The flight was delayed by an hour, so we didn’t board until 11pm. As soon as I stepped on, I informed the flight attendant that I required a bottle of water with which to swallow the tranquilizers my doctor had prescribed. Though this was my second flight to England in four months, I still dreaded the flight. The attendant gave me some water, I popped the pills, and walked back to my seat. I’d paid extra for an exit row with a window. Well there was no window. I told the flight attendant that I HAD TO HAVE A WINDOW. HAD TO. And she said the guy behind me wanted an exit row seat because he had long legs and would I like to change with him? I said yes, but should have demanded the extra $45 I spent to get that seat instead of his.
I promptly fell asleep. I then woke up and the world was very confusing because it had seemed that we’d departed at 11, and yet the sun was rising an hour later:
Whatever. I couldn’t sleep so I took pictures of the display telling the passengers how close we were to our destination.
Finally, I arrived in London. Magical moment! I felt like a badass because I knew exactly where I was going this time. I zipped past the confused tourists directly to immigration where, shock of shocks, I was second in queue! When it was my turn, the UK immigration officer was very polite (as always). He looked at my passport then at me, and I grinned broadly.
“Sorry,” I said, “I’m a bit punchy after a long flight.” He smiled good-naturedly and then allowed me to pass. I arrived at the baggage carousel and grabbed my bags, then zoomed through customs (NOTHING TO DECLARE).
Then bang! There he was. The one I had come to see. Paul was waiting right behind the barrier and as soon as I saw him, I felt myself grin. As soon as I got to the exit, I hugged him tight.
As he took my bags I took his arm and said what I always say when I arrive in London and see him. “Whenever I get gloomy about the state of the world, I always think of the arrivals gate at Heathrow airport…” It’s the first line from Love, Actually – a movie that we both love.
We found our way to his car and then made me giggle uncontrollably because it was so different from any car in America that’s I’d seen.
We drove toward Whitchurch, about sixty miles away. but first we stopped in Basingstoke, where we had lunch at a place called Coal.
It was actually quite good food. As the mist and rain poured outside huge windows, Paul kept checking his phone because his sister in law was in labour. Finally, during our meal, he announced that the baby had been born. Her name was Abigail Elisabeth and she was in perfect health. It was such a special moment – it felt auspicious to arrive just as the baby was being born. Incidentally Paul’s brother is married to a Norwegian woman, and lives in Norway. So it felt a bit like the UN, being in England waiting for news about the arrival of a baby in Norway. This feeling would only intensify when the Scotsman arrived. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Paul drove us to his parent’s home.
I felt really nervous and also really tired. The first moment I met his parents, I just thought they were wonderful. His mum was so cheery and bright and made me feel right at home. His father was incredibly quick (meaning he got my jokes and turned them on me in an instant.) We hung out for a while, then his mum invited us to get in our comfy clothes and join them in the living room.
If I had to pinpoint a moment when I felt like one of the family it was when they encouraged me to get in my pajamas in the middle of the day. I LOVE THEM SO MUCH!
So Paul’s mum showed me my room, which was marvelous. His mum had made me a gift bag, which I didn’t see at first. It held a cute foldable bag with my name on it (which would come in very handy in a few days), a beautiful cashmere wrap for those cool English evenings, and a beautiful red pillow that had English phrases in the shape of a heart. I would only see the wrap, which I loved. It would be another day before I realized that pretty violet bag… the one with the bedazzling on it… the one that was ON MY BED WHEN I ARRIVED? Yeah, that was meant for me. But I was taken with the whole experience of being back in England, with Paul and his family. The whole house, in fact, was beautiful and comfy and full of life. It just had such good vibrant yet mellow energy. After dressing in my pajama bottoms and a sweatshirt, we joined his parents in the living room and ate an informal dinner of the best fish and chips I’d ever had. It was incredible how light and flakey the fish was. The chips were fat-cut and tasty as well. It was the perfect welcome to England. After dinner, we watched a program on the Queen’s coronation. Thus stuffed with fish, with the guy I’m crazy about, I was helpless to resist shutting my eyes during the program. A few minutes later, woke up only when it was dead quiet. They were watching me – and Paul too, for he had fallen asleep as well.
