The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

A Castle, A Cathedral, A Zombie, and I MET A BOY..

"Ha-HA!" is my victorious cry. *I* met a boy. Yes I did. Or rather, *he* met *me.* I went to see the Envy Corps at the Koko Club in Camden Town, at Hannah's Suggestion, and he asked me to dance. We danced and shouted at each other over the music several times over the course of the evening, and at the end of the night he got my number. Today he texted me. Ha ha. I met a British Boy. Well, British-Syrian. He is cool. He is British-born of Syrian origin, a Sunni Muslim Communist with a good sense of humor (somewhere, my grandmother's head is exploding).

I don't know him well enough to know if I like him or not, but from our shouted conversations I gathered that he is quite intelligent, willing to discuss politics and religion at length (a big plus, I LOVE doing that) and has a sense of humor. If any of you have an image in your head of a Scary Arab With A Turban and A Machine Gun Who Will Kidnap/Forcibly Marry Natalie and Carry Her Off to Syria, please, stop it now. Just stop.

As I said, I don't know if I "like" him like him (I suddenly feel 12) because I just met him, but he seems like a nice guy (seriously, STOP.) and I wanted to meet locals anyway. He introduced me to some of his friends who were there, mostly white Brits from what I could tell. He wants to hang out this weekend. Haha. I met a local!

Another fun story from last night:

We got out of the club around 1:00am and went to the bus stop across the street to catch the 24-hr neighborhood bus, and waited for quite a while with our fellow patrons for one to arrive. We waited a good 20 minutes, and no bus. This would have been okay except that Kristen had to pee rather desperately. So desperately, in fact, that instead of waiting another moment, she hailed a cab. While we were riding back to the college, the cab driver nearly ran over this shadowy figure in the middle of the road. There was a man, walking down the middle of the street, shuffling and stumbling not entirely unlike a zombie, wavering from side to side not entirely unlike a zombie, and when he finally moved aside enough for the car to pass, he looked over his shoulder at us and we saw in his eyes a vacant, sad look not entirely unlike that of a zombie and a slight headwound not ENTIRELY unlike one characteristic of your average zombie. Marie and I looked at each other and knew we were thinking the same thing. "Zombie," we said. After a beat or two, she said, "Actually, you guys, if there was a zombie attack, I don't know what I would do!" Shocked, I responded, "You don't have a zombie contingency plan???" "Not here," she said. "Of course I have one at home." It suddenly hit me: *I* did not have a zombie contingency plan for London, either. "Oh my god," I said, "We have to work this out!" We still haven't gotten around to it yet, but it's on the to-do list.

In other news, I went to a very very very old Castle today in the English Countryside, called Leeds Castle. It was quite cool. There were lots of exotic birds there. Next we went to Canterbury (of the famous Tales, of course) and saw the town and cathedral. We almost didn't go into the cathedral because we were mad that we had to pay to go in a church, but once we coughed up 4 quid 50p each, we were glad we did. It was incredible; the biggest room I've ever been in in my life. As massively impressive and awe-inspiring as it is today, I can't imaging how awesome it was for people in Chaucer's day. No wonder they walked so far.

The castle and the cathedral are better described in pictures than words, unless I had about 5 days to type out descriptions of everything, which I don't, so I encourage you to visit my flickr site. My username is siren7. Click the link on the left.

That's all for now, cheers from Londontown.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

City of a Million Faces

I haven't posted anything the past few days because I haven't done anything really huge that you guys would recognize, like going to Big Ben and all that. I've just been exploring, basically. My friends and I walk around different neighborhoods, getting a feel for the place. Last night we went down to Charing Cross Road, near Trafalgar Square and the Strand. Charing Cross is famous for having all the bookshops in a row, and that's what we were there for. We needed books for class, but we weren't entirely successful because we kept looking for a really cheap secondhand place. The cheap secondhand places didn't have what we needed. So we went back to Foyle's, where we'd gone first, and ended up getting most things there. Foyle's is stylistically similar to a Barnes & Noble or Borders, but it's enormous, the biggest one in the area, and, I think, London. Five levels, I believe. Almost the entire first floor is fiction, and they have a whole room full of catalogued sheet music. I got most of the novels for my Contemporary British Fiction class; in case you were wondering, they are: Atonement by Ian McEwan, Brick Lane by Monica Ali, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. This, of course, will be supplemented by readings from various short story anthologies. I was a bit surprised that White Teeth by Zadie Smith didn't make the list, but perhaps the professor thought it overdone.

