In the fall of 1978, two young twenty-year-olds each packed a backpack, got on a plane, and moved to London.
They'd never been out of the country before. Honestly, they'd not been out of Iowa, Nebraska, and Illinois before. She'd grown up on a farm forty minutes from the highway, waking up at six in the morning to pick weeds out of the soybeans, and He'd slept on a couch in his stepgrandpa's trailer, before emancipating himself and moving to Her couch on the farm.
Now they were standing by the Thames, looking at Parliament and wondering what they got themselves into.
They moved into 7 Bedford Place, student housing. There's a picture of Him and Her, standing outside the colored door, looking very unsure. He's in a beige shirt, she's in a blue coat that still withstands the measure of fashion as I look at the picture today. They're not touching, but they are standing side by side, all the other has in this new world.
December comes. Train tickets get cheaper. They take their backpacks, cross the Channel, and disappear into Europe. They get pulled over for being Americans in Yugoslavia. He has to moo in France in order to get any milk, because he doesn't know any languages and the French know it. She has to sleep under the heat of a hand-dryer somewhere in Czechoslovakia, because they couldn't find a hotel for the night. And when they arrive in Austria, they climb a mountain because it doesn't look as tall as it actually was.
But they watch fireworks from the inn, over the mountain range. They climb the Eiffel Tower. They see the golden palace of Versailles. They snap a picture at the top of the Tower of Pisa.
They come home and tell stories.
My parents made this trek when they were younger than me. I'm eight years older than they were, my husband is seven years older. It has always been this There and Back Again sort of legend in our family, their year of Bilbo-esque adventures all around the continent and isles. As a family, we aren't world travelers. We never had the money. We went to Disney World once, when I was a kid, and after that, we stuck to the Midwest. The longest trip we went on was to DC. And I know that's a lot in its own right. We weren't poor. But we weren't jetting off to Hawaii anytime soon.
So I have been hellbent on getting to Europe since I was old enough to understand that the whole of the world wasn't America. It has always been a fruitless dream, one of those things at the end of a tunnel that you'll never actually do. "I'll go this year," you say, and you don't. "Someday I'll make it," you tell everyone, and it never happens.
I took up French in the 8th grade, thinking there might be an opportunity to go abroad in high school. There wasn't. Not one that didn't cost 6,000 dollars and consist of shitty summer classes at some school in French. I wanted to tell my teacher, "No no, I don't actually give a shit about being fluent in French. I'm not going to be a linguist, I'm not going to live in France. I just want to go to France," but I don't think that would have given me a good college recommendation.
It didn't matter, anyway. My parents didn't have the money.
Then college came. Well obviously college would be when it happened! When I was little and concerned about never landing me a partner, Dad said during some car ride back from theatre practice, "You'll go to college, and you'll find someone in your acting class or overseas when you study abroad." Oh, is that so? I will meet my beautiful Pierre (or Peter, if an American exchange student like me), if I can just get over there. I'll have an adventure with the love of my life.
Unfortunately, my major in college wouldn't allow me to go overseas. I ended up a playwright in a vigorous theatre conservatory, and the only people who could study abroad were the design kids. So came the fall of 2009, where my roommates left me behind.
I know it's stupid. I know there are a lot worse things that have happened in my life. People have died. I've gone through cancer scares, for Christ's sake. But it's still one of my saddest, most emotional memories when I opened social media that December and saw my friends ... my best friends ... traipsing around London and Ireland. They came up with cute nicknames for each other, a thousand inside jokes, and I still remember the picture of them lying half-awake in one of their dorm rooms in London, exhausted after a full day of travel and exploration.
I about threw my computer right at the black mold-spattered wall of my Chicago apartment.
But maybe a graduation present? Maybe I could give myself a graduation present and go over there. Yes, that's how I'd do it. My destiny was over there and how could I be as cool as my parents if I didn't go? How could I be a full person if I hadn't even stepped outside of the country? I was writing a book that took place in England, and I had no idea what England was like.
I planned it out with my brother. My dad said I wasn't going to be able to travel by myself. I was a little girl. But with my six-foot-four brother, I could successfully travel without being ... I don't know ... taken? Unfortunately, Brother isn't a reliable planner-in-crime. We came up with this long itinerary, fifteen days! We plotted out a stop in Bruges, because we're Martin McDonagh fans. But he made it clear to me that while he was okay fanboying McDonagh, that's about as intellectual as he was going to take it: "I know you. I'm not going to end up in some dumb poppy field because Sir Such-n-Such wrote some stupid poem about the poppy field in 1872."
"It wouldn't have made sense for him to write it in 1872," I retorted. "It would have probably been a lot closer to the 1940's."
It didn't matter, anyway. He started dating his now-wife. And he gave up on me.
