Two Years Ago
I was in London, walking the streets. It was warm, warm for where I might otherwise have been: Upland, Indiana, which sustained a particularly cold January that year. In the forties, rainy with hints of sun, London matched my mood. I was lonely, homesick, restless, tired. However, every once in a while I was overtaken with such twinkling wonder that I couldn't contain myself.
One such wondrous experience happened in Chawton, where I toured Jane Austen's home, on a lightly snowy day, basking in the lingering sensation of the presence of a great author with whom I find much in common. Sometimes painfully so. It was a great honor to walk into the room Jane shared with Cassandra, her dear sister. To inhabit this space, along with them. Downstairs, I stared for a long time at the writing table Jane used to compose her great satirical literature. Literature that has contributed to the way that I write, more than that, to the way I live my life.
Another bright time: our group spent one day in Oxford and I haunted it. The sun shone, mildly, the way it often does in Britain. It shone, so gently on me as I stood at C.S. Lewis', Jack's, grave, talking conversationally, crying a bit, so naturally falling into step with someone who has taught me so much. I was the last one in the churchyard, almost left behind as we walked to C.S. Lewis' house, the Kilns. I ran. His house was full, of books, of sunlight, of students, who come, live and work in his home. I took a rock from his garden, a C.S. Lewis rock. A rock which became a painful memory I didn't take back from my ex-boyfriend only a few short weeks later. I still sort of wish I had that rock today. I must go back.
I sat in his pub, the Eagle and Child. It was inaugeration day in the States and everyone was in a happy mood. I ordered food and Ginger Beer, to this day, the most eclectic drink I've ever had, one that I search for constantly, but have only found in Britain. I talked about life and people and art and such with people I didn't know very well. Somehow, it seemed the right thing. The right setting. There was a hum of happy energy. There is no place like a pub in America. If there is, please tell me where, so that I may go there.
I walked into the quiet building with my professor, who is well over 6 ft. tall. I had a hard time catching up with him. We were the only two from our group who wanted to come to the C.S. Lewis society meeting, here in Oxford. I sat, listened, as a paper was read, business discussed. Then, I chatted casually, animatedly, with the president, she recommended a book to me. A Cambridge don, who remembered me from a previous visit, invited us out for a drink.
At the end of a long, cold day, a day that had seemed to be made of many miles, I sat in a theater watching Les Mis. I was not dressed for the occasion. I am pretty sure that I was muddy. I am never muddy. Never, at least, in a theater. It did not matter.
I have no bad memories of Scotland. It felt like home. The air was clear, friendly and soft. We wandered through the castle and paid tribute to Rabbie Burns, Scotland's poet, who was a terrible man. I wrote a paper on it. I ate lunch at The Elephant House, where J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book. I was not in awe. How could I know that I would later be a fan? I had never cracked a Rowling book. I want to go back, now that I have.
Our hotel in London was only a few blocks down from Queen's Way, across the street from Hyde Park in the West End. By the end of the trip, I had a routine, walk, alone, if I could muster the courage, down to the Way, stop in at Spar and buy something to warm up for dinner, a samosa, a pasty, usually, and always baklava. I would walk back to my hotel, put on the kettle and make decaf PG Tips, basking in the warmth of hot tea. I would sip and eat my baklava, slightly soggy from the excess honey. Worth every cent. Pence.
The internet cafe I most often used was also in Queen's Way. They charged a pound an hour and to get there, I would first walk through a shop laden with expensive, brightly colored Asian costumes and luggage. I would pay for an hour and stay the whole time. Flying internationally with computers was not advised at that time, and I would cling to the large white monitor for dear life. Little shards of home I could carry in my heart.
Finally, before we left, I got better at riding the Tube. However, the first time I used it by myself, I got miserably lost. I was sure that I was going to be kidnapped, murdered and thrown into the Thames, sans passport. Somehow, I managed to find my hotel again. I have never been so relieved to see a structure before in my life.
One afternoon, three of us stopped into a little Indian buffet for lunch. My experience has not been as wide as I would like, but this was some of the best curry I have ever tasted. And our waiter flirted with us, which is always a bonus, rather unheard of at a buffet.
Ireland called my name, gently, as I walked in her. She knew my name, since it came from her. She spoke it as a first language. Ireland reminded me of me: not entirely without division, rough edges, but full of openness, quirks, charm. When you push the button to go across the street in Dublin, the signal plays a tune that sounds like techno. Also, I am sure that I saw the Hoover repair shop from Once. I am sure. Ireland caught my breath and held it as I watched the lights on the road to Bray. Suddenly, I turned around, and there they were. There she was. I want to go back, to be better acquainted.
One day, as I was buying pathetic self-serve sandwiches that seemed the least unfamiliar, the cashier looked at me and asked: "Are you happy?" I didn't realize that I was that transparent. Later, buying water, another clerk told me to hold the jug "like a baby, for practice." He smiled at me. What does one say to such things? Clerks in America mostly say: "have a nice day."
I heard a lot of music on that trip, but the best was in the Tube tunnels, on the long elevator taking me into the depths of the earth. It was a cello, I think, and it captured me. For free.
This is what I was doing, two years ago.