Life In London: September 2002 Archives
It's our first morning in our short-term let, a one-bedroom flat in a converted Victorian townhouse halfway between Notting Hill Gate and Bayswater.
We took our landlady somewhat by surprise by offering to move in so quickly, and, as a result, the apartment is missing certain luxuries, like curtains on the windows and the shower. But we are happy just to have some place to put our belongings for the next six weeks. And thanks to the bright sunlight pouring in through the uncurtained windows, I wake up refreshed, and in sync with the time zone. I turn on the hot water heater, and head for the shower.
But novice that I am in the world of hot-water heaters, I do not realize until I feel the bracingly cold water flowing out of the faucet that I should probably have turned the heater on an hour ago. Still, a cold shower will still be refreshing. In the absence of a shower curtain, I want to be careful not to get water on the brand new hardwood floors, so I angle the shower head towards the wall and turn it on.
A few drops of cold water dribble vaguely out.
With a little experimentation, I discover the shower head will function if I pull it off the wall and hold it at about waist level. The problem, of course, is that half of my body occurs above waist level. I manage to wash myself off by performing an elaborate series of bends and twists, made more complex by the fact that I must keep the shower head safely pointed away from that new hardwood floor at all times.
When it's done, I feel strangely exhilarated, much as I gather Lauren does after one of her yoga classes. But perhaps that pleasant tingling of my skin is just a side effect of the cold water.
As Lauren heads into the bathroom, I warn her about the great lengths to which she will have to go. Ten minutes later, when she emerges from the shower, she tells me her solution: fill up the bathtub, sit comfortably down in it, and use the shower head to wash yourself off. Now that she mentions it, I have seen that very thing done in old movies, from the period in which science had discovered indoor plumbing and sound, but hadn't yet gotten around to water pressure and color. I believe the proper procedure is to sing loudly and off-key while you scrub yourself with a loofah, until a group of mischievous neighborhood waifs burst in through the door in search of their dog, who turns out to have been hidden under the soap bubbles all along.?
We arrive into London Heathrow sleepless and jetlagged. Because we are carrying six large suitcases, as well as two large boxes that clearly contain a Macintosh tower computer and a monitor, we are stopped by a customs officer when we walk through the "Nothing to Declare" hallway.
Looking over our assemblage of baggage, he looks at me and asks how long we'll be in London. Lauren answers, "Two years." Still looking at me, he asks, "And what will you be doing?" Lauren tells him she'll be working in London. Still looking at me, he asks what the computer is for. I tell him I'm a writer.
I have one problem. Last month, Lauren spent a week in London scouting out apartments. One of the flats she looked at was located over a pawn shop. When I told this to my co-worker Jim, he adopted a lower-class British accent to demonstrate the words he imagined I'd hear floating through my window, all day and night: "How mooch for the bahnjo, guv'nah?" Why, exactly, a Londoner was looking for a banjo in a pawnshop was never clear, but the way Jim said it was so funny that it became a refrain, repeated by my co-workers every time the subject of my impending trans-Atlantic move arose.
Now, standing at customs, the problem is that the officer has exactly the same accent Jim was imitating. I try to suppress the image of him asking "How mooch for the bahnjo, guv'nah?" but my reserve of willpower has been drained by exhaustion. I cannot help reflect that it is, after all, in the nature of the job of Customs Inspector to inquire after the price of things. Surely, in all his years on the job, some passenger must have brought a banjo into the country. If the man asks me, "How mooch was the computah, guv'nah" I am going to lose it completely.
And I don't have a moment to compose myself, because he directs all his questions at me, although Lauren is answering most of them. Evidentally, he has never seen a trailing husband. ("Trailing husband" has always sounded to me like something that must be removed through lengthy surgery under general anesthesia. In fact, it simply means that my wife's job is the driving force behind our relocation, and I am following her.)
Fortunately, we make it through customs without loss of property or straight face, and catch a cab into the city. Our first glimpse of fabled London traffic is not as bad as I had feared; it seems to take about 45 minutes to get into the City. Even crammed among our possessions in the cab, it is not a bad ride. When traffic is slow, the cabby chats through the window with the drivers of other cabs. I wonder if they know each other, or if there is just a universal brotherhood of London cabbies.
Later that day, as we enter the Notting Hill Gate real estate office where Lauren has made an appointment, we have awoken somewhat. We shake hands with Jean-Pierre, who, despite his name, is clearly British. I would like to ask him about his name, but I am afraid it is some sort of mortal insult to ask an Englishman if he has French blood in him.
We climb into Jean-Pierre's car, and take off, and immediately, all the cues I have been learning since childhood begin working against me. As far as my gut knows, the only time you have cars speeding towards you on the right side of the street is when you are driving the wrong way down a one way street. Plus, in England, you don't have to park in the direction of traffic, so many of the parked cars on our left are facing towards us as well. And my gut is further alarmed by the fact that I am sitting in the driver's seat but do not have a steering wheel, an accelerator, or, most alarmingly of all, brakes. Add in my lack of sleep over the past 24 hours, and you have the very definition of a nightmare ride.
I'm glad we won't be owning a car here.