As part of a pan-European visa agreement called Schengen, Americans visiting most countries in Europe can spend half of a year in any country, but not six months in a row like we’d like to. Following the complex rules, we can stay 90 days out of each 180 day period, from the date of first entry. It doesn’t have to be a consecutive three months, you can come and go from the area, but when you’ve reached a total of 90 days you have to leave mainland Europe until your next six month period starts.
This has become even more of a hassle over the years as nearly all of the mainland European countries, twenty six in all, have signed the Schengen agreement, including non EU members like Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein leaving travelers few places to escape to. There are only a few options to easily get out of the Schengen area; Turkey, some of the former Yugoslavian countries, the U.K. and Ireland.
We decided to try England. A two hour flight to keep my visa legal had more appeal to me than an eleven hour flight back to Vancouver every three months. Any time spent in England added to the time we could spend in Spain.
After asking a few British people now living in Marbella where they would live in England if they had to go back, most of them said Brighton, a beach resort with a population of 160,000 people. It had the best weather in England, two universities, was a short train ride from Gatwick Airport with cheap flights to and from Spain and was less than an hour south of London by train. Brighton was considered the British equivalent of San Francisco: a bohemian city with a large gay population and a penchant for alternative free-thinking with a nonconformist attitude, filled with vegetarian restaurants and good live music.
We spent our first night in Brighton in a B&B run by a gay couple. When they found out we were Americans, one of them raged non-stop about how much he hated his trips to America. While his partner tried to be overly sweet to balance things out, we stood with our luggage still in our hands for twenty minutes listening to his rant. “Oh, and California is the worst. What’s with that place?”
I could handle a bit of U.S. bashing, I do some of it myself, but I found it strange to be greeted by my hosts at a B&B with a rant of any kind. It was far from the warm welcome I had hoped for.
The next day we moved into our vacation rental. In the lobby we were greeted with a large newspaper clipping posted on a bulletin board describing a fight that had taken place outside of the disco across the street, with fifty brawlers and numerous knifings. It all started when residents in our building tried to do something about the noise level, since the police wouldn’t. After a noisy week we moved to the quietest rental we could find on the other side of town in Kemptown, the gay area known locally as Camptown.
We hoped our new rental would work for us because we had to get back to work on another software update and we didn’t have the time, or energy, to look for another town to go to. This wasn’t a pleasure trip, but I didn’t realize how unpleasant it would actually be.
Even taking into account I was in a beach resort in winter and despite its picture postcard image, I found Brighton sleazy, brash, edgy, and seedy. Empty eyed stoners and stumbling drunks, drag queens and dreadlocked youths and scared looking old ladies laden down with shopping bags walked down the litter filled streets. People walked with their heads down, cigarettes in one hand and cell phones in the other. The homeless slept in store doorways. People said fuck to each other, or to no one in particular. Dim street lights made walking in the dark (any time after 3:00 PM) a dreary event, especially if the fog rolled in. Seagulls screeched and sirens wailed. Shop keepers called me Love and Dear with a snarl on their face.
The city, lined with rundown Victorian apartment buildings and council housing estates, felt closed in on its run down the hill to the sea, where the rocky shingled beach, with no sand, was cut off from the town by a busy four lane road. The promenade was littered with graffiti, trash and broken apart benches and a new ferris wheel. The pier had amusement arcades, fairground rides, restaurants and food kiosks, and retail shops. We tried to walk out on it to enjoy a sunset but bright lights flashed and pop music blared and it reminded me of the Coney Island of my youth in New York. Not a peaceful place to watch sunsets.
Every other shop in town was either a pub (300 in all), real estate agents, techno clubs, or hair salons. The hair salons were always jammed with people, but no one on the street ever looked like they’d had a haircut.
Known as a party town, young people came down from London for the weekend for hen and stag parties (bachelor and bachelorette parties) and were allowed to take over the city in their drunken stupors. The city wanted their money and was willing to clean up the pools of vomit the drunks left on the sidewalks to get it. I didn’t see one police car or cop walking the streets in my five weeks in Brighton.
We checked out every neighborhood, we left no stone unturned. We were determined to like Brighton and kept thinking we were just in the “wrong neighborhood.” We’d find friendly people and a sense of community around the very next block. But the more we looked, the more it wasn’t there.
Everyone was on guard especially when they saw my camera, which I never held to my face. All my photos had to be “drive by shootings,” where I kept the camera at waist level and shot up without looking in the view finder. I made the mistake of trying to get a drive by shot of a cute baby in a stroller. The ratty mother screamed at me, “Are you taking a photo of my baby?”
“No. I was just looking at her. She’s very sweet.”
“Well fuck off. Don’t take a photo of my baby!” she said as she ran off. It was the exact opposite of the Spanish mothers who pushed their babies in front of my camera, so proud to have their photo taken.
As a writer I like to ask questions. I like to hear about people’s lives, their dreams, hopes, concerns. But getting strangers to talk to me in Brighton was hard, people kept to themselves, rarely made eye contact and never smiled. When I tried to make eye contact or smiled at strangers I was met with a scowl that seemed to say, “What the hell do you want from me?”
