“Everything alright back there?” he asks, catching my eye in the rear-view mirror. Everybody else in the car turns to look at me. “Yes,” I say and I shake my head and try to swallow the lump in my throat. They are still giving me their attention, however, and suddenly the words break out of me and the tears flow across my smile.
Stef, my good friend and travel companion, and I had arrived in the USA only the evening before, landing in Chicago to be met first by a wall of humidity and then by Adam, who took us for our first American beer in a cozy, simple neighbourhood pub, which confused my sleep-deprived brain very much by reminding me strongly of an English pub – something about the dark wooden beams, the vinegar and brown sauce on each table, the variety of local beer on tap and the TV in the corner showing a sports game made the realisation that we’d just travelled across the Atlantic and been on the move for eighteen hours very hard. The food was different, however: instead of fish’n’chips there were burgers in every variety. Although the beer was good and the company fun, we were glad to fall onto the couch at an early hour and sleep, since the following morning already held the next adventure: a flight for the three of us to Denver.
As I sat next to the window and watched the flat landscape below us pass by in colours of brown and gold and dust and sunshine, occassionally dotted with specks of cloud, I could feel the excitement and the anticipation rising. The excitement of the approaching adventure, of having time unroll before me in which everything is open, no plans laid out, no decisions made, not even any knowledge as to options, not even any ideas – just living in the now and deciding from moment to moment where the next step would lead us. The anticipation of seeing the Rocky Mountains, a name that contains a physical location as well as a whole range of emotions and mysteries as it is tied to my family by stories that have been polished and romantizised in the re-telling – of how my parents, the newly-wed couple, went camping there, of the bear they met, of the good people with whom they forged connections, and the photos that have been hanging on the walls of my childhood home telling their own stories. And then there is the anticipation of meeting two people – the woman whose music blog I have been reading for years and who I have admired for practically as long. And the musician she invited for a concert this night, whose music I have listened to almost daily for more than a year.
With the pilot announcing the approach to Denver and the ‘fasten-your-seatbelt’ sign blinking into life overhead, I leaned close to the window, camera in hand, trying to catch a glimpse of the mountains, with John Denver singing about coming home to a place he’d never been before into my ears. ‘Calm down’, I told myself, but my heart beat fast and my stomach had its own ideas as well. I told myself that I would never forgive it if I went overboard and made myself look like an idiot. It’s hard to contain something as forceful as the joy of being in a new place or the excitement of meeting new people. Maybe because they shouldn’t be contained. I know myself, however, so I put on the reigns. Nobody likes someone who makes herself the center of attention, however inadvertently.
At the gate we were met by Andrew, Adam’s friend. He had already told us that we would find him to be exceptionally kind and friendly and one of the best people he knew and a few minutes after meeting him, I knew that he’d spoken nothing but the truth: Andrew is this handsome, big-smiled guy with an aura of quiet capability who he made us feel welcome from the first moment. And while waiting for our luggage, the fifth person to join us on the ride to Colorado Springs appeared, a “sleeply-looking dude with a guitar” (original quote by Andrew) – Tyler, the musician I’d been looking forward to meet so much. I managed to appear almost normal and hellos and how-are-yous and names were exchanged back and forth and after a few minutes I was able to breath again: even though he is capable of writing some of the most beautiful lyrics I’ve come across, and can compose wonderful songs that touch my heart, he was also just a normal guy – friendly, good-looking, open, tired and hungry.
We finally got our bags and descended to the parking lot and climbed into the plush interior of the very American car that Andrew borrowed to transport us all. There are wide, cream-coloured leather seats, lots of leg room for everyone and enough space to stow two large backpacks and a guitar. The air that streamed through the open windows as we pulled away from the aiport was very warm, almost hot, but mercifully dry – no chance for humidity in this golden-brown land. Driving past the Demon Horse, its eyes lit up evilly in glittering red and I was awestruck by the accompanying story of how this huge statue of an angry, rearing blue horse, close to its completion, fell and crushed its creator underneath it. “What else can you expect from a demon horse?” I asked and marvelled at yet another manifestation of life being stranger than fiction.
Andrew has lived in Denver all his life and has a passion for it and for Colorado that is as touching as it is infectious. The next hours or so we spent being driven around the town, learning snippets of its history from this expert, being shown landmarks, getting insider tips of where to go for a good meal and hearing the local gossip. It’s hot, but we have the windows down all the same and an atmosphere of relaxed anticipation permeates the car. We’re on holiday together, we share a road trip, we feel good to be here and to be with each other. After a short stop at Andrew’s house, which reminded both Steff and me of the alternative community houses of the university towns where we studied and which we immediately loved for that reason, we drove to a place a couple of minutes away to buy road trip food. It’s a tiny corner restaurant with a few bar stools to sit on and the food is being prepared behind the counter. The man in charge of it looks comfortable in his surroundings. He doesn’t rush and he doesn’t pander to anyone. One dish at a time, prepared with diligence and attention – then he takes the order for the next one. It took a while, but when we were back in the car and digging in, we knew that it had been well worth the wait – the food is delicious: spicy, tangy and utterly satisfying.
