Saturday, October 27, 2007

An England Story

“So you’re in for the night?” Mom clarified and I smiled as I confirmed and heard her sigh with relief. I was 25 and had spent the afternoon taking a train from Manchester to London, then walked to my hotel as the city grew dark.

I’d called my parents after taking the rickety elevator to my floor to reach the corner room assigned me. I finally sighed and left my suitcase by the door, taking the stairs to reach the front desk once again.

“I knew you weren’t paying attention.” The girl smiled, the light from the lobby chandelier sparkling off the hoops in her nose and eyebrow. “You push the card in, jiggle the handle, push the card a bit harder, pull on the door, turn the handle the rest of the way, then open it.”

“Push, jiggle, push, pull, turn, open.” I recited dutifully. When I had offered my credit card upon entering the tiny lobby from the street, I hadn’t committed the steps to memory. How hard, I thought, could it be to open a door? I smiled ruefully in acknowledgment that gaining entry to my room was beyond me and trudged up the stairs with my carry-on over my shoulder as I continued to murmur the steps. “Push, jiggle, push, pull, turn, open.” I said in a continuous loop, smiling when I passed a businessman going out for the evening. I assume he realized I was American, returned my smile and stepped aside so I could reach my room while he waited for the elevator.

Perhaps Mom was right to worry about me. I’d become terribly lost on my walk to the hotel, had been unable to open the door to my room without getting instructions twice, and was undeniably tired after the long day. “I had on heels.” I told her, laughing, upon removing my shoes and seeing the beginnings of a blister from my unexpected trek when I went the wrong direction upon leaving the train station. “I’ll wear better shoes tomorrow.” I told her and explained yet again that I already had a ticket for a hop on/hop off bus tour of London. I would see all I could tomorrow, then catch a flight at Heathrow the following morning. Mom would meet me at O’Hare later that day.

“Call when you get back tomorrow?” She asked before I hung up.

“I will.” I promised, then began to unpack - placing toiletries in the small bathroom I’d paid extra to have to myself and pulling a chair over to the window that sat prettily in one corner of the room as Dad started on a list of people to avoid and things that could go wrong and demanded promises that I’d be very careful.

“I will.” I said, pushing aside the sheer curtains and staring down onto the street below. “I can’t believe I’m here, Dad.” I sighed. “Watching the cars and buses and people wandering around.”

Briefly distracted, he asked what kinds of cars. Was there anything cool? Disappointed by my reciting a list of colors, he sighed and told me once again to be careful, that he loved me and that we’d talk again tomorrow after this ordeal was over. I smiled, feeling momentarily sorry I’d made my parents worry by insisting upon traveling to England alone, then found the smaller of my two bags, dug out the bagel I hadn’t finished from the morning and smiled upon finding a chocolate bar I’d purchased when I picked up a novel for the train.

Settling in, I frowned when I realized I couldn’t see very well. So I turned off the lights in my room, opened the curtains fully, and put my freshly bandaged feet on the windowsill as I scooted around to watch the cars go by. I remember seeing a man listening to headphones as he stood on the top level of a bright red bus. The lights stayed on inside the lumbering vehicle and I could see a woman reading near the doors on the lower level. Cars formed neat lines as they moved through the traffic light below my window. I simply watched, chewing my bagel then unwrapping my Cadbury chocolate as I basked in the simple pleasure of being in London.

I had wanted to make the trip in high school. Had gone to the informational meeting, spoken with the teacher who bleached her hair and spoke with a fake accent for some reason. I brought home the paperwork and watched my parents consider, both frowning.

“Why do you want to go over there?” Dad asked. When I started to answer, talking about the history and all the things we would see and how I’d get to stay with people from school, he shook his head. “People set off bombs over there.” He said. “It’s not safe. I don’t think you should go.”

“What bombs?” I asked, unaware that London was some kind of war zone. “I don’t think it’s that dangerous.”

“But you’d have to go on a plane.” Mom offered. “And sometimes foreign people do hate Americans. It’s better to stay here. You’re awfully young to go all that way.”

“I’m 16.” I pouted. “And I don’t think the British hate high school students. Plus, we’re not staying all that long.” I pulled out the papers and watched Mom consider them. I finally huffed that I was going to see Grandma. I had yet to learn that as spoiled and sheltered as I was, I would not always get my way.

Grandma soothed me as she always did after I drove and parked at her retirement home. We went to a kitchen located down the hall from her studio apartment and made cinnamon raisin toast, returned to her mauve living space and talked. She said that my parents were going to worry about me a lot in the future and if I wanted to go to London with my class at school, she would talk to Mom. She also offered the money required to make the trip and sighed when she said she wished she could go with me. Then she offered that if I ended up deciding against this particular opportunity, there would be plenty of time to get to England eventually.

When she died, I mourned the loss of being able to make the trip with her. She was wise and adventurous and funny, my grandma. But I’d decided against the class trip, though my parents did eventually say I could go if I was really sure I wanted to. But they looked worried and I decided I didn’t know many of the other students who were going. Perhaps it was too dangerous and scary. Maybe it was better to wait.

I remember shifting in the chair in my dark hotel room years after graduating from high school, crumpling my candy wrapper and tossing it in the direction of the trash can under the desk across the room, and resting my folded arms near the window as I bent toward the glass. I had made the trip on my own, despite continued worries from my parents. I wandered Manchester alone, sneaking from scientific sessions to shop and look and take pictures. I caught a train to London by myself, watching the signs carefully as I waited, then settling into a window seat and ignoring the book in front of me to gaze out at the countryside. I sighed when I realized everything looked just like I wanted it to. Smiled when watching a man play fetch with his dog in a wide field with freshly clipped grass. Craned my neck to see cottages and farms and sheep as the train moved quickly south.

I didn’t do much more than watch that whole trip. I did, after getting lost yet again, catch my bus the next morning. I huddled in the same blue sweatshirt I wore this morning to walk my dog, bracing against the cold drizzle that couldn’t chase me off the top level of my tour bus. I giggled after catching said bus and looking quite seriously for the American flag when selecting which language I would use for my headphones. I made friends with a pair of Scottish women but had only a vague idea of what they said as I struggled with the charming accent. I was driven by many landmarks as I consulted my map, listened to the information offered on my tour and looked around trying to take everything in.

As the cloudy day started to drift into darkness, I caught a different bus and made my way back north through the theatre district toward my hotel. I smiled at the pierced woman at the desk, rode the elevator to my floor and easily entered my room. After understanding how to open the lock, it didn’t seem so hard the second time. So I settled into the chair the maid had kindly left situated by the window, ate the dinner I picked up on the way back and watched traffic again, pleasantly tired and quite content.

The point, I think, is that I have never and will never be overly brave and outgoing. I had no desire to visit a pub and try to make friends, though I did vaguely wish for a companion for my trip. Being cautious held more appeal though and I smiled over the relief I heard when Mom and Dad both got on the phone to hear about my day and ask for reassurance that I was locked in my room and safe for the night.

The other reminder I could use lately is that there’s time. If something appeals and it doesn’t work out, there are generally other opportunities. It took me a great deal of time to make real friends, to fall in love, and I’m obviously not being fast about deciding on a career path. So London at 16 might have been wonderful, but it’s OK that I didn’t go. England at 25 was wonderful, perhaps more so because I’d waited so long and was determined not to be disappointed with a single second of my relatively short trip. And there’s still time to go again, though I expect that trip will find me staring out a different window at some point, watching the world go by.


Estrella said...

Did the memory come to you when you realized the common link of the sweatshirt? :-)

post-doc said...

Yep. :) I'm all about a good sweatshirt story.

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