“Do you go to the country? It isn’t very far” -Blur
“Coffee & TV” buzzed through my cheap plastic headphones. Graham Coxon’s voice seemed to be moving at the same pace as the Great Western Railway train in which I was coasting through the Cotswolds. I inaudibly but physically laughed at the line, so much so that the woman across the aisle gave me a cautious look as if I might dare to make a noise in the silent car. I was going to the country but I’d found it in fact to be quite far - about 3,394 miles. I’d packed a small suitcase in Brooklyn, landed in London, added a tent and a sleeping bag, and got on a train to the country. Kingham, a village of 913 villagers. In 2004, Country Life Magazine had named Kingham the best village in England, but that wasn’t why I was trekking out to it. I was going there for cheese.
I grew up in the country, technically. Wisconsin has lots of fields and barns and livestock and vegetation. You can drive for miles and not see a soul. It never suited me. I’ve always hated being alone. As a child when I’d get sent to my room, I’d cause such a horrific scene to be in a room by myself that instead of “to your room” it became “to the top of the stairs” where I could sit on the highest step and listen to the people below and know that they were still there. Until I was well into middle school, any time I was on the road with my father and he had to pull into a rest stop or McDonalds to use the restroom, the thought of sitting in the car by myself for even the few minutes it’d take him to alleviate his bladder was so unnerving that I’d walk with him and stand just outside the door of the men’s room.
This was no doubt the reason everyone close to me was taken aback when I announced my plan to travel to England alone. It only made slightly more sense to them when I explained it was to try some cheese. Plenty of people own up to loving cheese, but it’s on another level for me. There is nothing I’d rather snack on than a nice piece of gouda. If presented with a block of parmesan I will likely bite straight into it, not waste time and energy grating it down to garnish pasta. For months my Sunday ritual while living in Williamsburg was to walk to the Bedford Cheese Shop to try a variety I’d never had before. A diary may or may not have been kept.
The Bedford Cheese Shop, god bless them, imports a lot of delectable wheels, but there was one brand I could not get my hands on there or anywhere in the United States and it was all that I wanted: Alex James Presents. Alex James is an award-winning cheesemaker from England; he owns hundreds of acres of land in the Cotswolds where he produces a line of cheeses sold in specialty shops and supermarkets alike. He also happens to be the bass player in Blur.
Growing up in the early 2000s in America, Blur wasn’t really on my radar. I knew “Song 2” from commercials and from seeing Vampire Weekend cover it live. In college I took a class on writing about music in which a peer wrote an artist profile on Damon Albarn; I wasn’t overly interested. He sounded like an ass. Then a few weeks later the same classmate chose a Blur video to show on the final day of class. The video was “Parklife” and it was brilliant. They were licking ice cream cones and spinning umbrellas and dressing up in ridiculous costumes. Damon was prancing around, hopping from one foot to another like a madman. The one in the red sweater had the floppy brown hair and coquettish attitude of every heartthrob I’d ever gushed over. And the music was totally new to me. All I knew of 90s British music was Oasis and “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls. This sound was neither of those things and it was better than both. I wanted more. I watched it on my phone while the train went over the bridge to Brooklyn that night. I made my roommates watch it when I got to my apartment. They are so sarcastic and witty and British, I told them. And then, just like that, they were all I listened to. I read about them and watched interviews with them and suddenly found “Wonderwall” to be a bit overrated. Nine months later I was on a plane to camp on the farm of the skinny boy in the red sweater from the 1994 video.
