Travelling Semi-Alone, Part Two


Day Five: Wake up wondering how that many bottles of wine disappeared at last night’s dinner party, and why you always pick fights with that type of man. The ball is today, but first, you are punting. Punting, you discover, means sitting back against the wooden frame of a small light boat and letting other people stand wobbling about the bow sticking a pole into the water. While you wait for your punt, listen to the knotty, grooved man with long white hair down his front and back. He has been here twenty years, he tells his furious supervisor, and no year is different from any other. You are quite sure he has been here as long as the colleges.

The river is slow and not very wide, with mottled walled banks rising up one side, and the college itself on the other. Pass ducks and other waterfowl, and begin to fall asleep to the slow, steady pulls of your gondolier.  At water level, half submerged, sit the swan traps, dripping gated caverns in which, at one point, unsuspecting swans ensnared themselves. They are empty now but they still look like covetous, secretive places.  As you drift off to sleep, get your mind tangled up in a story you’ve heard about a woman turned into swans, and worry that she is lurking in the swan traps. Be unable to stop thinking about those stupid swan traps, and the things that lurk in them, or should, because if fairy tales are real anywhere, they are here. But it’s obvious that they aren’t; those gaping mouths aren’t hiding lairs and escapes and bird people in their shadows, only a gentle flow of brown water, in and out. The shapes you can see moving behind the criss-crossed glass of the college windows aren’t sad, they are cheerful and clever and arrogant and young, and so you are sad instead.  Consider overturning the punt.

Later, put on your prettiest dress, and decide that if you are going to be that kind of American visiting England, you are going to be that American visiting England, by golly. Attend one of innumerable garden parties with your date, in a walled garden behind an ivy covered door. As you push aside the ivy to see a bright green lawn covered in natty sweaters and floating wisps of printed fabric holding croquet mallets, reflect that it is not really your fault, after all. Politely decline a Pimm’s cup. National drink or not, the stuff is unholy. Make a beeline for the G&T table; sit on the edge of the wall overlooking the river, talking with your date about whether or not museums are signs of a decaying civilization, and throwing daisies at the punters beneath you. Decide that if there are any openings for professional piece of sun-kissed gauzy fabric, you will send in your resume.

Later, rush off to Cambridge’s tiny center of commerce. Have adventures in Topshop. Emerge victorious with nude flats and huge bronze earrings that look like they belong on the head of some statue in Athens. Retire to dress, and for once, everything goes right. Your preparations are minimal and a little pathetic, a shower easily the most important– but this time hair stays neatly in its bun, you don’t stab yourself in the eye with eyeliner, you haven’t hugely, tragically, miscalculated the type of undergarments needed. A friend loaned you the dress, a dark green and one shouldered column, and with your earrings, you feel like a statue come to life. The girl in whose room you are staying approves, and so do you, and so you put on your Amelia Earheart jacket. Kick yourself for not bringing anything more elegant, but once you leave the dormitory, enjoy the sunset, and the feeling of walking alone to meet your date in a floor length gown and aviator jacket.


Travelling Semi-Alone, Part One

Day one: Board your flight. Contemplate the fact that you are precariously poised 30,000 feet above certain death in a giant airborne metal box with a certain morbid glee. Contemplate the complimentary gin and tonics. When you’re finished, maybe ask the motherly stewardess (those red suits and matching pumps are so awesome) for another. Have a very nice flight.

Day two but not really because you went back in time over the Atlantic: Touch down in Heathrow. Find out why Audrey Hepburn always did her jet-setting in those trim suitcoats that seem cut entirely from one piece of cloth: namely, the sensible layering of blouse, cardigan, and scarf that grandma swore would ward off  pneumonia on the plane has dislodged, shifted, and wrinkled to such an extent that as you wait in line to go through customs, you wonder if it is actually, willfully attempting to strangle you. Scout out the territory. You are supposed to meet your host at Boots, at 7:30? Or was it 8:30? Get a cup of coffee, and when she names the price just sort of helplessly shove all your undifferentiated coinage at her. Even more hysterical energy. Realize your phone is dead and doesn’t make UK calls anyway. Sit down on your suitcase in front of Boots, unsure if this is the right Boots, the right time, if you will ever see your host or family again. Know that you look like a vagrant. Own it. Revel in it. Just as you are getting kind of excited about the prospect of traipsing around England on your own and sleeping in bus terminals, you see your host walking towards you and fling your arms around his neck. Ok, so maybe you weren’t that excited.

