Chapter 9: Reunions in London

It’s Pronounced like ‚Yash,‘ Actually, chapter 9: Reunions in London

I resisted checking the time on my phone again, and a beat later did it anyway. I couldn’t help it—I had been hiding in this bathroom stall for almost forty minutes, and I was getting restless.

Moments ago, my heart had leapt in my chest as I had heard the voices of a few of the people I was hiding from chatting together through the walls of the other stalls nearby. Also nearby, a baby was screaming, unhappy about lord knows what. Who the hell brings an infant to the Harry Potter tour? Probably a Slytherin. Or a Hufflepuff.

The voices of the friends who had no idea that I was mere feet away from them and living on bathroom air left again, and I squirmed as if I could possibly invent a more comfortable position for lounging on a toilet seat. Thank god these stalls had some room. I appreciated the Brits for their understanding of personal space.

My phone buzzed. Finally! A message from Gené—the group was getting in line to head into the studio tour. I bundled myself together and swept out of the bathroom, not caring if anyone wondered if I had washed my hands. I was seconds away from realizing the biggest goal of my London mission: surprise my friends on the McDaniel UK Theatre Janterm.

I flicked my hood up and veered through the zig-zag snakey line-guide-ropes, muttering to the other people I cut ahead of: “Sorry, apologies, I lost my group, can I just squeeze by here, thank you, sorry, ah, thanks, sorry—”

No one stopped me, but I paused at one corner, directly behind a gaggle of McDanielites who hadn’t noticed me. Heart in my throat, I let my hood drop and tried to keep my voice nonchalant as I leaned over the line separating us: “Sooo, uh, are we going in or not, what are we waiting for?”

The girls turned to stare at me. It took approximately half a second of staring before Mandy lunged to full-body hug me, almost taking the rope-line down with her. Anna and Lelia stared at me open-mouthed while Mara exclaimed, “Mariah!! What? Wait, what? How did you get here?!”

“Unf. Uh, floo powder, duh,” I croaked as Mandy squeezed the air out of my lungs. “Er, babe, I can’t breathe.”

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She released me and smiled, looking (to my disappointment) not in the least bit surprised but (to my satisfaction) immensely happy. “No you didn’t, but okay.”

“You’re right, I flew, but floo sounds cooler, right? Ayyyy.”

“Oh my god.” The group rolled their eyes at my shit-eating grin. Mandy had slipped under the rope to join me in my part of the line, and I shuffled us forward until we were directly behind another clump of my buddies. Kendall noticed me coming and had to clap a hand over her mouth to stop herself from screaming, but Olivia didn’t waste a second on restraining herself. She took her turn tackling me over the rope and hollering so that the Brits around us turned to stare, perplexed at the stereotypically loud Americans. “AHHHHH! YOU’RE HERE! WOOOOAHMYGOD! AHHHH!”

“Bruh, did you think I wouldn’t be!?” I was laughing now as Kendall helped detangle Olivia from me and the line moved forward. Further ahead, Gené was smiling and we shared a wave. I gave her a thumbs up—mission accomplished.

Mandy was still smiling, hand tightly holding mine as we all waited for the doors to open. “I mean. I didn’t know, but I guess I shoulda.”

“Did you think I would let you get to this continent and not come over to say hello?” I teased. Truth be told, it by pure luck and some good-natured ticket-desk workers that I was able to join them at the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studio tour, having only landed in London about an hour ago and immediately rushed to arrive here (and hide in the bathroom) before the Janterm group could beat me inside. Gené and I had planned my surprise arrival ahead of time, but the details, as with most surprises, had only come into focus in the last hours before touchdown. In any case, I now had four days in London with good friends ahead of me, and I was starting it off with some magic.

Nearly two hours wandering through the studio that had produced the most influential and ragingly popular movies of my childhood were filled with “oooohs” and “ahhhhs” and fantastic fun. Mandy and I stuck together through the tour, cheering each other on as we got on the flying broomstick simulation and helping each other pick out the best Ravenclaw and Gryffindor merch. I switched into my far-too-expensive-but-incredibly-comfortable Gryffindor sweatshirt as soon as we got on the bus and spent the ride to the group’s hotel quoting John Mulaney with the others and catching up with Mandy. I relaxed as we wove our way into London proper; with a weekend of plans ahead of me and the most important reunion fulfilled, my mood couldn’t get much better.

Hogwarts.

About two hours later that same evening, however, it did. After not having had a chance to sing with a choir since May, I was on my way to crash a barbershop rehearsal.

I just had to find my high school choir teacher in this ridiculously large tube station first.

After only mild difficulty figuring out where the hell I was going, Pomerville—who I still called by the last name she had gone by as my teacher, now almost six years ago, although she had changed her last name after marrying a Brit and told me “I do have a first name, yknow”—found me and greeted me with a bouncy hug. “You made it! How was the trip? Yeah, this station is pretty big. Ready to sing?!”

