I couldn't figure out how to turn the lights on in my hotel room. I flipped every switch in the place. There was a lamp on the desk, one behind a chair, two over the bed, and three more on the ceiling, but I just wanted to take a shower. The bathroom was far enough from the window that I couldn't see in there, even at midday. I must have flipped switches for thirty minutes. I tried some in tandem. I flipped one by the door and then tried all the other ones again. I finally gave up and called the desk. I'd been up for twenty-four hours and had a day ahead of me. I thought it was probably something simple and I just didn't have a brain left.
A woman answered the phone. "Did you put your key card in the white box by the door?"
"My key card? You mean the one I used to open the door?"
"Yes. You have to put it in the white box by the door to turn on the electricity."
"Oh wow. Okay. Thank you."
I walked over to the door, pulled the key card out of my pocket and slipped it in and out of the white box, the same way you'd open the door. Eureka. Every light in the room came on.
I got undressed, grabbed my razor and toothbrush out of my bag and walked into the bathroom. All the lights went off.
I walked out of the bathroom and flipped all the switches by the door again. I went and dug my key card out of my pants pocket and swiped it again. All the lights came back on. I laid down on the bed and waited. About four minutes later, all the lights went off again. Surely I didn't have to turn the lights on every four minutes.
"This is room 31 again. I put my key card in the little white box by the door, and all the lights came on, but they only stay on for a few minutes."
"Okay. I'll have to come down there."
I put my clothes on. I thought about just wrapping myself in a towel, but it didn't seem culturally appropriate in Shrewsbury, UK. Everyone here seems to be in a constant state of slight embarrassment. I got the first clue from Simon the cabbie who drove me here from Birmingham airport. We were talking about his six months traveling in the US on Greyhound. He professed his amazement at how total strangers in the US would just talk to you. "They don't do that much around here."
There was a knock on the door. I answered and the young woman came in. She looked at the little white box. "Can I see your key card?" I gave her the key card.
"You have to leave it in. Otherwise, they shut off. It's a way of saving energy, right? So you don't leave the lights on all day while you're away. That's why we use your key, because you'll take it with you. It's also why we gave you two keys, so you could make a quick trip to the desk or something without turning off your electricity."
"Is this standard in the UK?"
"Yes it is."
"I've never seen it before. Thank you for showing me."
I took a hot, hot shower, the post-airport shower. You know the one. When I felt sterilized and a little out of breath with the heat, I flipped it to as cold as it would go, which wasn't very cold. Quite comfortable, actually. I stayed in a little while longer to cool off and close the pores again. I learned this from my Danish hosts back in February. "Always finish cold." They jump in the lake after a sauna or rub snow on their skin if the lake is frozen.
I've been alive for almost forty-two years and I still learn rudimentary lessons almost daily. How can anyone think they know anything? Granted, some things seem obvious.
Charles Darwin grew up in Shrewsbury. His name is everywhere here. He attended the Shrewsbury Unitarian Church, founded in 1662 and built in 1689. The lease was extended in 1707 to 999 years, so they'll have to decide whether to renew by 2706. It'll be here before you know it. The church was destroyed by a mob in 1715, and rebuilt with government funding before George Washington was born.
Darwin made some scientific observations and wrote books. He didn't invent evolution or deny the existence of God. He saw natural selection originally as a mechanism of design. I wonder if he knew what kind of ruckus he was starting?
Natural selection seems obvious to most of us now, readily observable in this age of invasive species and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Some folks, however, are very slow to come around. In a town with thousand-year leases, where the man who wrote the book on natural selection was born about five seconds ago, I'm inclined to give them another minute or two. What do I know?
Last night, I asked the receptionist which was the best way to walk into town. She said, "Walk into town?" with her eyebrows raised. She knew the way, but I take it she doesn't get that question often. It's only two and a half miles.
I walked it in my boots. Whenever I crossed a street, or even a driveway, I had to stop and think about which side of the road the cars would be coming from. Invariably, I looked in the wrong direction first. Even as I rode home from the festival tonight, I had a hard time guessing which lane the driver would use in the roundabouts. I'm not sure how long it would take me to get used to it, but the old lessons have pulled up the drawbridge and will not come out tonight.
As I walked, every time I passed someone, I looked at them until they either looked at me or passed me without meeting my eyes. If they met my eyes, I smiled and said, "Good evening." Several people greeted me, but I didn't understand a word. Nothing sounded like "hello" or "cheers." More like a mummy murmuring agreement through his wrappings.
My destination was The Golden Cross, a funky hotel with a bistro downstairs. It's been an inn since at least 1495, though the building is somewhat older and its origins are lost to history. I read the menu online and immediately knew where I was headed. My route took me by Shrewsbury Abbey. The Abbey was built in 1083, so their lease is probably about to run out. Back then, the land where the Abbey was built was considered the suburbs, but it's pretty much in town at this point, what with all the development that's happened in the last thousand years.
Shrewsbury was cleverly built into a tight horseshoe in the Severn River. The only land route into Shrewsbury is about 900 feet wide, and that of course is where they put the castle. From the Abbey, I crossed over the Severn on English Bridge. There I met the only people who smiled back at me on my walk.
