26 May 2011

Manchastic! Er...Manchesterrific? (Part I)

Call it what you will, Manchester is a fine little place. A "mini-Melbourne", I go around saying, as if I've hit on some kind of meaningful nugget of a phrase, when really it's a creaky parochialism if ever there was one. Or maybe that prize should go to "a maxi-Erskineville".

But Manchester is indeed Melbournesque: it's flat, has trams, has buildings from the 1800s, it's "cold", it has nice little bars and cafes, it has wild mobs of rival football fans roaming around, and so on. So here in Sydneytown, when the hipsters look at me askance when I mention Manchester, I just pounce on them with the morsel of truthful analogy-drawing above, and watch the jaws drop. They expect industrial wasteland, and I present them with the notion of a sophisticated playground for the epicurially-inclined. Though I'm not sure how the Manchester Egg fits into that algebra.

Of course, all those benefits pale in comparison---for me, anyway---to the one thing that Manchester, and only Manchester, can claim (and it's not the damn Egg):

No, not the Victoria train station either. I mean, that's nice and all, but I'm talking about the Nija in the lower right-hand corner. She's quite a resource to boast, and any city would be lucky to have her. Of course, she withdrew that honour from Sydney back in June 2010, and ever since then her absence has been noted up and down our long and ragged shoreline.

For me, of course, her departure was particularly tough, as we had for so long gone about as a pair. We came to Sydney two wide-eyed foreigners with very little to our names and only each other to hold on to. When she left after two years, everything changed.

And after dropping her off in Manchester in September of last year, like any good academic I signed up for the next reasonable conference within a few hundred km. Coming from Australia, this is a great scam that allows the Boss to pay for the big ticket airline fare, then the Worker shells out a few peanuts for a local flight. And that's why it makes sense to spend 100 years in school like me!

(Just kidding, Bosses. I hope you know that I considered the conference that you organised to be pretty important. And thanks for the airfare.)

Fortunately, this big-deal conference was in France, in Nice even! A beautiful spot and a 2-hour flight from London (which is a ridiculous ~35-minute flight from Manchester). Long story short, I busted my keister for months getting stuff ready for the conference. I went, had a great time, met some important folks, and got inspired. How could you not, in a conference centre that looks like this:

that's across the street from this?:

Ah France! Such a smörgåsbord of the awful and sublime! (Please note that because of European unification it is now legitimate to mix enthoculinary metaphors as demonstrated in the previous sentence.)

Nice was rather resplendent and is just downwind from Cannes, where at the same moment cinema royalty was agglomerating for its yearly gorging. I can see why they chose May over, say, December for the film festival. (Terrence Malick won the Palme d'Or, by the way, for his very dubious-looking Tree of Life.) I didn't see any famous types, but I did pay €50 for a 10-minute cab ride, so I felt famous.

After I was all conferenced-out, I headed for Manchester via London. Coming in to the Manchester airport my seatmate and I were gazing morosely out the window at the sopped tarmac, the cloudy sky, and the airport workers all bundled up, in mid-May mind you. "Look at that," he groaned. "Lovely!" I chirped. "You're joking, this is grim," he chided. And he was from Glasgow.

My bag, when I got it off the belt, reeked of €24 organic wine, just like the stuff I'd bought in Nice before leaving and stuck haphazardly into my bag. I sensed a connection, which was confirmed when I opened the bag to find one of my wine bottles broken cleanly in half. The contents had dumped out into the bag, but after some inspection it seemed that not everything was wet, which told me that the bag must have been inverted with the wine near the "bottom" so that, hopefully, someone else's bag caught the brunt of it. Maybe it was that person who was clearing his throat incessantly during the flight. I hope so.

I grabbed the train to the city, and as we toddled along in the Manchester exurbs, I noticed an undeniable anxiety that told me that I had changed, that she had changed, that I wasn't ready for this reunion. That maybe she didn't want to see me that much. That things just wouldn't be right.

Before long the buildings started to look familiar: Beetham tower, the wheel, and the other prominent bits of the Manchester skyline. And I got to the Piccadilly Station, where I expected her to be. And she wasn't there. Anxieties more than confirmed!

Did I have the wrong station? How did I mess up? I looked for a phone, dug for change, found none, got frustrated, and just turned on my phone and called. She was late, she apologised, because the website said my flight was delayed. She was on the way.

And I sat on a bench and waited, and eventually saw this person come in across the lobby, a person whose being has occupied so much of my attention for the last decade but who has lapsed from my little physical universe, becoming only an image on a screen, a voice through a speaker, words on a page, a memory, a hope.

She was real, and she was looking for me, and she hugged and kissed me, though I probably smelled of wine. She took me to dinner, and all was well in the Dirty Old Town.

More to come...

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