So we live in a suburb called West Norwood. It is a dinky and secure suburb, full of what my roommate Caera (pronounced ‘Cara’) calls “yummy mummies”. Every other person on the street is a younger woman with a baby in a stroller. The local cafe is a “babies welcome” cafe, which means there is always one screaming toddler outside the front door, disrupting the relative quiet of the neighborhood. This place was actually the first one we looked at, and after four days of looking at homes in different parts of the city, we realized that a) every house in London was actually pretty nice b) every house in london was also hugely expensive, and c) the first place we’d looked at was simultaneously the cheapest and the nicest, and it achieved that combination by being a bit out of the city center. We’re in “Zone 3” which as I gather is basically the moon as far as London is concerned, even though it’s literally 15 minutes on the train to get to Buckingham Palace. Our place is a flatshare with three other roommates. We’ve got a massive kitchen with a gas stove with six burners, a backyard where there are (no joke) a sculpture of the clay impressions of someone’s butt, a cat named Mavis, and a huge bedroom with lots of light.

Today it was a gorgeous sunny winter’s day, no clouds, and a spectral freezing wind. I decided it was time to go for a run. After about three months of holiday binging at Dad’s house in Marblehead, Uncle Erik’s home in Boulder, and Harriet’s parents’ place in Wellington, I have reached my fattest-ever state. The uncomfortable truth of aging is watching your matter expand horizontally. Oh well. It is run day.

As I am horribly out of shape, a great deal of mucus and saliva was building up in my larynx as I ran, and I had to either position my neck in such a way that my nasal cavities and throat had more space so I wouldn’t choke, or hawk an impressive lugie every thirty seconds. Also it was way too cold to run in shorts, so I’d donned a pair of pajama pants rather than try my luck with shorts. The neighborhood looks stately, organized, well-kempt. Houses in England (or at least this part of this city in England) are well-maintained brick duplexes of two or more stories, gleaming white trim around the windows, every house boasting a modest garden. The houses even look like they have turrets, sometimes. Little castlelly things. Amidst the spindly trees, either leafless from winter or clipped to permit the power lines overhead to pass untouched, an old church steeple occasionally poked up across the skyline. Everything was beautiful and I was a dirty unshaven spitting man running in my pajama pants. I felt like a cat pee stain on an antique Persian rug.

Even though it was really nice out, I barely saw anyone walking. One guy emerged from his door with his three-year-old daughter and I opened my mouth to give a friendly “Good morning!” but instead I said “Gughhmmnthshss” because a horrible gob of mucus which had been building up behind my lips spilled out all over my shirt. The man looked at me with steely eyes, sizing me up like I was a predator. His daughter started crying. I am not a predator. I am just a mess.

I’m happy to be bringing that ol’ Ernie charm to my new home in the UK.

 

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For those of you in the know, Chinese Lunar New Year happened a few days ago. Harriet and I went to Trafalgar square to watch the Chinese New Year’s celebrations. Trafalgar square had been decorated with thousands of hanging red laterns, all bearing pictures of ornate dragons or chubby-cheeked cherubs in silk gowns. A couple of “bespoke”* noodle shops had set up at the periphery of the square, and several Chinese banks and/or insurance organizations were passing out leaflets at booths.

Here are a few things I learned at the London Chinese New Year’s Celebrations:

