Monday, September 5, 2011

Fleeing, Acclimating, Walking

Picking up from where I left off:

Fleeing the hotel:

Our cab driver had gone on and on about the riots and Elvis Presley. The woman at the front desk had been rude to Kenz upon checking in.

We find the hotel we're staying in has rooms about the size of what you'd expect a cabin on a cruise ship to look like. Not necessarily bad, just different (which turns out to be a running theme for this entire move - not necessarily bad, just different). I have to shuffle sideways to get past the bed to the other side of the room. We drop our bags and exhale for the first time.

I immediately make a power move for the shower, only to find that I have no idea how to make the hot water work. The dials are...just different (and I'm not smart enough or patient enough to figure them out)I acquiesce to a cold shower, shivering my way through a fast rinse-off only to start sweating again as soon as I get dressed. There's no air conditioner here - like, anywhere. There's hardly any super hot weather, so why incur the expense, I guess. Different.

The hotel boasted "Free WIFI," but it only worked in the lobby, which happened to have a large television set to the BBC news channel, which happened to have 24 hour coverage of the riots, which happened to be taking place within walking distance from our hotel, which happened to damper the mood in the lobby. I got ahold of Owen on gchat:

Me: We're here.
Owen: Great! When do you want to hang out?
Me: Whenever. Hey - you told me not to worry about the riots, but the cab driver almost didn't bring us to our hotel.
Owen: Where's your hotel?
Me: Peckham.
Owen: What the Hell?! We've got to get you out of there! You didn't tell me it was Peckham! Peckham is a shithole!

He told us to go get a pre-pay phone and call him. He would figure something out in the meantime. We left the hotel and headed into the neighboring town of Camberwell - the town Kenz will be going to school in, and the place where we were hoping to find an apartment.

Granted, we had never been in this town before, but something did seem amiss. Then energy was just a bit off. We didn't know what to think about it and were on a mission to find a pre-pay phone. But everywhere we went to try and buy a phone (these shops are analogous to bodegas you find in just about any big city), the owners told us they all got looted or that the stores that did still have some were closed. Most of the shops had two or three guys standing in front of the doors - these were guys that didn't appear to work in the store, but were friends of the store owner. As we started walking back to the hotel (after about two hours), things were changing dramatically. Everything was closing down, and the "doormen" looked like they were gearing up for some defense. You see - the riots were happening at night - not during the day. Everyone was closing early in preparation for the night ahead.

Kenz and I were commenting on our way out to town that everything didn't seem that bad and that maybe we could just stay in the hotel. On our way back, we were not so sure. It was as if the town was bracing for impact.

Turns out, Owen's sister was on her honeymoon. He made sure it was ok with her, then made arrangements for us to spend the next two nights in his sister and her husband's flat. I told Owen that I wasn't sure how comfortable I was staying in someone's house who I've never met while they're on their honeymoon. He put it succinctly:

Either stay at her place and risk making a bad first impression or spend the night in the middle of a riot and risk all that comes with that. It's up to you.

We went with the honeymooners suite. Owen had hired a cab to come get us, but the stipulation was that the cab had to arrive within 10 minutes (as per the cab company - they weren't going into Peckham after 5:30pm). So Kenz and I made haste, packing whatever valuables we had and leaving the rest. Turns out this second cab driver loved Elvis as well.

We're finding that being from Tennessee is something of an asset here. We discuss the idea that we're probably being treated better here because we're from Tennessee than we would, say, in New York or California. Of course, they probably all pity us in some way or another, assuming we're backwards illiterate inbreds* - but if it means we get treated nicely, then so be it. Right? Maybe not. I dunno...

I felt silly "fleeing" the hotel. I thought to myself that surely rioters won't come into a hotel - hey, I'm a big guy - I look scary - maybe they won't mess with me...

But, then again, I haven't really been in too many any riots, and spending the night on the other side of town seemed like the reasonable thing to do (even if it did feel silly). I was sure that my parents would be proud - even if I was keeping them in the dark as to where, exactly, we were and the danger that we were in (what's the point of worrying them if there's nothing they can do about it?).

We spent the evening going to the grocery store with Owen, watching him cook for us, and hanging out in the "garden" of his sister's place. It was a relief to have someone around who could explain things to us that already had us scratching our heads. It was also a relief to be in a safe, quiet neighborhood. There had been a police car with siren blaring about every 3-5 minutes in Peckham. And that's not an exaggeration. At one point, there were 9 police vans barreling down the street, each with their siren blaring. Nine. I counted. We were grateful to Owen and his sister and brother-in-law, Janie and Julian. 

(Us in Janie and Julian's garden, scared out of our minds, but acting like we're cool.)

We crashed hard that night, and didn't wake up until our alarms screamed at us the next morning. 

Getting started in the new country:

It took us two more days before we found a pre-pay cell phone and a place to live. The second day was spent trying to shrug off the jet lag and wandering around, trying to find a phone. We accomplished neither, but wound up walking for about 4 hours total. 

Knowing we had to meet Owen back at his sister's place at 6pm, we started walking back from Camberwell towards where his sister lives (King's Cross). We weren't in a rush, and knew we could take a cab if we got lost, so we just started strolling north from where we were. We spent the next two and a half hours walking and giggling. Sure, the trip had been full of mishaps up to that point, and we still had no phone, no home, and no real sense of accomplishment, but we were in this new city with tons of bells and whistles - and it was going to become our home, our city. What was so foreign to us was going to become familiar, even normal. We couldn't help but laugh, vacillating between bewilderment and awe. We walked through south London, past Elephant & Castle, which is a part of town designed back in the 60's and 70's which most people find hideous these days. There's a shopping mall there and not much else. We kept heading north, and crossed over the popular Tower Bridge, amongst all the tourists clogging up the way (of course we weren't - we live here now - we had the right to scoff!). Once we had arrived at the Gherkin, it was time to hail a cab - we'd lost sense of direction. 

Arriving at Janie and Julian's place, blister-footed and exhausted, we hung with Owen until he went back home and we crashed out again. 

Finally, by the third day, we got a phone and met with a realty agent. We also moved out of the honeymoon sweet and back into the hotel closet. The riots had all but finished, and the city was transitioning from danger to discussion. All the news shows were focused on the causes and conditions of the riots, who is to blame, whether this was criminality or a symptom of endemic socio-economic problems, etc. 

But that wouldn't be the end of our "opportunities" - the move would've been too easy! 

Soon we would pick up a homeless friend, become homeless ourselves, and find the feces of an unwanted pet in our soon-to-be home...

I apologize for not updating sooner - I wound up registering last-minute for a disc golf tournament this weekend that took all day Saturday and Sunday. I'll get to regularity on this thing soon enough!

*Someone said to me this weekend that his friend asked if I was going to pull a banjo out of my beard when he found out that I was from Tennessee - but that's a story for a later post.