Before Z and I leave on the train to Blackpool for the half-term holiday, everyone who hears where we're going has the same reaction; eyebrows raise, heads shake and they grin in a way that says, 'I feel a bit embarrassed at your ignorance but since I'm British I'm not going to say anything.' These people were going to the Canaries or Mallorca. Z and I were headed north, towards Scotland. In late October. Here's the story.
Day One: Our train leaves from Euston Station which is the only place in central London that has been completely neglected since 1976. It smells of diesel fumes the moment you enter and if you get too close to the corners you start to wonder if the toilets are out of service. Hundreds of people stand transfixed to the digital reader boards, waiting for their platform to be announced. Ten minutes before your scheduled departure, your platform is posted and mad dash ensues to the coaches. Small children are heard screaming for air.
A half hour into the journey an older gentleman, who has heaved his bag up and down the isle looking for a seat and announced to everyone that he's three hours late to his destination, has a seizure. I go to offer my dubious medical assistance and when I crouch down near his face realize that alcohol might have something to do with his sudden fit. I try to roll him onto his side so if he vomits we won't have a worse situation on our hands. He awakens and cries out in pain, saying his back is bad, and everyone gives me the evil eye. Before I can say, 'Fine then, call me back when he's inhaling his own puke.' a doctor arrives and I slink away from the scrum of hostile good Samaritans.
It's drizzling in Blackpool when we arrive. I have a vague sense that our hotel is north of the station and close to the sea, so we start wandering in that general direction. Z is surprisingly unbothered by having to walk and I attribute that to giving him my new carry-on bag, the kind that pivots and rolls on four wheels in any direction. He looks like a ballroom dancer making his way down the sidewalk with his Samsonite partner. The only reason he has a suitcase is because he insisted on bringing all his cat stuffies so they "wouldn't be lonely." On this issue, I have stopped trying to convince him otherwise. Pick your battles, I say.
We have the good fortune of being given a sea view room. It's mostly a view of the four lane road that fronts the sea, but we can see the water beyond that. The room smells of decades-old carpet and chlorine bleach, and intermittently, cigarettes from people smoking in front of the hotel doors.
Blackpool is home to The Illuminations, which generations of Brits have been flocking to since 1879. Most of my friends here describe a childhood memory of the Illuminations, when the city is bedecked in more twinkling lights than even the most Christmas-crazed city in America. It's an LED bonanza, the focal point being the Blackpool tower, which is shaped a bit like the Eifel tower with a bulge at the top. Z, however, is much more interested in the blinking plastic swords and light sabers that are being sold from vending carts every ten feet.
I don't want to eat at the tourist restaurants on the main drag, so we wander down backstreets to see what we might find. Pizza Express is going gangbusters and says it could seat us in about an hour. Further up the road a cosy Italian place says maybe we could get a seat in 45 minutes. Irritable now, we cross the street to a Thai restaurant. Inside there are two people eating and no one at the reception area. Eventually, two employees, one a young white guy and the other an older Thai guy, walk past us without saying a word and disappear into the kitchen. After another minute of silence, I grab Zander's hand and tell him that indifference is a quiet form of rudeness. We cross the street again, this time to a steak house. Z will eat meat. The steak was done nicely and the waitress filled my wine glass all the way up to the brim.
Day Two: A tram stops in front of the hotel every ten minutes. We squeeze on and when the ticket seller hears my accent he wants to know where we're from. He tells me he very much wants to visit Seattle, something about being a big fan of the TV show, 'Frazier'. I always find this odd because the half dozen times I've watched that show, the only thing that says you're in Seattle is the fake skyline out the window of his studio and his penthouse. Why does that make people want to visit Seattle? But then, this guy grew up in Blackpool, so I can understand why even an artificial skyline looks more appealing than staying home.
After several fierce games of air hockey and simulated motorcycle races through Dubai and Paris, we wander down to the beach. One of Z's outstanding traits is that he is a fearless friend-maker. He asks me to roll his pants up past his knees and before I know it he has joined a girl, a bit older than himself, in building a sand castle with a moat. As I watch them, I wonder when it is that we no longer feel comfortable approaching strangers and asking them to play. I suppose we still do as adults, but it generally involves alcohol. I vow to try living again with outgoing friendliness. So when it's time to leave, I strike up a conversation with the girl's father. It's very standard and pleasant but reminds me that, for the most part, humans are nice and we're usually happy to make connections, even if ever so briefly.
We take a break at the hotel before heading to dinner. Downstairs is a bar and restaurant and guests are drinking and waiting for the dining room to open. A few kids are playing hide and seek and Z eagerly joins them. Pretty soon he's got them watching him perform his ninja moves. While performing spinjitzu, Z knocks over another kid's soda when his helicopter hands get too close to the table. Z shamefully requests a towel from the bar and cleans up the spill. I insist on paying for a replacement, but the kid's dad won't hear of it. His north English accent is so thick, and more than a few of his teeth are missing, that I can scarcely understand a word he's saying. But he's a great reminder that self-effacing kindness is often inversely correlated to socio-economic status.
Day Three: Yay, it's raining. Time to check out the pool. One of the kids Z met before dinner last night is already there. His name is Jack. Jack and Z take turns trying to bean me and a man who is certainly Jack's grandfather, with a rubber ball. Z encourages Jack to "Get your dad!" which could mean he thinks everyone's parents are over fifty. I think of correcting him until I consider that the man might be on his third wife and actually be Jack's dad.
We decide to go see a movie. At 1 pm 'Hotel Transylvania 2' is starting and we are digging into our giant bags of candy, for which I spent about sixteen dollars. I can easily bypass a five dollar box of Junior Mints, but give me a bag, a scoop and a wall full of candy bins, and all my self-control evaporates. I spend half the movie telling Z not to eat his all at once because of how very unhealthy that would be. Then I quickly stuff my empty bag into the knapsack when the lights go up.
We take the trolley to the far end of the beach to dine at a recommended pizza place. We walk home past dozens of sponsored, neon bedecked displays of unrelated themes. For instance, the NHS, the UK government's health care system, has a video on loop with a jingle sung to the tune of YMCA. It's all about staying out of the Emergancy Room. For instance, how can you forget, "Young man, up all night on the loo", "if you have diarrhea or been stung by a bee, you should head to your pharmacy!" and ,"for ongoing backache and blood in your pee, you need to see your GP!" I think the States should adopt a similar unselfconscious public service campaign to avoid treating people.
Day Four: I'm psyched to take Z to the UK's largest indoor water park for the entire day. I'm a little nervous that I will drown trying to keep up with him. After breakfast, as he is saying goodbye to his friend Jack, Z sprains his finger. He won't even use his hand. Scratch the water park. Instead, we spend too many hours playing air hockey, race car driving, and watching fathers hold semi-automatic weapons in their three year old's hands and shooting aliens.
Day Five: Return to London! I am practically skipping to the train station. I am so excited the whole journey that I buy Z four cupcakes piled high with frosting at our layover station. When we walk into London's Euston station, I almost don't mind that is smells like pee. Faces seem familiar to me again. I admit that I am a card-carrying member of the Southeast England Tribe. I realise that this tiny island is not dissimilar to the differences you find in the US between Arizona and Arkansas. Ok, so I like my fair trade, freshly ground coffee and my veggies steamed rather than deep fried. I would rather dig my heels into the sand than feed two penny pieces into a slot machine. But places like Blackpool serve a deep need in us. That need to disregard our diets, our banks accounts, and our entertainment standards, just for a few days. But the sea is lovely.