Sunny Birmingham decided not to be so sunny after all. I had a British phone number. I managed to knock somewhere around thirty boxes of sneakers onto an elderly woman as I attempted to pull one box from a large stack. I became invested in a hostile exchange of words with a native Brummie, in which the only word we exchanged was a series of “Whats.” I may have traveled to HSBC four times before becoming a new customer. That’s week two. Apparently HSBC requires a two step process in setting up a bank account with the organization. I walked in to speak with a personal banker and they claimed to have been filled to the brim with appointments and walk-in’s and requested I come the next morning. I did. Packed all of the documents I assumed I’d need to open an account as an international student and traveled to City Centre at nine in the morning. HSBC sat me down and I spoke with a beautiful young lady about my options. I was told that I would need my passport, student visa, official sealed letter from the university, proof of address, a pint of blood, three strands of perfectly coiled hair, a semen sample, and three riddles from the Troll under the bridge. And even if I had all of that at the point of me sitting down, I’d still have to reserve another time to come back and finish the process. I was a bit outraged that without being informed about the first process only being a sit down, I decided to awake at eight in the morning simply to open a bank account. I was given an appointment for four days past. I dropped in the next day while in the area just in case they would have some time and…nope! Come back Friday.
I spent the duration of that week getting further settled and setting myself up for a trip to London. I have two wonderful friends in London that I had met several years ago in New York City. My best friend, Quinn, called me up one day and asked for what seemed like an outlandish favor. He said that he had two female friends that were traveling to NYC from London and they had no accommodations for the first few days of their trip. I didn’t know them from a grain of salt. But once Chioma got on the phone and I heard her British accent, I thought to myself, “Well what the Hell. She’s probably a cutie pie.” The normal man response to such a request. I gave my blessing and finally met the two sisters, Chioma and Chinelo. They turned out to be great company and real chill women so we kept in touch. I told them that although London was on my bucket list, I’d probably get to Paris first. Lo and behold, I ended up in the UK instead. I was pleased to reach out and inform them that God must’ve been looney to allow ‘ole Conley a trip abroad. Travel is pretty cheap in the UK, as so many people have heard. I never fully understood it until I became physically aware that taking a flight from Birmingham to Florence, Italy is practically the same as flying from Chicago to New York, but cheaper. So hop skipping a train from Birmingham to London was a breeze. The thought of it anyway. I purchased a separate return ticket since I was unaware of when I’d actually come back. I found out the hard way that I could’ve purchased an open two way ticket in which the return price would only be a few pence more. Oh well. Onward march.
I got my banking squared away on Friday morning and hit the train immediately after. I took Virgin Railways from the New Street location. Obviously the Virgin Group is a major player in the UK. God bless Richard Branson. I bought an advance ticket for the trip that was clocked at two hours and twenty minutes. There were faster trains but this one was the right price. After leaving Birmingham, the trip is pretty much two hours of rural landscapes. It was some of the most beautiful scenery I’d ever seen. At one point, the train passed a field where a large group of sheep stood grazing on the vegetation. I had to blink twice as I came to the realization that it had been the first time in my life that I saw sheep in their natural habitat. I’d seen sheep in petting farms before. And zoos especially. But for a guy that grew up in Chicago and lived years in NYC, there was pretty much a dearth of sheep herds. When the sheep became an instant memory, I finished the ride by reading Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares and catching up on some much needed sleep. In the UK, the train tickets are used for entry into the terminal as well as departure. I failed to realize that and left my stamped ticket nestled tight in the holder on the headrest in front of me. I followed the crowd out toward the exit gates and quickly learned that I was blocked from getting out. Everyone would insert their tickets in a slot and the bulky barriers would rise up for passage. I caught on quick and ran back to my train to search for the ticket I left behind. It was no longer there. Either the conductor grabbed it as trash or some random passenger, for some random reason, decided that it would be beneficial for them to take my orphaned ticket. As I walked back to the gate sunken in my own shame, I saw a guard standing by the handicap gate. I approached him and told him that my ticket had been taken by the conductor. I don’t know why I said that but that’s what came out. He told me that the conductor would never do that. Never in a million years. I had to inform him that a million years must have passed because the conductor has my ticket. He looked at me like him opening the gate was equivalent to him giving up a kidney and he decided to let me out. I didn’t see what the big deal was. I was there. I had arrived. And I’d obviously spent money to get there. So let me the Hell out!