“Hell yeah.” We chattered non-stop, jumping between subjects, doubling back, catching up from years of being in separate loops and lots of details to fill in after spring of 2012. Pville had left my high school after my graduation and was now happily doing her thing in London with a British husband as nerdy as she was and plenty of musical endeavors to find life in. It was pleasure to chat and joke with her on the same level as adults; she had always had a knack for making you feel like you were doing something right, and it was distinctly enjoyable to see myself evolve in her eyes from the high school alto in her choirs into a young adult alto who still loved to sing and had her shit together, more or less.

The gaggle of British ladies welcomed me to their rehearsal and promptly thrust a book of scores into my hands. “You can watch for a bit and then join in lead, I suppose, yeah? Wonderful!” the director immediately turned her attention to her choir, her infectious energy spread through the singers. The barbershop ladies ran through songs, and I had a relatively easy time jumping in on the lead part’s notes. Clean, strong, happy voices filled the air and made my body buzz with happiness. As I said goodbye to Pville later that evening, after we toasted each other with glasses of smooth British ale, I felt in line with everything I needed in the universe—music, adventure, and the kindness of friends.

The man across from me in the tube sat with tense shoulders and listless wrists. The card he pinched between his fingers read THERE IS ALWAYS SOMEONE THERE FOR YOU IN GRIEF, with a number to call at the bottom. His eyes were bloodshot, and his collar seemed too tight on his puffy neck as he ground his jaw. I tried not to stare, averting my eyes as if that could ward off the wave of conflicted energy coming from him. I was safe, ensconced in my own bubble of contentment from the great day I had had, but I still stole glances at him every few minutes. We got off together at King’s Cross.

The station itself was large and airy, with almost no people about at this hour, just past midnight. The man and I walked in the same direction, each of us taking brisk steps as if trying to outpace the ticking minutes of the night. He didn’t look at me, and I tried to leave space between us as we continued for several more minutes abreast of each other in the same direction through the wide halls. A lone woman was playing one of the pianos left open to the public, a tripping, hauntingly sad melody that I didn’t recognize. It echoed against the tall ceilings, the sound following us another moment before fading from earshot.

We kept pace with each other up the stairs and around the corner, until finally I veered to the left to exit unto King’s Cross Road and broke the invisible thread holding us on the same path as he continued, unphased by my departure, straight ahead. His steps wobbled slightly, as if he were drunk but enough in control to charge through the commute ahead of him. He still held the card in his hand, and I stopped by my exit to watch him as he turned down the next stairs towards the connecting trains and out of sight.

I wondered if he had noticed how long we had been walking side by side, or if whatever was causing him grief gave him tunnel vision and shut out the world around him. I wondered what had happened to him and if he would be okay, and I wondered how many others like him were making their way somewhere late at night in London, the true residents of a city that never sleeps.

I kept my hands in my pockets and resumed my quick pace down the hill towards my hostel. The face of the tall King’s Cross clock glowed pale white against the murky night sky.

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Glitter, boppin’ theatre pop music, bright red high heels, a full spectrum of emotions, a diverse cast showcasing sincerely human characters, and drag queens. Ingredients for a new smash hit musical on the West End that did not disappoint.

“Eeeeverybody’s talkin’ ‘bout Jaaaimeee! Eeevverybody’s talkin’ ‘bout Jaaa-aayyy-meeee!” The McDaniel theatre kids were in a great mood after a great show, and of course we weren’t holding back, singing and dancing together on trip back to the hotel. Everybody’s Talking About Jaime would definitely leave us oozing about the performance, and several of us were already downloading the music. If my feet weren’t about ready to fall off from the hours I had spent with Mandy, Olivia and a new companion Lizzie at the famous Camden Market, I might have tried to imitate a few of the dance moves right there in the tube station, but since it wasn’t a good idea for me to dance on a regular basis, much less in the middle of a public transportation hub, I restrained myself.

Mandy gave me a hug goodbye as I left them at their hotel.  “See you tomorrow?”

“You bet.”

I was getting really good at sneaking on and off transportation without a real ticket, although slipping onto the Hop-On Hop-Off red bus tour was probably lower on my list of infractions than other things. And besides, it was only two stops, who cared? Not us.

Mandy and I were following Olivia and her impeccable city-bred sense of direction as we neared the Victoria Coach station. We had our eyes open for the pub my friend Brian had picked and where he was waiting for us. A true friend, Brian had come to London from his home a few hours away to meet me, the third reunion on my list this weekend. Little did I know that there was a fourth in store.

Brian greeted us as we spotted him in the pub, giving me a hug and waving over his shoulder to a table we couldn’t see. “C’mon then, just gotta finish my drink and then we can go, I’m over here…”

There was no drink on the table around the corner, and instead, I took one look at the blonde-and-blue-haired head and big smile that faced me, froze where I stood, and had to promptly lay down on the floor in my shock. “Ahhhhh!? What?! Lenneke?!”

