On the bus ride from Edinburgh to Newcastle, it occurred to me suddenly that the wind was driving everything. It raced cloud shadows over the expansive fields of barley, wheat and grass; it massaged the plains themselves into unsynchronized, rippling oceans of grain; it turned the actual ocean beyond into a formidable, entrancing and disruptive power. It spun small white windmills along the highway; it resisted the coach in which I rode, bowling dramatic gusts against us as we rolled on; it transformed the en-route world.
Looking out a window anywhere, it’s easy to see how currents push the pieces of the world together and pull it all apart, or how the absence of wind can turn an otherwise vibrant landscape into an eerie void. But something about traveling — perhaps the sheer velocity of it, or the fluidity of making so many entries into and exits out of so many lives, or the clumsiness of always picking up and dropping, picking up and dropping – something about it makes everything feel as though it is driven by something else, and that if you were only to throw up your hands and go limp, you would be too.
If this sounds like it’s going to be about God, or about fate, or about anything existentially weighty, it isn’t. For now it’s just about pulling my three-weeks-behind blog through the wind tunnel of new experience, and at the end of it, gluing together the pieces of my notes and memory that had ripped and blown apart until they loosely recreate events. Let’s catch up.
3 days in Newcastle
I stayed in Newcastle with Colin, a funny culinary expert and former music teacher who now runs his own business as a driving instructor. He sees CouchSurfing as many hosts do: a chance to take free vacations by bringing travelers into his house and experiencing their homes in the process.
The first day he took me to a beachside festival at Tynemouth with a half-Indian, half-random theme. The coolest thing there was a soccer-game dance performance, which was both ridiculous and impressive. The Lightning Seeds (a should-be-retired pop group that was big in the UK in the 90s), played from a stage within the grounds of a half-crumbled 10th-century castle as children climbed up and slid down the sides of the huge grassy ditch that used to be its moat. Colin and I joined up with a local group of CouchSurfing hosts at the festival, where I met a former artist and current writer/math student named Lydia who was visiting from Manchester.
Later in my stay, Colin gave me a tour of Newcastle’s local real ales (served cool – not at room temperature) and a list of their buildings and bridges to check out. Favorite examples: a cultural center that looks like a metallic slug, and a white curved pedestrian drawbridge that “blinks” to let ships through.
5 days in London
After Newcastle was London, the first European city I’d experienced where non-English languages were readily heard throughout.
First I stayed with an Italian named Rogerio in southern London, then a Sierra Leone-born Brit named Asia in a posh area in northern London. CouchSurfing with each host at the same time as me was Josh, a young Kiwi who’d recently earned a degree in architecture and just finished lecturing in the Philippines about the buildings of New Zealand. I explored London via subway, bus and feet with Josh and with Mike, a 26-year-old craft-beer expert and the best thing to come out of Minnesota since the Coen Brothers.
At various times in London, usually with either Josh, Mike, or both, I climbed a tree, drank wine with Texans in Hyde Park, went to a BBQ (yes, I’m still a veg), made lots of friends and spent about 20 hours on the tube and buses. One memorable night included getting lost with Mike and a Romanian girl after all the bars and most buses had closed down, making our way through some genuinely dangerous parts of London before finally arriving back to Asia’s house as the morning birds came out, and almost having to sleep on the porch anyway.
Mike, Josh and I spent one day at Shoreditch festival with perfect weather for its great live music, including an all-brass band doing instrumental covers of pop hits from Michael Jackson, Gnarls Barkley, and Outkast. And throughout my stay I embarked on various explorations of London’s waterways, including walking along the Thames during the day (past the London Eye and Big Ben), and drinking cider along the small boat-lined canals in Camden Town with friends before haggling for cheaper falafel on the way back.
1 day in Stonehenge/Bath
Stonehenge was a “can’t-miss” attraction for me, and by that I mean in retrospect I really could have skipped it. Though on paper I am amazed by and curious about the mystery of Stonehenge, when I was there I was more fascinated by the crowd’s fascination with the stones than by the stones themselves.
Bath, the city built around natural hot springs that powered ancient Roman baths, was beautiful and somehow vaguely Californian. The Roman baths themselves are 2000-year-old ruins that are still quite well preserved, even as the curators allow you to walk all over them during the tour. A taste of the spring water hearkened back to Ashland’s lithia fountain. Yum.
2 more days in London
Some things I saw while taking advantage of London’s free museum system, in descending order of each piece’s impact on me: Gigantic, alarmingly detailed Egyptian sculptures of human heads; various works by Dali, Pollack, Bacon, Matisse, Warhol, Van Dyck, and Michelangelo; the Rosetta Stone; various works by Manet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Monet, and Picasso; a self-portrait of an artist in the form of a sculpture of his head made with glass and acrylic and colored deep red with his own blood; an exhibition on how memory works; an exhibition on the history of clocks; a life-sized sculpture of a blue whale; an exhibition on the history of plastics.