The Kecklers Abroad
June 23, 2004

Nine years ago I went to study in England.

My family came with me.

I kept a journal.

"Stephie? I wanted to call and remind you to bring all the Cambridge info I sent last week. We have copies here, but you need that official letter to get through immigration."

"Yeah, I know, it's already packed."

"Good. Now, remember you have to get to Detroit Metro an hour early tomorrow in order to have enough time to check in and get to the gate. Do you have luggage tags and a ride?"

"Yes, Mom."

"Yes, to which?"

"Yes, to both."

"And please remember to pack light. You will be the one dragging your bag all over the place--"

"I KNOW, Mom!"

"Well, your little sister seems to be having a hard time remembering it, and I wanted to remind you as well. It's only for five weeks -- you don't need to bring your EN-tire wardrobe."

"Mo-ther, I packed light the last time we were in England -- I think I can handle it this year as well. How are the travel plans coming?" It was a desperate attempt to change the subject.

Mom (huffing): "Well, everything has been left up to me, as usual. Your father and Vanessa are NOT being helpful. In fact, they don't seem to have the SLIGHTEST interest in where we will be going or what we will be seeing."

Me (placating): "I'm sure they will be interested once we get there."

Mom (still huffing): "They'd better be or this is going to be a Very Unpleasant Trip. You were much more cooperative on the last trip."

I had to agree with my mother there, but then again, I had been dreaming of that trip for years. I was a senior in high school with a major England obsession -- every book I read and every movie I watched had to be set there, preferably in the past. I'd left all the planning up to my mother -- which was the way she liked it, regardless of what she might say -- but managed to contribute a few suggestions of places or things I'd always wanted to see: thatched roofs, craggy moors, ancient castles, ruined abbeys, in short, Brontė and Austen-type things.

One week later, my creaking bag was on the plane and I sat waiting with my family in the Minneapolis airport.

Dad (plaintive): "Will someone please explain to me again why we are four hours early?"

Mom (annoyed): "Vern, I already explained it. We have to be two hours early for an international flight to ensure we aren't bumped from our seats."

Dad (persistent): "Yes, I understand that, but it still doesn't explain why we are FOUR hours early."

Mom: "We are two and a half hours early, Vern. Just read your book and be quiet, okay?"

Dad (muttering under his breath): "Two hours and fifty-five minutes."

My mother glared at him. Vanessa nudged my arm and rolled her eyes. It was going to be a long flight.

We arrived at Gatwick at 9:30 in the morning with no mishaps other than the plane being turned around two hours into the flight in order to evacuate a passenger who was having heart palpitations. I bade farewell to my two elderly seat companions who pressed their address into my hand and wished me luck at Cambridge.

"You are going to have a brilliant time," they trilled, before bobbing off together.

"A 'brilliant' time?" repeated Vanessa, appearing at my elbow.

"It's an English expression," I said loftily, "It means wonderful or great, or something like that."

"Whatever," said Vanessa, passing my information off as vastly uninteresting. "Where are Mom and Dad?"

"Probably way behind us. Arguing. We better wait for them before we go through customs, Mom has our passports."

My mother has this thing about never letting us carry our own passports. Even though I was fully twenty-one and had been capable of looking after myself for quite some time, she still didn't trust me to look after my passport. My country would allow me to drink alcohol, vote, and drive a car, but my mother still held on to that passport with a tenacity that would put a trapdoor spider to shame.

"Here they come," said Vanessa and heaved a sigh.

"Vanessa and I got the bags already," I called out to them. My father piled all the bags -- save mine, which had wheels and a handle -- onto a cart and turned to the rest of us.

"Which way to customs?" he wheezed.

"Follow me," commanded my mother.

And we did.

When it was my turn to hand over my passport, the immigration official looked at it and asked: "What is your purpose in coming to the United Kingdom?"

"I am going to be studying at the University of Cambridge."

"How long?"

"Five weeks," I stammered under his piercing look.

"Do you have a letter from the University to prove your statement?" I fumbled in my backpack and handed him a crumpled piece of paper. He glanced at it briefly and stamped my passport.