  1. The year of the dog is a prosperous year.
  2. The number 18 means “prosperity” and it was the 18th consecutive year of celebration of the London Chinese New Year celebrations. Double prosperity!
  3. It was the speaker’s 16th time doing this opening ceremony, and 16 in Chinese numerology means “smooth.” Smooth double prosperity!** Everyone’s going to work hard and get rich this year! (Is there ever a year in Chinese astrology where there’s only misfortune? Zero auspisciousness or prosperity??)
  4. Gung Hei Fat Choi is in fact Cantonese, not Mandarin. Most of the Chinese diaspora communities worldwide are made up of Cantonese people, which is why that was the phrase we all learned in primary school.
  5. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has the ability to turn even the most banal procession of ceremonial speeches into a rally. He spoke without a script, pacing back and forth on stage with a hand mic, thrusting his pointer finger into the air to make, well, points.
  6. There are a lot of Very Important Dignitaries in London involved with the creation of the London Chinese New Year Celebrations.
  7. Each one of these Very Important Dignitaries feels obliged to make a short speech about how thankful they are about the thing. We were about an hour into the speeches now. The crowd was beginning to get antsy.
  8. There was going to be a lion dance, and the dancers would put on amazing lion costumes and jump on the poles in the middle of the square! How acrobatic! Hooray!
  9. Before the Lion Dance, you have to paint little red dots on the forehead, nose, eyes, and body of the big shaggy Lion suits hanging over the dancers. Okay! Interesting cultural thing! The crowd was beginning to get excited.
  10. Each one of the Very Important Dignitaries had to paint little red dots on the forehead, nose, eyes and body of the big shaggy lion suit hanging over the dancers, and also be photographed doing it. The crowd got much less excited, and even booed a little.
  11. The lions woke up! Hooray!
  12. The lions went backstage for a photo op. Booo.
  13. The lions re-emerged, and people came out with drums!
  14. THE LION DANCE IS AMAZING. ACROBATS WEARING LION COSTUMES JUMPED ON POLES.
  15. Everyone leaves. They’ve seen the lion dance. Happy Chinese New Year.
  16. Harriet informs me that in most of China, nobody does the lion dance.
  17. Neither one of us have jobs yet. Prosperity has yet to materialize. I still hold out hope for the year of the dawg.
  18. We buy 79-pence handmade noodles in a market and I make lemon chicken and bok choy.

 

*In the past two weeks I have seen the word “bespoke” more than I’ve ever seen in my entire life. I didn’t even really know what it meant. “Unique”, I guess. But it’s a buzzword found everywhere — advertisements, boutiques, real estate listings, job postings, we even saw that somewhere offered ‘bespoke’ training. What?

**this was a few days ago now, and I do not remember which number exactly meant smooth, nor was I even sure he said the word ‘smooth’, since it was an English Chinese accent, something I have relatively no experience with. Do not cite me.

Just before we left New Zealand, Harriet’s friend Tegan suggested we all go to a pub quiz. She knew of a good one in a stodgy pub down on Lampton Quays (which — blowing all your minds here — is pronounced “keys” everywhere else in the English-speaking world). The pub looked more like a library, or an old-fashioned salon where aristocrats stuffed tobacco in their pipes and quoted Alexander Pope and Churchill. It was packed. Every table in there (or on our side of the pub, anyways) was playing. People came to this quiz every week and played for blood. The quizmaster actually called himself the quizmaster and had prepared a slideshow, one slide for all 80 questions or however many there was. One of the additional rounds was a puzzle round with anagrams and other opaque word games. We placed in the middle of the pack and won one of the side contests, and got showered in candies and toys.

A few nights ago, I suggested we all go to a pub quiz. I’d passed a chalkboard outside Broadway Markey advertising the best pub quiz in East London at a pub called Cat & Mutton. The pub looked decidedly unstodgy — probably a hundred or more years old, all wood, giant ceilings, significantly dingy. The quiz room upstairs was almost empty, only four other groups there to play, and the staff hadn’t even bothered to put someone at the bar. The hosts were a Canadian girl and an English guy with an completely incomprehensible accent filling in for their friend on vacation. There was no slideshow. The questions were unbelievably specific and nobody got more than half of them right per round. The judges didn’t even get some of them right — during the pancake round, we had to identity where each kind of pancake was from, and they insisted that the fat puffy pancakes in Picture 8 were Russian blini.

