Two weeks before take-off, Dad’s passport mysteriously disappeared, only to be found lurking beneath a box of Fruit Loops in the pantry. Five days before take-off, the charming Victorian BB called to say they had given our rooms to an American soccer team. Eight hours before take-off, my mother informed me that I would not be permitted to wear jeans during the duration of our trans-continental family outing.
“Now dear, I think it would be best for all of us if you tried to look a bit more, well, refined on this trip. As representatives of the United States it is our civic duty to present ourselves as global, well-groomed citizens. Don’t pack any American-looking T-shirts either. The pickpockets will start swarming like buzzards.'”
It took a great deal of negotiating on my part before the UN matron could be persuaded to lift her sanctions. Yes, we were bound for a land of peculiar customs, cuisine, and traffic codes. And while our countries were separated by what many consider different languages, I felt confident that the universal bond of humanity would transcend borders, at least as far as fashion was concerned. After all, we were only going to England. Mother stashed a few skirts in my luggage just in case.
In a scene strait from some C-grade movie, our comfortable family of four was bound for our first foray into foreign-ness. Hundreds of years ago, our ancestors bartered everything to board a rat-infested vessel bound for freedom. Almost ungratefully, we were returning. We chose England for castles and crumpets, but found that as the trip neared, our hearts began to roost on subtler themes. Our wayward American souls yearned for a certain sanctity long since trampled in the mad rush towards Manifest Destiny and universal fraternity. We began to ache for communion with long-buried clansmen, panting for the almost sacred sense of past that legitimates every man’s place in the world. Longing for completion, lusting after mass-produced mementos, we flung ourselves towards that emerald isle with all the enthusiasm that months of wistful guide book gazing can conjure. Britannia beckoned.
Brandishing brochures and balancing baggage, our tribe bumbled about Heathrow Airport like toddlers. “Look, there’s a pound sign. Look, I found a five pence in the bathroom. That man’s got a strange hat doesn’t he? I wonder if all British people dress that way. Would you like to take a picture with him, Hon?” Outside, a cabbie regarded us with a knowing grin. We had scarcely wedged ourselves into his gleaming chariot before the man launched into a history of the English monarchial system. He hadn’t made it far past Edward the Confessor before the cabin began to grow uncomfortably warm. I fumbled with the defunct window switch, suitcase wedged between my chin and knees, and began to seriously reconsider the necessity of that second hair dryer. Seven kings and three crusades later we tumbled onto the sidewalk in front of our hotel. Mother thanked the cabbie for his attentions and he responded with a bashful grin. “But how did you know we’re Americans?” my father asked. “Lucky guess?”
We were walking billboards for Tourists Anonymous. Perpetually bewildered, clogging the queue at Paddington Station while we stumbled for pence, gawking incessantly, we were magnetically drawn to every statue, historical marker, and postcard rack in sight. By the time we toured the Tower of London, I was hopelessly stricken with Obsessive Clicking Disorder. Glance through my scrapbook and you will encounter more stained glass and scenic vistas than are contained in Rick Steve’s entire legacy. You will also find toilets, ducks, unidentified teenagers, unidentified refuse items, men picking blueberries, advertisements, and wallpaper. You will observe my family members in various states of unawares. You may be led to question my sanity. While I’m still scratching my head over that profile of the hotel shower, I will venture that pedestrian objects acquire an extraterrestrial glow beneath the light of alien stars. As pilgrims in what seemed a planet far parted from our own, we glimpsed the true glory of England in places too obvious to earn the reverence of its permanent residents.
Our tour of Britain had been cursory at best, and a Disney-esque delusion at worst. Yet somehow a majestic quality emerged from our collage of Kodak moments, hosted by the bustling reality between the bronzed heroes and historic makers. In the end, humble street signs and stray congenialities claimed more of our admiration than any polished tourist attraction. Sometimes the best sights come admission free.
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