I’ve been doing some fine-toothed decluttering and reorganizing that of my past which I wish to keep. And what do I wish to keep? Writing, apparently. I came across a very nice, three-ring purple binder full of old material, neatly organized and divided into categories of time and place. As I flipped through it, the tabs came off the dividers, the glue being so old as to have disintegrated. I went back to the beginning – the very first tab – which was labeled “favorites.” I turned to the first story, Peter, William and Mary, completed on April 22, 2003. As I began to read, I didn’t know what the story was about. The introduction rambled, and I was embarrassed for myself. But then, I got to the point and I wound up with a story that I actually liked. I liked it for two reasons. First, I like it when I see my current self in my old writing. It probably sounds narcissistic, but life is constantly changing, and people (including you!) are constantly changing, so to recognize myself in writing I did 13 years ago makes me feel permanent. When I describe London’s weather as “ass-numbingly cold” and write lines like, “the fact that I was not having a good time only spoke to the fact I never had a good time,” I say, “yup, that’s me.” The second reason I like it is because I’m SOOOO f***ing glad I wrote this stuff down. I wrote this piece about London, two years after I was in London, and as I reread it, I realized I had forgotten most of the situations I described. So, although it may again sound narcissistic, thank you, past self, for being smart enough to write this shit down. (Just so you know, I don’t think all my old stuff is good. I have a whole section of teenage girl poetry and – yeesh – Maya Angelou I wasn’t.)
School is starting in our district. Sonja can’t attend, for just missing the cutoff, and because she is so smart and so well-adjusted, it’s killing me that she has to wait. In my mirthier moments, I think, “what will become of her gap year? Surely, she’ll be too old by the end of high school and have to go straight to college.” I myself did not have a “gap year” as that was not a thing 15 years ago, and probably won’t be 15 years from now after someone does damning but inaccurate research on its consequences. Still, I took time at the end of my college career, when I was ready to graduate a quarter early (or two quarters late depending on how you look at it), to do some exploring. And while all signs point to Sonja being a completely different person than I am, perhaps someday she will find this story interesting. And so it is that I share it with you.
Peter, William and Mary
by Jennifer Scott
22 April 2003
Imagine being five years old and being piled into a van with seven or eight of your peers. Imagine being whisked off to Baskin-Robbins for a birthday party. Imagine how that might have felt. This exact scenario is one of my earliest memories because of the way it made me feel. I cried the entire time.
Later that year, I bucked up to attend another birthday party, at McDonald’s this time. I remember being frightened when they cut the lights to bring in the birthday cake, but I was utterly pissed off when they brought them back up to find that Ronald McDonald was the cake bearer.
Why would a small child not enjoy the company of her friends and a nice, big ice cream cone? I’m not sure but I know I didn’t even want a big ice cream cone. I wanted a small one. All the other kids ordered two scoops, while I, knowing that two scoops would melt all over me, ordered just the one. As for Ronald McDonald, I will just say this: I didn’t like clowns then, I don’t like them now.
Looking back upon these early days provides a glimpse into a pattern of self-inflicted misery that continues to plague me. I was destined by nature or nurture or perhaps giant cosmic joke to be the irritable, curmudgeonly type; the type unexpected and therefore amplified in young, delicate women. I just have a knack for finding and concentrating on the bits of life I find unenjoyable, as opposed to the bits I find enjoyable.
A great deal of my grief, including the ice-cream incident, can be directly linked to struggles with homesickness, which I consider as any event or excursion that is disorienting; a move, a split with a partner, a career change. In addition to irritable and curmudgeonly, I’m stubborn and set in my ways, and adapting to anything new is a long, slow process. (Actually, I really only adapt when said new thing becomes old hat.)
Thus it came as a shock to most of my friends and family when I announced that I would be spending an entire quarter (that’s almost three months in real time) in London for a study abroad program with my University’s English department. Most – a few – my parents, namely – did not think it could be done. But I would pay no attention to any naysayers. I was almost a college graduate and I wanted to try something new. I wanted to travel, to become a true woman of the world. I had the time, if not the money, to spare, and everyone else could go to hell because I was going to London. End of story.
Of course, that was not the end of the story. That was just a teeny, tiny scratch of the surface. An itty-bitty drop in a tremendous pool of traveling tears.
All went reasonably well the first week I was there. London seemed like a nice enough place, as my fellow classmates, two American professors, and I were given the grand tour by a demure, scathingly sarcastic British man who made words such as “hideous” and “awful” sound delightful with his charming British accent. I remember being at one particular museum that first week (although I cannot remember which particular museum because there were so many and I was not the type to be bothered about such things) when one of the American professors began to talk to four or five of the students, including myself, who had randomly assembled in the courtyard.
“How’s everyone doing? Is anybody homesick? Has anybody heard of anyone that’s having a particularly hard time?”
Here is what amazed me most about this question: I was not the answer. I was doing fine. I was feeling pretty good about the whole thing.
