I fell asleep even before takeoff. I woke up in London, zipped through customs, and made a couple of quick calls - one to Mark, and one to the front desk of my parents' hotel, who told me they were due to check in in three hours.
Only an hour after touching down on the tarmac, I emerged from Paddington Station onto a London street for the first time in my life. My first impression was that England smells curiously like Australia. I always notice the smells of different countries first - America smells like corn syrup, plastic wrappers, and Walmart the second the door of the airplane opens. London smells like Sydney.
My second impression was of the glorious, wonderful tiny cars. All my life, I have had a passion for microsized cars that use barely any fuel - cars that appeal to carhaters - and when I saw a Smart Car parked a few blocks from the station, I found myself suddenly more excited about London than ever.
The third thing I noticed was that nobody speaks English in London. When travelling by myself, I eavesdrop habitually, but listening to gossip at a bus stop in London is practically impossible - the people next to you are more likely to be speaking Arabic, French, Portuguese, German, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, or some bewilderingly unidentifiable Eastern European language than English. Fifteen minutes after I stepped out of the station, I had been asked directions three times by overseas tourists even more clueless than I was. Of course, not all the non-English-speakers are tourists. Edgware Road is quite definitely a Muslim community, with everything from Lebanese restaurants to Arabic bookstores and Internet cafes lining both sides of the road. Flocks of women in flapping black burkhas float down the footpath at regular intervals, and men suck on hookahs and tiny cups of coffee mud at outdoor tables.
The Hyde Park Inn was adequate (I can't complain; the cost was very low), although my stay there reinforced my firm belief that men fucking STINK. Christ Jesus, the first time I walked into my room, the funk was suffocating. This was exacerbated that night by pussy-arse sleepers closing the windows to reduce the noise from outside. Why do men smell so bad? Why? I've slept in female dorms, and they're never so redolent of groin.
I headed back out of the hostel and sat down in Kensington Gardens for a while trying to get my head together. With my super-travel PDA+keyboard setup, I typed a long diatribe about the ball of stress in the pit of my stomach and my hopes and fears for the next few days which I won't post because it's even more self-indulgent than this blog entry.
Kensington Gardens is full of some of the fattest, tamest squirrels I have ever seen. They run right up to you and practically jump on your shoes. The reason for this was pretty obvious when I saw a little girl hand-feeding one of them. While some of them appear somewhat demonic in photos, most looked like characters out of Kenneth Grahame books.
Finally, I steeled myself and walked up to my parent's hotel. They were just checking in - Mum, Dad, and Trevor were in the tiny foyer, about to carry their suitcases to their room.
My family is very strange. My mum and dad are technically divorced, but they still live together. Trevor is Mum's schizophrenic boyfriend whom she met in a mental ward in Sydney. As much as I disliked Trevor upon first meeting him (a rather nasty story involving an attempted suicide on the part of my dad), I will admit quite freely now that he isn't so bad and that he certainly seems to make Mum happy.
Mum and Dad have been pretending to be brother and sister in their travels around Europe to "avoid questions" about the three of them staying in one room.
This would be strange enough by itself, but if you know the rest of my family history, you realize that this is business as usual in the Shong household. In fact, this is probably the most stable my family unit has been in years.
Dad has lost a lot of weight. His hair is greyer, and he moves slowly. I remember when I used to almost run to keep up with his brisk walk; now I must school myself to walk as slowly as I can to avoid tiring him. His skin feels papery, like the skin of an old man. He's quieter. But he's in pretty good spirits for a man dying of cancer. The trip (with an absolutely ludicrous itinerary) has done him a world of good, I think; now he feels he can die knowing that he's seen the world.
I didn't cry when I saw him. I think I was too emotional to cry - the overload switch blew. But it was a happy meeting.
My mother, now. It seems in the last two years, Mum has become a Chinese horoscope fanatic. I don't mean someone who dabbles. I mean the kind of follower that you would be afraid to sit next to on a bus. She can talk about the Chinese zodiac for forty-five minutes straight without you so much as nodding to acknowledge that you are listening. She has mapped out the animal-type personalities and lives of everyone she knows, including all of the people on the tour bus (in fact, she recited the horoscopes of several of her fellow travellers whom I had, of course, never met). Apparently, Matt and I will have personal problems when we turn thirty, and the only way to save our marriage will be to have a child in the year of the Dragon - 2010. We can even adopt a child that year if we wish, but it is crucial that we have a Dragon child, or all will be lost. She has used the horoscope to explain her relationship with Trevor, Dad's cancer, and pretty much the whole of civilization. Trevor's schizophrenia, which first manifested itself in 1980, was a result of my birth that same year. The Chinese horoscope, as she perceives it, is also intricately woven into Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, and all those religions' woes and successes can be explained by it.
I cannot chuse: sometime he angers me,
With telling me of the Moldwarpe and the Ant,
Of the Dreamer Merlin, and his Prophecies;
And such a deale of skimble-skamble Stuffe,
As puts me from my Faith. O, he is as tedious
As a tyred Horse, a rayling Wife,
Worse than a smoakie House. I had rather live
With Cheese and Garlick in a Windmill farre,
Then feede on Cates, and have him talke to me,
In any Summer-House in Christendome.
I was very happy to see my mother the first day we were together, despite the conversation. She and Trevor walked me back to my hostel while I told her the plot of King Lear and tried awkwardly to explain why it had affected me so much. We planned to spend the next day together, all four of us, sightseeing around London.