May 25 Wednesday
I have a drink (juice) with a friend, a garden designer, and then succumb to a restaurant called “Diner” that brags about its (actually mediocre) hamburgers. A part of the Sunday Times is lying around and I pick up an article about Schwarzenegger and Shriver and suddenly it occurs to me that I have yet to comment, as I have wanted to do, about something no one is screaming about: If he got the other woman pregnant, he was not practicing safer sex. Cheating + risky behavior is really criminal.
I pick up some groceries and head home to write. The exquisite luxury of having this wonderful flat to myself makes all the difference. I cannot imagine being a guest for three weeks, even if the time is broken up among varied friends – not the least because the first thing I want to do when I come home is take off my bra and my shoes. When visting a country where one once lived, there are so many people who are must-see and so many to speak to. My smile and conversational capacity wear out – not because I’m not thrilled to catch up with friends, but because I am. It’s exhausting to concentrate so repeatedly. I have no idea how to express my soul-felt gratitude to the friend of Sue’s who allowed me to stay here, but I am going to try.
I head back out at 8:00 to the dance studio - Studio LaDanza - of Heather Gladding (on left), one of my former ballroom and latin dance teachers, and her partner Hadass Armon. Nicola is already there having a waltz lesson and I am struck once again at the high level of instruction to the LGBT community in London, compared to the tiny scene in Boston. The venues, too, are something to admire. This one is a converted shoe factory – somehow poetically appropriate – and it is gorgeous, spacious and comfortable.
Following the lesson is some social dancing so I not only get to have a few dances with my dear Nicola, but some too with Heather – one of the most graceful of dancers. We have a cha-cha and a West Coast Swing and then a couple of very heavenly rumbas – my favorite. It’s hard to keep dancing when I’m leading someone of Heather’s professional and artistic level – I just want to stare.
I’m so ridiculously weak and tired that I become the butt of jokes between Nicola and Heather. Feet sore and strangely weary, I drag myself home to fall into bed.
May 26 Thursday
Even as I awake I’m lacking energy. But I’m motivated to get out at a reasonable hour to meet up with Jo, my former colleague who has carved out time for a morning coffee. She lives a double life – a non-profit executive during the week in London and a houseboat dweller on the Suffolk coast for long weekends. She brings me a present – a handsome little notebook (just as mine is running out) with a pretty gel pen.
I decide to go to the Angel Market to pass the hour until my next date, but just as I arrive the clouds open and a drenching blustery rain starts, one that has no intention of ceasing. Even the umbrella Sue lent me is not very useful in this high wind. I kill the hour going from doorstep to awning until I hook up with Rayah at the Afghan Kitchen.
I met Rayah in Women Against Fundamentalism , the organization that was at the heart of my political activism during my decade in London. It was founded by strongly secular women of all faiths who believed that all religious fundamentalisms share, at the heart of their agenda, the control of women and reproduction. The founders were from the Asian subcontinent, Arab countries, Israel, Ireland and lots of other places. Debates were mature, action was fearless, and commitment was intense. I miss WAF something fierce.
Rayah is now an activist around immigration issues. She is taking care of a frail elderly parent – like so many of my generation who are not yet orphans. She is funny, adorable and one of those London friends I know I can depend on. But I am less lively and responsive than I’d like to be and after I leave her, it dawns on me that, in fact, I am unwell.
I take the bus home, drooping and nodding out several times on the short ride, and call Sue to consult, to “get permission” to be sick. I have long-standing, highly anticipated plans to meet up with Wonnita and then with Campbell Ex tonight and it’s unbearable to consider giving that up. But my stomach is so upset that I don’t want to be far from my bathroom and I’m simply knackered. I have no option and apologize to each of them before collapsing and uncharacteristically sleeping for over four hours.
I wake at 9:00pm, still not feeling right, and after writing a couple of hours return to bed to sleep through the night. Meanwhile I have pathetically asked for sympathy from my Facebook friends (who haven’t heard much from me during my vacation) and receive a highly consoling rush of good wishes.
