Sunday, September 09, 2007


In Which We Hear London Calling...

As we celebrate our 3-year anniversary here at the Masthead (can you believe it?), I'm tempted as always to write some kind of summation of life to date and round off with a bluff manifesto for the future. But frankly, I just can't be bothered. We all know what a bitch the past year has been for me and mine, and while it's certainly had its bright moments (the Éclair is truly the light of our days), mostly I'd just as soon move on.

Or, if I'm going to look back, I'd rather look WAY back.

See, this week not only marks the blog's anniversary, but also the 20th anniversary of my arrival in London to live and study abroad for a semester. It was one of the great defining trips of my life, and certainly one of the most adventuresome things I'd done to date. Of course, I was only 19 at the time, a shockingly naïve youth. I constantly put it in perspective now by reminding myself that Thomas will be 19 in just about 10 years, which is, really, no time at all. I can't imagine letting him go do something like that, so hats off to my parents for not only letting me, but encouraging me, a fact that will become both amazing and prophetic when we finally get to the epilogue of this thing. But I digress...

I've never been one for journals, but I managed to keep a fairly long travel journal of this trip. I haven't looked at it in years, but in going back over it recently, I'm amazed by two things:

First, I was a real grade-A whiner. Or at least, I had a great gift for using my journal as a bitch log. Most of my entries are snide screeds about my living situation, or classes and teachers, or my shocking (to me, anyway) lack of a sex life, or my similarly appalling lack of money (which became even graver when the crash of '87 ruined the exchange rate and my travelers checks--most of them in dollars--lost value by the minute).

Second, my journal has a startling lack of detail. I say "startling" because I went to a lot of places--not just in the United Kingdom but to France, and even to Egypt on my mid-term break--and certainly did not lack for things to write about. But it's also startling because even as I read the sparse entries, I'm reminded of everything I did or was doing as I wrote those words. I occasionally have a really great memory--not for recalling what my wife sent me upstairs for just two minutes ago, but for other things, and two decades has scarcely dimmed my recall of some of the things I saw on my trip, and the words in my journal act like hyperlinks to the very core of my being, bringing it all back: that first moment on the plane when the green fields of England loomed up out of the mist; the great beery, smoky camaraderie of my many nights spent at the pub with my fellow students, some of whom became my dearest friends and even lovers, if only for a while; my visit to the Tower of London and the mother of all October Moments when I went into a certain chamber and my camcorder just conked out (or so I thought); seeing Anthony Hopkins play King Lear, and getting credit in my Shakespeare class for doing it; getting mugged in Scotland; going to France to find the woman who had lived with my family as an exchange student when I was a boy; climbing up through the pitch-dark center of one of the great pyramids of Egypt and feeling, really feeling, the weight of the age of the place upon me; my last mad cab ride to the airport and saying goodbye to the city, promising to be back soon.

That was 20 years ago, and I haven't been back since.

But rereading my old journal takes me there in a way no airplane or Underground or black cab ever could. And I won't be going alone.

For the next few months, I'll be inflicting selected entries on you so that together, with our trenchcoats and our Tube passes and our pockets weighted down with those heavy British coins, we'll go to the London I lived in in 1987 and see what it was like.

September 9 -- 10 September, 1987

I nearly spit the Coke out the moment I sip it.

"Gawd! This sucks!" I gasp to no one in particular.

As it turns out, this observation will quite literally be my first taste of things to come.

Maybe the soda wouldn't taste so bad if I wasn't so thirsty, but I am. Airplanes always do that to me, although this only the third one I've ever been on. It's also the biggest. It needs to be. It's carrying me and 290 other of my classmates--plus our luggage--across the proverbial pond. I'm going to London.

Ever since I started college, I've always wanted to spend a semester abroad. I came awfully close to doing so last year. I was within just a few weeks of going to France, but I backed out at the sort-of last minute for two reasons. Maybe three.

The reason I tell everyone--the excuse reason--is that my mom freaked out and didn't want me to go. I was too young, she said. Well, no, Ma. For one thing, I was 18--lots of people travel abroad at that age or even younger. And I was pretty sure that France was safe for 18-year-olds. Why, I bet the country was full of them.

But I abandoned my plans because it turned out that a few of my friends were planning to travel abroad. Only instead of France, they wanted to go to London, and instead of sophomore year, they wanted to go junior year. I looked into it and it turned out that the London program offered a lot more journalism and communications courses than the French program did, so I could go and still be on track to graduate in 1989 as I'd always planned.

