By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can show.
NOTE: I stupidly forgot the USB cable to my DSLR, so all photos throughout the series have been shot on my iPhone. Better quality pictures to be uploaded soon…ish.
I met Greta on a Saturday morning back in 2009 when I was working as a waitress at Veludo on Acland Street. I had been in Australia for less than a year, and spring had just sprung. I was working the outdoors section, which I didn’t mind, because the sun was shining and winter had been full of terrors. In that section was a table of hung over miscreants who kept ordering round after round of bloody mary’s. They wore sunglasses and a few of them had their heads on the table, grunting their way through orders of sausages and eggs. They chatted me up between drink orders, even though it was a busy morning, asking me where I was from and why I was in Australia. I got that a lot while working in hospitality, so I had my answers pre-prepared. Normally, people leave me alone after the initial small talk. Greta, Mark, Rachel and Adam, on the other hand, didn’t. Instead, they slipped a 20-dollar note in my apron as a tip to keep [tips were normally split between the wait staff] under the proviso that I came to their backyard party after my shift ended. They denied my protestations and somehow knew that my integrity would get the better of me – so when I finally accepted the money, it was basically a done deal that I would be doing black Sambuca shots in their backyard within a matter of hours.
This is about the time when I say that I’ve never been a big drinker, and that I went the vast majority of my life without having even tasted the stuff. Australia changed that. Australia changed a lot of things. That was the first time in my life I had ever had alcohol…and I did it with complete strangers whom I had met in-between cleaning plates of bubble and squeak.
These are the foundations upon which lifelong friendships are built.
Or in this case, the past seven years…which, for people in their early thirties, is just as good. Greta took the reigns of the friendship, and through her I came to know Rachel, a brilliant and beautiful bombshell with a passion for helping others and a tremendous heart, Adam, a kind-hearted, fun-loving musician with the best gooey smile, Marc, a deliciously dry-humored gentleman who would pick you up from a tram stop late on a cold night and drive you home, and Dean…hot ass.
Greta eventually went back to the UK, and I stayed in touch with most of them on and off throughout the years. Last year, Greta came back to Australia and that was when I met her partner Beverley. Beverley is my Anglo twin. Beverley and I love the same things [food] hate the same things [small talk] and eat our eggs the same way [with a bite of toast in-between]. Greta instantly loved and loathed her decision to introduce us. Greta and Beverley extended an invitation to me then, that should I ever find myself in London again, I was welcome in their home. Even though I thought: “Sure…whatever. One day.”
Then one day came last month.
It’s impossible to discuss the enormity of this trip without discussing the first time I came to London when I was 18. Back then, it was my best friend Claire and I, along with a handful of high-school graduates, many of whom had never left the country before. We saw all the touristy things – St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster, Shakespeare’s Theatre. At night, we bought European versions of magazines and took the love quizzes in the back, marveling at the casual openness with which sex was discussed, poking and giggling at each other about it like morons. We were just 18, after all, and everything was foreign and amazing and different.
But London at age 33 feels completely familiar. It sounds familiar. It tastes familiar. I’ve hardly noticed the century-old buildings jettisoning through the skyline to suggest anything different. Going through passport-control at Hearthrow airport even, answering the scripted questions by the rosey-cheeked Scotsman behind the glass felt like walking down the street of my home in Elsternwick on the way to the grocery store. I can sense a heightened state of readiness in the increased police presence everywhere, undoubtedly due to the State Department’s recent warning about potential terrorist attacks, but I also sense a kind of confidence in the everyday state of affairs. The assuredness with which Londoners function, knowing who they are, having a history that clearly dictates a distinct national identity, reinforced time and time again in culture, commerce and art is kind of enviable. While the rest of the world struggles to figure out the kind of country it wants to be [largely due to the imperialism and colonialism forced upon them by countries like The United Kingdom] Brits seem to know the answer to that question so well, it bores them even to be asked. Imagine knowing yourself so well that the subject no longer seems interesting.
Instead, Londoners are interested in being enticed. They’re interested in interesting people, even if they’re completely different from the norm. But it takes awhile to get their attention, and when obtained, there’s a curmudgeonly aspect to it that’s difficult to ignore.
The hierarchical structure of social class is prevalent. Gentrification is rife. Ambition appears to belong to the few…many accept the predisposed order of their maker [whether divine or Darwinian]. Sarcasm is the tongue of the educated and the non-educated alike, but wit, yet again, proves the province of the resilient.
