Travel Writing. Probably the most ambiguous type of writing there is… it’s about bringing a sense of place to something, and a sense of leaving and returning and the growth in that, but otherwise “travel writing” is tough to define. You can write a travel story about an event, you can feature a person you meet, it can be about the 5-star resort in Bermuda or the broken down gas station in Wyoming. That is the beauty and the devil of it– what on earth do you write about when you’re living in London! It’s diverse, different, bustling, quiet. Even if I lived here for a hundred thousand years I’d never be able to completely cover it. I see stories everywhere I look and in everyone I meet. Here are two London snapshots of two separate experiences I was asked to submit for a class. Normally I steer clear of creative blogging, but sometimes to get a true sense of a place you have to step beyond How-To lists and Top-10 lists…
His name is John and he is drooling. I didn’t notice it at first, but then I felt a sticky wet glup-glup hit the flat section of the back of my hand just under my thumb. My hand rests at the base of my cider-pint on the chipped wooden bar surface. My fingers curl protectively around my drink, and thanks to John, I now have a globber of spit slithering down my wrist.
This bar has character. Or characters, rather. John is one of them. At 52 years-old he looks closer to 72, but never mind that. He’ll probably never die because he drinks so heavily that his body is pickled to preservation in Guinness. I met John five minutes ago when I ordered my drink. He was hunched over his pint, staring at a worn spot in the floor. When he heard my American accent, his large red face swiveled in slow motion toward the sound of my voice.
Seven empty pint glasses sit neatly lined up next to his current drink. Each foam-stained gold Guinness harp that decorates each of the seven glasses is turned in the same direction. We talk. Or rather, I ask questions and he slurs back, cross-eyed. John is on his 18th pint of the day, he’s been drinking since just after noon. He’s a retired mechanic with a passion for theater and Guinness. He never gets drunk, he says. But, according to the bar tender, John comes every day, he leaves every night, and he drinks at least 10 pints in one go. John’s huge blue eyes look at the bar tender, his brain registers what the bar tender said, he nods vigorously, and the slug of drool drips down onto my hand. He swigs the rest of his pint, slides his glass into line, turns the gold Guinness harp just-so, and orders another. Now that’s what I call dedication.
A run through Hyde Park is my favorite way to start any day. It’s bitter cold in London in January. I wear all of my under armor, and I’m still cold, so I run faster down the mustard gravel. Hyde Park is always busy, even at 7am. Young children teeter awkwardly on roller blades, trying to mimic the swing-and-sway rhythm of their instructors. An old smug-faced lady walks her pudgy old dog. I smile to myself because they look rather alike, trudging right down the middle of the path, moving for no one, with their heads held high as if they own Hyde Park itself.
I come to Serpentine River, and notice a flock of birds crowding the edge of the water. It’s too tempting. I put my head down and barrel through the flock, my Nike running sneakers are disruption at its finest. I feel fluttering wings hit my body as the disgruntled birds swarm the gray sky in agitation. With a sheepish glance over my shoulder, I see that no one noticed the silly grownup who wishes she were five again. The birds resettle and all is well.
My heart is banging inside my chest now. My lungs suck the sharp winter air and my leg muscles protest with every stride. The pink watch on my wrist says I’m almost done, three minutes to go. I pick it up, forcing the rhythm of my body through the green grass, dodging mothers with strollers, bikes, couples walking hand-in-hand. The crowd is a blur. In. Out. Around. Faster, faster. I can’t even feel my feet anymore, two minutes to go.
I can see the arch. The great white marble on the horizon beckons me toward it—the finish line. One minute to go, can I make it? It seems so far away. The gravel crunches under my soles, Lady Gaga screams Bad Romance in my ears, my pink watch ticks down, and I race myself. Twenty seconds. My body lurches into overdrive. I hit the wall of utter physical exhaustion and grab the black fence, I made it. Sweat drips down my face and my legs fold toward the earth. I forget what day it is and the worries on my mind, and in this moment, when my hands connect to the dirt, and my eyes go fuzzy with tears from the wind, I’m free.