Monday, June 15, 2009

Freeze the Moment With a Flash

I lean against the black chain-link fence of a walkway skirting the banks of the Thames and stare out at the water. The hazy, blue river water laps against the concrete foundation of the walkway some fifteen feet below. It reflects the shining gold sunlight that momentarily breaks through the clouds on an otherwise overcast day. The Tower Bridge stands to my left, with its gold crosses glittering and contrasting with the gray and cool, ice blue of the bridge’s spires and supports. 

Courtesy of Ryan Parkhurst

A presence to my right disrupts my contemplation and, as I turn in that direction, I see my professor’s big, black camera in my face. Caught off guard, I give him a glaring death stare (according to him) and turn back to my musings.


As my travel companions quickly realized, I’m not a huge fan of having my picture taken. Perhaps it’s my reserved personality, 15 years of embarrassing school portraits or my journalistic tendencies to record — and not participate in — the action, but I definitely prefer to be behind the camera.


That might explain why I have very few pictures of myself out of the more than 2,600 photos I took over the span of three weeks in London and Scotland. I certainly had my camera with me for almost every moment of my trip; I just had my eye to the lens.

However, I question my inclination for having my camera practically glued to my hand.


There have been billions of pictures taken of St. Paul’s Cathedral, for instance. Many of these are of a much better quality than what my amateur photography skills were able to produce. In fact, I found a good deal for one — on a postcard costing 20 pence at a souvenir shop on Portobello Road in Notting Hill. Still, I have upwards of 75 pictures of St. Paul’s, and that’s just of the outside.


And yet, none of those photos compare to what can be seen and felt inside of the cathedral, where no photography is allowed. The glowing-faced cherubs and pious saints depicted on the mosaics of the Quire are permanently seared into my brain. The golds, reds, blues and purples meld together forming Biblical scenes. The Dome reaches up so high, as if linking earth with the heavens above, until the paintings are just blurry images beyond my power of sight.


The juxtaposition of the minute and the colossal engulf me. There’s both an uneasiness associated with the feeling that I’m just a miniscule blip on the cosmic radar and a peacefulness thinking that there’s more to the world than my petty concerns. A camera can’t capture those feelings. It can’t capture that smell of incense and candles or those chills from being in a place of sanctity, silence and reverence.


So, perhaps my camera is not so significant.


It might make more sense to snap a few photos and then spend the rest of the time taking in the scene without being separated from it by a box of metal, plastic and glass. My eyes can do much better justice to a sight than a 1-by-1.5-inch viewing screen.


Plus, I can always Google a picture later.


Now that I’m home, everyone I run into asks me the same question: “How was your trip?”


To describe my trip in just a few words seems impossible and inadequate. I spent three weeks in two different countries encountering experiences and sights new — and literally foreign — to me every day. Where could I possibly start? I usually just reply, “It was amazing. I loved it there.”


Silence follows — like you-can-hear-crickets-chirping-in-the-background silence — accompanied by a half-puzzled, half-annoyed look signaling the question, “Michelle, is that really all you’re going to give me?”


“Go online, read my blog and look at my pictures,” I want to demand. “Then, come back with a list of specific questions. I will answer those.”


In a Facebook nation, however, where the longevity of the average American’s attention span lasts only a few seconds, no one is going to view my 21 photo albums comprising 2,672 photos. No one is going to spend hours sifting through my shots of vistas, monuments, castles and landscapes.


They want stories.


They want to hear about what I liked and what I disliked. They want to hear about what inspired me. They want to hear about my adventures.


They want to hear about how I got lost in London at midnight trying to find a nightclub

… how I ate a delicious crepe bigger than my head

… how I got my jeans ripped by a middle-aged Scottish man

… how I unsuccessfully tried to summon Nessie from the depths of Loch Ness

… how I earned the nickname Clumsiness

… how I fed Hamish, the hairy coo.


Yes, they want stories. They want proof that I was there, in the flesh, living life and not just taking touristy photos of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. They want to know what I was doing when I neglected to pull my camera out of my bag. My pictures won’t mean much to them, because they weren’t there to experience those moments in the first place.


Of course, those pictures mean a lot to me, in that, 20 years from now, I hope they’ll help me remember some of those moments. Yet, those three weeks changed my thoughts, my goals and my life. They want to know why, and my pictures can’t tell that story for me.


