Life sure takes you down some interesting roads, doesn’t it? I had no idea when I started this blog what it would become, and though I wonder if I am straying from its’ original intention, I decided today that it doesn’t matter. Just like life, I like the interesting twists and turns.
So today, I’m going back to London.
My eventual move to London goes way back. Since I was little, I was fascinated with all things British. Loved castles. Loved the accents. Loved the stone walls and sheep. Loved the red telephone booths. Love the antiquity. Loved the quaintness. Just flat loved the idea of it. When I was at Ole Miss, I decided that, during my Junior year, I would enter the international transfer program and try to go to school in Britain for a semester. My grandmother wasn’t thrilled, but she, in typical Nana form, decided when the school I chose was on break, she would come to England and travel with me. I guess she a) didn’t think I would make any friends or b) didn’t trust me to choose friends with whom it would be safe to travel. So, in typical Marsha form, I said okay and started making plans.
As usual, that long, bendy road of life took a swift turn. My Nana, whose worrying often made her a control freak, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: if I wouldn’t go to England for a whole semester, she would take me there on a trip. She didn’t know that I was already considering not going back to Ole Miss for my junior year, but her offer helped me make my decision.
In some ways, I look at not returning to Ole Miss as one of the top 5 worst decisions I’ve ever made in my life. I was an English major, and Ole Miss had so many classes that foster a love of writing and reading and thinking about writing and reading that I could have stayed in school for ten years and not taken them all. Barry Hannah taught me creative writing my sophomore year. Scholastically, I was an idiot.
Emotionally, I was a basket case. I almost didn’t go on the trip she suggested, and that was not like me. Even as a little girl, I loved to travel. Put me in the car, and I was waving good-bye from the backseat, grin plastered to my face. Plus, this was the trip of a lifetime for me. I was headed to the one place I had always, always, always wanted to go, and I was going with one of the people I loved most in the whole wide world. But that year, a dear friend whom I idolized, and her 7 week old baby girl (that I named) were killed in a car wreck, a tragedy that I let define and debilitate me. The big life questions swirled around in my head with wild abandon, wreaking havoc on my mental state. I had broken up with Jesus for a while. Nothing was making sense, and I was terrified all of the time. I was having panic attacks. My daddy almost installed an alarm system in my rented apartment. I was sleeping (I use that term loosely) on the floor in the den of said apartment so I could keep an eye on both entrances, always conscious that someone could break into a window in another room. And then, a few months before we were to leave for our trip, a domestic flight crashed in the Everglades, and not long after, so did Pan Am Flight 800. I almost backed out. I was petrified. I wanted to go, I wanted to go desperately, but I had serious doubts as to whether or not I would make it home. When I called Nana in hysterics while watching the plane crash coverage on the news, she said to me, “You can stay home and be safe, Marsh, or you can take the chance and go. There aren’t any guarantees, honey; I can’t tell you it’s going to be okay. But if you don’t go, then your fear wins. You do what you have to do.” ( This is what I wrote about that time back then).
Three weeks later, belted in beside her, her hand in mine, tranquilized and oblivious to our takeoff, Nana and I headed to Gatwick Airport in London. We landed safely and proceeded to enjoy the most glorious sights I could have fathomed. Together, my grandmother and I wove a quilt of memories that I now am able to wrap up in and find solace. Jesus and I made up. Life got better. I got better. The trip was the highlight of my relationship with Nana, and it is boggles my mind to think that I almost passed it up.
Because a month later, my Nana died.
I know that when Nana and I were traveling through the countries that I had dreamed of, something about them became a part of me because Nana became a part of them. I knew 11 days would never be enough; it was enough to whet my appetite, but I longed to know those places, especially England, intimately. I wanted to be more than a tourist. I wanted England to be my home away from home.
So, about 3 years later, after I had finished my first year of teaching 8th grade, I decided I was going to move to London. My parents laughed…but they shouldn’t have. They reared me. They knew when I set my mind to doing something, I would get it done or die trying. The fact that they thought it was hilarious was the only thing that kept them from telling me straight up, out right, that I couldn’t go. Instead, they said, “Sure, Marsha, you can move to a foreign country where you don’t know a soul. Absolutely. But first, you have to find a job.”
