Showing Faraway Friends Around My Home City

I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog over the past year how I haven’t gone out much since the COVID-19 pandemic. Whenever each lockdown was lifted, I kept on living as if they were still in place. I didn’t go out much before Coronavirus, so the isolation hasn’t hit me quite as hard. In the game of life, I feel like I have a +1 stat boost against cabin fever. But even I miss things. Trying out new restaurants. Playing footy. Getting shitfaced on cocktails. Hitting up the Watershed Cinema for foreign films or The Tobacco Factory Theatre for gritty plays. My friends.

A few weeks ago, I got my second shot of Pfizer, and while I’m hesitant to go anywhere too crowded, I’m making small steps lately to rejoin society. There’s also the fact that I’m moving to London in a few short weeks. Throughout the summer I’ve been talking with my friends Elizabeth and George about meeting up before I go. Initially we had planned a weekend in London together, but various factors that couldn’t be bridged forced us to scale back this idea. For one thing, public transport is an utter scam in this country. London is only an hour and a half away by train and yet a weekend in Portugal would cost less. My friends couldn’t spare more than a day due to work and other commitments, and so we figured that it made more sense for us to meet up in London once I was settled there. That was when they suggested coming to see me in Bristol.

I asked them if they were sure, since it would make everything highly convenient for me. But they countered with the fact that I had visited them in Oxford several times and that it made more sense to come here while I still lived here. It was also clear that George and Elizabeth simply wanted to visit Bristol. George had never been, and Elizabeth had seen a sliver of it when she visited me in 2015. On that occasion we ate at Frankie & Bennies in Cabot Circus (a shopping mall), walked around a little, popped in the Bristol Cathedral, and then drove back to my house via the Suspension Bridge. Which brings up an important point for this post- I don’t actually live in Bristol. I’ve lived my whole life in a town called Nailsea which is about 15 minutes to the west. So while I’m familiar with the central area due its restaurants, cinemas, and shops, I’m not a true native of the city. I’m not familiar with the nightlife- knowing what bars or pubs to go to and that sort of thing. As I prepared for their visit, I realized that I only really know a specific slice of Bristol- its consumerist appeal.

I ended up doing research on TripAdvisor for a place I’ve gone to regularly since I was born. I studied there at City of Bristol College for two years as a teenager and I’ve worked in Bristol on several occasions. My family on my father’s side have roots in this city that they can trace back generations. They have a local accent that I, having lived elsewhere my whole life, never inherited. So it felt kind of strange having to research a place that I ought to know better, but as I said at the beginning of this post: I never really got out much anyways. The fact that I don’t know Bristol that well is less a reflection of my living in the countryside and more of my lifestyle choices. But I was keen to show my guests a good time, especially seeing as how they seemed quite interested in Bristol and had made the effort of traveling here. They insisted several times “Please, don’t feel like you have to be a host or a tour guide,” which calmed me down a little bit, but I still made a list of places to take them on my phone.

As it turns out, I massively underestimated how long we would spend doing things. Before they arrived, I was worried that I would run out of places to take them or things to do. But we hardly ended up using the list I’d made on my phone. I’d forgotten how we tend to operate when we’re together. We always end up deep in conversation, to the point that everything else becomes background noise. We talk incessantly and without pause, to the point that we lose track of time and I can’t focus on anything else. For example, the first thing I did when they arrived was take them to St. Nicholas’ Market to get some street food. I used to go there every day on my lunch break when I worked at a nearby call center. There was nowhere to sit, so we took our food over to Castle Park and sat on the grass. But I had so much social energy that I couldn’t concentrate on my pulled pork sandwich. That’s usually how things go when I see them. When they visited Nailsea in January 2018 and I took them to lunch at the pub where I worked, I barely ate anything. And whenever this happens, I don’t get hungry either. I don’t feel it. My body is terrible at concentrating on two things at once. The excitement of being reunited with them was enough to sustain me the whole day. Not only did I not get hungry, but I didn’t get tired either.

Sitting in Castle Park was a nice experience for them, I think. It’s an iconic part of Bristol and eating lunch on the grass allowed my friends to sorta partake in a typical native activity. It was sunny and the park was filled with people, some of them no doubt enjoying a little weed in the bright afternoon. The River Avon sparkled below us. Nearby, the rhythmic din of skateboards on concrete. I’ve got a lot of time for skateboarding. I wouldn’t actually do it myself unless I urgently needed to put together a health insurance scam, but I enjoy watching it. I also like the ambiance it adds to a city. Near to where we sat, the symbol of Extinction Rebellion was painted into the grassy slope for all to see. I pointed this out to my friends with pride.

