Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Grand Tour - Part One

When you travel to Europe for ten weeks
with nothing more than a rucksack, you need to pack light. 

The reality of that warning is hanging heavy on my back. A gray canvas sack with a flap and string tie at the top filled with thirty pounds of the most essential items in a seventeen-year-old girl’s life.

The contents of the rucksack are the least of my worries at the moment. I have no idea what day it is or what time and I haven’t been in bed for more than twenty-four hours. The only thing I know for sure is that it is a cool nearly summer day and I’m standing by myself with a handful of unfamiliar money on Waterloo Bridge over the River Thames waiting for a bus to Beulah Spa in South London. I’m tired, anxious, and homesick.

The journey to this place started yesterday, at least I think it was yesterday, at 4:30 in the morning when my rucksack and I boarded a bus in Portland for a three hour ride to the Seattle/Tacoma airport. At the airport, I joined thirty-nine high school kids and four adult chaperons on a United Airlines jet for the start of our seventy-two day American Heritage Association study tour of Europe. Because my first ever experience on a jet airplane ended with losing lunch as we landed in New York, worried chaperons spent the six-hour layover suggesting various remedies for my dizziness and my fear of getting sick on the next flight. Thankfully the overnight Pan American flight to Heathrow Airport ended without further incident.

The first indication of arrival in a foreign country was an accent I remembered from an Ed Sullivan show four years ago. As we walked through the airport I heard the distinctive Liverpool accent again. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr were standing a few feet away from me. I could claim they were waiting for me, but the truth is they were just hanging around waiting. Although a swell of rock star magic rippled through our group, no one else at the airport paid much attention. I wasn’t impressed. They looked mangy.

The second indication of arrival in a foreign country was a bus ride on the wrong side of the road. At least is would be wrong in Oregon. Although our bus trip into the heart of London past Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square was thrilling, the cars and buses darting in and out of traffic circles made me dizzy again.

Dozens of people and a gray mound of rucksacks filled the room we spilled into from our chartered bus. One of the chaperons stood on a chair so he could be seen and heard above the crowd, “You can leave after you connect with your home stay family. As we announced earlier, you are on your own until tomorrow morning at ten when we meet at the Africa Center near Covent Garden.”

Another chaperon read the names of students matching them in twos or threes to names of home stay hosts. One at a time groups of students retrieved their rucksacks and left. Thirty-nine Americans were matched with British hosts while I stood waiting. A chaperon approached, “We just found out that your home stay family was given the wrong information about the date of our arrival. They told us you should take the Crystal Palace bus. Your host, Alan Kingston-Jones, will meet you at the Beulah Spa stop.”

This is the reason I stand here alone on a bridge in London with the weight of my rucksack and my fears on my back.

A tall, red, double-decker bus stops in front of me, “Does this bus go to Beulah Spa?”

A young man in a blue uniform looks me over and grins, “Yes that’s right duck, we’ll get you there.”

Although “duck” takes me by surprise, the conductor appears trustworthy. Besides what other option do I have? I mount the steps at the back and show the conductor my handful of money. He picks what he needs and assures me he will remember to announce my stop.

At least forty-five minutes later the bus is almost empty when I step down to the sidewalk across from the Beulah Spa Pub. A tall, husky, balding man with eyes full of good humor and a reassuring smile approaches. He offers a hearty handshake.

“You must be Mary. I’m Alan Kingston-Jones. My wife Evelyn and our two little girls are eager to meet you. Here, let me take the weight of that rucksack off your shoulders.”

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