On Departures

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II. London

Thanksgiving always poses a challenge: as an expat Canadian, I’ve pretty much had to abandon the Thanksgiving of my own people (which falls on American Columbus Day), in favor of fretting over what I’ll do with an ill-timed and oddly-lengthy void in the calendar in the weeks leading up to Christmas. When I suggest I visit my parents at that time, they just ask, “Why??” Most of Canada isn’t really at its best in late November, and American Thanksgiving isn’t—surprise—a thing outside of the US; they’ll see me in just a couple more weeks at Christmas, clearly the more important, travel-worthy holiday.

I’ve tried toughing out both Thanksgiving and Christmas on my own. Quiet holidays offering plenty of alone-time. Solo. Toute seule.

I can’t recommend it.

If you work hard, and feel frequently put-upon by the demands of regular life, the chance to spend a couple of days in your pyjamas, watching movies in bed, sounds like an ideal form of introvert’s retreat—or that’s what we say to jolly ourselves along when we have nowhere in particular to go and everyone else is enjoying some convivial Rockwellian gathering of friends and family around a warm hearth and laden table. You know perfectly well from television and overhead locker-room conversations that every other human within a 2000-mile radius is with their loved ones. And, since Christmas is now the new Valentine’s Day, you know that boyfriends and husbands everywhere are proving the depth of their love by foisting proposals, giant diamond rings, and new cars on deserving women everywhere. It takes precisely three hours of such solitude to feel completely, miserably, cabin-feverishly, alone. I’ve resolved never to get stuck at home ever again, for either holiday.

In recent years, this has translated to throwing myself on the mercy of my friends for Thanksgiving, and making the long trek from one side of the continent to the other for Christmas. This year was different. As a consequence of good/bad/uncharacteristically-ambitious planning I ended up at Stonehenge, solo, on Thanksgiving Day and at a beach on Kauai with my parents for Christmas—that’s over 16,000 miles in one 30-day span (which sounds super-impressive to me, and yet I still don’t have enough points saved up with any one airline to get an upgrade to first class. I try so hard to live an entitled life and just can’t quite make the grade…).

I figured that I wouldn’t mind spending the Thanksgiving holiday alone as long as I was in a place I love. London fit the bill very well, though it couldn’t protect me completely from nostalgia and melancholy (in fact, you only know that you’re having the full London experience precisely when you feel the nostalgia, as a mixture compounded from history, personal experience, and fiction, creeping around your heart like the city’s legendary Victorian fog).

And no sooner than I thought of London as a Thanksgiving escape, than I thought: I can spend Pagan Ex-Pat Thanksgiving at STONEHENGE!! I’ve always put Stonehenge off—too much of a hassle, or too much of an expense to pay someone else to deal with the hassle. But this time, I vowed: I would spend the holiday at Stonehenge, using the location for my own private giving-of-thanks. Plus I’ve just always thought it really, really cool. Lots of people go to the monument, hit all the spots on the audio tour, buy their souvenir mug, and say… “It was all right.Those stones are really big.” I’ve wanted to see Stonehenge since I first learned of it, probably from the tv show In Search Of… back in the 70s when we all wanted to believe that human culture had been seeded by extraterrestrials, and that the pyramids of the Egyptians and the Maya, the Nazca lines, and Stonehenge were all built with alien technology. Or the allure had something to do with the druids and King Arthur and Narnia. Or all of it: for a nerdy girl of my generation, Stonehenge was always a mecca, representing a dizzyingly-perfect confluence of archeology, sci-fi, fantasy, and mythology.

When our English Heritage-approved trolley came up from a well-placed hollow, and the ancient standing stones emerged over the horizon—I’ll admit it, I got a little misty-eyed. True enough, when you’re kept well back from the center stones by a path, rope, and guards, and while the A303 motorway rushes prosaically by, it’s not the most mystical of settings. And my mere presence didn’t open any rifts in the space-time continuum or any gates to Faerie; nor did my aura suddenly start shooting sparks. If I was hoping for Stonehenge to reveal my true nature as Merlin’s heiress…well, maybe next time. I still found it a profoundly, nerdily, satisfying visit though. And I had good weather, which, considering it was Salisbury Plain in late November, was a pretty magical circumstance in and of itself.

Then back to London: I love the jumble of neighborhoods, cultures, historical periods, architectural styles, cultural touchstones, and (seriously) food. On this recent trip (fine, on every trip), I went to all the free museums—the Tate to see Turner (over-rated and jaundiced) and Constable (pretty, green, and ever-so English), the Victoria and Albert, the Natural History Museum, the National Gallery, the British Library. I saw a LOT of art, a lot of artifacts and manuscripts, bones, coins, furniture, jewels, plate—even a collection of ancient erotic paraphernalia, as the Wellcome Collection just happened to have an exhibit encompassing Roman phallic tintinabula through to Masters and Johnson’s original research notes and film footage. Of course, I only stumbled upon that by accident in my quest for cake at the Wellcome’s cafe…

I rambled the streets and markets, keeping an eye out for the landmarks of favorite stories, and spots familiar from previous trips. Like pencil marks on a door frame, London’s bridges and train stations (and the occasional ill-fated WC) comprise a yardstick, measuring off where I was at 17, 25, 29, 37… At one point, I found myself in Waterloo Station for the first time since 1998, and was overcome with a wave of vertigo as I contemplated what had come and gone since the last time I’d stood on the concourse, looking up at the giant schedule board.

