Saturday, August 30, 2014

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Neil Armstrong and I

I visited Europe for the first time the summer Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, 1969. My friend Junie and I traveled with a summer-abroad program offered by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, which we attended, and by nearby Guilford College, a Quaker college attended by friends. We flew to England by way of Iceland as most cheap flights did at the time, landed in Brussels where we marveled at the architecture, spent a week in Paris looking at art we’d only before studied on page or screen, and settled for the summer in London. In London for only a few days, we dropped one of the two classes we were to take–history, never a favorite subject of mine. Later we dropped the Shakespeare class when we learned we could still attend all the plays. One of my favorite events that summer was seeing a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream in Regent’s Park, outdoors, at night, with mulled claret served at intermission.

Over the summer, we stayed in a room of what had once had been a stately mansion on the . . . Crescent, then a hotel run by an Indian couple who cooked curry twenty-four hours a day. We became friends with a guy named Hank; he knew about architecture, rock music, and kept us entertained all summer. With Hank in tow, we explored London, wandering museums (yes, I love museums, my possibly most favorite painting, Blake’s Newton, lives in the famous Tate Museum. We visited historical monuments and attended a somewhat raucous Elizabethan feast on the night that Armstrong did walk on the moon.

Our summer program included an obligatory and enjoyable trip to Stratford-on-Avon, stopping off in Oxford where I ran into friends from high school, also on a summer abroad program (our conversations conducted through bus windows). Back in London after our daytime excursions, we ate nearly every evening in London at a spot called The Green Cafe where everyone ordered peaches and clotted cream, a dish I still dream about occasionally.

The epic event of the summer was attending a free concert by the Rolling Stones. Along with many others, we stealthily made our way into Hyde Park the night before the concert, founds good spots in an already sizable crowd, wrapped ourselves in blankets and went to sleep. The concert was everything a rock concert should be–great music, an enthusiastic crowd, order maintained by the Hell’s Angels the Stones had hired, and a glorious moment at the end of the concert when the Stones released tiny pastel butterflies that flew out over the crowd. More than a dozen settled on my jacket. I was in bliss.

The last week of our trip we were free to travel anywhere we wanted. Our friend Crawford arrived in London, and the four of us, rented a car and took off to see the British Isles. Initial moments were fraught as I attempted to adjust to driving with the steering wheel on the right during rush hour traffic in London. Finally, making our way out of the city, we headed southwest. We camped that night in Cornwall on Trevose Head, a promontory jutting out over the Atlantic. The landowners reluctantly let us in after other tourists had left for the day, breaking their rule of not allowing camping. Camping on that high jut of land over the ocean felt like we were early earthlings, enjoying the planet alone.

Another great adventure was visiting Stonehenge. We camped along a nearby roadside for the night. At that time, one could get in among the stones at night if you were quick. We made a stealthy foray into the stones after it was dark and as we walked among those stones, we imagined ourselves in early Britain–that is until all the floodlights came one and we ran for all we were worth. This road trip took us from Cornwall north to Wales where we toured Caernarvon castle, home to my ancients forebears (Llewellyns) and then moved on to walk on the pebble beach at Abergavenny. From Wales, we drove north to to Scotland to see the wall the Romans had built, and finally back down to London for a last few days of socializing and wandering the streets of London before heading home. A high spot was seeing the famous actress Hermione Gingold, strolling along, looking elegant and just like a grand dame of the stage should look.

Years later, that summer road trip and the weeks in London hold so many wonderful memories. I am still close with these people I traveled with–though one of us left the planet too soon. Travel opens up so many avenues. For me, this trip led to new lands and new friends. I give thanks. 


Image: Wikipedia Stonehenge

 

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