I’m in London.
London truly felt like home the moment I landed. Birmingham is awesome. It’s spectacular but it doesn’t have the panache. The bustle I’m used to is in London. People were walking like they were all on cocaine. Signs were plastered here and there for the tourists. This side for that street. That street for this landmark. It had taken me about five steps to get my rhythm back. I actually had to stop myself and silently say, “Bro, you’ve lived in the greatest city on Earth. Get that old thing back.” And I got it. I slung my duffel bag across my shoulder and ran the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever through my mind. I hit the streets and was already a master of the traffic direction, thanks to my two weeks in Birmingham. I saw other tourists struggle with crossing the street and I scoffed at the amateurs. My first stop was the British Museum. Chioma was still at work and Chinelo was traveling down from Cambridge. I had a few hours to myself. The museum was grandiose. Iron gates opened to the marble entrances. It seemed like a million people were either entering or exiting. There was no fee to visit. My bag was killing me by this point. It had been a slight drizzle since I’d been there and my clothes were moist. I didn’t see a bag check but was absolutely sure they had one somewhere. Didn’t matter. Everything was gorgeous. The ceilings were high like synagogues. The first room I entered was King George’s Library. There were old anthologies and antique statues that were originally collected by King George III. Overhead were shelves upon shelves of texts. Entirely too much material for one man to have read in a lifetime. The colors were of warm bronze and ivory. I spent the next three hours looking at artifacts from ancient Africa, India, Rome, Greece, Egypt, England, etc. There were mummies and stone busks. Information overload. You could live there for a year and not have learned everything. The visit was quite enchanting. I became famished and needed nourishment.
I decided to grab a falafel wrap and wait on Chioma. Once she got off, she had me ride the Tube to St. Paul. The stop was pretty much outside of the St. Paul Cathedral. At night, the monument is lit and resembles the US Capitol Building. By this time, the rains were heavy. The UK seemed to have rained for two weeks straight after that. I had no umbrella and a light duffel, which by that point, felt like a bag of bricks. Chioma and I gathered at a burger spot with famous milkshakes. I was too soaked to try one but I had a succulent lamb burger with a beer. We also met a friend of hers and began a dialogue that ventured from television to Nigerian women in the UK desiring relationships with American men. I let them in a little secret; the men in the States are a mess as well. The night had grown old and I departed with Chioma to her childhood home in Balham. Her neighborhood is a quiet residential district with trendy food shops and small homes. The roads are so narrow in London that I could spread in the middle and touch both curbs. I’m 5’6. That’s an exaggeration of course, but pretty damn narrow. Chinelo picked us up from the Tube station and I saw their home. I met their father that night and he seemed to be very hip. I expected something a bit different in a Nigerian household but he was loose and comical. The next day was devoted to tourism. Chinelo was on business and Chioma and I headed out to Parliament for our first stop. We took the Tube toward Westminster and viewed the Prime Minister grounds. That road led us toward Parliament and Big Ben. Chinelo met us there. Being in that exact spot was a wash of history. That city is so damn old and historic. I almost felt embarrassed for the US. On the flip side, I’m so proud that for such a young country, we have managed to be at the forefront of innovation and industry. I don’t know how the world allowed that to happen because it instantly hits you how dated England is. You see some of the architecture and feel the impact of World War II. Some buildings are Victorian. Others are post modern. This is a city that was actually bombed to shit. There are civilians that have actually seen the war in their youth. That feeling became so powerful. Of course I took that with me as we saw the Queen’s garden, Buckingham Palace, and Picadilly Circus. Piccadilly Circus is like a conservative Times Square. I actually enjoyed it much better. Not as cluttered. Not as facetious. And all of the shops actually matter. I tend to avoid Times Square with great will. The ladies and I got back to Balham, and at the suggestion of a good friend of mine, Chanel Carroll, I suggested we get some Nando’s for supper. Outrageously good. It was a party in my belly and chicken was the main guest.
