So, yes, I was in London for 10 days recently, where I auditioned and was accepted at the Central School for Speech and Drama for their MA program in classical acting. Woo-Hoo! In addition to my elation at the prospect of spending the next year immersed in the classics, after my short visit in London I realized that I had to attempt a longer stay and become more familiar with this great city.
When I made plans to stay in the home of a friend of mine and his flatmate, both bachelors, I envisioned a home decorated in the style of New York’s infamous Coyote Ugly bar: abandoned bras dangling from the ceiling fans, floors sticky with spilt booze, galaxies of dust and bodyhair hovering in the corridors and smeared boxerbriefs drooping off doorknobs. However, Brian and Marcus, old college buddies, live in a charming neighborhood in southeast London named Ladywell, on this picturesque street:
And they maintain a terrifying purity in their home. I’d wake up in the early morning to shouts of “ZERO TOLERANCE!” thundering from the kitchen and stumble in (trying not to slide to my death across the dustless hardwood floors) to find one of my hosts at the foaming kitchen sink, lathering furiously while the laundry washer trembled at his side. At first I thought “zero tolerance” was a warning to whichever flatmate was duty-bound at the moment to do the cleaning by the one who was currently off the hook, a “YOU FEAR HOGAN!!”- style reprimand for an AWOL dishwasher or bathtub scrubber or floor sweeper. But it is in fact a battle cry in the style of “WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS!”—a mantra by which the obligated revs himself up before a trying shift of degreasing. “ZERO TOLERANCE!” from Marcus washing dishes in the kitchen, “ZERO TOLERANCE!” from Brian scrubbing tiles in the lavvy. It was a virtual cacophony of hygiene. Not only were my prejudices about the bachelors debunked by the gleaming cleanliness or their home; I immediately felt an inner panic concerning my own slobbery in contrast. The idea of exposing my slovenliness and disgracing my country before these olympians was too humiliating and I could not rest peacefully for fear of allowing some disgusting habit of mine to surface in a moment of unawareness. What if I should accidentally leave my sneakers where somebody might smell them? Or get caught cleaning my mascara wand with my toothbrush? Or forget about all the snails I trampled on the stairs to the house and tread guts all over the living room carpet? For the entire time of my stay I obsessively picked my hair out of the drain after I showered, buried my soiled clothing in double plastic bags deep inside my suitcase, and wrapped the Q-tips I cleaned my ears with in tissue before I pushed them to the bottom of the rubbish bin. The potential for disaster was high and I had to remain vigilant. The only suggestion of squalor made by my hosts was the expanding stalagmitic array of empty liquor bottles on the kitchen floor surrounding the garbage can. And even that didn’t seem as filthy as it would in any major American city home, where each of those bottles, even those with but a drop of wine in the bottom, left overnight would by morning be stuffed with drowned roaches, drawn to their besotted doom by the pungent aroma of the pickling booze.
Anyway, the first night I was there, the night before my big audition at Central, Brian, a prominent acting teacher and director, and Marcus, owner of a talent agency, and I converged in the living room for a discussion on a life in the theatre.
Brian: “I hardly ever go to shows anymore. I’d much rather get a nice bottle of wine and watch Big Brother, any night.”
Marcus: “Or Top Gear. Top Gear’s better.”
B: “Right. Brilliant. I’ve no wish to sit in some uncomfortable middle-class chair surrounded by white people and watch a bunch of actors…acting…”
M: Well, it’s a defunct art form, isn’t it?”
B: “A dinosaur. Why go to a play if there’s a boxing match on?”
M: “I mean, if actors were pilots, and pilots were forced to wear their uniforms out, and you saw just how many bloody pilots there were, you’d say, ‘Why are we training so many bloody pilots? There are only so many planes.’ What’s your exit strategy, Larissa?”
L: (silent as I fight back tears)
B: “You definitely need an exit strategy. When you sit down with yourself and say, ‘I need to say goodbye to this’. For some guys it’s thirty-five, but for women it might need to be sooner– shorter shelf-life, yes?”
M: “Don’t get discouraged about this; it’s just important that you have a plan for what to do with your life in case you don’t make it…more wine?”
