Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Where I Want to Be, Via Bill Bryson


With so many work projects occupying my time, I haven't been able to indulge in pleasure reading as much as I would wish. Luckily, Bill Bryson has proved to be the perfect read for one who doesn't have, say, an entire afternoon to devote to the perusal of a book. Notes from a Small Island features little vignettes of the author's experiences in Britain, and I still feel like I'm able to fully grasp the essence of the text even if I only read a few pages while eating lunch or a short chapter before turning out the lights for bed.

{Tangential aside: has anybody noticed how difficult this is to achieve with a long novel? For me at least, it's impossible to truly immerse myself in a book like David Copperfield if I can only read small bits here and there. Detailed narratives demand a reader's attention, and if that's not something I'm able to give, I'm doomed to failure -- by which I mean, I set the book aside until a time with fewer distractions presents itself. Thoughts?}

Anyway, Bill Bryson immediately charmed with his description of first arriving in England. He fully captured the excitement, the air of possiblity permeating the atmosphere of one who finally sets foot on a long-desired travel destination. I found myself nodding in agreement as he shares his experience on pg. 15:

Everything that lay before me was new and mysterious and exciting in a way you can't imagine. England was full of words I'd never heard before -- streaky bacon, short back and sides, Belisha beacon, serviettes, high tea, ice cream cornet. I didn't know how to pronounce scone or pasty or Towcester or Slough, I had never heard of Tesco's, Perthshire or Denbighshire, council houses, Morecambe and Wise, railway cuttings, Christmas crackers, bank holidays, seaside rock, milk floats, trunk calls, Scotch eggs, Morris Minors, or Poppy Day. For all I knew, when a car had an L-plate on the back of it, it indicated that it was being driven by a leper. I was positively radiant with ignorance. The simplest transactions were a mystery to me. I saw a man in a newsagent's ask for "twenty Number Six" and receive cigarettes, and presumed for a long time afterward that everything was ordered by number in a newsagent's, like in a Chinese takeaway. I sat for half an hour in a pub before I realized that you had to fetch your own order, then tried the same thing in a tearoom and was told to sit down. 

The tearoom lady called me love. All the shop ladies called me love and most of the men called me mate. I hadn't been here twelve hours and already they loved me. And everyone ate the way I did. This was truly exciting. For years I'd been the despair of my mother because as a left-hander I politely but resolutely declined to eat the American way -- grasping the fork in your left hand to steady the food while cutting, then transferring it to your right hand to lift the food to your mouth. It seemed ridiculously cumbersome, and here suddenly was a whole country that ate the way I did. And people drove on the left! This was paradise. Before the day was half over, I knew that this was where I wanted to be.

Isn't that lovely? It perfectly encapsulates the appeal of the novel and that simultaneous warm feeling of familiarity when you find that, though you've come from far away and know so little, you've found something of yourself as well.

I remember flying into Heathrow all by myself, a scary venture as it was the first time I had traveled anywhere alone. I apprehensively collected my luggage, bought my first Tube ticket and boarded the train. To an American who had never traveled outside the country before, I'm not sure anything was more perplexing than hearing a voice inform me, 'This train is for Cockfosters.'

What the hell was a Cockfoster?! And why was the Underground catering to their transportation needs?

Despite the confused nature of my thoughts, I walked from the Tube station to my new flat utterly content. Everything was new, and yet I felt perfectly at home, like I was coming back to a place I had always known but somehow forgotten. 

Have any of your travels have produced similar sentiments? Have any of you read Bill Bryson's travel memoirs? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

6 comments:

Caro said...

I have never read one of Bryson's travel memoirs, but now I certainly will. I fell in love with his writing when I read Shakespeare: The World as Stage and I'd love to read a memoir as well.

Julie @ Anglers Rest said...

I love Bill Bryson, my favourite is Home about his home here in the UK. Yes, I recognise the feeling of complete recognition with somewhere. When I arrived in Australia 20 years ago, it felt like home, & that feeling never changes with each visit.

Diana said...

Caro, I also fell in love with Shakespeare: The World as Stage. I annoyed my family for weeks by constantly sharing little tidbits from that.

Diana said...

Julie, I'm dying to visit Australia! (I just need to take care to avoid the spiders. Eeek!) It's nice to know that feeling never fades with time.

amanda @ simplerpastimes said...

OK, Bryson makes me want to visit England--I'm left-handed! :) I think I need to read this one.

I suppose when I was in Italy I had some similar thoughts (I remember being completely perplexed as to which flour to buy to bake cookies--there's more than one type?!), although I was fortunately traveling in a group when we arrived and so was shepherded from the airport to the waiting bus to the taxi to the apartment. I can't imagine trying to have worked all that out on my own!

Diana said...

Me, too! Left-handers unite!

I loved Italy as well and can't wait to go back someday to discover more of it.

Oh, and your perplexity about the flour -- I experienced the same thing in England. We Americans are easily confused. ;)