Upon returning to London from Edinburgh, I lean, weighed down by my florescent orange camping backpack, against the Plexiglas wall separating the seating from the standing room on the tube. I feel a light poke against my arm, so I look to my left.


A man, about 35 years of age, sits in the seat next to where I’m standing. He wears blue jeans and an eggshell-colored sweater that complements his tan skin tone. He has slick, dark hair pulled back into a ponytail — Antonio Banderas style. A little blond girl — the culprit — with striking blue eyes stands on his lap. Dressed in pink pants and a light pink, floral shirt, the toddler waves and says, “Hi.”


I smile and wave back. She’s precious. Every time the tube car stops, she waves and says goodbye to those getting off, to those staying on and, really, to anyone and everyone. The two get off at the station before mine, and she waves over her father’s shoulder to the remaining passengers as he carries her out in his arms.


This is such a moment in which one’s camera is useless. Firstly, one could justifiably be arrested for pulling out a camera and unwarrantedly shooting photos of this little girl. Secondly, this moment isn’t composed of a building or landmark one can freeze in a frame. It’s a scene — a little intricacy of life — that only can be stored away within the confines of my memory until the next time I’m in need of an endearing anecdote.


That’s what my family and friends are looking for.


Happily, I can give it to them.

Monday, June 8, 2009

I Can Sleep When I'm Dead

My 5-year-old bare feet are planted on the golden-yellow tiles of the kitchen floor. My right hand holds the phone to my ear, and my left hand twirls the spiraling phone cord. My grandmother is on the other end of the line — asking me about my sleeping habits.


When I was a child, I never wanted to sleep. Sometimes I would sneak into the living room at dawn to watch episodes of “Shining Time Station” or “Pappyland” on television. When I would hear my dad getting ready for work, I would rush back to bed to feign sleep or hide under a side table with a floor-length covering in the hallway until he left.


My one condition in choosing a preschool was that it must not have naptime. I hated naps. I struck a deal with my mom before I was in school: I could skip napping if I pretended to sleep until my younger brother actually did fall asleep; then, I could go to my room and pass the time as I pleased.


So my grandmother asks me, “Michelle, why do you never want to sleep?”


I answer that I don’t want to miss anything.


At 5 years old, I didn’t understand the concept of unconsciousness, but I realized life passed by while I slept — and I wanted to witness as much of that life as possible. Basically, I considered myself dead while I slept, which I believed was not conducive to experiencing life.


After a two-week visit to London, I’m tired. All I want is sleep. However, that’s also the last thing I’ll allow myself. Starting off on my Haggis Adventures Tour of Scotland, I promise myself I’ll take advantage of every opportunity the Highlands present me with — even if I have to be sleep deprived.


On night one, I sit perched on a brown leather ottoman, double shot of Smirnoff vodka mixed with cranberry juice in hand, in a dimly lit common room surrounded by a circle of newly met travel companions. They drift in and out, replenishing their drinks and socializing with others in the bar. They occupy other ottomans, a squishy black sofa, navy beanbag chairs and a wooden piano bench with a woven, green seat, all of which line the walls. We’re shooting the bull — telling stories about the first day and our past experiences.


I realize I don’t have much to contribute. I haven’t drunkenly scampered through the forest with my friends in the middle of the night. I haven’t kept watch as my family attempts to dig up pickle jars full of money in the backyard. I haven’t had my body parts almost chopped off by a sword-wielding man in a kilt. So much for not missing anything …


Still, however, I’m sitting in a room with these people with whom I hope I am making a connection. We are a community — if only for a mere five days — and I want to establish a rapport that will allow me to gain the kind of stories I’m convinced I’m lacking. So, as I tiptoe around my dark hostel room, giggling with one of my roommates and trying not to wake the others, I deem the 3 a.m. bedtime entirely worth it.

For night two, a 21st-birthday celebration for another of my roommates begins at midnight. Five others join me in my room, counting down to 12 a.m. after being taken hostage in our water-less hostel by the 11:30 p.m. curfew. A middle-aged Scottish man named Brian crashes the party — and contributes the beer.


He also contributes to the hole in the knee of my jeans, tearing the blue denim fabric three inches above and below the hole instead of across the knee. He tells me to connect the fabric with huge, inch-and-a-half-long safety pins — like ones once used to secure babies’ diapers, I picture — to make it look cool. He also says I should tell people I got the hole falling from rocks giving out beneath my feet while climbing a mountain. Actually, I earned the hole from distractedly tripping off a curb earlier that day.


