August 7 was a ridiculous day. Travel feels like a time warp sometimes. Looking back on this day I can hardly believe it all happened in the span of a day. In the morning we lingered at a cafe on a French market square, sipping chocolat and eating warm baguettes. In the evening we sat on the rocks of the English Channel coast, snarfing down fish and chips from a paper sack while the sun set. How is this possible? The time intervening was…je ne sais pas…an adventure.
Thursday 7 August, in flight to London
We were up early, ready to travel, and out for breakfast by 7:15. We returned to enchanting Place Richelme and found a cafe seeling petit dejeuner for 4.90 and crepes, too. We sat and watched the market come to life, sipping chocolat. We watched the restaurant owner cross the square a few steps to retrieve a pan of hot croissants direction from le boulangerie. C’est trop parfait. We sat a long time before he was ready to serve, watching the town waking up. The restaurant owner would pause now and then for a drag on his cigarette, walk to the market for a couple pieces of fruit… assembling his wares. Amazing, this economy. Finally we ate, only after he’d gone back to le boulangerie to fetch les baguettes, also warm. That bread was beyond words. We shared another crepe avec nutella and ran off – Mike to the ATM while I assembled a lunch for later of olives and dried figs – tasting plenty along the way. The kind vendor gave me my food for 7 euro, not 9, when I came up short, and I had just enough for one bannon to finish our meal. We sped back to the hotel, though first wasted a few minutes drinking in the neighboring flower market. Along the mad dash to the bus we missplaced our three postcards – ready for the mail to Jacob, Meredith, and the Moons. I hope we find them.
And then we were gone. The airport was busy, tedious, nerve-wracking. We irritated the security agent with electronics not removed from our bags and then our large bottle of Woolite I’d forgotten to pack into checked bags, which they threw away. Oh well. Finally on our plane, we’re so pleased with British Airways – the classical music, the seats roomy enough for my knees, the free and delicious sandwich. And now we are about to land, a fresh sense of adventure for this new country and high hopes of Mike’s ability to drive on the wrong side of the road.
Friday 8 August, 5:45 a.m., Eastbourne, Sea Beach House Hotel
Everything went smoothly when we arrived yesterday (aside from the 20-minute wait for the rental car shuttle) until the rental car. We stood in line a half hour, then signed a slip for 245L – over twice what we’d budgeted, due to hidden fees and insurance rates. And that was without GPS! We set out for a nerve-wracking orientation to British roads – in London!! Oy. We meticulously followed our printed directions and then at the edge of the city everything went wrong. Our only explanation is that either two sets of maps (Google and the atlas we bought when we stopped at a service station) were wrong or the street sign was wrong. One said A238, one said A283. At any rate, it cost us an hour, at least, of feeling our way around, stopping for a map, where we met a kind Indian tax driver who helped us until the point he gave up hope and generously offered us his old “Tom-Tom.” We exchanged addresses to mail it back on Monday, thanked him profusely, and set out. Even then there were several more sets of circles as we tried to learn the old GPS platform and navigate all the roundabouts. In the end we were still in the edges of London (after over 2 hours) when the castle we’d planned to see near the coast was closing. Another two hours brought us along narrow windy roads (and exquisite English countryside) to Beachy Head, like the White Cliffs of Dover, but better. It was an enormous sight. We hope to return this morning to find the stairway leading down to the beach. We didn’t stay nearly long enough (I was in search of a bathroom) but vowed to return. The bright, sunny sky made the cliffs that much whiter, the water so blue, so sparkly. We awed at the lighthouses, the houses nestled at the top of this hill of hills, the rolling, steep fields of cows and sheep. England at its most picturesque. We drove a couple miles down into Eastbourne and wasted another half hour vainly looking for our hotel and a parking space. About 8 p.m. we set out to acquire fish and chips, which we ate right by the water, perched on a crest in the ridgy pebble each, entertained by seagulls begging our chips. We watched as the sun’s light failed and the moon began to glimmer across the water, enjoying the quiet after a week of city sounds. At dark we wandered into a pub – a favorite of locals, as it turned out – The Marine. We sat at the bar and chatted in happy, easy English (Mike especially) with the barista (straight from England’s version of Sweet Home Alabama, if such a thing could be possible) and a crusty old man named Richard, who conversed with us all evening. We stopped on the beach again to see the moon shining and then retired for the night to our spacious, comfortable room-with-a-view that also happens to have no internet (so we couldn’t talk to the kids) and no flushing toilet.
