Thursday, May 31, 2012

"What you doin in our shiʔy country?"

A thirteen-year-old whom I suspect was cutting school posed this question--"What you doin in our shitty country?"--to me about two weeks ago outside a museum in Manchester. The short answers: (1) I'd always wanted to travel abroad and figured England would make a good first step and (2) I'm a big Joy Division fan, and Peter Hook was performing some of their songs for the first time in thirty years. For once, I had the money, so if I were to ever go, this was the time to do it.

All-in-all, Manchester reminded me a lot of Chicago. Both cities really came into their own during the industrial age--Manchester before Chicago, but through the same sort of economic growth. Compared to the rest of England, Manchester as a city is only 150 years old or so. Also, both cities are very blue collar--or as the Mancunians put it, "working class"--and, consequentially, egalitarian. Everyone is very friendly. When I first went into a store, I thought they were just trying to sell me shit, but everyone I met was that nice. It was a really great place to visit, and having met a few folks there, I'd love to go back. My stay was brief, and people kept suggesting places to visit. I ran out of time before I could see them all.

Getting There

I left from National Airport last Wednesday. Altogether, the trip was long but not arduous. On the longer flights, I got aisle seats so I could stick my leg out.

On the flight in, I sat next to two women from Newcastle. They'd been in a wedding in Maine. They told me a few things I was surprised about, the most so being that Jersey Shore is huge in the UK. They even have their own spin-off called "Geordie Shore," named for the inhabitants of Newcastle. Consequentially, I wasn't surprised when I saw a large number of Snooki and Guido look-alikes in clubs and in public, colored orange with the appropriate hair stylings.

Arriving in the UK was disorienting for a number of reasons, mostly jetlag. I couldn't get myself to sleep on the flight, opting to read Hooky's book the whole time.


To be honest, there isn't too much culture shock going to the UK. We've been separate 250 years, but our countries have been intertwined in trade and communication the last 150. Our cultures never really wandered apart. For example, it's not hard to find a cup of coffee. I was drinking Americanos most of the week, which isn't a bad trade off.

Nevertheless, there's a few things that really threw me for a loop. Left-side driving absolutely blew my mind. I suspected cars driving on the "wrong" side of the road wouldn't get to me too much, but I hadn't the slightest clue. Right-side driving is completely ingrained in my brain, perhaps even as deep as language itself.

Consider this. When you look at a strip of road, you come to all sorts of conclusions about it without much evidence, using what you have learned about roads and driving over the course of your life. Traveling into Manchester by train, I saw a car on a road, driving on the left. By default, I assumed the strip of road the car drove on was a one-way, and being in a more open, grassy area, I looked for the separate part of the divided highway. My brain had "placed" such a separate segment, but when I actually thought to look for it, there was no such segment, and I became very confused.

This same thing occurred in cities, but in an urban context, instead of placing a separate one-way strip, I simply assumed the road was a one-way. When I saw evidence contrary to this, it threw me for a loop, every time. This was incorrect. Doubling my confusion, there actually were one-ways, so without really stopping and thinking, I could never tell what the roads were doing. In other words, I couldn't read them.

After a few days, I started to think I was getting a hang of it, though at times, I gave up and just waited for walk signals. I was no master of the left-handed arts. I remember standing at an intersection, waiting for the light to change. The intersection itself was pretty complicated, but I had expectations as to how it worked. Then a car drove the "wrong" way and totally shattered those expectations.

View Larger Map

I was located on the southern side of this intersection. To complicate things, there are a lot of one-ways and what not that merge at this point, but I still expected a car to emerge from my left while traversing the intersection. When one came from my right, it shattered all my hopes--how few they were--of ever driving in the UK.

Besides driving, in England, you don't tip by default. As a friend of mine quoted a bartender, "they pay us properly here." This was instinct was incredibly difficult to overcome, and I always felt really odd leaving somewhere without tipping. This was also very convenient. Tax was also included in the price of things, so if something cost 6 quid, it really cost 6 quid.