It’s been an especially interesting time to be in London with the EU referendum approaching [on 23 June]. Had I planned this better, I would be here throughout the vote, documenting the public response through words and photographs. What makes it so interesting isn’t that it’s happening…when politics have become as toxic as they have in the UK [and the US for that matter] the upcoming vote seems less arbitrary than it looks; many I’ve spoken to have described it as an inevitability of the continued internal power struggle amongst the Torys…and, you know, racism.
What’s interesting is that The UK, the most historically established monarchy and English-speaking superpower of our time, is now asking itself what kind of country it wants to be. This, here, is a critical point of self-reflection in which they evaluate at the most granular level their relationship with the rest of Europe. And as the world becomes smaller through trade deals and the proliferation of technology, it feels…from an outsider’s perspective…completely counter-evolutionary [is that a word?] to remove the country from an economic model that will not only benefit more than it disadvantages, but will also prevent the continent from warring against itself again.
Some of my more conservative British friends have spoken about the concern of immigrants flooding the country, putting undue pressure on the NHS and stealing jobs from native-born Brits. I mean…I don’t want to sound like I understand the situation from all angles, because I don’t, but it does sound awfully familiar like the neo-conservative rhetoric used by Americans to elect self-serving ass-clowns like Donald Trump. So while I’m sure there are problems, however many or large they may be I will leave up to the good people of this country to determine, but from a practical standpoint, it seems to make more sense to address them head on, through diplomacy and good policy, than by withdrawing completely. It just feels like The UK is prematurely ejaculating from the continent. That’s not the best way I can describe it, buuuuut…it seems fitting to leave it at that. Because erectile dysfunction disappoints everyone.
The first few days I was in London, I caught up with old friends from Bauer and from SAIC. We debriefed over drinks and lunches, gallivanted through museums and posed hilariously with the art.
Greta and Bev took me to the Shard for the fanciest mocktails I’ve ever had, and then we met with Dean for dinner afterwards where I poked fun at his alopecia and we stole bites of dessert off of each other’s plates. Greta had made me nap earlier in the day so I rode through the first few days high as a kite, feeling invincible against the might of jet lag. The weather was beautiful – chilly, but blue and crisp and as good as it gets in London really. The sun sets late at night right now, so I often came home later than I realized, finding Greta and Bev in their PJs watching Game of Thrones and eating popcorn.
I met with Hannah, a friend from the Japanese Exchange Teaching [JET] program, who trained down from Reading to meet with me and introduce me to her adorable little girl. Hannah was just as I remembered her, but…as I kept reiterating… “…a mom?!” Difficult to imagine and yet perfect in every way. Our time together was brief, but deeply meaningful. Watching someone I love become a parent never stops blowing my mind. And as uncertain as I feel about the subject of having children, watching people as beautiful and intelligent and witty as Hannah do it, affirms to me why it may seem like the right thing to do…one day.
I wrote new jokes for a performance at Heavenly Comedy in Shephard’s Bush and recited them to myself while riding through the tube from here to there and everywhere in-between. I arrived there early the night of, paranoid that I would be late and that Njambi, the woman who runs it, would tell everyone in the comedy world about the lazy Aussie who couldn’t get her shit together. I sat in the comedy room, going over my jokes, meeting new comedians as they trickled in. That’s where I met Daniel, an actor and father with a dry wit and a charming delivery. I met Aydin, a musician just hanging out. I met Luke and Andy, friends of Greta and Beverley who came to support me…under the proviso that I was actually funny. Blair, an old friend from SAIC, came out with her husband as well. All in all, a very supportive crowd.
It was a great night of comedy, packed to the doors with punters and brimming with amateur talent. You gotta give it to the British – dry wit, when done well, is impossible to beat. I wish I had more stories about the people who went on after me, but by then my invincibility to jet lag had faded noticeably and I had begun the famed violent head-bob of resistance trying to stay awake, when what it must have looked like was me jamming to a heavy beat by myself in the second row.
I will say this…I was well received, and this filled me with an enormous sense of self-satisfaction. Jennifer Neal…international comedian.
The next day, I took the train to Bristol to reunite with an old friend I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade. He told me repeatedly to put more time aside for his fair city, and I should have, because I was overwhelmed by the youth of the place. Tattoos, live music, large parks, old cathedrals, interesting cafes…and Banksy! Everywhere you look, Banksy. Mark and I walked throughout the city posing with the art like we used to do in Japan on the weekends, making funny faces and debriefing on our fellow JET colleagues…where they are now. I ran into another ex-JET, Matt, and we all posed in front of an amazing mural of Boris Johnson making out with Donald Trump.
