the moment when I'd be here. And now that I am, I don't know what. Elation? Exaltation? Exhaustion? For all the quaintness of the narrow streets and left-lane traffic, and especially in a household of Canadians, it's still a lot like home. I'm still waiting for my soul to arrive.

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