You Can Live in a Place Without Even “Living” There

By Jennifer Hansen '03

Travel Writing

Writing Objective: Using narrative structure, explore how you came to terms with other cultures.

Melissa, Steph and I sat on the Calais to Dover ferry, returning from our two-week spring break in Europe and mulling over all the things that had inexplicably gone wrong. Traveling just hadn’t turned out as we’d expected. We’d tried to see as many countries as we could in 14 short days and nights, an experience we had been assured would be the most exciting and intellectually fulfilling of our lives. I had imagined that our trip would be some sort of intense, breathtaking tour of a giant museum.

As I sat, bedraggled and exhausted, looking out the window toward “the white cliffs of Dover,” I thought back to our first trip to Dover two months before.

At 2 AM our train, the last train from London to Dover, pulled into the Dover train station. Emerging from the tracks, fairly inebriated and giggling away, excited to start our adventure, we stopped a janitor, the only man we saw, and asked for directions to the “white cliffs of Dover.” “Now whatcha wantta go there for? It’ll be a mite brisk up there this time of year.” Though it was February, we took it all in stride and pressed for the directions.

Up the steps and onto the sleepy street, Kevin, certainly dressed for any event in his unlaced saddle shoes, no socks, and a 50-gallon backpack, Jumped onto his bike. And immediately fell headlong into the middle of the road with the headlights of an oncoming car not a hundred yards away. Steph, Melissa and I looked on dazed, torn between smothering our laughter and letting it burst out. Kevin was sprawled on his back, like a turtle that couldn’t turn over. His arms and legs were waving frantically, but the backpack wouldn’t let him up.

Finally, the glaring headlights of the car brought us out of our trance and we leapt to help him up, Just in time. Once more we set out on our quest to watch the sun rise over the chalk cliffs.

As we walked by a petrol station, we met 3 or 4 teenage boys just returning from the pub. Still carrying our coke cups, they assumed we were American, and again we were grilled, “Whatcha want to do that for?”

We started hiking up an immense hill upon which the castle stood and where we thought the white cliffs would logically lie. Gradually, we came upon the castle and sat down to wait for Kevin who’d been riding ahead and behind on his bike.

We hiked around the outer walls of the castle, exploring and imagining battles and princesses, with the castle only a deep ditch away, rising in deep shadows above us. After an hour of wandering and tripping in the windy shadow of the castle, we came to a barbed wire barrier that was completely impassible. Though frustrated, we plodded back to try a road we’d spotted earlier.

Finally, several hours of backtracking and climbing behind us, we found ourselves parallel to the orange glow of the Dover Ferry Station, and stumbling along a narrow trail, which twisted along through tall grass and brush.

Suddenly, the view opened up, and it seemed instantly the air and sound from the ocean lashed our faces and woke us. We were on the cliffs. I was awestruck. They were magnificent. With our mouthes still agape and our eyes captivated, we stumbled about in the misty moonlight and found a shallow, fairly grassy area to lay our small, inadequate bundles out on.

It wasn’t until then that the freezing, moist air crept Into our clothes and we were struck with the realization that we’d only brought one sleeping bag and a sheet. We opened up our miserable sandwiches, saved from dinner, ate as much as we could stand and then tried to curl up to catch some sleep.

With only one sleeping bag, we slept on our sides like spoons. This meant if one person wanted to move, everyone had to move with that person. Thus, out of consideration for the others, each of us would wait, counting to 100, or sheep, anything to fall asleep, until the position was so painful you had to move. Eventually, around 5 AM everyone drifted off. Each of us inwardly beat ourselves over the head a million times that night for agreeing to such an obviously stupid lark and for our little regard for nature.

When we woke in the morning and looked for the sunrise, we were again disappointed. We’d forgotten that the sun doesn’t rise on the coast of England, it is simply dark and then a fuzzy, foggy light. Yet, the drab gray was a powerful backdrop. The immense chalk white cliffs seemed to rise out of the ocean, and then were capped with the electric green grass of Britain.

Each of us did our own bit of exploring, not only to see the cliffs, but also in an effort to warm up again. Soon, however, the wind convinced us to go and we packed up our bags and set out for the castle.

