Tuesday, January 14, 2014

April 1, 2013

Hey Mom (and Dad if you're reading this over her shoulder)!

Just wanted to let you know I arrived safe and sound.  The hotel is a quaint little place which faces a garden square.  The internet is lousy and so is the coffee, but other than that, I think I'll survive.  :)  My cell phone gets absolutely no service, but I might see about buying one of those monthly phones just for the heck of it.  In the meantime, I'll try to check in via email whenever I get the chance.  Love you tons!  Off to great adventure!

One minute, I was signing books at Wondercon. The next I was standing in the international wing of LAX two hours before my flight, contenting myself with browsing the bookshops and asking myself how much coffee I really wanted to drink before my red-eye.

As I board my Virgin Atlantic flight, my heart was filled with excitement. How long since I had actually been excited about boarding a plane? The accents around me are music. We are instructed to keep our blinds down because we will be flying into the sunrise. Our smart stewards and stewardesses, and yes, I will call them that with their jaunty neckerchiefs and perfectly coiffed hair, make their way through the cabin with sassy, no-nonsense authority. We are given socks and sleeping masks, earplugs and headphones. We have dinner and then dessert and then a hot chocolate course. As we wake, we are given breakfast and then a Cadbury course. How can you not love a country that you enter with the taste of sweet chocolate on your lips?

I land at Heathrow and am struck by the subtle differences. Toilets instead of restrooms. Walk slow on the left and pass on the right. But also gentle considerations that I have not seen before. Accommodations in the subway (henceforth called The Tube) for people traveling with disabled and elderly adults who might need a full room and table to change their pants.

All around me are these kindnesses. As I board my express train to the city and produce my ticket, the ticket taker responds with, "Brilliant!" I have perhaps thought myself above average, but brilliant! For a ticket! I shall continue to strive for those gold stars!

I arrive at Paddington, which is like if It's a Small World gave birth to a train station. White iron work scrolls across the ceiling. White marble upon the floors. I see a parent correct their child and it is with a well placed word instead of a striking hand. I drag my rolling suitcase behind me and up a ramp, noting the Paddington Bear statue and store, and out into Paddington proper. Two blocks away, I turn the corner to my hotel and find myself in a garden square.

My hotel looks just like those you can see across the square. The building is so old, the keys are plastic punch cards which I must deposit at the front desk every time I go out. The lift is old and rickety. The carpet worn. The room sparse.

And glorious!

The promise of in room coffee means Tasters Choice and a hot water kettle.

As much as my American self, my inner coffee snob, my Starbucks micro-roasted purist rebelled against the horrors of instant, I have to say that to this day, whenever I miss this city, I keep a can of Tasters Choice in my pantry and sip a cup of memories.

Outside, London awaits! On the rooftops of London! Coo! What a sight!

That night, I just walked.  I wrapped myself in my big wool coat and headed out into the streets of London.  I have no idea where I went.  Perhaps Marylebone?  I think I saw St. Pancreas.  And perhaps ended up by the back side of a hospital?  All I know is that the world was dark.  The sidewalks were barren.  It was cold and windy... and I was in love.  I wandered through all these back alleys and side streets.  There were all these shops and pubs and cheese shops and French bakeries closing up for the evening.  There were hand-lettered words in gold painted on the glass.  The light coming from their windows was warm and soft.

I turned the corner and found a Tescos.  A Tescos!  I had heard of Tescos from all my friends who had visited the UK!  I now know that being excited about a Tescos is about as glamorous as being excited by the sight of a Walgreens.  But oh...  I walked in and there were foods I had never heard of before.  Sandwiches that were nothing but cheese!  Salads that were nothing but cheese! Chocolates!  Biscuits (the cookie kind)!  Crisps!  Everything a girl could want!

 I walked up to the counter where a lovely Indian woman was checking people out and we just struck up a conversation.  Her face lit up as she heard my accent and she asked if I was American.  We talked about how this was my first trip to England and that I was visiting from LA.  She commented how the weather was much different, and I laughed that I was in heaven.  As I left she said, "You just made my day brighter."  Well, right back at you, you wonderful cashier at Tescos!

That's what I noticed most of all during my time in London.  People just talk, there is a fearlessness which we in the states lost long ago.  The comfort of gentle politeness is that you are safe to reach out to a stranger and say hello.  You find yourself talking to the people beside you. Looking into their eyes. Sharing a moment. Giving kindness. You don't realize how frightened we've become of each other in America. You don't realize the crushing grind of the media and the consumption machine until you leave and realize that there is another way to live.

I said I wanted to drink their water. And so I got my first sip.

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