1 Dilke House, Malet St. looks exactly how I expected a place called “Dilke House” located in central London to look. It is three or four stories of ornately molded cement until about midway down where it turns into a patchwork of brick and tall barred windows. We hurry down the steps past the black, iron wrought fence, pointed tips guarding us as we go. The door is locked, but we know the secret code, C1245 zed. The last zed is important and we all love it. Walking in, to our left is the office where all of the AIFS employees who get to deal with us work. Most of them are not much older than us, and have already partied and travelled with us. They feel more like friends than anything else. As Ranier and I enter this room, Ged lurks about mischievously in the background and we are greeted by Alex Lopez. Alex is the only American employee at this office. She is from Texas but went to Stanford and is therefore a perfect mixture of country twang and bay area hipster. She welcomes us with an audacious “SUP Y’ALL!?” I respond to this by making a mental checklist.
1. Find and destroy her boyfriend. [ ]
2. Seduce and marry her. [ ]
I am doubtful and yet optimistic about this outcome. Ranier and I discuss important topics with Alex such as “Where all that equipment be going?” and what the cheapest way to get drunk is. We want to talk to Kieren as well, but he is sitting in the corner, typing zealously, dutifully engrossed in his work. We cross through the entry way and into the computer lab. This room is full of our friends, and not only from the Northern California group. Friends from L.A. and Washington and San Jose are all rapidly entering and exiting the room, writing papers, or perusing the World Wide Web. We spy our good friend Erik Sullivan Faussner purchasing plane tickets from RyanAir in the corner. We go to talk to him and his deep baritone voice penetrates and then rises above all other sounds in the room. He tells us for the seventh time about the time he got drugged at a frat party with his bros and woke up wearing a tutu in a cactus. This story will never get old. Seriously.
Email has been checked, Facebook has been updated and we are all starving. Ten or twelve of us all walk, once again, across the street and up the stairs to the cafeteria. This cafeteria is ineffably better than any other I have been to and is more like a restaurant. As we enter, the gossiping voices of the many students already eating echoe off the curved glass ceiling. This room looks more like an atrium or green house than a cafeteria. We push as many tables and chairs together as we can and go up to order. I order the fish and chips. It is reasonably priced and always gets me full. Our numbers appear on the board above the pickup window and we each run up to get our food. We sit together at the long table and prattle on about everything going on in everyone’s lives. I eat my fish, chips, salad and mushy peas. No one likes these, but I am enthralled with them. Before we know it, it is 1:30 and everyone heads to their classes.
Entering room 2C, Ellen Kruse is getting her books and laptop out and hooking it up to the projector. Sydney, Tracie and Gina sit in the front of the room. James, Ranier, B and I sit in the back. This class will be a bit different than our earlier one. None of us has done the reading and Ellen’s voice is going. She will be typing her lecture about Ovid’s Metamorphoses. For the next two hours we complete that mornings crossword puzzle and attempt to name all 150 Pokemon. Ellen eventually realizes she has continued class for 15 minutes longer than she should have and releases us. Everyone explodes out of the building.
B has joined Ranier and I and we decide to do a little retail therapy at Oxford Circus. We realize this will require us to get on the Central Line, transferring to the Northern. For this we have to get to the Goodge street station which is luckily only blocks away. We turn the corner and begin walking. We pass shops on our left selling antique books, delicious looking and expertly decorated cakes and minimalist furniture. We turn another corner and cross the street, making sure not to be run over by the fanatical driving of the taxis. We now pass small fruit stands and the Carphone Warehouse, where we all went at the beginning of our time here to buy cell phones. We all have the same, tiny, light beige Nokia that lets us call and text each other, which we of course do constantly. We never forget to Top Up. One of the best features of this phone is the ability to assign a little avatar to each contact. These ranged from a blonde and freckled child to musical notes and dragons. It is very fun. We continue down the street though, nearing our destination.
We enter the tube station and head down the lift, board the train, and make it to our transfer point. Luckily the trains come very often and we don’t have to wait long. One nice thing about the different lines is the variety of architecture at each station. Even the insides of the trains differ greatly. Some are laid out very similarly to BART at home, others more like the Metro in Paris, and still others have comfy, couch-like, bucket seats. These are my favorites. We finally arrive at Oxford circus and hundreds of people exit the trains. We are pushed arm to arm by the masses and force our way to the surface, gasping for air, drowning in a sea of people. Relief does not come though, for Oxford Circus is a bustling beehive of activity, just as crowded if not more than the tube cars. We cross the street and enter Topshop.
