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Monday, October 10, 2016

Heaven Was in Our Eyes (Part 1)

Part 1 of 4

Friday, July 12.
I settled back into my seat as the plane gathered speed for the take-off, finally able to breathe deeply and begin to relax. We were enroute from Salt Lake City to St. Louis, and then on to London—and I was beginning to be excited. With all the worries I had had, I hadn’t even thought about being excited until that morning when one of the Thornes, who took me to the airport, asked me if I were. The past three days I had spent in arguing with the Study Abroad office, getting all our money changed, finishing arrangements, and in reading madly.

I reread parts of the Brontë sisters’ works, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Lamb’s ”Old China,” Hazlitt’s “Lives of the Poets,” and much more. I went to see my best friend to say goodbye (we went to the Salt Lake City Cemetery, our favorite place). I said goodbye to Mary Steiner and Carmen Gomez (they came to the rescue in helping me clean Alicia’s apartment where I had been staying, and packing up my office stuff); to Tom Greenfield, Sandy Simmons, the Taylors (helped them make invitations again, and Suzi did my laundry, bless her); Chris Gireaux, Amanda Curtis, Anna Gilles—too many people to see and too many things to do. I hadn’t gotten everything done that I should have and neglected some important things.

Oh, lucky thing, Kiersten, flying standby, got on our flight. We were all glad to be together—me, Judith Alderman, Margery Gunnison, Cherry Hoffman, Reba Sharpston, and Kiersten Longworth. Dora Makepeace and my good friend Sari Worthing were already in London.

I could hardly believe I was the leader of a study abroad group. I couldn’t say the “lead professor”—I wasn’t a professor—just a recently graduated M.A. finishing a one-year appointment to teach lower-division classes before going off to start a Ph.D. The department chair, at his wits’ end to find someone who would agree to lead the summer term study abroad, had given me this program of upper-division classes with some graduate students in it as a special exception. I was green as could be and very worried about the things I hadn’t been able to finish before we left. I was also worried about how much money we had lost when the exchange rate went up so fast the last weeks before we’d left.

As we were cleaning Alicia’s apartment, Carmen had said to me that my role was rather like that of the stage manager of a play—all the details to worry about and not the carefree creating of art, as the actors’ roles are. Yes, maybe it was something like that.

When we arrived in St. Louis, we had our first hitch. The plane to London was delayed five hours by mechanical problems. At first we filled in the time with reading, sleeping, going with Kiersten to the standby office to make sure she could get on our flight, and getting ice cream. Then the airline finally admitted that the delay was significant enough that they gave us each $50 dinner vouchers and we sailed out to the taxi stands to find a restaurant. We didn’t go very far, not being too adventurous, and we ended up laughing over the view of a parking lot and the lack of lighting in the place we had picked. Cherry entertained us with funny stories of her old job as a nurse, before she decided to get a degree in English.

Saturday, July 13.
I had a window seat on the way to London, and I was utterly charmed with my first view of the British isles, the land all cut up into uneven little parcels bounded by crooked and winding roads. The lakes and rivers of the counties west of London were winking in the sun as we dipped and circled over them. We landed at Gatwick airport in the middle of a cloudless, warm day in London.

Sari and Dora had waited at the airport all morning, not having been able to check on our flight arrival until they had arrived at the airport, and having decided it was too expensive to make a second trip. They had filled in the time reading. We caught the express train in to London and took the tube to our stop near Hyde Park.

We were at the Royal Bayswater Hotel on the corner of Queensway. It was a fairly comfortable hotel for such students as we were, too poor to afford something in a nicer part of London and willing to put up with the necessary cautions that I had given my group before we came. The hotel had tv and showers in each of the rooms, which was a step above the one Sari and I had experienced on our previous trip. Sari and I even had a telephone in our room. However, the hotel was somewhat moldy in all the corners . . .