Obviously as a woman ... and a woman who had about 800 bucks to her name and a para job that paid via stipend ... it wasn't going to happen.
"One of these days, I'm just getting on a plane by myself, and just bum-rush the doors to the street outta Heathrow," I told my dad.
"If you want to get yourself killed," he warned.
I started planning my escape. Damn them all. My dad hadn't had the money to send me in high school. Brother bailed on me. And no fancy Pierre de Peter was showing up to let me ride his coattails across the seas. So it would be up to me.
My newfound feminism did not change the amount of money in my bank account. The trip was canceled.
On the day we would have been stepping on Parisian soil for the first time, the day where I had scheduled to climb the Eiffel Tower, I met my husband for the first time instead.
That idea has stuck with me. Maybe things happen at times for reasons. If I'd been in Paris, whining about how there was no Pierre in sight, I would have missed out on the connection with Alex. Such a huge part of my life wouldn't have happened.
But that didn't stop my obsessive need to get over there.
Graduate school. Everything else had failed, but graduate school. I found an MA in Fiction program in England. I was ready to go. I had made my peace with Alex, I had told my brother I was moving out, I had gotten my resignation letter ready.
Then I got sick. And the financial aid turned out to be a mess. And my professor from undergrad not-so-gently told me than an MA is worth about as much as sitting at home and reading Dick and Jane books over and over again, when it comes to getting a job.
So I withdrew my name from the cohort. I didn't move to England. I didn't quit my job. I couldn't get away.
On the day my parents and I were supposed to get off the train in Bath and move my things into my new apartment, my grandmother was put into hospice. On the day I was finally going to get to Paris, my grandmother died. On the day school started, my grandmother was buried.
A time and reason.
I found another graduate program, one with a residency in Ireland. And this time I had money. And this time I believed in myself. And this time I was ready.
A few months ago, I sat down with one of my worldly friends after a long time of not seeing them. They live such a brilliant life, going from city to city on tour, shipping around the world to work.
I told her about my Europe trip. When we were freshmen at the conservatory, we sat out on the quad and looked up at the stars together, and I told her, "I want to go to London more than anything."
"You'll go," she assured me. "From what I know of you, you're more than capable."
And that had spurred me on. That had made it even more real, this dream. This Rapunzel lantern chase.
But now she said: "You haven't been out before? Wow, that's ... surprising. We just got back from This and That, and That and This, and we lived in London for five months, and ..."
I felt very small. This huge, epic, Homeric journey I was about to take was so very miniscule. Of course other people had gone to Europe. Of course a lot of people had been there a lot of times, and it was assumed that all the important, intellectual, cultured persons had already succeeded in what could have been considered exotic ten years ago, but now at our age, was something I should have already done.
She didn't mean to make me feel this way. She's such a kind person. I wasn't angry. I was just upset at myself. And confused about what socioeconomics meant for travel. I'd grown up around people who could afford 6,000 dollars to go to Europe, and so I'd taken it for granted. But then we hadn't had the money, then I had no money of my own, then I moved to neighborhoods where kids would have killed to go to Kansas City down the road. So Europe was a huge deal.
Was it a huge deal? Or was I just stupid?
"It makes it feel like a foolish thing I'm making such a big deal about some stupid trip," I told Alex later. "It's not that big of a deal. It's just a plane ticket. It's just a hotel room. We saved up enough money, and that's a feat within itself, but there are much bigger dreams people have than me. Mine is stupid."
I don't remember his response. He probably said something very Alex-y, very helpful and loving and sometimes snarky.
But I will always remember last night.
I dropped my parents off after getting dinner with them. Dad came out of the garage with a big green backpack.
"Here," he said. "Still has my tag on it."
There it was, "IF LOST, PLEASE RETURN TO 7 BEDFORD PLACE, LONDON, UK."
Next Wednesday morning, I'll land in Shannon, Ireland. Alone. Just me.
That next Wednesday, Alex will land in Shannon, and I'll accompany him to London.
The Wednesday after that, we're scheduled to climb the Eiffel Tower.
The Wednesday after that, Alex will be gone. And I will go on ... alone ... to Scotland.
By the time we leave on July 30th, we will have stood in front of that colored door at 7 Bedford Place, my parents' picture in my hand, and we'll take our own picture. My Pierre de Peter and me. My health and the love of my family in tact. He will probably wear his black shirt, because he knows I love that shirt. I will probably not have a fashionable coat on, because it will be hot. But we will be smiling.
I will have made it.
P.S. We are not visiting a poppy field, but we are visiting a field in the middle of nowhere. Watership Down by Richard Adams was inspired by the real Watership Down, just outside of Newbury.
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Dawson is a writer. This is her blog. In it, you shall read about reading. And writing. And cheeseburgers. Sometimes there are tangents. Huzzah.