6 days in Manchester
Despite its large populace (second in UK metropolitan area to London), many parts of Manchester feel deserted, forgotten, unfinished. The city has the world’s first train station, but it is neither preserved nor called out as a landmark. Manchester’s “castle” is a two-brick-high cross-sectional reconstruction, flanked by signs depicting how the full building and village would have looked before they were destroyed. Museum signs call out long-gone exhibits, patient tendrils of ivy pry apart brick and concrete archways, and a decommissioned railway bridge wears a coat of grass and fibrous plant tissue. But my favorite sections of town are apocalyptically overgrown, and give you the feeling of seeing something you’re not supposed to yet. Serving as the perfect foil to nature’s gradual reclamation is Manchester’s tallest building, the always-visible Hilton glass tower, which holds a living oak tree as a prisoner of war in its upper floors.
Manchester is a city without pretense, a mass of things thrown together the way a kid builds a fort — and for most, it takes some knowledge of the child architect to find charm in his twisted mess of wood and nails. Lydia, my host who I’d met at the festival back in Newcastle, grew up with that kid and considers him one of her best friends. Avoiding buses and drunken college students as we biked around town, she pointed out details like the leaf patterns on the main road’s yellow fog line from when they painted it during the Fall, the underground bar that used to be a public restroom, and Hitler’s favorite hotel.
When I visited, Lydia was still shining with a post-trip afterglow from living in Poland for a year. With the same mixture of groundedness and manic claustrophobia I’ve seen in others immediately after their homecomings, she was cannon-balling back into her hometown social pools. During my stay we went to two birthday parties, a going-away party, and several no-excuse-needed nights out, and I also got some quality time with Lydia’s dad, Graham, and brother, Kieran, when the two of them took me to a local rugby game.
On our way to the match, Graham showed me the hotel where Rolls-Royce was formed and the train station that inspired Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound.” The game was a rowdy grudge match against the hated Widnes, who we crushed 38 – 18. Not about to send me off without souvenirs, Graham made a point of buying me a rugby brochure and Kieran gave me the team-colored scarf he’d let me wear as proof of allegiance during the game. And at the end of my stay, Lydia saw me off with a 200-forint bill, a novel she’d told me about in Newcastle, and a postcard of Hitler’s favorite hotel.
2 days in Liverpool
I went to Liverpool not for its beautiful waterfront or for its role in musical history, but to catch a cheap flight. It turned out to be one of the friendliest places I’ve ever been.
First was the four-person team at a local pharmacy who all stopped what they were doing to help me with directions to my hostel (one scoured a map, one referenced an old Thomas-Guide-style book, one checked online, and one wrestled his memory).
Then the random man on the street who saw my backpack and excitedly asked, “Where have you been? Where have you been?” before exchanging stories with me for a few minutes.
Then the group of teenaged pseudo-thugs on the steps of a museum, who first politely let me know in their Beatlean accents that it was closed and when it would re-open, then softened even further upon hearing me speak, asking about the States and unsarcastically proclaiming the American accent “the coolest in the world.”
Then Hanne, my Belgian host with a Masters in Western Literature, who took me to a group Toy Story 3 viewing and board-game afterparty followed by a hole-in-the-wall takeout place on the way back to her apartment, trying to pay for everything along the way.
Then the Kurdish proprietor of that hole-in-the-wall, letting us in past closing time, sharing with us the secrets to great naan that he’d learned since first cooking it at age 16. He showed us how he made it, spinning the dough like a pizza, quickly percussing it with his fingertips, and carefully seasoning the bumpy-thin mass before slapping it with a bag of flour onto the inside of the hollowed sphere of a gas-and-coal oven. As he withdrew his hand from the metal furnace, Hanne asked if he’d ever burned himself. He pointed to the thick white scars he wore like bracelets on both of his forearms. But the naan? Magnificent.