Oops. They were very empathetic and Paul and I went upstairs, I to my room, him to the room across the hall.
The next morning, I woke to gentle tapping against my door. I called “come in” and Paul stuck his head in. “Good morning, my love,” he said, holding a cup of something hot. “I brought you some tea.”
Oh heaven. Yes, I could get used to this. I took the drink and sipped. It was laden with milk and smelled divine. Paul chatted with me for a bit and let me wake up, then departed so I could get ready. Today we were going to Highclere.
As I wandered downstairs, I noted the weather was cool and clear. Absolutely perfect. It was the week when temps in DC were hitting over 100 degrees so a respite from that kind of weather was most welcome. We had breakfast, then Paul, his father and I piled into the family sedan and motored toward Highclere.
Paul’s sister, beautiful and funny and smart Maria, was meeting us there with her boyfriend, who is Scottish. The first image Highclere made pinpoint tears come to my eyes. It was so beautiful. And America has nothing like it.
We Americans, of course, do not have royalty nor do we have aristocrats, so homes like these are just not part of our cultural history. We stepped out of the car, and there it was, in living color. Seeing it just took my breath away.
Maria and Carl arrived. We said hellos and walked together to buy tickets. Paul also surreptitiously bought me a guidebook memento, which would become the habit every place we went. Pictures were not allowed inside the house, unfortunately. It was absolutely, bone-shakingly beautiful. Though it sounds silly to say so, it was actually quite livable. There was nothing stodgy about it, which surprised me. We paused at the tiny cafe and I had a cup of tea and for the first time in my life, Scottish short bread. It was very nice.
Walking outside, I took the opportunity to capture more pictures.
This is around back, where the gift shop was, and the trash disposal. Nothing was too insignificant to capture my interest.
Paul bought me a beautiful necklace in the gift shop, plus some magnets, postcards, and other sweet things. I decided then that I would start collecting magnets and postcards.
We bid farewell to Maria and Carl, who were going to continue to walk for a while and then meet us back at the house for dinner. As we meandered off the Highclere property, it seemed to go on forever.
As we finally departed, it was agreed that we’d visit Sandham Memorial Chapel.
Photography was not permitted inside, but the images to this day are seared in my memory. Amazing and moving experience.
After that, we motored back to Whitchurch, where we encamped at a pub. I got a Coke, a beer, and a water and soaked in the atmosphere and bantered with Paul and his father.
We didn’t have lunch because Paul’s mother had spent the day preparing a “real English roast dinner.” I had no idea what this would entail, but I was looking forward to it. Meanwhile, before returning to the vehicle, we strolled through the little hamlet. It was like a fairytale.
I couldn’t stop sighing with the sheer pleasure and joy of being there. It was just so lovely, and I was there with the only person in the world I wanted to be with. Paul’s father was witty beyond belief and I just felt so comfortable and happy.
We then returned home. Paul’s mum was working in the kitchen and I stopped to chat with her for a while. We both enjoy cooking. But I had never seen anything like what was going on in that kitchen. She told me to relax, so I ran upstairs to take a quick shower and dress for dinner. By dressing for dinner I mean pajama bottoms and a big comfy sweater. When I came down, Maria was there. Carl would join us for dinner on Saturday. We all sat around the living room chatting until dinner was called.
When dinner was called, this is what it looked like:
Roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, vegetables… my eyes oggled. It smelled amazing. I don’t remember ever having such an extravagant family dinner. The Yorkshire pudding, particularly, looked appetizing. Paul had attempted to describe Yorkshire pudding to me, but I couldn’t quite picture it. In person… oh man. It’s like a thick croissant. It’s delicious.
Then Paul’s mom said that for dessert we’d have Eton Mess. Again, I had no idea what this was. But one look, and I knew I’d love it.
It is a fine confection of cream and strawberries and something else. It isn’t just strawberries thrown in a bowl of Cool Whip. In any case, Paul and I kept laughing over the dreamy “English Strawberries.” We are both huge fans of both Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, and we both have this skit memorized, in which they rhapsodize over “English strawberries and cream”.
The dessert was just amazing. So good. After dinner, I felt blissfully full and content. We hung out in the living room, watching their cat, Portia, and talking. Around 11pm, I was spent. Still a little jetlagged, I could hardly resist when Paul asked if I’d like to go to bed.
