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Quintessential England

Text by: Erika Anthony

We need to travel. If we don't offer ourselves to the unknown, our senses dull. Our world becomes small and we lose our sense of wonder. Our eyes don't lift to the horizon; our ears don't hear the sounds around us. The edge is off our experience, and we pass our days in a routine that is both comfortable and limiting. We wake up one day and find we have lost our dreams in order to protect our days. Don't let yourself become one of these people. The fear of the unknown and the lure of the comfortable will conspire to keep you from taking the chances the traveler has to take. But if you take them, you will never regret your choice. To be sure, there will be moments of doubt when you stand alone on an empty road in an icy rain, or when you are ill with fever in a rented bed. But as the pains of the moment will come, so too will they fall away. In the end, you will be so much richer, so much stronger, so much clearer, so much happier, and so much better a person that all the risk and hardship will seem like nothing compared to the knowledge you have gained.
-Kent Nerburn, Letters to My Son
Recently, I was looking back at an old journal from my stint some ten years ago in England. I had been hanging out with some summer pest control salesmen, and I was smitten with one in particular. I found a passage in the journal in which I was weighing the pros and cons of going to England at the cost of leaving this young affection. In the end, a non-refundable ticket decided the matter for me, and I was off on the sojourn of a lifetime.

My mother had lived in France on two different occasions, and I grew up fascinated by her descriptions. I knew that a semester abroad had to be a part of my experience as well. I found a two-month program in England that would allow me to take two classes I needed for my English major, so I was sold.

© Jessica Ceason Photography

When I arrived at London's Heathrow airport, I was pretty overwhelmed. I had traveled numerous times around the states and throughout Peru, but the Lima airport was about 200 terminals shy of the bustle of Heathrow. A distant cousin, Grace, was living with her husband and kids in the countryside and offered to pick me up and let me stay with her for a day before the program started. Since we had never met and didn't know who or what to look for, she was waiting for me with a sign that said my name. On the way home, we passed numerous manors with expansive, velvety green yards. The smell of fresh lavender swept through the car's air vents. I didn't say much because I was trying to make sense of everything that I was experiencing.

By coincidence, Grace got a call that night from her husband's nephew asking for a ride from the airport to the dorms where we were staying, because he was also a part of the program. When we picked him up the next day, he had a guitar case in hand, explaining that his drums were impossible to bring with him, but that he couldn't be without an instrument. The traffic going into London was pretty horrendous, so he played Radiohead songs for us, and I stared at beautiful men in pinstriped suits. I didn't mind that we weren't moving.

Eventually we got through the traffic and arrived at our destination. Because I had gotten to London a day early, I wasn't jetlagged like everyone else. So, I woke up the next morning and headed out on my own to tromp through the streets. Nothing screamed London to me like tea time. So, I walked into a Spode/Wedgewood store and almost bought my first set of fine china. After calculating the cost for the set of eight, however, I realized I wouldn't be able to buy anything for the next two months, so I put everything back and kept walking down Oxford Street.

© Jessica Ceason Photography

People were enjoying the afternoon sitting in front of cafes and pubs. I couldn't help but think of the people who sat along the same street some four hundred years before and the muses they had been for Shakespeare. It is no wonder that he had so much to say—there was so much to see. I saw more in those two hours than I had seen in the twenty years of my life. I remembered pausing as I walked down the street, feeling like I was in one of those scenes in a movie where the person stands still while the world around them furiously spins about. I recalled my apprehension at leaving behind that salesman in America, and suddenly the ridiculousness of almost missing this experience made me openly laugh. I bought some strawberries and a peach from a fruit stand and sat on a curb, listening to a street performer sing some jazz. Realizing the time, I gathered all of my stuff and ran back to the dorms to meet some classmates for an outdoor rendition of A Midsummer's Night's Dream. The theater where the play was being performed was situated in a park, and the stage was framed in pink and white lights strewn throughout the trees. It was a gorgeous night, and a breeze rustled the leaves in the surrounding foliage. I was intoxicated by the beauty of the night and the opportunities that my first night in London could bring.

© Jessica Ceason Photography

As part of my World Religions class, we visited the Neasden Temple, the largest Hindu temple outside of India. Later, my mind was contemplating the Hindu belief that the universe is billions of years old and that each of us has lived countless reincarnated lives throughout that time. I was imagining what my existence was previous to what I embodied now and what I would become in the next existence, but these ponderings were cut short, as I had to scurry off to meet my next class at Lord Leighton's house. Leighton was a lover of the arts. His whole house was decorated in oriental rugs and aqua blue tiles. Each window was an eccentric piece of stained glass, and the courtyards were filled with fountains and statues. Local artists displayed their works throughout his garden. I don't remember anything about this man—who he was or what he created—but I remember the lushness of his home and the vibrancy he surrounded himself with.

© Jessica Ceason Photography
© Jessica Ceason Photography

On the bus ride home I ate my McVitie's caramel cookies while mentally cataloguing the intensity of the day. I enjoyed the moments I was having. People cherished the arts in a way I'd never witnessed in America—ordinary families watched plays in the park, and random people walked through the homes of poets. I had also never seen such diversity among people and religions, and I liked how these differences were both second nature and respected.

On the way home, we walked through Holland Park. A live orchestra was playing, and peacocks were running wildly through the night. They ran in front of the spray from the fountains, and the blues and greens of their feathers juxtaposed the purple flowers that colored the lawns. It was so quiet and secretive. I stopped my mind from analyzing each detail and let myself be absorbed by the night.

© Jessica Ceason Photography

A week later, we were on our way to see the musical Mama Mia! when my sandal broke. We were in an industrial area and couldn't find a store, so I put my best foot forward and walked barefoot through the subway, deciding to meet everyone else later for dinner. Eventually, a friend and I found an Asian fashion store, and I bought some velvet Chinese flip-flops with embroidery and beading. They were ridiculously flashy, but I needed shoes, and for ten pounds and a sole, I couldn't resist. I ended up keeping those shoes for a year beyond when I first wore a hole in them. It was a sad day when I had to throw them in the trash. I enjoyed their comfort and energy. They were also a good reminder of the needed balance between pragmatism and indulgence.

The rest of my days in London were full of this same vitality. Authentic ethnic cafes lined every street, so we dreamt of a new land every night and ate as many meals as possible. The Notting Hill flea market made Anthrolpologie look like the Gap. The moors in the Lake District of northern England looked like somebody had laid down lime-green velour, and of course I had to run through them, thinking of Heathcliff and the Bronte sisters. We swam in the sea in the South of Wales—thirty fully-clothed people splashing around in the water because we hadn't brought swimsuits, but the water was just too enticing. Then we rode two hours home, enjoying the wetness of our jeans.

It felt so good to do more than just exist; it felt good to deny the paralysis of the mundane and instead experience the joy twenty-four hours could bring, day after day.

© Jessica Ceason Photography