Spring break was another adventure, like that ill-advised trip to Dover, of grand plans and unfulfilled expectations. I’d envisioned myself in front of the Mona Lisa, along the canals In Venice, at the Arc de Triumphe, and others, feeling some sort of spiritual bond connecting me with these landmarks in European history and culture. As an American, with mixed blood from many of these places, I took this history and culture to also be a large part of my own background. This was our misconception, everything else that happened to us on our spring break derived itself from that.

Americans assume a natural bond with Europeans, a conception that partially comes out of Elementary and high school history classes. The student is taught European and American history sequentially, with only a few highlights from China and Japan. We make European cultural history our own up to the point when we were first colonized by these same Europeans. I found, however, that Europeans feel no such bond. Americans are just another bunch of loud obnoxious tourists. Instead of being treated like prodigal sons, we were annoying and in the way. This first preconception was immediately proved wrong our first night in Calais.

The road was deserted at this hour, even though it was only 9:00 pm or so, and very dark. The highway curved off into the distance under an overpass. We walked on the sidewalk, with the road on our left and a 10-foot chain link fence marking the end of the ferry station property on our right.

Without giving our surroundings much thought and trusting the nice security guard’s directions, we set out in good spirits, wondering what everyone else was doing and if they were having a good time. I remember looking back and seeing the shadows, lights and diminishing sounds of the ferry station and feeling how dark and lonely the road was. My instincts began to prickle and all the warnings my mother had given me began to lightly tug at my thoughts.

A little later we heard people behind us. Several hundred yards back was the group of young men we had seen in front of the ferry station. We joked about if they were going to “scam” on us and laughingly made comments like, “Oh boy, I sure wish Kev and Seth were with us, hee hee, they could protect us!” They gradually got closer and closer, laughing amongst themselves and sauntering along the road.

It seemed like only moments when they were right beside us and tapping Melissa, who was nearest the road, on the elbow, “Do you have a cigarette?” one asked with a thick French accent.

Even though Melissa smokes, she answered, “No, sorry.”

Melissa, Steph and I turned our eyes back to the road ahead. Suddenly, one of the men was coming toward me, his nearness pushing me back toward the fence. He stared intently at me and coolly said, “Give me your bag.”

I couldn’t fathom what was happening. I backed up to the fence with my hands up, shaking my head imploring, “No, please, no, you can’t do this.” I can still see his face, the dark goatee, and the smallest, shiftiest, beady little black eyes that I’d ever seen.

I felt like I was spinning and couldn’t move, until his hand went out to touch me. Terrified, I could finally look away and saw Steph on my right. Another guy was standing over her, but paused to follow his friends’ actions. Steph was looking on powerless and met my eyes, “Give him your bag, Jen!” she said. I scrambled to shrug my huge pack off before that hand could touch me.

At the same time Steph hurriedly shrugged her pack off and we both turned to find Melissa who was on my left. Just as we turned, she gave one of the three guys tugging at her pack a swift kick in the groin with her steel-toed Doc Martin combat boot. He doubled over, “OOOPH!”. The other two yanked harder on her bag. Slowly, the guy she’d kicked pulled out a knife and held it to her throat.

“Mess, give them the bag! Don’t try to fight!” Steph and I called to her.

She stopped struggling, but her leather bag had stuck to her wool sweater and was caught on her arms. The three-drug her down the street trying to pull it off, until the one with the knife cut the straps. They jogged off, back toward the ferry station with our three bags.

We stood stricken, watching our bags bobbing and bouncing down the street, unable to believe this had happened to us and without any idea which way to go for help. We were three girls in an invisible bubble that, suddenly, popped.

My second vital misconception was the romantic idea of “traveling.” I expected it to be like I mentioned previously, a relaxed tour of a giant museum. An experience filled with intriguing people, intellectual conversation, and fascinating, exciting places.

At the time, it was nothing like that. The trains were a hassle. The helpful smile in every aisle concept does not apply to train conductors. It seemed nothing went the way we’d expected. We missed trains, got lost everywhere we went, and didn’t understand a word anyone said. We were always so exhausted and cold nothing was exciting or fascinating.

I learned more than I thought.

