Coop Goes to High School Part 3 – Summer Swap to England

My passport picture around my 15th birthday in 1970
My passport picture around my 15th birthday in 1970
My mom was always a smart creative person with tremendous ingenuity and a strong sense that life at its best should be an adventure. She had never been to Europe herself, but she had grown up around more economically privileged kids whose families had, and she felt this sort of an experience was an important part of a young person’s full education and development. Despite her financial limitations, she was determined to find a way to make such travel happen for her two sons.

An opportunity presented itself in the spring of 1970 when my mom heard from an acquaintance that they had traded houses with a family in Oxford England for the summer, both being big college towns with people always looking to take classes at the other university. So my mom placed an ad in the Oxford University paper and got a reply from a graduate student who was looking to come to the University of Michigan with his wife to attend a special summer program. My mom worked it out with them that we would exchange both our houses and our cars for ten weeks, from the last week of June until late August. We got our passports and my mom managed to find a cheap charter flight for herself, my brother and I from the nearby Detroit airport to Amsterdam in late June returning from London Gatwick airport in late August. She made hotel reservations for our first few days in Amsterdam, until such time as the house was vacant in Oxford.

I don’t know if it is endemic of right-brained creative people like my mom and I, or just a personal family curse, but we aren’t good at keeping a large set of needed bits of information in our heads, so we need to make extensive use of lists and other planning and organizational devices to keep it together. Despite our best efforts to plan, we are subject in a bad moment not to remember a key bit of information, panic, which causes our minds to go blank, increasing the panic and our sudden total disability.

We had one such instance when our ride to the airport came to start us on our journey, and my mom suddenly could not remember where she had put our passports, and despite all her careful planning, went into a total panic. My brother and I, aware of this proclivity in her (and not yet shouldering enough responsibility to have the occasion to discover it in ourselves as well), would derisively (and to try to protect ourselves from sharing the psychological trauma) call it the “Ten Second Rule”. She would invariably lose track of something crucial (like the car keys or in this case the passports), panic, and then ten seconds later (or fairly quickly at least) find the thing she had lost but be traumatized for hours afterwards contemplating how tenuously she maintained a grip on things. Our bigger-than-life, iconic parental figure was duly humbled and quiet for the entire forty-five minute journey to Detroit Metropolitan airport.

We made our charter flight (barely!), arrived in Amsterdam and successfully got to and ensconced ourselves in our hotel, adjacent to a beautiful plaza in the middle of the storied canal city. After our several nights (a significant expense on my mom’s very tight trip budget) we got to the train station and boarded our train to Brussels where we would change trains to Calais for the Channel crossing. I don’t remember exactly how it came to be, but we got to Brussels late and my mom took a wrong turn in the station and we missed our train to Calais.

At this point, normally subject to panic perhaps, she managed to keep it together, find out that there was a nice hotel not far from the airport and hired a cab to take us there. I don’t remember the hotel name, but I do remember the lobby with its high ceiling and antique curtains and couches, including the one we sat down on to regroup. My mom did her best to communicate in English with the desk clerks only to learn there was no room available in the hotel, and the alternative lodgings suggested all involved financial or logistical complications that were daunting and problematic in one way or another. It was at this point that my mom lost it and started to sob in the big crowded lobby of this hotel so far from home in a foreign land.

This is the point where a fifteen-year-old (me) does not want to have anything to do with a blubbering parent. The only thing more humiliating (in my thinking at that moment) than a crying adult in a public place, was to be the dependent kid of that crying adult sitting there next to her demonstrating complete powerlessness to do anything about it and feeling every set of eyes in the place looking and judging. And I imagined that someone would shortly volunteer to help somehow and my mom would be reduced to utter obsequiousness and humility which would also be humiliating (me projecting my own self-esteem issues of course).

Thus inspired and before anything else happened, I said pointedly to my mom something to the effect of, “Listen… here’s what we need to do.” I laid out a plan where we would get something to eat at the hotel, since we were all tired and hungry, then take a cab back to the train station and set up shop there for as long as it took to find another train to Calais. It wasn’t rocket science, but it was a path forward and more than my mom, in her temporarily diminished capacity, was capable of cobbling together.

So we executed my plan. We found the hotel bar to have some sort of sandwiches and then got a cab back to the train station. I helped my mom negotiate with the station agent and we found an evening train to Calais. We would deal with what to do next once we got there. Turned out we got to Calais too late to do the channel crossing, but got good advice on a nearby reasonably priced hotel where we spent the night and were able to relax and regroup. The next morning we took our space-age hovercraft ride across the Channel to the English side and then by a wonderful open-air double-decker bus on a beautiful early September day to London and another bus on to our destination in Oxford.