The next morning, after Paul again served me tea in bed, Paul and I went into Winchester. We had breakfast at a small French cafe where, for the first time in my life, I tried hollandaise sauce on some eggs:
It was far too rich. I had to scrape off most of it. But still, it was delicious.
I was amused to see this as we strolled on the high street. Obviously they knew I was coming.
We stopped at Thornton’s, a choclatier, where I bought ten bags of fruit creams because they are not available in the United States. I also admired some shoes in a window, so asked to go inside. I ended up buying three pairs of shoes, one of which was literally identical to the ones I was currently wearing. To Paul’s credit, he uttered not one word of protest.
We finally got to our destination: Winchester Cathedral. In March, Paul and I had toured Westminster Abbey and this one was quite similar. He helpfully pointed out that at one time, this small town had been the Capital of England. It was just so beautiful.
Inside, Paul once again bought me a guide book while I stared in awe.
When you experience churches like this, something becomes very clear to you. That is people honestly, truly believe in God. There is no other reason to build something so beautiful, so momentous, so staggeringly awe-inspiringly beautiful. Their belief was genuine. And whether or not you believe in God, whether you think he cares about you, you have to be in awe at the conviction of those souls who built these structures to worship the God they were sure exists. I got very still inside when I witnessed it.
I was fascinated by the centuries-old graffiti. 1582, for freck’s sake! The person who etched that into the wall lived two hundred years before my country was even born.
We descended into the crypt, which was flooded. It has flooded for centuries. It houses a haunting statue by Antony Gormley. It perfectly quiet and still and peaceful.
I felt very sombre when I saw Jane Austen’s grave. I would get to know her much better on this trip – in ways I could not fathom at that moment.
Then I laughed and took a picture when Paul bent down to check out something on this crypt. Just so wrong.
Emerging from the cathedral, I felt full of grace. I felt like I’d been touched by something – exposed to true art, to the concept of age. I had seen the crypts of ancient kings and queens in Westminster Abbey, but somehow, these “lesser” kings and queens – names sunk deeper in history – were somehow more real to me. The experience was vivid and electrifying. But modern England continued apace.
We tucked into the gift shop where I collected some moments, and I picked up a book called The World of Jane Austen’s Novels. I flipped through it, admiring it, and for some crazy reason decided to put it down.
We then decided to drive to a wee town where Paul knew of a great pub. The sky was darkening and mists would occasionally descend. English weather suits me perfectly. I love the softness of it, everything diffused through the tulle of fog. I relaxed while Paul piloted us over the hills, mentioning only in passing that I wish I hadn’t put down that Jane Austen book.
At the Hinton Arms, I ordered cottage pie. In the US, we call it Shepard’s Pie. But Shepard’s Pie in England is made with lamb. In the US, it’s made with beef. Shepard’s Pie but with beef is called Cottage Pie. The meal was delicious but the portion was enormous. I could barely eat half.
After lunch, we decided to head into Petersfield, a delightful and charming village that was decked out in a Union Jacks up the wazoo. It was interesting to note the differences in American and British patriotism, which is that America’s is much more bold. The pretty Olympic flags that criss crossed the street lamps over our head as we walked the high street is much more subtle than the USA! USA! USA! type displays. There was much less emotion behind it.
We found a shop for cream tea – I had been promised a cream tea. Paul’s father had said they were “about ten thousand calories” but I couldn’t figure out why. It was just tea, wasn’t it? Wrongo, Americano.
The shop had run out of proper scones so they gave us scones that already had strawberry jam and whipped cream on them. They also supplied little pots of fresh jam and big pots of clotted cream. Note that I had no idea what clotted cream was. I just followed Paul’s lead and scraped off the whipped cream, replacing it with fresh jam and a bit of clotted cream, which was the consistency of butter. My first bite erased many childhood traumas.
They were simply beyond anything I’d dare taste for dessert here in the USA. It was strange that England has such a poor reputation for food when honestly I’d never eaten better. But the scones were just Act One in a food drama that was about to get serious.
We found a Physic Garden and wandered through the aisles as a gentle rain started. It was so lovely I didn’t want to leave.
