The Kecklers Abroad: Part II
March 22, 2006

The next morning we piled into the car and headed off to Trinity College, Cambridge. A proper English breakfast of fried bread, fried eggs, (potentially fried) bangers, and grilled tomatoes and mushrooms sat solidly in all our stomachs except Vanessa's who, after having acertained that there were no tuna sandwiches for breakfast, had tea and toast.

I'd like to say that Cambridge loomed with awesome intimidation in the distance, but the truth is, my family couldn't really find it.

"Wait! Vern! Look, there are the spires of King's College Chapel, follow them!"

We kept losing sight of those spires, and my mother seemed to think that if we found the spires, we'd find Cambridge. A few years later when I was a townie, I would realize that asking for directions to "the University" while standing on Jesus Lane was like asking directions to "the University of Michigan" while standing on State Street. However, we finally found our way to King's Parade and likewise King's College. With my mother's spires.

While students strolled about, all black-robed and intellectual, the Vander Weide family, in their travel-rumpled attire, joined the other travel-rumpled, camera-ladened tourists in the line for Evensong. When we finally found ourselves inside the ante chapel, I realized that the hot, nausea-inducing car ride had been totally worth it. As we walked into the dark coolness, the frenetic chatterings of every nation were stunned into reverent silence, broken only by muted comments and the sharp clacking of heels on cold stone. Entering the chapel, we were greeted by ornately carved, burnished oak pews facing each other in Anglican fashion. At one end of the chapel hung the famous Reubans, glowing softly in the calm light that filtered through the leaded glass windows. Vanessa and I stopped and stared at the gentle faces before following my parents into a pew.

The service began, and as soon as I heard the clipped tones of the college chaplin reading the opening prayer in Latin, I came to the realization that this was the way church should always be done. I sat in blissful ignorance of the lessons and prayers and simply enjoyed the double-whammied elegance of a British accent and an ancient language melding together.

During the singing of the first couple of hymns I became aware of a strange cadence in the music that was completley out of place with the actual melody. The hymns ended before I could pinpoint the problem. Vanessa, sitting on one side of me, leaned across my lap and asked my mother questions in a loud whisper that carried to the glowering Dutch tourists sitting opposite of us. By their sour looks, I judged them to be from Freisland. I gave Vanessa a sharp dig with my elbow and frowned, shaking my head. She shot me a dirty look and slumped back into her seat, staring up at the ceiling. In a body, we rose for the final hymn, and once again I could detect that low rumbling sound running as a weird undercurrent to the tune rather than flowing with it. The rumble rose and fell at the right moments but was clearly in a different key. The people sitting around us picked up on the odd sound as well and began glancing around. Their gazes always came back to us.

Although the sound was low, it had an uniquely piercing quality that overrode everyone else's singing. Even my mother's unnaturally high-pitched harmony was completely swallowed up. I looked again at Vanessa, who was doing her usual mouthing of the words without actually singing them. She met my gaze and rolled her eyes pointedly to her right. I stretched to look at my father and watched him with intense interest. The noise was definitely coming from his mouth. The words were the same words printed in the hymnal, but that's where the similarities between Croft's version of "Our God Our Help in Ages Past" and my father's ended. The actual tune was all of his own devising. I was vastly relieved when the King's College Choir took control and drowned us all out.

Outside the chapel my family began the argument of where we were going to eat. It was five o'clock on a weekday, but because it was England, neither meant very much. Most places didn't even reopen until six for dinner, and even that time was considered unfashionable to have an evening meal. This greatly disconcerted my father, so we chivvied him around the colleges to make him forget his stomach. After all, he kept reminding us, he hadn't eaten for almost four whole hours! We managed to take an early peek at the college I'd be affiliated with that summer. Henry James once pronounced the Fellows Garden at Trinity Hall to be "the most beautiful corner of England," and I can't say he was far wrong.

Vivat is a beautiful restaurant across from King's College, (now called No. 1 King's Parade by new management, who clearly exhibit a distinct lack of imagination) which boasts an eating area in Renaissance wine cellars. Henry VIII made Vivat his favorite place to drink while, under the influence of his last and highly sensible wife, he was in the process of confiscating the grounds from the church of England and founding Trinity College. The cellars were cool and a welcome respite from the uncharacteristically hot English sun. We were seated at a small table and given menus. The waitress, dressed like a Medieval serving wench, arrived to take our drink order. I ordered a Coke with lemon and Vanessa asked for the same. The waitress next turned to my father who said in a loud voice:

"I would like a big," (here he demonstrated with his hands) "pitcher of water filled" (here his loud voice grew louder) "with ICE and four" (here he gestured at his family) "glasses." My poor father had struggled severely with the idea that pubs and English restaurants did not bring water to your table unless specifically asked and when they did, it wasn't cold enough. For him. He didn't listen to my droning lectures of why room temperature water was actually better for digestion.

Vanessa had slipped further down in her chair with each word my father said and with each decibel his voice rose. I had my eyes covered and my mother was looking at my father with an expression that jockeyed between horrified fascination and blank disbelief.

The waitress granted us an indulgent smile, as though used to uncouth American families, loud with strange requests, before leaving to fill our order.

"Dad," I hissed, "she's English, not DEAF!"

Years later I learned it wasn't only the Brits that brought this...unique quality out of my father.

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