Saturday, February 03, 2007

I was waiting at O'Hare for the plane to London when I sat next to a group of undergraduates about to catch the same plane and embark upon their Semester Abroad. Funny, I thought. These kids were probably juniors in school, which is downright grown-up by the strange, hyper-aging logic of the university, where you’re a doe-eyed freshman one year and an “experienced” adult just 24 months later. And I can’t say I had much in common with the kids in question, who were reading Teen Beat or some such and talking about American Idol (the latter of which, as you all know, is so very beneath me). It matters because I was the one heading out on my Semester Abroad, 10 years ago almost to the day. My destination had been Liverpool, not London, and my US layover had occurred in Newark, not Chicago. And like the kids waiting to board the plane with me, I had bonded with a few of my Wittenberg peers who were catching the same flight, and together we had dragged our jet-lagged asses to the campus of Liverpool Hope University.

My journey to the UK was, in fact, full of reminders of past journeys and other times and places in my life. I took the train to Liverpool and met up at Lime St. with my old buddy Mark, who was a 25 year-old university freshman ten years ago. His classmates called him Grandad. Now he is a schoolteacher in Liverpool. He lives in a flat above Otto’s Pizza and beside Steve’s Chip Shop. Throughout my two stints in Liverpool this time, I: 1) ate heavily at pubs, 2) slept a lot, 3) drank a lot of Carlsberg and Carling and 4) had a strange craving for chocolate. Mark drove me in his sweet Ford Focus station wagon over to the campus, which he told me is in a neighborhood called Allerton, which he informed me is full of Jewish people. I had not known that. We drove past the campus and I saw for myself that lovely old Sherwin House, the dormitory where I made my first foreign friends, had been razed and a more contemporary suite-style dormitory was being erected in its place. This also has thematic connections to other buildings from my academic past that have been, or soon will be, eliminated. Wittenberg built a beautiful new humanities building after my graduation, tore down half the old humanities building, and farmed out the remaining half to the computer nerds of the Solution Center. And my dear hometown public schools will all soon be replaced, each and every one of them. Their replacements are already functioning, in some cases, and looming in others. My old elementary and middle schools are now defunct, I believe, replaced by shiny new schools that my niece and nephew now attend. My high school, named Tecumseh High School after the rich Native American heritage of my hometown, is growing a malignant tumor off it backside. They have elected to keep the gymnasium from which I graduated and the auditorium where my sister performed in the theater and I first got all teary-eyed watching a grown woman perform an interpretive dance to “The Rose.” As for the rest of the building, as well as the adjacent Oscar T. Hawke building, it will soon meet with the wrecking ball. What might the fine campuses of Iowa State and the University of California have in store for me next?

Mark asked me what I might like to do when I was in Liverpool, and I mentioned, half-seriously, that I might take a ferry around the River Mersey. It’s a regret of mine that I did not spend more time around the river in 1997, when I had the run of Liverpool. After all, I like rivers. They figure prominently in my fiction. Alas, it wasn’t to be. I suffered through some hellacious wind walking down to the river. I had chosen a day of particularly high winds across all of Europe. All I got was a lot of salt water in my beard, and this:

My next stop was at the Lake District, the site of a particularly difficult past failure. I hadn’t been there since 1999, when I was little more than an unemployed 23 year-old with a bachelor’s degree and not enough money to survive. I had taken a job at a restaurant, decided I didn’t like the tight slacks or the Hawaiian shirt they required, and ditched, but not before brooding at Churchill’s pub, writing letters home while drinking a Heineken. This time I stopped at Churchill’s only once, on the first day of my arrival, to write postcards and drink a Beck’s vier. That’s what it said on the glass. Is that even German?

My real hangout this time was The White Lion, a hotel and pub that employed a fetching young woman who looked like a cross between Sara Robinson and my sister Aleana. Who could have known? It was there that I reached the terminal stages of nerdiness, by: 1) drinking alone, 2) writing in my journal, and worst of all, 3) reading a science fiction novel by Isaac Asimov, which I had discovered at the hostel. Really! And it wasn’t even a good novel. I was disappointed because he was supposed to be up there with Ray Bradbury as King Shit of science fiction.

Throughout my stay in Ambleside, I had to fight the specter of the bad memories at each turn (it’s a small town). Here is the restaurant I ditched, here is the crappy flat I would have lived in, here is the street where I froze my ass off walking around and trying to figure out what to do. That said, it was nice to return under favorable circumstances.

My highlight was the walk to Grasmere, where one William Wordsworth is buried. Did you know he had at least two homes in the vicinity? There is Dove Cottage and there is the home at Rydal Mount, which is situated at the dead-end of a steep road that gives way to the walking path where hikers can continue on up the Mount. Me, I just broke into Wordsworth’s back yard. You’ll have to forgive me. I saw no armed guards so I figured it was okay. This is part of the way I live in Egypt. If it’s guarded by armed soldiers, I’d best avoid it. If not…

Besides, Wordsworth’s yard wasn’t even locked. There was simply a gate that read CLOSED in big block letters. But the gate also had a latch that opened quite easily when I tried it. And literally there was nobody about, so I spent a few minutes walking around the beautiful back yard, peering into the picture windows of the house, and sitting on a back bench that looked out over what I believe was Derwent Water.

The walk to Grasmere was marked by a beautiful stretch along a stream, a smiling, posing sheep, a brief hail storm, and spots of sunshine, two of which I have decided to share. The gravestones are close to the Wordsworth family’s (they have a modestly sized but fenced-in plot complete with a tree they planted, apparently in their own honor). When I was aiming the camera, it was cloudy. And then, as I pressed the button, the sun emerged and seemed to shine only at the place where I was taking my photograph. I don’t extrapolate anything spiritual into that, since I am just some asshole taking a picture of some graves, but it made for an eerie photograph, I thought.

Then it was back to Liverpool for two nights before finishing my journey in London. The River Mersey was much calmer this time, but I was too broke for the ferry. Instead, Mark and I ate fish and chips and got a serious jones for some chocolate. This is how it ended for me, the two of us scouring the aisles of Tesco, indecisivly weighing the various advantages and disadvantages of dark over milk chocolate, Minstrels over M&M’s, Galaxy bars over Lion bars, our mouths watering as we sought our fix.

Not a bad trip.



Mom said...

Like I was there.

moonlight ambulette said...

ooh, those pictures are amazing.



Anonymous said...

GREAT pictures! Karen

Anonymous said...

James, the pictures of England are beautiful....but I'm wondering why the sheep are so colorful?? Maybe to keep account of them by their owners?


P.S. I guess I really need to breakdown and make the trip to England, it looks so beautiful.

You can give me a tour!!