Three young girls had tied their hair together and were walking in a flank. The one in the middle was dyed blond and the two outside were dark-haired. I was wearing some fancy cowboy boots and a straw hat. When they saw me, they took just a second to regard me as an oddity before they realized what an oddity they were. We all broke up laughing.
In the old town proper, the streets were narrow and windey. There were tight pedestrian alleyways, slated and cobbled. I had to be vigilant about crossing the street and looking in the proper direction. The village is so small I could have found The Golden Cross in minutes by simply walking every street in a spiral. Just before the door of The Golden Cross was a burrito joint. The building was older than Christopher Columbus's footprints on San Salvador Island. He was looking for Indian food, and here was his accidental legacy.
Inside the old wooden door of The Golden Cross, a mother was having an early dinner with her children. Most of the tables were reserved, but the manager found a spot for me. I had a something-mint soup, the soup of the day. I asked the waitress about five times to pronounce it again, but I never got what the "something" was. It sounded kind of like "peer" or "pier" or even "pear," but it definitely did not have pears in it. I suspect peas, but it didn't sound like "pea."
It was delicious. I savored it in between sips of water, so that my mouth could experience it all over again like new. Then I ordered duck confit rillettes with pineapple-chili salsa. I'm glad that was actually written on the menu. I might have never figured it out from the waitress's mouth. I'm learning English as a second language. At what point does the American tongue become a different species?
Several people waited on me, and I never completely understood either of them. No one came to collect my bill. I had to flag the waitress down and ask for change. I'm still not sure what the customary procedure is in this country, this town, or just The Golden Cross. They've been doing it for five hundred years. They probably have a system.
I explored the downtown and walked through the old market hall, built in 1596. It was built with stone in four months and is considered one of the earliest forms of prefabricated buildings. They don't build 'em like they did back in the 1200s.
It was nearly dark when I got back to the Hampton by Hilton, my chain hotel in a business park on the edge of town. I don't think it'll be here in a hundred years, but what do I know? Maybe concrete and particle board will be romantic someday.
Tonight, I went out to the Shrewsbury Folk Festival site. Had I not had a guitar and a suitcase full of merch, I would have walked there in an hour. It was nice to ride with Will, a local retired Army man hired to drive for the festival. When he learned that I walked into town and sought out The Golden Cross, he resized his estimation of me. I told him I was in the Navy and then we really got on.
The festival blew my mind. Thousands and thousands of campers. Three enormous tented venues far enough apart not to bleed music into each other. Of course it's in tents, it rains all the time here. It rained tonight. It's raining now. I told my audience, "When we say 'It's cold' in North Carolina, this is what we mean." They laughed. I was serious. I had long johns on.
The tent that I played in was not the largest one, but it was huge. The soundman was wrangling a new digital board and the feedback during soundcheck was terrible. I threatened to walk off stage after about five solid squealers. I hate that I lost my temper even a little bit in this famously cool-headed culture, but it was like hitting your head on a cupboard or your finger with a hammer. You get amnesty for about three seconds. The soundman apologized profusely and I apologized to him.
After my soundcheck, I asked the artistic director how many chairs I was looking at. "Fourteen hundred." I thought, Shit, nobody here knows who I am. I'm playing second slot on the first night of this festival on a side stage. There are going to be a hundred people in this massive, empty tent. Okay, I have to play a killer show so that more people will come tomorrow afternoon when I play again. Maybe some people will hear me outside and come in. Ya gotta start somewhere.
A young band from Coventry played before me, The Jaywalkers. Three young machine-gunners playing bluegrass. Blistering chops and harmonies. They sung an old Flatt and Scruggs song and that put me in a good mood. I smiled at the power of my country's music. I peeked out from behind the black curtain. It was hard to tell for sure, but it seemed like every seat in the house was full.
By the time I went on stage, there were nearly two thousand people in the tent. By the time I finished, there was a queue outside the tent trying to get in. The audience was so attentive and gracious it was almost terrifying. I asked them to sing along and I swear two thousand people sang all at once in perfect unison. It would have parted my hair, if I had any. I did not want to leave the stage.
It's almost 6 in the morning here and I'm just sleepless in a hotel room. I wanted to stay at the festival grounds tonight and jam, but I wouldn't have had a ride back to the hotel. I thought, Well at least I'll get a good night's sleep and be fresh for tomorrow. What do I know?
Old Will was napping in the driver's seat of the van outside artist's reception when I decided to leave at near midnight. I woke him up and he drove me home. On the way out, I told him how amazed I was that two thousand people came out to see my show tonight, even with two other stages going. How do they know who I am?
Will said, "Did you see what they wrote about you in the program? They said they've been trying to get you here for four years. I would have gone to see you, if I could have." I hadn't even looked at the program. I have now. They wrote fresh copy for every artist. No regurgitated bios. No smarmy accolades. Each one is a recommendation from the heart.
I really have to go to bed. If I had more time, I'd write a shorter entry. I think I'm going to be ragged tomorrow, but maybe it'll be just ragged enough. What do I know?