Screenshot-2018-2-15 blini - Google Search

LOOK AT THE FIRST PAGE OF A GOOGLE IMAGE SEARCH HERE DO YOU SEE ANYTHING FAT OR PUFFY HERE HUH

For the “creative round” they gave us a huge sheet of aluminum foil and asked us to come up with a new olympic sport. Our team made snowmen in a snowman-making contest. We even had five tiny foil Olympic rings and a three-tiered foil awards podium. The winning team made a functional foil beer bong. We didn’t even place.

Despite their blatant bias against us, they gave Miranda at our table like four chances to win a free drink in the free drink round. The judges were also terrible at math, and we wound up with at least ten more points than we thought we should have. We got first place. We won five pounds each. (We had a chance to win much more, but I pulled the wrong prize envelope.) The quiz ended. We were utterly confused. I find it striking that I had my first English pub quiz in New Zealand, and my first Kiwi pub quiz in England. We’re definitely going back next week.

So we go to the post office in South London. I’d put down my address as a place in South London on my visa form because that’s where Harriet’s friend Beth used to live and it’s where we stayed on our visit here last September, and though she’s back in New Zealand now, we needed to say we were staying somewhere, so my residence permit was mailed to and held at the local post office. They ask for my address in the UK, and Harriet scrolls through old texts to find Beth’s address. We get the permit. They’ve left off the “IV” from my name, which I wouldn’t normally consider a big deal except the “IV” is on my passport and a lot of confused Russo-monolingual border guards had called me “Peeper eev” this summer. Slightly more alarmingly, my residence permit lists my place of birth as “Anchorage, Alask.” So I need to get it fixed. Without a (correct) residence permit I cannot get a national insurance (NI) number, which is I think the equivalent of an SSN in the States, and without an NI number I can’t get a bank account, nor will most jobs be able to pay me easily.  I write an email to the ‘questions and corrections’ address they provide. They tell me my case is being reviewed and they’ll email me back with instructions in five days.

alaska

The great state of Alask is famous for its wildlife, like the mighty Grizel Bers, herds of Caribos, playful Harbor Eals, and of course the noble Mose.   

Meanwhile we find a great room in a great house. We need to contact a letting agency to allow us to get into the flat we found. Not that the agency has done anything, mind you — the people who put up the ad were the ones previously living in the room, and we dealt with them directly. But we have to pay the letting agency so they can add our names to the lease. This costs 200 pounds per person. I’d quip “hey, that’s some mighty expensive wite-out” but it’s not even a paper copy; it’s all electronically signed. We get clever and decide to say that only Harriet is moving in to save us 200 pounds. It turns out that part of the agency fee is a background check. They want three months of bank statements, and a utility bill from our current address in the UK. We call back and say, obviously, we’ve just moved here and we don’t have a utility bill from our previous address in the UK, nor do we have three months of bank statements which show we have regular income — we’ve been travelling for the past six months. They say we can use a guarantor instead. Can we use Harriet’s parents? No, they also have to be in the UK. We don’t really know that many people in the UK, we say. They suggest we use a guarantor company, which is something I’ve never heard of before, but apparently they’ll vouch for you. That service costs 200 pounds. The guarantor company wants three months of bank statements and a utility bill from our current address.

Harriet asks one of her friends who lives here if she’ll be guarantor to vouch for us, and her friend agrees. The letting company tells Harriet now that two people are involved, her and the guarantor, they’ll have to run two background checks, and therefore the fee will be 400 pounds.

Meanwhile we go to the other post office to get Harriet’s residence permit. Harriet applied later than me and put in her friend Laurie’s address, and it turned out that our Airbnb was in the same neighborhood, so it’s only a ten minute walk from our door. Despite worries about spelling challenges in Harriet’s four first names (Harriet Leah Marama Grainger) the permit turns out fine, and we sigh with relief. She rings up the ‘NI’ hotline and asks for her NI number. “Why are you applying for an NI number?” the woman asks. “Because I’m not a UK citizen and I just arrived on a Tier 5 visa and I don’t have one yet,” Harriet says. “But why are you applying for one?” the woman asks, opaquely. “Because I need one for work and to get a bank account?” Harriet says. “So you’re getting one for work,” the woman confirms. “I suppose I am,” Harriet also confirms. They tell her they’re sending her a form to apply for a National Insurance number. The form will arrive within a week. After she mails back the form, it will take up to six weeks to get an NI number. There is a number to call if there are any problems.

