Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Road Trippin' - a not-so-short story.

The trip to England was awesome. We flew directly from Charlotte to Gatwick Airport outside of London, took the express train into the city, and immediately plunged ourselves into London’s fray. We climbed into the back of one of those old-fashioned taxi cabs, took a brief and expensive tour of the city, and wound our way to a hotel near Euston Station. Thankfully Steve had booked adjoining rooms everywhere we went because there was no way that the four of us could have squeezed into a single room. We dropped off our bags and headed for the nearest Tube station: the race had begun.

Truthfully, London is a blur. We went to Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, St. Paul’s cathedral, Kensington Palace, the Marble Arch, Wellington Arch, the Shakespeare Globe Theater, Vinopolis (a museum dedicated to the production of wine), and a host of other places. We climbed to the top of many double-decker buses, rode in countless taxis, ascended and descended the escalators in countless Tube stations, and walked for miles every day. We took a train out to Windsor Castle where I managed to lose the cap to one of my favorite pens by dropping it down onto the train tracks. My dear and adventurous friend, Kim, flew over to London and spent an afternoon with us and the evening with me. We wandered through the oddly captivating Tate Modern Museum before sipping a glass of wine in a noisy Irish Bar. Thanks for coming all that way, Kim; it was great to see you.

After six days in London, we rented a car and drove to Cambridge for lunch, some shopping, and a punting tour on our way up to York where we stayed in a well-appointed bed and breakfast place called 23 St. Mary’s. The full English breakfast every morning included eggs, sausage, ham, fried toast, tomatoes, mushrooms, hash browns, baked beans, black pudding, and all the fruit, cereal, coffee, and tea we could manage. What a hearty start to several long days of walking and shopping around that quietly majestic city. What a rich history it has of invasions by Romans, Normans, Saxons, and anyone else willing to battle the wind and rain, subsequent battles for freedom, and nowadays waves of tourists threaten to conquer it yet again. As for the shopping, we were glad to add to England’s economic stability during our twelve days. (This is one month when I am extremely glad that I don’t have to deal with the Visa bill!)

As we drove south towards Bristol and a memorable visit with friends we’d known years before in Connecticut, we stopped in Stratford-upon-Avon hoping to catch a glimpse of the place where Shakespeare was born. It took me no more than ten minutes of strolling through that noisy and filthy city to understand why he left and moved to London. Yikes! We couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I, who have an impressive collection of postcards from many years of European travel didn’t stop to buy even one there in Stratford.

Driving in England was a gut-wrenching, eye-opening, nerve-rattling proposition - and all I did was sit in the passenger seat trying to make sense of the most confusing map I’ve ever seen. Steve was the courageous one who got behind the wheel and transported us from place to place without going the wrong direction at the numerous traffic circles or venturing into the other lane of traffic. Even traveling at 75 miles an hour, we were passed on the right and left on the England’s super-highways. On dark country roads, I had to serve as both co-pilot and radar detector – not for speed traps, mind you, but for quickly approaching curbs and sewer openings. It was harrowing, but we survived. I, of course, never even considered the possibility of driving. I gladly criticized and nagged at my poor husband with terrified abandon, but never once volunteered to take his place in the driver’s seat.

Paul and Lindsay Smith welcomed us to their beautiful Bristol home with grand style and open arms. Cold wine, hot tea, tasty meals, and spicy conversation made our last weekend in England memorable. Lindsay and I snuck off to Bath for a day of sightseeing and wallet lightening. The sun shone bright high in the sky, and so did our smiles as we recalled days of warm friendship in Connecticut, told stories of current life dramas, and shared our hopes and dreams for the coming year. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed her elegance, her intellect, and her wisdom until we had those precious hours alone together. How I wish we lived closer to one another!

When it came to time to make the circle complete and return to Gatwick, we said farewell to the Smiths, and headed to the nearest supermarket. On this trip I discovered a whole new level of pity for my husband's allergy to chocolate. Cadbury bars of all varieties and sizes abound in that land of milk and cocoa. At the Portishead market, the children and I filled our basket with chocolate bars, imperial mints (something I’ve never had here in the States), and black currant goodies of all kinds (black currant is one of my favorite flavors, discovered years ago in Amsterdam and only rarely sighted here at home). I bought black currant gum, cough drops, tea bags, anything and everything I thought I could shove into vacant suitcase corners. We will eat English treats for weeks to come. Cheeks and sacks full of sweets, we wound our way north and west to the Wayside Manor Inn for our final night before the dreaded return flight; no one wanted to come back home.

When I travel, the smallest details invariably prove to be the most memorable. Every time I look at the green marker with the black cap, I will remember day we spent wandering through the largest occupied castle in the world, Windsor Castle. Every time I look at the canvas bag with the huge colored polka dots, I will remember the Paper Chase shop in Cambridge where I stocked up on paper and stickers for our craft cupboard here at home. I will never wear my new and exquisite agate cross without remembering the look of pride on Daniel’s face as he presented it to me and explained that he’d picked it out at Cambridge University’s King’s College Chapel gift shop. The little girls in their neat school uniforms sketching tennis rackets and old fashioned tennis attire will make my memories of Wimbledon so much more poignant. Watching Steve and Daniel throw the rugby ball to each other in York’s pervasive light drizzle is a sight that will not soon be forgotten. But perhaps the moment that will stand out most from this entire trip took place on the last Saturday night of our sojourn. Lindsay was preparing pizza for the children’s dinner and leg of lamb for the grown ups. We were all gathered in the kitchen talking and sipping wine from Spain’s Rioja region – or perhaps it was the kir that Paul so graciously made for me. Anyway, Lindsay put in a CD of Latin American music, and we all started dancing. The four of us Belsitos and the three Smiths all took to the hardwood, shaking our hips, arms and legs flailing, as flickering candle light and laughter bouncing off the walls of their conservatory windows. What a simple and glorious moment that was. Thank you both for your warm and gracious hospitality.

I love to travel, and this trip confirmed that we all do. In order to keep the travel virus alive and well in all of us, six weeks from tomorrow, the children and I will head off for another adventure. I don’t think our Spanish lessons have gone well enough here in Charlotte, so we are taking an extended field trip to Spain. We have rented a tiny apartment in Madrid for a month, and we will see if we can’t concentrate a little better in our home away from home. Steve will join us for the last eight days and help us haul all our loot home.

Since we can’t take any of this hard-earned money with us when we die, we may as well make the best of it while we’re alive. I hope Kristiana and Daniel don’t mind how we are spending their inheritance…

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