Day two again: Wake up, recovering from jet lag, in a room with a window seat overlooking the green of Christchurch college. Everything is green or stone. People down below keep walking around in something that looks like black tie. Apparently they must wear this to take exams? What is this place? The stairways in the college are twisty and given to nooks and skylight and doors in odd places. When you get outside,  past the heavy wooden gates bolted with metal who knows how many hundred years old, everything is golden stone, towers and spires sailing off against a very blue sky. You are surprised how blue it is, because this is England after all.

The streets and lanes are cobbled; it is a little city, and red buses and crowds of scurrying people traverse its roads. The stores are full of strange wares, the pubs serving strange foods everwhere. One street is somehow always filled with diaphanous bubbles, and always all that golden stone. It is a goblin market. Go through what seems like a thousand secret gardens with tiger lilies and lavender and flowers you don’t don’t know waving around in windy sunshowers, because it is England after all, and the weather does that. Go through what seems like a million college chapels occasionally austerely but mostly extravagantly beautiful, and filled with carved stone and wood and reliquaries. Later you will mainly remember something dim and glimmer of gold and dark red. At dinner that night with your hosts’ friends, a nice English man will ask if you’ve seen Oxford, and might he show you around the next day? You will, of course, say yes.

Day three: Drink tea in a squashy armchair at the top of a college, in a large open room filled with light and clinking china. Respond to his question about Dickens, but absently because you are listening to the conversation of two tweedy Oxford dons two squashy armchairs away. Keep reminding yourself that you are here. You must be a little fierce if it is to properly sink in.

Your date-cum-tour guide seems, you’re not sure why, to have escaped from James Herriot’s village–he is not from Yorkshire, but something about his square  face and slow, thoughtful kindness.  He takes you through more stone archways and past deer parks (with deer!) and along the little river,  but your real attention is on the pub at the end of the tour–the pub where the Inklings apparently met, but you don’t even think about that, because you aren’t really thinking at all–you are just noticing how low the ceilings are, how so much dark wood and small space can allow the sunlight to gleam  and dimple around the table and the foam on the Guinness. There are so many different kinds of light here. It is a very good pint.

Day four: Leave for Cambridge, which is just like Oxford, except different. It is a little town, not a little city, and completely flat except for one very steep hill which you will climb and descend exactly a half million times. The houses are small, with sharp slanting roofs roofs, and interspersed with the shops and pubs. The restaurants all seem incredibly delicious, but your impressions will probably be colored by that fact that you are subsisting on breakfast and a pint a day. It’s quieter here, and the sky seems wider and pink and gray, and there is one moment stooping under the low frame into the pub and staying suspended, as you cross the threshold, between the street folded up in the pink warm dusk and the cool chinking, murmuring interior that is your whole summer.

Stream of Consumerism

Oh Topshop.  If not the absolute best thing to ever come out of England, you are certainly the best thing to come out of Kate Moss’s double zero brain. You are the happy lovechild of Urban Outfitters and Forever 21, with all the former’s flair for the outrageous, prevented from plumbing the depths of their grinding faddishness by the latter’s commitment to budget chic.  When I walk in, I see leather shorts everywhere—leather shorts with high waists and billowing blousy Peter Pan collar shirts to tuck inside them, and this is a beautiful thing. I will never buy these leather shorts, Topshop, because  American money is different, and twenty quid is too much to spend on something I can wear in approximately two percent of social situations, but they still make me happy. When the craving becomes too strong, I will tear myself away and wander over to the detachable collars instead.

Oh detachable collars.  The Clark Kent of accessories. You look like a lowly bib bravely decked out in beading or tiny pearls, but really, you’re a superhero.  Step off the rack and into your metaphorical telephone booth, and it’s a bird! It’s a plane! No! It’s a no-fuss and infinitely adaptable statement piece! You swoop -in and save blouses and wool sweaters from an existential drabness, from living their lives as fuzzy and staid concessions to bad weather and dress codes. And even if things never work out between you and that spunky journalistic chambray, you know you have a higher mission. You bring the sparkle to jersey and merino, the high-stepping to the buttoned -up. You make me excited to wear black crew-neck sweaters. Or at least you would if I let you, because just as I am envisioning how nicely you would go with my bright yellow wool pullover, I remember that I am still traveling, still on the kind of diet where you drink as much beer as nice strangers will buy you because it’s the best way to stave off hunger pangs till your budget lets you buy food again, and still need to buy shoes for tonight’s ball. (Yes, I go to balls but run out of food money.)

