Coming of Age, 1972: Episode #3

Friday, September 23, 2022

I found a free map of London and walked the city for two days. I soon learned that the three things I needed in order to learn a new city were a map, a couple of days, and walking.

Travel teaches us much about a foreign place. By comparing and contrasting, we also get fresh eyes to better understand what we consider home. In 2022, looking back 50 years, I am struck by how much my travels have taught me about myself, as well. The passage of time has a similar effect. I’ve been thinking as I write this about my cousin Lance, who would have celebrated his 23rd birthday on the day I flew from Los Angeles to London, if only had he not drowned in a scuba accident when we were both 17. At 17, Lance never got a chance to learn just who he was. I am also comparing my trip 50 years ago with the current trip of a friend who is posting each day from Greece. I am learning a great deal about Greece, but more-so, although I have considered her as family and admired her for 40 years, I am also gaining new insights into who she is, and comparing her meticulously planned trip with my trip, which had almost no planning at all.

My plan was to go over there and have a look around.

I wouldn’t be traveling in total ignorance, because I had been visiting England vicariously since meeting Benjamin Franklin in a children’s book at the age of eight. Franklin first visited London to study the art of printing. He lived there again, 1757-1762 and 1764-1775, as the representative of the Pennsylvania colony. Increasingly during those years he also became the primary representative for all the British colonies on the Atlantic seaboard. I could imagine myself arriving in London much as Franklin had arrived in Philadelphia, a run-away, walking the city with bread stuffed in his pockets.

I did walk past the house marked as Franklin’s home. It’s a mere ten-minute walk from the Parliament building. He rented rooms in that building for almost 16 years. In Franklin (along with Jefferson, who much preferred France) I’d had my first hero, my first tastes of travel, and—I realize now—not an imaginary friend, but a friend from another era, and a soul mate. I could not have told you for another 25 years anything about Myers-Briggs personality typology, but somehow, my shared characteristics with Franklin (ENTP and the often-concurrent ADHD) grabbed me, and in the process hooked me on history, biography, geography, and a layman’s fascination with anthropology, zoology, botany, linguistics, meteorology, and all the other interests that Franklin (and INTP Jefferson) found to interest them.

By the time I landed in London, I had read biographies of Churchill, Gladstone, Henry VIII, Victoria, Elizabeth I, Drake, Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Admiral Nelson, Newton, Faraday, Cromwell, Richard the Lion Hearted, and Raleigh; and read works by Shakespeare, Austin, Dickens, Tolkien, Lewis, and Orwell. I had also studied my English genealogy, including the Rev. Stephen Bachilor, a Puritan divine who brought four grandsons and my mother’s line to Boston, in 1632. After some scandal (there is evidence that his fourth wife formed the model for Hester Prynnes, in Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’), Bachilor returned to London for his final years. On a later trip I would do a search for his grave.

From Earl’s Court to Buckingham Palace is a three-mile walk, or slightly farther if one takes a route along the Themes. I looked in on whatever I could enter without a fee, which included several hours in the Victoria and Albert Museum and an hour-or-so in the balcony listening to a debate in the House of Lords over a bill to install culverts beside roads somewhere. Several walks through the Hyde and St. James Parks gave me a baseline to judge change in the city during my four return trips. (On a Sunday in 2000, it seemed like most of the women in Hyde Park were dressed in black hijabs and niqabs.) I remember crossing a Themes bridge one evening after lights were on, and coming upon the statue of a young woman, and thinking very much about Vicki. On future trips to London, I have ventured farther upriver and down, but on this trip, there was plenty to see in the center of the city.

My London walk included locating offices of the Youth Hostel Association, where £20 bought me membership, a guide book, and a map of all the Youth Hostels in Europe. I was on my way.


Post a Comment