If you got to go to London for only one night, what would you do?
I am here and it is now, and as I have no winter clothes and am leaving on a jet plane for a cold place tomorrow night. According to my informants, there is only one option: Primark.
It is already dark, and time is on the run. I glide down the ice-covered steps of the site of my inconspicuous bargain-basement lodging (after ascending from my basement room), the Excalibur Hotel (its only sign a scotch-taped sheet of A4), to Earl's Court Station.
Once out at Oxford Street, I wade through London's Christmas spirit.
Having been in Liverpool and York for research on the nuances of form and tone in Chav poetry, I missed Thanksgiving back home. Thankfully, a storefront catches my eye, and I decide to make a pit stop for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner: Jerk Chicken. (Innit?)
This British jerk is different from what I used to get in Flatbush -- more liquidy, and sweeter. I was looking forward to the crusted salt and pepper of dusted spices. Perhaps all emotion springs from expectation. Yet this jerk is one, true and good.
Amidst the hallowed halls of Primark, I wander through each chartered aisle, near where the chartered Thames does flow. And mark in every face I meet, marks of weakness, marks of woe.
After many sizings it seems I shall not find that which I seek with ease. None of the winter coats fit. Still, before closing, I emerge with some necessities: grey wool turtleneck, black smoking jacket, and Run D.M.C. socks. Will have to board the plane and make do without a coat. But how hard can it be to find a warm coat in one of the coldest places in the world? Surely there will be a better selection to choose from there.
There is something about a hat that goes beyond the head. Beyond warmth and style. Perhaps the hat is a kind of channeling device, or beacon for the transmission and reception of powerful energies.
I would like to discuss hats further, but first, I would like to thank the security people at Heathrow for their uncompromising dedication and thoroughness. They do not cut any corners. To the member of security who helps me remove everything from my bag—and I mean everything—I thank you. I thank you from the bottom of my Boston Tea Party. This man removes everything from every compartment, even from the most deeply hidden, zippered areas. He produces—with the nonchalant flair of David Copperfield—things I thought I had lost, have not seen in years, and never knew I had. With a bit of training, this man could have a lucrative career in psychoanalysis. I would also like to thank this man for allowing me to re-pack my bag myself. Having gone through this rigorous search process, I feel confident that I have experienced British culture and hospitality, and that our skies are safer. However, I am not sure how I am going to get all these bags on the plane. My kingdom for a horse.
As I approach the Air Astana ticket counter, I notice the man behind it is wearing a black turban. I have never worn a turban, and would like to try. As I wonder what to say about my excessive baggage, the man utters a single word. I could never have predicted it:
I realize the man is referring to my hat—a red affair stitched with the image of the mythological (cormorant?) Liver bird and the name of the city in white:
"Are you a Liverpool fan?"
This question catches me off guard. I expected to be asked about liquids, flammable aerosols and sharp objects, not my soccer allegiances. Then again, this is England.
The man extends his hand from behind the counter, and I shake it.
There are no more worries about bags.
This is the power of hats.
I would like to extend my thanks to this man, his colleagues, the flight crew, President/CEO Peter Foster and the entire staff of Air Astana for making my journey a most pleasant and enjoyable one. I would also like to thank the aircraft itself -- the Boeing 767 -- with its capacity of 250+ passengers, for getting by this evening with just 30 of us inside.
Diego, an astronomer from Chile who sits next to me, says he wishes that the airlines would compete with each other by offering passengers more luxury, rather than by cutting the comforts and charging extra for amenities. It is a sentiment with which many might agree.
The atmosphere in Immigration, with its security officers decked out in green drab and red stars, feels decidedly Soviet. I realize now that it might have been a good idea to learn a few phrases of Russian or Kazakh. But when the immigration officer looks up from my papers and says, with a certain accent, “Ok, Loren! Have a good time in Kazakhstan!” I feel as if we have known each other for years.
With these words, I have been entrusted with a directive through an apparatus of the state: it is now my duty to have a good time here. Objections and doubts are solved. This is a duty I must execute without fail.
The plane from Astana to Almaty (where it is only -12 C) is packed. Some say the name of the former capital comes from the Kazakh word for apple, and that they have amazing apples there. I love apples, and am looking forward to the apples of Almaty.
In Dreams Begin Appellations
I doze off after eating some kind of ground meat (stewardess says “chicken?”) panini, and dream of walking alone through the deserted streets of the city. It is early morning and the light is glazing over the icy streets. I know and don’t know where I am going: the bazaar. The bazaar is also deserted. I thought it would open early—but is it too early? I look around and the bazaar is teeming with merchants in traditional Kazakh robes, pointed hats and shoes, setting up their carts full of produce—fruit, meat, cheese, greens. I see one heaped with apples and call out to get her attention. Her cart—a giant wheelbarrow—is so full of apples I don’t see how she could be moving it. There must be three tons of apples stacked into neat pyramids of red and gold rising from the bottom of her cart. She is moving, fast, and not a single apple is disturbed. I run after her, but lose her in the crowd.
I find myself in the middle of the bazaar, surrounded by merchants pulling apple carts. They see I am looking for apples, and want me to buy theirs. Their carts are also stacked unbelievably high with apple pyramids—most red and gold, with some green. As I look around above and through apple peaks for the first merchant, the others close in on me. I finally see her looking at me from the perimeter. She appears different now—tired—barely dragging her cart. She’s looking right at me, but doesn’t see me. When I raise my hand to get her attention and beckon her forward, she gets re-energized, and plows through the crowd of apple merchants. The others move to let her through, but just as she reaches me, she looks up, and her cart whacks into another, setting off a domino effect, tipping over all the carts and sending their mountains of apples swirling into apple rivers at my feet. For an instant, I’m drowned—then buoyed up, swimming in apples. As a red one floats by, I take a bite.
It is cold crisp juicy and sweet.
The plane touches down, I wake, and am here.