We walked to Charing Cross instead of taking the tube, though we were tired enough and saddled with enough books by the end that we took the tube back. It took probably half an hour or so to walk there, but the pain from the cold and the pavement are worth it just to see the city, familiarize yourself with the neighborhood, and, well, see the city. In the area we were in, it was very "artsy modern big big city;" there were theaters everywhere, and I even found play with Cillian Murphy in it, which I will be going to see before long, I think. I absolutely MUST. There were tall buildings in close, pubs here and there, lots of lights, rushing traffic, busy sidewalks, lots of shops. But even in the rush and the flash, London still remains London; that is, the streets wind and fork off from one another; there is no grid. One moment your in a Times-Square-esque rushing boulevard or intersection, but duck into an alley and you're in a tight cluster of pubs, shops, and theatres entwined with narrow cobblestone paths. Twisting, turning, secrets around every corner, just as Neil Gaiman described it. Riding the tube makes me want to read Neverwhere again; Islington Angel, Knightsbridge, King's Cross, Blackfriars, they're all real stops.

The thing that has struck me the most about the city is how it seems to have so many different faces. I'm sure this is true of most big cities, but with London it seems that it never comes to an end. Neighborhood by neighborhood you go deeper and deeper into it's personality, like getting to know a very complex person. The grand scale and awe-inspiring history of the Westminster district (Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, River Thames, St. Paul's) are in direct contrast with the shabby, bohemian youth culture of Camden Town. The intellectual artsy-ness and romanticism of the Bloomsbury area compliments the flashier performing of the Strand. Oxford street smiles cooly with designer shops frequented by hordes of tourists, Regent's park is a quiet oasis. There are many sides to this city, many different parts of its personality, but it doesn't seem schizophrenic. It just seems like a person with layers, who likes to go out to rock shows on Friday nights, read a book sunday mornings, eat Indian food for lunch on Wednesday, and, above it all, happens to have rich parents. In other words, London seems like a Londoner. I'm certain, just like a really complex person, 4 months isn't nearly long enough to get to know it well. If I'm lucky, by the time I leave I'll be a close enough acquaintance that it might e-mail me once in a while and ask how I'm getting along with my highly religious and unnecessarily strict mother, Springfield.

Oh, and I posted picture of week one on Flickr. You can get there by clicking on the icon to the left that plays a zoom-in, zoom-out slide show.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Bringing You Up-to-Speed... Protestors, Punks, and Parliament

Right then, where was I? Well, as you probably guessed I made it safely to the college, with bags, out of breath and with nothing in my stomach, at around 9:30am. Before that, though, exhausted and shaken as we were, we had to figure out where the Gatwick express train was, take a train to the correct area of the airport, buy Gatwick express tickets, find the correct platform, get on the train, get off the train, find the street, and hail a cab, all hauling 100 pounds or more of cumbersome bags each and having no idea what we were doing in the first place.

There were, however, bright spots. One was a luggage trolley. The other was a very nice British boy.

As my first impression of the country had been a very rough landing and a very tiny bathroom, it was nice that it was quickly counteracted by a very helpful and quite charming young Londoner. He saw us struggling to get on the express with our bags and offered to help. Luckily the train wasn’t too full and we were able to stow our bags in empty seats, because the luggage rack was full, at least too full for all our bags, and we wouldn’t have been able to haul them up there anyway. Helpful Young Londoner, or HYL as he will be referred to henceforth, brought a few of our bags aboard and then assisted us in throwing them up into empty seats. He accepted our thanks and then sat back down, keeping to himself, until I said something or other to him and the four of us (me, Marie, Tammy and Hyl) struck up conversation. We talked about America, and the ice storm, and he talked about London and gave us some sound advice. He was very nice indeed, and we (mostly Marie and I, Tammy looked peacefully out the window recomposing herself) talked for the entire journey, about half an hour.

When we got into town he told us how to get up to the street, what kind of cab to take, etc, but couldn’t stay long to help us because he was late for work, and, as the airline had “lost my case, the wankers, so I’ve got to wear this” (a nice blue sweater over a blue collared shirt with navy pants and nice shoes. Looked semi-formal to business casual to me, but apparently wasn’t formal enough) he was a bit worried to begin with.

I could go into more detail about our first ride through London (looked just as I had imagined—lovely) our nice cabbie who had to help us with our ghastly bags (got a good tip) our arrival at the hall (same bags, three flights of stairs) and the long, long day that followed (was quite sick, hadn’t had any sleep, longest day of life), I’m just too far behind to go into all that now.