I’d like to discuss the British colloquial use of “brilliant,” which I find to be unfailingly entertaining and funny. In America, “brilliant” suggests a high degree of virtuosity exhibited in a work of art or idea (e.g.. Meryl Streep’s brilliant performance in Sophie’s Choice), or an exceptionally talented or skillful person (e.g. the brilliant painter Picasso), or sometimes an unusually bright color (as in my brilliant pink hat). We only veer away from the literal sense of the word by applying it to decidedly negative and unbrilliant things in a blunt and obvious version of sarcasm, as in “Whose brilliant idea was it to paint the door shut?” The British, on the other hand, seem to prefer to place the word somewhere in the middle, in reference to something they regard as positive and worthy of praise, but utterly unconnected to talent or skill in the fine arts or philosophy.
“They serve up a brilliant pig’s blood pudding at Maggie’s.”
Jack: “Her dress just snapped off like a broken condom.”
I’m convinced this usage denotes a deeply cynical streak in the British character (which after a ten-day visit I feel completely justified to diagnose). They over-rate things normally understood to be of limited value as if to spit in the face of the higher things in life. “There is no real genius left in the world; the gods are dead, but bollocks to them, we’ve got pig’s blood!” Cynical or not, though, I still laugh whenever I hear “brilliant” used this way. Oh, and “bollocks,” too, every time.
I guess the most troubling thing about London was how very poor I was there. On the first day of my trip the exchange rate was two dollars to the pound and on subsequent days it hovered around $1.80-$1.88/pound. I’m used to being a rich American abroad and having to restrain my spending habits in order to discourage gypsy thieves and also not to appear overly vulgar and ugly—the “Ugly American”! Of course this happy illusion can only be upheld in countries crippled by poverty. In London, however, I had to pause before I ordered an $8 falafel sandwich or a $7 latte. A one-day three-zone travel card was $20; student tickets to the Gielgud Theatre were $30!! Although it killed my buzz not to be able to gorge myself at the most pretentious restaurants or use the loose change at the bottom of my purse to fill my suitcase with precious national treasures, I did enjoy the unfamiliar feeling of self-pity brought on by my newfound destitution. I pretended I was in one of those movies where Julia Roberts or Jennifer Lopez lives a ho-hum working-class life while dreaming of the big time and then is rescued by a handsome and mysterious millionaire with grey hair, to become the jewel in the crown of the upper class while never forgetting her roots. I stood outside Harrod’s imagining the over-the-shoulder shot capturing my look of yearning reflected in the window as I gazed at the inaccessible riches within. Later on in the movie, having captured the heart of the World’s Most Eligible Bachelor, I’m inside the store for the first time, perched somewhat clumsily on a dresser’s podium to show my unfamiliarity with the ways of the rich. Tailors buzz around me and Richard Gere sits enthroned in the corner, beaming at my genuineness and exuberance, nothing like those society ladies he’s used to. When my gown for the big night is finally finished, I see it in the mirror—so different from my welding outfit—and with tears in my eyes, whisper, “I’ve never felt satin like this before…”
When I wasn’t daydreaming about my rise to the top I did my best to have a good time despite my lack of funds. Luckily, the museums are mostly free, some theatres offer student tickets for as low as $15, and people can be pretty generous if you pout at them. One day I struck up a conversation with a couple at the famous Cutty Sark Pub on the Thames. The man, clearly of the working class (from what I could discern from his accent and my vast knowledge of masterpiece theatre character types), described his travels in America, “Oi just show op wit’an empty syootcase an’ boi moi clowthin’ theh, don’ even bothah packin nutin’…oi git a noice syoot or tyoo, an’ a couple pair o’jeans an’ some jackits an’ T-shuhts and tennies….oi dew that whenevah oi take vacashin in Nyoo Yoork, oi dew.” He has a job with the city of London pumping oxygen in after the sewage as it floats down the Thames. I couldn’t follow his explanation of the science of it all exactly, but apparently, fish don’t normally object to swimming through excrement, but because of the great multitudes of turds progressing down the river, and the fact that feces somehow eats up or destroys the oxygen in the water, if left unaided, the fish die of suffocation. Throughout history the Thames has been a giant floating death camp for millions of unsuspecting fish, swept along with the unrelenting tide of poo, and creating what was called the “Big Stink.” But my friend at the pub and his crew save the day by reoxygenating the river so the fish and sewage can coexist happily together. When I told him that I held a B.A. in Liberal Arts and was pursuing a graduate degree in classical acting, he took pity and treated me to a half pint of cider.
Well, that’s enough of my trip for now. I’m sure once I’m living there I’ll have more to say. I’ve included a few more pictures, one of me having high tea on Primrose Hill, one of the romantc, moody Thames, and a ‘political’ image taken at posh Sloane square…