Then came three days later when all hell broke loose and the trip became a true debacle. I was no longer fine. I was no longer feeling good about the whole thing. I was homesick. And I didn’t know what to do about it. I never know what to do about it, even though, with all the experience I have at it, one would think I’d at least expect it. No, the feeling hits me like a ton of bricks followed by a grand piano followed by a thousand anvils followed by the straw that broke the camel’s back. I did the only thing I could think to do. I approached the American professors, told them I was homesick, and begged them to let me go home.
It was no small fortune that these were two very understanding gentlemen. They took me out to the only open restaurant we could find, a little pizza place in the middle of a giant train station, and shared with me stories of their own homesickness throughout the years. I cracked a few jokes at my own expense, which I will do in any state, even misery, and they assured me I would be fine. Everybody always assures me I will be fine, but I am never impressed with such assuredness. I am never sure. I am always sure I am seconds from complete and total meltdown, so why should I give a damn if they’re sure? However, in this case with these professors, whom I sincerely liked, I found myself hoping, really, really far down in the part of me that knows better, that they were right.
The part of me that knows better knew I made a decision to study in London. A single solitary decision culled from a plethora of options and scenarios. However, I could not recall exactly how I arrived at such a decision when I was actually in London. All I know is that at some point, I had in my head come up with an entirely reasonable and perfectly sound idea. The fact that I was not having a good time only spoke to the fact I never had a good time.
In the midst of all my so-called suffering, others were experiencing the joy of trying to teach me. Mainly, people were trying to teach me about London, which would require me to pull myself out of my own miserable little world and briefly inhabit this other world, which held forth strange and new types of misery. Peter, the British professor, led us on impossibly long walking tours of London, through ass-numbingly cold weather, and, if that weren’t enough, asking us to view and appreciate not only what was inside those museums and buildings in London, but the outside of them as well. As a music student, I was a person with a complete lack of talent, and therefore interest, in art or architecture. I couldn’t tell the difference between Sir Christopher Wren and a flying buttress and I scoffed at the notion that by the end of my trip, I would know this and much more. With absolutely no background in the visual, I did not know what to look for in a painting or building that made it significant. When it was explicitly pointed out to me, I had a hard time seeing or understanding the significance.
Like everyone else in my London class, I took quite a liking to Peter. I couldn’t quite reach him the same way I could the other professors, which is to say I did not try. I knew I would be far from the star pupil of his class and I became embarrassed by my lack of profundity on the subject. Talking about music with someone who is unmusical is very frustrating, and I assumed such would hold true for any subject. My loss, though, because he was in every aspect a very funny man. Humor is of paramount importance to me, and I am easily endeared to those with a sense of timing and the absurd. This is why my most vivid memory of London is of making Peter laugh. It was just a few days before we were all to return home, and after one of the walking tours the class wound up, as the class was wont to do, at a pub. After ordering, I sat at a picnic table across from Peter and one of the American professors. A few of the other students walked by and engaged in a conversation with the professors. I moved my backpack, which had heretofore been occupying the rest of the bench, to the ground as an implicit invitation for them to join us. Shortly thereafter they finished their conversation and walked off to find another table. I picked my bag back up, placed it back on the bench, and muttered, “well, fine, don’t sit here.” Peter overheard me, and he laughed. He laughed what can only be described as a genuine laugh, and as he was someone who had made me genuinely laugh throughout my entire trip, even I could not deny the joy this brought me.
Somehow, with the help of funny and empathetic professors, I made it through the entire trip. It is now a blur of crying jags, teeth grinding, dramatic, Academy award-winning phone winning phone calls home, and bad British food being consumed at a horrifying rate. (I guess that last one goes to prove that when you are hungry, you will eat anything.) Two full years after my ten-week trip, London is mostly a distant, vivid memory. Hearing names like Charing Cross, Euston Road, or Hyde Park does more than evoke a faded image. It instantaneously transports my consciousness, my entire non-tangible being. The air in the room changes and my surroundings disappear. I am, for one brief, spectacular moment and for all intents and purposes, in London. And those moments do what all of London could not do while I was there. They make me happy.
For me, memories like these are a way of letting me know how I felt about something I could not feel in the heat of moment. Some people can’t see the forest for the trees. In my case, I couldn’t see the foreign city for the foreignness. Now safe at home, I am left to remember why I went. I went for the challenge of learning something entirely foreign to me, even if I might not learn it well. I went to build a new and different foundation for learning, which I knew would always come in handy despite the initial fears and tears. I went to try to relate to people I was not sure I could relate to. I went because I knew it would be rewarding and I would look back upon it fondly. That’s why I went, that’s what I accomplished, and that’s why I would go again. Everyone has their own fears and obstacles, and even if mine are not severe, even may be silly, well, they are mine. They are no better or worse than any other struggles, and it is my obligation to overcome them. All this misery I inflict upon myself I inflict upon myself for a reason: It will make me happy. It just might take a while.