We’d planned to stay in Prague for two or three days. It was said to be remarkably cheap and beautiful—very “old world.” Yet, we were paranoid and anxious. Perhaps it was because Slavic culture and language are so vastly foreign in comparison to my world’s, or that the faces seemed so dark and the stares were constantly aimed at our clothes and bulging packs. Either way, we wanted out. We boarded the first train to Paris the next day.

On our way to Paris, our seventh night train in a week and a half, we each became completely absorbed in our own little aches, fears and woes. Our nerves frayed and annoyed to be spending a whole day and night on another train, the three of us began to bicker and then fell Into heavy silence.

I couldn’t think of anything but what a disaster this whole trip had been. Everything had gone wrong, as if everyone were against us. I was sure everyone else was having the time of their lives, the trip WE should have had. Instead we had been singled out to pay for every other American tourist that ever came to Europe.

Several stops later, the door to our car opened and a huge brown, vinyl suitcase nudged its way in, followed by a middle-aged man with light sandy-colored hair and blue eyes. He smiled like my father. He settled in and then broke our sullen silence, asking in English where we were traveling. He was also heading to Paris. During our long trip, we learned that he was natively a Czech, that he and his father had left with the large number of refugees that had been allowed out when the Communists had taken over in the 1960s. He had been 16 at the time. His mother and siblings had been allowed to join them in Canada several months later. He never had imagined that he would be able to even visit. The lifting of the Communist regime and opening of the economy Just the year before had made his visit possible.

Steph responded to his story with several cynical comments about our own government and our corresponding chuckles. The Canadian looked at us Intently and said, “You Americans don’t realize how much you have. You take all of your freedom for granted. Sure your government has It’s problems, but you should be thankful for It.”

“I have Just visited my home and seen the damage that 30 years under the Communists has done to my family and friends. Initiative Is dead. They only say ‘it cannot be done.’ In America, If someone will pay, a way will be found to do It. Nothing Is Impossible.”

“I was raised In Canada, I can see these things, but my old Czech school friends and family cannot. They were brainwashed with this mindset so they will Just work and not think. They always shake their heads with looks of despair in their faces.”

“Yes, American government does have its problems, but be thankful that you are not crippled by ‘It cannot be done.’ You should be thankful.”

The three of us had listened to his reprimand skeptically. Yet, I was forced to admit to myself that my life hasn’t been so terrible. And that this trip, though perhaps not what I’d expected or trouble-free, was an opportunity most people never have.

The man’s larger, humbler perspective on life struck right to the heart of our arrogant, self-centered complaints of moments ago, and made me pause. I remembered the little man’s dream to go to America, the despair in the bus passengers’ faces, and my own fury that nothing had been open for business. Our “horrible trip” took on quite a different light.

I don’t think any of us actually thought this trip would ever end, that we would ever be aboard this ferry back to England. We were warm and going back to what had become home. We were spending English money again and drinking English beer and just so glad about it. After spending two weeks, which seemed like an eternity, surrounded by foreign, seemingly unfriendly voices, we were finally back among the plain, ruddy English faces and accents of a language we understood.

Not everyone had had as harrowing a trip as we’d thought we had, but I think everyone experienced the same feeling we did upon returning to England. This place that when we first arrived had been as foreign as all the countries we went to on the continent, had now become familiar and our home. The time away had made it clear.

You can live in a place without ever “living” there—I mean living there in the sense that your life is there, as opposed to being a visitor. I was only a visitor in London until spring break.

The weekend of May 4, Melissa and I went on a boat trip with Mark and Jamie. I remember sunshine, but not warm sunshine, the English kind with a snap in it. I remember the subtle stench of London’s canals, and the oil from the lock gates. We were cohorts in the secret that we were the only ones on the whole earth having a really blinding time.

We’d spent the day slowly tooling down the canal, tying up periodically to play on the shore, rowing out in the orange fiberglass dinghy we’d brought along, and bungling with the lock gates. We estimated that we’d only traveled about two miles and laughed that it had taken us all day. Jamie tied up next to a pub that was situated right on the shore of the canal.

By this time we were all starving, but without any money. We sat down in the pub at a table near a window facing the canal. The evening dinner crowd was in full force, the light was the golden evening kind that dust hangs in, and the smells were of steak and kidney pie and baked potatoes.

