So how was it? is one
of those idiomatic American questions that can baffle a foreigner.
When you've recently returned from a trip abroad with extended
family, it's a tough one for an old Tennessee boy to answer in
a way that enlightens. "Wonderful" doesn't quite
do, and, "Let me show you my pictures," is almost as
Let's see, Dear,
was this the cathedral at Salisbury or the one at Bath? Was this the
castle King Henry VIII established at Rye or the one William the
Conqueror built at Hastings? Ah, here are the white cliffs of Dover.
Honey, how did we feel when we saw those? Memories fade, though
copious notes help.
So how was it? Hmmm,
it was ten thousand impressions, moods, awakenings and hassles,
reduced in the telling to a few phrases. You try not to repeat
cliches like, "Everything is so OLD there," or "Someone
really should teach the British how to cook," or "It's
true, the French are rude."
I try to do better as I attempt summations.
"The holy hush
of ancient sacrifice," in Wallace Stevens' words, hints
at some quality of quiet I experienced in cathedrals and abbeys of
Salisbury, St. Paul, Westminster and Notre Dame--monuments that
resonate even when quiet. Allowed to resound with instruments and
voices they not only inspire, they thrill.
Notre Dame was roaring and
ringing with near-psychedelic bravado as we arrived in time for the
ordination of 16 new priests. Loudspeakers broadcast chants and Bach
and bells, bells, bells, as if Quasimodo himself had been
resurrected for one last ride on the ropes in belfries both delicate
Similar serendipity placed
us at Stonehenge for outrageous Summer Solstice celebrations. What I
didn't mention in a recent column on the subject was the
relief of finding a ride out as we wandered, rain-soaked and
sleep-deprived, from the crowded stones after a false dawn. I told
Jeanne, "Hey, if we finish this walk to the end of the parking
area we're in trouble." That's because taxis that
had taken us to Stonehenge from the Salisbury train station the
night before were nowhere in sight as walkers defected to cars in
bordering fields. Frantically we turned and displayed 10-pound notes
and sang out "Salisbury" over and over to the
sleepwalking and dead-at-the-wheel drivers. At last, two young men
in a small white car stopped for us. Next thing I know we're
in the backseat clawing for our seatbelts as the driver zips down
the left side (natch, it's England) of a two-lane road,
rounding curves and taking hills at high rates of speed in time to
some high-volume jazz-fusion riff on the car stereo. He and his mate
deposit us at the train station in Salisbury, declining our money,
and we're back in London by nine a.m..
Such serendipity or synchronicity can make or break a vacation.
We met a man named
John at a disco in Norbury and he told us his favorite place in
coastal England was Rye. A couple days later my family and my sister
Kathleen's family boarded a train for that town on the English
Channel. A one-hour layover in Hastings provided adventure, as we
spotted ruins atop a cliff and made a beeline for them. A
10-passenger Victorian rail and cablecar hoisted us from the
coastline up through a 50-yard shaft chiseled through the chalky
bluff. Atop the promontory we stood among sprawling stone ruins
containing Norman arches and doorways in walls of a castle William
the Conqueror had built ten centuries earlier. Sea breezes whispered
of ancient triumphs and calamities.
There's no time or
space to tell it all. The storybook walk through pastures of pale
green spangled with lambs and ewes clear to the horizon where an
abandoned castle grew ever larger as we approached on a public
footpath in Rye. The grandeur of Mont Saint Michel and the walled
city of Saint Malo on the north coast of France. The simple
pleasures of puzzling out how to do the laundry in a French
Laundromat or order dinner for 10 or negotiate a French haircut for
my teenaged son, Travis. The tavern where a gypsy band played one
more set on guitars and upright bass. The relief when a freelance
taxi bearing the most vulnerable among us finally arrived 30 minutes
late at our hotel. The endless white expanse of Paris turning to
gold as evening fell on the steps of Sacre Coeur.
The view of summer foliage from my front porch after a once-in-a-lifetime journey.