Instead of getting up with my alarm, set for the severe hour of seven o’clock, I decided to stay immersed in a dream about reconciliation and start my morning off with the kind of positive omen that I cannot, even now, take seriously.
The later start meant setting out towards London after the end of rush hour, though, which was to the good. And although the pouring rain was no fun, it was, at least, an initiation of sorts. I spend my winters in New York loving the snow and despising the rain with the kind of fervor I usually reserve for texting drivers and stone-throwing settlers; here, however, I’m going to have to learn to alter my ways. Hating the rain and the gray will be the death of me in this country.
Arriving in London after a long bus ride, during which both my mom and I fell asleep for a little while, we discovered that the weather was no better there. Still, we braved it, and went to meet two old friends of ours at the Riverfront Cafe, at the British Film Institute on the South Bank of the Thames. I sound so knowing, don’t I? But see, the thing is, I actually am familiar with London. While Oxford still feels and looks like a toy-town to me, London feels like home. Oxford is low to the ground, making the gray sky bigger and grayer, whereas London distracts you from the lousy weather by telling you, politely but firmly, that it is a grand old city, beautiful in a scattered but dignified way, like a lady of leisure lying in her bathtub with her pearls still draped around her throat.
The rain ceased by the time we left the cafe, richer in knowledge about Mongolia and more depressed than ever on the subject of publishing. My mom and I walked along the South Bank, watching the gorgeous skyline, until we reached the Tate Modern, which was – really – the reason we’d taken such pains to reach London in the first place.
We saw the Tino Seghal exhibition – some seventy people, dressed in regular street clothes, parade around Turbine Hall, alternately walking extremely slowly, running, chanting in unison, and singing. In addition, and this is the more exciting part, they engage in conversation with the audience, the viewers. They meet people’s eyes, choose them, walk up to them, and begin to tell them a story, a confession. My mother and I had two such encounters. The first was with a gorgeous, gray-haired man who was almost forty, rail-thin and clearly a dancer of long training, who began by trying to tell us a tale about how he didn’t fit in as a child in the suburbs he moved to with his family. The conversation with him derailed from there into a discussion of what we do to form into groups – whether we create imaginary categories for ourselves and others in order to fit in. From there, we got onto the subject of love, which gave him the parting line he used before ducking, abruptly, away from us: “That’s the amazing thing about love, really.” The second encounter we had was with a young woman with crooked teeth but a great smile. She had short, curly hair that was shaved at the back and stood up in a fluff on top. Her skin was milky white, and she looked down at both of us, since she was quite tall, and told us about how she was procrastinating writing her thesis proposal for her master’s degree. We discussed deadlines, how they made us feel and how we live, really, from one deadline to another. I wished I could take her phone number so that we could be friends.
These two encounters were enough for us. We’d ingested enough intimate human contact from complete strangers, and wanted to retain the magic without wearing out it (or our) welcome. So we went upstairs and spent a good ten minutes contemplating a room full of Rothko paintings, feeling the vibrating emotion come off his colors, into our bodies, calming us down.
Ending the day in London, we walked to the original Patisserie Valerie – now a chain of restaurants, it used to be a singular, small place, with bad waiters, awful coffee, delicious hot chocolate and better pastries. The original place is on Old Compton Street, just off Charing Cross Road, and although our eggs were cold, we ended up having a lovely experience there, on the whole. We got a fantastic cake, our meal for free, and a promise to get a recipe from the chef for a cake that they don’t sell anymore, but that my parents – when they lived in London years and years ago – would eat after work every day with their hot chocolates.