Planes, Trains, and Cremains.

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I went to Europe this summer. This trip was both totally spontaneous and not. The nutshell version of the trip is that five years ago I left Hong Kong and a community I wasn’t even totally aware I had become a part of and on my way out I made a plan/promise/wish to meet Frenchie and Nickie in Paris in five years.

Now, as luck would have it I saw Frenchie a few times throughout the ensuing time period – once in San Francisco and twice in Hong Kong – and each time we sort of talked about it but not really. And so last winter as a very tumultuous painful are-you-fucking-kidding-me kind of year wrapped up I decided I would buy tickets to fly to Europe. I had saved no money for this ad/venture and had only a vague idea of appropriate dates, but on New Year’s Eve I, along with two other people who had had equally challenging 2014s, made a promise to get busy living. So I threw down and bought the tickets.

As luck would have it the dates worked out.

Kind of.

My arrival time in Paris was a little too early for Frenchie and so she wondered if I could change it – no, the ticket was to cheap for that, but I had an idea. I had considered flying into Heathrow and spending a bit of time in London before Paris originally, but airfare to Heathrow is about a third more than it is to De Gaulle for reasons a lot of pilots tried to explain to me and still sound shady. But now, I would be arriving in Paris too early to meet my French friend and something told me Paris was not where I would want to regain my vagabond legs alone (and I was right about that btw) so I decided to book passage on the Eurostar and go to London after all. I would only be there for three days which is clearly not enough time, but it is some time, and frankly sounded nicer than making my way around Paris aimlessly on my own for a few days.

***
I landed at Charles De Gaulle International Airport around 7:00 am on July 7. I was immediately aware of how much shorter a ten-hour flight feels in comparison to the thirteen hour-long haul I had become accustomed to. Even on American Airlines, which is not a really awesome flying experience. It is weird that those three hours can make such a difference. Anyhow, there I was: groggy, Euro-free, new passport in hand (I had fortunately realized when booking tickets to Mexico for earlier in the summer that my passport had gone and expired. I likely would have never noticed this until far after the fact otherwise. But its emptiness ended up being an issue.)

I was in and out of immigration and the airport (no checked luggage – for a month – make a note) in a shockingly short time. The immigration control in Paris was, it would turn out, quite Parisian: he never even looked at me. As I handed him my passport he was clearly vested in a conversation with his coworker and was not going to pause for me. Not that he made me wait or anything, he just slid my passport through the machine, handed it to me and kept on conversing. He never even looked up at my face. Interesting.

From here I walked on, getting notably hungrier and tired-er, both conditions which have negative influences on my ability to make decisions and discern various shades of reality. I found an ATM! Huzzah. I got some money and walked over to a cafe. I looked at the menu and I just couldn’t even (also an omen as it turns out the French have a shocking misunderstanding of coffee.) Walking a little further on, I found an information office to ask how to make my way to Gare du Nord where I would catch my train to London St. Pancras. The second most handsome man I had seen so far (the first was a handler for the airlines who really should have been naked in a Calvin Klein advertisement on a billboard somewhere preferably where I might see it all the time) was sitting behind the desk. After I choked out some shitty version of nahn parlay Frahn-say, he smiled and said, “No problem, how can I help you?” in the best English I had heard since I left San Francisco – and I had had a lay over in the States. Well, Texas, but basically. From this point I knew where and how to get to the train station. In fact, the information was so perfect that I would end up being stupidly early for my train leading to painful amounts of tired-in-a-public-place, which I have long outgrown along with my backpacker days.

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Once at Gare du Nord I was facing a two-hour wait and heaving fatigue. I tried coffee. I tried a baguette with brie and ham (it was quite tasty, but really not helpful). I tried water. I tried more coffee. Nope, nope, nope, and nope. So tired.

Finally, it was time to move through customs to board the train for London. I handed my passport to the Englishman at the customs gate. He looked like a jolly old chap. Fat, grey haired, wearing a cartoonish kind of conductor’s hat like he belonged in some old movie. Then he looked at me. He looked like Brick Top. This was not good.

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He looked at the passport. He began flipping through the pages. He looked at me. He continued flipping.

“Where are you coming from?”
“The US.”
“How long you going to be in the UK?”
“Oh, just a couple of days, uh, until Friday.”
“Why such a short visit?”
“Um, it is all I had time for…?”
“Who are you staying with?”
“Some friends?”
“What is their nationality?”
“I, um, I am not really sure, I…”
“What passports do they hold?”
“Uh, I really don’t know, British I guess?”
“How do you know them?”
“Umm, we met in Hong Kong?”
“What were you doing in Hong Kong?”
“Working?”
“Did you work with these people?”
“No…”
“Then how did you meet them?”
“I am not sure? Other friends I guess?”
“What will you be doing while you are in Britain?”
“I, I am not really sure, seeing some people, going to some museums maybe?”
“What is your address while in the UK?”
“I, um… oh! Bow! I am staying in Bow!”

