England. Early to mid-January. (After the fact; written while in England. Just never posted.)
The sun rises late and sets early here. I forgot how far north the island lies. I forgot, too, the raw chill in the air (or rather, I expected, yet can’t quite believe it). I’ve never been here before at this time of year, with things as they are. Record-breaking cold on the day of my arrival and union-breaking Brexit before and after that.
In the face of the general climate—weather-related and otherwise—the people I’ve encountered so far offer up conversations laced with dry humor, which take the edge off things weather-related and otherwise like a hot cup of strong tea.
Yesterday the man walking his doe-eyed lurcher Max chatted with me on a Bristol sidewalk about our shared love of gentle, wayward hounds. A few days before that the woman with the woven crown of black braids and Caribbean-British accent rescued me from the London Tube Strike, during which massive crowds of thwarted people did indeed “keep calm and carry on.” Things may be in a crisis, the United Kingdom may be divided, but its citizens on the whole seem to be without pretense beyond that of common courtesy. Respectful of boundaries, to be sure, but willing, once I show my own willingness, to share a cuppa time. People here seem less distracted here. There is more eye contact, less phone contact. Fewer water bottles tipped to lips (I am conscious of my own fixation with hydrating on-the-go). Fewer earbuds and way, way fewer sound-canceling headphones. More books read on public transportation. More newspapers opened and scanned in public.
But surely I romanticize. I’m prone to this, traveling. Trying to grow out of it. Home again, the bloom will fade from the English rose, and I’ll be glad to live in the U.S. of A. It’s pretty great. And the results of our election suggest that greatness is just going to be getting greater. Outcomes on the horizon. Swamps drained. Bigly.
The newspapers here have a different take on things stateside. (“There Will Be Hell Toupee” read one front page headline.) Last week in London I made a new friend, a lovely young women who rides her bike seven miles every weekday to her teaching job, and who has in other ways seen much of the world. Our recent election came up in conversation. I expressed my concern and my apologies for any global disasters on the horizon. She tried to comfort me. “We have nothing to feel superior about,” she said. “We have Brexit.” And then we spoke of of nationalism, racism, classism. “With the world the way it is today why isolate ourselves? There should be fewer boundaries, not more.” In my talks with new friends and old, things like this were said. And as for the arts: well, there goes the livelihood of many artists, those who need to travel across borders in order to sustain their work and maintain the interchange of ideas and abilities that keeps their medium alive and vigorous.
Last night, riding home on the bus from the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and subsequent dinner at Pizza Express, my friend, her daughter, and I sat facing a dark-haired, thirty-something man who held his newspaper spread wide. There was a photo of Trump on the front page, his arms open in a gesture that at first glance appeared to me expansive and of good cheer. I was feeling jolly; we’d polished off a bottle of red wine with our meal. Then I read the headline, which included the word “SHOWERS.” This is January, England, mind you, and on this particular night, there was also a wind reminiscent of Chicago. Though the weather has caused historical defeats and victories, I couldn’t think what it had to do with Trump. And then I remembered.
My friend, who is a Chicagoan, but who has spent a lot of time in England, particularly lately in Bristol, as her daughter attends a local University, has a strong intuitive sense about many things, but especially people. She caught the man’s eye, smiled in a way that communicated both humor and understanding, and asked if he’d kindly fold his newspaper so the headline and its related content were turned the other way. The man returned her smile, complied, and we all laughed, be it darkly.
What does it take to trump a country? Let me count the ways. People in the rest of the world certainly are. On 1/11, the BBC News made no bones about the fact that the “Trump Organization handover plan [has been] slammed by ethics chief.” Today’s top world news story from The Guardian: “Donald Trump’s Alleged Ties with Russia Overshadow Confirmation Hearings.” (Hey, Friday the 13th, baby.) In The Independent: “Donald Trump Promises Russia Hacking Report in 90 Days as He Lashes Out at ‘Sleazebag’ Democrats and Republicans.”
In other news: Meryl Streep, Obama’s farewell address, and Joe Biden being Joe Biden while receiving the Medal of Freedom, a white man who cries in public, the kind of white man I love and respect. (I wish people would stop making fun of Joe Biden. Isn’t it interesting that people feel the need to do that?) These are some of the recent things that help me think of all the many ways there are to resuscitate a country. Let me count them too.
This trip was an incredible gift from my husband, children, and friends, at a time when I most deeply needed it. I turned 55 the day I boarded the plane. I wasn’t feeling depressed about my age, but I was feeling my mortality (not a bad thing, indeed, a necessary thing, but still). I was feeling depressed about other things (see above). I’ve also been struggling with my writing, which means I was feeling disengaged from my soul’s craft.
Indeed this is the first little bit of writing I’ve seen to the end since my last blog post about hair. If you’ve stayed with it this long, thank you. Thank you so much. I am so grateful as I’m not sure what I’ve really accomplished here on this page or on my trip. But I know on the whole it will work together for good. I’ll soon be home again, in the country I most love, and to which I am faithful. I am hoping to bring the Keep Calm and Carry On mentality back with me. That phrase is a joke now, I know, a cliché, the kind of thing printed on a t-shirt that hangs on the clearance rack. But I’ve seen that mentality realized here. And if there’s one souvenir I want and need in these coming months, it’s that.