In the evening after getting everybody else settled, Sari and I took Kiersten to Heathrow airport on the airbus to pick up her luggage. On the way to the tube just out of our hotel we had had to give Kiersten a quick lesson in Big City Survival—do not make eye contact with nor answer the blokes who try to talk to you on the street. We had several following us because Kiersten thought she had to be polite, and she was also extremely pretty. We put her between us, each of us took an arm, and we marched her as fast as we could without running to the tube station, telling her out of the corners of our mouths, “Don’t answer! Don’t talk at all!” She got it.

The ride made me happy to be there in London, smelling the diesel and other city smells, the rain, the joking airport guards—“Saved the best passport for last, we did”—and the swaying ride on the top of the bus.

Later on we all went over to watch the fireworks in Hyde Park, accompanied by a lightning and thunderstorm with natural fireworks. Everybody ran back to the shelter of the hotel, laughing in the rain.

Sunday, July 14.
I heard that Judith and Reba climbed out onto their balcony and stuck their hands into Margery’s window next door while Kiersten was in the shower, scaring poor Margery half to death. She was really nervous about the neighborhood with some good reason and was older than the rest of us, in her 50s. She was finally realizing her dream of getting a degree in English, and she was almost beside herself with joy to be in England.

Reba lost her jacket and her umbrella on the plane. She was 18, really smart, but absent-minded. Kiersten, who was 20, was on the university cheerleading squad and a dance instructor. She hadn’t taken the prerequisite English class for the study abroad, but the department had allowed her to be an exception and join anyway. She had always wanted to travel. Dora, in her early 20s, was devoted to the works of Charles Dickens. She was nice to everyone and very bright. Cherry was divorced with a four-year-old son whom she missed very much so that she pointed out every small boy everywhere, saying, “He’s four” and sniffing dramatically. She was very witty. Judith and I had gone once to southern Utah on a wilderness-survival-type weekend, and she told great stories all the way down there. We had had an American lit class together. She was a brilliant pianist and saw irony in everything.

Sari and I, six weeks apart in age, had shared an apartment a couple years after she had roomed with my sister. She had decided to return to school and get a B.A. in English, and we had gone to England together three years before this on the same study abroad term program. Then she did the six-month study abroad the next year in London. After that we lived in separate places but were still good friends. She decided to go on this trip with me when I told her I was supposed to lead it, and we had discussed how we would make the teacher-pupil relationship work for us. It had all gone pretty smoothly so far.

After breakfast we went to church on Exhibition Road. On Queensway just out of our hotel as we were about to cross into Kensington Gardens, a drunken man fell against several of my group. I was scared at first that he was some kind of con man or worse, but he was simply a drunk. Reba protested at our callousness when we propped him up on a lamppost and hurried everyone across the street. She thought our Christian duty was to do something more for him. We informed her that her Christian duty was first to keep herself and then the rest of us safe from men who might mean harm—how could she tell?

After Church we visited the Victoria and Albert Museum. I loved that place! The costume exhibit was brilliant.

Monday, July 15.
At 4 am we had a terrible phone call from Sari’s mother—Sari’s 10-year-old niece was killed in an auto-pedestrian accident the previous Thursday. The funeral was scheduled for that day. Sari was devastated, to say the least. I hardly knew what to say. I had been hoping we would have few troubles and that our time in Britain would be unmitigated fun. But here was reality. I wanted to lead the group in having fun, but I would need to be sensitive to Sari’s grief. I didn’t know how to do that.

Then came more trouble. After I had told the group to keep their passports on their persons at all times, Reba came down to breakfast leaving her passport, all her money, her International Student I.D., and everything on her bed—to find everything stolen when she returned. I was pretty angry that she had disregarded my instructions. I was angry that it happened and was further concerned because immediately it disrupted all my plans for the first day of the formal part of our tour. It set the tone for things to come, and that was not a good thing at all.

There was nothing to do but to ask Sari to take charge of the group for the day. She had been on this same program before, and in addition, she had lived in London for six months more on the longer study abroad program, so she was familiar with everything we had planned to see that day, and she was fully capable of shepherding everyone and telling them whatever she could remember (although without any preparation, and not being able to do the full itinerary), while I took Reba on the rounds of Officialdom to replace her lost identity and money. The latter took all day and we were still not finished.