This was before Facebook when you could post the question, “Who do we know who lives in London?” and get a bazillion answers within 4.2 seconds. So, I had to do my homework. I honestly do not remember how, but I believe it was my own Mama who told me that a friend of theirs at church grew up with a lady who lived in London. She was from Rosedale, and she had a son close to my age. That woman, Nina, became my new best friend. Turns out, her friend, the displaced Mississippian living abroad, was coming home during the week of the state fair. I met the two of them at Bravo. Lucy was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen. Her accent was for the most part British, but I could still hear the unmistakable Southern drawl in there somewhere. Though the age difference was significant, I felt as if I’d known her forever. We boogied to Lou Rawls at the fairgrounds, and I did my best to keep up, but it was difficult. Lucy was in her element: on Southern soil, listening to the jazz and blues that reminded her of growing up in the Mississippi Delta. I adored her.
Soon after, I “met” her son Walton through email, and we developed a computer friendship that eventually turned into a real friendship that endures today. We decided we had actually been twins separated at birth, and Lucy actually called us “her blonde twins,” as she did have a set of twins after Walton who had dark hair and dark eyes. I was not born to her, but I felt as if I was a part of her family. She made me feel that way.
I found out that some friends, younger than I, had worked in London for a subsidiary of Lloyds of London that did business in Mississippi. With that came emails and telephone calls and booking an interview. And then, my parents decided I needed to hop on over to England for about a week to interview and explore and find out for sure if I really wanted to move there.
Silly, silly parents.
So I went. I had a home base with my new friends, Lucy and Walton. I explored. I brought all the wrong shoes. I interviewed. I fell in love with the area of London called Hampstead. I began to figure out how to read a tube map. I shopped. I got lost. I got the job. I broke the news to my parents. I started packing.
And though I was a little sad and a little scared the day I walked up the ramp to that airplane to leave for as many months as I could stay in the country on a passport, it was a normal fear and a normal sadness and mixed with it was the anticipation, the excitement of going on the Great Adventure.
London was a city of 14 million people in 2001, if you include residents and transients, like me. The town I grew up in had around 12,000 people in the same year. Talk about country girl comes to town. When I first arrived, I hung on to my heritage in a way that, obviously, set me apart. No one took me seriously. To them, I was a tourist, even though I was paying rent for a flat nearish Hampstead, going to work every day, and I had been indoctrinated to the city by being flashed on the tube on the third day of my stay.
Though, for as long as I was there, one thing never changed. As soon as I opened my mouth, I became a curiosity. My Southern accent was the topic of conversations whenever I had the opportunity to get to know the people around me, like at work and on Saturday nights at The Three Kings. Forest Gump references were made frequently. Most people thought I was from Texas. My manners were another story. While spending a weekend at my friend Emma’s house (see below), her mum, while walking out the front door, told us to make sure we locked up when we left. She disappeared for a few seconds until she heard me call back, “Yes ma’am!” Immediately her head popped back inside, and with a curious but tickled grin on her face she asked, “What did you just say?” I didn’t even think about it when I said it, but not I understand her reaction: “ma’am’s” aren’t all that common in Britain….but that’s o.k. I might have tried to do things their way, but it takes an awful lot to beat the Southern out of this girl.
