Friday, May 24, 2013

In 1997 I was recently divorced, living in Carbondale, and concerned about money, but my brother announced that he would be getting married that summer in Stafford, England. I reasoned that there was no way I could go there without my two boys, aged 5 and 9, but it would be difficult to find cheap flights across the ocean with them. Finally I found one, from Newark to Stanstead Airport in East London, on El Al airlines. I bought three tickets and three more from Chicago to Newark; you couldn't get there from St. Louis, apparently. Even driving to Chicago with two boys was a chore, since they were five and nine and the car wasn't in great shape, but we made it, and stored the car at a friend's.

The memorable thing about El Al Airlines was its security. A young woman pressed me repeatedly about my business in London; she didn't believe that I was an ESL teacher, or that I was attending a wedding. Behind her a man with a cart full of luggage knocked the 5-year-old over, and he sprawled into some suitcases, but he took it in stride, and pretty soon we were on a plane going across the ocean. In London we took a train into the city, and I remember the older boy reading; I said to him, this may be your last chance to see a city like London; why are you reading? But it reminded me of several things. First, for him, it was vacation; why shouldn't he do what he really wanted? And second, an exotic city might have more attraction to me than it did to him. It could be that he was somewhat intimidated by the tension, especially in me; the new environment, etc.

Several times the boys struck up conversations with strangers, and everyone was always surprised at how we had different words for different things. Once they asked someone where the trash was, and were met with blank stares. Finally they told us that it was the rubbish bin that we were looking for. I was carrying a banjo and all their luggage, so my hands were full, but we found our way to a bus station and headed up into the countryside. People approached me and asked me about the banjo. It was like a huge American flag. They were eager to talk about music in the US, and unfortunately, I wasn't really up on the modern music, and was ashamed to admit it. A few times, we stopped, and looked at the sights in London or wherever we were. The boys were good travelers. They listened and followed me through bus stations, etc. At the wedding they played with their cousins and had a good time.

In the town of Stafford I rented a car and drove on the left; I also went through a roundabout. I got through without killing anyone, but was profoundly impressed by the experience. Once we saw a "Royal Society of Friends" sign on that main road; there were obviously Quakers in that town. I bought the host a newspaper one day, but was dismayed to find out that in Britain, one buys newspapers according to political creed, and I had bought the wrong one. One has to guess at the politics of one's host, or ask, and I had been oblivious of the process.

My brother, I believe, got married barefoot, and I asked him about that, but that is probably a story to be told by him. Several people in the family took the opportunity of flying abroad to also hit Paris, or other places. On our one free day I took the rental car and took the boys over some mountains into Wales. I still remember that it was like Colorado in some senses, sunny, pleasant, small-town mountain life, but occasionally when people were speaking, it wasn't clear to me whether they were speaking in Welsh, or just in some variation of English that I couldn't understand. I stopped in at a little Welsh-pride type outlet and stocked up on souvenirs. I should have told them that my mother's maiden name, Wallace, was an old Scottish word for "Welsh." My roots there were so far back, they were lost.

The trip back was much longer than the trip there. For one thing, everyone was exhausted from the wedding, from being in another country, from massive exposure to extended family. The young boys, especially the five-year-old, began showing signs of losing patience. The thirteen-hour flight from London to Newark was delayed and circled Newark for almost an hour, an hour that lasted maybe four or five hours. I tried to remember the advice that someone had given me: that time with young children in an enclosed place is just extended family time, meant to be enjoyed; sure it will tax your resources, but after all, it's an opportunity to be with your children, to enjoy them, to learn what they like and do it. I'd run out of things to do, maybe in the sixth or seventh hour. The plane had klezmer music on the earphones, but the boys didn't like it as much as I did. Both had taken about as much nap as they could.

Finally the plane came into Newark and we all stood up. A woman behind me commended my children on their excellent behavior. No words of praise ever sounded better to me. I think, on hindsight, that it was a veiled way of saying that I'd done the best I could, and that in fact, they were quite sweet, as hard as it had been. I remember very little of the trip to Chicago, or the ensuing six-hour drive back home; I'm sure it was nothing in comparison, even if was in the middle of the night.


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