It rained while we were at Greenwich today. Crummy weather. You’d never know it’s July. Damp and cold as a Michigan November. It kinda brings you down, and I’m already tired. I need to sleep. I’ve done a lot of walking, but I am really excited about everything. I think I have a cold or something. My throat feels worse now.
We couldn’t decide if people living in Greenwich divided their houses into two time zones if the Meridian ran through their living rooms or if the whole town was on one clock. No one here should be late, ever, to anything. ₤3 for admission to see the longitude line!
First day of class. Met Sarah and Lisa for breakfast, walked to Birkbeck Col. for class. Not a bad first day. I feel confident I can do as well as or better than others in the class. I had written an essay about how my initial ideas of London came almost entirely from films like Mary Poppins. A little trite, but not untrue. And probably not uncommon.
We found out that the prof will pay for us all to see the “Reduced Skspre Co.,” which Lisa, Sarah and I had planned on seeing anyway. Feels good to be saving money already.
After class, Sarah and I tubed to Piccadilly and walked around for about an hour before we met Lisa back at Birkbeck. We flew back because we were already five minutes late — and her class had gotten out 20 minutes early anyway! The three of us bought lunch at Safeway and ate quickly at Lisa’s room. Then we had to run back to Birkbeck because we were late (again!) for the guest speaker, Brian Bates, who talked about Celtic mythology. Made it just on time — whew!
Then prof. Penn took us to some used book stores in the vicinity of the British Museum. Lots of old stuff. Saw a Herb Ritts photo album with quite a few early shots of Madonna. Yum! But S, L, and I got separated from everyone else. We walked around like we knew where the hell we were. Stumbled onto Holborn Station and tubed back to Piccadilly.
I whipped out my map and led the girls to some shops, pubs and cafes Michael wanted me to visit. They were in Soho, somewhere near Old Compton St. and Dean St. Saw a lot of pretentious but hilarious (and intimidating!) gay clothing stores (expensive!), an insanely queer salon called Cut/Uncut, and a few cute pubs and cafes. Got a latte at a little Greek cafe whose name I can’t remember. Wanted to pick up a Pride ’97 t-shirt, but they didn’t have any large size (just S, M, XL), so I’ll wait. Picked up a Gay Times to learn a bit about this weekend’s P97 stuff.
Tubed back home and got dinner. No mistakes this time!
Lisa had an episode in the cafeteria this morning. She wanted two apples, but one of the workers said, “No, only one.” It was mildly embarrassing, as any mistake would be. It felt like being scolded, and none of us was prepared for that. Ah, this is Europe — not the land of all you can eat. And apparently not the land of cafeteria workers who don’t give a shit.
After my shower and breakfast, the first order of business was to get a Tube pass for the next six weeks. Unfortunately, we got to Russell Square Station during the rush hour. Sarah still needed a photo, and we waited in line to be told so. So we decided to go get the photo and let the crowds die down a bit.
On a bus between here and there, a lot passes you by. Cars, buses, trucks, a lot of gray. Most of it goes without notice, but sometimes something sticks out.
I saw an ad for a brand of running shoe once on the side of a truck. I can’t remember the substance of the ad, but the words were simple: “Distance over time.”
Speed, I thought.
In 10th grade physics, it’s simple and basic. But it struck me for the first time how, in another context, that phrase might mean something entirely different.
Distance over time. Two meanings: mathematics vs. poetry.
In terms of running shoes, speed is measured in the distance traveled divided by the time it took to get there. But to a more poetic heart, distance is something that can be achieved over time, with patience.
Once, when we were stopped in a traffic jam on the New Jersey Turnpike, I saw a line of cars peeling off of the left lane, passing through a space in the median and entering into the opposing traffic on the other side, just to avoid whatever was causing the slow-down — until a state trooper pulled up in the vicinity and spoiled the fun. Unassisted he was able to stop two vehicles and issue tickets. Naturally, no one attempted the maneuver after this. Forty people must have made that illegal turnaround, but the last two got stopped.