I was so chuffed to finally have a real freaking answer for this man because I am sure he had begun to notice my sweat, for which I suddenly feared his interpretation.

“Do you know the address?”
“No.”

Flip. Flip. Flip. Flip.

STAMP.

“Move on to the left.”

I couldn’t be sure if this was the universe offering balance for the ridiculously uninterested French passport control, but I was literally a hot, sweaty, flustered mess when Brick Top was done with me. No wonder people with nothing to hide get tripped up by authority figures all the time. Horrifying.

And you know, he had to stamp my passport on some random page in the middle of the damn thing. Because: WHO DOES THAT? Brick Top, that is who.

By the time I found my seat on the (pretty awesome) Eurostar I was getting that loopy feeling you get when you are exhausted, hungry, dehydrated, and afraid you might be deported. As a result, I managed to: break my plug adapter for the UK, lose my favorite scarf, and miss most of a ride I wanted to see.

But I was heading to London, where I graciously had a place to sleep, places to go, and some people to see for my three days in and around the city. Plus, the train ride gave me enough conscious time to reconnect with that feeling of pure excitement for upcoming adventures brought on by travel – and the reality that this was only the first of myriad steps I would take on this trip that would never have been possible without the kindness and generosity of friends I have made in all kinds of crazy ways all around the world. Those were nice thoughts to doze off to.

And then, there I was.

With only sporadic wifi I was trying to make contact with my hostess for the next couple of days and basically just giving it up to the powers that be that it would work out. I easily made my way to the correct train – and I will say this about the London Underground, y’all have your shit sorted (except when you do not – more on that in a mo) but seriously? You need to price check yourself… And soon enough I was in East London. And as I came up out of the station a super cute, kind of familiar, young guy came up to me with Stevie, a Staffordshire Terrier who I definitely recognized. Just like that, it all worked out. Josh asked where my luggage was as we walked back to the flat, and I basically felt like I had won the lottery: “Nowhere, this is all I have.” I took glee in being momentarily totally impressive (or insane, I don’t really know Josh, but I’m going to go with impressive.) He had been visiting Awon and Mark too, and he was familiar to me because, you guessed it: Lamma.

It was a full house, as Awon’s mom – another friend of mine from Lamma was also visiting, but the kindness of my friends seems infinite. When Awon returned from her studio – oh, did I not mention that this friend of mine decided a few years back to take a course in millinery and she is now sort of a big deal? Yeah, check her for sure – we went down the pub because, London.

I knew I wasn’t really “doing” London up in a big touristy way, I had a couple important items on my personal agenda, but otherwise I really was just there to sort of take in the air. And how fortunate seeing as the Underground decided to strike while I was there. That was epic. And by epic I of course mean: WTF London. But most importantly, staying with Awon and Mark made this all possible and I look forward to giving over my place to them when they decide they are ready to take in San Francisco.

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First on my agenda was to meet up with Stu’s sister. This was something that I just knew I had to do, and although I went back and forth between being super nervous and super excited and in the end, I just sort of let go and realized that it would be as it should be (that’s so Stu). The thing is, in a lot of ways the reason I was even in London staying with the people I was had to do with Stu… my return to Lamma, his extended network of friends and acquaintances becoming mine, which is not to say I wouldn’t have met these people otherwise, it is just that I actually did meet them because of him. And to a further point, it was his untimely, tragic, and incongruously surprising death that brought everything back into focus for me and set the tone for the shift that got me moving again – it is so easy to fall into stasis – towards a place where I would up and buy tickets for an unplanned trip to Europe in the first place. That might sound all new-agey and trite, and it may be. But sometimes we need a kick in the head, and it is hard to predict where that might come from. And when Stu died, a lot of really amazing people emerged in my life, and this summer that turns out to have made quite a difference. My kick was less about Stu, or Stu and me, and much more about a not so gentle reminder (again, that’s so Stu) to live the life you want to live and not the one you convince yourself you need to live.

So now here I was and there was an impending tube strike and that was to be avoided. Fortunately the overground trains would not be affected and so to Hockley I went. I had some trepidation – Hockley has a reputation… somewhere along the lines of New Jersey. Or maybe more like Fresno. Or Reno. Except the thing about South End-on-Sea is that it is actually really pretty and it has all the elements of a small town I grew up familiar with, both good and bad. In short, I had a fabulous time.

I arrived and she was waiting for me and in spite of never having met in person there we were. When I think back on it I am still not sure why it was that I felt like I really wanted to meet her, but I am definitely glad I followed through. I think initially there had been talk about the fact that Stu would have really wanted his ashes to be in Lamma – and so maybe we could make that happen. But time passed and urgency subsided and so I was not sure that was it. Then there was the fact that she had been so open and kind to all of us who clamored to her virtual door on learning about Stu, something she did not need to do, and her generosity of spirit was incredible. There was another part of wanting to meet her, like a bit of a missing puzzle piece, because Stu had been so cagey about his family and had crafted the necessary stories that one would, given his proclivities. I kind of felt like somehow I might understand everything better if I met his people.