Andrew navigated us south on this Saturday afternoon, our bellies filled, comfortable with each other, Andrew and Adam chatting quietly about mutual friends and music in the front, Tyler, half-asleep, reclining in the back, Steff and me in the middle row, each silent with our thoughts as we watched the landscape roll by. The mountains stretched out on our right, clouds clinging to the tops now, which only emphasized their height and the way in which they rise so abruptly from the gentle hills we’re driving through. The intense longing to be up there, to soar over the peaks, to glide across all this space overtook me. It was so fierce that it took my breath away and I gasped a little and turned my head to Stef, whose eyes were fixed on the mountains as well. “I’m almost crying,” I told her in a quiet voice and she looked at me and nodded. “I can see that,” she said. I tried to explain but couldn’t find the words. Andrew had heard us talk after our long silence.
“Everything alright back there?” he asks, catching my eye in the rear-view mirror. Everybody else in the car turns to look at me. “Yes,” I say and I shake my head and try to swallow the lump in my throat. They are still giving me their attention, however, and suddenly the words break out of me and the tears flow across my smile. “I love travelling,” I tell them. “I’ve always travelled. I love being on the move, seeing new things. But for two years I’ve done nothing – nothing. Just sat at my desk and pretended to be busy. And now I’m here and there is all this space and so much room and I feel like something inside me is cracking open and suddenly I can breathe again and I feel like my soul is too big to be contained in my body, like it’s two meters wide.” I run out of breath. I can’t explain the intensity of this moment any better, neither the happiness of it nor the physical pain in my chest, nor the sheer overwhelmingness of it all. When I look up from trying to wipe my eyes with my sleeve, four people are looking at me with smiles on their faces and in their eyes. They nod. They understood every word I said and all the words I didn’t say. I heave a relieved sigh and lean back in my seat, my eyes on the mountains again, smiling. I hope they also understand that their company is – that they are – a huge part of my happiness.
They and Colorado.
This is part 1 of a series recounting my travel experiences to the USA. You can find the following parts here.
I have the Poetry Foundation‘s Daily Poem brought into my feedreader every day. There’s a number of things I like about this, the most obvious being that it delivers a fresh new poem to me every day that more often than not I really like and enjoy. Another feature I like is that I can save my favourite poems – I’ll just log in with my e-mail and I can save every poem I want to keep. And even though I have a lot of them saved by now, I still know exactly which one’s which and what I felt with each one and so on.
So this morning when I read the title of the Daily Poem in my feedreader my heart gave a glad little skip and I could smell the salty tang of the ocean and the harbour, hear the voices of a city waking up, could feel the exhilarated tiredness, the itching eyes, the smiles tugging at the corners of the mouth through the yawns, the glad-eyed blinking in the sunlight after a night talked through with a friend. I just love poetry for being able to make me feel all that! The poem was one that I’d saved as a favourite some time ago and reading it again was like meeting an old friend. I really like it and here it is, just for you:
BY EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY
Yep. Those are flights.
(Please cover your ears while I do an inappropriate amount of squealing. You may also close your eyes during my dance moves.)
I have bought the tickets and alerted all my friends – I’m flying to the USA in the summer, travelling in the north-east for four weeks! Given my financial situation (read: the fact that I’m skint) this does not seem like an obvious choice of travel destination. The obvious choice would probably be to go camping in the garden.
However, my hand was slightly forced by the fact that one of my best friends is getting married in New York State and she and I would never forgive me if I hadn’t at least given it a serious thought. And once I had given it a serious thought or two (actually, I’ve thought about it from November till three days ago…), I found that it was possible after all. And since the plane tickets are the most expensive part, I decided to hang around and do some sightseeing. 🙂
I’m excited beyond everything and have mountains of travel literature (alright, six guide books and a couple of maps) lying in my office space so I can daydream and plan! To understand my excitement you’ll have to know that I LOVE travelling – I never feel more alive than when I explore a new place. Also, I’ll be meeting a good friend in Chicago (for the first time – how exciting in itself!) and attend my beautiful friend’s wedding, where quite a number of our mutual good friends will be as well. Plus, we (those friends and me) will do some travelling/road-tripping for a week after the wedding. PLUS, another best friend, that I asked on a sudden inspiration to accompany me, has just bought her tickets, on the same planes, in the seat next to me.
