Innocence Abroad: Chapter 2



Everything Sprouts in February

Seattle, Washington: February 1990...




eople in other lives took journeys abroad; it was not the way of mine. I hadn't even a sense that it was within my realm of choice. My style in recent years had been to follow life's trail as it opened for me - which might seem a haphazard way to live, but the logic behind it is as solid as that of an oarsman moving with the current, or a cyclist with the wind at her back. I could make a long list of all the ways it clarified my life; but the ease of passage, for one of limited means, would easily claim the top spot.

The spring of 1990 found me at a trail closure from which I might have taken any direction. I was ending two years at the University of Washington, finally completing a Bachelor of Arts pursuit aborted when the world was young. Returning to school at sixty was a trail-inspired thing, too, but that's another story. Part of trail philosophy is that each new segment should follow naturally from what has gone before. This was the filter through which I viewed my world as time took me toward springtime and graduation. I was alert for cues as the event approached. But even more pertinent to the moment's heightened significance was the arrival of February, in and of itself.

February has become a magical month for me. As surely as it brings out the first green, the earliest blossoms, it sprouts my year's primary activity. Sometimes it's in a theme that seems to run through the month, but more often there is an actual turn of events, quite suddenly emergent as if roused from winter dormancy by the warming sun. February's happenings command attention like the lifting swells of a turbid sea beckon the calculating eyes of a bobbing surfer. The comparison is limited, though, for the usual February sprout is a surprise, and it rarely leaves anything up to choice.

For the first time at such a trail juncture, finances were not a critical consideration - in my own accustomed terms, at least. In the year just past I had turned the corner, from a reliance on education funding to the receipt of Social Security benefits, which assured me, now, a continuity of means. True, my monthly pittance, hovering below the $400 line, was hardly extravagant enough to live on; but it was close enough to my meager needs that the gap could be easily bridged. I had, in fact, the perfect bridge: a very part-time post as newsletter editor for the Earthstewards Network, demanding of me perhaps a week of focused attention out of each eight or ten.

This was the setting, then, with Europe only the dimmest gleam of a 'someday...' dream, when the February sprouts of 1990 popped up in my world.

Shortly before the day of valentines, I happened across an article in the university's student press about the Council for International Education Exchange. The CIEE is a quasi-official service organization facilitating student opportunities for travel and study overseas. Not that I felt study abroad was an affordable option, but it tweaked the old dream, and with my horizon about to open I had to give curiosity its due. But so light was its touch, in the moment's scheme of things, that two weeks went by before I finally checked it out.

I was more absorbed, at the time, by the prospect of giving a summer workshop at a California Unitarian retreat, an offer imprudently responded to weeks earlier, in the impatience of January. During these two weeks before my visit to CIEE the workshop was confirmed: I was committed to an August retreat on the Monterey peninsula.

The CIEE proved to be little more than a travel agency, to all appearances. I picked up a handful of literature there, a single piece of which survived that evening's quick survey. This was a booklet that described a work-exchange program with several other countries. A program enabling students to work and live abroad. No study involved, and . . .

It suddenly dawned on me that there might be no real cost involved!

The program would provide a six-month work permit, which seemed to mean I could earn my way through a half-year's residence in some exotic foreign city. I knew my choice at once: London! I could live there, work there, make local friends, actually experience British life for awhile, not just be there and back, in a bit of tourist fluff. The thought of it, once I realized the cost-free potential, would simply not let go of me.

Bursting with the idea, I couldn't keep it from Terry the next evening, as she shared cookies and tea with me in the compact attic quarters of her Wallingford District house. Terry was also in pursuit of a late-life degree, though at 49 a mere youngster - but several times my rank, going for her doctorate. We had almost become housemates, a couple of years before; but the fates had intervened and sent me elsewhere when she bought this rambling monster of a building, clearly in its third or fourth incarnation if judged by the complexity of its jumbled architecture. She was partly in my own world of rebellious selfhood, but kept a solid foot in the real world of down-to-earth practicality and was thereby a good reality-check for me.

She caught my excitement at once, over the thought of spending six months in London. Neither of us had ever been abroad, and I detected a shade of envy in her blue eyes, but it was overwhelmed by the sparkle of support - until it came to the question of how I was going to manage all of this on my $400 a month.

"That's the whole point, Terry. They'll give me a work permit, and provide the job leads and whatever other assistance I need."

"Now, wait a minute . . ." An eyebrow arched up toward the coal black bangs of a classic page-boy haircut that heightened, by contrast, the light complexion of her oval face. "Let me get this straight. You're going to get a job in London?"

"Why not, for six months?"

"You're going to get a six-month job in London . . . on a student permit? YOU?"

My reality check wasn't going exactly as I had hoped. "Look, I've got good skills. Writing, editing, Pagemaker . . ."