One day I asked Fishmonger Mike if he was from Brighton. “Born and bred, why do you ask?”
“You’re the only merchant whose friendly to me.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Brighton’s changed and not for the better. There are big drug and alcohol problems and high unemployment. And it’s transient. No one stays for long anymore. People are scared to talk to strangers because there’s so much random violence. Everyone keeps to themselves. They don’t want to get involved.”
“Do you think people are unfriendly to me because I’m American?”
“I shouldn’t think so, but people can be envious if they think other people have more than them. People don’t have time for each other anymore. There’s a lack of integrity. A lot of shop keepers are having a hard time. Bit close to the knuckle as they say here. But that’s no excuse to be unfriendly.”
After this conversation I did research on the Internet to learn more about Brighton. I read about racist and religiously motivated incidents, hate crimes committed against gays, lesbians, transvestites, homeless, crippled and young foreign students who were in Brighton to learn English. After I found an article declaring Brighton the drug-injecting death capital of the U.K., with the highest mortality rate from drugs per capita, I found a link to a tourist video about Spain. It showed the people of Andalucia dancing together, talking over a meal on a patio in the sunshine, enjoying each other’s company with big smiles on their faces. I burst into tears.
I missed people greeting me with kisses on my checks, smiling as I passed by and happily saying hello to each other. I missed groups of people chatting on street corners, sitting on park benches. I wanted to go home where I felt like I was welcomed in a community. I cursed the man who came up with the idea of the Schengen visa and my forced exile from my home.
As part of my research I read, “The Kingdom By the Sea” by the travel writer Paul Theroux. He had lived in London for seven years and before he left England for good he traveled around the coast of the U.K. in 1982.
Here’s a condensed version of what Theroux had to say about Brighton: “People in Brighton were imagined to be perpetually on the razzle, their nights full of ramping sexuality. Think I’ll go down and have a dirty weekend, people said…Brighton had a great reputation. You were supposed to have fun in Brighton, but Brighton had the face of an old tart and very brief appeal…I hate Brighton. What’s there to like here. It’s a mess. I’ve never seen such dubious-looking people.”
Another American writer living in England, Bill Bryson wrote a book about England called, “Notes From A Small Island.” One paragraph helped shed light on why I felt closed in in Brighton: “Do you have any idea, other than in a vague theoretical sense, just how desperately crowded Britain is? Did you know, for instance, that to achieve the same density of population in America you would have to uproot the entire populations of Illinois, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan, Colorado and Texas and pack them all into Iowa?”
We did have two fun outings. One when we took a bus (Brighton has the best bus system I’ve ever seen) to hike on the rolling hills of the South Downs trail system, a half hour outside of Brighton. On the bus a young girl sat next to me and I asked her about the hiking trails. We wound up spending the day with her and her parents, who had just returned from living four years in Italy.
The other memorable day was when we took the bus twenty minutes to Lewes, an medieval market town with a historic atmosphere, including a castle given to William de Warrene by William the Conquerer in 1078. The town was built on the hills of the Southdown with scenic views in all directions, including large white chalk cliffs. A town proud of being one of the least “modernized” towns in England. There were walkways along the River Ouse (the same river Virginia Woolf walked into with rocks in her coat and drowned herself). On the high street were independent shops, second hand bookstores (including one housed in a 15th century building), cafes, antique stores, thrift stores, pedestrian areas. People sat on the benches talking with each other and looked happy to be living in Lewes.
After a picnic lunch we went into a small Anglican church, St Thomas a Becket. The original chapel dated back to the 12th century, with additions added each succeeding century. We walked around the gloomy, empty church, and were about to leave when a stooped, white haired, elf-like man, who looked like a character out of a Harry Potter movie, came out from a side room and shyly started to tell us about the church.
He introduced himself as Reverend George Linnegar, “Like vinegar with an L.” It was hard to understand him because he mumbled to himself and talked down to the floor, not to us. He pointed out the “leper’s squint”, a small tunnel like hole in the outer wall of the church where the lepers from the hospital outside the town could watch bits of the Mass without going into the church where it was believed they would infect the rest of congregation.
Then George asked Cradoc, “Would you like to see the clock?”
“Sure,” said Cradoc, who had no idea what George was talking about.
George led us to a tiny doorway, about four feet high, and fumbled with the lock until he got the door open. We squatted through it and immediately started climbing a winding stone staircase. It was like climbing up a narrow stone tube on tiny stairs.
Round and round we climbed while George mumbled. We came to a doorway onto a wooden landing that housed the clock mechanism. “I have to wind it now. I wind it once a day,” said George. “It hasn’t stopped running since 1670.”
In the small cold room with rough wooden planks on the floor stood a platform. On one side of the platform a large pendulum hung from the ceiling, swinging in a long arc. Near the pendulum were two ropes weighted at the bottom with large stones. The weights were nearly touching the floor.