Later that night, I met Mark’s son, Jun, and kissed him bunches and bunches through squeals of laughter as we watched Totoro and drank rhubarb soda. Mark put Jun to bed and then he, his wife Rie and I stayed up late in the kitchen talking about life, and people and politics and love. They drank wine and I entertained them with my romantic follies. We laughed so loudly I have no idea how we didn’t wake up their son. Jet lag snuck up on me again but I powered through it just enough to plant the idea in Mark’s head to come visit Melbourne and explore our coffee culture himself.
The next day we had trouble coordinating lunch and I had to get back to London to meet with a friend of a friend for a catch up in the evening. I was so sad to leave them, not knowing when I would see them again…but mollified by the fact that I would.
I got back to the flat where Greta and Beverley were sitting outside pondering our choices for the evening. I was unable to coordinate with my acquaintance between broken access to Wifi, and in the end…neither of us wanted to train 25 minutes to meet the other, so I went to the pub instead where Greta and Beverley fulfilled their promise to get me intoxicated before the week’s end.
Greta was especially excited about this. She fist-pumps and dances to music that isn’t there when she’s excited. It’s incredibly adorable. Beverley’s wry sense of humor compliments it perfectly; she wields her words like daggers with a straight face and a glass of wine in her hand [preferably with some smelly cheese on a plate]. Together, you have never seen two people so psyched to get me out of my own head.
Luke came out to join us and, upon finding some cocaine residue lining the edge of a men’s toilet, became the life of the party. There’s nothing particularly special about The Gorringe Pub, but it did provide an interesting anthropological study on the state of drunken Brits. One thing you can’t help but notice about the British, because it’s an attribute common amongst its English-speaking commonwealth brethren, is that alcohol facilitates the transition from corporate worker to semi-seductive night-owl. In other words, you get to the heart of a Brit by giving him or her a few drinks…well everyone except Greta. She needs neither encouragement nor audience…but it helps!
Not that long after we settled into the pub I noticed Robin Hood on the other end of it. I’m calling him Robin Hood because if you gave him a pair of tights and a feathered-cap, that’s exactly what he would look like…but not the Cary Elwes version…this guy:
Yes, I’m saying I found myself attracted to a man who looked like the anthropomorphised version of a cartoon character/animal/garden nuisance. Did I mention I’d been drinking wine?
But don’t let my weird, Freudian subconscious deter you. He was genuinely foxy **shifty eyes**
He had floppy sandy-blonde hair and large blue eyes with soft blonde whiskers. He stretched along fully in the booth, extending his limbs and gesticulating casually as he conversed with his mate, a dark-haired fellow with a full, brown beard…and from what I could tell, impeccable teeth! Seriously, when you spend an extended period of time in London, teeth become a thing. I thought it was a stereotype. It isn’t.
RH [Robin Hood] had a sweet face and a sexy demeanor off of which I couldn’t keep my eyes. I’ve been so un-attracted to men lately, I thought something was wrong with me. Before leaving Sydney, my friend Aija suggested that maybe I have a romance [or two] while abroad, and my reaction to the idea was reminiscent of an 8-year old who just discovered cooties: “Ew! Yuck! Gross…NO.” Liar liar pants on fire. Death to the opposite sex. Girls rule, boys drool. But there I was…drooling over a man who reminded me of an animated monophyletic group of mammals.
I pointed him out to Greverley [Greta + Beverley] and they both agreed that he was a very handsome find, and they encouraged me to approach him. I refused. I adamantly refused.
“Look at him,” I thought… “Looking all fine, occasionally running his fingers through his hair, not paying any attention to anyone else but his friend. He’s surely gay…or dumb…or a serial killer. It can only be one [or more] of those three things! No…I’m traveling. I’m looking for a new home. I’m focused. I’m…drunk.”
Eventually, Greverley, Luke and I went outside and sat in a hut so they could smoke. Greta bought an entire shopping cart of potato crisps and I continued drinking wine. Greta bought petron café tequila shots. Greta…is an enabler. But I must admit, there is a method to her madness. Several glasses of wine, a tequila shot, and various political banter later, I decided to follow Greta back upstairs to the bar to see if RH was still there. He was. Greta was at the bar already and knew before I said a word what I wanted to do.
