Sunday, September 23, 2012

Week One - Journey to Hogwarts

Hello Family, Friends, Readers, et al:  

I'm here finally in Aberystwyth, Wales.  If there had been a teleportation button upon arrival, I am ashamed to say I would willingly have hit it and returned to the United States. Culture shock not to mention that the ₤1=$1.60 ratio I’d been expecting was actually ₤1=nearly $2.  Alas, I didn’t have a pair of ruby slippers. 

Travel was a bit nerve wracking to say the least.  I arrived in Chicago from Portland with an hour and a half layover.  Unfortunately the plane circled the runway seeking a spot to park for thirty minutes.  Arriving inside, I was told it was 40+ minutes to Terminal 5.  I was in Terminal 1.  A wild ride (my husband had prearranged wheelchair assistance if I felt I needed it) included multiple elevator rides and mad dashes past startled people.  However, with a call ahead to keep the plane, we found Aer Lingus waiting for my arrival.

Next stop Dublin.  The Immigration Officer, tucked carefully in his glass booth, didn't ask any questions when I proffered my Passport/Visa; and after a cursory glance, slid it back through the small window opening - unstamped.  I slid it back in and requested it be stamped so I could prove legal entrance into the country.  The guide, his accent lovely, spoke over my shoulder, “Yes, sir.  She definitely wants it stamped.”  It was and I was official.  I realized I wasn’t in Kansas or anywhere in the US anymore.  I’d stepped back in time to a place riddled with religious unrest but for whom 9-11 was foreign.

Cardiff, Wales, was my next port-of-call.  Cardiff International is not... 
let's leave it at that.  If you've been to Astoria Airport and if it actually had two floors, it would qualify as Cardiff International.  It is not in Cardiff proper.  You take a bus at breakneck speeds to a quiet neighborhood and then have to decide which way to go to get to Cardiff proper.  I had struck up a conversation with a passenger and was following her to a small platform on the left when the bus driver got off and said I was going the wrong way.  Then 3 pedestrians chimed in, including one gentleman in a plaid shirt who just happened to be sitting on some concrete nearby.  They confirmed that I was indeed going the wrong way.  I just need to get to Aberystwyth, I explained.  I decided to trust the masses, hauled my oversized pink suitcases across the street and down to the platform on the right.

An older couple and a fresh graduate of Aberystwyth told me I was indeed in the right spot.  I took a train to what I presume was the Cardiff station and felt that if I’d had more faith and been less tired, I could have walked through the wall and entered Hogwarts.  The conductor, taking pity on her poor demented American passenger, helped me to another location instructing two assistants to help me onto yet another train to Shrewsbury, which according to the map is far north of Aberystwyth.  Just as the sun burns off sea fog, so, too, did thirty seconds magic away my future assistants.  They rounded the corner never to be seen again.  Maybe they went though the wall?  A train pulled in and the woman sitting next to me informed me that this was my ride.  A bit wild eyed, I again shouldered my backpack and raced toward the open door first stopping and asking an official looking man in a suit and tie if indeed this was the proper transport to Aberystwyth.  It was.  I climbed aboard, stowed my luggage and collapsed in the first available seat.  I was now at seventeen hours and counting in my travels.

“Ticket, please.”  I reached into my pocket and handed my pricey little white and orange card.

“This isn’t a ticket.  It’s a schedule.” 

“But it’s what the conductor gave me at the last station.”  At this point, I was near brain dead and frantically searched what little memory I had of the ₤19 I had spent.  Suddenly remembering that the first conductor had asked, “Would it be cheeky to ask if you are 55?” and had gone on to explain that there was a special discount for a free return trip, I searched my wallet and found what actually turned out to be my ticket.  I rather liked that first conductor and her question.  Perhaps I didn’t look as bad as I felt. 

Situation solved, I settled back to enjoy the countryside.  It felt like home again.  With the exception of smaller houses and architectural differences, I could be passing through Oregon coastal countryside.  Then a steeple appeared on the horizon followed by a medieval church.  I felt myself slide through time.  A castle casually perched on a hillside clinched the unreality and further disordered my travel weary brain.  I was, indeed, time travelling.  I mean, no signs.  It was just part of the local landscape, just as a Walmart or Rite Aid in the US.  No one even glanced up or pointed.

“Shrewsbury Station next stop.”

I stepped down from the carriage and to my dismay saw the train I was to board at the end of a rather lengthy platform.  Welsh trains run on suggested schedules rather than regimented ones.  I ran when I heard the conductor blast two calls on his whistle, dragging my suitcases, trying to reach the first two cars to get to Aber (as they call it here.)  The luggage would not cooperate as the gap between train and platform was too wide.  No amount of pulling could get it inside the car.  Hopefully the conductor could see a large pink suitcase looking very like a tongue giving raspberries protruding from the side of his train.  Surely he wouldn’t leave, I thought. But did he see me?  Finally a prayer and a final yank got my oversized luggage as far as the compartment between cars. I was quite surprised to find that my heart was still beating.

I, quite thankfully, found myself in the second car while the luggage remained in the hall.  I sat and found that the carriage was full of Aber students.  I’d been warned in an email to get into the first two compartments as the train divides at the stop before Aber and continues on while the other half goes heaven knows where else.  I had an enjoyable conversation with Melissa, who was a second year student and studying biology.  At every stop, I got up to check that my luggage didn’t grow legs and toddle off the train.