There are some things I never thought I’d do. At the top of that list was camp. The closest I’d been to roughing it in the great outdoors was staying in my dad’s RV on a campground in the Wisconsin Dells at the age of 14. There was a bed and a fridge and bathroom and, most important to me at the time, a television. I never tried to convince anyone that what I’d done was camping. When I bought my ticket for the festival Alex James hosts every summer, I didn’t think twice about buying a camping ticket. I wanted the whole experience; I wanted to eat cheese and dance in a field and snuggle into a sleeping bag at night surrounded by the tents of families and foodies. I didn’t think to ask anyone for camping advice until it dawned on me that the guy in my office whom I’d been crushing on for the better part of the summer was an outdoorsman and this would provide a prime opportunity to let him talk at me for a few uninterrupted minutes. Jesse made me a list and sent it via e-mail so I wouldn’t forget it: “sleeping pad, sleeping bag, tent, headlamp, water bottle (better than buying tons of bottles of water), pocket knife (you’ll have to check it on the plane, obviously), battery charger for your phone, rain shell (I prefer non insulated, you can layer underneath it), buff, Merino wool is my fabric of choice for layering clothes and socks. It’s warm but breathable, and resists picking up odor like magic.” Naturally I did no shopping before leaving, after landing in London bought the cheapest tent and sleeping bag at Argos and a mirror at Primark so I could do my makeup in the morning, and figured that’d be good enough for three nights.
I deboarded from the train and knew I only had a short walk down the lane to get to Alex’s farm. I pulled my rolling suitcase behind me and bumped down the road until I reached a sign for The Big Feastival. I’d made it. Or almost. I’d still have to walk the length of the festival grounds to reach the camping site. I couldn’t see much of it so it would remain a mystery until the gates would open. To the right was more grass, then some trees, then the railway, then it seemed the whole of England.
There is a scene in the Christmas movie The Holiday where Cameron Diaz’s character treks through a snowy English road with a suitcase in tow. There was no snow as I schlepped through the field; however, I can only assume that the snow would have helped the situation as the long grass tangled in the wheels so horribly that I was no longer rolling the case but dragging it. The grass was wet and made sloshing sounds as my sneakers padded through it. Families with their hiking backpacks and wagons strolled past me as I sat atop the gray plastic case for a break halfway to my destination. I made a mental note to invest in a backpack next time before continuing on.
Setting up my tent did not cause as much of a scene as I’d imagined; only one surly father came over from his camp to ask if I needed some assistance. I politely declined and continued threading the surprisingly bendy fiberglass poles through the pole-shaped loops. Twenty minutes later I was resting atop my sleeping bag, watching a family set up a portable grill a few yards in front of my doorway. As I waited the forty or so minutes until the festival grounds opened, I made note of the fact that while the description on the Argos tablet had said the tent was suitable for two campers they must have not put that to the test. Even at 5’3” there was no way I could have gotten another human being in there with me. My suitcase was already inhabiting half of the floor space. Had I decided not to attend the festival alone I most certainly would have had to shell out an extra thirty pounds for the better tent.
It gets such a bad rap, the word “alone.” It’s often preceded by “I don’t want to be” or an “I’m” that sounds awfully dreadful. Pop culture has made its occasional effort to turn the word around. The “alone” in Home Alone allows for plenty of shenanigans that any parental presence would have squashed. Tiffany manages to sound so innocently seductive when she sings, “I think we’re alone now;” being alone is okay as long as you’re alone with someone else. The thing I hated being so much as a kid I was now making an effort to arrange: to be alone. Friends offered to join the trip and I’d shot them down. At the Air BnB in London I’d stayed at the night before heading to the country, another Air BnBer in the residence asked if I wanted company. I didn’t.
Lying in that tent, inspecting the seams for any chance of water seeping in as it was inevitably going to rain later, I had never felt more alone. My phone didn’t have an international plan and there was only one designated WiFi spot on the festival grounds which had not yet opened. At that moment, in that spot, I could not contact anyone I knew. It was almost 11:00 A.M. and the only words I’d said all morning were “a plain bagel with plain cream cheese, please” to the woman at the bagel stand at Paddington Station and the “no thank you” to the dad that was so keen to help me with my tent. The thing people had warned me about, the thing that made them nervous when I had told them my end of August plans, I was experiencing -- and I was absolutely loving it. I wagered I could go the entire weekend not speaking except to order food at the various market stands. No one would learn my name; I’d walk through the grounds anonymously, completely on my own. In New York that was never possible. For a city of over eight million people, it was shocking how often I ran into someone I knew or, worse, was confronted by strangers for directions or explanations or just because they needed someone to yell at for a minute.