"Yeah, and you're over sixty, with no work references for the past twenty years. What kind of resumé are you planning to work-up?

"For students they won't expect a resumé."

"For a sixty-year old student, they will!"

"C'mon, Terry, don't be a downer." But I knew she was giving me `real world' arguments, and I had nothing to counter them with.

I brooded half the way home, and then slipped back into my own reality, hardly aware of the shift except for the fact I was suddenly feeling lighter. It was just too good an opportunity to pass up. The timing of its appearance was exquisitely perfect. How could I expect Terry to understand this as I did? It had taken years of journaling to see how each year's path opened for me in February - and then years more to confirm it, to learn how reliable it was. Without the experience, itself, Terry couldn't relate to this, no matter how well I was able to explain it.

But she was right, too, about the obstacles. In practical terms I had become a Rip van Winkle in the world of work. And I'd be talking to employers on their terms, not mine. Having a work permit might provide a legal basis for employment, but it gave me no particular edge in getting a job. The program, itself, was geared to youngsters, and I'd be in direct competition with them. Would I be crazy, to venture such a gamble on the way my reality worked? London is one of the world's expensive cities; just in case I didn't get a job, how far would my $400 go?

There were all sorts of logistic problems, too. I had six months after graduation to join the program, and it would surely take that long to prepare for it - but it was not as much my time as I would've liked. I had already promised to lead a workshop in August, which would take preparation time and also crowd my departure date with a trip to California. This, itself, was crowded by an unfinished thesis for my major, the Comparative History of Ideas, that required an extension of post-graduate time to complete. How would I find the time, in between those two demands, to take care of the hundreds of details that an extended journey abroad would surely entail? It would have to include the storage of all my belongings, for I certainly couldn't afford to continue a rental while gone, and that would be a last minute thing . . . between my return from California and the takeoff for England.

I wasn't at all sure it was worth the upheaval it promised, along with the further hassle of an entire resettlement process when I returned. But try as I might, I couldn't disengage from the enchantment of the vision: a solid half year in London, with the potential of extension into a summer of European travel.

Terry still looked dubious when I told her that I had to do it. After all, I had been a closet Anglophile all my life and was sure I'd never again, at my age, have such an opportunity. I could either go for it and take my chances, or worry myself into staying safe . . . and unfulfilled for the rest of my days.

But she no longer responded with dire prophecies. "Spoken like a true Aries, Irv! Tell me what I can do to support you."

A quick glance at her tomboy-trim figure brought a thing or two to mind, but I stayed with the subject at hand. "What I need most of all, Terry, is somebody to be my stateside `manager.' Somebody to handle my affairs while I'm gone: money transfers, mail forwarding, dealing with the Social Security people if anything comes up . . . that sort of thing."

Terry accepted the job, and I solidified the arrangement by giving her a power of attorney, with the clearance to sign checks for me and receive my mail. Through March, we worked at refining those details, and looked into the various ways of money transfer, for I was not ready to rely entirely on the trust that was prodding me out on such a scary limb of adventure.

By the time we understood the cumbersome, medieval process of transfering stateside funds without a handy plastic card, I was beginning to regret the earlier indulgences of my life that had robbed me of my onetime good credit standing. Living without credit had been no problem at all, up to now, for the American Way of Debt is no foundation for a simple lifestyle - but it became increasingly clear that a credit card overseas could be a tool of inestimable convenience.

Up to my mid-April 63rd birthday, I was still operating from an `as if' framework - living as if I was going to England, come September. The possibility was too remote from my world to simply accept it as a reality. But then my confirmation was received from the work-exchange program's New York headquarters - along with the detailed small-print of a contract giving me until the end of June to reach London. The end of June . . . quite a different time than the September date I had been pointing toward!

The problem was the half-year semester system they operated under, which gave no recognition to the quarter-year system under which I was graduating. It proved to be only a minor issue that I was able to settle by a phonecall; but it was major enough to confront me with the possibility, for a few brief hours, that I might have to choose between keeping my August commitment in California, or abandoning it for a June flight to London. In that moment, as spring was about to move into summer, I knew for the first time that I was actually, really, going to England.

The credit card issue took care of itself, in the normal course of becoming a college graduate. As time moved into May, I was besieged with unwelcome solicitations for my "very first" credit card, as they often put it - the offers arriving almost daily by letter and phonecall. They didn't know, of course, that my credit had foundered, years before, on the rocks of youthful extrava-gance. Without thinking twice about it, I'd routinely toss their entreaties in the basket or politely tell the callers I wasn't interested.

But one young fellow had a strangely hypnotic kind of persistence. His voice on the phone had a rolling beat, thick with laid-back boredom, like a molasses flow. "Aww, why not gi-i-i-ve it a try-y-y? Wha-a-a-t's to lose?"

