From Boxing to Bernstein
Even in Los Angeles, which is very much divided into villages like London (although the average Londoner's tribal association with a geographic corner of the city could well be the product of generations, whereas an Angeleno's preference for their zip code might be younger than their silicone breast implants), I was happy to drive all over the city and beyond to visit friends, exploring areas well beyond my Eastside cocoon. And now that I have changed continents, I feel even more compelled to delve into all the areas of London that have haunted my former visits and dreams and reading and movie-watching for decades.
It turns out that transportation time in London is equally as interminable as my Los Angeles journeys, although instead of being ensconced in my own little universe of tunes and air conditioning and hands-free phone calls, swearing at the traffic, I am ensconced in my own little head, squashed into a seat or clinging to a pole (no not a stripper pole), wishing for air conditioning and really wanting to offer free deodorant to a surprising number of fellow tube/bus riders. Forget the deodorant - sometimes people just need to step into a shower once in a while. On the plus side of public transport, it is cheaper than a car, one can be drunk while using it, and one can read. I do of course rate reading higher than drinking, a preference that should be shared by anyone who has ever vomited on the tube, like the two morons who desecrated my tube carriage within seconds of one another last weekend. They didn't know each other, it was simply as bad as that pie-eating contest scene out of "Stand By Me".
Regardless of vomiting passengers, the transportation system in London is a marvel and the four directions of the city are mine for the conquering. I have managed to live in North, South, East and West London so far (Central is a bit pricey for living if excellent for going out) and am managing to run as late as I did in Los Angeles for the majority of social events, although the Tube timings are slightly more predictable than traffic timings. However, planning an outing with inflexible arrival hours (concerts, plays, sporting events etc) is tricky for the chronologically-challenged. Like me. Especially during the Olympics, which brings me to the title of this post.
I am not much for sports or extreme nationalism, therefore the Olympics didn't pique my interest as much as it might have. First of all, people keep asking me who I would cheer for: Britain or the US? I am an expat, but not a proper expat since I feel an equal loyalty to my former home (the US) as I do to my current home and the country of my ancestors (the UK). Luckily the chants for both countries were comprised of three easy syllables, so I could clap along with either "U-S-A!" or "Team-G-B!" and not feel too traitorous. And when Britain and the US competed? Easy choice - I supported the winner like any good fair-weather fan.
Despite my non-engagement with the Olympics, an obligation to history stirred within me: I wondered if this might be my only time to live in a city hosting the Olympics and therefore I should make an attempt to see a live event. When tickets fell into my lap (metaphorically - I still had to pay for them) to see the Womens' Boxing Quarterfinals, I decided that for the price of an excellent meal out, I should avail myself of the chance to see the first women to box in the Olympics (Womens' Boxing being a new sport for 2012). Of course many of the women I watched were seasoned competitors on the Boxing circuit, fledgeling Olympians but not fledgeling fighters. Would "Million Dollar Baby" have been even more poignant if a gold medal had been at stake?
Since my knowledge of Womens' Boxing was limited to vague remembrances of Clint Eastwood's excellent film (and the hilarious parody of it on the American wince-fest sitcom, "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"), I was not very prepared for what I watched. Having no idea how the scoring worked and hoping for some Mike Tyson-style antics or Gladiator-ish brutality, I admitted my ignorance to the sweet-looking boys to my left.
"D'ya think anyone will get their ears chomped on? Or knocked out? How does the scoring work?" I asked the kids, who looked to be early 20's.
So early 20's that my female friend then asked them, "Shouldn't you be in school?"
They looked more flummoxed by her question than by my bloodlust, so I explained that she meant "university" when she said "school". Actually I know she meant "highschool" but I didn't want to spend the next three hours next to offended boys who might get extra-intoxicated to prove a point. They kindly explained to us that Womens' Boxing is more about speed and agility and I am disappointed to report that not one chick got knocked out. However, it was a privilege to see tough women pummeling each other and really inspiring to remember that they all began boxing because they loved the sport and had a talent for it, never dreaming they would one day become Olympians. It was also gratifying to watch both of my countries kicking ass.
In contrast to the afternoon of blood sport, I had been offered free tickets to a concert that very night, one of the many Proms held at the Royal Albert Hall, and without being able to bask in the pheromones of conquest floating around the Excel Centre in East London, my friend and I rushed to South Kensington to attend Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" performed by the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales (and various other Welsh musicians and choirs, with a few American friends-of-my-friend thrown in for an extra-killer rhythm section).
Despite what many athletes and musicians (especially classical musicians) might think, the two seemingly-disparate groups have a lot in common. There is a reason it was trendy to read "The Inner Game of Tennis" at my music conservatory: many of the same psychic tricks are employed to succeed in sports as well as music, not to mention the similar years of discipline and sacrifice. While no one got knocked out during Bernstein's Mass either (much to my chagrin), I was as appreciative of the talent onstage as I had been of the lady boxers only hours before. In a very different way of course, especially considering I am a professional musician myself. As a strange aside, I have actually boxed for exercise. With gloves and tying my hands and everything. But only with a bag, not a human.
I performed at the Royal Albert Hall myself recently, but it was my first concert there as an audience member, and it was also my first Proms concert. Being unfamiliar with the Mass, I was hoping it might be the stylistic cousin to Bernstein's lovely Violin Concerto of sorts, titled "Serenade" and based on Plato's Symposium. What I got was far from the Serenade and much closer to "West Side Story"; the Mass is a 1971 work of protest against Vietnam and the deaths of JFK and Martin Luther King, among other complexities. It's considered a Classical-Rock fusion, although I would call it more Blues and Doo-wop than rock. Maybe it's a generational thing, it's not like I was even close to being alive when Bernstein wrote it. But I'm not going to review the piece or the concert; I'll leave that to the professional eloquence of actual music critics.
Suffice it to say, that at the finish of an intense day of historical sporting events and my usual quotient of culture-vulturism, my faith in London was renewed: I could zip from beyond the East End to a posh South-West address with ease and in a relatively timely fashion, availing myself of opposite and yet similar shows. The boxers made me want to hit the gym and the musicians made me want to practice something new, maybe learn Bernstein's Serenade. The Excel Centre gave me a new landmark in the vast untamed regions of East London and in South Kensington, I was introduced to yet another tasty tapas restaurant by my friend's friend's friend. This is city-dwelling, and one of numerous reasons I can only see myself in a place with more than 7 million other residents. And on the way home in the tube, not one person vomited or needed a shower. Perfection.