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So I kept moving—through Regent’s Park and Hampstead Heath, Hyde Park, Green Park, along the Serpentine, over the Thames, past the consulting rooms on Harley Street, through the throngs of shoppers filling Covent Garden for Black Friday… “Black Friday??” Hang on! I thought one advantage to being in England over Thanksgiving would be that I’d avoid the American frenzy of consumerism—but apparently no-place is safe. The England of my imagination, an amalgam of 19th century novels and mid-20th century children’s stories, is a place full of delightful, material comforts—toast, tuck boxes, biscuits, tea, puddings, cheerful fires in the hearth, warm counterpanes (basically Sarah Crewe’s enchanted garret from A Little Princess)—which nevertheless ought somehow to be immune to the forces of vulgar capitalism. Not a bit of it. The British love shopping—obviously, because they love class and status, no matter how much of it they might be able to lay claim to without going into debt. Just like their colonial descendants in North America, the British are no better than they should be. When I first heard of Carnaby Street and Camden Locks, in the 80s, they were meant to be pilgrimage sites for all aspiring New Wave goths—now they were thronged with the indefatigable, Ugg-shod Basic girls, and Asian kids on the hunt for Black Friday deals at SuperDry. The twee and the edgy, all appropriated and assimilated into one giant shopping extravaganza. I fled the area at the first opportunity (which was immediately after tracking down and consuming some REALLY good dan dan noodles in Soho).

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And still I rambled; Dickens, that great, epic walker would be proud. I roamed through Kensington, Islington, Marylebone, Camden Town, Westminster. At Harrods and Fortnum and Mason and Liberty, I elbowed children out of the way to press my nose up against the shop windows, done up fancifully for Christmas, overflowing with snow-frosted train sets, costumed-teddy bears, and glitter-frosted puddings. And, because a vital travel experiences is to explore the offerings of foreign grocery stores, I cruised the aisles of Waitrose, tempted by every jar of marmalade, every fruit cake, every bag of exotically-flavored crisp. I stopped for virtuous lentils; then I stopped for cake—chocolate Guinness, orange chiffon, chocolate with orange buttercream frosting; I stopped for Yorkshire pudding; I nearly caused a traffic accident stopping and lunging for mince tarts (remember: Look Right). And one day, on the hunt for confectionery, I ducked into St. Martin-In-the-Fields—and was drawn into the church proper, where the choir was rehearsing its Christmas program. There’s something about the acoustics of that place, or maybe there was something about my mood at that moment, but I was arrested, compelled to just slow down, and sit, and listen as beautiful music filled the chapel.

London’s a great city for people-watching–clothes, manners, sounds. I have a weakness for the accents of the UK—Midlands, Welsh, Posh, Cockney, Irish, Scots, and every variant, enriched by the cosmopolitanism of a city of immigrants. I love just listening, on the Tube, in a pub, in front of some work of art, walking along the street—hearing English spoken in every possible fashion imaginable. I’ll pick up words and phrases in this or that accent and roll them over in my mind, maybe practicing them quietly to myself while I study my maps in the Underground stations.

And while I don’t really envy the conservative business clothes that are so ubiquitously part of the professional culture in the UK’s big cities, I still gaze wistfully at slim men in sharply tailored pin-stripes and polished shoes and pocket squares—so different from the less dashing, less elegant, more nondescript layers necessitated by the fleshier bodies of their American counterparts. I sighed inwardly at every man with a scarf draped rakishly around his neck, or the choice of a royal purple shirt…And all the clean-shaven faces! the mania for lumbersexual facial hair has just not taken hold in London the way it has in Boston. I’d consider braving the damp, and high cost of living, and occasional outburst of English chauvinism in exchange for whole Tube cars full of slim, clean-shaven, nattily-scarved English men. Alas, that’s not to be anytime soon. Fine, no matter, they all smoke anyway.

And because it was the end of November, and London was still crawling with tourists (somehow, of course, I’m never one of them), but the weather was consistently, surprisingly, fine, I spent a lot of my time in the city’s least urban, least-crowded, most green spaces. I ambled along the Serpentine, letting my coffee get cold as I held out for one perfectly-lit shot of the red and gold tree leaves glinting like treasure in the sunlight and wind. I walked along the Wey in Godalming, an impossibly-pretty little town outside of London often used as “Impossibly Pretty Little Town” in films like the Holiday—and more notable to me because it’s where one of my oldest friends lives with her awesome family.

One day, in Camden Market, after attempting to find one ideal prize that would somehow bridge the gap from goth youth to goth adult, and failing because the market is overrun by hucksters and tourists and kids committed to selling and buying stall after stall of identical bric-a-brac—I gave up and headed for Regent’s Canal. If I ever have any say, and get to live in London on my own terms, without fear of global warming, the Canal would be it—a way to have a view of the water, and peace and quiet at the same time. I can walk for miles on the Canal, hardly paying attention to where I am, just enjoying the distance of London’s roar of traffic, and the dappled sound and look of the water. Sure enough, I got completely turned around on this venture, and though I meant to head east to Islington, I somehow ended up 5 blocks away from 221B Baker Street, so I just had to stop in there to pay my respects (I say, Holmes, do be a chum and let us use your loo? I’ve been walking for ages! And while you’re at it, see if Mrs. Hudson can do us some tea and those lovely bickies of hers…)

I’ll be honest, I often found myself feeling a little lonely in London. I wish I’d had someone there with me to share it. But what makes London a safe, special bet for me when I’m travelling alone, is that there, I’m really not: I’ve got the company of a couple dozen literary and historical characters in my imagination, clamoring with one another to draw my attention to this legendary spot here, or that scene from narrative there; inviting me to reminisce and play with their stories in my mind as I wander and roam. I immerse myself in London so exhaustively that by the time I’m ready to leave, I feel that the city is done. But as Samuel Johnson observed, when a person is tired of London, she’s tired of life–and I can never truly tire of either. After a few weeks, and a novel or two or three, go by, I start plotting about how I can get back there again.

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