The digitized bells tolled and a woman’s voice came over the loudspeaker to announce that the Big Feastival was officially open. I slithered out of my tent in a fashion that surely displayed my novice camper status and zipped up the door. I joined the parade of campers marching to the entrance and made an effort to breathe in the country air in hopes it would filter out the garbage/second-hand-smoke/hot-dog-water tinted oxygen I’d grown accustomed to. There were families with prams and groups of fourteen-year-old girls already filling up their iPhone camera rolls and couples with locked fingers swaying back and forth as they walked. And there was me. Alone. And I couldn’t have been happier.
*This is the introduction to a manuscript underway that pieces memoir with film criticism, an exploration on how Woody Allen's films have shaped my view of life.
Exploring Woody Allen: The Influence of Anxiety - Introduction
By Madeleine Saaf
Most kids born in the 1990s, like myself, have a Woody – he wore a cowboy hat and hung around with Buzz Lightyear. I wasn’t interested in this one, but I wasn’t interested in most things kids my age were interested in. Some used to question my mother’s leniency when it came to letting me watch “adult” movies, but I’ve never questioned it in the least. She let me stay up to watch David Letterman and took me to the movie theater to see The X-Files when I was four-years-old because she was home with me all day, and for her own personal sanity, she needed a little ‘adult-time’ in her day. Because of this, I had a different Woody. Mine wore thick, black-frame glasses and hung around with Diane Keaton.
I know that there are three men in my life whose deaths will cause me great pain – my father, my godfather, and Woody Allen. One has already happened. My father passed away in December of this year after ten months of chemo and radiation and wheezy coughs and cried-out eyes. It would be a stretch for me to say that I got through it because of Woody Allen. I got through it because of my incredibly strong mother, my rock-of-an-uncle, home-cooked meals, avoidance of Coldplay music, late night Facebook chats with friends, a lot of sleep, FaceTimes with my sister and two-month-old nephew, and a slew of others that pushed me from December 14th to today. But it was on a plane, a month after my father’s death, that I watched my first post-December 14th Woody Allen film. I pulled up 1973’s Sleeper and let myself fully laugh for the first time. I’d laughed before this -- small snickers and polite giggles at episodes of Friends and gossip from my Wisconsin clan -- but I hadn’t heard my full, unabashed one until that day, disrupting those around me onboard the Southwest flight, somewhere over North Dakota.
I’m not going to compare the day I lost my father to the day I (and the world) will eventually lose Woody Allen. That would be insincere. I will say that I dread that day because, as I am having to come to terms with the fact that I’ll never have another conversation with my father, I will have to come to terms with the fact that I’ll never experience a new Woody Allen film. I don’t like to think about this because I go down a dark road of “What if something happens and he dies today and the last movie he made is actually his last movie?” which quickly turns to “What if something happens and I die today and he comes out with ten films after my death that I’ll never get to see unless they have Cineplexes in that place I don’t even believe in?” which leads to “Who am I kidding, even if I did believe in that place I probably wouldn’t end up there and if there are Cineplexes in hell they are probably playing Tarantino marathons.”
That’s something I got from Mr. Allen. I got my deep-set green eyes from my father and my anxiety from Woody. It’s hard to watch Annie Hall as many times as I have and not start to feel the fretfulness of Alvy sneak off the screen and seep into your skin, inhabiting your body fully. I was studying in London when my father was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and, with those I would normally talk to 3,901 miles away, I went to see the school psychologist. I refused to call the nice woman on the 3rd floor of the academic center on Bedford Square my therapist; she was my analyst. If I was going to sit in a chair (incredibly disappointed that there wasn’t a couch for me to recline on) and talk about my “issues” with this polite British stranger, I was at least going to act like it was all part of a Woody Allen script.
Other parts of me come from my late-night hours spent soaking in his films. My decision not to become an investigative journalist was more than largely influenced by Scoop. My secret hope that I’ll sit on a stoop some night and Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald will come pick me up in a speedster is credited to Midnight in Paris (though my trepidations about being out on the streets after ten o’clock at night sort of counteract that hope). My facial expression of utter annoyance usually manifests itself as Alvy’s exaggerated eye roll while in line at the movies in Annie Hall.
