We were walking back to the audiotour counter at the Tate Modern, having just seen the Wolfgang Tillmans exhibit I’d been lured to by the very pretty closeup of the ass and balls I’d seen online somewhere, and but where I stayed for the shots of water (at right) and other fine pictures, and in walking through the Busy On A Bank Holiday museum, I’d been thinking about walking in London, and how after this many days I’d been confused about where to put my body in a hall. These people drive on the gauche side of the road, and I’ve read enough about cognition to see how we might then understand such people as operating their brains differently than we do. Where do they see throughways undergoing? How can I best position myself in that vision?
It was, I soon saw, London and walking through it, like moving through an 8-bit video game?one of those where at the edge of the screen a person or monster appears still and unmoving, waiting for the instant you pass some coded pixel to vector you-ward at such a pace that you’re guaranteed helpful or hurtful bumping-into unless you jump or dodge left. I’d watched in stations both here and in Paris men with phones stand perfectly still until their moving would result in his and my perfect collision. And then I watched them step perfectly toward me.
I was thinking about this, this video game idea, for the first time. It hit me in the Tate Modern. And then suddenly a woman was vectoring at me, as though my new idea had willed her to. She was older than me by a decade, and she wore a fluorescent yellow vest and a walkie-talkie at her beltline.
“Are you okay?” she said to me.
“Say again?” I heard our pub waitress ask an athletic, well-shortsed young dad that morning, as he requested something specific about the table he needed for his wife and baby and (my guess) mother-in-law. I thought, what an interesting way to express that one hasn’t heard one. So different from “What’s that?” or “How’s that?” or “What’d you say?” or “Sorry?” In Alabama, every native I mumbled at too rapidly would say, “Do what?” as though they’d assumed, even just by my talking, that I’d given them an order.
What I’m saying is that much of the delight of being in other places in the world and hearing the people there talk is that there are, even in our own language, so many ways to express the same idea, and if you like, as I do, to think about connotations and nuance in language, it sets the mind reeling to what a simple reflexive expression might indicate about the speaker’s head and her heart.
Her Are You Okay? sounded like what I’d expect to hear from a kind bystander had I just been blapped in the forehead by an errant kickball or called a faggot by a man in a MAGA hat. Are you okay? I was in the middle of thinking about strangers as videogame figures when she said it. I stopped walking toward the audiotour counter. I looked at her. It took just an instant to see that her face projected not concern for my well being?no widened eyes, no raised brows, no open mouth?but something collected and friendly. I, she said with her face, Am Trying To Be Helpful.
I must have had a look on me, midthinking about other people, of being utterly lost and tired and afraid.
“Oh yeah no I’m good thanks,” I said, and then I pointed to the audiotour counter I was headed to. “Just need to return these.” I held up my and Neal’s audiotour consoles, which the Tate had adorned with limegreen lanyards so they’d hung conveniently around my neck.
“Yes,” she said and the turned and pointed behind her. “Straight ahead and to your left.”
I was looking directly at the Audiotours sign as she said it. At the counter, the Italian woman who’d given us our A/V devices was on the phone. I struggled unknotting Neal’s and my two devices from off my neck, and she, amid her conversation in Italian, said ‘Sokay and so I handed them over entwisted.
Minutes after the well-shortsed and fat-packaged young dad solicited a Say Again?, Mel B, the onetime Spice Girl, the one who went by “Scary Spice”, walked into the same pub in a ballcap with two female companions. I looked over at her and she looked over at me looking at her. (I’d had to be told it was Mel B.)
Clearly, the joys of traveling are visual. We want to see new things. In travelling abroad, we feel new things. Foremost among them, for me, have been an anxiety about language?in Paris, where it felt like with every desire I had came a worry about whether I’d be able to express it?and an unease about space. This is a way to understand the difference between travel and tourism: the latter functions to remove these and other feelings from the former. We tour so that we might see without new feelings, or at least new negative ones.
That said, I love touring. I love sitting at the top of a double-decker bus and being told what I’m looking at as my head hangs back and my jaw sags open. Touring has its own kind of movements?controlled but erratic?and a bevy of languages you select at the start of your audiotour. It’s not for everyone. In London, at the Queen Mother Gates stop, a young straight couple got on board and sat just behind us. They looked like they’d just failed to make the cut for the cast of The Jersey Shore. “Is this where the underground city is?” the man asked our guide at our first red light. “I saw a documentary about it.”
Our guide did his best to try to inform him about something that didn’t exist. “Where are we headed now?” the man asked, moments later. Shouted this across the top of the bus. Then he fell silent, and soon I turned around and snapped a picture.