Brian and Lenneke burst out laughing, and Mandy and Olivia looked between the three of us, perplexed but amused. I was still on the floor, not sure how to express how thrilled to bits I was until Mandy hauled me to my feet. I gave my Dutch friend a hug and smacked Brian on the shoulder. “Oh my god! You made it! I thought you said you had to work?! BRIAN, you freakin’ liar, you knew the whole time!”

“I told you she’d smack me!” Brian exclaimed. Lenneke was all smiles.

“Hi, habibti! Yeah, I’m here for like four hours but I knew I had to see you! Surprise!”

I ran a hand through my hair, feeling a little unreal. “Damn. You guys. This is wild. No one surprises me, that’s my job! This is amazing, honestly!”

“You got Mariah-ed,” Olivia said, looking smug. Mandy nodded in agreement. “Had to happen eventually,” she told me in matter-of-fact tone that just made me groan again.

“I can’t believe I fell for that. You guys!!!!”

“I knew I had to get ‘er over here,” Brian said. “Haven’t seen youse since leaving Ramallah, I had to make it happen!”

“Brian’s magic,” added Lenneke. We all settled into the booth, ordered food and drinks, and filled each other in on our day so far. Lenneke had only just arrived, and her flight had been delayed, thus why Brian had texted me that he would be about an hour late to our meeting place. I shook my head at the both of them, side-eyeing Mandy and Olivia as they took great pleasure in my surprise.

“I’m so glad it worked out,” Lenneke sighed, and I accepted that this time, someone had pulled one over on me. “Yeah,” I said, and meant it with my whole heart, “me too.”

It’s not often you find friends who will secretly arrange to hop on a plane and visit a neighboring country for barely four hours to surprise you, and I’m glad I have two. After eating and sharing tales of how our lives had gone since we had last seen each other at the end of the summer in Palestine, we migrated as a group to Buckingham Palace. We joked at the posh-ness of it all and snapped pictures with the royal abode, acting as touristy as we could until it came time to escort Lenneke back to the coach station. We saw her off with tight hugs and promises to meet up again soon, with more than four hours together next time.

She headed for her bus, and a few hours later, Brian too had to depart. I was sad to see them go, but by far more elated that they had been there. I felt as content as I had on my first evening in London, but with an extra shimmer of warmth: travel was all well and good, and London had been kind to me, but it would not have been anywhere near as special without the crowd of people I cared about who had made it so.

An afternoon at Buckingham Palace with special guests Brian and Lenneke, plus Olivia and I geeking out about the Kingsman tailor shop and a very, very funny bookstore display.


We all touched the smooth wooden planks of the stage and took turns posing for pictures. I was distracted from the tour guide’s explanations as I peered around the railing of the outdoor theatre–there were very few lighting instruments, and no specific area for stage managers that I could see, so incorrigible I  raised my hand to ask how technical designs were handled in the venue. „Or are they just super simple, like there isn’t much need for hardcore light designs here, I suppose?“

The tour guide cocked his head to one side, pondering. „I’m not one hundred per cent sure how they set it all up, actually, but that’s a really good question.“

„I guess they don’t need the lights much during the afternoon shows?“ ventured another McDanielite, „I mean, Shakespeare didn’t have much special lighting when his plays were done, either, right?“

„True facts,“ I murmured. I zoned out a little again, turning my head slowly to take in as much of the house as I could. The thatched roof, the wooden beams and balconies, the subtle trapdoor in the middle of the stage, the open ground space, the astrological signs that decorated the roof of the stage…I knew, of course, that this theatre was a reconstruction, not the original, but it was hard not to be humbled to be here.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre had seen the career of the arguably most well-known author of all time and the man largely responsible for earning theatre a (sliiiightly) more legitimate place in society. It was the home of tragedies and comedies, love stories and war stories, magic and poetry. My homie Willy Shakes, the man, the myth, the legend, had set up home on this side of the river to make the best of it. And, by all means, he had succeeded. Our group of theatre nerds were breathless just thinking about the possibility of acting or teching here. I saw the future sparkling in the eyes of my companions as we imagined it.

We would raid the gift shop after the tour, making off like kings with some quality merchandise from Shakespearean favorites. All the world’s a stage, I smiled to myself, remembering our quote from the beginning days of high school theatre, and it’s a pain in the ass to mop!

 

CRASHBANGPOPBANGCRASH!

The ending of the show literally brought the house—well, rather, the set—down. In my opinion, after seeing The Play that Goes Wrong now a second time (as good on the West End as it had been on Broadway) and delighting in the reactions of my companions, every good comedy should end with the biggest possible error. That’s how you know you got your money’s worth.

My friends gave me hugs one by one and then together as a big lump of love. It was time to wave goodbye to my McDanielites in London Heathrow Airport.

Mandy, Olivia and Kendall snapped a Zebra family photo with me in honor of Alpha Psi, and I thanked Gené again for letting me crash her trip. It had been all I hoped for and more, spending time with classmates who felt like family—not just fraternity family, but real family. One last long hug from Mandy gave me the energy I needed to return to Romania…and wait until I would see them again soon.

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