I recently returned from a trip to the UK, and between cathedrals and castles and museums, I worried my jaw would freeze from all of the gawping.
And I wondered: do most Americans feel a bit “Hee-Haw” when traveling?
Exacerbating this feeling is that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool American West Coaster. I grew up in the wilds of Northern California (think redwood trees and Bigfoot, not San Francisco and cabernet) and now live in the wilds of Southern Oregon (think Crater Lake and blue collar, not Portland and Blue Moon beer).
My husband and I lived in Philadelphia for five years, and even though I had been to Europe before, I still remember the reverence with which I trod the cobblestone streets, stood at the epicenter of William Penn’s “greene country towne,” and threw a penny on Benjamin Franklin’s grave (sidestepping the three singing Benjamin Franklin impersonators to do so). When my husband and I accidentally stumbled on the building housing the Liberty Bell (much easier to do in the 90s before its new digs were built), we stared at each other in awe. “Do you suppose that’s the LIBERTY BELL bell? Like, the real one?” I whispered.
One year when my parents were visiting, we took them on a tour of Independence Hall. The eager young tour guide (think Kenneth from 30 Rock about ten years younger) marveled at the cumulative history of the place. “This building is over TWO HUNDRED years old! How many of you have been in a building that’s over TWO HUNDRED years old?”
A good three-quarters of the room raised their hands. The tour guide blushed
I remembered this episode while walking through Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, Christ Church College, the Bodleian, Cardiff Castle, and Trinity College Dublin.
It came back with special force when visiting the Bodleian’s exhibit “Magical Books.” I knew I was going to see a First Folio Macbeth. John Dee’s Holy Table. C.S. Lewis’s map of Narnia. I was prepared for all these, but even so there was an element of unreality to it all. “Is that the FIRST FOLIO MACBETH Macbeth? Like, the real one?” I whispered in my best Beverly Hillbillies drawl.
Then there were the surprises. I had no idea that the exhibition would prominently display one of the Ripley Scrolls. I walked into the smallish room housing these treasures and one of the first things I saw was the splashy toad of the Ripley Scroll prominently splayed out, the reds and greens and golds of the scroll still brilliant after all these centuries.
Then I saw the frontispiece to Mathew Hopkins’s Discovery of Witches.
Then I marveled at the 12th-century herbal instructions on how to harvest a screeching mandrake.
We walked out quietly. My daughter looked at me and said, sotto voce, “Mom, was that a page from HARRY POTTER Harry Potter?”
I put my arm around her shoulder. For that day, we weren’t the Clampetts in Beverley Hills, we were hobbits who’d left the Shire for Rivendell.
I know the feeling. I was born and bred on the west coast of Canada, so when I moved the UK to do my PhD it was all a bit surreal. I lived in York for a year and I now live in Cambridge, but it still sometimes shocks me that when I find myself doing things like giving a seminar paper in the college tower where Eurasmus studied.
Oh, that must have been unreal!