They say you can’t go back. And for a long while, I didn’t. I hadn’t been back to Britain, since we were married in July 2002. It was a combination of factors: kids, jobs, exchange rates, etc. I hadn’t seen my parents either: I had explained to them that planes fly West as well as East, but they preferred to spend their holidays in Sri Lanka and Thailand, rather than Arizona. [I reckon they are actually senior citizen agents for MI6, because wherever they go somewhere, internal turmoil seems to follow] But 2010 was their 50th wedding anniversary, and when we got the invite, filial loyalty kicked in: time off work was booked, plane and train tickets booked and arrangements made to handle dogs, kids and mother-in-law left behind.
It seems like the gods were hurling obstacles, both natural and man-made, at us as we tried to head to the UK. During the weekend before the departure, there was an earthquake, measuring seven on the Richter Scale, with the epicentre 210 miles from Phoenix. Both British Airways and the rail unions were engaging in industrial action that threatened to leave us hitch-hiking our way to Scotland (which might have been tricky on the Atlantic). And we just got back home when Iceland blew up, sending all airspace over Britain into an unprecedented complete lock-down.
But the unions and Mother Nature got their act together and cleared our way to London on British Airways. This was despite a nasty moment when I sat down in my chair and discovered the pin holding my tray-table locked and in an upright position, as they say, was broken clean off. Those of you who have seen Final Destination will understand why this triggered some moments of trepidation, but you’ll be pleased to hear the plane did not plummet to the ground in a fireball immediately after take-off. The stewardess brought some tape from the first-aid kit, and an emergency repair was done, which fell into the “not pretty but practical” category.
We arrived in London and made our way through the labyrinthine Tube system to our hotel. That was an experience; never realized quite how many stairs there are in the Underground. Poor Chris was reduced to tears at one point, due to an escalator malfunction which left us making our way down a very long set of steps, laden with suitcases, as a stream of rude Londoners pushed brusquely past. It was at this point that I realized, with some horror, that we had become what I had always despised while living here, e.g. “fucking tourists.”
We arrived at our hotel near Bayswater, and discovered our tiny but mostly-functional room. The only way you could have swung a cat, would have been if it was a short-tail variety and you kept your arms tucked in by your sides. Still, it was functional enough, and we had little intention of doing much more than sleeping there. Shame about the leaky tap in the bathroom, which did nothing more than drip weakly for the duration of the stay. Oh, my mistake: that was the shower. Water-pressure. It’s vastly over-rated… While lounging, we discovered that no sooner had I returned to the country, than Prime Minister Gordon Brown had called an election. I felt like President Aquino returning to the Philippines. Without the whole assassination thing, obviously.
The original plan was London for a couple of days, but maternal “concerns” cut that short. We did get to hang for the evening with the old TC crew: it was great to see everyone. and startling to realize how little people had changed. I think our cultural interests must keep us young. Quizzed them on how Britain had changed in the last decade: not much, was the consensus, though this may be because it’s harder to tell from the inside than when you come back after years away. Two things stood out to me, both media-related. When I left, most people had only five channels of terrestrial television, but now, there is, if not reaching the American level, a lot more “choice” [quotes used advisedly]. You also still see people reading newspapers, especially on the Tube: that’s an almost lost culture in the US, where newspapers are going the way of the dinosaur.
The next day, we took the train to Scotland, through countryside that seemed remarkably green after a decade in a desert, where the only green is on the golf-courses. I amused myself thanks to the train having wi-fi, Chris amused herself by yelling, “Look! Sheep!” every time we passed a flock. Which was a lot. She thinks we need a lamb as a pet, to keep the yard free of weeds, but I convinced her that, much like pit-bulls, while the young are adorable, the adults are only tolerable when chopped up into meal-sized portions and placed in the freezer. Yep, I don’t like pit-bulls much: the wasps of the canine world. Chris made do with a tuft of wool picked off a barbed-wire fence later in the trip.
Home in Scotland, where my parents picked us up and we headed back to the house – they’ve lived in the same place for almost as long as they’ve been married. It was built in 1815, which is kinda cool – but, inexplicably, the builders at that time failed to take wi-fi into account when putting it together. The three-foot thick walls basically meant the only way to achieve an Internet connectivity was to hold the laptop, at about shoulder-level, while standing directly in front of a window. However, my parents had at least installed central-heating since my previous visit: I recall some winter trips where, rather than getting out of bed, you would pull your clothes into the bed with you, wait for them to defrost, and dress under the covers.
The next four days were largely of interest only to members of the McLennan family. At times, I felt like I was on some kind of state visit, as a parade of relatives marched through the house, to meet the now-overseas branch of the family. I occasionally had to “translate” for Chris, when the accents of some members reduced her to a stare of blank incomprehension – this consisted of me repeating the statement in the form of a question e.g. “Oh, so you’re just back from holiday, are you?” There was also a lot of food eaten, culminating in a 16-ounce deep-fried haddock fillet at a local restaurant, which went on the menu by the name of “The Whale.” By the end of the trip, I realized that when someone says something like, “You’re looking well,” that this is Scottish for “Who ate all the pies?” In my defense, by the end of the trip, I was feeling like the Hindenburg, all traces of my normal, gluten-lite diet having been flushed from the system by a tidal-wave of sugar and lard.
Otherwise… Well, the highlight was probably getting to see the new Doctor Who while we were there – mostly because it provoked the intense jealousy of our son. [Brief opinion: he’ll do nicely, and is surprisingly similar to the much-loved David Tennant] The 50th-anniversary party itself is worth mentioning, however, since it took place in the local masonic hall, which they rent out for parties – kinda defused the theory of the Freemasons being the master behind the New World Order, in my opinion. Some of my cousins are masons, I think including one who is among the top cops in Glasgow – my maternal grandfather was as well. But this was the closest I’ll get to being an “insider,” and peering at the memorabilia and wondering what the grave-shaped trapdoor in the floor was for, occupied some idle moments.
The journey back started the next evening, and took approximately 32 hours in total, from the time we left the house in Scotland, to the time we arrived back in Phoenix. Car, sleeper train, walk from Euston to King’s Cross, Tube from there to Heathrow, about six hours hanging around there, and then the flight back to Phoenix, where our daughter was waiting. To be honest, it didn’t feel much like a “holiday” in the true sense of the word. Especially when the jet-lag kicked in, around 5am the next morning, and continuing for much of the remaining week. But seeing my parents was worth it, and we vowed that it will not be another eight years before we head back to Scotland again. But this time, hopefully for an actual break…