We drove home through the misty rain. Upon arriving home, we got in our cozy clothes and spent the day pottering around the house. For a while, Paul and I sat on the sofa, each with our iPads, listening to the rain and his parents talk. I explored the back garden of the house, and then Paul suggested we gather to watch Peter’s Friends, a movie starring (who else?) Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Paul’s mum brought us a blanket and we settled on the sofa to watch. It was a terrific movie, and notable because the exact roast dinner we had after Highclere was portrayed in the movie. When served, the actress says, “Should I just call an ambulance now?” We roared with laughter.
That night, Paul’s parents went up to bed and we stayed downstairs, talking and watching a BBC program on Egyptian relics, a subject that was rather fascinating to me since my visit to Highclere. The Earl of Carnarvon, who built Highclere before the first world war, was an avid Egyptologist and had discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun. In the cellars of the great house is a rather astonishing collection of Egyptian treasures. We had toured the display with fascination. I was eager for more info and marveled at the fact that BBC has no commercials in any of their programming.
We retired to bed before midnight, and I promptly fell asleep.
I woke up again to Paul serving hot tea. It was now Tuesday, and we had planned to take the train into London with the other early-morning commuters. Paul’s father was kind enough to drive us to the train station, and we bought first class tickets to London. While waiting on the platform, I noted the women’s dress. Many of the ladies were dressed to the nines, and I felt a moment’s self-consciousness in my jeans and black scarf. In any case, we boarded the train and zoomed into my favourite city in the world.
We departed Waterloo Station.
We walked through the tunnel with a beautiful poem on the walls.
My first glimpse of London made my heart flutter in my chest.
I was practically running and racing ahead; I wanted so much to see Somerset House. I had fallen in love with Somerset House in March, and I wanted to see it again like an old friend. My first glimpse was met with a feeling of continuity and – almost like I experienced at Winchester Cathedral – the sense of time being preserved, encapsulated. Sure it was no longer the beautiful private home of the Duke of Somerset; it had been transformed into a house of bureaucrats and community affairs. But the ghosts lingered and I could smell them.
Before we made our foray inside, we had decided we’d stop at Pret a Manger to have a quick breakfast – my favourite English breakfast of cheese and tomato toasties and orange juice. We ate seated at the window, lost in our own thoughts. I was remembering the first time we ate at Pret together, in March. I reached over to squeeze Paul’s leg. We talked about London, and I took it in from my vantage point. I just love the city. The red double-deckes busses that, like the red phone boxes, shine and pop in the misty grey light. The politeness of the people. The beauty of the weather.
After we finished our breakfast, we went around to the courtyard of Somerset House. We had been planning this trip for months. Or rather, Paul had been. Paul knows that I am absolutely stark-raving mad for Vincent Van Gogh, so he made sure I could have a date with him while in London.
We wandered in the vast cobbled courtyard.
I took a screen shot of my phone at that moment because “London Fashion Week”, which takes place at Somerset House, was on.
We noted there was a cafe inside the house, and so it was decided that though we’d just partaken of breakfast, we really should get some replenishment.
We made our way through the great building to a balcony, which overlooked the Thames.
We then found our way to the Courtauld Gallery, which is part of Somerset House, technically the gate house.
I had been dying with anticipation to see the Van Gogh, so I was not prepared to be so taken with the whole collection.
I turned a corner and my dead boyfriend stood staring at me. I might have accidentally yalped.
Oh dear God. How do I even begin to describe what this painting means to me? I don’t think I can, actually. I will just say that it strikes me as extremely honest. Van Gogh did not shy away from painting himself with a slashed ear – what must that have been like for him? I stared at the portrait; Paul was in the other room, admiring some other paintings. When he found me, he noted that the corners of the painting were not done. The paint was very thin, so thin, in fact, you could see the canvas beneath. That is not like Van Gogh at all – he used very thick strokes. Only then, I recognized that this was his last self-portrait, and he was only months from death. His mind must have been whirring as he painted.
When I could finally tear myself away, we meandered through the gallery and found some Michaelangelo and Di Vinci.
We returned to the main house and I bought the only copies of the history of Somerset House:
Before we’d left, Paul suggested I bring along the small bag his mother had given me as a welcome gift. I was glad I had it then. We tucked the books into the bag and made our way to the gift shop where I browsed. When we left, Paul said he had something for me. It was a Van Gogh magnet to go with my collection, and a precious book:
An aside: It is marvelous to be involved with someone who knows you so well.