This shut Mom up. Apparently, 19 is okay to be traveling abroad, although Mom made me promise I wouldn't travel to any trouble spots during my breaks and three-day weekends (of which I have a surprising lot--the course week only runs Monday through Thursday). I'm not sure what trouble spots Mom had in mind: Libya? Belfast? Soho? But I think it's okay to tell you now: I'm going wherever I damn well please.

It's high time I got the hell out of my old life. I mean, what did I have to look forward to back in the States? Most of my friends were going abroad. The two women on campus on whom I have the biggest crushes are going to London (did I forget to mention that Betty and Veronica are Reasons 2 and 3? Well, there you are). It occurred to me that the biggest thing I had to look forward to in the fall of 1987 is that they're finally doing a new Star Trek TV show and really, when that's the high point, it's time to re-evaluate your priorities. It's time to live a bigger life.

Also...not long ago one of my best friends killed himself--Jesus, I just realized that his birthday was the other day. He was a nice guy, a good person, but obviously felt trapped in his life. When we were kids, he had all sorts of grown-up responsibilities put on him and by the time he was 20 he felt so trapped by his life that he only saw one way out. Killed himself, and so far as know he'd never traveled to more than three of four states in his life. And travel was big for him--we used to talk about it all the time as kids. It was something he wanted to do when he got out on his own.

Understand, I'm not doing this for him. I'm pretty selfish as these things go. I'm totally doing this for me.

The flight attendants have just told us to shut the viewports, creating a night atmosphere here in the ass-end of the plane. We are now over the Atlantic and will be meeting the sun much sooner than usual. Everyone is encouraged to get some sleep. Yeah, right.

A moment a later, a garbled voice over the intercom--helpfully translated by a passing stewardess--informs me that it is now 5:45 a.m., London time, and we are encouraged to adjust our watches accordingly. So it's official: I have left the land of 110 volts, 24-hour hot water, and Twinkies. God have mercy I think to myself, as I slide the viewport closed. When next I open it, I hope to see England...


You know, I spent my junior year of high school in England as an exchange student. I was only FIFTEEN when I went over, and in fact, my father was not that enthusiastic about me going there. My first host family and I had little in common, also, but I switched families and I think I had a positive experience of things in the end. The only other place in Europe I visited while I was there was Italy, though.
Oh, I got so excited when you mentioned October Moments and linked to the page... alas, nothing new.

I can't wait to hear about your semester abroad through your old journal entries!
ditto what becky said! i was bummed to not find the story about the camcorder in ye olde tower of london!

add me to the list of naive 19 year olds in, i thought i was so cool ordering wine in a restaurant in frankfurt...
Oh man I did a majority of my growing up in London in the space of 9 months when I was 19. Thinking back on it, it is almost uncomfortable- I was so YOUNG. And innocent.

But it all worked out and like you Magazine Man I vowed to go back and here it is 10 years later and I still haven't been there again. But I do still miss it.
I never studied abroad..but my eldest, is heading there, I'm sure, as soon as she hits college next year.

I will worry, but I would never ever stop her.
oooh yay! I can't wait to read more about your time in England! It'll be really interesting to compare your experiences there with my year in London - especially since you lived at Craven Hill Gardens!

cheers :)
We missed each other in London by mere months. :) I was a student there July 86 - July 87. Best year of my life. Worst haircuts of my life.

I'll look forward to hearing about your time in that marvelous city.
London was one of my favorite stops on a month-long whirlwind 2 years ago. Looking forward to hearing all about it.
This is going to be good, MM. I'm really looking forward to your early travel writings, especially since I've spent so much time in London. I can hardly wait for the next installment.
Stop teasing mE! I wanna see the Tower of London story. The one time I was there(1984) I had to rush through in about an hour, and missed lots of stuff. Nothign creepy happened.

I do remember a room in the White Tower set up as a dungeon, with a heap of straw on the floor and nothing else. Not even a bucket. I later learned that in the middle ages most people knew how to twist straw into a temporary but not very comfy bed. Still, it's said to better than a loose heap, so those prisoners may have had that small comfort.

The American couple near us was talking about it.

He: "oh how awful! They must have been miserable"(or something like that)

She: "It couldn't have been too bad. They had to let them out to go to the bathroom."

Gators(silent hysterics)
MM - Please don't leave out describing your visit to Egypt. I am a terrible Egypt-o-phile (new word?) and want so much to visit on vacation. Unfortunately, with the state of the world right now, my husband who was in the military is very concerned about safety, so I'll have to wait. I'm going to live vicariously through your visit!
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