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The Race is a short film I did with my flatmate Katie when we toured Europe over Spring Break 2006.
Death was on the airplane. Not the concept death, but Death. He had thin dark hair, large glasses, and a blue shirt with a floppy red feather hanging out of the shirt pocket from behind the handkerchief. An old man had been sitting in that seat at the start of the flight, but when 20-year-old Jaime awoke from something mildly less sound than sleep, Death sat in his place beside his daughter. She must have been no more than seven years old. Jaime hoped he was not on a business trip. She reassured herself that, this being third class, he was simply going on holiday.
Jaime didn’t know his alias, and only recognized his identity by noticing that every time he walked by her, the temperature dropped.
The good-byes earlier that morning had started as all good-byes should. With a delayed flight and a mad dash to the airport. It didn’t leave room for crying. She left her city of Madison, Wisconsin that morning, landed in Chicago an hour later, then boarded an eight hour flight to London, England, where she would stay for the next three and a half months, knowing no one she would be with.
London, as she saw it, was the land of raw inspiration. They gave it out by the bucketful over there. It spit out all the great comedic writers. If she could just get a whiff of it, maybe she could be even half as good as Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman.
Jaime didn’t love flying. The cramped space, obnoxious people, and recycled air, which by the end of the trip mutated into a premium blend of rhino virus, influenza, meningitis, and the bird flu. One jar of airplane atmosphere would kill any unimmune alien faster than a whole boat of small-pox-infested blankets.
Jaime didn’t hate flying. The steady roar of the engines, the dim gold glow of the no smoking, lavatory, and seatbelt signs. Not to mention the view. Crossing into the night, they crossed into an unreality. The journey of locality equated the journey of the mind. City lights made the world look so far away, but in reality, it was one engine away from being much too close. With nothing below but an island of light, Jaime and the people on her plane were the survivors of an apocalypse, and they’d just discovered someone else was down there.
Dinner made an attempt at being four courses. The salad consisted of iceberg lettuce, vinaigrette sauce, and a strand of hair off a brunette flight attendant. The butter for the roll had to be melted on the tin foil of the main course, which contained green beans, mashed potatoes, and the kind of chicken that resists penetration of a plastic fork in the same way a car tire resists the penetration of a garden turnip. Dessert tried very hard to be carrot cake, except that the carrots were yellow and made of fruit.
If the world were flat and bigger, it would look somewhat like the nighttime U.K. from an aerial view. The moon glowed blood orange on the horizon. The clouds blazed red like the upper mists of Hell. If the plane were to pass through, they would sink into lava. Traveling to London from the rest of the U.K. resembled a ceremony for war veterans suddenly transforming into a military draft. The city lights that had twinkled like war medals blipped out behind dark clouds. How else would Jaime recognize London if not for its stormy weather? After hours of not being able to sleep on the plane and yearning nothing more than spending the rest of the night in a real bed, she realized it wasn’t the moon glowing orange, but the rising sun.
This was shot on the last full day studying abroad in London when everyone was saying goodbye to each other, 2006.
This is a bit of satire of Holloway Road in Islington, London where I was living at the time. Kind of ridiculous that this video has been watched more than 17,000 times.
Study Abroad Stories 2 of 10 (2006)
London was a patchwork of influences from the vintage past to the innovative future, stitched together to form the present. The city hadn’t been designed on a grid like some kind of quilt displaying what was left of old t-shirts, as though it could capture childhood. No, it was more of a loved baby blanket that got bits of miscellaneous fabrics sewn in throughout the years as the original cloth deteriorated inch by inch. What you had in the end was a completely different blanket, the Theseus, but with the exchange so slow, no one had noticed. A progression from thatched roofs to skyscrapers still clinging to some scraps of ancient palace yards overlapped with what the new world called industry.
To Jaime, living in London sounded terribly fun and not too difficult. Navigating HeathrowAirport, she knew, would be tricky enough to make the whole idea unbearable. It wasn’t that she viewed the airport as her first challenge. She viewed it as her only challenge. Everything after that was adventure.