Ranier and I head upstairs while B heads downstairs. She is probably looking for her twelfth pair of Uggs. Ranier and I enter the men’s section and are confronted with hundreds more people. The aisles are busy. The streets are busy. This city is busy…and it always is. We all return downstairs eventually, empty handed. Nothing seems to have caught our eye today, but we will try again. The pound continues to slip against the dollar and not shopping almost seems like a waste. Our rampant American consumerism is not foreign in this city. B heads off on her own path home. She is a homestay kid who lives in Musswell Hill and she has a long tube and then bus ride ahead of her. The bus ride is more fun though. When you sit on the second story, right in the front, on the iconic, vibrantly red, double-decker busses, it feels as if you are flying.
Ranier and I make the necessary tube transfers and eventually arrive back at our flat. Andy and James are here too now. We all sit in the living room on our laptops. We fight over who gets to play what music, who ate whose last bag of crisps, and whether or not Paul Newman is gay. James is sure that he is. James is an idiot. We do this for a couple hours. All of us make a half-hearted attempt at reading or writing papers but no one succeeds. We will leave our homework until the last minute or beg for extensions. We are too excited to work. It is Wednesday which means tonight is Karaoke night. Everyone goes to Karaoke, even some of our teachers. Drinks are cheap and fun permeates the air. We have a couple hours before we need to leave though and James, Ranier and I decide to get dinner before heading over to the Sullivan Girl’s house. The obvious choice for dinner is Thai Taste. This is the tiny Thai restaurant just across the street from our flat. They have some of the best Chicken Pad Thai that any of us has ever tasted. It is reasonably priced at £6 and comes quickly. We call and order. We are lazy and tell them our customer number, 169, so that they will deliver it to us. Because we have spent over £15 we get one small can of coke. This is the worst deal ever because it is comically too small for three people to split. Ranier of course wants it. James and I don’t object. The food gets here and we dig in. Our chopsticks blur as we quickly scarf down the delicious noodles. As soon as we are finished we layer up and head out.
The Sullivan girls are Tracie, Sydney, Gina, Fraser, Nichelle, Kari and Melissa. We met them in our classes and quickly began hanging out with them a majority of the time. James and Frasier have recently begun dating and seem to really like each other. The dynamic between them is extremely entertaining to the rest of us, so everyone is happy for this. The girls live three blocks down Cromwell, on the corner of Cromwell Rd and Earl’s Court. We exit left of our apartment and pass the internet Cafés and Sainsbury grocers. We pass row after row of beautifully decorated Kensington flats and peak inside the windows as we pass. The three of us walk in unison and our pace is quick. We reach their flat and click the button to get buzzed in. We hear the buzzer start and the heavy door click to unlock. We know that they can see us in their camera, but pretend to be nonchalant and not look at it. We walk in and head to the lift. The lift is mirrored on all four walls and creates the illusion that we are standing amongst infinity. The doors open on floor six and we head inside.
When we get in, Big Rob and Brian Chinnery Donovan LaDow are already here. Fraser yells hello and quickly disappears into her room with James. This is the last time we will see them tonight. Rob has brought over a four pack of Strongbow Super and we start to pre-game. Brian is in the bathroom with Melissa and Nichelle cutting hair, crocheting a frock or possibly inventing cold fusion. His skills are reportedly limitless. Kari is pouring leftover whiskey into tea cups, cereal bowls and any object or item that has the possibility of holding liquid. We drink and the warm, bitter sensation stings our tongues and throats, settling momentarily in our stomachs before the warmth begins to rise to our cheeks. I slowly make my way to one of the flat’s five balconies. This main balcony is bursting at the seams with memories. Its cold steel textured floor and black railings are ripe with the beginnings of romance, deep conversations and laughter. The paint is chipped from countless nights spent sitting here, engrossed in blankets and each other. The view is nothing short of breathtaking and looks across a hidden London borough. The cobblestone streets are quiet and reflect the moonlight that shines down on them. Ornate, ancient chimneys jut up towards the stars, percolating the sky with their vast numbers. The overall vista could easily be the backdrop of a Dicken’s novel. It is calming out here. I walk out into the cold and stand, looking out across the expanse, hoping something will happen, knowing it will not. Moments later my wishful thinking is interrupted by a rapping on the glass.
It’s time to go. Gina is staying in because she doesn’t feel well and wants to draw pictures of her new puppy Sir Piccadilly, Duke of Zanzabar. She is excited that later Sex Education will be on BBC4, followed by everyone’s favorite show, Embarrassing Teenage Bodies. The rest of us head out.
We walk left down Earl’s Court. This road dazzles our eyes through the dark. A plethora of pubs, Indian restaurants, liquor stores and cheap kebab kiosks blink their prices at us through brightly lit bulbs. We take the tube back to school on the Piccadilly line. We walk the same route we did that very same morning, though at night, the dynamic is much different. The long boulevards and tall buildings seem mysterious and ancient. We return to the entrance of the ULU and flash our University of London ID cards to the bouncer and bound up the steps. The clamor of voices and clinking of glasses becomes increasingly loud with each progressive step.
