I’ve always loved to travel and have often extolled its virtues to engaged couples, wanting to know the “real” person they intended to marry; to restless graduates, searching for themselves; and for students of all ages, desiring to understand history and culture. Certainly, I’ve tried to instill in my children the value of travel. “Travel is more than a trip,” I’m prone to say.
I started planning a very special trip, a graduation gift for my daughter, Rebecca (and me), when Becca entered high school. By the time she graduated, our air miles had been exchanged for tickets and our BritRail passes had been purchased. We were off, just the two of us, mother and daughter, for three weeks in “The Realm” of Great Britain.
For four years we had anticipated and prepared for our adventure together. We had read from British authors: Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter, C.S. Lewis, and Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” Indeed, we had great expectation but no specific itinerary and only one particular destination scheduled. Friends in the Lower Hebrides of Scotland were expecting us during the second week, and we would stay in their home four nights, longer than any other stop. Our train passes allowed us unlimited travel on two out of every three days. So, in an effort to use what we’d already paid for, we spent most of our days sightseeing from the train, instead of staying put and buying additional tours.
Our wardrobes had been so coordinated that we each took only one carry-on and a tote bag. We hand washed “essentials” every three or four days, but sometimes the English weather compelled us to linger longer than we had planned in order for our clothes to dry. After we left the colder climate of Scotland, we mailed home our heavy clothes and the “few” things we had purchased.
Becca always made friends no matter where we were or how long we stayed. Just like her father, she never met a stranger, but I noticed that her outgoing gregariousness was tempered sometimes by the English reserve. She, too, took note of the obnoxious tourists, usually young people from the United States, and their boisterous manners that often give us the “ugly American” reputation.
I saw myself as an American through the eyes of the British, and I saw myself as a mother through the eyes of my daughter. Several times I caught Becca quoting an old saw she, no doubt, had learned from me, and applying it in just the way I would have. We laughed about some my most memorable malapropos, and Becca admitted she had that same tendency to twist a word or phrase. In fact, the English language became a topic we both enjoyed exploring as a vehicle for understanding our culture, as well as theirs. Churchill said it best, “England and the United States are two countries divided by the same language.”
Armed with the most current Bed and Breakfast guide and an unabridged train schedule, we set off to learn from our English cousins and to learn from each other. Most of our touring was done during the daytime. Each evening in our cozy room we would decide whether or not we would stay put or move on. The train schedule would be consulted and the possibilities for accommodations within walking distance of the train station would be checked. Even in June, we never had a problem finding a memorable place to stay—or finding another when we didn’t like the looks or location of our first selection.
Sometimes we would get off the train, check our bags into lockers at the train station, and sightsee for a few hours before resuming our journey. We quickly discovered our differences in navigating a foreign terrain, and that became the defining metaphor for our unique approaches to life. Becca would stand at a crossroad, check out the street signs located on the sides of the buildings, and “feel” her way around the traffic circles based on her instincts and the “lay of the land.” Occasionally she would ask directions, but that proved rather frustrating when even taxi drivers couldn’t say exactly how far to go before turning and seldom knew the names of any street. I, on the other hand, had to have a map with the goal clearly marked. I would walk with my head buried in the map in an effort to steer through the maze of cobblestone streets, and would look up only when Becca announced our destination was in sight.
We learned that the trains don’t go everywhere one might wish to go, nor do they go at the time one might prefer. This led us to some surprising places and events, like the five-hour, fifteenth century, “mystery play” in York, performed only every five years by the tradesmen of the town. We never saw it advertised in any of the literature we had collected, but what a treat and a learning adventure!
In Edinburgh I amazed myself, and Becca, by dancing a jig with a stranger twice my age in a park pavilion set up for a Scottish folk festival. Chasing down all the published events I’d read about was a challenge from the start, and eventually, it became a chore. We heeded the advice of Samuel Johnson who wrote, “Worth seeing? Yes, but not worth going to see.” We finally gave up “the going” and settled for the serendipities. Now what I remember most are the simple sights of country stiles, thatched roofs, dovecotes, lawn-bowling, cricket matches in the park, dogs at work and at play, seals sunning in a Scottish harbor, rowboats, lighthouses, rock walls, peat bogs, red telephone booths and double-decker buses, knot gardens, and not a few teapots.
As true travelers we indulged in the local cuisine, only stopping once for a fast food fix, and then, on the Fourth of July, which we felt was rather fitting. Our full English breakfast, served at every Bed and Breakfast, usually kept us satisfied until late afternoon when we indulged in high tea or a pub meal. We’d read from bookstore cookbooks to learn about the “Eccles cakes,” clotted cream, Scotch eggs, and Welch Rarebit we had eaten. Of course, we ate our fill of shepherd’s pie, fish and chips, and scones. Sometimes we would snack at the train depot or corner markets where we’d read the packaging to determine its “energy value” (calories.)
Because of limited space in our bags, most of our souvenirs were our photographs. We each kept a journal and we collected picture and guidebooks as we traveled. Even though I didn’t chronicle our dialogs in my diary, I can still recall our long discussions each night as we shared what we had liked and learned during the day. Mostly we talked about the story we were writing together, and how these days were the chapters we would remember always.