He offers his torn jeans as an example, with the tear received during the running of the bulls in Barcelona … or drunkenly falling while stumbling back from a Spanish pub in the wee hours of the morning. I’m not sure the running of the bulls is even performed in Barcelona — the most famous version of the event takes place in Pamplona, Spain, at the San Fermin Festival.


I suppose I now have story to tell.


The following night, we continue the birthday celebration at full force. A group of about fifteen of us crowd our chairs around a long wooden table in Saucy Mary’s Bar, which has an all-too-appropriate name. We’re overseen by Drunkenness — a tacky, green stuffed animal whose name is coined from the Nessie fame of Loch Ness. Drunkenness turns out to be a bad influence, as the alcohol flows generously, especially with a £2.50 deal for double-shot mixed drinks.


We decide to give ourselves “-ness” nicknames in the spirit of Drunkenness. I miss this conversation for a bathroom break and return as Clumsiness. Apparently I’m queen of the klutzes — the validity of which I tend to secure daily, as per my torn jeans. Sheep-ness, Neva-neva-ness, Gayness, Love-ness and Hairiness are among our newfound monikers.


A trio plays Celtic music across the room. We have no idea how to dance to Celtic music, so we improvise. We form a group-wide huddle with our arms wrapped around one another for balance and run around in a circle, kicking our feet inward and cheering until we’re overcome with dizziness.


Then, we engage in a game of “Never Have I Ever.” Looking back, I don’t think I understood the goal, since I ended up drinking whenever it was my turn to confess something I had never done — thus, saying I had done it, which isn’t supposed to be the objective. However, everyone cheers for me when I say I have never been drunk before, so I find myself providing entertaining admissions, at least.


At closing time, we depart the pub. Two Aussies and another American join me on the trek to the rooms. We sit in the stairwell, discussing who-knows-what but enjoying the company. Eventually, one Aussie leaves, and I consider how much I need sleep before our 8:45 a.m. departure. Then I think of how I’m sitting in a stairwell in Saucy Mary’s Lodge on the Isle of Skye in Scotland with two interesting travel companions who are more my acquaintances than friends. After the trip, I’ll probably never hear from them again; but the point is that, by some twist of fate, our paths have crossed for five days, and I’d be a fool to give up time with them in lieu of a extra hour of sleep. This is sufficient in eradicating the argument for sleep from my mind, prolonging our stay in the stairwell for a bit longer.


Hostel beds don’t lend themselves to particularly restful nights of sleep, anyway.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

All You Need Is Love ... and Directions

This week, we were supposed to go on a Beatles tour. We ended up missing it, which was very disappointing, considering how much I love the Beatles and that this tour was probably the one I was most excited for. Because we missed the tour, we had the rest of the day off, so Rachel and I decided we really wanted to see Abbey Road and would just show up there ourselves. 

It turns out that the tour wouldn’t have even taken us to Abbey Road, which, in my opinion, entirely defeats the purpose of a Beatles tour and is really the only thing worth checking out.

So, we went to Abbey Road. I got my arm caught in the tube door, which is always fun. (Obviously, I am more than willing to sacrifice my physical well-being to see Abbey Road.) Also, we, of course, took the scenic route (i.e. went in the wrong direction) once we reached the tube stop. However, the hassle was well worth it, because WE GOT TO SEE ABBEY ROAD!!!!!!!

We were typical tourists, who walked back and forth across the zebra stripes and pissed off local drivers, since they have to stop when we cross. We saw Abbey Road Studios — well, at least from the outside. We also wrote messages on the white walls outside of the building.


So, overall, the journey to Abbey Road paid off. If not for all of those mishaps, we never would have gotten the chance to see one of the best sights we’ve seen thus far on the trip.

A Cut Above

Turning onto Sydney Street from Kings Road, passersby wouldn’t even know she’s there. Nevertheless, Corinne, a hair stylist from URBAN RITES Hair and Skin Care, waits in the salon each day to keep her clients looking and feeling their best. The slender woman, with her brunet curls and black summer dress, guarantees her customers’ satisfaction, frequently asking for reactions with every few snips of the scissors or slices of the razor. 

Sitting in the fire-engine-red chairs and waiting to have my hair cut, I witness her styling her current client’s face-framing, chin-length wisps of hair four times. “No, no. Like this,” the woman explains, vaguely gesturing a corkscrew motion with her right index finger. Corinne continues until the placement and degree of each artificial curl gains the woman’s approval. The client’s raven hair cascades down her back and, thanks to Corinne, bounces with each step, just like she wanted.