I was sick a bit for the first few days, I think just from the shock, the terror of the landing, the physical exhaustion and hunger, and all the rest of it, but by Friday I was mostly normal, and now I feel fine.

Friday Marie, Tammy and I went out of the college for the first time and into the city, which I was nervous about, but once I got out I felt much better. Part of my nerves was probably from not knowing what to expect about actually being on the street in the city, and once I confronted it and found myself capable I was on the road to recovery.

Friday, first day out, we just walked out the park and around the corner, hanging close to Baker Street station, which is our ‘hood now. We bought some things at Boots, a drugstore, that we needed, and got our Oyster cards, which are pre-paid transport cards for the Tube (subway) and buses. Tammy and I got Quizno’s, and it was the first time I really ate since Wednesday morning’s IHOP. We then went back to the college to meet up in the Lobby for a (poorly) organized field trip to go to a Jack the Ripper Walk. I rode the tube for the first time in the busiest and craziest of circumstances. As soon as we entered the gates, our group of 100 dispersed because the planned line was down, and, having no idea what we were doing, the girls and I simply followed some other students who seemed more sure of themselves. We knew which stop we were going for and there were maps posted everywhere, so we found our way alright, but it was at peak time so the place was packed with quickly-moving crowds and the trains were like sardine cans. After riding, changing lines, fighting our way through another tube station, and finally arriving at the pre-planned stop, the small group we were with (about 12 students out of the initial 100) found itself square in front of the tower of London, which was awesome, but without any clue as to where the rest of the group was or what we were looking for. We sat on the Tower Hill a good 20 minutes or so before our walking guides arrived and another 5 or 10 before the rest of the college group came as well.

After that, all was awesome. The walking tour was great. Basically, the tour guide was an animated and knowledgeable man who took a small group of us (15 or so) around the area, stopping periodically and telling us the story of Jack the Ripper and the “autumn of terror” in 1888. He described 1888 London to us, told us all the details of everything that happened, who found the bodies, what was done to them, what clues the police had, and all the rest. It was absolutely excellent and made me want to learn more about Jack the Ripper, and more importantly, the time and context that produced him.

We did other things that night, including going to a pub, and I had my first cider (not like American cider; alcoholic and fizzy. Like beer only tasting of apple). I’m going to skip ahead though.

Yesterday we went out three times. The first time was to go to Woolworth’s general store about 20min walk away. While we were there we saw an anti-Iraq war/anti-American protest in the streets that stopped traffic for about ten minutes. It was a demonstration by a local Arab community, and they were peaceful, but policeman walked alongside the group on either side, to ensure that it stayed that way. I got the sense that the police were there to protect the protestors from backlash rather than defend the general public against them. The protestors held specific and articulate signs, shouted in megaphones, and chanted. At first I was a little frightened and tried to disguise my accent for a while. I didn’t want to go outside while they were passing, but I took pictures from inside the store, which I will post later. I was actually really thrilled to see it, even though it was just a little scary at first. I was glad that people were actually exercising their right of free speech and were making themselves heard in a peaceful way, and it made me wish that such things happened more often in America.

The second time we went out, we went down to the British Museum in the Bloomsbury neighbourhood. The place was enormous. We were there for 2 hours and basically only saw 2 rooms (and not all the stuff in them) and the gift shop (and not all the stuff in that). I’ll post more about the British Museum another time when I’m able to see more of it.

We went back to college, and then (though we were exhausted and sore) out to a little Italian restaurant nearby. The food was good, but we had the hardest time getting them to bring us our check, and after that we ended up just leaving cash on the table because they wouldn’t come pick up a credit card. We were there for 3 hours. After that we went to a pub again, the same pub right next to the station, but Tammy and I were so tired that we left soon after arriving, without ordering anything.

Today I went to Camden Town with a college group, and it was really fun even though it was freezing cold and windy on a really long walk. The area around Marleybone Road and Baker street, which we walk through all the time on our way from campus to the tube, is busy but not cramped at all; the streets are really wide and straight, the sidewalks are wide, and there generally isn’t much congestion on the sidewalks. Camden Town was the opposite. The streets were narrow and winding but cars and motorcycles still sped through them, and the sidewalks were quite crowded with an incredibly diverse mix of people. I saw lots of “true” punk rockers (1 foot tall yellow and red Mohawks, tight black ripped pants, lots of metal jewellery, leather jackets). We were there for two hours and only covered about half a block. Not kidding. Camden Town was full of tiny shops either in holes in the wall or just in tents on the sidewalk, selling cheap punk clothes, hippie clothes, boho clothes, Indian clothes, cheap hats, gloves, lighters, ashtrays, wallets, purses, bags, shoes, etc etc etc. I bought a gorgeous patchwork silk skirt (picture to come) and saw lots of things I could get for souvenirs.

