"Bloody hell," Magda said. We were surveying the bar at The Mean Fiddler, a sweaty, smoky club in North London. We were here to see The Chills, a noisy and melodic band from New Zealand. Magda was trying to negotiate an opening in the mostly male crowd. "Excuse me please," she said in her nicest, most BBC accent, and the boys with their overflowing pint glasses of Guinness gladly stepped back, watching us.
She handed me a glass with a thimble's measure of Jameson. "Did you want a large? I mean, what do you Americans call it, a double?" she said.
"How about a quadruple? No, this is fine. No wonder your country has a drinking problem, with measly shots like this."
There are a couple things I like about the English, all having to do with politeness. Magda, who's Irish, will tell you that the English are most polite when they're seething, and you've got to admire a country that has its hypocrisy so firmly established. The other is this tradition of buying drinks all around: four people in your group means four drinks, whether you want one or not. We passed drinks back to Magda's boyfriend Christian and his friend Andrew, who thanked us profusely.
"Just wait till you get to Ireland," said Christian. I'd arrived in London this morning, and my head felt like a rotting peach: fuzzy, soft and collapsing. Dizziness came in waves, tempered by adrenalin.
Yet there's no better drug than being in a foreign land. The Travel Pheromone: once it wafts through the air, you can pretty much count on having your pick of the litter. One whiff of "she's available, she wants to, she's unattached," and, best of all, "she's leaving the country," and girls, you'll be fighting 'em off.
"Courtney's brought one condom on her trip," I hear Magda telling the boys.
"Yes, I'm thinking of holding an auction," I said. Andrew silent, red-haired, watching me the way one might an exotic bug that has just flown into your house and landed on your knee politely smiled and took a large swig of Guinness.
If you know a better aphrodisiac than travel, I commend you. What is more thrilling than surveying a room where no one knows you, where difficulties in communication are rooted more in language than in meaning, where you can assume just about any character you please? Tonight, and perhaps for the rest of the journey, I decided I was going to be Moll Flanders.
Anyone who reads this column knows I disdain meeting on planes, the Net, bars; there are just too many variables to contend with. In real life, there are explanations to be given, consequences to be endured. But traveling is not real life. All bets are off.
I thought about my friend Carol who, on the eve of her trip to Italy, was told by the guy she'd been seeing that he was going to start dating other people. Great, she said through a clenched smile. Once in Rome, she stood on a streetcorner looking at a map, looking around quizically, and it wasn't long until Luigi zipped up on his moped and offered assistance in finding the Spanish Steps. It also wasn't long until he took her home, sneaking her into his tiny apartment that night (like most Italian men, he still lived with Mama) so they could fuck like rabbits. "But it wasn't that good," Carol told me. "He kept wanting to do it up the ass. Supposedly it's an Italian thing, so the girls can stay virgins. I finally said to him, 'Dude, we're not going there.' He got kind of pouty."
Now, looking at this mob of young guys at the Mean Fiddler, I wondered who might become my Luigi. Andrew was out of the question; he was a friend of Christian's, and although amusing ("Does he keep singing 'I love my little jacket'?" he asked me in the middle of the set) he happened to be getting married next week. I thought about Carol's story at least I wouldn't have to contend with that back-door negotiation with English guys and I noted there were at least five men within 15 feet that I could be persuaded to get to know better. One of them, a tallish sort wearing a black sweater with red and blue stripes and a gentle look about him, held my gaze just a little longer than normal. Good. The T.P. was kicking in.
Unfortunately, in the end, jet lag overtook me, I'm sorry to say. But it's a month-long trip, and of course, there's Ireland on the horizon, and two old boyfriends.
"You better stock up before you go across the sea," Andrew said, watching me gaze at Mr. Sweater. "You know how those Irish men are. Madonna/whore, madonna/whore. I can't imagine what category you'll fall into."