About eight years ago my parents took me to England. It was my first time out of the country, and even if I had been in charge of our destination (to be honest, I might have been, I can’t remember) I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect place to go. I had just graduated from eighth grade (I say “graduated” as if it signified something more than the simple slipping by of time, but the way some of my colleagues dressed, in pastel taffeta gowns, long as prom dresses, with bows and ribbons and flowers, it might as well have. My best friend and I each wore simple knee-length summer frocks and looked terribly understated; unfortunately mine had an open back, and I didn’t wear a bra–something I didn’t think would be a problem when I got dressed and shrugged a nice black cardigan on to cut the chill from the morning fog, but something which, by day’s end, I was terribly uncomfortable about, as evidenced by the photographs of my classmates and I on the school deck, everyone holding flowers, arms round each other, except me, with my arms crossed firmly across my chest).
London was dizzy (I say that about every city I visit; perhaps I am not someone who can settle down in a city, and the phrase says more about my own character than about the character of the place). My parents had not been in England for 15 years, when they had toured Wales by bike or something appropriately young-couple-ish. They had loved Wales, so we went back, at the end of our own trip, after London (Churchill’s War Rooms and the clutter of Oxford Street, Notting Hill and the flea market where I could have spent all my money, if I’d been allowed, walking through Hyde Park with my father and taking a rowboat out on the pond), Bath (the best hotel room I have ever stayed in, and one of the best travel meals: fresh baked bread, cheese, fruit, Schweppe’s Bitter Lemon, and chocolate eaten half-naked under a fluffy down blanket at dusk), a charming town called Dunster where my mother managed to lock my father and I into our hotel room (accidentally, I hasten to add) while she jaunted around the village, exploring antique shops and tearooms blithely whilst Dad and I wondered if we would have to jump out of the window to escape, and Cornwall, where I ate pasties of all different ilks (a curry-flavored one proved particularly delicious) and marveled at how a landscape that, in its strictest geographic sense, I was familiar with (a coastline was where I had grown up, after all), could seem so wild and different from anything else I had ever known.
We drove through the Cheddar Gorge; we rode an old steam train to a crumbling abbey and had some fellow-tourists photograph us standing beside the stone skeleton. We went to the British Museum where I saw the Rosetta Stone and then got grumpy because I was hungry; we went for many and long walks with food in our backpacks and no particular destination, and laughed a lot–once so hard I fell over, and a pair of stone-faced sleek-haired Euro backpackers narrowed their eyes (I would say wrinkled their noses, but I don’t think skin that tight can wrinkle) at the crazy laughing family. I doubt they could tell where we were from–no discernable words, after all, were coming from our gaping mouths, just gasps and giggles–but I’m sure they figured we’d been let out of a madhouse in whatever country had once housed us. We ate carryout Indian food in inns and hotels all across the United Kingdom; I was always afraid this was against the rules, and that the proprietors, who were always very kindly when we showed up on their doorsteps, would find out, kick us out, and then warn all the other kindly innkeepers not to let us inside, but this never happened, and we had many a great meal sprawled out on the floor. There were always leftovers that my mom thought we could have for lunch the next day, but about an hour after dinner she would reach a hand into the bag and start munching, and that was that.
We also ate a lot of chocolate. I’m not sure why, exactly, except that it seemed like the perfect snack: smooth, cool, rich, full of calories and energy for long walks. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten as much chocolate as I did the first time I was in England.
Despite all this, there was one constant refrain to our trip (well, two, but the other one was my nickname, “pile girl”, chosen because as we drove around the country, I sat in the backseat with an enormous pile of luggage, food, and souvenirs–funny but not especially profound): “fifteen years ago–” one of my parents, or both, in tandem, would say, and then work themselves into a state of extreme nostalgia. The sun burned brighter, the sky was bluer, the grass was greener, fifteen years ago. Things were the-people-were-nicer-the-world-was-smaller-the-air-was-clearer-the-water-was-cleaner-the-streets-were-emptier-the-locals-were-more-local better, fifteen years ago. I don’t think my parents actually consciously thought this–and I don’t think they had any complaints about our own English journey–but they said those three words so often it became a running joke, and I would roll my eyes at the word “fifteen”, and they would laugh, but finish the sentence, and then we would look around, as if trying to determine what had changed.
I hadn’t even been born fifteen years ago; the England I knew was one from books, one that had died before the 1950s had even begun, and I couldn’t reasonably feel nostalgia for something I had known only in my 13-year-old-imagination. But I did. “Oh yeah?” I wanted to snap, when Mom or Dad let loose a sigh and murmured, “you know, 15 years ago this was definitely not a Gap”, “well 50 years ago it wasn’t even a building!”
It’s not that they objected to the changed version of a country they had only known years previous; it was that when time changes a place, slowly, steadily, and inevitably, with the same dogged persistence of a marathon runner beating out 26.5-miles-of-strides, and you see that place anew, you also see yourself anew. You see yourself having undergone the metamorphosis of time, swept by the years, chiseled by the wind, altered by the everyday. You see yourself having changed too; in ways perhaps you couldn’t have imagined. Who would have thought that charming cottage would become a bustling Starbucks? Well, who would have thought my parents would have a teenage daughter the next time they saw it?
And for me, who had known the places I was visiting only from guidebooks, and storybooks, and pure guesses, the changes were not indicative of anything in myself. It was not the roaring 1920s anymore, and I secretly mourned the loss of ladies in shiny flapper dresses and men in fedora hats, but this was something that had nothing to do with me. I could only rail silently in my own head that I had subscribed for so long to a dream of someplace where time had entered a book and then stood still; but this, I realize now, is part of the process of growing up. Other kids had dreams too, and imaginations that played outside the realm of the possible, and they, too, in silent, secret ways, allowed these dreams to flow from being hopes to being escapes. I found solace in knowing that I could read; and that I could create worlds with my own pen and notebook (a green spiral-bound one, on that trip, which shows me to be an extraordinarily prolific 13-year-old).
But say that in a few years, I return to Dunster (I can’t even remember where it is anymore, but I presume it isn’t so far from Oxford that a trip would be impossible), and I look up at the Yarnmarket Hotel, at the window that my Dad and I peered anxiously from fifteen years ago, and find that it’s not the Yarnmarket Hotel anymore–it’s something else, it’s been knocked down, it was the Yarnmarket, and then it was rubble, and now it’s a shiny new fill-in-the-blank, and that window isn’t even a window any longer. And I try to retrace our steps, take the walk to the Castle and along the footpaths, and discover that the footpaths have been paved, and that the hike we took is now an impossible hike, for the giant highway overpass that cuts the land up. I’m not saying this is what will happen: I’m saying what if. And suppose I see that among all those things I deem to be terrible, I also see something new, and exciting–something, like the internet, that connects people in oft-beautiful ways; and I see kids playing football in the new stadium that used to be just-a-muddy-field-but-at-least-it-was-untouched, and they’re yelling and running and happy.
(whew…bit of a long one there…about the photos: top, Dad and I, on that first trip, reading a newspaper in Cornwall somewhere; just above, Cowley Rd. construction–click to enlarge and read the very polite message on the sign.)