wet sneakers - Sunday January 27 2002

setting: London, England

Unfortunately, the steam heat radiator in our hotel room never came on during the night, so the wet socks that I'd draped over it never dried out. They'd been completely soaked from all the walking I'd been doing yesterday on London's wet sidewalks. I wouldn't have had a problem were it not for the fact that the heels of my shoes are completely worn through and hollow. But it's not like I can complain; these shoes are the same pair of Vans that I've been wearing since 1998; I'd originally bought them used for $6 at a San Diego thrift store.
To adapt these worn-out Southern Californian shoes to the special conditions of London, I used a couple plastic bags containing glossy party flyers that we'd been handed at last night's dance party. After emptying out the flyers, I used the plastic to line the inside of my shoes.
Gretchen placed a couple calls back to Paris and, after trying a few places, eventually reserved us a room at the Hôtel Practic, that first hotel we stayed in with the noisy toilets and worn-out mattresses. It's expensive making international calls from a hotel; I went downstairs to settle up and retrieve my 25 pound deposit and the woman at the counter told me I owed her 37 pence!
It was yet another rainy day in London. We walked down to Westminster Cathedral in hopes of seeing it from the inside, but saw on the many posted signs that it was closed on Sundays. This did nothing to discourage a couple of American tourists who actually thought they could convince the guy at the gate to let them in. I'd been talking about how much I wanted some authentic fish and chips, so Gretchen asked him if he knew where any good fish and chips places were. It must have been a relief to talk to an American who bothered to read clearly-posted signs, because he answered Gretchen's question with the sort of gravity one doesn't normally apply to matters of local deep-fried cuisine.
We found a promising-looking pub called the Albert on Victoria Street. By promising, I mean that it had the dark shiny wooden look of an authentic London institution and it bore a discrete sign on the door claiming it had won the distinction of pub of the year. Inside, it had the musty vacuum-cleaner-bag smell any authentic London pub is likely to have on a Sunday morning. No one was there except the staff, and we thought maybe we'd picked the wrong sort of place (especially after we went upstairs and seen the fancy dining rooms), but then we learned that there was some sort of inexpensive buffet happening, and that one of the buffet items was fish and chips!
While we were standing in line to get our grub, there was a gentleman behind me who suddenly exclaimed, "Theya aunt enny fowiks!" The voice sounded exactly like something out of Wallace and Gromit and Gretchen turned around, thinking the voice was me making an impolite mockery.
The food didn't look all that bad. Among the choices there was even an item that purported to be curry, vegetarian curry in fact, so Gretchen had a helping of that along with the potatoes. Then we went to some rickety little tables and dug in. We were famished.
Perhaps the most charitable thing that can be said about the food was that it was authentic. Authentically horrifying. I know it's not fair (or statistically valid) to judge an entire cuisine based on only one sample, but indulge me here. Somehow the English have mastered the art of boiling vegetables until there is absolutely nothing left but visible form. Gone is the flavor, the texture, the nutritional content, the reason to eat. Carrots, potatoes, zucchinis, you name it, the English kitchen renders them all into colored blobs of nothingness.
Yet there was something oddly familiar to the flavor of Gretchen's curry. "It tastes like Harkness food!" she exclaimed, demanding that I take a bite. Harkness, for those of you who don't recall, was a student-run vegetarian dining and rooming co-operative at Oberlin College, the place where Gretchen and I met back in 1988. Give a bunch of clueless upper-middle-class American teenagers a fully-stocked industrial kitchen and they will, by and large, produce food of a certain predictable quality. Spices will be handled incompetently, food will either be over or under cooked, and the principle flavoring will always come from the part that burns in the unstirred depths of the pot. Gretchen was right; her curry wouldn't have been the least bit out of place in a Harkness meal, circa September 1988.
As for my fish and chips, well, there was simply less that could go wrong. The fish itself seemed like a perfectly fine specimen (although there was a bone in there). But the flavor imparted by the oil in which he'd been fried, well, that was another story. I had the feeling that one of the disadvantages of the Albert's surviving the Blitz was that its fish frying oil had also survived. There it was again, the flavor of used vacuum cleaner bags.

After our meal, Gretchen and I wandered around London, killing time until 2pm, when we planned to rendezvous with Frank at the Tate Modern art museum.

Street humps in London.