Meanwhile we start applying for jobs. I’m hoping to use my recent journalism experience at the Daily Sabah writing big fancy travel columns and turn that into a news job. It turns out you need a journalism qualification to get most news jobs here, and it turns out that a journalism qualification is a six-month course plus a test, and you have to know shorthand. I decide to apply for other kinds of jobs. Harriet, despite having a Masters’ degree in Classics and being all-around much more capable and smart than everyone, is struggling to find a job that doesn’t make her feel unqualified. Advertisements for ‘Office Assistants’ ask for three years of experience as an Office Assistant. We both wish to ourselves that we’d majored in Office Assistant in college instead.

Meanwhile the instructions for my residence permit correction come. They tell me that there’s only 16 character places in the Place of Birth section, so “Anchorage, Alask” stands. Leaving off the “IV” from the end of my name, however, needs to be fixed, and I should mail the incorrect residence permit to an office in Bristol. I should also include a “covering letter” explaining what is wrong on the permit and what needs to be corrected. When it’s received, they’ll send a corrected permit within five days. However, they explain, I should also allow five days for it to arrive. I write a very short letter: “Hello. My last name is wrong. Please fix it. Best to you and yours, Ernest Whitman Piper IV.” I sign it with a flourish. I am concerned that this isn’t clear enough. I include a photocopy of my passport and circle the “surname” part on it. I consider adding an arrow to point to the circled bit, but decide against it. There’s a number to call if there are any problems.

In Turkey, they used a bureaucracy of bluster and chaos in which the rules had been jotted down thirty years ago, half thrown out, and mostly forgotten. Nothing made sense, nothing worked, you had to scream and cry and lie and swear to move the system an inch. The UK by contrast has produced an impressive interlocking bureaucracy always in motion and functioning exactly right. There’s a place for everything, and everything is in its place, and nobody is thinking about anything at all.

 

 

The first things I noticed when we got to our Airbnb were the tally sheets. Well, actually, the strange mustiness in the cramped stairway, but also the tally sheets. Our host greeted us at the door in sweatpants with a big smile, and gave us the two-minute tour. On each table and desk were lined notebooks, each open to a full page of tally marks.

The house was nice enough — good light, good location, everything functioned normally, and so we set about making ourselves feel at home. She’s lived in the area for about ten years after another ten years down “south”, so she’s about 38 or so. She did “American Studies” at University, which is something I always find kind of funny, but she was interested in politics and literature. I ask her what she does for a living these days.

“Oh it’s a bit strange…I do offers on online casinos.”

“O…k. Is that what the tally sheets are about?”

“Yeah…you can come out ahead in the long run.” She explains something to do with coupons and ‘the odds coming out ahead in the long run’ and it makes absolutely no sense to me. She apparently goes to a bunch of different online casinos, takes the “offers”, and then plays a certain amount. It sounds a lot like you’re a professional gambler, I say.

“Na, I don’t even know how to play poker, I play slots mostly. When I play blackjack I have a little table that I read off of — like if the dealer shows this and you’ve got this, split or fold or hit or whatever. There’s a whole facebook group of people who do it. I tried it and sort of found my way into it, I suppose.” She shrugged. “I used to be an editor at a major business magazine, and now I make more money doing offers from online casinos than I ever did with a proper job.”

Anyway. Harriet and I made plans to go out everyday and look at possible flats. When we’d leave in the morning, our host was in her sweatpants, clicking away at a jewelly slot game on her macbook, tallying away. When we’d come back, she’d be watching British TV, wearing the same sweatpants and pajama top. She wore those same clothes for three days running.