First we went to the U.S. Embassy and were made to feel like fools for not having contacted the police first. But since we were already there, we filled out reams of paperwork and had a number of interviews and swearing-to-the-truth and so forth to replace her passport. They called the police for us and made an appointment for us to go there at 2 pm. We were to return to the Embassy on the morrow to pick up the new passport.

We were in the vicinity of the American Express office, so we took the opportunity to get the traveler’s checks replaced. But that turned out to be a fiasco as we were directed from one office to another to another until we finally found the main office, which apparently is the only place in all of the country from which one can get replacement checks.

By this time we had missed our appointment with the police, so I made a new appointment for the next day.

We returned to our hotel and filed a formal complaint with the manager, who was annoyed that we had not talked to him sooner. But my previous experience with hotel management in this area of London had not given me confidence in that course of action. Still, I realized I should have gone that route immediately after breakfast, before going anywhere else. Sigh. I just didn’t have the experience with crime that I needed, apparently, despite reading all that crime fiction!

Reba and I sat exhausted in Hyde Park eating a terribly late lunch and dreaming up a detective story that included all the elements of our day but adding a passport-theft ring that we were helping to break up, and inventing adventures with two evidently wealthy young men we had in reality become acquainted with in the American Express office. We tried the story on the group, but it did not go over well.

They were not convinced and their reaction was confused and rather cold. I realized too late and with horror that I had utterly forgotten Sari’s grief. Much later, I discovered that the group was somewhat demoralized by the loss of its leader and the changes to the itinerary that had been necessary because of the problems we were having. But even then I didn’t realize that my leadership role should have included some measure of reassurance that things would get back to normal. It should not have featured me as a practical joker and entertainer of questionable judgment. What can I say? I was green and gauche.

Tuesday, July 16.
Sari again had to pinch-hit for me while Reba and I had to continue our rounds. We went to the police station and filed the official report that we should have started the day before. It took a very long time to get to the station as the directions misled us at one point, and we had to retrace our steps, take a different turn, and try the instructions again, this time with the right result. The police had absolutely no sense of humor. They also took their time dealing with us.

When we finished it was past lunch time, so I took Reba to the Old Cheshire Cheese Inn, frequented by Dr. Samuel Johnson in the 18th century. I wanted her to have some of the literary London experience that the rest of our people were getting. Also, part of our trip funds covered the cost of each of us having a meal at this place. We shared our table with a family that had cruised over from Florida on the QEII, the father a member of the American Bar Association which was having its convention in London (all 16,000 of them and their families). The two teenaged daughters turned up their noses and said “Ugh!” at my lunch of steak and kidney pie, but it was delicious—I had been dreaming of having a steak-and-kidney pie at this very Inn for weeks, and it did not disappoint. Reba had roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

The sunlight in the dome of St. Paul's
After lunch we saw the Duke of Kent coming out of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and I took his picture. An essential element of any London trip was to come unexpectedly upon Royalty doing its duties with plenty of bobbies around to control the crowds, but also with plenty of space and time at one’s disposal to take good photographs. We thought it highly satisfactory that we had had this little piece of serendipity.

We returned to the U.S. Embassy to pick up the new passport, and then we backtracked and walked through St. Paul’s Cathedral. We met Sari, Judith, and Dora and joined them for a Dickens walk. We saw the Lincoln’s Inn Law courts, the Temple, and other areas frequented by Charles Dickens himself or by his characters. We also found everything frequented by American Bar Association members, everywhere.

Margery, Kiersten, and Cherry were at Covent Garden. They had decided their tour should include scenes from My Fair Lady and Margery in particular wanted a picture of herself next to the iconic columns where Eliza Doolittle had met Professor Henry Higgins. Margery was our most excited group member to be in England by far. She had dreamed so long of coming that everything she saw was as if it were enchanted. Her enthusiasm was contagious.