Located in the Chelsea Courtyard, the salon is difficult to spot. Next to the Chelsea Farmers’ Market, the courtyard houses a flower stand at the top of the steps and, downstairs, a Thai food stand right outside URBAN RITES’ door. The salon has a clean, streamlined — almost industrial — feel to it, with stark off-white walls and sleek silver track lighting. The bottom half of the walls are covered by platinum-colored metal sheets accented by markings similar to tiny, raised tire treads.

The only bright color in the room is red: the three red styling chairs in front of the white sinks and the two red waiting chairs tucked into the corner. The only warmth in the room that compares to the sunny, 70-degree weather outside is the hospitality of the stylists.

Corinne is joined by two other stylists in the front room of the salon, reserved for hair care. They acknowledge each other as they begin their shifts with a hearty greeting and offer the same to any patron who walks in. The two other stylists exchange banter with their clients, talking about their friends, pets and plans. One of them, when asked about London nightlife, replies, “I’m too old for clubbing now,” but then mentions some of the more low-key places she likes to frequent. The other engages her older male client in a conversation about how she’s friends with her ex-boyfriend on Facebook.

Corinne is more reserved — she’s still friendly and personable, but she’d rather talk to me about my trip to London than herself. She asks what I’ve been up to, and I give her my list of the mainstay tourist destinations that I’ve seen — the Globe Theatre, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace and so on. She then suggests that I check out some of the markets, since that is something she enjoys doing in her free time.

All the while, snippets of my hair fall to the gray floor and onto my black hair-cutting cape. Intermixed with the personal ramblings, Corinne offers hair care tips, from shampoos to hair mask treatments to finishing lotion that won’t weigh down my incredibly thick hair. Apparently, my principal hair characteristic is that I have perhaps the heaviest hair she has ever seen.

Originally hailing from Paris, Corinne began her rendezvous with London about a decade ago. After coming to London to spend years learning and gaining experience in hairstyling, she briefly returned home to Paris. She apparently could not resist the charms of this metropolis, however, and arrived back in London for good three years ago. The Parisian accent is still strong in her voice, but it is obvious that London has tweaked it over time.

She says she came to London originally to express herself. She felt Paris was too stuffy and conformist at the time, and she wanted a place where she had the freedom to experiment with her styling skills and to be true to herself. Thus, it was the atmosphere of London that attracted her. You can be anyone you want more so than in other places, she says. It’s that mentality that she says makes her love London most.

Sometimes it’s hard for tourists to keep in mind that London isn’t all about them. There’s Corinne and her fellow stylists, for instance, who work literally out of sight — and typically out of mind — of those at street level. They’re not part of the normal tourist experience. Most tourists don’t come to London for a haircut.

However, people — regular people — choose to come and remain in London for reasons that don’t include Big Ben and the Tower Bridge. They live their lives in the background of the commotion of the streaming lines of tourists who congest walkways and Underground train cars. Yet, they are essential to the London that we experience, even if we rarely realize it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

London is ...

London is ...

London is now. I’m in this confusing, complicated and enchanting city for two weeks. That’s it. Then it’s back home to suburbia indefinitely. London is new to me — an acquaintance. I am merely being introduced to its ways and customs ... its layout ... its opportunities.

I sit in Westminster Abbey on Sunday, attending services within its sacred halls. Stained glass windows line the walls; rich reds, blues, yellows and greens, depict the Biblical characters who inspire both awe and confusion in me, as the early afternoon sun shines brightly through the glass. Markers on the floor show the graves of those who passed before us. They urge us to take advantage ... to be inspired by the hall that surrounds us and in which they ultimately came to rest. Wooden chairs for the congregation contrast with the smooth and shiny mahogany pews reserved for the choir and certain visitors. The last line of pews has a high back wall of blue with golden ornamentation. Shiny and eye-catching.

The pastor presents his sermon — one asking why we can’t all get along — perfect for an audience of diversity. These sheep are different in age, gender, nationality, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation and an infinite number of others.

But they’re all together. In one room. In London.

I sit next to an older woman, perched on her brown, wooden chair with an upright back. It’s not comfortable for me and definitely not for her. During the peace offering, we shake hands. “Peace be with you,” we exchange. Her light, striking blue eyes pierce my own, and her pale, wrinkled skin shows experience and wisdom. After the service, we strike up conversation. She’s from Scotland and is visiting family in London. It’s her first time at Westminster Abbey. We have something in common.

