Eavesdropping on Humanity
Interactions with humanity are the great unplanned part of traveling — the people who serve you, the people you bump into on the train, the people you observe out of the corner of your eye as you eat dinner. It’s absolutely one of my favorite parts of being outside normality, within a new space and time. These interactions also inform your behavior, subconsciously or not — and flavor your discussions, your awareness and your experiences — as when you travel, you’re often much more aware and observant of what’s happening around you. People are fascinating — and when you're not doing much more than waiting to get somewhere else, it's all you can see and hear.
We were up at 05:00 to match UK time as close as possible before arriving — a somewhat daunting task when everyone else around you has a normal schedule. I dropped by the office to grab a few things I’d forgotten around 10:00 and it felt like mid-afternoon already. Hugs and well wishes later we were off.
We walked the ten blocks to the RTD A-line to the airport, alternately sweating and freezing as we walked in between the sun and the shade. I’d worn a cashmere hoodie and a gigantic blanket scarf to help with the forthcoming temperature changes on the plane and it wasn’t doing me any favors. As we strode up to the ticket machines, we noticed a ticket wedged into the edge of the screen — an extra, purchased accidentally. “Maybe the smudging worked!”
(We’d smudged the entire apartment — and all of our luggage, clothing and the dogs — with sage and palo santo before leaving…)
Check in, security, the long walk to the terminal. We waited in line in front of a family with two small children, their wails filling the low-ceilinged glass bridge. “They are on our flight, for sure. We’ll likely sit right next to them,” Mark predicted.
We had a lot of time and decided to have “dinner” at 15:30 — it was the Chop House or McDonald’s, so we waited in line at the former for a table. We ended up at the bar, squished into stools with our carry-on duffels, full of shoes. A large family loitered outside, next to our seats.
“Nine dollars for a cheeseburger?! Are these people fucking nuts?!”
“I’m going to McDonald’s — I’ll see you high-rollers later.”
We had chicken salads and watched Olympic curling on the bar TVs, dipping our french fries into little bowls of ranch dressing. The meal, the Olympics, the Madonna on the speakers above and the myriad overheard conversations at the bar sharply reinforced that we were very clearly in America, and couldn’t have been anywhere else on the planet. For example, the women across from us were chatting about luggage and money.
“Well, I just cannot trust those goshdarn airlines. They’ve never lost any of my baygs, thank God, but ya never know!”
“I know! I carry everything with me at all times! You never know!”
“Ya know, I hear you get a check for $3,000 if they lose a bayg! Maybe I should try it sometime!”
One of the women tossed the rest of her martini back with a chuckle and slid her enormous pile of bags aside to head to the restroom. Mark looked at me and said, “Maybe we should just not come home…” I poked a ranch-covered fry at him and replied, “We’d probably miss ranch dressing after a while.” We laughed, knowing I was totally right.
I made a pit-stop for water, mints, and toothbrushes — we’d forgotten ours in the sleepy yet frantic haze of the morning. As I stood in line, I noticed a white woman full-on dancing to the strange techno beaming out of the ceiling-mounted speakers of the W.H. Smith. Her dreads swung to the beat of the music, and she grasped a can of Monster and a bag of Cheetos in one hand, while trusting the other upwards repeatedly. As she made her way towards the front of the line, I saw that she was not wearing any shoes. I ran back to the seats after checking out, and repeated the story to Mark. He audibly gagged.
We boarded on time, but sat on the ground for an extra hour while something was fixed. Flying never really scares me, but when something is being “fixed” for an hour on the ground, I tend to get a little keyed up. Mark’s prediction came true, as well — the wailing children were right behind us, and I could feel little feet poking me in the back while the flight attendants briefed us on the delay.
The fight left, the lights went out, and we tried to sleep. The temperature soared and the noise was incessant. Podcasts, movies, TV, music… Nothing worked. We both fell asleep for around an hour, in sync with the tired and miserable kids behind us — no fault of their own, of course. I was a terrible flyer as a kid and that was when air travel was at least still a little luxurious. The French man next to us kept sleeping in fits and starts — arising to order a sandwich or a beer and offer fistfuls of US cash to the flight attendant — only to drift off again shortly thereafter.
