Monday, October 17, 2011

Thoughts on England

When I first got here, I had no idea what to expect. I'd never been to the UK before. I mean, let's be honest, I probably had more of an idea than most Americans upon disembarking at Heathrow Airport. I was, and am, a self-professed Anglophile so I wasn't coming here expecting to be catered to as a special snowflake American by a bunch of men in bowler hats saying "pip pip, cheerio," or something. In fact I've often wished it would be better if I'd just been born in the England so I wouldn't have to deal with all of this "moving overseas" business. However now that I'm here, I've been feeling homesick and missing all things American, instead of immersing myself in the English culture. Which is frustrating, but I feel a bit differently after today.

Today I had a moment of complete and utter love for England. I was walking from the bus stop to the Uxbridge tube station, and passed a pair of well-dressed middle-aged businessmen, probably on their lunch break, and I felt this surge of affection for them. Not them as individuals, but as English men doing their English thing. And I thought, here I am, in England, the place I've dreamed for years of one day visiting, and here are two ordinary, unassuming businessmen wearing shiny black shoes and speaking to one another in their fantastic accents, just living. I went all the way to the tube station feeling like I'd been plucked out of the sky and placed exactly where I was meant to be at that moment. It wasn't anything outwardly special; it was people at the outdoor Starbucks kiosk, paying in pound coins instead of dollars. It was the cold blustery outdoor seating at Costa's, an old man with a cream-filled donut, the melodic intonation of British accents all around me, and this overwhelming contentedness that made me smile like an idiot.

The bus ride from Uxbridge station to West Ruislip was eye-opening for me as well. I looked out the left side of the bus windows, which for some reason I never look out of when I'm taking that bus, but I did today. I saw these amazing houses. Seriously amazing. If you're from England you'll be rolling your eyes, but coming from America where our oldest buildings are from like 1970 (I exaggerate... barely), just the architecture here is the most incredible thing. And these houses, they were so gorgeous: slightly dilapidated in a loving, mossy sort of way, and they seemed to edge the countryside as though they were about to lose themselves in it, yet remained clinging to the outskirts of London despite themselves. They were beautiful.

There's also this pub, The Old Fox, and today I noticed as we drove past that there's an old red phone booth next to the car park, behind some overgrown shrubbery, just before a little pond that looks half-choked with grass and undergrowth. The phone booth leans precariously toward the pond, and it's clear that nobody uses it anymore. But it struck me as absolutely the most lovely thing I'd ever seen. A lonely, leaning phone booth. It almost set me off crying, but maps of Scotland did that for me already this week. Gotta keep it in check, Meg.

London is a vast, overwhelming, sensuous, heady, loud, fast, indescribable city. It truly is. If you've been to New York, that is nothing. It's really nothing compared to London, at least for me. London is so old, and so full of history and life and color and culture and sound and taste, that I can hardly breathe thinking about it. It's more than a human should be able to take, and yet we do, every day, and we don't appreciate it for what it is: it's poetry. It's music, history, and every story in the world, happening right now. That's what cities are, they're a trillion stories and feelings and thoughts happening all at once, taking shape in their buildings and streets and the rivers that cut through them. London is as loud as a scream and as subtle as a sigh. I can't fit it all inside, and sometimes I don't want to. It's too much for me, and in the midst of all that noise, I need something to hold me steady. Like the old phone booth by the green-choked pond.

London, with its unending need to consume, made me forget where I am. I forgot that I hadn't been deposited alone in a roiling mass of voices and faces and stone and sounds. I forgot that American pancakes weren't the most important thing in the world, and that I couldn't get them in London which made me want them all the more. I forgot that I wasn't trapped in what seemed like a beautiful foreign prison. So many people, so many places, and not one basket of bottomless fries and free refills on my large diet Coke? Not one Big Gulp? Not a single Olive Garden bread stick? That's all I could think, and it was frustrating, because all I had was this great baffling city and nothing that I wanted. Nothing felt familiar to me and I needed something I could latch onto and call mine.

So I latched onto this phone booth, and those businessmen. They weren't just another tile in the London mosaic for me. They were individual, they were England, and I feel so relieved.

Lately I've been thinking about what originally drew me to England, before all of the fangirl nonsense and dreams of bumping into Benedict Cumberbatch on the street. Why do I feel such an affinity for a place I've never been to? Why here? I looked into day trips out of London, into the countryside, and that's what reminded me. It's the English countryside. The British countryside, really; I'll take it all: Scotland, England, Wales, all of it. I'll even take Ireland, thanks very much. It's these isles, the ridiculously green dampness of them, the rain, the sea, the crumbling castles and Stonehenge and Yorkshire and the Cotswolds and the Scottish Highlands. I've not been to any of these places yet, but I look at pictures of them, I look at maps of Scotland for godsake, and I cry. I wish I could explain why this place effects me the way it does, but perhaps you don't need me to. Maybe some of you understand, and maybe some of you have your own places that make you cry just thinking of them. But when I look at photos of old stone houses covered in moss and ivy, it's like the part of my brain that processes photos of Britain is mainlined to my heart, and it aches for these places. It aches for wet green hills, dark seas, crumbling houses and sheep grazing within rock walls. That's why I came here.

London is all-consuming, just like any great city should be, and I love it for this. But I need to get out; I need to see the country, the soil, the trees and the sky. I need to stand under the clouds and get soaked in English rain. (Amongst other cheesy things.) Really, though, that's all I want. I just want to get out of the city and see England.

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