We chatted amongst ourselves for a few minutes, devising ways by which I could approach the handsome man on the other side of the bar. Occasionally, I would have to look over my shoulder for information on his dress or his demeanour, anything that would give me “an in.” Annoyingly, every time I did, an elderly gentleman with HORRIBLE teeth fell within my line-of-sight, interpreting my glances past him as advances on him, and returned them with lewd, loose-gummed enthusiasm.
Eventually Greta suggested the straight-forward approach: Hey, I saw you, think you’re kinda hot, wanna hang out?
Personally, I think it’s a horrible suggestion for a surgeon, but we had run out of time, the gummy man was coming for me and I wasn’t getting any more sober.
So I straightened myself, walked confidently over to the table where RH and his friend were, with Greta supportively by my side and I said “Hi, I don’t mean to interrupt, but I noticed you from across the bar and I thought I’d come and tell you how attractive I thought you OH MY GOD YOU HAVE A DOG!”
Yes. Several hours of pumping myself up to make an advance on this Viking-esque hottie, only to be distracted by the white toy poodle tucked at his friend’s side…Wooster. I wasn’t the only one geeking out. Greta had to make overt efforts to contain herself [she later told me that by playing with the dog she thought she had benefitted from this interaction more than I had]. RH handed us both treats to feed the dog and we did before she ran away to her owner again. We introduced ourselves to one another, and RH invited us to sit down. I’ll admit, I didn’t plan on it getting this far…I scavenged my mind for things to say and I have no recollection of what it is I actually said, but I assume it was witty and interesting because RH’s friend had to take off, and he took Wooster with him, so Greta invited RH to join us outside in the hut…which he accepted.
My nerves got the best of me in that moment and when asked if I wanted another drink I said no and told him that we would be right outside in the hut to come and play with us. When I got back downstairs to the hut, Greta, Beverley, Luke and another random woman who was feeling Beverley’s tits all scolded me for leaving him behind.
“He’ll just leave!”
“You didn’t accept another drink? You’re supposed to accept another drink!”
“Wait with him and talk to him before joining a large group! Jesus! What were you thinking?”
Forget about the fact that at least half of the objections are coming from lesbians who can’t remember what a dick even looks like. In my lubricated mind, they were making perfect sense. I fucked it. RH had run away and taken his fabulous hair with him. Just as Luke decided to chime in, telling me to play it cool, in pops the head of a man whose stature just kept going.
I didn’t realize how tall he was. The man just kept on going before he plopped himself right next to me and we began our rounds of chit chat between glasses of wine, pints of beer and bags of crisps. Again, I have no idea what we discussed. It was one large cloud of white noise occupied by drunken friends with various accents, and this continued until late, when the pub had to close. I’m told that I’m quite eloquent when I’m intoxicated, but I doubt my physical appearance reflects this. I can feel myself trying very hard to look composed, balancing my chin on cupped hands and sounding out the words in my head before they escape my lips, which come out in a slow, charming drawl. So when I suggested that RH join us at the next venue, I like to think it sounded like honey dripping off the tongue instead of a leaky faucet that just won’t.stop.running.
We migrated over to the Little Bar, where Greverley bought me a spritzer [something they believed wouldn’t fuck my head up] before disappearing into the night, sending a text message of encouragement and the post-code for me to find my way home.
…and then there was RH and myself…off my tits, drunk.
WHAT THE FUCK DO I DO NOW?
This is where my memory comes into better focus. I found myself in a heated argument with RH over American politics, in which I somehow managed to articulate myself in a manner that was comprehensible, but that he found completely disagreeable. I sensed his exasperation, which became apparent the more he ran his fingers through his hair [side note – I resisted the urge to replace his hand with mine]. He was intensely engaged in the argument, and his gesticulations had gone from mild to animated. I was unmoved in my argument, and that…to my immense satisfaction…irritated him even more. But the conversation was fun, interesting and didn’t bore for a moment. RH was intelligent, funny, charming and personable…and I met him at a pub. I excused myself to the bathroom and stared myself at myself hard in the mirror, grasping the edge of the sink and examining the liquidity in my eyeballs.
I had decided to kiss Robin Hood. I checked my phone – Greverley endorsed this idea, and when the Tiger Lesbians that project manage your life give their approval, it simply must be done.
When I walked out, the bar was closing up and the staff had begun putting chairs up onto the tables. RH was standing and everyone waited for us to leave. But because I didn’t know where he was going, and because I wasn’t sure if I would see him again, I made the move right then. I asked him if I could kiss him, and he responded positively with a robust “SURE.”