We awoke on our descent into Reykjavík, where it was snowing horizontally in the pitch-black morning. I swaddled myself like a gigantic toddler in my blanket scarf as we descended into a waiting bus to take us to the terminal. It was howling cold outside, and many of the people on the bus stared in wonder at the snowflakes flying off into the blackness beyond. An American family blinked sleepily next to us, unsure of seemingly everything.
“How is it 7am? That doesn’t make sense.”
“Ray, we’re on Iceland time now. Not Denver time.”
“I mean, it’s basically the same thing.”
We unloaded into the terminal and made our way to Joe and the Juice for carrot-apple-ginger juices and tiny shots of perfect espresso, then right into line to board our flight to London. We hadn’t been able to pick our seats, and for some strange reason Icelandair doesn’t group people on the same reservation — so we ended up a few rows from each other. I sipped coffee in the very middle seat, between two British ladies who seemed to be friends.
“I hate this bloody flight.”
“It’s always too bloody hot.”
I took off all of my layers in agreement, as they fanned themselves with the safety cards.
We landed at Heathrow, made our way through the maze beneath the behemoth and queued up for the passport check. We stood behind a large, loud British family, and I couldn’t stop laughing.
“Oh, she’s lovely. The only issue I have with her is that she seems to have entirely too many teeth.”
“I haven’t a clue how they all fit in her head.”
We arrived at the passport check and a lovely woman took our sheaf of documents. She quizzically stared at both of us, as our passport photos are so different from our current appearances.
“You,” she gestured at Mark, “moved all of your hair from your head to your face.”
“And you,” she looked at me, ”got rid of all of it!”
We laughed as she handed our passports back to us, freshly stamped.
“But I must tell you both, you look lovely. Welcome to the U.K., gentlemen.”
We cackled as we walked into the arrivals hall. First job was to find Mark a fistful of plasters (read: Band-Aids) as he wore brand-new Converse high-tops that had shredded his feet throughout the connections and miles of wandering through airports. The second job was sorting the age-old problem of finding local SIM cards (and making them work correctly). I meandered over to SIM Local, and asked the cashier to help me. We picked two EE Europe-wide SIMs and he activated them and installed them, quickly and adeptly. As he worked and typed and clicked, he asked me where we were from.
“Hah, no. Colorado.”
“Ah, legal weed!”
“I have a hypothetical question for you as an American.”
“Choose one thing to make illegal between guns and weed, what would you pick?”
The answer came without thought. “Guns.”
“Yeah, mate. Right answer. Did you see the horrors that happened yesterday?”
He was mentioning the terrifying massacre at Stoneman Douglas, which had occurred while we were in the air. The newspaper headlines scattered around the Arrivals area were adorned with gigantic headlines. “17 MURDERED IN FLORIDA.” “CHILDREN KILLED EN MASSE.”
“…Yeah. Truly horrible. Incomprehensible.”
“Yeah, America is weird, mate.”
“Yeah. Yeah, it is.”
We walked away, towards the elevators to the Heathrow Express, our phones blinking to life. The news headlines scrolled in. We sighed with horror as we slumped into our seats on the train, the glowing purple orb on the ceiling pulsating as we slipped into the city.
We walked through Paddington, winding around to find the entrance to the tube. We bought two Oyster cards, £30 each, then descended into the depths of the station — Paddington to Bayswater, Circle line.
We walked out onto Queensway, shaken from our exhausted stupor by the life of the busy street. A Chinese barbecue shop with roasted ducks in the window pumped the street full of sesame, five-spice, and chili — in competition with the scents from the Thai joint, the Indian places and the hookah bar tucked around the corner. Streams of black cabs poured past the station, honking indiscriminately and jolting in and out of traffic.
We walked around the corner to our hotel — La Suite West, designed by Anouska Hempel.
“Just lots of Anouska Hempel-y things, darling!” I kept muttering to Mark under my breath, in imitation of Edina Monsoon. We checked in, made our way up to the room via the skinny hallways and tiny elevator, and collapsed as if on cue.