Chioma and Chinelo promised me a night of Afro Beats. Chioma had to study for her French test so Chinelo and their brother, Kelechi, took me to a club in the financial district of London with their friend, Nneka. I threw on my sexy for the night. Chinelo was looking quite ravishing, though she drove like a bat out of Dante’s Inferno. We made it safely. I thanked the Lord that Joanie Conley didn’t have to fly nearly two thousand miles to identity her son’s body. Security wasn’t as aggressive as they are in NYC. There was a pat down but no one went for my groin. No one took five minutes to inspect the authenticity of my I.D. by rotating it multiple times. We go inside and it is beyond me what that music was. Afro beats sounds like a group of Reggae and West African percussionists found themselves together in one room, arguing about who’s music will get played. It wasn’t bad but I couldn’t find the bassline to save my life. I surveyed the room to pick out the dancing rhythm and everyone was doing their own thing. I was lost. It would’ve taken Angela Lansbury to find me. Especially after Kelechi filled me with champagne. Once the southern Hip-Hop had taken over the sound system, I was king of the dance floor. The fellas there were familiar with the music but for the first time, I felt like I owned the place. I was drunk by the night’s end but still a man of my composure. I passed out and was awakened in the middle of the night by a nudge. I looked in the darkness and swore I saw an image of a man disappear. I spoke, thinking I was looking at Mr. Oganya. The shadow disappeared. Could’ve been a hyper-active imagination. Could’ve been the Brandy. I don’t know. Sunday was pretty chill. After everyone recovered by 2pm, we all headed to a famous carne spot called Bosphorus. Located in West London, Bosphorus is every bit of satiating and gluttonous. I had the large mix which consists of this: pork chunks, chicken breast meat, mini chicken wings, gyro meat, cabbage, condiments and pita bread. It didn’t make sense to me until I had it. The type of meal you give to a man to curb the taste for sex. Who can get nude after a meal like that? I wanted to lay out on the sidewalk with a sign that read ‘Paint me the color of gravel and leave me the Hell alone.‘ But no. The Oganya kids did not do that for me. Instead, they brought me to a Catholic church service with full on itis. The priest could’ve slandered my own Mother without my acknowledgement. I struggled to hear, doubted if I’d even known what was being said had I been able to hear, and used every muscle in my abdomen to curtail my bowels. Service finished quicker than a Midwestern school boy. Later that evening, Chioma, Kelechi and I went to a jazz set in Brixton. That part of town has had its infamy but today it is a bustling epicenter for young adults fresh out of college. The streets looked a bit like Gotham. Some roads were dark and moist, but full of life. Others were bright and popping with markets, shops and entertainment centers. It was a great time.
Monday was the wind down of my trip. Chinelo and Kelechi had left the evening before. Chioma had work. I said my salutations to her in the morning. I stuck around for a couple more hours before heading out to see Coleman Domingo’s one man show, A Boy and His Soul. Domingo is a very talented and charming actor that created a memoir about his experience growing up in West Philadelphia and coming to terms with his sexuality. The story was rooted in the soul music of the time. Domingo played several characters, danced, sang and brought the place down with a standing applause. He was the essence of love and generosity by baring something so personal with a group of a hundred plus strangers. I became familiar with Coleman Domingo when Shaka King began production on his debut feature film, Newlyweeds. I knew Shaka, his Director of Photography, Daniel Patterson, and his main actress, Trae Harris. I learned more about the cast and Domingo played a large supporting role. That capped my London experience and I prepared myself to escape from the big city. Chioma made sure I arrived at the Euston station safely and I boarded my train back to Birmingham. The rest of the week played pretty even. Me reading and writing and feeling like my life belongs in London. My roommate, Laura, sympathized with the feeling. There was a knock on my door late Thursday night. Not too late but night had well begun. I opened to find a good portion of my course mates outside. Before that, I had only met Leah, my classmate who happens to be my roommate as well. I invited them all in for a good hour or so of getting to know one another. Everyone from my acting course is American, so we bonded over our cultural familiarity and all of our episodes with getting acclimated to the UK. That visit lifted me back to full positivity. A good part of the group went to BSA the following morning to get some last minute business wrapped up and had dinner together. Week three ended with me feeling fully confident in myself and the program.
Until the next episode…