Out of her old-fashioned, black purse she pulls a bundle of paper ... sheets folded together. Cursive letters in blue ink are scrawled across the page. She says she writes everything down — everything that she sees and experiences here. She says I should do the same: write down my thoughts, observations, memories. You’ll want to go back and have them someday, she says.
I know she’s right. I spent the entire service looking around, wondering how I can keep every little detail of what I’m seeing in my brain. I’ll want those thoughts.

Otherwise, I’ll lose them ... because London won’t always be now. It’ll be then. And I won’t be able to go back. So, I’ll just have to do all I can to record and remember, but also live. To strike that balance between experience and living behind the lens of a camera. To have those mementos of my travels ... but to also make sure I make memories worth remembering.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Slit Throat in September

Sept. 8, 1888 is the day upon which Jack the Ripper murdered his second confirmed victim, Annie Chapman, or “Dark Annie.” Witness Elizabeth Long last saw her alive at approximately 5:30 a.m. talking with a man in Whitechapel on Hanbury Street. Chapman needed money for lodging and was trying to procure said capital through prostitution. Around 6 a.m. Chapman’s dead body was found. Her throat had been slit twice, she had been cut from groin to throat, her uterus had been removed, and her intestines had been pulled out of her abdomen and over her left shoulder.

Gruesome? Yes … but also interesting.

Sept. 8, 1988 is the day I was born.

So Jack the Ripper murdered Chapman 100 years to the day before my birthday. What are the chances? Needless to say, I developed somewhat of an interest in hearing about the case and, in particular, Chapman.

Having discovered this information just a few days before departing for London, I was awaiting the Jack the Ripper tour to satisfy this intrigue. We went on the tour tonight (Monday), which was led by a Beefeater from the Tower of London

The tour wasn’t in the dark, so it wasn’t actually creepy or scary. However, the Beefeater, named Simon, was very entertaining, and, like other Beefeaters that I’ve encountered/heard about, a good storyteller.

However, I do wish my thirst for scariness could be met by some attraction while I’m here. OK, I’ll admit the London Bridge Experience guy did a pretty good job of making me jump out of my skin (see blog post “Building Bridges”), but the Jack the Ripper tour and the London Dungeon only produced blips on my fear-reaction radar screen. Perhaps, I’ll just have to watch “Jeepers Creepers” and be content with my laughter.

When in Rome, do as the Romans

Yesterday (Sunday) morning, Jess, Ashley and I went to church at Westminster Abbey. I figured I couldn’t pass up a chance to attend services at such a famous site. Traditionally, it is the site of coronations, weddings and burials of the British royals and other important figures. Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, among many others, are buried there, for instance.

(On a side note: Princess Diana got married at St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is somewhat uncustomary for the royals. However, I definitely see her point. Don’t get me wrong … Westminster Abbey is absolutely beautiful; however, it doesn’t compare to St. Paul’s Cathedral in my book. Really, none of the buildings I’ve seen do.)

It is an Anglican church, I think, but I found the service to be quite like the Catholic ones back home. The “Apostles’ Creed” and the “Our Father” were slightly different, but, overall, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect.

One definite difference was the music. Many of the songs had a round style to them, in which one section would start singing and then the other sections would follow, as opposed to singing every word together.

I also found that people’s dress was a lot different than I expected. I assumed that people would dress up; that’s just what I’ve learned to do in respect for a place of worship. I don’t know if it was the denomination or if it was because it’s a big tourist attraction, but a lot of people did not dress up. There was a girl, maybe 13 years old, in a T-shirt and jeans. Another woman, probably a few years older than me, wore a green frock dress with black leggings and rose-colored Converse high-tops. Two teenage guys wore T-shirts and khaki shorts, with one wearing beat-up sneakers and the other wearing sandals. 

… Not that I know what people really wear to church on regular basis. Religion never really had a particularly stringent presence in my life growing up, and I was never much of a churchgoer. Without getting into too much detail, religion and religious practices have always been complicated issues for me — ones that I’m still trying to figure out.

That is what surprised me about Sunday. I’m not one to be particularly emotional about such things, but, sitting after Communion, I found myself tearing up. I still have no idea why I was so moved: Westminster Abbey is very nice and all, but it’s not an earth-shattering experience. I suppose all the emotion of being in London and seeing and experiencing so many new things finally caught up with me?