May 27, Friday
I rest in the early morning but decide I need a good hot meal and go out to the parade of shops that have been my retail anchor while staying here. I discover wonderful little stores and cafes I somehow missed altogether and in the end settle on a place that offers a full English breakfast. It is a disastrous decision, much too much food for a stomach in turmoil.
My main agenda is cleaning, which I do with a good spirit out of my gratitude for this haven of privacy. I call for a taxi and ask him to send me someone who does not mind bringing down my bags. The driver arrives but has been told nothing about carrying bags and comes up to lower them three stories with great irritation which does not abate until we arrive at Sue’s place and I give him a massive tip. Then he is all cooperation and solicitousness and I don’t blame him for that at all.
I am rather listless but Sue feeds me. She is rushing to get things together for her trip away. I meet the neighbors upstairs and with shameless chutzpah ask them for the use of their wireless system. They give me their password and I’m set to rumble.
May 28, Saturday
In the morning, there is a lot of activity. I am awoken by the doorbell and it is the phone technician coming to deal with Sue’s landline which has not worked for several days. Her house is a showcase of books and beautiful objects and antique housewares and exotic knick-knacks, but he shows model patience as he moves this thing and that to find plugs and wires. In the end, the problem is with the system inside the house – which means Sue should be charged for his visit.
We’ve tottered after him the whole time playing two eccentric oldies and he promises, “I’ll tell them it was outside.”
“It’s the truth,” I say, looking at Sue, “outside our expertise!”
He makes reference to his Gran several times, refuses Sue’s offer of a cup of tea, and leaves us to our preparations.
The doorbell rings again and it is Jaya, arriving by taxi from Italy via Stanstead Airport. She has come to spend 3+ days with me, since I decided adding a visit to her beautiful stone home atop a Tuscan mountain was too much to squeeze in this trip. Good thing, too, considering my messy health.
She comes bearing gifts (as always), saying, “This time I want to teach you a lesson about life.” Out of her carry-on luggage (!) she pulls a giant bowl of cherries. How she managed to fit it in, how she got them over the border and how they came to be so indescribably tasty are mysteries that remain unsolved. The cherries come from a tree she planted some years ago at the magnificent sculpture studio she owns in Italy and this is its first totally bountiful year. She used her forklift to climb to the very top of the tree to bring me these many pounds of cherries, full of Italian sunlight. Sue takes some on the train with her as she leaves and I give some to the neighbors who blessed me with their wireless connection.
Jaya needs her coffee and breakfast so we stroll to the Blue Legume – the café that is the original anchor for the retail street of this area, where I have a delicious BLT that does not sit well with me and Jaya has Welsh rarebit.
We are off to search for shoes for Jaya but when neither of the two shoe stores in the Angel area coughs up an appropriate pair, Jaya is done shopping, an activity she so dislikes that she saves it for vacations. Instead she buys a blueberry cupcake with inches of icing that is beyond description and we make our way back to Sue’s. (The photo is of one of Jaya's sculptures.)
Jaya is very hungry, because she has been up since an early hour to catch her flight, and we head for an Indian meal at the restaurant recommended by Sue. Jaya and I go to sleep very early, and alas I awaken at 3:30am, an experience that has nothing to recommend it other than my chance to catch up on this travelogue.
May 29, Sunday
We wander around the neighborhood, taking a shortcut through the incomparable 1840 Abney Park Cemetery, which describes itself like this:
“Abney Park in Stoke Newington, London, formerly one of the ‘magnificent seven’ garden cemeteries of London, is now a woodland memorial park and Local Nature Reserve managed by the Abney Park Trust.”