I think episodes like this justify my inability or unwillingness to make a decision. Just ride it out, no matter how bad the accident ahead my be, because the alternative could be met with sirens and flashing lights.
Don’t ask why. Just grab some goggles and dive in.
Yesterday was the date of this year’s Tomatina, a marvelous little festival in Buñol, Spain, a half-hour train ride west of Valencia. On the last Wednesday of every August, this little village puts on a week-long, tomato-themed party, set around the feast of its patron saint, and closes it all out with the world’s biggest food fight. Most out-of-towners show up just for this last part.
It is an event that occupies a large and happy spot in my heart because seven years ago I was there.
My partner, our roommate Mike and his sister Claudia jumped at the chance to see the tomato festival that year when Mike read about it in Details. It was just a single-paragraph brief with a little picture, tucked in the corner of the page — and we planned an entire 17-day road trip through southeastern Spain around that date in August 1999.
We saw major cultural landmarks — Alhambra, the walled medieval city of Toledo, breathtaking Gaudí architecture in Barçelona, the mosque-cathedral of Cordoba — but really… really, we threw tomatoes.
A veritable Who’s Who of nations are represented at this obscure food fi— er… I mean festival.
This modest, sleepy village of roughly 10,000 swells to a tourist destination of more than 30,000, transforming literally overnight into a cosmopolitan mecca drawing Spaniards, Americans, Australians, Brits, Italians, Germans — everyone.
I’ll set the scene: Imagine thousands and thousands of men and hundreds of women, nearly naked, writhing in a river of crushed tomatoes.
Hot guys. Hot girls. Plus it’s a legitimate cultural expereience. We all get an A+!
A legion of foreigners trickles into town, making make their way from the train station to the center of town like ants converging on a potato chip. Meanwhile, the locals spend most of the morning covering their windows, doors, balconies and storefronts with tarps, sheets of plastic, nets and mosquito screens. Many of them stand in their doorways and on their balconies, silently watching the passing visitors, waiting.
When a crowd of suitable size has amassed, the locals dump buckets of water and turn garden hoses on the crowd, priming everyone for the mêlée to come. T-shirts slide off and get tucked into waistbands. The less patient among the masses tie their shirts into knotted projectiles and send them sailing back and forth above the crowd.
(Getting hit in the face by a heavy soaked wad of clothing hurts like hell. It’s an experience I don’t hesitate, strongly, to not recommend.)
There is some noise and nervous chatter. From time to time, when a resident lets loose again with a garden hose, the affected segment of the crowd cheers. But mostly everyone is waiting for the sound of a gun shot.
And then it starts. Enormous dump trucks filled with tomatoes come rumbling slowly up the narrow streets. A brave few scramble up the sides of the cargo holder and dive in, tossing out handfuls of loose fruit to prime the pump. The crowd is so thick that it takes time to make a space in front of the trucks and close in again behind them. Some of the streets are so narrow, the process looks like peristalsis, people pressing themselves against the walls of the buildings to let the trucks pass. And then the trucks stop and raise their loads and dump their cargo (and any instigators inside). And the fracas begins.
Those closest to the piles of tomatoes scramble forward and make short work of them, tossing handfuls in all directions. They spread out like a ripple in a lake. Waves of tomatoes wash across the crowd as people begin assaulting each other in earnest.
Some folks crush them before tossing. Others good-naturedly pelt their neighbors with whole, solid fruit. It is considered bad form to throw the hard, unripe, green ones. They remain on the ground, mostly. An expression of good will.
Soon there is nothing solid to throw. The tomatoes have been reduced to an impromptu river of sauce running down the street. The late-summer sun beats down on shimmering bare backs, chests, arms, shoulders. People sludge here and there, kicking chunks in all directions. Shoes come off, or get stuck in the sucking holes of mud-like tomato slop.
No one is spared. Claudia attempts to climb a street lamp to get some aerial shots of the chaos. But the crowd isn’t having it. She becomes an easy target, and a barrage of fruit (as well as a desire to not destroy her rather nice camera) soon persuades her to come back down.