We tucked the book with the others, and then went to Cafe Nero and had a coffee and tried to decide what to do now. We decided another trip to Waterstones was in order. I bought six books – and looked for the Jane Austen book I’d set aside at Winchester Cathedral. No luck. “We’ll go back,” Paul said. “You should have that book.”
Meanwhile, he took me on a tour of The Temple, one of the Inns of Court. Paul, a barrister, had his chambers nearby, and so we wandered through the crooks and alleys of a Dickensian scene. I took a few pictures.
We then went to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Again, Paul bought me a guidebook, and we wandered the ancient cathedral in awe and wonder. I felt the same thing I felt in Winchester Cathedral. That time was safe. There was nothing to worry about, ever, because time itself was always going to be locked in these beautiful gilded walls.
Upon visiting the giftshop, I bought him a rosary, and one for myself. We then repaired for lunch. We chose a nearby French restaurant.
I ordered salad nicoise.
I also ordered the most delightful wine I’ve ever had. It was the Chenin Blanc. It was very light, fruity. Tart and smooth at the same time.
Following lunch, we made our way across the Millennium Bridge.
Whereupon we arrived at the Tate Modern.
An exhibit of both Damien Hirst and Edvard Munch was ongoing, and I was quite excited by the prospect of seeing Damien Hirst. However, I was not so keen to queue for twenty minutes for the privilege. Thus, Paul and I decided to just go to the Tate gift shop. Paul, who draws quite well, bought several items to carry his pencils and several sketchpads. I bought numerous books and, of course, magnets and postcards. As we left, we felt quite pleased with ourselves.
At this point, we decided that we were bored with London. (I’ve always wanted to use that in a sentence.) We returned home, and his father picked us up at the train station. As we got inside the house, I changed into my running clothes. Both Paul and his father admonished me to look left when I cross the road! They were both concerned – not without cause – that I would get lost, so they mapped out a quick route for me. I bid them goodbye and set off. It always feels so good and interesting to run in a new place. This place, with its far different rules and a desperately ancient beauty, made me feel as if I had unlimited energy. I wanted very much to explore every corner of the small town, and almost did because I promptly got lost. I saw a sign that said, “Footpath” and remembered both Paul and his father telling me about a footpath called The Lynch. I wondered if that was the Lynch. If I was right, I’d be able to surprise them by telling them I’d already seen it. I flung myself down the pathway and immediately was stopped by a barrier in the form of the River Test.
It was so lovely I wanted to cry. Again, it was all Evelyn Waugh and hanging trees, beautiful white swans…
I began to run again, and quickly realized I’d missed my turnoff. I figured it out because there was no more sidewalk.
So I turned around and stopped ever so often to take pictures.
Upon arriving home, I took a shower and to my embarrassment, realized they’d been waiting for me to eat. I quickly sat and ate. We ended the evening by watching some QI, which featured – of course – Stephen Fry.
The next morning – Wednesday – we again piled into Paul’s father’s sedan, with the ladies in the back and the men in the front. Paul’s mum and I gossiped and chatted as we rose across the Salisbury Plain toward the shore. We arrived at our destination: Portchester Castle.
It is hard not to swoon when you see an actual castle. I learned – not at the first moment, but by the end – that there is a limit to how much awesomeness one can experience in a day. My imagination was aflame, all the history, the ancient beauty, the fun of being with Paul’s parents, and the sheer thrill of being in this beautiful place with Paul… it all just seemed to blow out some happiness perimeter I didn’t even know I had.
It began to throw down rain so we gathered in the gift shop and Paul gallantly ran back to the car and got the waterproofs we’d brought with us. While waiting for him, Paul’s mum handed me something. A book about England. “A prezzy for you, dear.”
I felt blown away by their thoughtfulness. I thanked her and hugged her and then when Paul returned, he carried it for me in his pocket.
Thus fortified, we tramped through the mud and rain to the Keep.
We then wandered over to a small, ancient Saxon church on the grounds.
Sodden and tired, we decided to have lunch. We walked the short distance into the village to a warm and charming pub, The Cormorant.
