June 17th, 2007
Trips have the way of turning the molehills of our lives into mountains.
In the week before leaving for England, I found myself teaching my last week of lessons for the semester, putting in 18 hours in the studio for a recording project with a flutist, meeting a writing deadline, and trying to get a million stubborn, obtuse details of our lives together so that I could be gone for two weeks. Even as I write that sentence, I think it should have been easier. After all, it is just the two of us fairly competent adults, and we have been traveling together for over 13 years now. We know the routine: I get the house, garden, cats, and luggage together; Matt manages the bills, travel money, and details of transportation and lodgings. These divisions are so well established by this point that we don't even need to discuss them, ingrained as they are after years of trial and error. But this time, my tasks seemed more recalcitrant somehow, the chores squirming and shifting and growing bigger right before my eyes. The garden needed serious attention: plants transplanted and moved, roses pruned back after this first round of glorious blooms, weeds pulled and the watering system conquered once and for all. The house needed a thorough cleaning if I was going to leave it to a housesitter for two weeks. Even those jobs I rarely do–cleaning out the refrigerator and scrubbing the oven–needed doing. We had a year's worth of sticky substance on the refrigerator's shelving, obvious when it was nearly empty in the days prior to taking off. After too many roasted chickens cooked in butter, the oven was smoking when set on high temperatures. Inside plants needed a deep watering if I was going to leave them for two weeks. The swamp cooler had to be uncovered and a plumber called in to work on it. All this, and I was working overtime. When I complained to a friend that I couldn't keep on top of my housework, he replied, "But Amy, you work from home." I wanted to hit him.
It was the first time I actually looked forward to a day of traveling. Even the eight-hour plane ride from Minneapolis to London started to look appealing. Anything to sit down, uninterrupted, and read a book. Our trip to England was primarily about visiting Matt's brother Mark, who has been in the UK for over 15 years. Although he makes yearly visits home to Kansas City, we have never in all these years gone to see him in England. We have always meant to, but somehow years go by and it doesn't happen. In the last several years Mark has had some serious health problems, reminding us that life is short and that we should seize the day and not put off important things, regardless of how good our excuses may be. And so, finally, this year, we made England a priority.
But beyond spending good time with Mark, we also planned to thoroughly enjoy ourselves, seeing as much as the country as time and energy would allow. We landed at Gatwick airport outside of London early Saturday morning, and waited through immigration and customs in the longest line that I had ever seen. Mark was waiting on the other side of baggage, and we drove down to the south, to Sussex, where he has been living, stopping off at a pub along the river for lunch along the way. After living in the desert, England was green, green, GREEN! The first drive through the countryside set the mood for the entire time, for I spent the whole trip looking at vegetation, eyeing gardens for ideas I could take back home, startled to see the very plant I had just transplanted from a friend's garden all over the English countryside: growing out of walls, along the highway, spreading through the parks and gardens everywhere. Clearly, what we might cultivate carefully in the desert is practically invasive in this wet climate. Such easy plant growth seems almost criminal. I fell in love with the quaint thatched-roof homes with climbing roses scaling their walls. I loved reading the names of the houses, and loved even more the idea of naming one's home (Mark's bungalow was called "Kingfishers")–such a dear and antiquated custom. Quickly, I fall for the English custom of afternoon tea. What is not to like about scones and clotted cream? Quite a civilized way to break up the day.
And so the trip unfolds, me in search of gardens and scones and the cutest houses in the countryside, our time with Mark including touring the grand Petworth house and several cathedrals; cycling through Richmond; driving to Bath and getting a first glimpse of the stunning city from the hills overlooking the town and river. On our own, Matt and I spent several more days in Bath in a B&B in the hills above the city, taking walking tours and seeing the sites, going to a concert (the Bath International Music Festival was going on), and seeing a French film in an art movie house. We spent several days in London. We visited several art museums: the National Gallery, the Tate and the Courtauld. (The big disappointment of the trip was that the Turners at the Tate were closed due to an upcoming exhibit. Something about David Hockney and Turner's watercolors. I didn't like David Hockney before, but now his preventing me from seeing the 3000 Turners at the Tate makes him like him even less.). We toured Westminster Abbey and attended services both there and at St. Paul's. We took in some theater: Equus and Side by Side by Sondheim. We walked through the endlessly charming neighborhoods of Kensington, Notting Hill, Covent Garden. We had tea with Texas friends, whom we ran into at Waterloo Station. (We knew they'd be in London, but missed connecting before our trip and our cell phones weren't working. We had written off seeing them, but literally bumped into them in the train station. What were the chances?) We had a couple of days in the Cotswolds, potentially another highlight of the trip, except that it rained the entire time and the buses and trains weren't running due to the schedule changes of a bank holiday weekend. A more accurate statement might be: we spent several days in a Cotswolds hotel.
That is the sweeping list we mark off when asked, how was England? What did you do? But the real picture is much more layered and colored, made up of a thousand small details that kaleidoscope through my mind:
*The baby swans on the river in Bath, grey and downy as they followed their mother, squawking softly in their attempts to keep up.
* The Chagall window in the cathedral in Chichester, red and glowing, and the tapestries that were as resplendent as stained glass.
* The American we met who was looking for directions, who turned out to be an artist from Kansas City.
*The houseboats in the canals, where people live, complete with growing plants on the roof and keeping cats on the docks.
* The "lacy" trim of the Gothic-revival architecture of Parliament–looked more like a church than most of our mid-western churches.
*The rolling, green downs of Southern England.
*The endless stone wall that went on for miles around the Petworth Estate and the old half-timbered pub with the low, low ceilings and doorways where we had lunch..
* The clotted cream for the biggest scones imaginable at the café in Harrods.
*Catching a glimpse of the spire of the Cathedral as we drove into Salisbury, and then the deep colors of the stained glass window in the front of the cathedral, memorializing victims of those persecuted.
*The sea on the south coast, with the beaches of rocks–"shingles"–worn smooth.
*The organic quality of the stone cottages in the villages, which look as if God herself could have built them, so natural and authentic they are, as if they emerge or are grown from the ground itself.
*Eating ice cream on the bank of the Thames…. and a thousand other memories that will serve as evidence of time well spent.
It is too bad it took leaving the country to bring this lesson home, but this holiday sharply reminded me, how vacations at their best, are just another way to learn how wonderful home can be. Admittedly, I am a nester, and two weeks of living out of a suitcase causes me to start unraveling at the edges, but even so, home never looked so good. I missed seeing how that same pink flower I was encountering all over the English countryside was adapting to its home back in my garden. I missed the last of the spring roses. I missed my bed and clean American bathrooms. I missed my cats and my piano. I missed the ordinary, everydayness of my routine of practicing, rehearsing, teaching, writing and maintaining my little corner of the universe. I may return from traveling ready to name my house, drink more tea, and plant climbing roses, but mostly I am ready to just be here for a while.
The summer stretches before me. I begin teaching a full but random schedule of lessons, juggling students' camps and vacations. Recording project behind me, I have a pile of new, enticing music to learn, and several upcoming recitals to begin rehearsing. Now that summer is, for all purposes, here, I will begin drinking copious amounts of iced tea (not to be found in tea-drinking Britain, although I did talk a couple of barristas through the steps of making iced tea on several extremely warm days.). My refrigerator is full of summer fruit, and no doubt I will, several times a week in the upcoming months, eat ice cream and call it dinner. We have replaced the comforter on the bed and set out all the geraniums for the season. As I write this, two white butterflies flirt and dance outside my window, back for another season of play in my yard. I'm ready.