london-street

The plane landed in England where we were to disembark and spend a week sightseeing. Extremely uncomfortable with the idea of being herded around in a group, I got busy devising a plan of escape. As we claimed our luggage in the London airport, I went up to the tour director.

This is where we part, I said. Guess I’ll be seeing you later.

She looked at me in astonished wonder.

Oh, didn’t Mother tell you? We have relatives here and I’ll be staying with them now. I’ll catch up with you in Austria.

I had received a London address from my older sister for a friend she’d made when she was an exchange student in Denmark. I displayed the address with confidence.

This is where I can be reached if you need me.

The address was a good ten years old and I had no idea who lived there now, but I was like a horse too tightly reined, sensed freedom and was moving towards it. 

I waved goodbye as the others caught the bus from Heathrow. A great relief at being free washed over me as I stepped into a taxi and handed the driver my address. I planned to knock on the door, ask for my sister’s friend, visit and be off, exactly where I didn’t know. Or if I were really lucky, he’d be fun, handsome and interesting; maybe we’d have a night on the town.

The driver pulled over at the house. I reached in my travel bag to pay him, but he was not happy to see American currency and refused it. Payment became an ordeal as I convinced him to, first, find a bank that would exchange funds and then continue to drive around while I tracked down the missing resident. He reluctantly agreed; I changed my money and we drove from house to house to inquire. Turns out this fellow had moved some time ago, but it was a small village and everyone seemed to know someone who knew someone who might help. It became a rather expensive game.

Finally, I knocked on the door of a quaint English cottage. An older woman with carefully pressed curls, a plaid dress and flat black shoes stood in the entrance.

Yes that’s my son, she told me, but he moved away years ago.

I was becoming weary and travel worn; my adventure was wearing thin.

I bring regards from my sister, a friend of his from long ago.

That was all. I turned to leave.

Don’t go, she said. Come in and have some tea.

I dismissed the taxi at last and settled at a doily-covered table to visit.

I told her about my family, boarding school and being on my way to Austria to study music. She took golden framed photos from the fireplace, and dusted each one with her napkin as she spoke of her son and other grown children who were away at universities. When she asked where I was staying, I told her I didn’t know. I hoped she would offer her guest room and she did, but first she insisted we go to Western Union to wire my mother. When I wrote the telegram, I was careful to word the message about my safe arrival so my parents wouldn’t suspect my decision to abandon ship. 

That evening my hostess cooked one of the worst dinners I’ve ever had, which she made with great love, attention and care. I ate with appreciation, then excused myself and went to sleep – for twenty hours.

Food trays covered the floor when I woke. Plates and bowls were stacked on linen covered trays, which contained more unidentified dense, creamy, mushy stuff. They had been generously delivered for three missed meals for an entire day. I was recovering from the effects of travel vaccinations, jetlag and exhaustion.

The next day, I was introduced to people my age and asked to join them at political meetings, where they questioned me about the politics of my government, the Vietnam War and the recent death of John F. Kennedy. They wanted to hear my views, believing my thoughts represented the entire country. We had all grieved the death of the president, were alarmed by racial upheaval in the south, and wanted to get out of the war, but I had little knowledge of American policies, domestic or foreign. I wasn’t a watcher of television, and reading was no friend to me, so I came up disappointingly short, having known little more in my life than the interior of bedroom walls, mucking stables, music classes and boarding school. Government had been my favorite class in high school, but that was due to a hopeless infatuation with the teacher. Teenage sexual fantasies and exploding hormones had blocked the retention of any useful information. 

My hostess was proud of having a foreign visitor and openly announced my presence. This is my visitor from America, she said, like she was showing off a prize plant at the county fair.  Eighteen years old and traveling about on her own. She showed me off when we went in and out of shops, visited her friends, and met acquaintances on the street.

She was sweet and generous, but I became restricted by her good intentions and decided to head out on my own again. My brother had married a French woman and I had the name and address of her sister in Vincennes.  I thanked the dear woman, said my goodbyes and made Paris my next stop.

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