My dad is British. Not the, “Oh I think my dad’s side of the family came from England originally,” kind — the “He came to America from England in 1976,” kind. He’s a colonist on a very extended timetable.
My family moved back to England in 1986. This trip was the first time I’d been back in 25 years.
MomCon ‘11 Phase 1: Italy was to end with a romantic journey by train though the countryside to Paris and then on to London. Well. Let’s say there were trains. Four of them. And it wasn’t perhaps so much a journey as an odyssey, but finally we reached Milano — found the best surprise welcome wagon in the history of wheels — and then two planes, two Parisian airports, one Euro Disney shuttle (TRUE) we landed in the place where people who have my last name are related to me.
It’s the place where the oldest building in the village is a pub with local cider, and where Pub Quiz night is properly named and isn’t just a fantasy cooked up by a sports bar in a suburb.
Where the only thing more authentically British than a pub, is the entire country’s stunning aptitude for understatement.
You know what else is very British? The Union Jack. And though I serve the US and talk about Frank doing so, Dad’s half of the family served too, in the British Army. My dad’s dad actually served in Italy in WWII, something that I really want to know more about now. My uncle served in his youth too, and showed me a picture of himself as a Corporal. (Same looking rank, just upside down.)
Right, the flag. So because I come from serving two countries, this seems only fitting — I bought a pair of Union Jack underdrawers to wear under my uniform. Obviously not pictured, but so awesome.
(And at least everybody was all on the same side in WWII — otherwise things might be awkward, and not just on the 4th of July.)
The sky is always close and gray. It’s a country visually muted and quiet by nature — so when you spy something that’s not, it is for the eyes like all those cups of tea.
A tiny treat.
I thought I would recognize everything on this return. I was eight when we lived there, after all — and I do have TONS of memories of that time. They didn’t match up with what my eyes saw though — nothing seemed familiar, except this. Tucked in a courtyard, is what’s now a Salvation Army store. Twenty five years ago it was a pens and stickers and marbles and tiny toys shop. It was, of course, my favorite.
This scene, I remember.
The only other familiar place was this. I spent an…intensely fish-out-of-water term at this school. I went to find it on a run one morning and had to get directions twice, one set of which included, “Right, you’ll go straight through the Council Flats…”
It looks exactly the same.
Low. Hard. Stern. Which was exactly my experience there — I went from scratch-and-sniff stickers and Lisa Frank pencils and “Yay you!” gold stars that was the US school system in 1986 to…well, okay you remember that Dickens guy? THAT IS ALL TRUE.
Below is the recess yard. Being the not only the new kid, but the weird one from America who cried all the time, let’s say I wasn’t popular. Mom asked me who I played with at recess. “Nobody.” “Impossible. You just stand in one spot and don’t talk to anyone?”
Yes. She drove by one day to see if I was a liar, and I was stood in my gray tights and yellow school tie, absolutely still in this concrete yard. It hasn’t changed a bit.
At this school, you weren’t allowed to use erasers, you had indoor shoes and outdoor shoes, you couldn’t talk during PE, you couldn’t ask to use the bathroom during the day, and you were not, under any circumstance, coddled. Once on the story carpet my teacher singled out a kid — Terry — (I told you I remembered stuff) for the…common accent practice of using an “F” sound instead of a “Th.” “Fanks very much.” She made him try to do it “properly” over and over in front of everyone.
At lunchtime, you had to clean your plate — no talking in the lunchroom of course — and it WAS. It was just like Dickens. You had to specify a portion size all, “Please sir, I want some more.” But it doesn’t matter how small the portion of Scotch Egg is, you will feel that cornmeal scratch against your throat as your gag reflex rejects the ball of Spam for the rest of your life.
Having been to both, I can say this: They run this school like the US Army runs Basic Training.
The windows on the right sticking out — that’s the cloakroom. That’s where they sent kids that were naughty. I was threatened with a cloakrooming so often I was scared to even go in there to hang up my coat.
On this revisit, I skulked in the bushes like a Danger Stranger taking pictures of an elementary school — something that in the States you will be strung right up for, but no one bothered me. I listened to a maths lesson coming out of an open door. It didn’t sound so traumatizing. Maybe because I’m 25 years older now of course, but going back was worth it. A “Fanks very much,” to an experience that taught me I wasn’t such a special snowflake, that I needed to toughen up, and that knowing how to be a fish out of water will always be useful.
And going back a quarter of a century later, I expected it all to look so foreign, to seem so out of the ordinary — but it didn’t.
It just looked like family.
She’s thick. Nut brown. He is too, but with the courtesy nature affords men. A striking silver goatee, bare head. He disappears. Returns with a coffee for himself, an ice cream for her. They talk. Sleep. In succession.