Wednesday, July 17.
Keats House
Our entire group finally had its first official outing together, and we took the tube to Hampstead Heath and Keats’ house. It was a lovely, warm day. The violets in the garden were huge and fragrant. A bird sang in the plum tree, not a nightingale, but we all felt its song was fitting anyway. I wondered at Thomas Hardy’s poem in the Chester room—it said Keats was utterly gone and one must visit his grave in Rome to seek him, but I felt that his spirit hovered somehow all around the house. So I sat in the garden and wrote the bones of a poem that I finished later on.
At Hampstead Heath
The house is full of his voice and spirit
not waiting
I think
his return.
He’s here,
not back again returning—
never left—
fire never ceased to burn,
the morning sun entering the Chester room
picks out sparkles in the dust in its beams
just as Keats’ voice echoes on the stairs
of my imagination
and the mind infuses light upon each step,
the thunder egg in the garden
the centipede on the gravelly walk
the bird singing in the trees
(not a nightingale)
red roses nodding along vines
a clock chiming sleepy morning elevenses
the chairs set as if he barely got up
All here. All wait.
No visit to a grave—
graves are for the living
not the dead.
They are gone.
Since he is here
seek him where he lived
and living still
where ever living conjurers apprehend.
Then Reba and I had tentatively planned to renew her visa at the Home Office, but instead we went book shopping with some of the others in Covent Garden. (It turned out that the renewed visa had something like a 60-day grace period, so I decided she and her relatives could take care of it—she was joining family in Scotland after the trip. I didn’t ever say so aloud but felt that her carelessness had interfered too much already with the program.) The late afternoon was free for the group to do whatever they wanted. Those of us who ended up in Covent Garden sat on a curb eating Italian ice cream cones and listening to a jazz band. O! that wonderful music wafting along setting sunbeams in warm pretty lively lovely London! I never wanted to move.

In the evening we watched tv, the hilarious Danny Kaye movie The Inspector General.

I was worried about the transportation to Oxford and Stratford for this weekend. Our director three years before had driven us in a hired van, but I didn’t make arrangements to do that before leaving home, not knowing until that last week that it wasn’t one of the things the Study Abroad office took care of for me. I didn’t know what we should do, and I was a little scared of driving a van on the left side of the road. I asked Sari to take the group again the next day, and she agreed.

Thursday, July 18.
While my group went to Dickens’ House and the British Museum, I spent the day at the university’s London Centre calling for a van to hire to drive us to Oxford and Stratford. No luck. Frustrated, I talked on the phone with my aunt Edith, and we arranged for me to come to Oxford to spend Friday with her, and her husband George would give me some driving pointers on Saturday. I also had to call around to get a B&B in Stratford for part of my group, as the London Centre had booked us for the wrong days there at one of the B&Bs and that B&B had no room for the right days.

Then I tried getting a van again. No van was to be had—the American Bar Association seemed to have everything in London booked. So I arranged bus trips instead. That meant that I had to send my group straight to Stratford instead of coming with me first to Oxford, as they couldn’t very well tour Oxford with all their luggage in tow. (I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of having my people use the “Left Luggage” in the bus station.) This lack of van availability was quite a blow to my group when I told them about it and that I thought I would arrange bus tickets for the next week’s trips.

Friday, July 19.
Sari, on a whim, walked down the street before breakfast to the Texaco station just a block away on Queensway and found they had a van we could hire for three days the next week. I was amazed. It would never have occurred to me to think a Texaco Station had vehicles for hire. It was a great relief to have that arrangement instead of having to figure out buses and trains.

I put my people on the bus to Stratford with all their instructions and took the City Link to Oxford myself. Edith was a bit late, which was fine with me. I ran across the street in the rain to a department store and found a turquoise linen dress that was exactly my size. Edith arrived just as I came back across the street to the station.

The rain had stopped, so we walked through parts of Oxford, she giving me the satiric version of a city tour (sunken cathedrals had left just a spire sticking out of the pavement, and so forth), and to the Corn Market to eat yummy things for lunch. After a short tour of Keble College with William Morris’s The Light of the World in its chapel, we stopped at Blackwell’s and picked up George, who was finishing work.