I made the error of asking for “hot tea”. Paul’s mum leaned over and said, “You don’t have to ask for it hot.” I remembered then that all tea in England is hot. After a lovely, lively lunch, we returned to the castle and walked out on the beach. I was amused to realize that I was looking in the direction of France. It was just that way, over a few miles of freezing, shark-infested water.
It began to rain quite heavily again so we were chased to the car. Paul’s father decided to take the pretty way home, so we ended up threading through a truly gorgeous village called Selborne. At one point I could stand the beauty no longer without possessing a piece of it so asked him to stop the car so I could take a picture of the rolling hills and the languid sheep.
Arriving home, I walked into Paul’s room to talk with him, sat on his bed, and promptly fell asleep. I only slept for about fifteen minutes, but it felt like ages. When I woke, his mum said they were worried about me. I assured her it was only the jetlag catching up with me.
That evening, we went out for Indian food. The meal was delicious, and at the end of it, the bartender sent round complementary aperitifs. “To England!” I said.
“To the USA,” Paul said.
Then the bartender said, “To everyone’s health,” and to that, we all drank.
The plan for Thursday was to drive to Oxford. On the picturesque drive, Paul and I talked about the future. Paul is very English – meaning he is rather silent on the messy subject of emotions – so this was actually quite lovely. I was enjoying my time in his country, with his parents, and most of all with him. I told him so.
We arrived at the park-and-ride. Oxford is an ancient city with narrow, cobbled lanes and regular passenger cars are not permitted on the roads. I would notice that there were only big red busses and a few taxis. But at the moment, I just cared about seeing the city. We boarded the bus and a few minutes later, Paul said, “This is our stop.”
Oxford, England is simply stunning. One is likely to see a house built in Shakespeare’s time right beside a modern glass-and-chrome restaurant, right beside a 1700s building, right beside a stone house from 1502. The sheer strata of the place is disarming. As we strolled up the high road toward Radcliffe Camera, I felt that weird sense of time again. I felt it underlying everything, the old firmly planted beneath the fluid new.
Paul and I went into Blackwells, a bookshop that puts anything I’ve ever sen in the USA to shame. I would have spent a fortune in there but for the fact that I knew I had to carry my loot home with me. So I took pictures of every book I wanted and waited until I was stateside then ordered them from Amazon. We also ventured into Blackwell’s art shop, where Paul bought a few things, and I bought some more magnets and postcards.
We paused at the Bodleian Library and bought a few trinkets in the gift shop, including, of course, magnets and post cards. Once we were in the sunny courtyard again, Paul stopped me, and handed me a small present: a little notepad with a very touching Shakespeare quote, and a postcard that hit me in just the right way, like a stiletto shoved between the ribs.
We paused for lunch at the Bear Inn, the most ancient pub in Oxford. The rule is, if you wear a tie that they’ve never seen before, they cut it off and hang it on the wall. As I drank my half-pint of beer and nibbled my Greek salad, I was amused to see over our table neckties with notes from the 1950s.
Paul said that he knew of a place where another Van Gogh was displayed. I marveled at this man’s care; he actually took the time to see if there were any Van Gogh paintings in Oxford, knowing I’d love it. Dazed his thoughtfulness, I simply said okay. So we made our way to the world class Ashmolean Museum.
My first impression was that it was a world of wonder. Ancient monies, ancient documents, full-size actual mummies… this museum houses one of the most dizzyingly varied collections I’ve ever seen. Of course, we bought some goodies at the gift shop, including magnets and postcards. But then we found what I didn’t dare hope we might:
It is an unusual Van Gogh in that it is lighter than some of his other works. It is also beautiful in person. After I fell back to earth, I found myself very much loving this portrait of peonies:
And I could hardly take my eyes off this sculpture of Satan.
After this, I was quite tired. Seeing so much was rather overstimulating. Paul suggested we refresh ourselves with a nice cup of tea at the five-star Randolph Hotel, right across from the museum. We did so. Paul told me that one of his favourite shows, as well as his father’s, is Morse. I’d never heard of it, but Paul described it as a detective show that takes place in Oxford. The Randolph features in the show, and in the bar, where we had tea, there were portraits on the walls of the actors. Furthermore, when I asked for the wi-fi password, I was told it was “Lewis15″, Lewis being Morse’s sidekick.