In fact, unlike some of the well-manicured garden cemeteries of London, it is an overrun jumble of falling statuary and untended garden-gone-wild that is an absolute delight. It is well-used by local walkers, with dogs and without. We always stay on the many paths because Abney also serves as a popular cruising area for gay men, who get to know each other better off in the brush, behind the ancient headstones and sculptures. The Chapel is decrepit, unfortunately, as it “was deigned to be a landmark to religious toleration, being open to all.” Our local Borough of Hackney can’t afford to keep the cemetery pristine and we wouldn’t sacrifice the fabulous green chaos anyway.
Jaya and I meet Nicky for lunch at the award-winning Rasa Indian restaurant – and everything we get is excruciatingly delicious. However, I am fading, fading, fading – my lack of sleep catching up with me, so I head off home for an essential nap.
In the evening, we are off to the White Swan gay pub in the East End which is holding a celebration of 30 years of Sunday Tea Dances. We have the incredible luck of Nicola offering to pick us up, saving us from a complicated series of buses - or an expensive taxi ride. Mike meets us there. Both Mary and Wonnita have bowed out due to feeling poorly. The ether of London seems to be full of cooties.
The pub is absolutely packed with queer dancers spanning the rainbow: elders and youth, cross-dressers and muscle boys, middle-aged dykes and slender young lasses, dancing with each other without barriers and with a shared elation that must rarely be seen in the queer world. Teachers line dance next to their students and strangers smile at you. The atmosphere is joyous as the endorphins build up through a mix of line dances, traditional English dances, polkas, cha-chas, quicksteps, Viennese waltzes and sexy bossanovas.
While I don’t do the line dances, I have always respected their place in the ballroom and latin scene. They allow everyone to join in – partner or not – advanced or not – and it is a whole other area in which to shine. Line dances are truly democratic.
Emotions cascade over me. In the 11 years since I was at the center of this scene, everyone has improved amazingly, due in no little part to the world class teachers and to the motivation of competition. In Europe, there is a robust schedule of same-sex dance contests leading up to the Gay Games, where partner dancing is by far the largest event.
I feel proud of everyone, and remember with love the days in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I was on the ground floor of this movement. How gratifying to see leading and following across gender, style, age and height. I remember the splash when I was the first woman to perform an official Showcase leading a man, my teacher Ralf. Tonight the crowd danced two of the line dances – the Wild Wild West and the Tush Push – that I originally brought to England from the LGBT country and western dance group in Boston I used to visit with my friend Gail.
I feel a great sense of continuity – especially when all sorts of people come up to greet me with a big “Hi Spike!” (my London nickname). But I also feel sad at the poor level of dance in Boston and at my lack of opportunities to improve, practice and perform. Most of all, I miss this atmosphere of healthy exuberance (it’s an amazing workout), focus and commitment. All these varied bodies, working so hard and happily over the years, are experiencing the zen of achievement. They so obviously feel glorious in their movements.
I mainly dance with Mike, an impressively versatile dancer who was also one of the earliest pioneers in this scene, and with Nicola, who adores the dance floor and glows as she moves. It is such a treat to be reunited. Uncharacteristically, I also sit out quite a bit (talking down my inflamed ankle tendons and churning stomach) and watch as a short, lithe lad in a clinging undershirt leads a towering drag queen twice his size in a flowing white gown, or a chunky girl flashes a twirling smile as she is spun by an elderly, bent-over gentleman in a tie.
Heather and her partner Hadass are here – the people who run the studio I was at Wednesday evening. Over 20 years ago, Heather ran a straight studio with her then dance partner Glenn and I was one of the people who broke through the traditions of genderized dance roles there. Later, when my own dance partner and I were rehearsing for our performances, we had years of private lessons with Heather.
One of the greatest epiphanies of my life was seeing Heather and Glenn perform a rumba at a ball I had organized in the very early 90s as they were coming into the queer dance scene. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life. I longed to be Glenn/Fred leading Heather/Ginger. I cannot see Heather move without recalling that experience, one which changed my life forever. But reality intervenes: tonight is coming to a close. After hugging what seems like the entire dancing population of London, we pile into Nicola’s car to go home to collapse into bed.