I finally ran my fingers through his floppy blonde hair, which was hard to do even as I stood on my tiptoes. I finally touched his soft whiskers. He tasted like gin and cloves. The staff began yelling at us to leave, at which point I felt RH’s hand behind my back go from between my shoulder-blades to what Beverley calls “flicking the V’s” [meaning – fuck off]. We left the bar with his arm around my shoulder and exchanged numbers on a cold street corner in Tooting, our phones in one hand, my other hand, slipped through his other hand. We kissed more and parted ways for the night. I skipped back to the flat happily…nothing involving someone as handsome as him ever ends as well as it did that night, so I celebrated the only way I knew how in my giggly inebriated state – by dancing. I danced myself into bed. I probably fell asleep with the same ridiculous grin on my face.
The next day Greta was hung over. Truly, madly, deeply hung over…the kind of hangovers of which sonnets are written. She peed with a piece of fried chicken in her mouth and bathed until life ran through her veins again. Beverley prepared breakfast in the form of sourdough toast, crispy bacon and mashed avocado. We had pastries with our tea and coffee, and when we were done, I had a message from RH. It was a message, wishing me a good morning, and a song – My Girl Josephine by Supercat.
Again, I found myself in the position of not knowing how to respond…or what to do. Again, I didn’t think it would get this far. I mean…a song?? That’s way too considerate for the morning after gratuitous drink. And a good song…an obscure song, a song surely only recognized by people with impeccable taste.
I thought a little too hard about my response. I actually sat at the table with my hands steepled and my eyebrows furrowed until I decided that the only appropriate response would be dance. That is, after all, what the song demands.
My response to RH was based less off of the enjoyment of the exchange, and more on the fact that I simply like I had to “one-up” him. You want to send me a song? Fine. I’ll send you a video of me dancing to it.
THAT’LL TEACH YOU.
[Side note – WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME? Only an over-analytical intellectual would turn a dancehall song sent via text into a critical chess move].
Beverley recorded a video of Greta and I dancing to the song, and I sent it back to RH. In fairness, it started out as a beautiful day, and the sunshine from the back garden only encouraged my shenanigans. I would’ve danced on camera anyway. I think anyone would have! Shortly there after, we all jumped into the car to pick up Alex and Kerry for our day trip to Ightham Mote in Kent [a national trust site replete with a period cottage, pristine gardens, enormous trees and a large green paddock].
It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen…like something out of a Jane Austen novel. Until Beverley reminded me “No Jennifer…this place is far too old for a Jane Austen setting.”
**grumble grumble**…know it all.
We ate scones, crumble, potatoes and quiche in the cafeteria and toured the halls of the cottage, where volunteers had taken especial care to retain the architectural integrity of the edifice and its historic accessories. Small bouquets of dried flowers had been placed on chairs so that nobody would sit on them. Large laminated pages explaining the historical significance of the paintings, the wallpaper and the unfamiliar instruments were handed out by the volunteers. Beverley bought these amazing animal masks, one for each of us, which we wore at random points throughout the day. When we did they often came accompanied with my particular brand of narrative, where the masks were somehow at the centre of a story about an abandoned orphanage where the children would wear them and haunt visitors until their last, dying breaths.
…did I mention how much wine I had the night before?
Alex and Kerry were interesting as well. So far, all of Greverley’s friends have been amazing. Funny, quirky, brilliant in their own right, entertaining and inexplicably kind-hearted. We all picked up with one another as if we’ve known each other our whole lives, and it felt perfectly natural to wear a koala mask with these people, squeal with them at the site of large century-old trees and sing Queen with them in the car as we drove back to London.
An open bottle of luke-warm prosecco, Freddy Mercury and the rolling green landscape of Kent in the background…is there anything else more quintessentially British?
London had presented an immeasurable number of delights. It was clear that my largest base was here, presenting a strong chance of prosperity. And with Greverley at my side, it’s impossible to think that I could ever go wrong. I had met with various recruiters and media contacts, old work colleagues and potential new ones, all giving me the confidence to think that I would be just fine in London if I wanted to make it happen. It was the perfect way to start the trip, and left the rest of Europe with big shoes to fill.
The day came to a close, and the crew eventually fucked off to the pub. I stayed back at the flat to take a hot bath and repack for then next leg of my trip.
I was taking the train to Amsterdam the following day.