My First Passport
On the way to my son’s play group, in Coram’s Fields near Russell Square, we get a history lesson. The park was the original site of the Foundling Hospital, established in 1739 by Captain Thomas Coram to help the many homeless and abandoned children living in the streets of London. Today such a childhood would be called Dickensian, but it wasn’t until 1837 that Charles Dickens, then only 25 himself, would publish Oliver Twist. Life went on being hard for children in this part of London for a very long time, and Dickens wouldn’t live to see the site become the playground it is today, full of laughing and well-fed faces.
Right across from Coram’s Fields is the site of a more personal history: International Hall, the dormitory where, age 20, I arrived as a student knowing no one. I was not allowed into Coram’s Fields because only people with children may enter. If you’d told me then that one day I would push my 2-year-old on the swings there, I wouldn’t have believed a word. Before that trip, like the majority of Americans, I didn’t have a passport. When I was a kid growing up in the Florida Keys, a trip to Disney’s Epcot Center was the closest thing we had to foreign travel.
My beloved grandmother, Nana, was the first person who let me know there was an England. She had spent several years on a U.S. Air Force base in the Cotswolds, and she had a collection of Toby jugs and a lingering love for the British Royal Family. It was probably her fault that I dragged my mother out of bed at 4am to watch the Princess Diana’s wedding to Prince Charles on TV. A few years later, Nana gave me a pop-up book with pictures of Charles and Diana and their baby sons, and we used to look at it together. Many years later I would find the same book displayed for ironic effect in the home of a Cambridge, Massachusetts intellectual. But Nana and I were completely earnest in our obsession.
My grandmother would have loved the books I read to my children now: in addition to Nancy Drew, my daughter loves Enid Blyton’s boarding school books and the Famous Five. My son loves Mo Willems and Dr. Seuss, but he is also into anything by Julia Donaldson (The Gruffalo) and John Ryan’s Captain Pugwash series. I’m not sure if Nana ever read Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, or Charles Dickens, but it was because of her that I sought them out. When I got to college, a survey course in British literature called to me like nothing else. Could the London of my imagination, informed only by books, possibly measure up in real life? I had to see it. How would my sentimental (much less academic) education be complete otherwise?
It occurred to me one day, late in my freshman year, that while I had come quite far from home, I was unlikely to get any further without serious machinations. When Europeans roll their eyes that only something like 36% of Americans have passports, I remind them that America is a huge country. It would take my family 8 or 9 hours in the car to get to the middle of Florida from where we lived. If we wanted to leave the state, it was more like 14 hours. We’d be in Georgia then, which is a lovely place but not meaningfully different from northern Florida. The only families we knew who made pilgrimages to Europe did so because they had family living there. Plane tickets were expensive. Then it came to me: a junior year abroad would be the perfect way to see something more of the world.
First passport in hand, I was accepted to King’s College London and arrived at International Hall with my brand new suitcase and a more or less sensible haircut and was swept immediately into a polyglot spree of undergraduates from all over Europe. The dorm was run down, but clean, and the food was appalling, but the beer was cheap. We felt right at home.
I spent the first few weeks acquainting myself with literary London. I went to the Charles Dickens Museum in Doughty Street, just a couple of blocks from my dormitory (and managed to get lost on the way home). I went to Thomas Carlyle’s house in Cheyne Row. I went to the British Museum and the Tate Britain and I read every blue plaque along the way. I was an A+ student of the Tube and soon found everything I needed: a hairdryer from Argos (like a tiny version of Service Merchandise—remember that place?); a duvet cover from Habitat; stacks and stacks of novels and the Complete Works of Shakespeare from Foyles; a much edgier haircut from the hairdressing students at Toni and Guy; membership at the student union; and a regular sandwich shop where they tolerated my American approach to ordering.