Tonight, we were going go to a Boots in Notting Hill, but since the store closed at 5, we decided to just pop down to Westminster. We saw Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye, and walked across the River Thames. We didn’t go up in the Eye yet because we got there just as it was closing, but it’s going to be amazing when we do. It was cool enough to see Big Ben and Parliament lit up at night, and the lights of the Eye gleaming on the Thames.

I think that’s enough for now; brings you up to speed at least, if you actually read all this. Classes start tomorrow morning, and I’m quite excited. Early this week I should finally have internet in my room, so I’ll be able to post pictures and communicate online more often. Cheers.

Friday, January 19, 2007

In London! (Barely) Intact!

Sorry for the delay in updates, but I don't have WiFi in my room yet and this is the first I've made it down to the IT centre (<-----note the excessively British spelling of "centre." Yes, I really am here).

Wednesday/Thursday was the longest day of my life, and perhaps one of the most unpleasant. The only bright spot was when we were taking a cab from the train station to the college and I saw my first glimpses of the city in passing, but more on that later.

I rose around 8:00 on Wednesday morning to a blissful amount of power from our new generator, and enjoyed the devlish act of flipping a switch and being flooded with light.

I ate breakfast at IHOP with my family then made it to the airport around 10:30. I checked in without a hitch and my bags were way below the weight limit, which was a wonderful surprise. They later proved to be plenty heavy, regardless of what the airline said. More on that, too.

The was a slight wrinkle in my security passage as my father embarassingly wanted to photograph my every move and motion, which the security officer was not too keen on. However, I was soon on my way to one of Springfield's 4 or 5 gates. You gotta love the Springdale. I wouldn't fly out of anywhere else.

I met up with Tammy and Marie, my travel companions, and soon enough we were off to Atlanta. The flight was quite short and pleasant enough. We alighted at Atlanta and found our gate for the London flight easily. We had a bit of entertainment during our 2.5 hour layover as we spied the bagage throwers directly below us through the large picture windows, cramming our luggage into the metal pods to be transferred to the plane. Tammy noticed that one particularly good-looking young thrower seemed to be struggling with one of her very large and very overweight suitcases. This particular suitcase weighed 80 pounds, and the poor lad, who did not appear by any means to be a weakling, was having a terrible time trying to force her case in the top of the pod, over his head. We giggled as he huffed and puffed and pushed and shoved on that case, trying to no avail to get it into the pod. He called for backup and the two of them tried at it for a good 5 minutes, eventually forcing it in there. When it was finally in the pod we saw him nearly collapse as he sat down on the side wheel of the pod to catch his breath. We were equally breathless with laughter. It probably sounds cruel, but it was rather humorous, especially since he was so cute and obviously cocky. The best part was, all through our laughing and pointing, we assumed that no one outside could see in the windows because they appeared to be glazed. As we took off from Atlanta a few minutes later, we found that this was decidedly not the case. No wonder he seemed to keep looking up at us.

This is where things go terribly amiss.

I did not eat in the Atlanta airport because I did not feel hungry, and the day had been moving so fast that I didn’t really realize how much time had passed since I’d eaten breakfast. As soon as I sat down on the trans-atlantic flight I realized how hungry I was, and soon after take off my hunger and anxiety combined gave me a headache and an upset stomach. I was dead tired but unable to sleep, couldn’t read because of the headache, couldn’t eat because of the upset stomach (which made the stomach and the headache worse), couldn’t properly hear music or film dialogue because of the engines, and all in all was entirely miserable, physically and mentally.

This lasted approximately 7 hours.