Beyond those things, there's a few little differences, and for the most part, I felt like I was having a strange dream where everything was just a little different. A lot of brands carry over to the UK with the same logos and typesetting but different names. The names for things on signs like "bathrooms" and "checkout" become "toilets" and "cash and wrap." It's like in a dream when you read some text, and the text isn't what it ought to be. You know something is off despite that most things match your expectations.

How tied together our countries are became apparent while wandering around on my first day there. I saw a statue that looked an awful lot like Abraham Lincoln. It, in fact, was a statue of Abraham Lincoln.

The textile industry fueled much of Manchester's early growth. When the American Civil War started, imports of cotton from the American south stopped, causing the Lancashire Cotton Famine. The south boycotted exports to try to force the United Kingdom to support the Confederacy. This didn't work, as workers supported the Union cause to end slavery. Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter acknowledging the plight of the Mancunians, and the US government sent some food aid.

All-in-all, I wasn't there too long and didn't have time to make deeper observations. To stay longer, I'd have to find some real business there. I get antsy if I don't have some kind of work to accomplish.

Staying in a Hostel

This was my first time staying in a hostel. It was really cheap, which was the main reason I chose it. I stayed in a ten person dorm room, which was almost never full. This had its advantages and disadvantages.

The hostel itself was clean and well-maintained. There was always free coffee, tea, and toast, which was a nice plus. For the most part, I tried to avoid sitting around though. I didn't travel across an ocean to hide in a room and read a book; I wanted to bump heads with people. This was another reason not to book a hotel room, after all. I had no intention to use it.

The people staying in the room changed from night-to-night. A few stayed two nights, but two rounds of roommates came and went during my stay. In some respects, I liked this. I met and interacted with a lot of people that way; I met people from Australia, France, Brazil, China, and Germany, among others. It was great exchanging thoughts and stories with these folks, even in such a high-speed way.

I was in the hostel for five nights. One of them, the room was full, and that was undoubtedly the worst night. One man snored to no end. Someone later told me of a solution for this--making a loud sound like clapping can make the snorer shut up for five to ten minutes--not all night, but possibly long enough to get to sleep. I wish I'd realized this at the time. It wouldn't have solved the other discomfort of that night--a younger gentleman one bunk below me who was probably the most restless sleeper I'd ever encountered. He may have punched my mattress two or three times and would randomly hum directionless tunes throughout the night. He also did this when he woke up the next morning to iron his shirt again, then meandering randomly around the room for half an hour before building up the nerve to leave.

Even with one bad night, it didn't ruin the trip or even the hostel. I will definitely repeat the experience again. However, I do not recommend hostels if (1)you like your privacy or (2)you want to be left completely alone. If you want to be left alone, though, why are you travelling? Go back home, hide in your house.

Pounds and Dollars

I got lucky with the conversion rate on this trip. I pulled money from Natwest ATMs exclusively, and I don't think either my bank or Natwest charged any fees. I got nearly the exact exchange rate, which is around 1.5 pounds to 1 dollar. This was easy to convert to dollars in my head--just add half the price in pounds.

Thanks to the exchange rate, I was paying less for a lot of things than I would pay back home. Because pounds are a stronger currency, things are sold for fewer pounds than they would be dollars, so though you're carrying fewer pounds, you can end up with equal or greater buying power if the exchange rate is right.

A beer in a pub or club was usually around 3 quid, which worked out to $4.50. In DC, you pay at least $5 on most occasions, plus you have to tip and pay sales tax, so the price always comes out to at least $6 a beer. The same went for a lot of meals. The cheapest meal I bought was at a department store for 2 quid, so $3. This is about what you'd expect to get breakfast for in the States, if not more.

Pubs and Bars

When I first walked into a pub, I was surprised by the atmosphere. The lighting was soft and warm; the floors were carpeted. When I sat down with a pint of cask ale, I really felt comfortable. My feet didn't stick to the floor, for example. I'd never experienced anything like it in the States.

Disappointingly, young people think of pubs as being for old people. They all go to clubs, where you pay 10 quid to get in and then 5 quid for tiny drinks. We do the same thing here, I suppose, but I'd probably spend a lot of time in pubs if we had them in the States. I guess if pubs weren't a novelty, they would be for old people.

