Sunday, December 6, 2009

I'm a stranger here myself: report on the U.K. trip

I know I was trying to keep this a movie-oriented blog, but I do write below on the experience of seeing films in London and Wales...anyway, enjoy.

I’ve been back two weeks now as I post this, back to the grind of Toronto and the office after eight days in the U.K. And it’s been pretty much as I feared all the way back in the summer when I made my airline reservations: I fell so in love with the place that I didn’t want to leave. It’s silly and melodramatic; I was actually choking up at Gatwick when I called Genevieve to let her know I’d made it to the airport after one last day of sightseeing and souvenir shopping. Breakups haven’t hit me so hard. Crazy, right? I still can’t explain why I was so affected, why the Small Island, as Bill Bryson called it in a book which filled me with no small amount of dread when I read it a week before departure, got so far under my skin. Maybe it all comes down to one simple fact: I got it. Within a day of boots on the ground, I felt I was making my way as a tourist through a society and culture that made some odd sort of sense to me. By contrast, I’ve lived in Toronto for almost a decade, was in Los Angeles for four-odd years before that, Montreal for university and a youth in Ottawa and all of those cities, to this day, leave me somewhat baffled. Granted, most human behavior does that, but far too often I feel like an alien trying to decipher why those cities work (or more often don’t work) the way they do. I can’t claim to fully understand London, there’s no way one could after only a week. And I’m sure there’s plenty that would get me completely flummoxed upon lengthy exposure (and I will admit to a small sampling of that, see the section below on the topic of plumbing). But there’s just such a certain ease in living in the U.K. that impressed me and made me feel at home to a sudden and strange degree.

Some of it was just the little things. Take the London Underground (and you must). Compared to Toronto’s anemic two routes, the tangled, dozen-route spider web that jumps off the map is intimidating at first…but five minutes in one realizes that it really can get you anywhere you need to be. And things are a lot closer than you may think; often a few stops within central London including a transfer can be skipped with a brief walk. And such interconnectivity makes it a snap whenever there’s a station closure or track repair: a detour doesn’t take you that far out of your way. Other legends disproved: did you ever hear the expression “In London, you’re never more than thirty yards away from a rat”? Compared to Toronto, or even Montreal, the Tube is clean enough to do surgery on. In my experience, only Washington D.C.’s subway is cleaner, and it’s illegal to eat while riding that one. I never even saw a hint of the capital’s legendary vermin the whole time I was in London, yet the first day I was back in Toronto, I saw soot-blackened mice running around on the tracks at the Eglinton station. And by the way, that very day the stretch of the Yonge line between Bloor and Queen was shut down due to a power failure for several hours, until the TTC managed to spread the same failure to the track between St. Andrew’s and Museum. Enjoy the walk.

The sense of the city making sense comes in bits and pieces. Sticking to the Tube for a moment, if you step off a train and are looking for the way out, there are illuminated signs saying, and I quote, “WAY OUT”. Seriously. Not “This way to (whatever) street,” but a straightforward “WAY OUT” lit up in green. How about when you need to see a man about a horse? Looking around you won’t spot a sign for “rest rooms” or “washrooms” or any other euphemistic appellations. Just “TOILETS”. No beating around the bush here. It’s a tiny semantic thing, but for a big function-over-form guy like myself, it struck a chord. And speaking of British toilets, what with their smart avoidance of the North American-style automatic flush radar sensors that give you a ride on the enema express if you so much as bend over to tie a bootlace, I must also mention their hand dryers, these clamshell contraptions into which you insert your hands for about eight seconds while air blasting at hurricane speeds dries your hands to a Sahara degree, and you get to thinking that the designers of the wheezing, asthmatic dryers that serve Canadian public johns and never fail to leave your hands awkwardly moist, they just didn’t give a shit about their work.