The tea was delicious, and served with some rich Scottish shortbread.
After relaxing for a while, we concluded our day’s adventure. We walked back in a light rain to the bus stop and returned to Paul’s car. When we arrived at home, Paul’s mum had made some squash soup and other goodies for dinner. We spent the evening on our iPads watching Instigram for new pictures of Paul’s newborn niece, and watching an episode of Morse, which I found utterly charming. Every five minutes, I’d say, “I’ve been there.” Or “I saw that today.”
“Jane Austen Day” dawned grey and misty. Perfect. It’s England, for chrissakes, let it rain! We ate a nice meal at the same place in Winchester where I’d had my eggs with hollandaise sauce, then we went back to the gift shop, where Paul found the book I’d put down before, thus deleting the regret I’d harbored for days. We then walked around and found the place where the great authoress died.
As we walked back to the car, we stopped at Marks & Spencer because I wanted to buy new knickers. I don’t know what it is about that place, but they have *the best* underwear known to womankind. I also picked up two bras which are the best ones I own (and yes, I own some Wacoal and La Perla. I’m telling you, these bras are made of crack and diamonds.)
Paul led me to the place to buy tickets, which is also – wait for it – the gift shop. We both agreed we’d shop after we browsed. Our first stop was the garage, which housed the family carriage.
There was a table where one could write with a quill, and visitors wrote all kinds of messages.
The home itself, filled with the family’s belongings, touched me in a way I didn’t quite understand at the time. This is Jane’s dress.
In a corner there was a notebook to write messages about what Jane’s books meant to you. I found this one adorable. (It says,”Pride and Prejudice was written while Jane was alive. Grace King, 8 years.”)
And then, I saw it. The table where she wrote Pride and Prejudice as well as Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and Emma. It is so tiny. Utterly tiny.
When I saw it, I was overcome. In a very un-English move, tears sprang to my eyes. It was just so strange and so moving being that close to … to.. genius. Again, that feeling of time – of being so close and connected as well as separated by time… It was just a very precious moment. My body thrummed with inspired, my mind whirled with ideas and energy. Jane worked at that tiny table with a quill pen and managed to produce some of the most compelling, popular literature in history. I will never again fret over the size of my desk.
Upon arriving home, Paul’s mum gave us some tea and we spent the rest of the afternoon keeping an eye on the rain and playing on our iPads, talking to Paul’s parents. Paul and I spent a lot of time with his parents, in fact. We asked each other questions about America and England, and his father would sometimes pass a magazine to me to let me read something amusing. I enjoyed those cozy afternoons just as much as the outings.
Paul, his parents, and I had breakfast at a restaurant in Andover. Another ancient city. Another beautiful cathedral. After breakfast, Paul and I were going to Stonehenge and his parents would return home. Paul and I had asked his parents to join us for our drive to Stonehenge, but they said no thank you. In fact, they seemed downright jaded about it. “You can see it from the road,” his father said. “I see it all the time.”
I tried to imagine what it was like to see a wonder of the world anytime you got on the motorway but my mind went blank.
After we split from his parents, we walked around a bit in the market and then bought another bag for me to haul home all my books and presents.
Then as we were walking down the high street, his father suddenly appeared. “I got something for you,” he said, and handed me a small red book. It was a 1921 edition of a book of English essays. I felt like I was holding something precious in my hand, and I thanked him profusely.
After we left, Paul smiled. “I told you they like you.”
We set off to see Stonehenge. My first glimpse of it over a small hill was surreal. The stones were simply there, existing, like in the pictures. “It’s motherfucking Stonehenge!” I shouted.
I was dismayed by the huge crowds, but Paul had anticipated them. He said it was always crowded – another reason the parental units declined our invitation.
We parked near a field that was filled with beautiful white sheep – another idyl – and then we tromped through the mud to the ticket area. The throngs were simply stifling. One could hear all manner of world languages in the air: Japanese, Norwegian, Italian. Touring coaches arrived by the dozens even as we made our way toward the stones.
Seeing the stones was strange: I knew that… that… thing almost as part of my own genetic history. I stared in wonder, and the profound question pounded at me like a heartbeat: What is it?
