Tuesday, June 9, 2009

One Last Tour

We arose in Kent around 5:30 Sunday morning ready, more or less, to go to Heathrow airport, the start of our journey home.

I think I have mentioned before that by training our friend Ray Atkinson is a London cab driver, not one of those who drive the thousands of mini-cabs that swarm through London like so many insects. Ray is the real deal, having spent two years of his youth on a motorbike learning the backstreets and by-ways of London as well as the locations of all the city’s major sites. If you want to see this kindly man sneer in contempt just mention SatNav (global positioning navigation devices). Ray was, of course, going to take us to the airport on that gray, rainy Sunday morning. It was the darkest, wettest dawn in several weeks and as we loaded up in the rain he suggested that perhaps we had packed up our weather to take back home. The previous fortnight had been absolutely glorious as only England can be when the weather, all too infrequently smiles on them.

I assumed that we would use the London Orbital, the M25, as millions do each day. But Ray, like most Londoners, fears that road, especially in bad weather. When I first asked about our routehe noted that the road isolates you. Once you have made the choice, there are no reasonable alternatives and a traffic disruption, even on an early Sunday, could spell disaster.

So we set off winding in a westerly direction along the backroads and country lanes, first through Bromley, the biggest nearby suburb, through the notorious Brixton area, through Battersea and across the Chelsea Bridge. Here, of course, the urban landscape changed dramatically, from the mean streets of Brixton, which Ray replied to one of my many queries, had quietened in recent years, to the muted elegance of London’s west end. Through Sloane Square, Knightsbridge, Kensington--along the south perimeter of Hyde Park—through Earls Court, we wound our way across this corner of London finally emerging onto the A4 and its approach to the airport.

It was a lovely final tour of the city, and a part of it we actually had not gotten to during the visit. I did not ask Ray if he planned the route as a final tour much less if he meant the route as a tour de force. But we sat in awe at both the sights through rain spattered windows in the muted gray morning light and the tortuous route he was tracing with quiet assurance.

It was a lovely end to a long trip, one that began so tentatively in January and proceeded through more turns and adventures than I have even recorded here. As those of you who have followed our progress, we have gone from the initial gee whiz of touring with our students to our own journey of reconnection. Along with everything else, the touring, the teaching, the traumas of homesickness and student excess, for Sharon and me a major theme of this trip has been to connect and reconnect with friends old and new. Ray’s choice of this singular route seems to have highlighted this.

Had anyone been watching that Sunday morning as Ray dropped us off at Terminal 5, they would surely have wondered why first I and then Sharon hugged our cabdriver before setting off, him to drive for the day and us to cross an ocean and a continent to return home.

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