When my dear friend Jeffrey suggested that we go to to Europe for my 40th birthday (and much needed vacation for both of us) I was once again forced to acknowledge that I have the finest, most generous friends in the world- you see my airfare would be a gift. Big 4-OH, don't you know.
Months of anticipation and building excitement ensued.
Those of you inside The Hive know the story well, but for those of you who've recently tuned in, my passport went missing- literally on my way to the airport! Go ahead, gasp and scream. I did. The trip had to be rescheduled for 5 months later. So instead of making my friend William an American-style Thanksgiving dinner, I'd be catering his birthday garden party. Also, I'd be flying solo in London for a week, with Jeffrey joining me at then end for an additional Paris excursion! London and Paris both on my first trip to Europe? Thank you Jeffrey.
Months of anticipation and building excitement ensued.
Much like just before my first attempt at departure, I was fractured and frenzied in the weeks leading up to it. Getting my house ready for the newspaper photo shoot, and preparing the shop for a 2 week absence was a grueling tour de force on my behalf... gently reminding me that while I still have the stamina- I have to reach a little deeper for it these days.
SO! With one too many suitcases, my passport strapped to my nether-regions, and 3 hours sleep, I set forth on my first trip to Europe.
For a boy who grew up on the backside of a broccoli field on the central coast, this was the stuff that dreams are made of...
Mind The Gap
I've never been able to sleep on airplanes, not even all the way to Indonesia. I think it has something to do with allowing myself unconsciousness amongst hundreds of strangers. It must be subconsciously disconcerting. The Target brand sleep aid and a fistful of Valerian barely made me drowsy. The flight was thankfully pleasant and uneventful, if lacking in sleep. Before I knew it, I was on British soil. Hello Heathrow!
Once I got my bearings (and my luggage) I sat down for an egg & cress. Well I had to! Let's just say the rarer an airplane meal becomes, the less discernible it's chemical makeup. Besides, it was still only 7:30 in the morning and I would be unable to check into my lodgings until 3pm. I needed sustenance!
After doing a bit of battle with the automated ticket/pass machines and resolving myself to a 30 minute wait in line to get my Oyster card from a live person, I found myself on a city train bound for Cockfosters. Seriously, I'm not making that up. The first Britishism I encountered was the recorded voice of a lady telling me to 'mind the gap' between the train and the platform- at each and every stop the train made on its trek towards central London. Of course we'd say 'watch your step'. What I'd stepped into felt like an alternate universe.
Once I was all settled into my cozy (read tiny but sweet with the LOVELIEST staff) digs at the the charming Victoria Inn & Pub, it was time to shower away 3,904 miles (or 6,273 kilometers, 3393 nautical miles) and get ready for my first proper meal in London. I'd basically been up for a day and a half. Buses, planes, and trains- and now explicit walking directions for a 15 minute by foot trek through the south-suburban enclave known as East Dulwhich? Oy! Yet its amazing how the adrenaline of adventure can propel you forward, no matter how crispy one gets around the edges. Agreed?
When I arrived at my destination I found the warmest, tidiest, and charming flat. Much like my host.
William was preparing a stir fry for my inaugural feast, and rather excited to tell me that his brother Joe who heads up the CBBC (Children's BBC) was going to be on the nightly news! With mere hours under my belt I was already brushing with British celebrity. Or at least their relatives. This was going to be an exciting week.
The dinner, conversation, and Joe were all brilliant.
What a way to cinch up the journey there, and kick start all that lie ahead!
On my walk back to the Inn the following night, I came across a city fox. Gorgeous little creature, about the size of a medium sized pooch, but slender and sleek. Well, like a fox! He seemed rather tame and unafraid of me, though I felt more than cautious for the both of us. I said hello, and asked him if he'd had a pleasant evening. Before he dashed away, he made deliberate eye contact with me, which felt like an "on purpose" acknowledgement of my presence. Not just on the street at 11pm, but there- in ENGLAND.
