I guess the laconic description of this morning’s travels is that nobody died. Actually, it was surprisingly uneventful, given that I was traveling through morning traffic on unfamiliar motorways in the rain. Driving on THE WRONG SIDE OF THE STREET. I mean, on the left side, the way the Brits do it. With Jane (I’m calling that lovely little voice that speaks to me from my phone’s GPS ‘Jane’) guiding my every turn through the warren of roundabouts, merges and splits that define Oxford’s outskirts, I managed to only get lost a couple of times. And when I did, Jane patiently guided me back by instructing me to merge left, take the second roundabout exit, pause and wave politely at the nice lady who let me turn right on Marston Road. No, she didn’t tell me to wave politely, and Marston was a dead end on the right, but other than that, Jane kept me fine company.
Which, I suppose, is a mixed blessing. Having just finished Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley”, I’ve been keenly aware of my lack of contact with Brits since I’ve arrived. Steinbeck undertook his cross-country drive fifty years ago to try and get in touch with Americans – those people who made up the broad expanse of our country. He had the hypothesis that there was something such as “an American”, beyond the Californians, Texans and Michiganders, beyond the individuals on the streets of every small town, and he wanted to find out what those people were like. As such, he spent plenty of pages lamenting the inherently solitary nature of automobile travel – most days on the road, his company consisted of taciturn truck stop waitresses, and men lost in their morning papers on the way from one place to another. It was only when he stopped in a place, and let the stream of local life surround him, that he even got to come in contact with those people he would, in his mind, mold together into proof that The American did, in fact, exist.
So, when I was planning the trip out here, I was hoping to avoid the solitary confines of a rental car. I wanted to rely on trains and busses, to sit next to total strangers for an hour or two, and hear their stories (okay, and tell them mine – I’m not that good a listener).
The logistics – getting to Oxford, then down to Chichester, and back up to Oxford to connect with Miranda and then in to Heathrow for the flight back – those were all manageable. What did me in was the two miles from town to the airfield down in Chichester. There just wasn’t any good way to get there and back other than walking the highway, and I threw in the towel and called Hertz.
In pure retrospect, it’s fortunate I did. Not clear I would have been able to swing the change in plans on such short notice if I’d been relying on a bus ticket or British Rail. So for the sake of logistics, luck was on my side. But as I splashed along the M25 clockwise to the M11, I did wish I had someone other than Jane with whom to remark upon the most British of all weather.
I remember, years ago, looking out the window as my flight descending to land in Paris. The countryside, for reasons I can’t explain, looked unmistakably French. I told myself that if you closed my eyes and spun me around the world, then showed me those hills and steeples, I would be able to tell you, upon my life, that I was in France.
But now I’m not so sure. As I looked across the old stone walls and neat meadows – these meadows that looked so unmistakably English – I started playing games with myself. What if someone told me that here, instead, I was in France – would I be able to argue against my expectations?