After dinner at the Polish restaurant, I brought my copy of Dark Voyage back to the hotel, checked my e-mail, then went back out. I thought briefly about staying in and just reading: in addition to Dark Voyage, the seductions of a 3 for 2 sale resulted in my buying Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and Dan Simmons’ much-awaited (at least in my own mind) Olympos, his retelling of the Homeric Epic… on Mars. (Now I just have to decide which clothes and shoes to leave behind.) But it was only 9:30, there was still some light in the sky, and it just didn’t feel like time to stay in.
To someone who lives at a lower latitude, the summer evenings here are quite deceptive. I keep thinking it’s about 7:45, when it’s an hour or more later. And I swear the sun takes a lot longer to set. That might be irrational. But that’s how it feels.
I’d decided today to buy an all-day Underground pass, as I expected after South Kensington I was going to have to go out of the city for the afternoon. The pass was a great move. It cost a bit more than two regular tickets, and I probably traveled the distance from the Earth to the Moon on it (little-known fact, because it’s not true: Jules Verne got the idea for From the Earth to the Moon while traveling around on a Eurailpass). Very much worth it.
So I headed, slightly dog-eared pass in hand, up to Tottenham Court Road. I had no particular destination, other than to be around people (another reason for going out: being alone is easier when you do it in a crowd), and to See The Sights, which mainly consisted of crowds. Up Oxford Street a bit, but after a couple blocks it started looking quiet and underpopulated. Not so great. Crime isn’t a giant thing here– it’s not likely that you’ll wake up to find that in addition to your wallet being gone, you’ve got to buy back your major organs off eBay– but still, better to be where the action is, for all kinds of good reasons. So I turned left, towards what looked like restaurants.
The crowds thickened quickly: people spilled out of pubs, crowds waiting for plays or musicals, people headed from the former to the latter or vice versa. Eventually, after winding my way around the theatre district– boy, Mary Poppins and The Woman in White seem popular!– I dashed across Charing Cross into Chinatown.
London’s Chinatown turns out to be the World’s Smallest Chinatown: it’s about two blocks, and seems to hardly have any residential aspect at all any more. (And if people live there, I feel sorry for them: the noise at night from all the tourists is incredible.) Fun fact: there actually is a real restaurant called Lee Ho Fook, from which Warren Zevon’s Werewolf of London could get a “a big bowl of beef chow mein.” However, it’s hard to expand when you’re right beside Leicester Square.
Talk about a crowd. It was pretty amazing: tons of kids headed to clubs, endless tourists, and what I suspect was an active, surreptitious but not too surreptitious so it can’t be found if you’re a potential patron, traffic in what Terry Pratchett refers to as “negotiable affection.” There’s an even bigger traffic in movies: you could see every movie in the Western world there, it seemed.
I stopped at an ice cream place, and got a scoop of vanilla. It was a warm evening, just a touch of humidity, but with all the lights and people, it seemed very bright. I started walking, and took a bite of the ice cream.
There are times when a combination of sensations can do more than just remind you of something, but pull a little part of you back in time? The ice cream (a flavor I knew from my childhood), the air, the crowds, the bright night, suddenly reminded me of that last time I was in Brazil, when I was 8 or 9. In the evenings, after spending the day in the archives, Pop and I would go out walking, down Copacabana’s Avenida Atlantica, then just wander back to our apartment. Except it was more than just “remembering” in a detached, play-back-the-tape sense; I could remember what it felt like.
I’d never thought of it as anything other than a good way to spend the evening; but having spent the day doing interviews, and the last few days talking and reading and writing, I’d felt like I just had to get out and walk around, to clear my mind.
I’d assumed when I was a kid that we were going out to entertain me. Maybe that wasn’t entirely true.
[To the tune of The Beatles, “Hey Jude,” from the album “1”.]