This sensibility seems to extend to the locals, which is possibly the thing I liked most about being there. In addition to being generally helpful and friendly without ever descending into obsequiousness, the Brits and the Welsh seem to have made an art of, well, just going about their day-to-day in an efficient, non-obtrusive way. It’s hard to explain exactly what I mean, but as an experiment, just try to walk around Toronto on some busy weekend afternoon. Count how many people get to the top of an escalator then stop in their tracks and look around absently while other riders trip over themselves piling up behind them. Or how many couples hold hands and spread themselves out, weaving back and forth in front of you as you try and squeak around them. Or make your way to the back of the Queen streetcar past someone wearing a huge backpack blocking the aisle, staring vaguely ahead then barking at you if you try to nudge past. Okay, so I’m a misanthrope. Whatever. In England, wherever I went, life seemed to chug along without any of these inconveniences that no matter how minor, can add up over the course of a day to the extent that hermit life seems a viable alternative. Londoners are alert, street-smart and aware of their surroundings. Once again, a subtle, surely unconscious thing that makes worlds of difference. I sometimes suffer from claustrophobia in crowds to the point of hyperventilation, and that was barely an issue the entire time I was in the U.K. I'll concede that Harrods was pretty bad, and I imagine that the week before Christmas must be like a Tokyo subway during rush hour in there, but that was really the exception.

Having been fed a diet of British movies and books growing up (part and parcel of being Canadian), I’d been worried about having to deal with shillings, farthings, ha’pennies, guineas, crowns and the legendary three-part price tags, but a quick wiki search dispelled that conundrum, as England went to decimalization in the early seventies. Whew. The coinage is a bit excessive, especially considering how nothing can really be bought for a pence (I think Canada and the U.S. could also stand to be rid of the penny), but it barely matters, as the VAT is included in purchases. Go into an HMV and you’ll see CDs for £6 or books for £5 and (miraculously, to an Ontarian who’s had two decades of national sales tax upon provincial sales tax and is about to be subjected to a harmonized tax) that’s what you pay! Here’s a fiver, and walk out with your product. No muss, no fuss. Add the concept of virtually no tipping in restaurants, and a day and a half in you’re wondering why the rest of the world seems to miss the point.

Yes, England, or at least London, is more expensive than here. Still, the universal law of salary does apply: while you may be required to take a flatmate, even out in the suburbs, Genevieve said that after the initial shock, when you’re getting paid in pounds it all sort of evens out. Some expenses were my own damn fault. I didn’t bring my cell phone with me, which I still think was a sensible move. On a trip to New York City a couple of years back I got absolutely raped on roaming charges, and I shudder to think what Rogers would have gleefully dinged me for any overseas calls. So I used phone booths, which they still have in abundance over there, unlike in North America, where every glass-enclosed pay phone was stripped of its shell by the end of the nineties (and no, not all London phone booths are plastered to an opaque degree by postcards advertising transsexual prostitutes; the number is closer to 85%). However, the U.K. is, I discovered, a cell phone based culture to the degree that of the half hour of commercials that precede the feature in a movie theatre (half an hour? Yes, more on that later), twenty minutes tend to be devoted to cell services, apps and blackberries. Which all have a different area code than central London, hence when you plug a pound into a phone box to call a friend you’re basically always calling long-distance, a countdown clock starts ticking and the pence remaining indicated on the LCD screen plummets like the Dow in 2008 so that you’re scrambling for more change almost immediately.

Likewise on the price front, I’d heard endless horror stories before I went: “We ordered a tuna fish sandwich and a Coke at a cafe, and later we did the currency conversion and realized it had cost us $18!” Bollocks. The exchange rate when I went was not nearly as bad as it has been in past years, and the difference was negligible. Most of my pub meals would have cost even more in Canada, I suspect, figuring in tax and tip. My round-trip bus ride between Cardiff and Caerphilly was £3.90. Movies at some theatres, even on a weekend evening, were cheaper than Toronto. WHSmith (and there seems to be one in every major train station, and four within just the south terminal at Gatwick) have virtually every bestseller marked down to cheaper than BMV would stock it at here in Toronto. (Hmmm…could there be a correlation between plentiful cheap reading material and a savvy and intelligent population? One can’t help but wonder…) But a pay phone call still costs you four bucks if you want to actually finish your sentences. So it’s hit and miss.