"Go ahead. Enjoy your stay," he instructed, his eyes already searching out his next interrogee. I gratefully collected myself and joined my parents.

"I hate immigration, they always make me feel as though I am doing something wrong when I'm not."

"They want to make sure you aren't smuggling jewels or drugs," grinned my mother.

"Or trying to make sure you aren't going to be working over here illegally," said my father pragmatically.

"How boring, Vern -- can't you use your imagination?" demanded my mother.

"Why use my imagination when it's the truth?" asked my father wonderingly.

"What would they do if they caught you doing something like that?" interrupted Vanessa.

"They would throw you in the Chamber of Torture in the Tower of London," said my mother with a silencing look at my father.

"Cool," said Vanessa, grinning, "Steph, do something illegal so we can visit you there."

"I don't think so, freak-show, we wouldn't want to embarrass Dad."

We stepped out of the airport under a leaden English sky and trudged over to the car rental office. Vanessa and I waited by the curb while my parents dealt with the paperwork. We looked at the cars in the lot and tried to guess which was ours.

"Do you think they got a convertible?" asked Vanessa with a gleam in her eye.

"I hope not. There'd be no room for our stuff."

"I guess not," mused Vanessa.

My parents emerged from the office just as a few raindrops began to hit the pavement. We all hurried across the lot and stopped at a dark green four-door. My father opened the driver's side and began fiddling with buttons while we all waited outside.

"Come on Vern, OPEN the DOOR!"

"I'm looking for the button to pop the trunk."

"Why don't you let us in out of the rain first?!" screeched Vanessa. My mother strode over to my father's side and pushed something. With a click, all four doors unlocked. Next, she reached under the steering wheel and pulled a lever. POP! PING! VVVUMFF! And the trunk gapped open. My father met my mother's eye and grinned sheepishly.

"I would have found it eventually," he said defensively.

"Well, I found it now."

After handing over our bags to our father to arrange in the trunk, my mother joined my sister and me in the car. She pulled a map out of her purse that was so marked up with red ink it looked like an autopsy.

"OK girls, the first stop is Fitchingfield where we will have lunch and visit some villages before going on to our B and B in Little Granstead," she announced as my father got into the car. He sat there staring at the dashboard.

"What's wrong now, Vern?" asked my mother.

"I don't know where the windshield wiper thing is," whispered my father. There was silence as both my parents stared at the dashboard. Finally, my mother pulled the manual out of the glove compartment.

"I don't see why all cars aren't made the same," complained my father, "Each one you drive, you spend hours trying to figure out where everything is."

"The manual says that the windshield wiper thing is on the steering column along with the headlights," read my mother.

"I don't see it," said my father, annoyed.

"Well, it's there. You aren't looking hard enough."

"Honey, I AM looking and I don't see it."

My mother and father bent their heads over the manual and examined the steering column again. I popped a Dramamine into my mouth and strained to swallow the chalky pill.

"Can I have one?" whispered Vanessa.

"You don't get car sick."

"No, but I want to be knocked out if they're going to keep arguing like this!"

My mother's trained ears heard this exchange.

"We aren't arguing, we're Discussing!"

Vanessa gave me a look and I handed her the box.

After leaving the airport and getting onto the monotonous motorway, I was lulled into a Dramamine nap. Vanessa had been curled up on her side of the car before we even left Gatwick. Suddenly, I was awakened by a violent jolt to the car. I looked drowsily around. The English countryside seemed to be flying by at an alarming rate.

"Vern," screeched my mother, "Mind the curb!"

Yes, you read that correctly -- three hours in England and my mother was already picking up the expressions.

I peered blearily to my left and saw Vanessa holding onto the door handle.

"Dad's getting used to the traffic coming from the other direction." She had just finished her explanation when the car was jolted again.

"DA-AD!" Vanessa and I yelled in unison.

"Yeah, I know. I am trying to get used to this driving on the wrong side."

"I didn't have much problem with that," said my mother smugly, "I also mastered the roundabouts the first day." In response, my father hit the curb again.

