I return after three weeks in the U.K. and am issued a landing form on the airplane. Was the trip for business or pleasure? “None of the above,” is not an option so I check “pleasure” as the closest approximation. There was the trip to Chipping Norton for the live video feed of the National Theater's fantastic production of Everyman starring the spellcheck baffling Chiwetel Ejiofor. Plus, we make a field trip to Cookham to visit the Stanley Spencer Gallery. But even the recreational diversions require assisting my surgery recovering friend in and out of the car and lugging around two large cushions and a rolled towel for her to sit on.
A visit to the nearby Rollright, sort of a mini-Stonehenge is ruined when I receive a call from Joe Workforce indicating that at 1 a.m. and then later that morning at 9 a.m. Himself and his car are absent from Casamurphy. There is no explanation for this except a bad one. Himself is excruciatingly regular in his habits and only amnesia, grave injury or worse would account for a full night away from home. I tell the boy to phone the CHP, LAPD and local hospitals. Then, although he never answers it, I dial Himself's phone and miraculously he picks up. He'd been required at the last minute to attend a far flung school meeting. The electric car was low on juice so he ended up spending the night at a colleague's. It takes about twenty minutes to get from AWOL to explanation of freak circumstances. I will unfortunately always associate the Rollright Stones with a dread of widowhood.
I am apprehensive about driving in the U.K. I make sure to reserve a small economy car with automatic transmission. When I arrive at the agency, the only car without a stick shift is a behemoth Mercedes. Before setting off I post a sign in the rear window, “American Driver.” Given that I'm in a big Mercedes and not a wee economy car I wonder if this foments more antipathy than compassion. The highways are clearly marked and even have demarcations in the road to prevent tailgating. Driving on narrow country roads and faced with oncoming traffic however is scary until I figure out how to gauge distance while driving on the left. City traffic also proves a bit unnerving even though the cities of Whitney and Chipping Norton are not exactly metropolises. I am ashamed too, that even with a pretty reliable GPS I am confounded by roundabouts. The problem here is that the GPS description frequently doesn't gibe with the signage.
I advertise in the local newsletter for a dog to walk. There are four candidates but I elect a sweet old black lab mix named Fizz. Oxfordshire is a walker's paradise and the pedestrian trails are well marked and bear many designated dog poop receptacles. Fizz and I traverse field, stream and forest. The rest of my days are spent shopping, cooking, and transporting my friend to medical and dental appointments. Although my surroundings cannot be considered primitive, for me, I am roughing it. And my friend is a bit rigid with regard to her household management expectations. I am extremely unaccustomed to being bossed around and given my current lifestyle I am very rusty in area of self assertion. Dishes are washed by hand. Solid food waste is sorted into compostible bags rather than disappearing down a garbage disposal. On sunny days, clothing is hung outside to dry and more usually, inside on the radiator. I rebel and take my own laundry to a laundromat in a nearby town. I buy rubber gloves for dish washing. Apparently there is not an abundance of Vietnamese nail technicians in the U.K and a gel manicure would be a major financial setback. With only basic cable full of lousy summer reruns and no DVR I spend my evenings catching up on work and chatting with friends and family on Facebook.
The long term parking is crowded on market day in Chipping Norton, although the actual market is only three stalls. Seeing my friend struggling with her crutches the traffic warden says it's fine to park for as long as we need on the street, even though the parking is usually limited to half an hour. When we return several hours later, another sign, on cardboard, is taped next to my “American Driver” sign. It says “Who doesn't know that this is a thirty minute parking zone.” I had permission dammit! Although I guess it's sad that someone doesn't have anything better to do...
We circle heavily trafficked Oxford at rush hour. There is one roundabout after another and all bear different labels than the GPS describes. My friend has never driven before and her efforts to override the GPS sometimes exacerbate my anxiety. While I navigate the series of confusing roundabouts my friend reminisces about having nearly purchased a flat in Oxford. It was on the market because the owners had been visiting America, entered a freeway in the wrong direction and were instantly killed. For all of my avowed of late agnosticism, I am still extremely superstitious. A few days after recovering from the certainty of widowhood I am faced with the even grimmer prospect of Himself as widower. I still can't get images of bloody mangled metal out of my head.
I leave Charlbury and spend a day with my friend Kim in Bath. We visit the Museum of Costume. Our catching up is apparently too loud and American and a European tourist tells us to quiet down so she can hear the audio tour. Embarrassed, we reduce our volume but continue to yack through bustles, petticoats, corsets and on to mini skirts. After the museum we treat ourselves to a real tea at a fancy hotel, replete with scones and finger sandwiches but bereft of clotted cream. We linger for hours in huge upholstered chairs overlooking a pristine manicured garden. Perhaps it's karma that I forget where I've parked and we end up putting in a couple of calorie burning miles before we find the car.
The next day I head to Gatwick and happily rip off the American Driver sign and return the car. I spend the night at a generic hotel that leads right to my terminal, too exhausted even for a thirty minute train ride and an evening in London. I buy a sandwich from an airport concessionaire and watch a weird comedy show called The Last Leg, hosted by three disabled comedians. A brunette Amy Poehler is a guest although I sense that she is unfamiliar to the audience. She is far from the squeaky clean character she plays on Parks and Recreation and is so funny that the crowd quickly warms to her. The next day I complete my online Italian lesson and the L.A. Times crossword before catching my 12 hour flight on Norwegian Air. My long-haired seatmate chats with one of the attendants in what I presume is Norwegian and over the course of the flight she brings him at least a dozen bottles of gin. When I ask for a Diet Coke I am told to purchase it. When the duty free cart is wheeled down the aisle, the long-haired probable Norwegian asks me the price of cigarettes in L.A. I guess about $5 a pack but maybe it's more and he'll be pissed that he didn't buy them from the plane.
I arrive home to weird July rain and Opie in the backseat, squealing with delight and bashing me with her big hard head. There are flowers for me although not much food in the fridge. Joe Workforce picks up some tacos though and doesn't even take the money from my wallet. I revel in the little American conveniences I usually take for granted. Dishwasher. Garbage Disposal. Clothes Dryer. Real bed. Shower. DVR. And, even jet lagged, I appreciate my house, my rules and that I still have a couple of Ambiens left. Not to mention the appointment for the cheapo manicure.