One forgets how much England has permeated our consciousness until you’re there and every tube stop, neighborhood and town brings up the memory of some song or book passage. I was staying with friends in Streatham in south London, and the radio station in my brain kept spinning “Stay Free” every time I was in the area (“…at weekends we’d go dancing down Streatham on the bus…”). The tube stop at which I’d catch the double-decker bus home was in Brixton (“When they kick at your front door/How you gonna come?...”) And oh yeah, I don’t want to go to Chelsea. It’s also impossible to walk past the MI-6 building overlooking the Thames without humming the James Bond theme or possibly some Morrissey track from “Vauxhall and I” (or, for that matter, wondering why the Thames is pronounced “temms”), or through Waterloo without thinking of Ray Davies and his sunset. The train ride back from Wales passed by the connections to towns I only know from Douglas Adams books (“Ford wasn’t from Guildford after all…”, “I’ll take you as far as the Basingstoke roundabout.”) By the time I walked past Notting Hill up Portobello Road and wound up at the Rough Trade record label’s flagship store, I was in cultural memory overload.

Okay, a few more notes on my trip in no particular order. First, and maybe this should have come first, a big shoutout to Genevieve and her husband David, who graciously let me crash on their living room couch for five nights. I know Gen from when she starred in the short movie I made back in 2002, then she subsequently got accepted into a drama school in London, and her awesome hosting made my trip wonderfully low-stress. I arrived during a particularly heavy work week for both Gen and David, so I didn’t get to see nearly enough of them, but I couldn’t have had lucked into a better living arrangement. Endless, endless thanks.

The British moviegoing experience. One thing that impressed me about Leicester Square was that if you do a slow turn in the middle of the park, there are at least five movie theatres within view. My second full day in London I caught an opening day matinee of 2012 at the VUE and it was…well, different. First there was the snack bar. Here’s my actual exchange with the guy behind the counter.
“Hi, I’d like a small popcorn.”
“Certainly. Salted or sweetened?”
“Um…salted?” He brings it to me and I have to ask, “I’m sorry, when you said ‘sweetened’, what did you mean exactly?”
“Oh, it’s, ah, sugared?”
Here is one of the few things in Britain that left me gobsmacked.
“Ah. Okay, sorry, that’s just weird. I’m Canadian, and I’d put butter on my popcorn.”
“Butter? Ewww!”
I kid you not.
Anyway, like I said, if you think there are too many commercials before the flick at your local Cineplex Odeon, you have no frikkin’ idea. David told me later that it’s standard practice to show up for a movie twenty minutes or more past the announced starting time as you know you’re not going to miss anything. And ready for the website, there were a couple of Lost In Translation-style commercials for which George Clooney and John Malkovich (for some coffee brand) and Sigourney Weaver (for what I think is a cell phone video game app) got some quick overseas dough. And if you fear that Canada is turning into a nanny state, I should point out that every single onscreen commercial was rated by the British film classification board and branded with the ratings logo in the lower left corner. When the film finally started, we got the full censor’s certificate and rating on the screen. To go to such extremes reminds me of how, when I lived in L.A., a stationery store would have to get a restaurant health inspector’s certificate in the window if it had one rack of breath mints at the counter. As for the movie, well, it’s certainly Emmerich’s best, which is to say it’s ludicrous and overwrought from beginning to end, but at least has a classier bunch of actors than he usually gets, including Thandie Newton (still one of the great screen goddesses of our age) and John Cusack (getting’ paid, Malkovich-style).