Around the table at dinner George and Edith told stories about getting jobs in Oxford when they first had come to this country. We talked until pretty late; watched a show on telly about navigating the Thames to its source; then I read Umberto Eco’s Commentary on the Name of the Rose until falling asleep.

Saturday, July 20.
Edith had to work, so George took me out to Rousham House in the Cotswolds, a manor house with neoclassical gardens, complete with old lichen-covered, chipping mythological statues, and a goldfish-filled landscaped pond (the fish were huge, carp-sized). George explained the lawn stripes; the “ha-ha,” a perpendicular land drop of about four feet at the edge of the lawns around the house so that animals can graze beyond but not get on the lawns and no need for unsightly fences; and the trained side-growing apple trees—the espalier style—marching along in flattened lines down the garden paths. We looked at the dovecote and then had to rush to get me on the bus to Stratford; we ended up chasing it to Woodstock.

Meanwhile, every time we got in the car, George gave me driving lessons for English roads. I really needed those driving lessons in order to drive a van the next Monday. He gave me a driver’s education book to study so I would know all the road signs and markings and so on. Thus better prepared for the coming week, I felt that our trip would go more smoothly. Reba was sorted, transportation was sorted, I felt better about everything.

On the bus I talked to a couple who were on a two-day holiday from London. The man was familiar with Wordsworth and the Romantics, having written a seminar paper in his college work, and the woman was from Broughton-in-Furness, so they were familiar with the country I’d be going to. They were lovely people, telling me to have a wonderful time in my journeys.

In Stratford I didn’t find my group waiting for me—they’d gone to Warwick Castle, I found out later. A little disconcerted, I visited the B&B, hung around the town, bought a jumper, saw some Shakespeare sites, and sat on a bench near the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre reading a Jeeves book until time for the play. I met my group there. Sari had gotten me a ticket, and I very much enjoyed As You Like It. I wasn’t sitting with anybody I knew though. Sari met me at the interval and had cheesecake with me.

Sari complained that evening about the many problems with the trip—my lack of leadership, my uncertainty in how to handle things, my inability to arrange a van for the group for this weekend, and my going off to Oxford yesterday instead of staying with and shepherding the group (but I needed driving lessons!—but I didn’t say that to Sari). She resented being left to take charge of the group when it shouldn’t have been her responsibility. That was certainly true. I should not have put that burden on her. She was also still grieving, though she didn’t say so.

After that, I walked around Stratford by myself, wishing things had been different. If only Reba had not lost her passport and money, things would not have gotten off to such a rocky start. If only I had not made up that dratted passport-ring spy story. That had been stupid. I felt miserable and wished I were more confident and that I had been more efficient and prepared—at least I wished I had known I should have arranged the car-hire before we’d left the States. I returned to the B&B with a pasted-on smile, determined at least to fulfill my duties as best I could from that point on, and somehow to make things easier on Sari.

Sunday, July 21.
Sympathetic cat in Trinity churchyard, Stratford
Instead of going off by myself again, I agreed to stay with my group, only to find that they all had planned to split up anyway. I went with Dora and Sari to Anne Hathaway’s cottage, but they went off somewhere else, leaving me there not knowing they had gone until I looked everywhere and couldn’t find them! I didn’t meet up with members of my group again until the afternoon.

The rest of the time in Stratford I was childishly sullen, and as soon as I left my group waiting for their London bus, I took my own bus to Oxford. Back at Edith and George’s, I found them helping their friend Leigh, who taught at Mont Clare College in New York, move into a house across town. George and I went over with Leigh, and George tried to fix a lock; we measured all the rooms for furnishings and inspected the postage-stamp sized garden. We had to go out the window to do so as the back door lock was the one we couldn’t fix to open.

It wasn’t hard for them to convince me to stay the night. Dinner time was filled with Leigh’s stories about her college, teaching utopian women’s fiction, and a funny paradox of the joy of family life vs. a utopian ideal of abolishing such institutions. I felt guilty for staying, knowing my group was expecting to see me back that night. I phoned and left them a message.

To be continued: click here for Part 2.

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