In the chaotic movement of bodies, a young man cups his hands and scoops great splashes of marinara at me, a complete stranger, then stands there, arms back, chest puffed out, in a gesture that says: “OK, now you hit me!” His intention is as clear as crystal. Plus he’s hot. So I comply. No one speaks. No one is from here; and no one would understand each other anyway. There is no language here. There are only tomatoes.
Then a second series of trucks comes through, restarting the whole process.
We are completely engulfed in tomato pulp. Hair is matted down, slicked back or spiked into insane formations, depending on length. Red muck slides down our faces, into our mouths. Our ears are ringing because they are filled with tomato sludge. Splashed tomato gets up our noses. We can’t rub our eyes with our filthy hands, so we rely on reflexes (or swim goggles) to avoid being blinded. Naked torsos glide past naked torsos. We slip and slide across each other.
Then there is a second gun shot. The throbbing horde stops. And the locals once again have at us with their hoses. The crowd filters out of the town center through alleyways and back streets into larger clearings and squares. Buñol comes out en masse to rinse us off. Dripping participants queue up to get a quick hose-down. We gather up what clothing we can.
As we wait for the hose, pulpy chunks, seeds and bits of skin cling to everything and everyone in sight. The late-summer sun bakes it to our skin, and we begin to itch in uncomfortable places. The air is heavy with the bouquet of tomato, sweat and sun-tanned skin. And the walls and streets in all directions look like the sides of a Cuisinart.
I find it funny that nearly every building in town is painted some variety of white.
No one seems to know why this festival exists. It’s been around since the ’40s. I’ve heard that it originally had something to do with a protest against the Franco regime. I’ve heard it started with an accidentally upturned vetegable cart that resulted in a public food fight that was so much fun the locals decided to do it again the next year.
It’s a heckuva lot better than getting run down by some bulls!
Maybe there doesn’t need to be a reason. It’s enough that people from all over the world come for a single, meaningless purpose. It’s a fantastic expression of community and good will and unity. Just good clean fun, metaphorically.
It’s not so clean. I got the worst ear ache of my life in the days that followed. (I could see in my shadow that my misshapen ear was standing out an extra inch or more from my head!) I’m sure it’s from an infection I picked up in the melange of tomato sauce, street filth, and thousands of bodies’ worth of human germs that streamed down my face for the better part of an hour.
But it was the best ear ache of my life. And, for the record, as far as obscure Spanish festivals go, I’d rather risk my short-term health in a tomato fight than risk my life getting chased by a bunch of bulls.
The Chinatown bus is the best travel deal between major East Coast cities. The network runs from Chinatown to Chinatown among the cities of Boston, New York, Washington and Philadelphia — and it’s dirt cheap. It’s managed by some smart, industrious, and I have to believe successful Chinese immigrants. I made a round trip from New York to Boston this week for $30.
It worked out rather nicely. Chinatown bus vets have told me stories of varying degrees of quality. Sometimes the bus is dirty or stinky. Sometimes it’s too hot or cold. I had been warned once to expect an authentic Third World experience, but I didn’t care much about comforts. I was more interested in the price tag, and I planned to sleep on board anyway. It’s not as if this was some gritty and dusty old school bus where passengers vie for space among children with dirt-smudged faces and crates of live chickens. It’s a regular coach with soft seats and overhead lights and heat. I have no complaints.
There are certain charming qualities of the service you might not find on regular bus companies. For one, the moment you step on board, the driver shouts at you, “Please sit! Sit down! Sit down now!” and honks the horn. Similarly, when the bus arrives, the driver honks and shouts, “Hurry! Get out now!” And we can always count on the mandatory stop at Roy Rogers in Manchester, CT. My friend Henry is convinced Fung Wah gets a kickback from them for delivering so much business. Maybe. I’m intrigued by their DIY system, but honestly, I’d rather have them assemble my lettuce and tomato and pickles for me. There’s a certain pretense with trying to make fast food “nice.” Let’s not pretend, folks.