The following piece was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre event–Reflections: A Reading of Memoir Vignettes. Please enjoy.
The distance from the riverbank of the Thames to the Royal Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory at Greenwich is not very far.
For most people.
For the six New York City high school students with whom I was touring around London for the week, however, the nicely paved walkway uphill may as well have been a chalky overhang on the white cliffs of Dover. One by one they shared their frustrations through a repetitive series of grunts, groans and curses until Ariel’s voice rose above their whining.
“This reminds me of the beginning of The Sound of Music!” she said from halfway up, looking down the verdant hillside as it rolled back to the Thames and the commercial London skyline in the distance. As anyone who utters those words must do, she began to swirl around, gleefully blending her voice with the song of the living hills. Her antics brought smiles to her erstwhile crabby peers, and I grinned with approving amusement at her ability to change the tone of an experience without any effort at all.
When Ariel signed up for the trip a year before, she told me that, in no uncertain terms, a dream of hers had come true. She has been a theatre lover for her entire life, so London had always held a particular fascination for her. In the months leading up to the trip she kept me abreast of her various trip-related purchases, the list of people for whom she needed to buy souvenirs, the various Harry Potter pilgrimage sites we needed to be sure to see, along with her latest fanfiction fantasies of Twilight’s Edward Cullen battling Ron Weasley (illustrated with photos of cuddly stuffed toy wolves meant to represent Jacob and his crew cheering Edward on; if she was feeling in a “Team Edward” mood, then the vampire would vanquish the boy wizard).
Here I must mention that Ariel is on the Asperger’s spectrum, which means that social interaction is sometimes difficult for her, and her focus on her interests can be intense. If you want to talk with someone about Broadway shows, J. K. Rowling, or moody, undead teenage love, Ariel is your gal — which probably explains why I’ve always gotten along so well with her and thoroughly enjoyed her company. I was her English and Theater Arts teacher during her Senior year, so there were plenty of opportunities for her to bring up her several passions. When she told me that she was going to come on the trip to London, I was every bit as excited as she was.
You see, New York kids, in my experience, are often uncomfortable with expressing unabashed delight in the world around them. They like to think they have seen it all. I know that the other students on the trip were excited to be there — they told me so privately — but you wouldn’t ever know it from their faces. It’s as if someone told them that New York had a tough guy reputation and it was their responsibility to uphold it; as if they’d betray their loyalty and devotion to NYC by being even remotely impressed by any other place.
But not for Ariel. England for her was full of delights. “We get to eat fish and chips?!!!” she asked, with the same excitement a Manhattanite foodie might feel about dining in a Michelin rated restaurant. At every iconic London phone booth she’d yell ecstatically, “There’s a red booth! Let’s go inside it!” She didn’t know about the red post office boxes beforehand, but she loved those, too. She spoke to shopkeepers in one of the worst British accents I’d ever heard and asked them if she could pass as a Brit. Presumably because of her warmth and their own generosity of spirit, they always said yes.
On a day trip to Bath we visited the study abroad program that I’d attended during college and worked for the year after I graduated. The director of the program, Barbara, gave us a tour and a talk and at the end she asked if there were any questions. At first she looked at the same quiet, indifferent faces that refused to smile in wonder at the Rosetta Stone which they’d seen at the British Museum the day before (the Rosetta Stone!!), but they weren’t all disinterested: Ariel was looking around the room for the right question. When she spied a particular book on Barbara’s desk her hand shot up: “What is Wuthering Heights about? I’ve heard of it before.” Barbara winked at me and delivered a summary of the love affair between Heathcliff and Cathy, as if told by one of their gossipy intimates. Ariel clapped her hands in approval as if she were now in on a juicy secret and told Barbara — a Geordie from Newcastle — her British accent was “spot on”; Emily Brontë, wherever she may be, was surely smiling.
So, back at Greenwich, her impromptu Julie Andrews performance was no surprise, just another one of the many joyful moments of traveling with Ariel. Inside the Royal Maritime Museum we saw clocks with pendulums that kept regular time despite the swaying of the ship, gyroscopes and astrolabes and other instruments that made mapmaking and naval exploration much more precise endeavors (allowing sailors the comfort of knowing that they’d find their way home). Ariel took it in with silent awe. The strange relics were clearly appealing to her imagination, infused as it was with the accoutrements of the wizarding universe of Harry Potter.
After passing through the museum’s collection we came to the spot that makes Greenwich famous around the world: The Prime Meridian. The imaginary line that separates hemispheres and allows us to talk in terms of international dates and time is, of course, not a geographic boundary like a river, but if you visit Greenwich you’ll see a sliver of it clearly etched into the pavement, inviting you to straddle the hemisphere with one foot in today, one in tomorrow.
Ariel ran to it with the instinctual understanding that this is just one of Earth’s mystical spots. The Enlightenment gentleman scholars who (literally) put the place on the map might scoff at the idea of their hill taking on any spiritual meaning, but, like the pyramids in Egypt or the mountainous ruins of Macchu Pichu, it has come to represent the continued feats of human ingenuity — so much so that subsequent generations, by visiting it for centuries, have conferred upon it an even deeper significance. It’s a place of scientific pilgrimage, and therefore causes one to carry oneself with either a heightened dignity reserved for sacred spots, or a giddy, ticklish joie de vivre borne of the knowledge that you are here, today, and that humanity — despite its flaws — is pretty darn amazing.
Moments like this demand profound words, a fact which Ariel understood implicitly. She approached the line that divides the globe and planted her feet firmly on both sides. Astride the world with arms akimbo, she declared in a majestic, stentorian tone: “I am East.” (Cue grandiose arm flourish east.) “And I am West!” (Grandiose arm flourish west.)
She then took a deep, triumphant breath, but there was a sharp pause at the bottom of her inhalation, as if her proclamation had an even more important follow-up. It did.
“And today…I’m feeling more Team Jacob.”
Then, without any ceremony, she walked across the Prime Meridian as if it were just one more crack in the sidewalk to an overlook that presented an impressive vista of London. She leaned against the banister and nestled her chin into her arms. After a few seconds of taking in the view she sighed contentedly, smiled at me and said, “There’s just so much beauty.”