We pooled our dwindling funds and found we had just enough for four half-pints. As we sat and drank them, we argued back and forth about how to get more money. Jamie went up to ask the barman directions to the nearest off-license, Mark asked for the nearest bus stop, I inquired about the nearest cash machine, and Melissa simply asked if the pub took American Express. We found that no one takes credit cards, and everything else we wanted to find was a mile up this vague road that everyone kept pointing at but no one could name.

Feeling helpless and with our argument at a standstill, we paused and at that moment noticed Mark. Mark, as was usually the case, had lost interest in the argument long ago and had become engrossed and perfectly content with another task. His large, brown, almond shaped eyes that were always a little bewildered and surprised were concentrating intensely on the four broken cigarettes we had left. Somewhere he’d found gum wrappers and was using them and discarded cigarette filters to piece our last four cigarettes together. He’d licked the gum wrapper and pasted it around the break in the cigarette and then fitted the end onto a used filter.

Mark had been brought up in the center of London. He’d slipped through the school system, finished school at the age of 15. We didn’t even know if he could write (he can by the way). He still lived at home and worked odd jobs every now and then. He and his friends had had countless run ins with the coppers, in fact most of his friends were in Jail, selling drugs, or just hanging out like he was.

His view of reality was completely different from mine. He’d been so sheltered In this unstructured upbringing, that he seemed more innocent than I, and I’ve never even been in trouble with the law. His entire world was Holborn, and Just living from day to day.

Mark’s innocence left him in a reality all his own. He was constantly distracted by seemingly mundane objects that everyone else takes for granted. I never knew if he was listening to me or not. Mark had probably tuned out of our conversation moments after it started and became completely engrossed with the gum wrappers he’d found on the floor and the cigarette butts discarded in the ash tray, stumbling on the fact that they would make the cigarettes smokeable.

He looked up blankly and looked around, “Whoah? Whoa you all looking at me for?” “Jen, go ask that geyser for a light, yeah?” We all started to laugh and I got up to ask the geiser for a light. The older men had been watching us and smiled at me with weathered laugh lines, “Sure luv! And here’s a fag for later.” He pulled out a SuperKing 100 and handed it to me with a wink.

At the table next to us were six older women, perfectly coiffed and scented, politely tittering and dining on their baked potatoes and steak pie, oblivious to our whole dilemma. We, on the other hand, were dirty, windblown, wearing the same clothes as the day before, and hungry. Throughout our arguments and speculations about what we should do, each of us had been carefully eyeing every single movement of fork to mouth made at the next table. Mark suddenly turned to one of the women who was just finishing and asked, “Hey, are you finished? Can we have the rest?”

Jamie, Melissa, and I burst out laughing. We couldn’t help laughing, but Melissa and I were terribly embarrassed. After battling the obnoxious American stereotype for four months, being the center of attention for all of the tables surrounding ours made us self-conscious. I waited for the cold looks that usually accompany the realization that we are American. But the ladies all started giggling too. She handed us the plate and we began shoveling the leftover potato skin and lettuce salad into our mouthes. Soon the other ladies joined in our joke and gave us their plates as well. Prince Charles couldn’t have had a lovelier meal.

The older men that had given me a cigarette were laughing along with us as well. The one I’d talked to before called me back over. “Here luv, have another. You all are jolly good fun.”

I said thanks. We collected our things and wandered out into the wan, transparent, easter egg pink of spring at dusk.

Being a tourist means protecting yourself with a shell so as not to let anything you experience get too close to you. The back of your mind constantly tells you that in a few short days, or weeks you’ll be leaving. If you let the people you meet, the places you experience, and the values of the culture get inside you and change you, it will hurt too much to leave it. Having a life in a place requires that you forget that you’re leaving and a shedding of that protective shell. You let these experiences and people into your heart and they become a part of you.

When I look back, instead of remembering the negative, disappointing things — the exhaustion, the cold, and the lost, floundering feeling that this isn’t what it’s supposed to be like — I remember the way the light was at dawn in Florence, the nice old man we met at Notre Dame, the “bathrobe lady” in Barcelona, and other little things that we didn’t appreciate at the time. Most of all, the feeling of being on the bus that would take us from the Calais ferry to the Dover train station comes rushing back. We were surrounded by the dropped t’s and r’s of the English accent, and were going home to London.


By Jeff Thompson