After that, things got much, much worse. Just when I thought I couldn’t take any more, we approached Gatwick airport. We began our descent and everything seemed to be fine first, until the winds started. It was like a high-profile rollercoaster gone terribly wrong. The plane shook and banged and lurched, the cabin pressure went up and down and up and down violently and almost constantly. There were high gusting winds at Gatwick, and we were feeling it extremely. We saw lights and started getting close to the ground, the plane still lurching violently, and I felt my hands begin to go numb from fear. We drew nearer and nearer, then, suddenly, the engines gunned again and we were thrusting up. The entire plane groaned (the passengers, that is; the fuselage was probably not happy either) and after a few moments the captain came on and told us that because of the gusty winds, etc, he had to abort landing and was going to come round for another try. We cruised for a good twenty minutes or so, the turbulence dying down since we were above it, but I was still desperate to get off the damn plane, as was everyone else. In the words of Tammy, “We’d better land this time. I can’t take it again. If we don’t land this time, I’m not going to make it.”

We started to descend for another try, and the turbulence picked up again. We were all feeling nauseated from fear and pressure change, and Tammy got out the airsick bag. She sat there with her eyes closed for a moment, then threw up in the bag. I didn’t feel too ill, but decided to get the bag out anyway. I rubbed her back to make her feel better, then, without warning, did a dry heave. I opened my bag and threw up in it a few times, giving up what tiny amount of airplane breakfast I had managed to choke down a few minutes earlier. I threw up much more than she did, and now she was rubbing my bag. Poor Marie wasn’t so lucky. She didn’t have a bag.

Half the plane was throwing up, including the guy behind us, and with every lurch in cabin pressure all the babies and small children (of which there were many) would scream. It was not fun. It was the sort of situation where I started promising all sorts of things to God if he let me live through this, and, praise Jesus, we were able to land on the second pass. As we coasted down the runway, the plane gave up a round of applause.

We stumbled off that wretched plane into Gatwick airport, wherein we immediately noticed differences from the American version. Most notably, the bathrooms were tiny. In America, an airport bathroom is enormous, with a dozen or more sinks and toilets, wide expanses of space, and automated everything. This bathroom was a three-stall gas-station size bathroom. In an airport. Amazing. We went to the bathroom first for several obvious reasons which I don’t need to explain here.

Then it was immigration time. At this point it was about 1:30 am for us, 7:30 or so local time, and we stood in a very long and twisty line waiting for our turn with the immigration officers. We all got through without any problem, but I was a little surprised, as I didn’t feel credible to answer any questions at that point, including “what is your name,” and certainly not “what city did you fly out from.”

There were many more trials to come, however, as we made our way to the baggage claim and proceeded to haul between 90-165lbs of luggage through a foreign country. The saga continues next entry…

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Countdown: Icebox

My city is encased in ice.

We have no power at my house, some of my friends have no water, and all in all it's quite the semi-apocalypic scenario.

I actually rather like it.

My family is huddled together in my aunt's house, I think there are close to 30 people here, and I find it rather cozy. I must admit I like semi-apocalyptic scenarios, because a) It's an adventure, b) it makes you grateful for what you have and c) it makes for excellent stories later on. I actually can't think of a better way to spend my last few days in the country than trapped in an unusual situation with 30 or so friends and relations.

Some people, when they lost power, gave up and went to a hotel, but not my family. At our house, dad brought a gas stove in to cook on and we heated the house with the fireplace. We have a hurricane lamp and dozens of candles and flashlights for light. Crashing sounds can be heard every few minutes as one tree after another gives up a limb or gives up completely.

I realize that I can't seem to write this properly, but I think my mind is a bit scattered. I've had so many thoughts the past few days, regarding Children of Men, which I saw Friday night before much damage was done, my immenent departure, and semi-apocalyptic scenarios. This is the first internet access I've had since Friday night, which isn't a terribly long time I know, but now it's all tumbling out disorganized. I wish I could post pictures, but I don't have my camera cable with me. Anyway it just looks like all the pictures they're showing on the news. I don't think there's a tree in Springfield left intact.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Countdown: London

One week to go. I leave next Wednesday the 17th.

I was actually more freaked out 6 months ago than I am now. This sounds melodramatic, but 6 months ago I had connections, something to lose... I have friends now, of course, whom I will miss very much, but somehow I feel freer to just pick up and go. Just go.

My room is almost nearing a state that could in some cases be considered "clean."

I have been looking into dancing opportunities in London. Apparently "Lindy Hop" is bigger there than American East or West Coast Swing.

I guess I just don't quite know what to expect, but I feel remarkably stable. Look for a more Natalie-style breakdown next week. (Hopefully not.)

P.S.: I got an iPod Video! Yay! He's all sleek and black and will comfort me/lull me into a zombie-like state, so I named him Hypnos.