I told him it was a sheer waste of time, that I'd never pass a routine credit check.

"Hey, ma-a-a-n, you're a gra-a-ad. There ai-i-i-n't any credit check."

This possibility hadn't occurred to me. In a sudden flash, I realized that he was offering exactly what I needed. So I gave in to his three-question application; and for good measure I sent in the very next mail solicitation that arrived, too.

The proximate result, six weeks later, was that I had two VISA cards. One, with a $700 credit limit, came from an old line California bank. The other, from a dinky bank I'd never heard of, gave me a $2000 limit and in the same envelope with the card was a ready-to-cash check in my name for $1000. I had a momentary flash of going to England and never returning, but then I sent this second card (and their check) right back to where it came from. I wanted nothing to do with any outfit that played that loosely with money and people's heads.

I can't remember which card came through the telephone solicitor with the lazy singsong, but he was my first angel for the journey, turning up before I even knew I needed him. Without his unwanted and persistent intrusion, my European money hassles would have been entirely beyond my coping ability.

I cleared the hurdle of my incomplete thesis early in June, thanks to an insistent deadline from an intractable professor who couldn't very well know he was actually doing me a favor. Summer's gathering intensity, then, found me with a reasonably clarified agenda: the nitty-gritty preparation for two challenges, one in California, one in England, and the barest gap of sufficient time between their demands.

For the rest of June, on into July, I worked at turning up job leads and employer possibilities, gathering names from the London directories: specialist hiring agencies, data processing services, anything that seemed like it might fit my qualifications. Despite Terry's doubts, I worked up a resumé that accounted reasonably - I thought - for my extended leave from the job market, with reference to study and freelance writing. I sent dozens of them off to London, hoping they'd provide me a running-start when I got there.

The problem that nagged me, however, and continued to grow as time brought it closer to reality, was what to do on my arrival in London. With not a solitary personal contact in that immense patchwork of a city, I was faced with several weeks of demand and disorientation. Where would I start? A hotel room, the normal answer, was out of the question for me. Even youth hostels in London were beyond my reach, at their senior rate of $17 per night. I'd be out there on the furthest limb of my life, clinging to the edge of an uncertain future . . . but where was even that edge that I could cling to?

I turned to a resource that I'd known about for years, but had never the occasion to use: an international network of host families and travelers connected with the peace movement, that has existed for some fifty years. I'll call them Good Neighbors, or GN for short. I can't reveal the true name, and I must explain why.

The real name is not secret, but I don't want my writing to put any burden on the organization. Good Neighbors exists entirely, and rather delicately, on the goodwill of the host families, who will ordinarily provide travelers with two nights of hospitality in the furtherance of international friendship. It is a gesture of citizen diplomacy that could too easily be over-burdened with people seeking nothing more than a means of cheap travel. Curiously, not many people seem to know about them, though there is no concerted effort to limit publicity. But I'd rather you find GN on your own, than to be, myself, the cause of an overload. In a world almost entirely lost to commercialism, personal hospitality is a rare flower, and should be nurtured with care.

I paid the $45 to join, with an additional deposit for their British host list, and sent off letters to three hosts when it came. It wasn't entirely the measure of my optimism, that I sought only six nights of assured shelter; London is a favorite of travelers, and three hosts was the requested limit.

Step by step, item by item, the necessary preliminaries were taken care of, in those all-too-busy summertime months. I received my first-ever passport; I bought my $299 (student rate) one-way flight to London - who could know when I'd be coming back? I took out a youth hostel membership, a backstop of lodgings security; I arranged with another Seattle friend to store my household belongings in unused garage space, and I found someone to handle the Earthstewards Newsletter while I'd be gone.

Even before summer's trip to California, returns from my resumés began coming in. They arrived in numbers that surprised me, considering the transatlantic postage - just to say "thanks; but no, thanks," which is what most of them had to say. Some offered heartening encouragement. A few actually invited me to stop by: a publisher and a couple of the computer placement agencies. The most exciting response came in late July, while I was on my way to fulfill the workshop commitment. Someone from a placement agency that specialized in Macintosh computer people had telephoned me from London!

I travel in the old style - no beepers, no numbers whereat I can be reached - and it was weeks until I was back from California, too late to attempt a return call. But it made little difference to me, for it seemed to mean I didn't have to worry at all about finding a placement, once I got there.

I wasn't worrying, though. With the assurance of fools and little children - the very models of Innocence - I had lost all doubt, by now, that I was going to succeed in London. The way the timing had worked for me and everything had fallen into place cleanly, without hassle, it was clearly an ordained trail. Anyway, I was having too much fun on the road to California for any further worrisome thought.



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