On the horizon, black smoke plumes. A boat either under way or under duress. Beyond, the island is finally visible. Napoleon maybe. I can see it through the diamond sliver gap of sparkles my legs make. They’ve never been this tan before.
Waves hit tiny backs, slick like dolphins.
The boy wears sleeves and a hat and shorts and water shoes and sunglasses. Protected from every element on the chart. Mom’s one-piece is sensible. She sits to the side with a camera and bleats, “What are you doing now?” And again.
Waiting for you to play with him.
He runs like a little old man in Buzz Lightyear trunks.
I read a whole book.
The breeze echoes the waves.
Even if you’re not far away from everyone and everything, most relationships anymore are maintained through the ether. I’ve never found it strange then, to do so with people I only know exclusively through it. I’ve moved from exchanging comments in threads to exchanging real-life Christmas cards, and I’ve loved and made life-long friends with people who I only know through the internet.
They’re characters in your life just like any other.
One of those characters, one of my friends, died while I was away last week. I found out this morning, the same way we’d met — through this blog. One of his friends knew he’d talked about me, and wanted to make sure I knew.
I didn’t. I’ve been removed recently from this part of my world where he lives—lived—and now…he doesn’t? It is entirely shocking. That is an entire understatement. I don’t want to believe it. I keep waiting for it to be an internet hoax. But it’s not.
He liked my writing. Even with almost totally divergent interests, we appreciated each other’s content. Right after I moved here, was Christmas. I set off on my own, made a little church adventure, and posted about it. Shortly after, he left a message thanking me for my story and service. He continued to support what I shared, especially my traveling posts, and on one of those trips I snapped a photo of something I thought he’d like, and sent it to him. Yes, I’m the weirdo who thinks nothing of sending emails to strangers — and it’s worked out quite well for me.
We became fast correspondents after that. He’d keep me company in the dark, lonely mornings before work, he loved the posts I wrote about places I’d been — he said I was showing him a part of the world he’d never be able to see. He’d listen to my radio shows sometimes on his commute. We spoke freely about everything. Everything. One weekend we were both feeling blue, and so we took to our beds. Shunning the need to feel productive, and ignoring the world in favor of doing whatever we liked.
He was especially good at making “whatever you liked” exactly what you “should” be doing.
After I found out he was gone, I looked for the pieces of him in this world of web. When was the last time we’d talked? Three days before he passed according to my IM app. The last time someone had reblogged him? The day before. His Facebook, gone. His blog, shuttered. The hundreds of emails, were all still there. But his light isn’t green anymore.
Even when you’ve never actually met in that three-dimensional way everyone seems to prize so much, when there’s someone in your life you KNOW will always be there for you, you hold them dear.
And when suddenly, confusing, and completely without warning, they’re not?
Well. I’ve taken to my bed for him.
And I suppose, in lieu of flowers, please send memes. I think he’d like that best of all.
MomCon ‘11 Phase II: ENJOY THE COUNTRYSIDE included a pilgrimage to the genesis, whereby we remember: “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” ain’t nothin’ but a cover song.
Of course if you start there, you can’t awkwardly stop midstream. Loads of the U. S. of A is knicked straight from the Motherland. American Idol. The Office. A representative form of government. The first (non-native) Americans. Even our flag’s color scheme. Covers.
The only bit we didn’t take — Our Gracious Queen. Pity really.
I suppose it makes the curtsy arts all that more fascinating. This query for instance. And now I shall answer the question “What’s in the Queen’s handbag?” without opening the book:
- 100g of aniseseed balls in a crumpled white paper bag from the sweetie shop.
- A mobEYEle phone.
- A Berol pen, Handwriting style, blue ink.
- A receipt from WH Smith*. (Toast, by Nigel Slater about British food in 1961.)
- An iPod. (Well. One should look grateful for a gift, even if one doesn’t really use it.) (THOUGH. Imagine if this was on there?)
- And a healthy dose of Scathing Understatement. I don’t know how they trap it in a packet, but everyone seems to have loads of it.
This list includes items filed in My Purse, Contents: SEE ALL.
Finally, can we all start worrying now that when they have to change out the post boxes, they won’t be as Ye Olde and cheerful? I am.
*The most British thing in the whole photo isn’t the gray — pardon, grey — sky, nor the tidy flower baskets, nor the Union Jack. It’s the WH Smith, lower right. It was so remembery I almost bought a packet of “OH YEAH THESE!” erasers, and I haven’t used a pencil since 1993.
Continuing MomCon coverage — stay tuned for: “I revisited the school yard where I was shunned in the 3rd grade,” and “I met my cousin who’s in a band.” I KNOW. Set your calendar alerts now..