Arriving in the tiny coastal Aber station, Melissa kindly agreed to take photographic evidence that I had made it. 

A sign down the platform caught my eye – “Welcome International Students.”  This won’t be so bad, I thought.  Obviously they thought I was joking about being a student, maybe it was the pink suitcases or my age or, perhaps, they were waiting for someone else as they merely pointed to a taxi que and left me to my own devices.

Stepping out of the station, I was struck by how quaint and Dickensonian the town was, which impression was quickly overcome by how I would I be able to find 1 Lon Hendre.  Cabs stood in a que on the wrong side of the street.  The cheap "OW" cabs are ₤3 anywhere. The next cab in the que wasn't.  We set off with me pointing to the directions on my printed email and arrived at the Accommodations office and were told that everything had moved to the Porter’s.  Back down the hill, I waited at the Porter’s only to have the woman from Accommodations arrive behind me and hand the porter my flat key.  Getting back into the cab, we drove up the hill to Lon Hendre finding that #1 Lon Hendre had an enormous 2 on the front of the building.  The next building was #1; the curtain was open and young men and multiple beer bottles were in evidence. 

At this point, I was ready to get back in the cab and return home only I didn’t want to face an additional 24 hours travelling, I had no tickets, the money was running low due to the exchange rate, and some last vestige of grit just didn’t want to quit.  It appeared that #1 Lon Hendre didn’t exist as far as the keys I’d be issued were concerned; and when all seemed lost, we discovered #2 Lon Hendre IS #1 Lon Hendre (one being my flat number) and in spite of being family housing, it is actually an eight-plex!  The key unfortunately worked (no mistake had been made – this was my flat). I paid the very confused cab driver ₤7, telling him to keep the change (only to find later that the Brits don't normally tip).  His smile was enormous.

I entered the frigid space and immediately broke into tears at the size (minuscule), scorching hot water with separate taps so a combination of pleasingly warm is just not an option to the user, and peeling paint.  However, I'd had angels surround me throughout the trip to that point - kind people appearing just when I needed them, willing to answer my questions and assist me on and off trains, etc.  The Lord didn't fail me now.  

My next-door neighbor came out and offered to help me settle.  I would have thought that one look at me and she would have closed her door and double bolted it.  Tao is from the Caribbean and has a one-year-old boy, Kai, with Downs Syndrome.  When I found that the promised WiFi didn't exist and I couldn't call my family, I very nearly lost it.  Again… and permanently!  I really wanted ruby slippers at this point… just click them three times.  Oh, Dorothy, we are so not in Kansas anymore.

Again angels. Tao invited me in to use her computer.  I downloaded some money into my Skype account and held back my tears, trying to sound as cheerful as I could when my husband answered.  I had arrived.  His voice never sounded sweeter to my ear.

I returned to my apartment/flat/miniscule living space – remember, I was very tired as twenty-four hours had elapsed without sleep, minor food and mostly nut bars to eat.  Opening the door to the bedroom, I inhaled sharply.  Some dear person had made up the bed with a duvet, pillows, and two towels but no other household goods had arrived. Between the adrenaline rush of my on-again/off-again, surreal travel experiences, I was exhausted but couldn’t sleep.  I unpacked and felt a bit better with some family pics up to see and keep me company, then slept till 3 AM, ate pistachios, played Soduko, and went back to sleep - not waking blessedly until 1 PM on Thursday.

The next days became a blur of Tao escorting me to get my Aber card, Internet set up (the promised WiFi did not exist), making an appointment at Barclay’s to set up a bank account (yes, you need an appointment!), and gathering some groceries from a local shop.  I was invited to dinner at a lovely little stone cottage in the countryside.  Never has real food tasted so good and to be surrounded by a family only added to the reassurance that I would be okay. Happenstance?  Coincidence?  Miracle?  Half of a miracle is recognizing it when it hits you in the face.

Checking with Accommodations, my "Premier Package" of household goods has not yet arrived.  I was told they did not make up the bed with the lovely duvet so it must have been a kindly but ever anonymous angel on the last cleaning team who provided the bedding and made up a place for me to sleep.  Bless you, whoever you are… and thank you to all those who loaned or gave crockery, flatware, and cooking supplies.  I even have a glass to drink out of as I wait for my still missing packet.  It’s amazing how the simplest things bring the greatest pleasure.

The campus is all uphill, odd but unfortunately true, and I shall be quite fit in a month.  No matter where you stand, it is uphill – reminds me of the moving stairwells at Hogwarts. So life is better and I'm calming.  Soon I’ll be registered and will report on my first week of school.  How can it be that I only started this odyssey 6 days ago?

Thank you all for your prayers and good thoughts.  I didn't think I could do this and I couldn't have done so but the Lord has supported me by strewing angels in my path and I am so grateful, very homesick but grateful.  God bless you.

me, mom, Aunt Jan, Nana, Gramma, student, writer, and now, world-traveller…

1 comment:

  1. Great article, Jan. I live through your adventures. and by the way, I have a son with Down syndrome, I could have many good conversations with your neighbor. Any photos of your flat?
    Love reading your blog!
    Sincerely, your JKCF cousin Barb Teed