Is there any part of this that does not sound delicious, wonderful and amazing!?!?! My cup of joy is not overflowing – it’s bubbling and dancing. 🙂
Alright, over to you – I’m calling all the travel experts and those who know the area (the area being Chicago, New York and anything in between that’s accessible by public transport):
Any travel tips? Any must-see destinations? Any tips on saving money? Cheap bus lines? Good eating places, cheap places to stay (camping?)? Any hiking, exploring, nature-worshipping that I absolute cannot miss? Also: any music tips?
Every Wednesday noon, one of the family meets my grandmother at her physiotherapist to drive her and all her grocery shopping home. Sometimes she’s in a hurry because she’s got some social engagement scheduled for the afternoon. Sometimes we invite her over for lunch. Sometimes she just wants someone to chat with for a while. Today it was the latter, so I stayed a while and she told me of another visit at the old people’s home where she goes regularly. It’s the place where a lot of her classmates, friends and acquaintances now live and it’s just down the hill from her house, so she often goes to visit there and to help out. She knows all the nurses and she knows they are chronically short on time.
I know all this, none of it is new to me. I know the stories, I know a lot of the people she talks about, at least I can remember them from when I was a kid. I know that she is very practical and kind in her assistance to her friends, I know the stories.
And yet, today, as we sat in her formally-comfortable living room at midday, with the grey sky outside and the heating on, I looked at her and it all felt new to me. I saw that her body was old, so much older than I remembered. I saw that she can’t see or hear as well as she used to. And I listened as she told me in her matter-of-fact way of the friend whose sight is failing and who she bullies to be as independent as she can be despite her insecurity over not seeing, and who she indulges in all those instances where indulgence is harmless. I listened as she told me how she helped another friend to change her trousers and discovered that she hadn’t made it to the bathroom in time and how she dealt with it in her calm, practical way. And I realized that I was sitting at a table with a heroine and suddenly I felt like bursting into tears.
And so, I’m dedicating this post and these thoughts to my grandmother, who is by no means a saint, who exasperates me regularly, and who is the coolest, strongest, toughest, kindest octogenarian I know. Who goes out of her way to help old friends. Who volunteers once a week at a charity shop. Who works as a volunteer in the church community, visiting elderly folks on their birthdays. Who loves to travel and has gone off to travel places like Alaska, South Africa, Peru in the last ten years alone. Who once threw out a very close friend, because that friend thought her social visit was more important than a promise that my grandmother had made to her four-year-old granddaughter that she could stay the night at her place, which the friendship didn’t survive and which she’s never regretted. Who played tricks on her teachers as a schoolgirl, who worked as a nurse throughout the war and the falling bombs, who fell in love with my grandfather at first sight, who, years later, had to be tricked in her turn by my grandfather into trying her very first pair of trousers, who prefers spending her money on her nine grandchildren than keeping it “safe”, who watches the news and reads and is well-informed and goes to the theatre and the opera and concerts and who always let me lick out the bowl when we baked cookies.
I attended the wedding of two very good friends just a week ago and it was beautiful and special and made me very happy (although probably not as happy as the couple themselves). I flew from Germany to the UK to be there, but some of their (our) friends came from Ireland, Kosovo, Armenia, Kuwait… all the way to share this day with them. It made me feel all fuzzy and warm.
In before the day, I really liked both of their attitudes to the event: very laid-back, low-key, natural. For them, it was about having their families and friends there and to make vows of love and trust to each other. All the trimmings were secondary. Maybe that’s why everything worked out beautifully. The place where they held the wedding – a family holiday resort on the Norfolk coast – was situated in a charming and almost too-cute-to-be-real English village and right next to some amazing sand dunes and the ocean. The weather behaved impeccably and gave us wide blue skies and sunshine and a small breeze that fluttered the bride’s black locks across her face and fluffed the groom’s blond hair.
The bride had chosen a black-and-white colour theme for everything and although it sounds very unusual for a wedding, it worked out great – the caterers had decorated everything in black, white and silver and it looked simple and elegant and festive. And all the love and happiness in the air made everything sparkle and seem more brilliant and significant than on a normal day.
And even if every single arrangement had gone wrong, at the moment during the ceremony where they turned to each other and looked in each other’s eyes and repeated those vows in quiet, solemn voices somewhere between emotion and nerves… nothing mattered more than that. I did not expect to cry, but from the moment when they walked in, she so beautiful and radiant, and he so cutely stunned and hardly daring to breathe, I had to grab my friend’s hand and hold very, very tight and she held right back as she fought her own tears. It was that kind of moment and that kind of day.
Which just goes to show that less is often more. Or, as in this case, that it is much, much more than you dared hope for. Or, even more to the point: that it’s really only about the love you share as family, as friends and as a couple.
And to imagine that this day could easily not have happened, if the monster in this story, the UK’s immigration laws, would have had the last word! But monsters can be defeated if you stand up to them and stand together. And if they are slain, you will get this much beauty: