The story goes that my great, great grandfather had to leave England in a hurry due to a penchant for drinking, some shady business practices and too many bad gambling debts, and he took with him his oldest daughter – my great grandmother Marge – to tend house until he could bring the rest of the family to the Pennsylvania coal mines where he finally landed. Eventually he did manage to haul the rest of them over, but to my knowledge, he never went back to the Mother Country and none from our family have visited since. As great, great grand pappy’s debtors are probably, hopefully, long since dead, I think it’s time one of us took the chance.
Being half English and half Irish on my mother’s side, the British Isles have long been on my radar. Thatched cottages and fluffy sheep seem to steep in our family blood, bad food seems natural on our plates, and visions of Wadsworth’s daffodils still float in my addled brain despite a 34-year gap since taking freshman lit. It’s as if it’s in our DNA, so much so that my 17-year-old daughter already dreams of living her life in Dublin married to an Irish native and raising her future adopted Chinese children, Ling and Ping O’Reilly upon her rolling green hills. My mother and her sister talk endlessly of finally visitingEngland, and my uncle longs to lose golf ball after golf ball inScotland. As for me, I can’t stop dreaming of London’s tiny, twisting streets. In short, we’re Anglo-Saxon through and through and we have the pasty pale skin, translucent hair and freckles to back it up.
So a visit to the UK, and London in particular, is definitely on my to-do list, because who doesn’t want to parade around her cobblestoned streets, imagining a long-dead great, great grand pappy getting tossed on his ass out of this bar and that before jumping ship to the States? These are my people, even if it’s been over a hundred years since any of my ancestors sowed any wild oats in her back alleys. Family traditions die hard, and it’s high time one of us resurrect a few. So, in no particular order, here are some of my plans when I finally do make it back to the mother ship.
1) Buy some bed knobs and broomsticks at a London flea market.
Flea markets appeal to me like beer on a Friday night and, I truly enjoy tromping around the occasional one in my neighboring Hoosier hills on a slow Saturday afternoon. But I can’t imagine how much more exciting a flea market must be in a community as old, as vibrant, as urban as London. Poking through piles of musty books and bobbles and antiques is only part of the fun, for in London, one can also imagine the castle or cottage or row house those antiques may have come from or the history they may have survived. In Indiana, our flea market finds most likely come from a ranch brick house built in the 1970s and which barely remembers Watergate. In London, however, it’s possible to find unique goodies that may be older than my hometown.
2) Green up my thumb at Kew Garden
As an avid gardener since a very young age, I knew who Gertrude Jekyll was before I knew Mick Jagger. Pulling weeds makes me happy, and my fingernails are usually home to more dirt than most entertainment “news” shows. Thus a visit to Kew Gardens is a requirement. I have to stroll all 300 of her manicured acres and when I break a sweat in the steamy Palm House, it will be due to the proximity of so many lovely plants rather than the heat. I LIVE for plant life, so much so, that I feel almost guilty eating vegetables. Whereas so many Europeans are passionate about their soccer, I drool over delphiniums.
3) Channel my inner thespian at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
All the world’s a stage, but in England, what a stage! Yeah, I know, it’s a reconstruction, but the site remains THE site for English theater and as someone who trod the boards – albeit in high school – I want to stand in the shadow of the great playwright if for no other reason than just to BE there, standing there, in silent awe, taking it all in. It’s as simple as that.
4) Discover the ghosts of the Christmas Carol at the Charles Dickens’s Museum
My two favorite authors – Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway – are light years apart in terms of writing style, yet my love of their works runs so deep, they remain for me united to this day as the only two writers who’s footsteps I feel compelled to follow. So a day of visiting Dickens’s old haunts must start with a thorough and informative visit to the museum dedicated to his life and works. And, should I run into the Ghost of Christmas Past in the process, I’ll pinch myself and post it on Facebook.
5) Discover something good to eat that’s actually British
During a recent shopping trip to Jungle Jim’s – billed as the world’s largest grocery store, conveniently located an hour away in Cincinnati – I pushed my treasure laden grocery cart to “Sherwood Forest,” home to edibles of UK origin. Given that I had to work my way through the pleasures of the Orient section first, it was a bit of a let down. It seemed the Sherwood Forest gimmick was the only way to enliven that section of the store, for the food of the British Isles proved to be less of a big draw and featured such lovely items as haggis in a can and potted meat. Surely, real food on real British soil is better than this, right? It can’t merely be about bad meat cooked in horrible ways, can it? Right? Yes? Hello? Is that an echo I hear out there?
Ok, so it may be a long shot and tantamount to finding Nessie in her cold, deep lock up north, but I do plan to look for that elusive myth of the good English meal. And, God willing, I’ll find her. After all, there’s always fish and chips.
While a short stay of a week or too is hopefully on the not-too-distant horizon, I do want to someday spend some serious quality time in London, perhaps upon retirement by renting an Oh-London apartment for a few months. I want to commit to the old girl and get to know her like the boy next door. I don’t want her to be like some great aunt propped up in the nursing home who only gets visited on the holidays. I want to know her, really know her, and hear the stories and feel the history and understand what makes her tick. I want to know that in someway, it’s all connected to me and my family and our lives. It’s our history, and it’s time to go.
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