The song playing over the PA system is too hip and British for me to recognize it, and too loud and upbeat for me to get down to business and just find these shoes, so I continue flitting and pawing my way through the sale section.  Neon pants, no, denim vest, no, ladylike dress whimsified with absurd lace configuration, no, aqua blue sequins, no, floral crop top what? Aqua blue sequins? Where? Goodbye, apologetic I-don’t-have-money-I’m-just-browsing-please-don’t-pay-attention-to-me demeanor, it was nice knowing you, but I have seen my bright blue and incandescent Eurydice, and there is no netherworld through which I will not chase her. When I emerge from deep inside the confusion of an overcrowded clothes rack clutching the garment, I seem to have made enemies out of several waify English and Japanese schoolgirls. Whatever. That’s what you get for trying to intimidate me with your fifteen friends and premature familiarity with heavy eye shadow.

Topshop, can I just tell you how grateful I am for your dressing rooms? The flattering mirrors, the soft, warm, lighting, the three way visibility make you second only to Anthopologie in terms of fitting room Nirvana. This is really what you’re selling, isn’t? Not quality clothes, (although Anthro feints that way) not chic, (since you can’t really buy it) not even primarily the cool factor of new and exciting drapery—no, what you are selling is that blissful moment after you grit your teeth, shed your clothes, and turn to face your gleaming enemy. He’s betrayed you at Target, under their weird light that turns everything beige, and in in the harsh glare of your local thrift store.  He fools you with a sick travesty of intimacy—the person looking back at you with loathing is someone you know, and love, and generally assume is right about everything, and she seems to have suddenly espoused every lie about how much better you would be skinnier, smoother, more generic and invisible, that two minutes ago you repudiated with every fiber of your baptized and liberated body.

We cannot get away from the male gaze and the advertising gaze even in one of our most private and vulnerable moments, because they co-opt our own reflections as their mouthpieces.  Attempts to analyze our bodies can only mean willing self-subjection to outside analysis and the breaking down of any boundary between our minds and Madison Avenue’s, between judge and judged, purveyor and commodity. When we look at ourselves objectively, their conquest is complete. I’m telling you, vanity is a fraught vice. But Topshop, you make that teeth-gritting moment a small eucatasrophe. In your dressing rooms, I turn to face the gleaming enemy and think, damn, I look good. Yes, you still invite to me to scrutinize myself, you still tell me that I only exist as long as I’m slender and young and nubile, but at least you keep up your end of the fool’s bargain. At least you sweeten the deal as I check myself out in the threeway and sink into contentment under that magical soft lighting.

But Topshop, why? Why must you make this dress so short? I love this dress. It is bright, bright blue, something between Cookie-Monster’s fur and the ocean in cartoons, and entirely made of shimmering sequins. It is sleeveless, and charmingly unfitted, with a bateau neckline, and full swingy skirt descending from a natural waist. The problem is, it doesn’t descend very far. Now, as our president likes to say, let me be clear. The problem is not that this dress makes me look like I perform at the circus on tightrope or flying trapeze. In my book, looking like a trapeze artist is no evil. In fact, and Christine and other guardians of good taste might beg to differ on this, looking like a trapeze artist is always and everywhere an unqualified good. But Topshop, I’m tall. Tall and clumsy, and there is no way for tall clumsy girls to wear a dress this short without living in constant fear of wardrobe malfunction. I’m not asking for knee length (like I said, I like being mistaken for a tightrope walker), but an extra inch or two would make a world of difference.

Dear Topshop, and please pass this along to Forever 21, H&M, and the rest of your ilk: this may surprise you, but not all women walk the catwalk, and we are not all built exactly the same. There is a whole world of tall, clumsy girls out there who want to wear scintillating mermaid dresses while we can still get away with it, and we need a few extra inches to do it. Give us the inches, and we will love you forever. Fail to do so, and let’s just say I have friends in high places– the European Court of Human Rights, to be specific.

Someday I will forgive you for that doomed and sequined love affair, Topshop, especially since I did get my shoes (and you really do shine in the cheap and elegant ballet flats department.) But I still have to ask, as I pass the kitsch display on my way out—what is it with the Kate Moss paper dolls? Are you trying to say she’s three dimensional in real life?

Sex and the City

What really bugs me about this show is not that it popularized the heinous cosmo, nor that it seems to think that the point of feminism is enabling women, like men, to float in blissful cluelessness on a sea of carefree screwing and infinite privilege, but that it expects me to take Carrie’s cliche-ridden, vapid musings (“Maybe Ray was like jazz, and I needed to stop trying to make him something else and just appreciate him for what he was…”) as witty and salient commentary on contemporary social mores.

In other words, I’m still in England, where arugula is rocket and Pimm’s is a drink. Expect boring travel musings when I come stateside on Wednesday.