I told Elizabeth and George how this was my favorite thing about Bristol. Extinction Rebellion. Black Lives Matter. Kill the Bill. That’s the side of my city that I love. The side that resists. As we made our way back to St. Nicholas’ Market, I spoke a little about this recent history. There’s something poetic about a city built on the blood money of slavery becoming a hotbed of progressive activism. My friends were eager to see the plinth where the Colston statue was torn down last year. It’s strangely so much more interesting now that it’s empty. I think it’s because the history is so recent. You can feel the 2020 BLM protest just standing there. The chants, the placards, the face masks, the spray paint, the hot sun. Now the site actually evokes something, as opposed to being another cold statue of a long-dead white guy in fancy clothes unnoticed by passing commuters. The naked plinth stands as a monument to collective action, an inspiring record of a community reclaiming its streets. As we admired the site and discussed the ongoing debates surrounding the removal of problematic statues, there were many people milling around taking pictures of the plinth. Even a year later, it remains a point of curiosity and inspiration. It’s living history.

After we were done there, we headed south towards the harbor where the BLM protesters dumped the statue. On the way I pointed out the building I used to work in, the first nightclub I ever went to, and my favorite place in town- The Watershed Cinema. The city seemed especially lively that day. At the harborside in particular we were constantly weaving our way through the crowds, which was a surreal experience after being in lockdown for over a year. We ended up at a place that was on my list but which I hadn’t been to before- The Shakespeare Tavern. It was mostly the name that attracted me, but it turned out to be very much in our wheelhouse. It was cozy, friendly, and busy whilst still being quiet. A sign on the wall proudly boasted that the pub had been founded in 1725, where it started out as the watering hole of choice for dockworkers. There were paintings of Shakespeare on the walls too, which was pretty sick. I ordered a double-rum and coke while Elizabeth and George snacked on chips.

They seemed very impressed with the city thus far. The adjective they kept coming back to was “textured”, that it was packed with intricate details and points of interest. “Whenever you turn a corner,” George said, “you’re suddenly confronted by something new and intriguing. It’s like it keeps expanding as you move through it”. They said the city was a lot more lively than they were expecting, and it felt like there was a lot to do. It’s true. Their words made me see the city in a new light. Like I said, I mostly came into town to go shopping or see a show, so all these local hangouts were just as new to me as they were to my guests. The big list of museums, hipster cafes, and vintage stores I’d made on my phone proved useless. I’d even had a plan to hike all the way up to Clifton and show them the observatory overlooking the gorge, but I now see there was no way that would have fitted into the pace that me, Elizabeth, and George like to do things. We chatted for ages in The Shakespeare Tavern. This is what we did when we met up in Oxford last October. We didn’t see the big sights. The whole day was spent languidly hopping from pub to pub at our own speed. We’re creatures of comfort. We want nothing more than to eat, drink, and talk. Mostly talk.

Perhaps it would be different if we met up more often. At the moment I’m seeing them once a year. Castle Combe in 2019, Oxford in 2020, and Bristol in 2021. Because of the long gaps in between, the emphasis is wholly on catching up. Whereas, if we had access to each other regularly, we might focus on specific activities more. I also told them there was a chance the dynamic of our friendship might change if we lived nearby, or even together. People like to say that “couples fight, it’s what they do”, but really the point is that people fight. Whether it’s a couple, a set of roommates, a team of coworkers, or any other grouping that spends a long time in close proximity with each other, there will be friction, no matter how similar they might be in their values. Everyone’s perception of the world is based on the unique experiential factors that formed their personality. Elizabeth and George agreed. Whenever we see each other, it’s always in the form of a special occasion, so our interactions are infused with these happy vibes. It’s a lot different to being around someone when they’ve just had a shitty day at work and want some space. I like the idea of being neighbors with George and Elizabeth, or even being roommates with them, but I’m also scared that such proximity would ruin what we have now. Ultimately, I think it’s always worth it to be closer, to accept the possibility of imperfections as a byproduct of the human experience, because I know that when Elizabeth and George are not around, I miss them painfully. On balance, I know I’d be happier if I saw them regularly.