Heathrow had polar conditions for crowds. Either there weren’t any people anywhere, which made Jaime suspect she was going the wrong way, or the ques were so long, they reached the next gate, intermingled with other ques, and eventually formed a mobius strip of descendents of people who originally got off the plane. Anyone she asked for help never seemed to comprehend the question. She was to meet someone in the ‘meeting point’ at nine a.m., that she knew. She knew she had over two hours to find that spot. What she didn’t know was who to look for or how they would recognize her. What if they missed her and took the rest of the students? A taxi would cost over a hundred pounds from zone six.
She made her way through the ques to the immigration officer, who looked over her paperwork, and waved her on toward baggage claim. Everything in baggage claim was labeled. Despite her previous luck in airports to always receive her suitcases last, her baggage came out fairly quickly, still locked, and came off the belt on the first try. In America, this never happens. She bungeed one bag to the top of the other and rolled the purple heap toward the hallway with the arrow above it whilst carrying her pack on her back and her laptop around her shoulder.
After miles of hallway, the corridor finally spread wide into a room filled with people. They were barred off from the arrivals, but leaned anxiously over the gates like they were waiting for the best float in the parade. Most of them were dressed in suits. Many of them carried signs with the names of people or places written on them in bad handwriting. None of the signs said London Metropolitan. None she could make out, anyway.
But she was early. She sat down next to an empty chair with an old vomit stain on the seat, and waited. She waited half an hour, terrified, as nine o’clock drew nearer, that the school’s representative wouldn’t arrive. No one else looked like they were in the same boat. All the other people were either hugging someone or lying unconscious across a bench.
One blond young woman with two large pieces of luggage arrived and sat alone just across the way. She looked like she could be close to Jaime’s age, but there were other universities picking up students there. They all had matching t-shirts and a whole cheering squad to welcome them. All Jaime had was someone in the seat next to her who wouldn’t stop snoring.
The London Metropolitan representative had been driving back and forth to HeathrowAirport for years, and had become a master at picking out the American students waiting for him. He only asked Jaime if she was a part of his program to be polite, but he already knew the answer.
Clive, as he was called, rounded up the group, including the few students that were just arriving. There were some general introductions followed by tedious waiting, as one is expected to do in airports. Other students from Jaime’s Wisconsin school arrived and took their first tourist photo with an old man who wore a Packers cap and who had no idea why a bunch of kids who had gotten drunk on the airplane wanted to take their picture with him. He was vaguely aware that the picture had been taken at all, clearly distracted by all the excited squealing and people telling him to ‘look this way.’
The nine of them were the first batch, the smaller batch. Clive led them to a coach bus outside where they struggled with their luggage and threw it in the bus storage compartment. During the half hour trip, Jaime video taped a little of the outer zones of London, but for the most part, just stared out the window, exhausted. She’d get plenty of time to film all of this later, she thought, which was a mistake, because when living in central London, there’s always enough to keep one too occupied to travel to the outskirts, as beautiful as some parts may be.
Jaime had planned to go to Islington since the sixth grade, so as soon as she saw a sign that said Islington, she felt her life work was complete. The rest of the trip would be bonus. The bus driver had great difficulty navigating the streets around the dormitory and had to circle the block three times before pulling into an alleyway between the dormitory and the residence hall of a different university, which looked more like a prison complete with barred windows.
The students yanked their luggage onto the sidewalk. They were met immediately by the study abroad coordinator, who had already emailed Jaime some weeks ago, helpfully replying to her questions with “I don’t have time to answer your questions. You will have to find out from someone else.”
The doors to the dorm were opened by black magnetic key chains that came with the large gold keys to the individual flats. The lobby was small and had skeptical looking patrols in it as well as the friendly building manager and an amiable student who worked at a used bookstore in Leicester Square. He helped the arrivals up to their new rooms. There were two elevators which, despite claiming a capacity of eleven, could hold four people each.
All the Americans were held on the fourth floor, more likely to keep them from bothering the locals than for anyone’s safety or convenience. It was the only floor that did not have co-ed flats.
The young man from the bookstore led Jaime down three long, narrow hallways before reaching the farthest door in the whole building. “There you are,” he said. “Flat 48.”