For the next nine weeks we lived in this small village, Horspath, just outside of Oxford, amidst a mix of contemporary and medieval architecture. Our house was very modern, but the neighbor’s house on one side was made of stone and had a thatched roof. The old stone wall that separated our back yard from theirs had a notch in it that I presumed was originally designed to shoot arrows through. Across the street from us was a medieval farm house for a still working farm with cattle grazing in a large pasture. Just across the way was an old stone church that was a thousand years old. The village also had a neighborhood pub, where a number of village residents actually hung out in the evenings and had “a pint”. Our neighbors on the other side were a working-class family, including mom and dad, two teenage kids close in age to my brother and myself, and the maternal grandma. Their son Steve and I quickly became friends and often played together, including exploring the interesting rural environs around the village.

Though my mom, brother and I did our share of touristy stuff, we also experienced life as residents as well. We drove into town to buy groceries at Sainsbury’s. It was fun seeing the different array of food and household products that what I was used to in American stores. We had milk delivered to our door daily in glass bottles with the cream on top. I would take the bus into town (often accompanied by my neighbor Steve) to go to the toy store, to the public library, or roam about the various cloistered “colleges” of the Oxford campus. I remember on a couple occasions “punting on the Isis”, that is renting a small flat-bottom boat and a pole to push it in the very shallow branch of the main river Thames river, know as “the Isis”, that ran through town.

After rising to the occasion during my mom’s meltdown in Brussels, I took more ownership for the trip in general, and my mom relied on me as her co-planner and car trip navigator. It was weird sitting in what would be the driver seat of an American car, as my mom braved driving on the “wrong” side of the road, and I encouraged her onward as we would explore the country on three- or four-day excursions from our home base in Oxford. She later would joke proudly with friends about how I took over in Brussels, embellishing the story as she always would do, and how I relentlessly forced the three of us to see every cathedral and castle in England (not quite).

I already had a great love for maps, travel, and all the logistics associated with travel. England was a traveler’s paradise of sorts. Every part of the country was within half a day’s drive from the Midland city of Oxford. With a fairly large population living for many centuries in a geographically small country, every inch of it seemed well designed, well thought out, including the “moors” and other wildernesses that were relatively small but still duly wild. Driving on the country roads (instead of the “Motorways”) was like being in some historic theme park with a new gorgeous environ at every turn or hill crossing. Travelling about the country that summer I got a real-world education in Western history, geography, architectural and landscape design.

It was also just a couple hours train ride from Oxford to London, and we made several day trips to this amazing city. It was my first experience with subways, loving the long escalators down to the stations deep “underground”. Again, logistically, it was a kick to consult the street map and the subway map and figure out how we would get from point A to point B. Leveraging the city’s great urban rail and bus system we visited many of its tourist locations and ate lunch at famous restaurants. I was fascinated by many things in the city, including the fact that the name of single continuous street could change block to block. I was particularly taken by seeing the celebration of the Queen Mother’s birthday that we just happened to stumble upon when we were visiting Hyde Park. Out came the royal horse artillery in their Napoleonic era uniforms and beautifully groomed mounts, unlimbering their cannons and firing what I recall to be a twenty-one gun salute.

A key takeaway from the summer was a profound change in my relationship with my mom. We functioned throughout our England adventure more as peers and partners than parent and offspring. We each had a growing respect for each other’s abilities, sharing the good, the bad and the ugly that travel can provide.

Among my mom’s skill set, I had the opportunity to witness and enjoy her expertise as a former ametuer champion tennis play. The Wimbledon tournament was extensively covered on BBC television throughout July and my mom and I ended up watching dozens of matches, with her providing expert commentary and reacting so viscerally to a great shot by one of the players. There is nothing quite like watching a sporting event with a person with real expertise in the sport. It can transform the viewing experience into, as they used to frame it on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, ”The human drama of athletic competition”. I have always loved sports, not only as a participant at times, but from the point of view of understanding all the strategies and tactics that are common to all sports and unique to each.

Returning to “the States” (as I learned to call my home country from the English people we had met) I was filled with a sense of at least the possibility of a broader scope of life and a transcendence from my previous more parochial outlook. Justly so because my school year ahead was going to be filled many new experiences stretching my personal boundaries.

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