February 22nd, 2009
First order of business – Happy Birthday, Dad!
I don’t know how two weeks have managed to pass since my last entry. In one sense it feels as though I just wrote it yesterday, and yet when I think back to my break it feels as though it occurred ages ago. This tension between wanting time to slow down so that I can experience everything that London has to offer and looking forward to going home and essentially “getting back to life” is almost irreconcilable. I don’t know whether I should look at the time I have and feel elated that I still have 5 weeks left or look at the time left and think, I only have 5 weeks left? Or sometimes, in those moments when the experience would be that much better if my friends were here experiencing it with me I think, wow – I still have 5 weeks here . . . The fact that I have no source of income while I’m across the pond is also slightly depressing as I see my bank account slowly empty itself of every last dollar. As much as my job is mediocre at best, I’m looking forward to getting back to work. I suppose I’m definitely over traveler’s euphoria.
In fact, the other day I was returning home around 6 and I had to shuffle up the steps and wait in the queue to swipe my oyster card in order to leave the station. As I was doing so, I felt the oddest sense of belonging. Here I was in the midst of all these other people, each face as strange as the next, but there was a sense of kinship merely because we were all doing the same thing – heading home after a day in the city. Eastcote is about an hour outside of London and therefore relatively foreign to tourists. It’s actually fairly foreign to even native Londoners. Thus, every face in that crowd belonged to England and wasn’t merely passing through for the weekend. And finally, I too, was one of those people who belonged, be it ever so briefly. I have a house key, not a hotel card, an oyster card, not a ticket, grocery bags, not gift shop bags, and best of all – a sense of direction, and not a map.
It’s a feeling I’d like to hang onto, even if it’s only for one more month.
Tied up in that is not just wanting to belong, but simply just not wanting to be a tourist. Everybody who travels is a tourist at some point or another, and yet everyone has derision for tourists. It isn’t entirely logical, but it still makes sense. I was a tourist over the weekend, and even knowing that, I still got my hackles up when I overheard a group of people in the middle of the circus in Bath comment on all the tourists taking over the town on weekends. I was one of the teeming hundreds and the camera slung around my neck and the map peeking out of my backpack couldn’t disguise that, and yet I didn’t want to be identified as one of those tourists. Silly, I know. And while I enjoy the touristy things, I also sneak off into back roads, parks, and neighborhoods little trodden by the picture-snapping, postcard buying masses. I like to pretend that I know where I’m going by wandering with intention. Bath is a perfect place to do this because it’s tiny and no matter how many turns you take you always seem to end up back at the Roman Baths and Pump Room. I always seem to end up back at Trafalgar Square when I wander in London. There must be some sort of pull that draws me back to city centers and people. Or it could simply be that most major roads tend to go that direction.
Saturday was an absolutely gorgeous day. I woke up around 7:30, stretched, and happened to glance to my right. At the same time, a guy that had gotten into his bunk after I’d been fast asleep for probably hours, happened to lift his head off the pillow and our eyes met. I gave him a nonchalant nod and he flopped back onto his pillow. It was kind of a weird moment, but a moment that fits in so well with the hostel experience – especially the one we stayed at. It was called the Funky Hostel, and I’d say it was pretty well named, what with the multi-colored walls, the threadbare carpet, and the funky smell emitting from one of the bunks that hadn’t been laundered yet. You never really know what you’re going to get or who you’re going to meet in a hostel, but I think that in order to truly appreciate the European hostel experience, you’ve got to stay in at least one “funky” hostel. Oh, and a tip for anyone planning on staying in a hostel: don’t make fun of Canadians. Ever.
At 8:45 our minibus headed out of Bath, into the countryside, and onto Stonehenge. We were the first bus there and the parking lot was relatively empty. I got many a photograph without any people in the frame and enjoyed the recorded tour. I was a bit surprised at the highway that runs right past the henge. I’d always pictured this archaic ring of stones in the middle of a sprawling field, surrounded by an ominous silence. I wouldn’t say I was necessarily disappointed or even distracted by the traffic, it was just merely unexpected. The henge demands a respect that the highway violates. It has outlived hundreds of generations and its unknown purpose casts it in a mystery without which is probably wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. Put it to you straight, the thing is old and things that are old should be respected, not jarred against the new and far less mysterious present. Well, at least in this case.
We wrapped up with the tour with a short stop in the little town of Lacock, where scenes from Harry Potter and Pride and Prejudice have been filmed. I appreciated the crooked windows, tiny doors, thatched roofs, and more than anything else, I respected the town for its untarnished innocence and its resistance in becoming a dot on the movie town map. People probably tramp through that town on a daily basis and yet there’s not a single sign of it catering to tourists. No “Harry Potter filmed here” plaques or snapshots of the stars in the postcard racks. It was delightful. It was perfect.
It was kind of boring.
I enjoyed the weekend and the trip east. I enjoyed walking the same paths that Jane Austen and Franny Burney trod. I enjoyed marveling at the engineering of the Romans and their baths that still work after 2000 years. And I enjoyed watching the English countryside sweep by in the fading golden light of the evening as I headed back to Paddington and the grit of London streets and home.