Sidewalk gum in London

It wasn't long before my shoes were completely soaking wet again, despite my preparations. In desperation, we looked around for an open shoe store, but in London everything was closed. People take Sunday much more seriously in Europe than they do in the United States.
One thing that interested me about the streets and sidewalks of London was the bubble gum stuck to it. Unlike bubble gum in other places I have lived, this gum was not black, it was white. This meant that it had lost its stickiness almost the instant it landed, something one would expect in a cool, damp environment. By contrast, the gum one sees in Los Angeles, California or Lawrence, Kansas is always black; it has plenty of time to pick up street grime before it loses its adhesive qualities. The presence of so many white gum blotches on the London sidewalks gave the superficial appearance that someone had lost a great many silver coins. Indeed, if one were to actually lose a coin here, it might be hard to recover, since it could easily hide among the gum splotches. As we were walking along, I kept studying the gum on the sidewalks, occasionally finding genuine five pence coins camouflaged in this peculiar urban habitat. It reminded me of the Darwinian example of the white moths that were replaced with black moths during the Industrial Revolution.
I was so focused on the sidewalk that I was ignoring the sights and sounds of London, which is what we'd come to see, and I was beginning to irritate Gretchen. "You're such a nerd!" she protested. "You get so obsessed!" Then she grabbed my head and forced me to raise my line of site up to horizontal.
Another of my obsessive perseverations is to sing random bits of music, usually an embarrassingly horrible chorus mined from the forgettable dreck of 80s radio pop. Epitomizing such music like no other is Glen Fry's "The Heat is On." For some reason, the wet London streets compelled me to sing this chorus over and over again until Gretchen threatened to shove her fist up my ass. "Oh-ew-oh-oh, oh-ew-oh-oh, Can you feel it burnin'? Burnin' burnin', burnin'! The heat is on, the heat is on, it's on the street!" After I'd been doing this for awhile, I tried to control myself, but it was difficult. Sometimes I'd just say, in a straightforward conversational tone, "It's on the street," and I'd point to something that was happening right there on the London street, but Gretchen wasn't so easily fooled.
Since coming to Europe, every time we'd come upon a building with the dark-timber-and-white-stucco design, Gretchen would exclaim, "Look, Shakespeare lived here!" Now that we were actually in London, Gretchen thought she should go have a brief look at the Globe Theatre while I met up with Frank at the Tate Modern. When she came back from the Globe, she was terribly disappointed, not even bothering to tell us what it had looked like.
The Tate Modern is in a building that used to house a massive electric power generator on the south bank of the Thames. Interestingly (or depressingly), very little use has been made of the bulk of the building; it's been left as a vast empty climate-controlled atrium where people mill about and wait to rendezvous with their friends. The rear part of this atrium is taken up with a single colossal (and expensive) mechanical sculpture comprised of elevators that go up and down in a lavish conceptual statement about the nature of reality (or something similarly pretentious). Much of the art in the Tate Modern was interesting to me, especially the works dating from the post-Impressionist period. But there was also plenty of windbaggery, some of it old and extremely famous (such as Duchamp's Fountain).
As we went around from work to work, Gretchen kept stopping to amuse herself by reading the little plaques that had been written to describe the pieces. Nearly all of the descriptions (or the works they represented) offended her poetic sensibility, which places a premium on originality and the elimination of excess. After all, does the world really need yet another artist saying that art is representation and not the real thing (or the opposite of that)? I'm in agreement; it's time for artists to go back to attacking issues unrelated to their trade. Self-reference is only cute when not everyone is doing it. Believe it or not, there's a glass of water in the Tate Modern whose caption states that the artist has declared it to be an oak tree.
While Gretchen was off in the bathroom, Frank noted that one of the advantages of going to an art museum on a Sunday was that "there's lots of fine toddy." I'd never heard the term "toddy" before, but I could discern its meaning from context.
After spending some pounds in the cafeteria and a few more in the gift shop, it was time for us to start heading for the train station. We'd decided to head back to Paris today. Frank came with us to the station, drinking a final beer in a nearby pub.
In the Waterloo Station, Gretchen stocked up on a variety of English candy which she intends to give as gifts to friends. The British might not know what to do with a vegetable, but when it comes to things that rot your teeth, they've got things figured out.

The moment I got into my seat in the Eurostar, I took off my shoes and socks and hung them to dry in front of a ventilation duct. I soon grew accustomed to the old vacuum cleaner bag smell that wafted up from below.
The train heading back to Paris was much more crowded than the one going to London had been; perhaps this had a little something to do with the differences in weather between the two cities. Gretchen and I had the misfortune of sitting behind a group of French teenagers in rut. They were giggling incessantly, throwing things at each other, and repeatedly demonstrating sample ring melodies on their cell phones. Every new wave of technology presents completely unforeseen ways for adolescents to annoy their elders.

Interestingly, though British Immigration had paid careful attention to our paperwork (and even stamped our passports) upon our arrival in London, when we returned to Paris, there were no customs or immigration officers to be seen; we got off the train and were immediately free to run wild in the streets. Evidently France is unconcerned about the possibility of illegal immigrants or products entering via England. (Indeed, they'd shown only casual interest in our paperwork when we'd arrived from America and hadn't even bothered to stamp our passports.)

View a gallery of pictures from this adventure.

send me mail
previous | next