George climbed a few rickety steps onto the platform that held a rusty box-like contraption of gears and wheels. He turned a crank and wound one of the weighted ropes back up to the ceiling. “The weight of this coming down is what keeps the pendulum moving,” he said. He then wound the second rope and explained how that would power the mechanism that would cause a wooden mallet to strike a large bell. “Would you like to see the bells?”
“Yes, please.” We climbed the stairway one floor up to the belfry where four huge bells were hung. I asked George how loud it was when the bell rang. And he said, “It can be quite loud.” Immediately after he said that the bell struck one o’clock and George jumped in surprise and said “I never get used to that.”
When we stepped out of the belfry I noticed the stairway wound even further up and asked what was above us.
“Oh, that’s the roof. We can go up there if you like. You’re not afraid of heights though are you? It would be most inconvenient for me if you were to fall off the roof.” We squeezed up the remaining stairway, barely wide enough for Cradoc to fit through and stood on the roof looking down on the flint and tiled roofs of Lewes.
On our way back down George told us, “I took a French couple up here once and they wanted to stay on the roof a while longer. But I forgot they were there and I locked them in the tower by mistake. I was in the church and kept hearing a faint knocking. I couldn’t imagine what it was. Then I remembered the French couple and let them out.”
I wondered if we had gone to Lewes first if my opinion about southeast England wouldn’t be so jaded, but then again it was just as dangerous to cross the street in Lewes as it was in Brighton.
I’ve lived and traveled in many places where the pedestrian doesn’t have the right of way. But I’ve never been someplace where drivers consciously and consistently speed up and come as close to hitting pedestrians as possible. They were like sheep dogs biting at your heels trying to keep pedestrians off the streets at all costs, playing a deadly game to remind you who was the king of the road.
When we first arrived in Brighton, during our taxi ride from the train station, the taxi driver sped up and almost hit a person. I asked, “Don’t the pedestrians in Brighton have the right of way?”
“They think they do, but they don’t. Only in zebra crossings. The tarmac is for cars, the sidewalk is for pedestrians.”
“But that person was crossing at a corner with no zebra crossing.”
“Fair game then, love.”
The problem was not many of the street corners had zebra crossings (crosswalks). Even when I was in a crosswalk with the little green man showing it was safe to cross, cars and busses turning from the side road felt they had the right of way. The pedestrians ran for their lives as the vehicles came barreling through. If a pedestrian got hit it was considered their own fault, not the drivers. Many of the streets had traffic islands so you could run halfway across the street and then make a mad dash across the second half during the one second both lights were red.
After watching an old lady almost get hit from the vantage point of the upper deck of a bus I talked to the woman next to me about the drivers. “Well if you’re stupid enough to step in front of a speeding car you deserve to lose your leg for it,” she said before turning away from the complaining American.
I found only one article complaining about the driver’s behavior in my research written by Paul Gannon on a Camden Cyclist website: “The police categorize all crashes according to a set of accident types. On of these types is pedestrian continuing to cross road heedless of on-coming traffic. Unfortunately there is no reverse category – no motor vehicle driver continuing to drive along road heedless of pedestrian attempting to cross the road – that concept simply doesn’t exist (except in certain well defined situations such as on pedestrian crossings). In other words, it’s always the fault of the pedestrian, never of the car driver…The essential etiquette is you must give a thank you wave to the driver if they are so kind as not to knock you down.”
I found it easier to cross the roads in China than in Brighton. At least there I could get into the middle of a large crowd to act as a buffer zone. In our Brighton neighborhood, I almost got hit on a small side street by an SUV speeding around the corner by a driver who clearly saw me and expected me to run out of the way, and cursed me when I didn’t. In that moment I thought to myself, “I’ve got to get the hell out of here.”
We stayed in Brighton long enough for the aloof butcher, whose name I now knew was Paul, to say hello and ask me if I wanted “the usual,” but not long enough for him to know my name. Then I was gone. Never to return to Brighton, a place whose mood matched the winter landscape, desolate and cold.
On our taxi ride to the London airport the driver, a young woman said, “Brighton’s nice in the summer for about six weeks, but the crowds are brutal.” Then the details on how Prime Minister David Cameron vetoed the French/German solution at the Euro Summit the day before was announced on the radio. Cradoc asked the driver how she felt about this news. “I don’t think it matters. Forty percent of 18-24 year olds can’t be bothered to work. They’re stoners who go to sleep at 4:00 A.M. because they were out all night drinking away their dole (welfare/social security system) money. If the young people don’t work they’re going to get into trouble. The Poles and Romanians work all day, go home and eat dinner and go back out and work their second job and they’re happy to do it. It leads to bad feelings. The economy in England can’t get much worse.”
Back in Marbella, on the taxi ride from the bus station, the driver stopped whenever she saw someone waiting to cross the street, whether it was at a cross walk or not. She smiled and waved the person across, the pedestrian smiled back and waved their thanks.
Later as Cradoc and I walked to lunch we waited on the curb for a car to go through a crosswalk. The driver saw us, slammed on the brakes and backed out of the cross walk then waved at us to go. We waved back, crossed the street, smiled at each other and knew we were back home.