London Scenes
by Lia D'Amico

From the writer: I wrote the following reviews for Marjorie Ledden's Writing Studio 305 class in London. Working within the style of creative non-fiction, we reviewed restaurants, shops, streets-anyplace we could find snippets of British culture.

From the teacher: In Studio III students were asked to write reviews of aspects of British life for a number of reasons: to gain practice with creative nonfiction techniques, to submit them to a newsletter for students and faculty, and to create "snapshots" of London to supplement memories of their semester abroad. Reading these superb reviews by Lia brings it all back: the many moods of Portbello Road, the ubiquitous cafes crowded with patrons, the cosmopolitan nature of London. Let Lia's delightful sketches of London life transport you to this lively city.

From the editors: D'Amico's unique choice of descriptions place the reader in the scenes she illustrates. The reviews succeed in capturing both the aesthetics of the scene as well as the writer's emotions. By transcending the bounds of the "traditional" review, the essays challenge our concepts of acceptability and expectation.

Portabello Road

Portabello Road is a big headache Saturday mornings. People shove their way through nearly 2,000 cluttered antique stands and shops, and everyone has to yell to be heard. They blow smoke in your face, stamp on your toes and sneeze in your path. So how is this any different from New York? Well, they're all smiling and having a "smashing" good time. And if you're lucky to experience typical English weather, it's all in damp drizzle. If you walk through on a weekday afternoon, you can actually hear footsteps on the cobblestones. Think thigh-high leather boots with 6-inch platforms, or worn-in Timberlands splattered with paint and mud. There's even the occasional barefoot street performer, pounding a drum and singing like Richie Havens.

I marched down there one sunny afternoon on a mission to find a cheap leather jacket. My "Irreverent Guide to London" claims there's a vintage clothing place where Kate Moss shops. Not that I'm fooling myself into believing I'll leave London looking all Glam, but it's worth a peek. I pass orange, violet, yellow and red buildings all crammed together. What London lacks in American "visual pollution" (a.k.a. advertising overload), they make up for in smells. Portabello expels meat, fish, flowers, dank antiques, spices, fruit, breads, pot, garbage and the occasional pedestrian with too much perfume or bad B.O. I drool at a vibrant strawberry tart gleaming from a window. And a big man with a rosy face barks at me, "A pound a box," while pointing to some puny tomatoes.

After rummaging through suede mini-skirts, velvet blazers and a musty atmosphere, I decide the vintage clothing shop has nothing for me. I guess I'll stick to jeans and a tee shirt, and that London-chic attitude will just have to come from within. Hmmm. Saints Tattoo Studio. "Safe Body Piercing." Well, maybe another day.

I buy a mint steamer and plop down at a nearby picnic bench. I'm thinking that Olde-English china set next to the "Full Internet Facilities" sign would make a nice photograph, and this Russian guy in a ridiculous black cowboy hat saunters over to me and asks the time. I tell him it's 4:15. (Should I have said 16:15?) He asks if I'm American - so I lie, "Canadian." A passing car's techno beat meshes with the classical music pouring from The Body Shop and the Spice Girls blasting from a nearby pub. Then he says, "Do you live here? Are you studying here? What do you study? What school? Where are you from in Canada? You have beautiful eyes." I say, "Well, I've got to go meet some people," and I make sure he doesn't follow me after I turn the corner. Then I'm on to another adventure, trying to forget the creepy guy. I spot "Beads!" and the exclamation point after the title intrigues me.

"Hey, Amico!"

Among the chaotic disaster that is Queensway, there is a Mediterranean haven called ByzantiuM. Don't ask me why the "M" is capitalized. I was too afraid to ask when I walked in there one damp, drizzly London afternoon.

As I shook out my umbrella, I glanced up and found a full caf of men glancing back at me. Men crowded around every single marble-topped table. Their smoke, laughter and Italian chatter filled the air. Maybe I wasn't supposed to be there, I thought, getting ready to flee for the hills. But then a cheerful waitress seated me at a side-table as high as a bar and gave me a menu. I climbed onto the stool, menu in hand, and peered over to the display case. It was filled with croissants, cheese pies, and sweets. I was amazed that they offer a simple Apple Pie and an exotic Galactoboureko, both from 2 - 2.50. They even serve continental breakfasts and sandwiches.

But the real reason ByzantiuM exists is the beverages. There's a 3 1/2-foot espresso machine with a spread-winged eagle on the top. A regular cappuccino costs 1.50. They also offer freshly squeezed fruit juices, milk shakes with Hgen Daas ice cream, and iced coffee. Prices range from 1.50 - 2.80. And it's all enclosed in floor-to-ceiling windows, large mirrors, and dark wood - like the Corleone house.