We finally reach the school pub, The Duck and Dive, and see a hundred or so British and international students shouting wildly. We realize that the football match is not yet over and they are all watching the screen. It quickly does end though, and the stark division of Tottenham and Chelsea fans immediately forget their differences and begin to socialize. Karaoke night is very popular because all pints of light beer are only £1.20p. We find a table. It is a sturdy, black surface with picnic style benches. We like this table because it is close to the stage. More and more AIFS students continually arrive and the pile of coats gets larger and denser by the minute. Many of us head to the bar to order our drinks. I drink Foster’s, as do most of us. Erik drinks whiskey. Kari drinks Guinness. Andy pays £12.50p for a pitcher of Redbull and vodka. He will later regret this. Sign-ups for karaoke begin and students rush the stage. While this goes on, trips to the bar continue, our pockets growing lighter and our indulgences beginning to manifest themselves less subtly. The noise levels of the pub echo more and more as time ticks by. Sydney makes Tracie and I pose for pictures. We change our opposing facial expressions rapidly and Tracie shakes her fist at me. Finally the lights dim.
The Karaoke master himself, Takeshi, takes the stage, dressed in his usual attire. Just like every week he wears a vibrant and busy Hawaiian shirt and khaki pants. His glasses reflect the spotlights that are aimed at him. He begins announcements that never change.
“Hello…and Welcome! To Takeshi’s Karaoke! Ten pm to Midnight! Every Wednesday! Free drink vouchers for the first four singers and if you sing well we will vote and you have the chance to win £20!”
What could be better than winning free drink vouchers, or better yet, an extra £20 to spend at the pub? None of us know. Takeshi takes his place at the back of the stage, behind his Macbook, amongst numerous knobs and dials. First up is Ranier singing N*Sync with big Joe on backup. Ranier showcases his dancing skills, mimicking the dance moves from the music videos that he won’t admit to having seen. We cheer in unison. Next is the British student who looks vaguely like Jack Black with metal hair. He sings Gay Bar just like every week. Each time he sings it his rhythmic humping of the mic stand becomes more elaborate and I wonder when it will stop. Probably never. Other students we don’t know enter and leave the stage. We boo at most of them. Occasionally there are excellent vocal performances, but these are few and far between. It gets closer to midnight and by this point the majority of us are drunk. Even Mary Scott and Ellen Kruse have joined in on some of the fun. Erik stumbles onto the stage. He begins his rendition of We are the Champions by Queen and the crowd goes wild. There are about 30 of us from AIFS here tonight, a sizeable group, and we all push together to get to the front of the stage, singing loudly and in unison. You can no longer hear Erik singing, and that says something. Arms intertwined, we rock back and forth, stumbling through the verses and screaming the chorus. B somehow finds her way on stage, mouth wide as ever and shares the mic with Erik. Copious cameras are flashing, colored lights are dancing through the air, and the scene feels surreal. We sing through the song’s entirety.
The hands on the clocks, as well as our cell phones and watches slide to the twelve and it is time to go home. Still tangled together, we all grab for our warm clothes, but don’t need them. Our inebriation will take the place of a jacket for the ride home. As a couple hundred of us students spill into the darkened streets and begin our trek to the tube station we continue to sing loudly. We carry each other and hold hands. We dance as we walk and are inarticulate. These moments are bliss. As our warmth and fervor parts the cold I feel happy. For one of the few times in my life I am totally and completely content. I am happy and whole here. Both our past experiences and future endeavors in this place excite me. I am not alone in these feelings. Many of us will not admit it, but though the elation of the evening is fresh in our minds, in the back stirs the nagging knowledge that in 47 or however many more days, we will be boarding a plane. This plane will leave Heathrow airport, arching over the tundra of Greenland and gliding across the Atlantic, over Canada, and down through Illinois, over the snow capped Rocky Mountains, across the deserts of Nevada, and finally touching down in San Francisco. This plane will separate us from this place, as well as each other, and though we have made countless plans to see one another it will be different. The pressures of becoming adults will take their toll and responsibilities will once again become evident.
This is not important right now. For tonight we are young and we are free. We reach Russell Square Tube station at 12:24, only minutes before the last train leaves. The gate outside is partially closed and the attendants usher us inside. We reach the lift with seconds to spare but know we will all be okay. We push together happily to fit more and more of us into the cramped compartment. When the last person has finally cleared the border of the steel doors we let them shut. Every square inch of this room is populated by smiles and laughter. The doors slowly close, and the sounds of our immense pleasure descend into the century old tunnels, growing fainter and fainter, until they are gone completely, and the station is once again silent.