It’s hard to describe some of the feelings that hit us on this day. There was the delight of the crisp early morning on Place Richelme as, to our wondering eyes, the restaurant owner walked toward us with bread straight out of the baker’s oven. There was the fascination at the attitude toward cigarettes we observed as we sat watching the town wake up; it seemed breakfast for the French needed no more than an espresso and a cigarette. There was the adrenaline of the mad dash to acquire cash and food and run through town to our shuttle with all our bags, and the sweet feeling of a vendor kindly sending me off with my selection of dried figs and fresh olives despite my insufficient funds, and the self-satisfaction when the baker treated me like a local as I dashed in with my last euro for my morning loaf of bread in perfect, hasty French.
There was the horror we felt as we recognized just how angry the TSA agent was when she found the large bottle of liquid in our bag after already having been irritated by the not-unpacked Kindle. Not to mention I’d earned myself the full pat-down for some reason. Not to mention the pocket knife/corkscrew we forgot to put in our checked bag and she somehow didn’t notice. She could’ve dragged us right out of that line for an interrogation. What a nightmare!
There was the nostalgia – pangs of disappointment, even – for me as we flew away from France and I realized it was time to speak English again. And perhaps for Mike, relief. I’d gone from stumbling, nervous attempts that mostly ended in English or silence to easy, eager conversation over five days, and it was a thrill.
There was the despair as we realized how deeply lost and hopeless we were, stuck going in circles on the south side of London as the castle to our south that we’d been trying to reach was closing. We had no map, no GPS, no cell phone, no clue. We didn’t even know how to read the street signs yet. All we had was a printed out set of directions from Google Maps, which failed us thoroughly. In the end, what should’ve taken less than ninety minutes (we’d expected to arrive at Arundel Castle at 3:30 after arriving at Heathrow at noon and picking up our rental car) took hours. Thanks to the Indian cab driver (we gaped at his generosity all weekend, and giggled at his quirky mannerisms), we finally arrived at Beachy Head around 6:00 p.m. with nothing to show for our day but travel and lost postcards (which we later learned the hotel mailed for us). But the drive was so lovely, improvised with the cab driver’s ancient GPS and the paper atlas we bought, carrying us from one immense vista to the next, along impossibly narrow back roads.
There was the humbling, soul-shaking awe as we walked up to the edge of the white cliffs at Beachy Head, and the desperate resolve growing stronger by the day to master our own lives and desires and pursuits to leave time for the good and the true and the beautiful, as much for our kids as for us.
There was the embarrassment when we found that our toilet wouldn’t flush (we discovered the next morning in an awkward conversation with the owner that the joke was on us; it was one of those cranky old toilets where you have to throw your weight into it just right) and the shock at a few of the profoundly politically incorrect opinions of the friendly, crusty, frankly ugly old man sitting beside us at the bar, and the hilarious moment after he’d left when another local, evidently familiar with him, dismissed him as “smelling like a horse.”
The long and short of it is, it wasn’t an easy day. It was our most challenging (possibly with the exception of the first day of work in London) and it wore us thin. In fact, by the time we’d checked into our room at the memorable Sea Beach House (our large windows opened up right onto the ocean) I was frayed so thin I couldn’t talk past the lump in my throat. I was disappointed to have missed the castle, frustrated that acquiring dinner stood between us and the fast-setting sun – just a ball of stress. Determined to keep our pledge not to let attitudes like that ever hijack our trip I just moved through it in silence, trying to ride it out. I wrote in my own journal the next morning of just what a mess the day made of me but how perfectly Mike met me there and made it all feel OK right in the middle of it. Marriage at its realest and best.
The emotional roller coaster only got worse when we were finally sitting on the beach and I remembered what I maybe hadn’t even known; I wrote later: “The beach – the looming ocean, more importantly, and the gulls and the smell of fish, here more nostalgic than in the states because of my childhood memories of Scotland – this is true, deep home to me and I hadn’t really experienced it in years. Never with Mike present. Nostalgia and emotion and peace washed over me and tears poured down my face.” Sitting on that beach practically carried by the sounds and smells, even the feel of the air on skin, so unique to the coast, and to the coast in that part of the world where I spent a magically happy year as a child, completely undid me, silenced all the tension of the day and washed it away, bringing instead a lifetime of memories, first of St. Andrews as a child, then of the Ft. Lauderdale coast – one of the only safe places my teenage years knew: the axis and sanctuary of my little world for several very hard years. And to have my husband beside me, for the first time experiencing my definition of “home” and with it, my truest self… Not a night I will soon forget.