So though I tried to acclimate to the British way, I continued to stick out like a sore thumb when I opened my mouth. However, it didn’t take long before I learned that even if my accent was thick and it took 3 syllables to say the word “pence,” I could show the Brits that I was more than a tourist if I would just use their words instead of mine. My radar for other Americans also became pretty sharp. It didn’t take too many rides on the tube into work to recognize the them: they were the only ones who talked. And it didn’t take long to want to distance myself from them in whatever way I could. Now, please don’t misunderstand. I am a proud American. I am a citizen of the best nation in the entire world. But when you decide that you want to live in another country, if you want the residents to realize that you understand you are living in their country, even if only for a short while, to show you respect them, you’ve got to do it their way. So I asked if the guy behind the counter if he would post a letter for me instead of mail it, and I told my friends to ring me on my mobile rather than call me on my cell, and I learned to say to, most everyone, Cheers! instead of Thanks! I also learned not to talk to random folks on the tube….but gracious, I wanted to. To repress that inherent part of my Southern nature that is curious about people and wants to know their story: which part of London are you from? Where do you work? Who are your people? And, more often than not, What in the name of Zeus made you go to your closet this morning and pick out that outfit? But I didn’t. Instead, I kept my lips zipped on the tube and I picked up their words and phrases and, slowly but surely, those Brits that I saw at my neighborhood store and at work and my other regular stops started to warm up to me.
One even decided I was good enough to be her friend. Thank the Lord. Literally.
Emma and I worked together. She was a real employee; I was only there temporarily. But when I accidently sent the entire company an email that was meant to be for my friends at home, dorkily explaining that the Brits called shrimp, prawns, and French fries, chips, she was the first one to fly into the bathroom to which I had just retreated to tell me what I had done. She was brave. She was kind. She was a kindred spirit. She still is.
Emma became the affirmation that, even if I thought leaving Ole Miss was a mistake and even if I thought this particular stop on the bendy road I was traveling may have just been a detour, there was still a purpose. We became fast friends. Just before I was to leave my job, as it was only extended to me for a couple of months during their busy period, she asked me to go with her to Twickenham to a rugby match on St. Patty’s Day to watch the London Irish, which to her was the equivalent of going to the Grove and then watching my Rebels, play. To this day, I have no idea what the rules of rugby are….all I know is that a scrum looks like a moving huddle, but they aren’t calling plays, and when some guy in really short shorts climbed on another guy’s shoulders and threw the ball in, I wondered what bombed out dude confused basketball, football, and cheerleading to create this game. But it didn’t really didn’t matter. That was one of the most fun nights of my entire life, and it wasn’t because the Irish won and it wasn’t because a member of the band who played after the match sang to me and it wasn’t because it was St. Patty’s Day and everyone has fun on St. Patty’s Day. It was because I was with her.
While I was in London, I got to travel to places I never dreamed I would have visited, and with each sight, I heard and saw things that soared to the top of the “favorites” list, only to be replaced with another at the next stop. My traveling partner had actually done what I had planned to do. He was a junior at Ole Miss and had transferred to Liverpool for a semester. Funny how that life-road circles around and picks up people in your life with whom you begin to share the path. He had his Rick Steve’s guide underlined, catalogued, and cross-referenced, and he made me stop and read all of the little plaques at every monument and museum we visited, the sight-seeing Nazi that he was. For a disorganized procrastinator like myself, without him, I can’t count the tidbits, nooks and crannies I would have missed. But I pulled him out of places he could have stayed for weeks so we wouldn’t miss some of the big stuff, and without me, he would still be staring at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Amsterdam was our starting and ending point for both jaunts to Europe, as I could fly there cheaply from London and Mb could fly there cheaply from Liverpool and we could meet in Amsterdam and take the train south to wherever in Europe we wanted. It wasn’t my favorite European city, which could easily have been because the hostel where we stayed was nothing short of disgusting. I wore Ziploc bags on my feet to shower. I hated that place. But the city itself was pure madness, that insanity that reminds me of the proverbial train wreck: you don’t want to watch, but you can’t tear your eyes away. It was New Orleans on steroids. The red light district with its actual red Christmas lights hanging across the canals and girls posing in faux storefronts, live mannequins offering themselves to passersby. This little Southern girl walked through that city, mouth agape, in awe and appalled at all I saw and heard. The city itself was magnificent, and Anne Frank’s house was intriguing, but the underworld of Amsterdam was nuts.
In Florence, while leaving Michaelangelo’s piazza to cross the Arno river after watching the sun dip its golden head into the water and disappear for the evening, music started drifting through the Italian air. With each step the music came closer until I found myself standing in front of a man playing a saxophone outside of the Uffizi. His song choice was Canon in D. It was as if I was inside the music; it became part of the centuries-old museum walls behind me and the stone floor beneath me and the endless, darkened sky above me and I was a part of all of it, too. That was one time Mb didn’t have to convince me to stay for one more song.