I must have dozed again with very little to jostle me awake, because the next time I emerged from my drugged state, we were entering the exquisite village of Fitchingfield in Essex. Turning a deaf ear to my mother's directions, my father maneuvered into a parking spot after bumping the curb several times. My mother got out of the car and looked critically at the tire, no doubt to ensure it was still on. Once we had entered the countryside, the sky had brightened and a warm sun soothed our cramped limbs as we stretched out our travel kinks. My mother, ever quick-eyed and watchful, had already spotted a Jemima's tea shop which advertised "Real Cream Teas." As neither of us had indulged in this particular English delicacy since we were in Devon three years before, my mother and I looked forward to this moment with great anticipation.

A plate of warm scones was placed in front of us, along with a pot of jeweled preserves, a bowl of cloudy cream, and Earl Grey tea. Vanessa eyed all this and prompty ordered a tuna salad sandwich. My mother and I sighed delightedly and began preparing our scones while my father watched the process with interest for some time before speaking up.

"How do you eat all this?"

"You take a scone, cut it in half, then spread jam and cream on it," said my mother demonstrating. My father poked his finger in a peak of cream and stuck it in his mouth.

"Vern! What are you doing?" demanded my mother.

"It's not very sweet, is it?"

"No," I explained carefully, "It's the preserves that make it sweet. The cream is there to cut the sweetness."

"What? Why would you want to do that?" demanded my father.

"Because you just do!" said Vanessa as she impatiently shoved half her tuna sandwich in her mouth.

"Oh, I see." But still my father sat and did nothing. Since it's not like my father to sit idly by while the rest of us eat, my mother turned to him in concern.

"Vern, aren't you hungry?"


"Then why don't you have a scone?"

"Because," began my father plaintively, "I don't think I could make it as well as you. Things taste so much better when you make them." My mother peered at him over her glasses.

"I see," was her only response as she took up a scone, split it deftly and smothered it with preserves and cream.

"Thank you, honey," said my father, grinning toothily.

A few hours later, we arrived at Elms Farm, our Bed and Breakfast in Little Granstead. Mom and Dad shared a room in the main house while Vanessa and I were quartered in a guest house out back. Once in our room, we bounced experimentally on the beds and turned the shower on and off. Vanessa even tried the television -- but finding nothing of interest on, turned it right off again. We showered and settled our things around the room before going outside to join my father, who was walking around the grounds with the air of a surveyor. The sun was setting, but the summer air was still heavy from the day's unusual warmth. My sister and I scampered about the grass inspecting clumps of flowers, petals made iridescent by the evening dew. One flower I rediscovered on my trips to England was the rose. Never, until I had seen English roses, did I realize how large and fragrant these blooms could be. The flower itself weighted down its own stem with a head heavy as large as a rather beefy man's clenched fist.

That first evening in England we found a pub called the Eight Bells. It was in the village of Little Granstead and came highly recommended by our landlady. By this time in my life, I really should have been used to the fact that my family caused disturbances nearly everywhere they went, but I wasn't prepared how my family would take to England and English conventions. One of these conventions that I have noticed to be prevalent in the English is speaking softly.

We arrived en masse to the pub, which seemed alive with light and laughter. I say 'seemed' because as soon as my family stepped over the threshold, the laughter seemed to stop and a hush fell over the patrons as this new group of arrivals was noted.

Of course, I might have been over sensitive.

We seated ourselves on small wooden stools around a highly glossed table, and my father looked at the man behind the bar expectantly.

"I want tuna," said Vanessa.

"Ooh look, Stephie, they have a mushroom cheese bake. Remember that from last time?"

"Mm-hmm, but I think I'm going to get the Ploughman's lunch," I said.

"I want tuna," said Vanessa.

"I might get the mixed grill," said my mother.

My father had been following our conversation in confusion.

"There's no menu -- where are you getting all of this?"

"Vern, honey, it's written on the chalkboard above the bar," answered my mother.

"Oh," my father squinted at the board and asked loudly, "What has meat in it?"

"I want tuna," said Vanessa.

Next time: The Kecklers go to Evensong.

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