The room? A bit shabby, honestly. It needed a lick or twelve of paint and a lot of furniture refinishing — but the marble bath with the heated floor was lovely. And the space of the junior suite allowed us to spread out a bit — his pile over there, mine over here and our stacks of daily necessities neatly Knolled on the large black desk in between. I hid all in-room collateral immediately in a drawer — all of the flyers, magazines, offer sheets, stationery… Just visual noise. (The maid and I were in a constant power struggle over the “mobile hotspot / garbage Android phone” the hotel supplied and placed on a dock next to the bed.)
We showered, changed, and walked back out into the delicious din of the city. Our rough goal was to reach a cafe in Fitzrovia before it closed, but who really cared if we made it? It was also the day for miscellany — errands for things we forgot to bring, a trip to the store for snacks…
We strode down Bayswater Road, along Hyde Park. It was chilly, but perfectly so — just enough to keep you fresh and awake, but dispelled by the warmth of the walk. We made our way to Marble Arch, and ducked into Pret a Manger for a snack. Now, everyone we know in the U.K. makes fun of us — but I do love a sandwich from Pret. Posh cheese and pickle, red onion and cheddar crisps, sparkling water. Heaven.
As we walked down Oxford Street, battling the ever-present crowds, we popped into Boots and Superdrug for a larger supply of plasters, heel guards and some sort of industrial adhesive felt for Mark’s poor feet — then H&M for (even) more black jeans, as we hadn’t had the time in Denver. We made our way to Selfridge’s for our usual pilgrimage — first, Menswear, then Shoes and Accessories.
Mark bought a new pair of hopefully more comfortable Adidas trainers while I milled about and gasped at the prices of everything I wanted. We overhead a Middle Eastern man with many children, admonishing them for not shopping fast enough.
“Just buy it! Who cares! Just pick something out so we can go!”
The aforementioned children were decked out in Louis Vuitton shoes, Adidas tracksuits, MCM backpacks — a visual cacophony of branding on top of branding, so I imagine this sort of thing happened often.
Requisite yellow bag in hand, I dragged Mark to the Welbeck Street garage — a Brutalist gem hidden behind old-lady-HQ Debenhams. It’s a parking garage that’s slated for demolition to make way for a very boring hotel, much to the angst of architects and designers across the U.K. and the globe. Yeah, it’s just a garage — but can’t we appreciate those too?
Back down Oxford, to M&S — partially due to another AbFab reference.
“I’m more of an M&S person myself.”
“You know, so am I. Can’t fail, can you!”
We wandered into the food hall and grabbed two bottled waters for the walk home, and the self-checkout hated our American cards — we now have cards with chips, but somehow they still require a signature?
I presented my card (un-signed, of course) to the roving cashier with a shrug, and she glanced at the receipt and sighed.
“It’s two quid. I don’t care.”
We laughed, and she laughed with us as we walked back out onto the street, to be engulfed by tourists laden with bags. Marble Arch to Queensway, two blocks home. We dropped all of our bags upstairs, then right back out to head to Khan’s for dinner.
We wandered in and were seated an masse with a few other groups in the back room — and then we ordered. I’d figured a gigantic Indian dinner was the perfect post-flight idea, and I was right. Chutneys with achar, pappadums, onion bhaji, tikka masala, butter chicken, garlic naan, pilau rice, veggie samosa. The food came almost immediately — and we dug right in. The Dutch couple next to us started laughing immediately.
“Are you sure there aren’t other people joining you?”
“You are obviously very good at ordering!”
We grinned, masala running down our chins. It was one of the best Indian meals I’d ever had — and we demolished it. I ate the remaining achar with a fork, while wiping all of the gooey bits off of the tin plates with hunks of naan. Satiated and exhausted, we paid the bill and ambled towards home.
We stopped in to Waitrose on the way home for necessities — vit. C and B tablets, cheddar and onion crisps, bottles of Scottish sparkling water, chocolate bars, Tunnock’s caramel wafers. The check-out process was something out of a Monty Python sketch. The self-checkout declined us due to the signature requirement, the suspended transaction disappeared, the cashier had to re-ring everything and then to finish it off, a pen could not be located.
We trundled back to the hotel, and watched the Olympics until we fell asleep — the scent of garam masala still lingering on our skin, and our bellies full.