In Prague, the mood was dark and the people were wide-eyed and the streets were so narrow and haphazard that it was easy to feel lost, even in the city center. There was a mysticism about it that was enthralling, but I remember feeling like there was a pervasive sadness, hanging over the whole country like a dark cloud only seconds from letting loose a colossal thunderstorm, but that storm never came. It just threatened itself every day, all day long.
It was in Prague that I visited a cemetery (I visited cemeteries in every city to which I traveled, because, quite frankly, I’m obsessed with cemeteries) that moved me. It was the Old Jewish Cemetery, in the heart of the Jewish town center, and in a miniscule area, about 20,000 people were buried, in some cases, 12 layers deep. The tombstones fell on top of each other, crunched and crumbling, lying on top of each other, just as those they memorialized. It was beautiful and sad and interesting and devistating. One of my best friends from home is Jewish. These were her people, and they had not been given remotely enough room to rest in peace.
It immediately took me back to the Holocaust exhibit I had seen at the Imperial War Museum in London. There, I viewed pictures and videos and artifacts that made my stomach churn and my heart hurt as I saw for myself all of the atrocities that I had heard about but never seen. But the most moving part of that exhibit was a plexiglass wall that had been built to house, of all things, shoes. Each pair of shoes represented a pair of feet. Some were obviously men’s. Some were obviously women’s. And some were obviously children’s. I stood in front of that wall and wept.
These moments and so many others were part of my London-and-beyond education. I’ve been through a lot of school, but what I learned while living in a foreign country and traveling to such beautiful, intriguing places taught me things that books simply can not hold.
The smell of the city streets of Florence.
The feel in the air after a cold, British rain.
The enormity of Rome’s Coliseum. Opening the doors to St. Peter’s Basilica and knowing that Peter, that guy who hung out with Jesus, was buried there.
Walking beside rows and rows of headstones in Austria and seeing a little red candle on every single one.
Having the fruit and vegetable vender at the East Finchley tube stop recognize me each evening and ask me if I wanted to buy a “to-mah-toe.”
Realizing that it was out of the ordinary to want to go to church during lunch on a Thursday.
Having no one, not one single person, ask me who my parents were.
Learning to count British pounds and pence. Getting over the fact that three cubes of ice in my Coke was generous.
Freezing to death because I’d forgotten to put money on my “top-up” card to stick in my gas meter in my flat and having to go to work after a shower I felt like I’d taken on a glacier.
Freezing to death because I didn’t own a stich of wool.
Freezing to death in general.
Becoming thankful for a bus waiting to take me across the Hammersmith bridge.
Two words: Italian gelato.
It has been 11 years since I packed up a moved to London, finally having to leave because my daddy said he would not deposit one more penny into my bank account if I didn’t. I did not found another job when mine ended, and if I were my daddy, I wouldn’t have let me stay as long as I did. I left that country a different person. My eyes had been opened to a new world, a new way of life, one that I loved, at first, because my grandmother took me there, and one that I love now because of the people and places that make it what it is.
The next plan is to pack up my husband and my son and share the next trip with them, so my two favorite people can finally be introduced to my home away from home. Mac’s Auntie Em will take him to see the castle he thinks she lives in and Scott will try his hardest to convince me to get on the London Eye, to no avail, but will pretend to enjoy eating lunch at Harrods…and will enjoy people-watching in Hyde Park. I will say, “When I lived here….” so many times that he will want to poke my eyeballs out, but he won’t. Instead, we will watch our son gaze in wonder at the tall buildings and double-decker buses and people with purple hair in Covent Garden and we will answer all of his questions the best we can without Rick Steve’s help, and he will listen to all of my stories and together, we will make new memories.
Cause this Southern girl knows that home is where the people you love are….no matter where they take you.
P.S. All of the travel photos can be found for sale at www.zenfolio.com/visionscreativephotography.