We went to the local cooperative funeral home – it happens to be where she works as the director. Her son, Stu’s nephew also works there. The full circle-ness is not lost on me and actually has many more layers than I will retell here. But I will say that to meet Stu’s nephew was… powerful. There is something very Stu about him: he is a seeker. I was impressed. We went to the crematorium where the service had been and where Stu’s ashes were buried.

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Now, I have had more experience with cremains than I would like to have had in the past year. In fact, one could almost say that at a certain point the death rituals become macabre to a point of inevitable humor. You may never think you will have a Lebowski moment, but I can assure you – it is possible that you may find yourself sorting through a friend’s ashes with a plastic fork looking for some sort token that might have been placed in them to prevent illegal disposal while sitting in the lovely back garden of a pub (there was no token), or you may find yourself on the other side of the world traipsing around under a tree where, here or there, your ex’s cremains may be buried, but eh, that’s really just a formality isn’t it? And the whole thing just becomes sort of absurd in this really touching way: yes, these are ashes, cremains… but this is not your people. It is just some strange reminder that they were here. However the far better evidence of their having been here with us for a time are the relationships and friendships that have been carved out of the wake of their departure. And I like to think that my people would appreciate our collective touches of irreverence in the end.

What is death, if not absurd, when you really get down to it.

We left flowers for Stu and got to talk about all the things that you can’t really talk about in email or Facebook messenger. I’d say we had a moment.

And then we went to the pub.

We had lunch at the Bull and then headed to the local: Spa Hockley. It was a top afternoon, honestly, I could not have imagined it better.

When it came time to leave, there was one more thing for me to grab. So, there we were in  the parking lot of the pub, passing ashes… and not for the first time this year did I find myself in such a scenario. I was shown how the container (sealed) could be used as sort of a, um, shaker… like a salt shaker, to spread the ashes (ostensibly to avoid a Lebowski). Oh, and I had a note in case there were any issues with customs because apparently smuggling contraband in ashes is now a thing. That being a concern and these being Stu’s ashes seemed to have a perfect sort of cosmic symmetry in effect.

And then I was saying goodbye, and back on a train to East London. Full disclosure, I got a little emotional on the ride home. But the good kind, you know, more like gratitude than sorrow, but still, the sadness gets in there too.

On further consideration as the train rolled into Stratford, when I thought about the reality that Stu was going to get yet another all expenses paid vacation on me as I was now destined to carry him across Europe and back to the States, I really couldn’t help but laugh. I mean really, that fucker, god love him.

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The two days I had left in London were not totally as I had planned because, well, I had not planned. And then the tube went on strike. I wasn’t sure how big of a deal it might be. Let’s just say this: it was big. I persevered and took a bus – or rather I got on a bus, but it couldn’t actually drive anywhere, so I disembarked and walked and talked with people and saw some of the city under shockingly blue skies.

I saw the Thames, the EYE, Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circle, Leicester Square, Soho, Westminster Abbey… you know, a lot of stuff really. Needless to say, I was well tired on my return and ready for a nice cold pint.

The day of my departure I would be meeting one of my friends from Prashanti Kutiram. Although we had lived together for a month in what I will only describe here as rather rudimentary confines, we had not seen each other in five years, but like so many have also discovered, the relationships you forge when you are far afield seem to have a special sort of staying power.

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This particular friend has just had a baby and so logistics remained flexible – how nice that I had not gotten around to planning. We would meet near St. Pancras where I would be jumping back on the Eurostar to return to Paris. This “plan” allowed me to wander around the East End of London a bit and then move towards Whitechapel where I wandered around the Whitechapel Gallery and then spent some time strolling up Brick Lane towards Shoreditch. In the same way I had to check out Williamsburg and Bushwick because everyone says they are the equivalent neighborhoods to my own in San Francisco… I had to view the London version of the scene. I could feel it for sure.

To the station I went after gathering my things at the gallery where they were totally cool to let me leave my bag for several hours. London’s East End is really quite ideal. For the little I know, I gather it is the area I would land in were I there. But I will never be there because London is doing their best to make SF seem affordable, and let’s just talk about what a load of shite that is.

I boarded the train at St. Pancras with nary a nod to my passport heading back to France. In less than three hours I would be meeting Frenchie to commence the next segment of my trip. I thought on my brief three days in London and realized I was leaving without a photo of Stu’s family or my fab hosts in Bow. I guess we had been to busy in the moment to capture it and relegate it to a status update for others. Maybe next time.

I suppose it is true what Andy Dufresne said, “You gotta get busy living, or get busy dying.”

That’s goddamn right.

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