Elizabeth vowed to come and visit me once a month via bus when I’m set up in London. Even if such a frequency proves over-ambitious, the sentiment warmed my heart. What’s special about my friendship with George and Elizabeth is that they kinda function as a spa treatment for my social anxiety. Around most people I feel inauthentic. I slip into a performance I don’t even understand. I agonize over what to say and when to say it. Afterwards, whether I spoke up or not, whether it went well or not, I replay the conversation ad nauseum in my head. A bad interaction can destabilize the rest of my day. I become unable to focus. When I worked at the pub for example, I felt like I got on well with everyone and that everyone liked me. But I didn’t like who I was around them. Everything I said or did felt fake. Whereas when I’m with Elizabeth and George, I feel like myself. I don’t think before I speak and I don’t dwell on what I say. I feel unencumbered. I feel light. Words form with no effort whatsoever. I’m confident and I actually practice self-love for once. The contrast is staggering. I spilled all this out to them in a breathless, rum-inspired burble at The Shakespeare Tavern and Elizabeth beamed at me ear-to-ear.

“I honestly feel like I’m liable to say something I shouldn’t. I don’t censor myself at all around you guys,” I told them.

“Oh, don’t you worry. You can say literally anything to us,” Elizabeth said.

When my parents first met Elizabeth in 2015, they described her as “sunny”. Always smiling, always laughing, and relentlessly kind. Being anything less than happy around her feels like a crime against nature. We often wonder about the contrast she must strike with the people she’s interacted with since moving to the United Kingdom. British people are notoriously deadpan and dry, me in particular. But as George pointed out: people are more themselves than their stereotypes, a product of their unique upbringings and personal traumas.

We left The Shakespeare Tavern around 5:30pm and wandered over to the M-Shed in order to check out the Colston statue. However, the museum was shut by that point, but at least Elizabeth and George got to watch the bridge go up and down as a boat passed through the canal. We walked over to the harborside and came across the aquarium.

“Woah! Is that an aquarium?” Elizabeth gushed before charging inside. I had no idea she had such a love of aquariums. I’d never gone to the place myself. We went in but the place was closing, so we continued toward Park Street, which was number 2 on my list of places I thought they would like after St. Nicholas’ Market. On the way I pointed out College Green and the Bristol Cathedral. George asked about the City Council building, which he agreed was quite impressive. I pointed out the Banksy painting across the road, unsure how popular the pseudonymous graffiti artist is outside of the United Kingdom. But Elizabeth was familiar with him and she’s American, so I guess his fame is wider than I thought.

Park Street is a pretty neat place. It’s full of quirky, highly individual stores and during the night the place is bumping. We popped briefly in a vintage store I usually frequent when I’m in town but didn’t buy anything. At this point the evening was just beginning but not yet in full swing. The bars and restaurants are just as unique as the shops, and we ended up making a spontaneous decision to try out a place called Gin & Juice that I was unfamiliar with. I think we mostly went in due to the atmosphere, since the place is packed to bursting with plants. The explosion of greenery contrasts nicely with the dark wood paneling and soft, low lighting. We headed upstairs and found a comfy booth.

“There seems to be a theme of gin,” I remarked as I looked through the menu.

“Yeah, I’m getting that impression too,” George said.

At first, I felt a little out of place. I’m not too familiar with gin, and barring one or two exceptions, that was all they served. But there was a section devoted to cocktails on the back of the menu, which is sorta my go-to type of drink. All of them were gin-based, but there were some intriguing mixes. I ended up getting two different cocktails while we were there, and they were both lush. While I ordered at the bar, the woman being served next to me was getting an extravagant cocktail with a massive lump of cotton candy on top. I kinda wish I’d gone for that one, just for the hell of it. All of us loved the place, especially the atmosphere. With the move coming up, I don’t know when I’ll be back on Park Street, but whenever I do end up that way again, I’ll be sure to revisit Gin & Juice. It was one of those happy accidents that make exploring a city so fun.

We spent several hours there, and by the time we got out it was dark. We decided to head back toward where Elizabeth and George would take the park and ride bus back to Lyde Green, way out on the eastern edge of Bristol. On the way we stopped in a little Italian fast-food joint, and I got a 9-inch pepperoni pizza. Around 9:20pm my friends boarded the bus and we promised that we wouldn’t wait another year before seeing each other again. As soon as they were gone, and I began to walk at a slow pace through the city center eating my pizza, I felt a pang of loneliness. Elizabeth and George’s company takes me to such a high that there’s always an inevitably steep drop-off in my emotions whenever we part ways. It was probably the loneliest I’d felt in a long time, much lonelier than I’d ever felt during lockdown. At that moment, wandering aimlessly through the night, the salty taste of pepperoni on my tongue, I knew for certain that I wanted to see them as often as possible from now on.

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