Monday, November 11, 2013

Ten Minute Tales...and a Longer Tale from London

Having hit a wall with this evening's regular writing attempts, perhaps another 10-minute writing exercise from Take Ten For Writers will put me back on track.

After consulting with Twitter, I'll tackle exercise #42. Douglas Adams fans will be sad to learn this one isn't titled "The Meaning of Life." Nope, this one's "Lingo-istics," which is the author's expression for "the touches of slang added to your dialogue to make your writing sound more realistic." Twitter also chose the number that will provide my list of words: numero neuf.

It appears I'll be using Australian lingo. I'll highlight in blue the expressions I had to work with.

1997: I'm eating in a low-grade Chinese buffet off Leicester Square. So far on this trip to London, I've done well as far as student-budget dining goes. This place shows every sign of being a disaster. The chafing dishes are placed in a circle. Apart from rice, every item appears to be made from the same base sauce. The chef believes onions are their own food group - they overwhelm every other ingredient. This belief extends to the base sauce which underlies every hot item, which is little more than barely fermented black beans and dry onion soup mix.

I sit down at a communal table, where I'm quickly joined by a stereotypical backpacker. He introduces himself as Michael, an Australian touring the world. For the next half-hour he's a living, breathing infomercial for his father's hotel back home. I received what Michael called an "earbashing" - an unending stream of details about his family's pride and joy.

"The food's awful here, isn't it? I should have gone to Maccas, but they're everywhere on the planet, aren't they seppo?"

Translation: he should have eaten a Big Mac and enticed potential customers at the Golden Arches. I discover "seppo" is slang for "American," though I had to clarify that despite lingering traces of a Midwestern accent,  I was Canadian.

"How come you don't say 'eh,' eh?" he joked. "Where's the flag pin on your daks?"

I thought he meant my backpack, but it turned out he was referring to my pants.


View from Primrose Hill (2)
OK, this isn't Leicester Square. And the picture was taken in 2006, not 1997. Still, it's a nice picture of the London skyline from Primrose Hill, isn't it?

The tale is inspired by an actual encounter I had at a low-grade Chinese buffet during my university semester in London. Not sure why this memory was triggered. After completing the story, I dove into the journal I kept while I lived across the Atlantic, to rediscover the actual story.

The spot was Mr. Wu, which appeared to be part of a chain. My unintentional dinner companion was English, not Australian, and was possibly in an altered state of consciousness. He rambled on about his parents' B&B in Bath, steering the conversation back to it whenever I switched topics.

An excerpt from the February 22, 1997 journal entry:

Being single, I was seated with another couple. There was one more empty space at our table, which was filled halfway through my first plate. The new diner was a strange little man with blonde hair, stubble, and eyes which couldn't focus. From the moment he sat down he started rambling on. Noticing that I was reading a book about films of the 1960s, he started talking about a book which collected articles from Oz, an underground periodical of the time. I wondered how I could get this pseudo-hippy to shut up.

Eventually he dropped the subject and move on to more interesting things. He repeatedly recommended a B&B his parents owned in Bath and that even if I didn't stay there, a trip to that city was worthwhile. I never found out exactly what Patrick Dunning did - all I knew was that he was 31, had traveled extensively as a student, having several work abroad trips in Australia. It sounded as if he may have been a photographer. I sensed he needed somebody to talk to for the hell of it. The more he talked, the more I didn't mind. He continually apologized for rambling. In a way, I had been looking forward to hear somebody from this city talk about anything, even if they seemed to be in another world.

He left me with the number of his parents' hotel in Bath. I had to leave after an hour to make my way down to the South Bank. Perhaps I wouldn't have been able to shake him off otherwise, I don't know. I sensed he was homeless.
Note for Patrick Dunning if he ever stumbles upon this: If you weren't homeless or stoned, I apologize for thinking you were.

Why was I headed to the South Bank? Based on the rest of the journal entry, I was taking advantage of cheap student admission to catch a concert of pieces by Igor Stravinsky and Edgard Varese. Further details would be in Royal Festival Hall programs currently residing in Amherstburg.

The quality of the food was inspired by another Chinese restaurant, where the fare was so awful the eatery remains nameless in my journal. The only clue is that it was in a basement on Gerrard Street. Every item swam in onions and tasted as if the chef had diluted stir-fry sauce with Lipton's onion soup mix. As the January 18, 1997 journal entry puts it, "your mediocre North American chop suey n' chicken ball joint could do a better job."

I stuck to cheap Indian food (mainly at The Raj, a long-gone spot at the south end of Camden High Street), old-school caffs, and affordable Italian eateries after this. 

Thanks to Greg Burrell and Chris Wilson-Smith for promptly picking the numbers I needed to do this exercise.

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