It was 1991. Now I KNOW there are those of you out there who are already clicking off this page, but let me tell you…1991 was NOT the year to plan an idyllic European vacation.
Operation Desert Storm had begun, not to be confused with Operation Desert Shield. That was 1990, when U.S. troops were sent to Saudi Arabia. Supposedly to prevent Iraq from invading. Or something. This “wholly defensive” maneuver was abandoned when Iraq declared Kuwait to be Iraq’s 19th province and So Damn Insane named his cousin as its governor, or some such happyhorseshit. I just remember my brother was over there for part of that and it freaked me out. He could have been hurt! Yes, 1991 was busy.
Russia collapsed. Like, immediately. So fast it was almost unbelievable. It still is. Boris Yeltsin was elected, then not, then Gorbachev took over and Lech Walesa was elected in Poland and Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Moldova, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Estonia and probably more (I had to look it up and now I’m sick and tired of typing those weird ass names -whatever!) got their independence. There was a cyclone in Bangladesh that killed 200,000 people. Jeffery Dahmer was discovered with 11 guys in his freezer. Rodney King was ‘arrested’ and that eventually sparked the LA Riots and my return to Canada. The internet was made available to geeks and there were 1 million users. ONE WHOLE MILLION GEEKS.
Nirvana was awesome and still are.
Yes. It was quite a year. I decided it was the year I would visit Poland with my boyfriend. Maybe Yugoslavia, too. 1991. The year Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Slovenia declared independence. Did I forget them in all the ‘stans above? Did Iforget to mention the shelling of Dubrovnik by the YUGOSLAV ARMY!? Or the method used when the Parliament voting doesn’t go your way?
I went to the Canadian embassy in Vancouver to get a Polish visa and maybe a Russian visa too. Just in case I decided to pay Mother Russia a quick visit while I was in Gdansk. Oh, and can I get a stamp for Yugoslavia too? Lesek has friends in Sarajevo and they said come visit. So that was good, right?
You should have SEEN the guys face.
He thought I was kidding. He was not kidding when he said no, though. No and absolutely not and get the fuck out of here and don’t you read the papers and why not visit Bangladesh too while you’re at it.
Nobody puts Baby in a corner! (HAH! Who remembers Dirty Dancing? I’m such a geek)
Anyway, there’s an embassy in London for all those places, right? I’ll just go to London and get my visas there. Spoilsport Canadian bureaucrats…
I called my friend, Lyra, who was working in animation there and living in, lets see, what was it called, way out in the boonies, starts with an M? Margate? I think it was. Well. I was coming and she was thrilled to pieces. We were best friends and she’d left the previous year to take this job and what could be better? Right?
Then she found out where I was trying to go. Don’t I read the papers? Get the fuck out of here? Are you kidding? Why not visit Bangladesh too?
(and I would like to say I am NOT making light of that tragedy…it happened on April 29th, 1991 and it was horrible to see. I think it is still on record as one of the most devastating cyclones in recorded history and I feel like a shit but, it really was what she said.)
Still, I was going to Eastern Europe. Oh yes I was. But first London. London was, for me, the home of the literary GIANTS. Shakespeare. Bacon. (mmmmmm bacon…oh sorry) Dafoe. Swift. Fielding. Webster. Milton. Sterne. And that’s not including the ‘modern writers’ such as Dickens, Austen, Yeats, Pound, Thomas, Auden, Elliot. God, just writing their names gives me shivers. And there I was. THERE. IN LONDON. Lyra was working nonstop but that was okay. I could get around by myself. It was a city. I was a city girl.
Boy. It was sure big. And confusing. WTF…where IS everything?
I rode busses in circles. I tried the tube. I took taxies and walked and walked and walked and got lost lost lost. I would just find a place and sit on a bench and marvel at how much it was NOT like the London I envisioned. Mostly cuz I was lost somewhere in a suburb. Sitting on a completely modern bus stop bench with my copy of Collected British Poets that I bought in an excess of enthusiasm from a second-hand store. It weighed about 10 pounds. And cost about the same.. I think I got ripped off. If there was a bus, I’ll guarantee you, I’d take the wrong one.
But whatever. I was in London. Sort of. I remember being driven past the Victoria & Albert Museum and gaping, just GAPING, at it because I recognized it. I tried to get off the bus but it was an express or something and I was swept along. By the time it stopped I was miles away. I tried to get back to it by walking, all to no avail. It was a huge one way street, going the wrong way, naturally. I did find the park. A BIG park with a statue. I stayed there most of the day just happy I was somewhere I’d heard of. It could have been Hyde Park. Or something. It was very pretty and green. I was afraid to leave it. It was only when I got hungry…I did this for 3 days in a row. Just trying to find something, anything that didn’t alarm me. I was so shy I couldnt open my mouth. I would freeze whenever I tried to talk to a Londoner.
‘Pardon me?’ I’d whisper. ‘Ummm…’ and they’d sweep past. Of course.
You should have seen me circling the British Museum like it was some dangerous animal. I eventually approached and was told they didn’t have a cloakroom and I couldn’t bring my, admittedly large, bag in with me. Nowhere to check it. but but but…really? Because of bombs or something. He said so. The guy with the charming accent at the door. So I went out again and happened upon Baker Street. Like Sherlock Holmes Baker St. I’ve never been a fan. Sorry. But it was a writer’s creation. That was kind of like seeing where Milton wrote or the Globe theatre district, or ANYTHING! Anything at all…so I walked up it. And down it. There was a hospital there I think. I remember cuz I wanted to kill myself on the front step of it. How depressing. To be in London and I was so inept I couldn’t even get in a museum. I sat down and started crying outside a falafel shop.
Then a miracle happened. The guy who owned the shop came out and sort of looked at me sideways and asked if I was okay. It was his chair I was crying in after all. So embarrassing. But the miracle was that this incredibly nice man told me I could leave my bag behind his counter and go to the museum. He told me there was an entrance not too far away and that they had the rough draft of Alice in Wonderland written in Lewis Carrolls OWN HAND on display under glass. This wonderful kind generous man gave me a cup of tea and a napkin to dry my tears and took my bag and told me he closed at 6pm so be back before then. And he didn’t even have an english accent. He was a Sikh. An East Indian. An angel. I think I ran through that museum I was so happy to see something. And I got back on time and I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t offer him money so I gave him my book. I was going to Eastern Europe, I told him. I couldn’t carry something that heavy with me. I wanted it to have a good home. And I think he gave it a good one, don’t you?
I think back on it and I could KICK myself. Still, I was jet lagged and OH I was so over excited and completely overawed. It was like London was a famous incredibly talented writer and I was Barbara Cartland. I spent 3 days feeling small and shy and then, just because of one mans kindness, it all was alright. I also discovered Harrods and Selfridges and the grocery stores?! and the restaurants…suddenly I could just waltz in any old place and eat or order a drink. Oh yes, very cosmopolitan, I was. I even bought a hat and went to the Theatre. Yes, I did.
But more on my travails, I mean travels, tomorrow. Tonight, I sleep. Happy in my bed and remembering to thank my lucky stars (or Whomever) that I got that visa to Poland.
Oh yes I did. NO one puts Baby in a corner.