We met up nearly every evening on my way back from William's. I'm telling you, that fox knows things about me...
Bob's Your Uncle
William (who was also on vacation) was the most gracious ambassador I could have possibly asked for. I had told him in advance that I wasn't necessarily interested in seeing London from a typical tourists perspective, but rather through his eyes. His London. I suspect I got a bit of both.
London is an extraordinary city, of course steeped in a history that profoundly shaped the world we live in today. Fascinating and factual, but not nearly as compelling as the energy of the people living there today, or the place itself. I knew long before I arrived that I'd love it. I just didn't know how much.
I suppose my Mother was a bit of an Anglophile. BBC programming on our local PBS station at home was almost always on the television growing up, and as soon as she heard she could get BBC America via satellite, there was a dish strapped to the roof. Growing up with so many British voices in my ear, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the lingo. Not even close.
When I say alternate universe, I only partially jest. I mean, if I had been in Russia they too would say the same things, in a different language! This was like learning English all over again...only allot prettier on the ears. I wasn't there long enough to acclimate to cars driving on the left or the drivers being on the right. But calculating the exchange rate in my head came rather easily, and paying to use public toilets was a breeze once I remembered to always have the proper coins on my person. Spend more than a penny, I did.
We walked allot, which was grand because I spend so much of my life with my ass firmly afixed to a desk chair, and certainly there's no better way to absorb all that majestic architecture than on foot. Mostly in the pouring rain, but I minded not. Truth is I saw and did so many wonderful things that first week- far too many to go into here. I will simply suffice it to say that thanks to William, in London I was happy as Larry.
Cheers, Mr. Godwin.
Years ago when my nieces and nephews were all on Myspace (You remember Myspace, don't you?) I set up an account to keep up with them and their lives. I didn't have it for very long and I only made one non-family connection. It was with a gentleman from England named John. We were a "musical match", both of us listing Kate Bush and Barbra Streisand as our primary musical favorites. Unusual combo, no? When I closed my Myspace account we followed eachother to Facebook. Over the years our correspondence was breezy and casual if not infrequent, yet there was always something that kept us bonded 'beyond Barbra'.
Once night when I was still living in Chicago, I had a dream that I was at an airport service counter and John was working behind it. I remember that we were very excited to see eachother, but beyond that not much. I wrote him the next morning to tell him about it, and announced that I was certain we'd meet some day...
I was warned in advance that Manchester would be full of Orange People. The equivalent of the folks from Jersey Shore or if you live in Wisconsin, Green Bay. I was pleasantly surprised otherwise.
My early morning train ride from London was rainy, contemplative, and gorgeous. Staring out the window of my Virgin Lines train, I found the English countryside to be just stunning, even with the mustard fields drenched in rain. John met me a the oldest train station in the world, and shared with me a gorgeous city that in fact reminded me much of Milwaukee. We window shopped, coffee-d, had an amazing Italian lunch (I might have had a cocktail), and we talked about so many things- not to mention BARBRA! The highlight of the day however, came in the form of an unexpected gift.
I don't recall that I had ever had any kind of lengthy conversation with John about spirituality before, but suddenly he was on a mission to find a bookstore. There was a book that he said would be "An interesting read on spirituality from an English perspective." Its called 'Living Magically' by Gill Edwards, and trust me kids, you'll be hearing more about it later...
We wrapped up our day excursion by having a lovely tapas dinner.
I may have enjoyed a glass or two of wine.
I spied nary an Orange Person in Manchester, but I did have the most magical day.
Later that evening as I hugged John goodbye and climbed on board my return train, I couldn't help but think about turning dreams into reality. We were once acquaintances reaching through the ethers of space, and now we're friends. Thank you John. For arriving, at each and every stop. And for the book...it's blowing my mind.
Jeffrey arrived one week and a minute after I did. After brief introductions and a trip to Sainsburys for a load of groceries which nearly deposed one of us from William's petite car, he threw himself into helping me prepare the feast for William's Birthday Luncheon. We minced, we chopped, I roasted and braised, I baked a cake. I may have a had a glass or 2 of wine. Again, sustenance. I can feel you judging me.