I ordered a Viennese Hot Chocolate that would make the clearest of faces break out. Gotta love all that whipped cream and cinnamon. Most of the men had left, and more Europeans came in from the rain. I heard only a little English through the din of Italian, German, and Russian. These were young, hip people. Very few looked older than 40, except for the manager - a friendly European woman with dyed-blond hair, a low-cut black dress, cream blazer, and a gold necklace. She sat with a group of Italians, possibly regulars, and hopped up whenever the waitress had more than one customer.

An old man appeared at the entrance. Underneath a black cowboy hat, he had long, scraggly graying hair like Willie Nelson. He waved at everyone, and a gap-toothed grin spread across his wrinkly face as the manager and regular customers yelled, "Hey! Amico!"

"I'm seeing her tonight!" He announced in a scratchy voice with a Southern (American) accent.

They all cheered and clapped.

"And she's a very pretty girl."

More cheering.

"I like the bottom," he said proudly.

Hoots and whistles roared from the group. He tipped his hat and waved goodbye.

Even though I was an outsider, I laughed with everyone else - loving this comfortable camaraderie.

Bad Hair Day

I'm not exactly a salon-fanatic. I mean, I don't jump at the chance to smell toxic hair dyes and listen to overly enthusiastic hairdressers. But I have to admit, I'm a little tempted by the free haircut buzz. So my friend, Danielle, and I checked out the Vidal Sassoon Training School just off Bond Street.

First of all, it's not "just off Bond Street" like the secretary told us. It's near Bond Street tube on Davies Mews. And the school couldn't be more poorly marked.

"What!" yelled Danielle when we finally found it. "It looks like a garage!" Davies Mews is an alley with painted-black bricks, small windows and fire escapes.

Secondly, it's not free like we were told over the phone. "I don't know who told you that," said a secretary with cherry-black lipstick. "It's 7.50."

"Well, we're here," I sighed, and Danielle was led up a dark staircase while I was led into the alley again.

"You have to go outside for this studio," said a short British guy, who I later found out was the master-stylist, Robert.

I was taken down a narrow, spiral staircase into the basement studio. It was crammed with mirrors, students and models, as the customers are called. Fluorescent lights beamed down on us as Robert began the consultation with two trendy Asian students beside him.

"So," he said, "how do you feel about your hair?"

"What?" I asked, not fully understanding the question. I could give him a dissertation on how I feel about my hair. It takes forever to dry. I wish it was more red, but I'm too lazy to deal with dyeing it. I'm such a klutz that I once got a brush and a curling iron tangled in it. I had a horrible perm in the eighth grade, but really, who didn't? I think about it far too much and do too little about it. I'm convinced it says something totally wrong about my personality because everybody wants their hair to say something positive about themselves, which leads to my theory that we always complain about our hair because we're all just insecure.

Robert repeated, "How do you feel about your hair?"

So I came up with, "It's kind of thick and heavy."

The older of the two Asian students translated this to the other one, and I realized the entire room was full of Japanese student hairdressers.

"Oh, my God," I prayed, "I hope this translates right."

I meekly explained that I needed it shorter, but not too short.

"So, we're going for a bob?" asked Robert.

"No, no, no," I said emphatically, and, pointing with my fingers, "About this length."

After all that was cleared up, my student hairdresser, Yuki, said, "Shampoo," and took me up the spiral staircase. It was actually relieving to be with someone who didn't speak much English. I can't stand chatty hairdressers. We finished shampooing in a room lined with sinks, and returned to the Japanese studio. Yuki carefully cut my hair for an entire hour while she gabbed with the other students. They seemed pretty absorbed with talking about their own appearances. Yuki wore a green-camouflaged shirt with a black mini-skirt. I'm glad she didn't bop to the Japanese music as much as some of the other students. I mean, signs did read, "Move with caution."

After the blow-dry, Yuki called, "Okay! Robert!" While we waited for Robert's inspection, I stared at myself in the mirror. It was definitely shorter than I had wanted. It was what my father would call "the Business Cut," - which, I suppose, is okay if you're working on Wall Street. But I'm not.

"Good job, Yuki!" said Robert. Yuki beamed after hearing the translation. "Just toss it to the side a bit. Make it a little more loose and fun.

"How do you like it?" he asked me.

"It's fine," I said. "Much lighter."

I left while mourning my loss, telling myself, "It'll grow back." I met up with Danielle, and we started relating stories while two people pushed past us, yelling.

"Oh, my God," said Danielle. "That's my hairdresser and her teacher!"

The student was tall and chic, and her eyes glared. The balding master stylist yelled at her, "Any more attitude like that, and you're out of here!"

"What happened?" I asked Danielle.

"Well," she said. "They kept arguing over my hair and cutting it shorter and shorter. Look at it! It's like an inch off my head! The teacher actually did most of the work."

All in all, we both agreed it was an interesting experience. (I think I'll stick with Antonio in Syracuse.) But if you're brave and up for a laugh, make an appointment a week in advance. And they say to budget two hours, but mine took an hour and a half.

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