A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
The book the guy sitting next to me on the Eurostar train from Brussels to London was reading. I detest Hemingway with a passion.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke
The book that same guy got out after he had heard my condemnation of his first read. We got along much better after that, and took the tube up to Camden Town together for a nice lunch. Edgar, who's working in Belgium's fair capital for some EU thing, was visiting his friend Sandro, who's in London working on an engineering PhD project for BP. After our shared meal, we wandered around Camden for a bit and then split up as I went to the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery on Trafalgar Square. A gorgeous, sunny day, lots of life in the city, all around good times.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
The excellent book I read at Oliver's - the friend I stayed with this weekend and whom I hadn't seen in seven years. He studies medicine at Merton (I've been taught to name the college rather than just say "Oxford"...Apparently the colleges are all very distinct and pretty autonomous, to the point where "Oxford University" doesn't really exist as such) and showed me around the town he has spent the last four years in. I can see what he loves about being a student there so much: the overwhelming history, the ridiculous amount of resources, the concentration of highly skilled and fiercely ambitious people from all over the world, the sports facilities (including the river where the Oxford-Cambridge competitions take place - it totally reminded me of that scene in Mary Poppins where she steps into the drawing and walks through this park and then the penguins dressed as waiters serve her and Dick Van Dyke ice cream), the student residences...gorgeous stuff.
Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam
The book that started a conversation at Oxford cocktail bar "Raoul's". While Oliver was getting drinks (I recommend "Moonlight" - chocolate flavoured - and "Miss Behiving" - honey & hazelnut), I sat and watched a guy sitting one table down. Shaggy hair, late thirties, white linen shirt, exotic necklace that screamed "I got this from a local villager in a small town on the banks of the Orinoco for nursing her baby back to health using only a piece of cloth and some clay" and...a book refering to broken hearts. Cause what better place to read than a loud bar, right? Can't really blame him though, cause it actually worked. Soon enough a girl with insane cleavage fell for the metroman mystique and approached him. After she had left, I leaned over and pointed out that he had made a grave tactical mistake. What had made her get up and go was her sour friend. By only talking to girl A and not including girl B, girl B soon got bored and irritated and dragged girl A away. If he had only asked her a couple of questions too, he would have had more time and double the chance of walking away with a phone number. He appreciated the advice (thank you John Nash) and we had a nice chat about school, jobs, cocaine habits and the Oxford dating scene.
But of course the main reason I had come over was to spend time with Oliver. Reliance on "Remember that time when...?" tactics was remarkably low - perhaps because 7 years ago we weren't that close either. And yet, here we found ourselves again, chatting away, hanging out, with the occasional Hugh Grant lookalike passing us by. One of the images our conversations kept coming back to was that of Matreshkas, or the Russian dolls that fit into each other. In the movie "Les Poupées Russes" (the sequal to "L'auberge Espagnole), one of the characters uses them as a metaphor for marriage. Our entire lives we continue to dig deeper, to look further in an attempt to find our ultimate partner. Same goes for jobs and houses and a million other things. Realistically, at some point, the search ends. You get tired of being single, of renting a place, of applying and doubting and hesitating and pulling away. So how do you determine when that time has come? Do you keep frantically opening new doors only to find yourself lost in a dark room? With a matreshka so small that she easily slips through your fingers and you're left empty-handed?
Though it feels like I was gone longer than I actually was, Monday morning was there before I knew it. After a yummy breakfast at the "Grand Café" (the two previous mornings, Oliver took me to "The Rose" where I had delicious house tea with "scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam" - tasty tasty). I boarded the coach back to London town - only to arrive there far later than I had intended. Naively hoping they would still let me onto the Eurostar train, I rushed to Victoria station, picked up my suitcase and cradled it as I sprinted to the District Line and then the Northern Line, all the way to the Waterloo stop. Too bloody late. Luckily, I made three great decisions at the customer service desk. One, to stand there looking sweaty and red and as though I had tried my best to make it on time (which I did, just ask all the passengers I shoulder checked on my mad dash through the underground). Two, to blame my tardiness on traffic (as opposed to poor planning on my part). Three, to not get impatient when four separate women came up to the lady who was supposed to be helping me find a way to get home to chat about they felt "absolute shit" last Friday or "how lovely that top looked". Instead, I smiled, listened, empathized, agreed with all that was said and ended up with a new ticket free of charge. Honey and vinegar, right?
Because of the bus mix up I missed the opportunity to meet up with Sandro again - the Italian guy I met on Friday. Though it would have been nice to go up to Soho and stroll around with him, my trip home wasn't too shabby. I was assigned a seat next to Giacomo. That's right, when one door closes, another Italian appears. And this one worked as a pilot and shared his Pringles with me - what more could I have asked for from a fellow passenger? Once we'd said arrivederci in Brussels, I got on the first train to Leuven, which so happened to be the slow one. Rather than speed straight to the Stella brewery, this one has several halts along the way. But hey, I was in no rush to get home, the landscape rolled by looking most charming (Van Gogh-ish colours: golden grain, blue skies), and I had the most exuberantly joyous train conductor come up and check my ticket. Instead of the standard "Thank you" and "here you are", I got "Thank you so much", "Oh, that's absolutely perfect", "How did you enjoy your time in London?" and "Have a fantastic evening!". Good to be back.