I may have bragged a bit about my kitchen skills and now I needed to deliver. The pressure was on.
The weather which had been soaking us all week was now threatening to dampen William's garden soiree. In fact the day before, he sent out a memo warning his guests that this festive afternoon event could quickly turn into a dine and dash if the weather didn't hold out. He needn't have worried.
Each and everyone of William's friends was an absolute delight. Believe me there was no shortage of warmth or humor in this crowd! Once I had the food square, I could finally sit down and mingle.The sun came around to sparkle in the sky and make everyone wince because our eyes had grown unaccustomed to it's glare. We laughed, told jokes and stories, noshed on mini pasties and grazed on not one but 2 birthday cakes as it was Ralph's birthday as well.
It was a lovely, lovely day, and the crown jewel of my entire trip.
Before we knew it, the afternoon which had been months in the planning had come and gone, and there were just 4 of us left. Jeffrey and Clive kibitzed in the sitting room while William and I did the dishes. Before Jeffrey and I headed back to the inn to collapse and to plot our final day in London, we sat and enjoyed one last round of excellent conversation over that DELICIOUS Fortnum & Mason tea.
It was hard to believe that my time in London was ending. Hadn't I just arrived?
When I was a teenager my Mother remarried, and my stepfather (read creep extraordinaire) had a stash of OUI magazines that he made no attempt to conceal from my virgin eyes. If they'd been a stash of Honcho's I might have been more intrigued. But I digress.
I know the same 6 French words that all Americans know. Oui, naturally.
If I had not been traveling with someone who knew French, I likely would have immersed myself in a copy of French For Dummies ahead of time. Since Jeffrey speaks some French, all I needed to do was smile and say "Merci!" most of the time. No work at all. That's why its called a vacation.
On the train to Paris Jeffrey informed that the French really pronounce it 'whe' not 'weeee'. Whe rhymes with meh. Read that how you like.
April In Paris
The train ride to Paris was speedy and so civilized. That little tunnel they dug underneath the channel awhile back was a brilliant idea, if I do say so myself. We may have stopped in the club car for cocktails.
Our room at the boutique hotel Le Relais Saint Charles was an exquisite jewel (read tiny but chic and really well appointed). And each morning we enjoyed the most decent "continental breakfast" I've ever encountered. I went expecting glorious pastry, Paris delivered the goods. Oui!
Honestly the Paris leg is such a blur. I was far more of a tourist in France.
The Eiffel Tower, The Louvre (I saw that little tart The Mona Lisa and her cheeky smirk!), Notre Dame, Bassilique du Sacre Coeur, and I do believe that we crossed every glorious bridge that arcs La Seine Magnifique...all in the driving rain. We also spent quite a bit of time turned around, which truly was fine with me because I saw more of Paris "off the beaten track" than I might have otherwise. Sometimes being lost is a good thing. Oui!
We had all of the glorious restaurants in Paris to dine in, yet each night we ended up back at the brasserie next door to the hotel. It was a tich rowdy, wonderfully authentic, and had divine vittles. We may have shared some wine...Oui!
Merci, dear Jeffrey. Merci.
My temperamental (read piece of crap) little camera once again proved to be unreliable, so there's little photo documentation of Le Grande Adventure. I'll simply have to savor the snapshots of my memory. And there are dozens upon dozens of them. I'll remember forever how it rained, and rained...and rained. If I'm honest, it rained a bit on the inside too. Upon returning home (via the most painful airport dash in recorded history) I have to admit that I wasn't sure if I felt cleansed, or soggy. Maybe I just needed a few days to dry out.
Since I returned home a week ago, many have asked for tales of my adventure. I've put off sharing them, saying that in a nutshell it was "A journey of many discoveries." After crossing that ocean I can tell you that the biggest discovery of all is that life's greatest adventures lie not in the journey, but in the heart. I'm ready for more.