British TV is like if you took American TV and fed it through a shredder, and then tried to line all the strips up to fix it up. It’s almost recognizable. But not quite. There was a show much like The View called Loose Women with four older conservative English women chatting about sexual deviants and christmas decorations. “Some people are putting their STD check results on their phones so they can show potential partners. A good idea? Or will it lead to sexual deviancy?” Whatever the subject under discussion was, according to the panel, 100% of the time it lead to sexual deviancy. Then there was Judge Rinder, which was just Judge Judy except with no shouting, no tears, no wretched family disputes — just a plainspoken builder and a prim woman who’d complained he hadn’t supported the lintel stone on a doorway correctly. Then there was a game show where celebrities competed to win money for charity (okay) and they were asked questions (makes sense) which earned them a go at the main mechanism of the game (sure). Kinda like how getting the right letter earns you another spin on Wheel of Fortune, right? Except here the questions were stupid easy (“Where is Venice? a) Spain b) Canada c) Italy”), and the main thing of the game was one of those coin-pusher machines — you know where there’s a bunch of coins all piled up on a ledge, and there’s a big ledge moving back and forth behind it, and the goal is to drop your coin into the pile in just the right place so it nudges a few coins out the bottom of the slot. Our host would say the answers just before the contestants. Probably, every time she got it right, she wanted to tally it down. She watched closely as the tokens fell onto the ledge, and pushed four or five other tokens off.

Everyone was very calm about everything. Nobody expressed anything above moderate joy. Restrained TV is the strangest thing on earth.

Our host is also seeing a guy who’s an older male model — she mentioned this, and I forgot it until I was sitting out on the couch much too early on one jetlagged morning, when a scraggly silver fox dude in his boxers emerged from her room and beelined for the toilet. “DUDE VAR”* I facebooked to Harriet in the next room. “OLD DUDE VAR.” Later that night, after we’d come back after a fruitful day of house-hunting, they were sitting on the couch together (clothed) watching a Scottish dating show. I said hello, she introduced him, we made small talk.

“[Old Dude’s name] has been to Alaska on a modeling gig,” she tells me.

“Yeah, I’ve been to Hobart,” he says, not looking up.

“That’s Tasmania,” she corrects him. “Alaska.”

“Oh yeah,” he says, turning in my direction, but looking at a point somewhere above and beyond my head. “It was the city with the, ah, what’s it called. Y’know. The city with the. Where the planes go.”

“The airport?” I offer.

“Yeah, the city with the airport.”

“Ah,” I say. “Was it Anchorage?”

“Yeah, yes. That’s it. Might have been that.” He becomes animated. “We went out from the airport, didn’t get much chance to explore, but one, two hours out of two, yeah we drove out of the airport. Great scenery.” He makes swoopy motions with his hands, I think to describe the motions of a car driving along a twisty road.

“It’s beautiful there, right?” I say. I am rocking this conversation.

“Oh yes, very beautiful. Great, ah, great scenery,” he says, turning back towards the TV. “Ah luve Doctair Who,” says one of the dudes on the dating show. “Dae ye?”

Last night, I walked by a bookies’ called Ladgamble, kind of like all the horseracing shops I used to walk by in Istanbul where old men would shout at the TV. A banner inside read, “Get 40 pounds worth of bets when you bet 10 pounds!”, and it showed a picture of an ecstatic frizzy-haired dude clutching fistfuls of notes.

“You’re getting PLAYED, Ladgamble,” I told the frizzy-haired compadre. “Someone’s making more money taking your OFFERS than at a PROPER JOB.” He just smiled back. I’m not really sure he’s losing.

 

*”There is a dude”. If you’re new here, var is a multipupose Turkish word for “yes” or “there is” or “it exists” and you should probably adopt it into your own lives.

