It had been 15 years since I had been back to England but, as always, flying over that beautiful green island I had an incredible feeling of coming home. My cousin’s wife, Tina, does not understand it. Although I was born in England, my parents immigrated to Canada when I was only 18 months old. I grew up in Toronto and have spent almost all of my adult life in Montreal. But England makes me feel something like I wish my parents had never immigrated. I love the people – their friendliness, sense of humor and good cheer. The English are acutely aware of their flaws but are admirably able to shrug them all off and have a good laugh at anyone’s expense. They can get away with it too because they laugh hardest at themselves. It is also a country of incredible beauty: rolling green hills that, walking across in the smeary, aircraft-streaked sunlight, make you feel like you are in an episode of Game of Thrones (without the imminent threat of getting beheaded).
I spent the first 3 days with my cousin Mark and his wife, Tina, in Nutfield – about 30 minutes south of central London by train. Although it had been 15 years since I last saw them, we have always been the same in that, when we are together again, it is as if not a day has gone by since we last saw each other. The laughter and companionship just kick in effortlessly and the party is on. It is difficult with my small family because I am no longer on speaking terms with my father or my other cousin in England. My mother, who was here at the same time as me staying up in London, can barely speak to her sister. However, with Mark and Tina, and their son, I felt truly like coming home. I felt so English and happy (apparently my English accent has come back!!!)
On the day after I arrived, Mark and Tina invited their friends, Deb and Dave (and their two kids), over for a party. That was insane and fun. I don’t know how many crates of lager we went through. Here is an example of the quality of the conversation:
Dave: Oh, fuck off!
Me: No really, if you pick the same number in the lottery – you have a very slightly higher chance of winning. Of course, your chances of getting struck by lightning 3 times on the same day are still higher.
Mark and Tina simultaneously: You are such a fucking wanker.
Deb: No, Andrew is right. Think about it. If you are rolling dice: if you pick 6 each time you have a 1-in-6 chance of getting that number each time you roll the dice. If you just pick a random number each time, your chances are going to be less, aren’t they?
Me [self-righteously]: Thank you, Deb. You are a scholar.
Mark: You are an idiot. Probability doesn’t work that way. Each time you roll the dice and pick a number you have a 1-in-6 chance of getting it each time. It makes absolutely no difference if you pick the same number each time.
Me: Fuck off! Obviously, if you choose the same number each time, the probability is higher…
This went on and on until the Internet was called upon and Deb and I were proven wrong. God, I hate the Internet sometimes.
I arrived in England on Friday 4 October. On the Sunday, I went up to London for 3 days to see my girlfriend, Linda. She had rented a flat for us by the Holloway Road tube station. My friends said: “Oh, that’s a dodgy neighbourhood in north London and there’s a women’s prison there as well.” What a load of bullshit (well, okay, there is a women’s prison there and I refrained from going on a panty raid) but it was a lovely little neighbourhood with lots of bistros, cafés, bars, grocery stores – you name it. We were totally satisfied and happy there.
For reasons unknown, I felt a little sick the first morning I got up with Linda but I shook it off and we had a magical 3 days in London. She had arrived in the city a couple of days before me and by the time I joined her she had worked out the tube system, knew exactly where everything was and embarrassed me by demonstrating that she knew a hell of a lot more about my birthplace than I did! I am about to list all the places I went to with Linda but, before I do so (as she actually reads this blog) I need to say that as I walked around London with her, hand-in-hand, I had this incredible sensation take over my body and give me goose pimples: it was this weird thing called happiness and contentment. I am so grateful to her for putting up with my nonsense, laughing with me and sharing her life with me. I am trying, for some reasons, to be careful but I love her. There, I said it. Anyway, I am sure I am forgetting some things but here is where we went:
- Trafalgar Square
- The Strand
- Fleet Street
- Covent Garden
- Saint Paul’s Cathedral
- Leicester Square
- China Town
- Regents Park
- Houses of Parliament
- Westminster Abbey
- Buckingham Palace
- The Mall
- Tower of London
- South shore of the Thames (i.e. around where the Tate and Globe Theatre is)
- Shoreditch (street art in the east end)
- Camden Market
I know – mostly tourist things but Mark came up to London from Nutfield on Wednesday and joined Linda and I to go to Camden Market. We were supposed to link up with my mother there but when Mark called her on his cell phone she said “this is a horrible, filthy place – I don’t know why anyone would ever come here and I’m going back to my hotel.” That was a shame as Mark, Linda and I had a great time in Camden Town – Tina missed out too. It’s a great market, the average age on the streets was about 25 and it was so bustling and vibrant. After Mark took off back home, Linda and I wandered around a bit more, had a pub dinner and headed back to our flat. Linda describes herself as a “traditional, conservative Chinese girl” but it’s not true: she’s edgy, quirky, has a wicked sense of humor and loves all things different (e.g. we call each other “savages” because she accuses “you guys” (i.e. the English) of stealing all of the best Chinese art and housing it in our museums while I tell her we had to because “you guys” (i.e. the Chinese) would be incapable of taking care of it themselves)… I think this is why we are getting on so well!
After I came back down from London (Linda took off to France on a hiking tour) I just relaxed with Mark and Tina. The weather turned bad but Mark and I still went off roaming through the countryside in full-body rain gear looking around where the English tried to spot German bombers coming over in World War II. Walking around with him chatting and childishly punching each other on the arms until they were black and blue made me wish I was not so far away from my family in Montreal. When I left early for Istanbul on Monday 14 October, a taxi was waiting outside for me. Mark was silhouetted in the doorway of his home and I just cannot describe the expression on his face although I will never forget it until my dying day. It was not some cheesy longing or yearning – it was just “please not another 15 years”. I can assure him it will not be as I fully intend to be back with my daughter, Rhiannon, in the next year or two.
And then there is Tina who religiously follows this blog and I have a special bond with due to some mutual history. Tina, thank you for all of your generous hospitality, kindness and conversation while I was with you and Mark. I am going to miss you both so much.
Farewell, family and England but not for long!
Postscript: England has become a dizzying contradiction of the ancient and the modern. When I was with Linda at the Tower of London (1000 years old), the car-melting Shard was stabbing up in the background. I must say though – the modern architecture going up in London is the best I’ve ever seen in any city I have traveled to (Prince Charles is a complete dickhead yet again).
Another example: Mark and Tina have replaced their bath with a Star Trek-like pod shower that took me about an hour to figure out how to use when I first bathed in there. After that, I didn’t say to them “I’m going for a shower now” – I said, “I’m off to the pod”…