Sunday night in Cardiff I checked out Harry Brown at the ginormoplex visible from my hotel window. I missed the movie when it played TIFF this year, though I did catch Michael Caine’s Q&A a day or two later. As far as I know there’s no distributor for Harry Brown in North America, which is a shame, because it’s one of my top movies of the year, a grim but still touching revenge thriller in which Caine goes Bronson-style vigilante on a gang of drug dealing hoodies just a couple of tube stops away from where Gen and David live. Michael Caine just rocks the joint as a retired Royal Marine who’s been Pushed To The Edge; it’s one of his best performances in ages and a pretty kickass action role for a guy in his seventies. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was also playing in Cardiff, and I kind of regret not seeing it, as it’s not out here in North America yet. The different release schedules of major films is a bit disorienting: I saw the trailer for the “upcoming” Law-Abiding Citizen, and Where The Wild Things Are will be arriving in the U.K. in mid-December. On the other hand, The Boat That Rocked, re-edited and re-titled as Pirate Radio for its North American release of a few weeks ago, is already on DVD over there, as is that new biopic of Queen Victoria, which will be coming out here during the Oscar rush next month.

Getting around: I’ve already gone on at length about how easy it is to find your way around London on the Underground, but as further proof, here was my first day in a city in which I had never set foot before. I arrived at Victoria Station on the Gatwick Express by around 10AM. I dumped my suitcase at Left Luggage (£8 for the day), bought my train ticket to Cardiff and a weeklong Oyster Card (an all-purpose transit pass for the tube and busses) and began walking. By early evening I’d seen Westminster Abbey and Cathedral; Parliament and Big Ben; taken a ride on The Eye; checked out the Harry Potter platform at King’s Cross station; passed through part of the theatre district; explored Trafalgar Square; located a few decent cybercafés, bookstores and souvenir shops; and plotted out my next day’s walking tours. I’d also taken about a hundred photos by the time night fell and the rain finally started and I caught an overland train to Balham station. Oh yeah, here’s the thing about the night: I guess it’s because the British Isles are substantially north of Toronto that the sun, at this time of year, is always relatively low in the sky, so the midday haze both over Waterloo Bridge and Cardiff Bay had a glorious sunset glow to it, and actual sunset would occur a bit after four PM. Weather-wise, England was pretty much how I’d imagined. I’m pretty sure it rained every day I was there, everything from prickly mist to frog-choking downpours, but there was also never a single day without some clear skies and sunshine. I’ll take that any day over your typical Toronto November weather, all frigid and windy, or Montreal where I’m sure it was already snowing as I was walking up Regent Street with my Spring jacket zipped halfway up.

The British seem to travel everywhere. All through the tube system, the wall posters that aren’t advertising theatre shows (“James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Sanaa Lathan and Adrian Lester in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” or the unsettling sight of Captain Jack Harkness all dolled up for La Cage Aux Folles) or the new Queen best-of CD, plug vacation destinations. “Come to Syria!” is not, I’d wager, an advert you’ll see anywhere on this side of the Atlantic. Everywhere in Eastern Europe is a viable destination. Every town, including Cardiff with its 300,000 population, has an international airport. Plus they’ve got all these little charter airlines all over Europe with insane deals. On the walk to my gate for departure I saw a billboard for a Norwegian airline offering Oslo-London flights for £28. When I was considering Edinburgh as my side-trip I found a £5 flight from Gatwick. Okay, there are no doubt some extra fees, but anyone who’s ever paid a few hundred bucks to fly one way from Toronto to Ottawa and spent so much time waiting in lounges and on the tarmac and stuck in traffic on the 425 that you figure it would have been quicker and cheaper to just rent a damn car and drive there yourself, would find this place a paradise of bargains.

