Destination: November 1989, London

As the land around my cow town goes to sleep for a long winter’s nap, November is my hardest month being here and yet, I never quite manage to be away long enough into the month to spend it in a curry haze in some other land. I miss my father who left this land in November. I miss the sunshine on my face and fresh air that doesn’t sting and I know I have a while to go before that’s over around here. I miss the many months of the year that I had to achieve something this year as we crash on to the new year. I miss. I miss. I miss.

I worry that this turn around the sun, I didn’t see enough, write enough, do enough to make it last through the winter months, when I most likely will be here, because reality is going to ground my wandering for a bit.

What’s a gal to do? Remember and make my way back in time. Memory can make the light shine like a million suns on the darkest day. So down I go, into the rabbit hole of grim gray skies, looking down across the years for that one magical November that came before loss, reality, missing ruled the month and I find it.

London, 1989.

I left for my year abroad late that summer. I was 18. I knew just enough to not know a thing. I was thousands of miles from home. Before the cell phone. Before email. Before the internet practically. Letters came on onion skin paper. Calls home were made from dripping phone booths across the street from where I lived, the phone card beeping down until it would just cut off and the USA would seem so very very far away.

No one made me eat dinner, lunch or breakfast, so as most 18 year olds would have done I lived off of tiny European sized cokes, sandwiches sold in plastic sleeves from the store called Open All Hours (really just some of the hours and no Muslim holidays) made of weird combinations like pickle and cheddar and bags of  salty prawn crisps (shrimp flavored potato chip – not for everyone or even me) and cadbury chocolate bars – no one would have nominated me for any health awards. I drank warm beer and cheap wine, learning just how many pints I could drink before the next day became an incredible chore, danced until down to house music in clubs filled with real Euro-trash and ate kebabs made of mysterious meat in the wee hours of the morning.

My father had asked but three things of me when I left: never get into a stranger’s car, never accept a drink you haven’t seen be made and always have cab fare to get yourself home. It took one Saturday in September at the Bar Escoba to break all rules – away in the cute boy’s car, where was this drink made, why who cares and long long after the subway/bus/taxis could be found, with no money in my wallet, one very long walk home and I thought, well, that’s done.

That fall brought wider world sights too. I saw my first American flag be burned in protest and rage filled faces chanting slogans death to the west – being from the USA in Europe right then was not 100% the best.  Margaret Thatcher was still prime minister and there was a lot about poll tax that made a lot people riot one weekend. Everything was sliding into recession. There were IRA bomb threats on the tube, always on the cranky Northern line. The Berlin Wall came down and Eastern Europe all of a sudden was a place you could actually visit again. For goodness sake, the Cold War was about to be over and that winter, Nelson Mandela would get out of prison. The world was unsettled. Sort of like today, in so many ways.

Let’s get back to being 18 though as I don’t think I did much thinking about any of that political stuff really – I wish I had been a deeper, smarter teen.  Along with my great pint drinking skills, I learned one just doesn’t speak on the subway, tea is drunk with milk and all those place names that trip up the tourist soon didn’t expose me as other and my 1989 pants needed to be wider leg than any American peg-legging teen would have considered. I started reading the London Times every day. My sentences started going up at the end, cadence matching my fellow shoppers, promise it was subtle and I didn’t even realize it until I heard a phone message I left someone back at home. I knew what a boot, prawn, lorry, aubergine, lift, loo was. And music. That could be a whole post. I learned a lot about music in post punk, new wave 1989.

November really kicked off with the thrilling Bonfire night in Battersea Park, all through the month the inky black early evenings came with their glowing welcoming shop windows, even though the rainy cold damp days came, well, it all worked for me that year. All the way to holiday lights on Oxford Street. With no Thanksgiving to hold Santa back… it’s straight into the season as soon as possible and all at once I was falling in love with London at Christmas and all her many neighborhoods, faces and places.

My homesickness faded in the face of it all and one day, probably either close to or in the middle November, I woke up and I realized I was happy. Really, really happy, that kind of sparkling, new love happy that one gets just once in a new place or with a new person. I used to climb up to the top bathroom window and look out at all the rooftops and think about all the people living their lives out there and how I was just temporarily one of them and I wanted to be one of them forever. I never loved a place on my own before. I’d never lived outside of the USA for any length of time when I wasn’t pigeon chasing toddler. London was my first foreign city of my very own.

And, I am the type of person that never forgets her first anything. First new love has the kind of timeless magic, that these twenty five years later, I close my eyes and I am back, I am 18 again and starting my traveling life. November is not so November after all, an unexpected destination I’d be glad to visit again and again.

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