I flew into London on an over-cast Tuesday. It would be my first trip across the ‘pond’ and I could hardly contain my excitement on the plane. I didn’t sleep, and at what would have been 2:00am, our plane scuffed its heels at Gatwick. The conference I was attending was in Bristol, some 200 km west from London. And I, the perpetual adventurer, decided that rather than rely on public transport, I would rent a car and make the drive across England myself.
At 3.00am, Central Standard Time, I procured a small Mr. Bean car-let, and jumped into the driver’s side. Of course, being that I was without sleep, I found myself sitting on the English passengers side. I laughed embarrassingly as I climbed back out of the car, and blushed at the oddly handsome Rental Car dealer. I felt like I had failed a test, and that at any moment, this man would figure out that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing in a British car and would reverse his decision to rent it to me. But, he smiled back, probably thinking about the stupidity of Americans. I jumped into the correct side of the car and pulled out.
My first challenge was the roundabout, pronounced, round-a-boot. Look left, whoops, look right and pull out to the center. A full 720 degrees later I recalled my exit and merged over.
“Yes, I’m a silly American! I’ve never driven in the U.K. before! That’s right, honk on!” I answered the car horns and grumpy faces battling airport rush hour.
I found myself driving the longest route around London, on my way west toward Bristol. I stayed in the farthest left lane, even drifted into the shoulder a few times not knowing how to account for rest of the car that was on my left. London is foggy, dreary and overcast in November, well, most of the rest of the year as well. But, my plan for viewing the beautiful countryside of Britain was foiled by the eight-lane highway and thick fog.
One hour, and who knows how many kilometers later, I pulled off of the highway in search of breakfast. It was now nearing 5.00am CST and I was as foggy as the sky. A small café for hotel guests was open.
“One regular breakfast and a cup of coffee please.” I requested, sitting my weary limbs into a heavy chair.
“Sure thing love!” the waitress replied. They really do say, “love” here! And I love that, although the smile I attempted to flash was heavy and forced. I collapse my torso over the map that lay pressed on the table glass. The coffee arrived, thank you! And with a few brown drips over the English Channel, I could clearly tell that I was almost half-way to my destination.
Bristol was a college town, and my conference was at the University. A few colleagues knew that I was on my way, but did not know exactly when I would arrive. And the way it was going, I didn’t know when I would arrive either, if at all.
Breakfast was questionable. The term ‘bacon’ is a loose interpretation of “pig ear”, as the folded browned meat lay across a large helping of baked beans. Okay, this was a new one that I hadn’t expected. The eggs were runny, and rather than fight gravity, I withheld my normal food segregation and mixed it all together. As tired and I was, there was no use fighting anything, much less the mess of slop in front of my face. Coffee to go was not an option here, and I paid my tab and made my way back to the highway.
Another half-hour, I stopped at a large gas station and filled the tank. My head was bobbing a bit, and my hands were sweating in anxiety. Rather than falling asleep while driving, I opted for the “let’s just park the car and take a cat nap in the parking lot” plan. The car was toasty when I fell asleep under my heavy coat, but when I stirred an hour later, my breath was visible and the windows were icing. More coffee from the gas station and I was off again to Bristol.
Finally, a full two hours outside London, the countryside of Great Britain was opening up. Rolling hills dotted with meager cottages, brooding trees leaning again the wind. Obstinate was the nature of Britain, just as it’s nature was quite obstinate. “Despite this being your vacation, you will receive brutal winds, and little visibility, but hey, Enjoy Your Trip!”
I rolled into Bristol city limits at around 9am CST. I cared not for what actual time it was in Bristol, as my body and mind were still attached to my now, 24 hour day. A shower and a bed would help me to fully arrive, and once I found a hotel or my colleagues at the college, I would be able to decipher what time zone I was operating within. I found a pay phone in a parking lot and slipped change into the crevice and dialed Basil’s number.
Basil was a Polish student at the University of Bristol. He was my ‘connection’. Really, he and I began speaking online through a capoeira website forum, and when I informed him that I would be coming to Bristol for the capoeira graduation, he offered me a place to stay while I was in town. Normally I would have been suspicious, except that the Bristol professor that I did know, recommended him.
“Is this Basil?”
“Yes, it is? Who is this please?”
“It’s me, you know, your long awaited guest from the US?”
“Oh yes, yes! Have you arrived in Bristol now?”
“Yes, just now. Should I come to your flat now, or meet you at the University?”
“At the University will be fine, we are but twenty minutes from the opening ceremony.”
My map of Bristol also included the layout for the University, which was just a short distance. It took me about twenty minutes to find a parking spot and I darted into the gymnasium, looking around like a lost child. Have you seen my Mommy? I thought to myself, and chuckled. There, across the gym, was Basil. Tall, lanky, the intellectual Pole. Fuzzy unkempt hair, and dark rimmed glasses held firmly against his face by a most austere and pronounced nose.
“Yes! Hello and Welcome!” Basil turned to his fellows and added, “This is our American guest. She will be staying for the graduation and I believe teaching as well?”
I shuttered. Never had I heard anything about teaching. What would workshop would I lead? Was I on a schedule of some sort? I began plotting and problem solving within the moment. Basil noticed I was turning cogs within my head and put his hand on my shoulder,
“Relax. I was kidding! Sorry, it is not fair to joke after you’ve come such a long way.”
“Oh, Oh!” I replied, surprised and stumped. “Well, it’s alright.” I smiled. “Although, Basil, would it be too much to ask to go back to your flat now and skip on the meet and greet?”
“But of course!”
And with one turn on his heels, we were walking out of the door. We got into my compact car and battled traffic and more whirling roundabouts back to his flat. Tugging my luggage, I stepped in through the front door.
“Let me introduce you to my flat mates. This is Gloria and Bertram, she is from the Virgin Islands, he is from Sierra Leon. They live on the second story, next to the bathroom.” I nodded and greeted them and walked further into the flat.
“And this is Helena, she is from Paris. She lives in the room next to the kitchenette.”
Again I smiled and walked further into the flat.
“And finally, this is Issak. He is my roommate, also from Poland.”
Issak was also an intellectual Pole. Similar in stature to Basil, but more UK rocker in appearance. Basil and Issak showed me to the living space I would be living in. I took in a deep sigh and collapsed onto the bed. For the first time in more than a day, I was settled in one place.
My eyes grew heavy and I stirred a little once I heard in the muffled distance that Basil and Issak were laughing at me. I had dozed off sitting up, within a few minutes of sitting down, but I was swaying as if I was still moving. I had been used to the movement of the plane, the car and even the bustling networking at the lecture hall, and now that I was able to be still, I was still feeling the movement. Dancing within the stillness. Dancing for the Poles. I blinked my weary lids and gave another smile, laughing at myself with them. Who knew that I would have come such a long way to find home in the Bristol flat of 2 Poles, a French girl, and a West African and Caribbean couple. No matter where I go, there I am and the world always surprises me.
I have found myself in the middle of chaos and beauty, traveling with lovers and friends and strangers who became lovers and friends. These are stories within stories, compounded and compacted by each subsequent experience. My grandchildren may never hear these stories, for I may never have grandchildren in which to tell, or I may not even remember by then. The point is, now I remember and now I will tell the story. These quirky little life lessons feel more powerful when I acknowledge them and pass the story on. Pass yours on.