18 May

The 18th of May is, as Peter Hook put it, Ian Curtis Day. This was the day that Ian Curtis hung himself at his wife's home in Macclesfield. On the 18th, I went to Macclesfield.

Macclesfield is what one would expect from a small English town. Lots of small townhouses, packed close together. There's a church and market in the middle, cobblestone, gray skies, and green hills in the distance.

To get to Macclesfield, I took a train. The train service was excellent. I probably waited less for trains between cities than I did for the Metro. Round trip was 8 quid.

Upon arrival, I first walked to the cemetery to see Ian's grave. The cemetery was quite large, and I went to a small administrative house to ask for directions. I told the woman working there I was looking for a grave; she already knew what I was looking for and handed me a pre-prepared map.

I'm not sure why I expected no one else to be there. I was there but five minutes, and I spoke with two locals and an American who'd come to pay their respects. A small shrine was on top of the tiny grave marker, sprawled out onto those around it, with pieces of remembrance and loose change placed on top of it.

The American I met there suggested that I check out the book of remembrance in a nearby building. There, turned to the page for 18 May, were lyrics from Twenty-Four Hours written in calligraphy.

After this, I made my way to Barton Street where Ian and his wife had lived. There were other folks there: a girl with a rose who hid behind a corner listening to an iPod and two guys from Preston who had driven up. I spoke with the guys from Preston for a while, and one guy pointed out a lot of stuff to me--the window of the "blue room" where Ian wrote all of his songs, and that the actual unemployment office where Ian worked was really right around the corner, like in this clip:

I hadn't realized it before, but the clip filmed here is the exact walk Ian took to work everyday, from 77 Barton Street to the unemployment office. We took the walk and also walked through South Park where Ian used to walk his dog. They were great guys, and I was happy to have met them.

The show that evening was excellent. Both Hooky and the audience were totally engaged, the occasion giving the show extra poignancy. Hooky didn't do a bad job singing either. Shadowplay (starting at 5:12 in the first video) and Love Will Tear Us Apart were exceptional, as you can hear the audience singing along:

Hooky didn't attempt to do the Ian Curtis dance--I don't think anyone will ever manage to do that right. However, he managed to tap into some of the same morose intensity Ian had had, especially during Decades:

Oh my god, I love your accent!

While in the UK, for the first time in my life, I had a sexy accent. This was really wonderful; girls kept buying me drinks left and right. It's an experience I'd love to repeat.

The same applies in the States for an English accent. It seems both our countries are fascinated with one another. When speaking with people, we often spent most of the discussion comparing our two countries. From the fallout of the Bush years, I expected a lot of disdain, but instead, there was a mutual curiosity that transcends politics.

Final Thoughts

I tried to avoid doing touristy things while in Manchester. This wasn't too difficult, as Manchester isn't really a touristy town. My last day in town though, I visited the Museum of Science and Industry, which is housed in the site of the first ever commercial railroad warehouse. This is because Manchester was the first industrialized city in the world; it wasn't even really a city before that point. The Manchester-Liverpool line, which terminated at that warehouse, was the first commercial railroad.

For a museum, it was quite impressive. Most museums have machinery on display, static and cold. MOSI had real working steam engines. Seeing and hearing a steam engine in action was amazing.

Something the videos don't capture is the heat, radiating off the machines. It made them seem warmer, more alive.

The museum summed up Manchester in a way. So many of the inventions at MOSI were machines where one had been reappropriated and slightly modified to perform a new task, each invention building off the next. This happens in software too, but I hadn't realized it was a driving force behind the majority of inventions.

This process of reinvention was able to take off in Manchester, triggering the industrial revolution, leaving behind waste that--thirty years ago--created an environment that sprouted some of the most brilliant music of the 20th century. A sign outside Factory 251 said that more rockstars have come from Manchester per capita than any other city in the world. I could believe it. In a strange way, Manchester seemed ahead of its time, perpetually pushing forward in culture and science.