It’s funny now that, even though I’ve only had enough memories and films to fill twenty years of life, I cannot place the first time I saw Annie Hall. I’ve tried to think of that first viewing. It was a major first for me, up there with riding a bike and reading a book, and I’m sure it all happened around the same time. I probably don’t remember it because I didn’t, at that time, see what it would mean in my life years down the road when I uprooted myself thousands of miles from my home state (and Annie Hall’s, too) of Wisconsin to New York City.
I don’t remember the first time I saw Annie Hall but I do remember the first time I saw a movie that made me think this are what movies should be. It was 2010 and I was a sophomore in high school. My friend Lauren was over for a sleepover and my mom suggested we watch Manhattan. I sat on the couch and ate popcorn that got stuck in my pink-and-black rubber-banded braces and was utterly enraptured by the film. It was the first time I had to sit and think in silence, unable to bounce off the couch and play the preteen game “Mash” that normally followed a movie on a sleepover night. Images stuck in my head. Of course the iconic bridge scene, but also Mariel Hemingway drinking a milkshake at a counter, the skeleton, the darkness of the planetarium. I couldn’t move on from thinking about Tracy’s innocence, Isaac’s tape recorder, Meryl Streep’s perfect hair. I wanted to live like those people lived and I wanted to speak like those people spoke. I wanted to live in Manhattan, the film and the city.
In the spring of 2013, my first year of living in New York, the spectacle of living in the place I’d dreamed of for so long began to wear off. One particular day had me in an atrocious mood. I had to go up to the Met and spend an hour of my Saturday looking at Islamic art that I didn’t care about to write a paper for a class that I didn’t care about.
All week little things about the city had started to irritate me. The clouds of cigarette smoke on Fifth Avenue lost their “chic city charm” and the rude homeless woman that I passed on the way home from work every day seemed to be getting ruder. I started to wonder what happened to the New York I’d moved here for – the one that Woody Allen captured in the opening credits of Manhattan.
To make matters worse, when I left the Met it was pouring rain. Not having looked at the forecast, I’d left my building completely unprepared, with no umbrella or rain boots or even coat. With nothing to shield me I traipsed out into the downpour, cursing the gloomy clouds and the puddles forming in my non-waterproof boat shoes. I couldn’t help but wonder what Woody Allen was thinking when he was writing Midnight in Paris. Perhaps Paris is beautiful in the rain, but I was having trouble finding the beauty in New York, rain or shine.
I stood at a crosswalk on Park Avenue, waiting for the cars to pass so I could walk another four blocks to the subway. I looked across the way and saw something I couldn’t believe. Standing under an umbrella next to a petite Asian woman, wearing one of those old men hats that look like something one would wear fishing, was my Woody. Even when the sign finally turned to “walk,” I stood on the corner, staring at him as he crossed towards me. When he was just in front of me he finally looked up. He must have been a bit frightened to see this drenched girl with mascara on her cheeks and tears in her eyes, gawking at him as if he were Ryan Gosling. He smiled meekly and said hello before continuing past.
Instead of getting on the subway I walked all the way home, from 75th Street to 10th in the rain. I got out my headphones and put “Rhapsody in Blue,” the song that opens Manhattan, on repeat. I felt like Cecilia in The Purple Rose of Cairo, jumping onto the screen of the movie she so adored. New York never looked so beautiful. Every person I passed, every bodega and deli looked like something right out of the movies. Cold and wet, it didn’t matter – I had my Manhattan back.
I think what I now call my “Woody Allen miracle” quite reflects his films and philosophy. These little things in life, the faces of ones we love, the movies we can watch over and over again, the way we can personify a city to make it a character in our own lives – these are what make life worth living. Things don’t always work out in the end, and life tends to deal a lot of shitty cards before you might get an ace. But when it’s good, it’s great. And that’s the kind of hope he has taught me to hang on to.
Take a Bow