I know I’ve gloried in British plumbing already, but I’ll also add my voice to the chorus of befuddlement at the sinks in that fair land. One sink, two taps, two faucets. Wha-huh? I caught a standup comic my second night there (also my third night, as he was the compère at the second comedy show I went to), a New Orleans ex-pat who’d told me he’d been living in England for nine years, who did a bit that slayed the audiences both nights. To the best of my recollection, here’s how it goes:
“Winston Churchill visited Moscow for a summit with Stalin and observed these fascinating sinks in which all the water came out of one tap, and you could adjust the temperature to your liking via two knobs, one for hot water and one for cold water. He was so impressed that he wrote about it in his memoirs. Why is Britain still the only developed country in the world where people think it’s normal to wash your hands like…” And then he mimes sticking one hand under a tap and wincing as it gets scalded, then the other hand under the other tap and shivering as it’s chilled, then repeats the action and finally yells “Fuck it!” and stomps off. The audience howled and applauded, so they're obviously aware of the silliness yet I don’t see any populist uprising demanding rational plumbing. Maybe they figure they’re at least better off than the Welsh. I had to call down to the desk at my hotel in Cardiff to get the sink in my bathroom (sorry: in my toilet) explained to me, what with its two horizontal knobs sticking out of the faucet, each with a release button and latch, one of which, as I learned, controls the intensity of the water and the other of which is actually marked with temperature gauges. For a country that once conquered half the world, you’d think the British could get this sorted out.

If I had to pick one highlight from the trip it would be the glorious, glorious city of Cardiff. I knew I wanted to take at least one side-trip while in Great Britain, and had considered Edinburgh, but that would have involved another flight or a seven-hour train ride, and I couldn’t really think of anything much I wanted to see there…oooh, castles. Well, they have those all over the place, including in London. And Napier University, which would have just been for wistful what-if wondering (I’d considered going there for post-grad film school if I hadn’t gotten into AFI). On the other hand, Cardiff did have the biggest Dr. Who museum and looks pretty damn spiffy on Torchwood and it’s only two hours away by train, plus I stumbled upon a great bargain at a hip hotel through Frommer’s so Cardiff it was! I just couldn’t get enough of the place, from its bilingualism—it’s so rare to see a sign not in two languages that to see something just in English tends to jar you to a stop—to its magnificent town centre and brand new shopping complexes that seem to have had the wrapping taken off an hour before I arrived, to “the Hayes,” the town centre pedestrian stroll…

Then there’s The Bay. I got to the hotel a couple of hours before check-in so I left my duffel, got a map from reception and took a half-hour walk down to the Red Dragon Centre, the entertainment complex that houses the Dr. Who Museum. Yes, I’m a nerd. Deal. And yes, the Red Dragon is all over the place, on every bit of tourist merchandise, the Arena, the Stadium, the Brains Beer brewery, and possibly on a tattoo on my arm someday. Interestingly, Wales’ is one of only two flags in the world whose design features a dragon, the other being Bhutan. Anyway. The Dr. Who exhibit, except for a mural depicting all the previous Doctors, is devoted entirely to props and costumes from the 2005-onwards relaunch, and has a curiously small gift shop. The exhibition is coordinated, I believe, from a shop on The Strand back in London which I visited on my last day in country and where bought even more Dr. Who junk (Torchwood mug and playing cards, and a hardcover episode guide) to weigh down my luggage. The next day was my required castle excursion, to the painfully charming town of Caerphilly (where, of course, the Cheese Shop sketch kept running through my head) and the kind of millennia-old battlements that scatter the countryside like they were sprinkled randomly like pizza toppings across the crust of the isles. Seeing as how it was a chilly, windy Monday morning in November, there were about nine people total touring the castle, including a Japanese family with whom I used my fractured nihon-go to ask if they’d get a photo of me with a turret in the background, and a Filipino couple who, of course, have relatives in Mississauga. Wales, overall, made a huge impression on me. The populace, if it’s at all possible, were even nicer and friendlier than Londoners; the language, when you hear it--and if you want to there’s a TV channel entirely in Welsh which I kept flipping back to in awe--is hypnotic; and except for the HMV on Queen Street in Cardiff filing artists alphabetically by first name (yes, Lou Reed is in the L’s), it was the kind of town in which I’d love to put down roots.

So where does that leave me? Homesick for someplace I spent eight days in, unfortunately. I know I’m going back as soon as I can…the coming year is going to be a frugal one so I can save up for a longer stay in Cardiff, some more London theatre experiences (number two on my greatest hits of the U.K. was seeing We Will Rock You at the Dominion) and hopefully Manchester, Dublin, Edinburgh…once the British Isles get in your blood, they’re there for good. See you soon.