October – A Year In England

Tree on the Cranswick Village Green 1988

The picture window in the lounge looked out on the village green and directly in my view was the large tree. It was one of the first things I saw each morning, whether collecting fresh milk by the front door or opening the curtains in the lounge. Daily I watched the leaves make their annual change from green to yellow before falling, carpeting the ground below. I was used to this change, having seen something like it every autumn of my life in Arkansas and found comfort in seeing something familiar so far from home.

I was still adjusting to life in England, still settling in. The little things seemed to wear on me the most, a condition referred to as cultural fatigue. The shock of the new had worn off, but it had not yet become the norm. I was still curious about things and tried to maintain a sense of adventure, but some days I just wanted to feel at home again.

The weather continued damp and chilly with the sun occasionally breaking through the gray cloud. The days were getting shorter, but like the falling leaves, I was used to in the northern hemisphere. Living much further north, however, made it much more pronounced. Before leaving the States, people had cautioned about the dark winter days, saying that many found it a depressing time. As the days shortened and we headed toward the time change, locals asked how I was coping with it. Turns out many of them had the same struggle each year and were concerned about me. I became rather obsessed with watching the change, daily reading sunrise and sunset times in the paper and watching the sunrise move closer to the horizon each week.

I don’t remember paying much attention to the sun’s movements before that year. Since then, however, I am more acutely aware of when the light appears each day and when it ends. Would this awareness have happened if I had not gone through the more drastic change in England?

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The most interesting thing I discovered while writing this is that my memory seems to be flawed. As I continue to study memoir writing, I keep hearing how what we remember so clearly is not what actually happened. This essay brought that sharply to my attention.

I clearly remember that for one week in October, the sun set 15 minutes earlier each day. I saw the sunrise and sunset times posted in the London Times each day, following the loss of light with dread. I worried that if it continued, we would be in total darkness for weeks and remember even commenting on this to someone. But something led me to search for sunrise and sunset times in East Yorkshire for this October. What I found was a gradual change, 4-5 minutes each day. Stunned I searched for the times from 30 years ago, but they are not available. Confused, I searched November and December thinking I got the month wrong. I never did find it.  I cannot believe it did not happen and I am baffled how this came to be my memory.

Shocked by this I wasn’t sure if I wanted to finish this essay. If my memory is so flawed on this, what else am I wrong about. Yet at some point, it is not about when the sunset in October 1988. It is about the fact the days were getting shorter, how I felt going through it and the long-term impact it had on me. I can only remember to the best of my ability and share it with others in the best way I can.

The First Day

I stand at the crosswalk as lights flash and cars whiz by the wrong way and wonder when, or if, I will be able to cross the street. It is early afternoon on my first day in London, on my first trip outside the United States. Jet-lagged after an overnight flight I struggle to make sense of my surroundings, overwhelmed by new sights and sounds.

Looking down, I notice “Look Right” stenciled on the street with an arrow pointing that way. I am grateful for the reminder, thinking it is there to remind confused tourists that cars travel the opposite way in Britain. Later, seeing “Look Left” on another street, I understand that because of London’s many one-way streets, it is for locals as well.

I try to blend in with the locals, but my body and brain seem to move in slow motion. I hope I don’t appear the overwhelmed tourist that I am. Months spent studying street maps and tourist guides did not prepare me for the reality. While I recognize landmarks and street names, the images I created in my mind do not match the masses of people, cars, and buses hustling through the city.

I finally cross the street when a crowd of other people does, hoping there is safety in numbers. The best way to adjust to time change when traveling east, I’ve read, is to stay up all day, then go to bed early that night. So to stay awake I amble through London, seeing a few sights and trying to learn my way around. By mid-afternoon, I can no longer manage it and trudge back to my hotel. Climbing the narrow flight of stairs to my small, clean room, I lay down and surrender to exhaustion.

A couple of hours later I wake up. Though still tired, the jet-lag fog is beginning to clear from my brain so I set out to walk the neighborhood around my hotel and find something to eat. Passing an Indian restaurant, I stop and read the menu posted in the window, happy to discover many familiar selections. Opening the door, the spicy aromas fill my nose and send a rumble through my stomach. After filling up on delicious curry and naan, I return to my hotel room for a good night’s sleep.

The next morning I awaken feeling more like myself. While the view out my window isn’t what I am used to, it is no longer strange and overwhelming. Just as I am getting accustomed to London, it is time to leave. I head to the train station for two weeks on the continent.

Each country I visit presents another first day, with a new city to navigate, a new language to muddle through, and, since this is before the Euro, a new currency to sort out. Already, I have changed, understanding that each place will be different, both from where I’ve been and from the expectations I bring with me. I adapt quicker and find I blend in as long as I don’t attempt to speak the language. Evenings I take a stroll or sit in the park watching people go by, enjoying a slower end to my days.

Returning to London, I am surprised how familiar it feels. Not only do I speak the language, I also know the currency, can navigate the Tube to get from the train station to my hotel and find that traffic coming from the opposite direction no longer fazes me. For the first time since I left the United States, I am in a place I have been before.

A week later I board a train for the north, to begin a year living in East Yorkshire. The year will have many firsts: the first time seeing the house that would be my home, the first time driving a car with the steering wheel on the right-hand side, the first time finding bottles of milk by my front door, and lighting my first coal fire. Nothing, though, will come close to the first day.