 

We’re staying at an airbnb in a neighborhood called London Fields in Hackney, in East London. The first morning when we arrived I went up the street to get some basic groceries, and I noticed a few somethings. A convenience store with bright color pictures of vegetables and liquor bottles on the window. A barber “salon” with photos of celebrities on the windows, and everyone inside was watching tv, even the guy getting his hair cut. A kebab shop with a refrigerated case of meat on skewers. A place called “Erciyes Grocery.” Two fruit stores, right across from each other, called “Umut Supermarket” and “Sultan Fruit and Veg”. A cafe where two older ladies sat in a display zone right by the front window, rolling out pieces of flat dough onto a gri — oh who am I kidding it was gozleme. By random selection we touched down in London’s little Istanbul. There’s even an Old Tbilisi Shop and a Little Georgia Cafe with an ink sketch of David the Builder over the river Mtkvari. It was a thouroughly warm welcome.The big differences between this neighborhood and anywhere in Istanbul are:

  1. Presence of decent Vietnamese grocery stores and restaurants
  2. The Turkish moms speak English to their kids (????????)
  3. SIGNIFICANTLY LESS SHOUTING. I weirdly only hear traffic sounds from down below on the main street.

The next day I went out and said in Turkish to literally the first person I saw out the door, “So what’s the deal? Is everyone Turkish here or what?” And he said, “Oh yeah, all Turks. You want a coffee?” and we had a brief talk about why Turkey was committing troops to fight in Syria. I spent some time wandering around and walked into a supermarket, told the guy “kolay gelsin,” and we talked about the economic crisis. It’s like I never left.

 

  1. Curvature of the earth. It’s not flat!!
  2. Differences between safety videos on different airlines. On New Zealand Air, it’s a fun summer video about a guy (maybe a celebrity?) hitchhiking around New Zealand, and everyone he hitches a lift with gives some standard safety thing, but with a twist. For instance, both videos of course talk about what to do in case you have to evacuate the plane. On New Zealand Air, they all put the yellow things over their heads, yank the red cords, and then jump off a boat into the ocean. Fun! On Southern China Airlines, it shows you what happens “in case of ditching”: hordes of badly-computer-animated people zooming down safety slides, arms straight out like playmobil dolls, and then running away en masse. Badly animated arms a-flailin’. Soothing chinese music plays over the whole thing, and cherry blossoms fall. Be at peace with your immanent catastrophe.
  3. Great movie selection on Southern China Airlines. I watched action movies, because that’s about all I can process on long haul flights. Two consecutive 12 hour flights, minus time for eating and dissasociated dozing, means at least six movies. I watched Lego Movie, Thor: Ragnarok, Spotlight (not an action film, couldn’t hear anyone’s attempts at Boston accents over the roar of the jet engines), a terrible space movie with Tom Cruise which I do not remember, and also three other films which I do not remember. Harriet put Mamma Mia! on repeat and passed out to Meryl Streep singing ABBA tunes.
  4. On the official customs and safety placard of the Republic of China which they give you when you’re flying into the country, they have instructions for how many animals you can bring. To illustrate this concept, they chose a stock photo of a golden retriever wearing glasses.

    dog_wearing_glasses-normal

    This one.

  5. Guangzhou airport is a massive rectagular hallway without any heating to speak of. A series of moving walkways are in the dead center of the hallways. They run only one direction.
  6. In Guangzhou airport, though they also have regular janitors with regular vacuums and mops and cleaning products, there is also a single older woman going around with nothing but a handmade straw broom, meandering about, randomly and inefficiently sweeping the carpet underneath the seats. She looked a bit lost. She did, however, managed to find someone’s passport wallet. She was sweeping under a random seat and called out in Chinese to everyone sitting around her. Since it was a flight to London, nobody spoke Chinese, and we all looked at each other. I went to go examine, and remembered that a Kiwi dude had asked me about ten minutes ago if I’d seen a passport, so I ran it down to the other side of the airport to hand it off. Thanks, teyze.
  7. Mike’s House of Pizza in Guangzhou airport. Who is Mike? There is a picture of him on the picture menu, but it says beneath the picture “This is not Mike.” The restaurant was closed. I will never know.
  8. Mulberry juice?? Also dim sum on an airplane. Questionable, but overall good.