Monday, January 7, 2008

the sparkling sky

Flying from Tallinn to London's Stansted Airport takes about two and half hours, which is coincidentally also the amount of time it takes to then cross London to Dulwich. Buying my bus tickets I did my best to avoid thinking about the exchange rate between the dollar and the pound. It borders on highway robbery and makes my stomach feel a little squiggy. Fortunately the only thing I had to purchase during my two days in town was transportation to and from the airports. The bus ride from the airport to Victoria turned into a mini drive-by of tourist central; the sun had long set, and I was idly staring out the window when we went around a corner and there was the Tower and Tower Bridge, all lit up and looking splendid. We continued right past Parliament, and swarms of tourists pointing cameras in every direction. I stopped taking pictures about a month ago. Most of what I've shot recently has been based on its blog potential.

London is a fine town, as some old anonymous ballad goes, a great and gallant city. I like how cities have their histories hiding in plain sight. It's all there to see, but a lot of the time you either have to already know what to look for, or have a good guide. Friends gave me a rather cool tour of the East End, which is sadly losing its seedy charm as the rich move in and spiffify the streets. We had a drink at the The Ten Bells Pub, where Jack the Ripper's victims boozed away their free time and tuppence, probably trying to forget their dreary lives before meeting their bloody, organ-strewn ends. Remarkably, the only indication of its historical reputation is three pages from a Victorian broadsheet with cartoons of the events on the wall of the stairwell leading to the toilet. I didn't take the time to read through them all, since the overpowering miasma in the stairwell gave every nasal indication that it had also been there since 1888. Other than original Victorian wall tiles, and tarty bottled Victorian Lemonade, the joint doesn't have a whole lot to recommend itself. We had a much better time hanging in another pub that I'm not going to name to keep it a secret. Perfectly unassuming, it looked exactly like a living room with chamber pots hanging high on the walls, and a piano and an accordion lurking in the corner waiting for anyone with a modicum of talent and knowledge of pub tunes to come along and bring them to life. The dame behind the bar refused to serve us drinks until we each blew up a balloon to contribute to their New Year's festivities. They even had a bagpiper, complete in Scottish regalia, and I was really hoping for a tune, but it was too early for proper piping, he was purely pootling around with them.

We stood on Fournier Street and wondered which house belongs to Gilbert and George, and not long after that, a few blocks away, espied them walking down the street behind us. I was slightly tempted to tail them home, but really wasn't that interested. Nicholas Hawksmoor's Christ Church was looming a mere half-block from where we were standing, vying for, and winning, my attention. I've developed a new interest in reading history as a result of traveling, and two hours in the East End only reaffirmed this desire, especially as it concerns the esoteric and bizarre.

Just past midnight, we were all standing atop a hill with glasses of bubbly, watching the sky sparkle around a 180° panorama of the greater London skyline. We were miles from the Embankment fireworks inferno, but could see them low on the horizon, and even the Millennium Wheel when it lit up. What with all the official borough displays and backyard arsonists contributions, it was like standing in the trenches, explosions and rockets whistling through the air, except without the death and destruction. On that night, it was just colorful and celebratory.

It was a good way to end 2007.

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