Fanny Packs and Fireworks
by Caitlin Carrigan
Careening the wrong way down one way streets while my mother screamed, as though howling her disapproval would somehow redeem her as the driver, cowering as we were brought to a halt by a Soccer riot in the streets of Manchester, cringing as my mother smashed the side mirror of our car into a parked Lorry; this was London. This was the trip that caused me to romanticize this ancient land of fancy accents and good tea. Seeing London through the eyes of a child glued to the hip of her curious and somewhat goofy American mother felt like watching the world through a one way mirror. I felt in between places; not at home, but not really in London either. It was like discovering the fairy tale castle and reaching out to find the brick and mortar had been covered in plastic. Like a grandmother’s Victorian loveseat, you can sit, but you can’t touch.
My mother was a silly travel partner. She’d shoot pictures of locals in their pubs, clad in a fanny pack and windbreaker, posing before the fortresses and cathedrals of jolly old England. I saw locals staring at us and felt microscopic. How we must look to them; typical American Tourists being led like cattle by rambling tour guides. I could just imagine them looking down their long straight noses at us.
I returned as a woman, still with my mother, but also with a comrade as curious as I, who denied even a breath of suggestion that we spend our New Year in London cooped up in a Marylebone hotel room as my mother intended. It was after ten ‘o’clock; the sound of bustling couples and car alarms filtered in from the open window as Katie and I put on our boots and headed to the street. We knew our aim without speaking it; Big Ben. We planned to hear, see, and smell the moment New Year arrived, when we’d hear the chime of that famous clock.
Formidable, but thin, the crowd splayed out across the green beside Westminster and Parliament. The trellises and spires were lit by hidden bulbs in the grass, casting an eerie glow on the surrounding buildings. Filtered in amongst the people were darting green and orange lights, dayglo fluorescent souvenirs for the celebrating masses. We quickly acquired our own glow in the dark necklaces and began weaving through the crowd toward its center. The sound of voices speaking French, Arabic, Bengali, created a thick cacophony of sound. Katie and I stayed close to hear one another. We were alone for the first time in a city I’d only witnessed from my mother’s hip, and it received us with open arms.
The first character to cross our path was a small Italian girl clad in a knit snow cap, dark green jacket, and the heady aroma of stale cigarettes and something else. She introduced herself as Adrea. A foot shorter than the rest of the crowd, she stood smoking her cigarette, the crisp air morphing her breath into swiftly dissipating clouds. We greeted her with smiles and fearlessly bad Italian. She responded by handing us her cigarette, cherry bright in the evening air. Katie took a long drag and handed it to me. I puffed swiftly, knowing, in my hand was no common tobacco. Yet, as Katie loosed a surprised cough, the smoke burned my throat, summoning a violent hack deep in my chest. Something tasted harsh and foreign as I fought to catch my breath and still the sting in my throat. Katie asked Adrea what manner of weed we were smoking. In that thick, indecipherable Italian accent of hers, we heard a sound we’d failed to understand beforem – Hashish.
She chided in English so broken we could do little more than smile and nod. Soon, we headed deeper into the crowd, listening as the voices grew agitated. It was seconds from midnight, and the countdown began. Katie and I watched the minute hand of the iconic clock tick toward midnight. Then past.
Confusion. The grand reveal, some outpouring of humanity to be set off by the chime of an ancient bell, never came. Big Ben was broken. The crowd shifted as though collectively shrugging, then grumbled in anticlimactic acceptance and began to interlace with one another, crisscrossing the square in every direction. In the commotion, some unknown and most likely drunken fellow hell bent on celebrating the New Year with panache set off a single solitary firework, which went sailing up from the square with a high pitched squeal only to lurch in the sky overhead and slam into the fourth story of a nearby building. Fantastic. With that sad display of holiday cheer, Katie and I turned for home. It was then that a blonde Frenchman grabbed me by the shoulders, said, “Heppy New Yearh” and lunged toward my face, lips puckered. I side stepped him and gave him a polite peck on the cheek, fighting to hide my utter horror.
Soon a pair of Greek men, then a heavily drunken Scotsman, then a gaggle of locals all made their play for a smooch from yours truly. Katie held my arm tightly, yanking, dragging, and pulling me free of their clutches as we pressed on toward the subway.
At that moment, I truly experienced London as a woman. Not as the microscopic and shy little girl who could feel the cultured masses glaring at her complete lack of grace, but apparently a woman with irresistable lips. When did I become alluring, I wondered – especially to the European male? This was not dungeons and tourist groups with my mother scolding me for practicing my perfect English accent. It wasn’t the fairy tale castle at Hampton Court lit by my mother’s constant camera flashes. This was the common, foolish, less than suave reality of London. The princes here were drunk and no more charming than anywhere else and their bob and weave skills were nothing compared to mine. Despite their accents, they were still shooting fireworks into state buildings and standing around broken clocks with confused looks on their faces.
Beyond the plastic covering and the velvet rope, they were just people – like me.
Like my mother.