Paul and I took some pictures, pushing past the other tourists, trying to snap pictures without other tourists in them, and generally trying to experience this as a personal event – not a public one. We talked quietly, speculating what it could be. A holy site, yes. But what was it? I’d read a report from Cambridge about a year ago that speculated that Stonehenge had been the center of a huge, thriving community. I found absolutely no purchase in that theory. The land is vast and empty. There are no relics anywhere. The only sign of any culture was the remnants of fire and possibly mud huts. There were no other stone structures, not even any wooden ones. There were, however, other burial mounds all around the area.
Assuming it was a sparsely populated area, sixty miles from the source of the stones, the people who built it meant it as some kind of tribute to God. I recognize that effort — I’d seen it earlier that week at Winchester Cathedral and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
But … that only explained the nature of it. It didn’t explain what it was.
When we popped into the gift shop, it was so crowded I literally could not move. Paul grabbed two books for me to help me understand the history of the place, a few postcards, and some magnets. As we exited, I told him I felt a Stonehenge book stirring in my subconscious.
We arrived home to find Maria already there. Carl would be joining us shortly. Maria and I sat in the living room talking for a while – mostly about the American obsession with physical perfection. When Carl arrived, we gathered in the dining room. Paul’s mum served an amazing pasta dish – it was so delicious that I am sure I could have eaten the whole thing if they’d allowed it. Maria teased Paul when I called him “sweet pea”. I felt utterly at home and relaxed.
After dinner, a sticky toffee pudding was served. Allow me to correct a misnomer about British food right here: the English know how to eat. Oh sure, you hear horror stories about stargazy pie and other disgusting concoctions, but by and large, the meals I had were amazing. But the sticky toffee pudding stole the show. Fellow Americans: I bring good news. There is such a thing as a custard you pour from a jug onto your sticky toffee pudding. We need to import this immediately and make it a staple in our diet. It was so good that I said to the table, “Oh my god, this is a sexual experience.”
Paul’s mum said – with perfect dry English delivery – “That’s sad.”
I felt sad when we bid goodbye to Maria and Carl that evening. I would not see them for a while.
After dinner, when we sat on the settees in the living room, Paul’s mum said, “I don’t mean to sound patronizing but I think you really fit in.”
Gratitude and a sense of affection so sweet nearly brought me to my knees. I said, “I feel like I do.” That evening we watched some more QI. When Paul’s parents retired to their chambers, we hung out on the sofa talking about the future.
Sunday was the saddest day. I woke with the knowledge that I would be leaving. Paul served me a cup of milky hot tea, then we walked down for breakfast. After chatting with the household, we went back upstairs and packed my bags. We had said everything we needed to say, but I was still sad. I dressed for the plane, then walked downstairs.
In the living room, I casually said, “I wonder if there is any place around here to get a cream tea.”
“I think I can make scones,” Paul’s mum volunteered.
Once it was in her mind, there was no stopping her. In twenty minutes, we were noshing on some fine scones with cream and strawberry jam and sipping tea. We posted pictures on Twitter to make Maria jealous. We checked Instigram for more pictures of baby Abigail.
Then suddenly it was time to go.
Hugging Paul’s mom, I had to discipline myself not to cry. I found her so lovely and sweet and smart and funny. And his father was just charming and sweet and brilliant. They are amazing parents and I just felt so comfy around them, as if I’d known them forever. After hugs, Paul and I got into the car and only then did I let myself shed a few tears.
We talked cheerfully on the way to Heathrow. We talked about next time I’m in England, about the future, about us, about the flight. Filler. Because we didn’t want to say goodbye. I managed to do okay until it was time to go through security. I burst into tears. Paul’s eyes got glassy.
“This sucks so bad,” I said, inadequately.
“We just have to eliminate this part,” he said. “The part where we say goodbye.”
We kissed a last time, then I walked into the secure area. Right before I had to walk out of sight I turned around and waved again. Paul waved back.
Arriving home is always so weird after I’ve been in England. I find it hard to believe that just hours ago I was in England, with Paul. And this trip, with Paul and his family. Was this still the same life I had before I left?
It was the middle of the night in England, so I sent him an email letting him know that I had arrived safely. I then went about the prosaic work of becoming re-acclimated to this place I call home.