Before I knew it, I had stopped looking for other people’s London and started finding my own, which I remember like a series of snapshots from an old scrapbook: the Slug and Lettuce, a pub in Islington where I learned to drink wine but avoid the “large” glasses which contain half a bottle; an all-night vigil outside the Almeida theatre for cheap tickets to Ivanov starring dreamy Ralph Fiennes (my friend and I were the only ones in the queue who were not being paid to be there, but we got the tickets and sat rapt in the balcony not noticing RF’s bald spot); the dusty and perfect used bookshops in Charing Cross Road where 50p was still a lot of money; the bar in Covent Garden where my classmates introduced me to Guinness and Black (Guinness with a purple-hued head of blackcurrant cordial: possibly why I cannot abide blackcurrant-flavored anything to this day); my first and only cigarette on a freezing night near Kings Cross, a place we had been warned to stay away from for a reason, and far from the tourist magnet it would become; the NHS surgery where I went for the terrible case of bronchitis that resulted; teeming thrift shops in Brixton; the tiny phone booth in the hall from which I called my parents every two weeks; the chilly library where the internet was so glacial it took an hour to send an email; the offices of my professors where I sat knee-to-knee with British students in tutorials, trying (failing) not to speak first; the long afternoons of reading in the fortress of Senate House (the imposing model for the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four); Brunswick Centre then: a scrubby concrete shopping mall, half empty but for an off-license and an Iceland and the perfect setting for a dystopian novel (now, a bucolic middle class wonderland with a water feature, a Waitrose, a Carluccio’s, and an art house cinema). It was nothing like Epcot.
I’m so grateful for every one of those experiences. Some of my friends who’ve hit 40 talk about having the Talking Heads “this is not my beautiful house” moment, when “you may ask yourself, ‘how did I get here?’” They feel disoriented—as if they turned around one day and there was this husband, these kids, this life, and it just sort of happened to them without their explicit agency. Like the heoine in a Thomas Hardy novel, happy or not (mostly not), thanks to the unseen hand of fate.
During my year in London, I stopped believing in that kind of story. I got into the Modernists instead, found Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and decided to buy my own flowers. Coming here all alone—and learning that such things were possible—bolstered my courage to follow my curiosity. It was the first step on the path to living here permanently, in the sort of place I used to admire from outside at night.
“My” London today is the Georgian house in Islington where my husband and I live with our kids and our books and our cat; the Nordic Bakery, whose cinnamon scent somehow makes it easier to concentrate on work (but the chocolate oatmeal cookies make it harder); Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street, where we had a book launch party for That’s Not English and where my kids can always talk me into buying just one more; the corner shop Henry always points out on the way home with a hopeful, “Loclit buttons, Mama?”; Bentley’s Oyster Bar, where Nigel Slater took me for dinner when we were working on the U.S. edition of his memoir, Toast, and where my oyster-guzzling daughter is not just welcome, but loved; Radnor Mews, where we took our firstborn home from the hospital and where we still get invited to the best street parties, even though we don’t live there anymore; Hyde Park, where I used to recognize all the runners; University Hospital, where Anne was born; and the Portland Hospital where she and Tom visited me and newborn Henry. Sometimes I worry about how small my London has become, and it’s true that I spend most days within 2 miles of home, but life is so much richer in relationships than it was 20 years ago, and I’m reminded it’s really people—not places or things—that make a home.
I walk Henry in his pushchair past my old dormitory every week now. We’re allowed in Coram’s Fields, thanks to him. In addition to the play group, it has a sand pit, a petting zoo, a zip-line, a fountain and a coffee kiosk that’s never open as early as a parent would wish. I look forward to taking Henry and his sister to Epcot when they are old enough to understand the world it gave me before I had been anywhere to write home about. And I hope one day they will want to read the books that are the reasons why they are here: souvenirs of where I've been, as well as inspiration to keep exploring. Nana would be proud.
The photo of Henry was taken by Christian Banfield at another beloved playground (not Coram's Fields).