For the month of August, I’ll be living in Virginia on a fellowship with the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies. During this fellowship, I’ll be conducting research for my novel-in-progress, which is set in 18th century America during the Revolutionary War. These blog posts will record my musings on research, travel, and life in general during my fellowship.
I’ve had the opportunity and the privilege to travel overseas since I was a kid. The first time I went to Europe was when I was about thirteen-years-old. My dad saved up money and he told me to pick anywhere in the world that I wanted to go. The world. He was an electrician turned high school teacher in an electrical trades program and we couldn’t afford to take Big Trips often. This would be The-Trip-of-All-Trips. He suggested a myriad of locations: Thailand, Brazil, Egypt. But I knew exactly where I wanted to go: London. I wanted to go to the land of my hero, Queen Elizabeth I (Yes, my hero at the age of 13 was a Renaissance monarch, which should clue you in to my popularity at my middle school). The land of Dickens and Shakespeare. My dad, who had probably envisioned a holiday to some crystal blue-watered paradise or ancient ruins somewhere, was like: Um, okay. But he rapidly got on board with the plan. Soon we were on a plane, bound for England.
That first transatlantic flight was smooth. I didn’t sleep a wink (I was too excited), but I watched Pirates of the Caribbean and touched the cool of the window as London appeared below us through the heavy gray clouds. It was dawn and my dad insisted that we couldn’t sleep until the evening because we didn’t want to lose a day. We didn’t want to waste any time. Later, of course, he relented and let me nap at our hotel near Victoria Station.
Our trip was wonderful. We went over Christmas and bought a small tree to keep in our hotel room. I drank hot tea with milk and watched the red-double decker buses drive through the streets. My favorite afternoon was when I drank wassail at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre as soft rain fell around us and imagined that I was travelling back in time.
But the thing that I remember most about that trip was how every time I would look down to read my book (I was burning through The Princess Diaries series at the time), my dad would tap my shoulder and tell me to look out the window. ‘Look at everything,’ he said. ‘Take this in because we’re lucky to be here. You might never see any of this again.’
Funnily enough, I’ve been back to London countless times. Although my father had no way of knowing it then, I would eventually go to university in Scotland and have numerous friends who were from, or currently lived in, London. Yet I’ve always held tight to what he said about looking out the window and appreciating what I see when I travel. Take this in. We’re lucky to be here.
It was this adage that I turned to when I was on the most unpleasant long-haul flight I’ve ever experienced.
I was recently coming back from my fellowship in Virginia and thrilled that I’d found a direct flight from nearby Philadelphia to my home: Glasgow. Only 6 hours!
I was also excited because, on my flight over to America this summer, I’d been unexpectedly bumped up to Business Class. And let me tell you what happens in Business Class on British Airways folks: you sit down…and then they hand you sparkling wine. It was amazing. I had lots of legroom in this bright, modern plane. I watched the Downton Abbey box set while reclining back and drinking all the free sparkling wine. I took a lot of happy selfies and I’m certain that the flight attendants were rolling their eyes the entire time.
Foolishly, I half expected that I would somehow be upgraded again for my flight back to the UK. This was not the case.
My trip back to the UK was nothing like that ride in Business Class. On this trip, I was seated in the literal back of the plane, right up against the bathrooms. It was a small plane and there were no screens on the back of the seat in front of you (no screens!). The light above me was broken so I couldn’t read. Which meant the only entertainment options for six hours was the endless stream of superhero movies they were showing on the tiny screens in the center of the plane. I like some superhero movies a lot, but every time I looked up at the screen there were just more cars being smashed to pieces, so I decided to pass.
But the most annoying (and slightly upsetting) aspect of this long-haul flight was the amount of turbulence that we experienced. For the full six hours. Typically, on a transatlantic flight, there are patches of turbulence. That’s normal. But this plane was rattling so much that I could barely drink anything because it was sloshing around in my cup too much. I couldn’t sleep because I was constantly jolted awake by the plane. I felt like we were in a toy plane in the hands of some giant, angry baby.
And while I don’t have any particular fear of flying, I don’t like turbulence. And I struggle with anxiety. Surviving this flight was an intense mental health exercise at keeping my calm and not flipping out. As the first few hours of this bumpy ride ticked by, I made feeble attempts at conversation with the man next to me, a lovely grandpa from Paisley, but my palms were sweating the entire time. My heart was racing. I was freaked out. With nothing else to distract me, I listened to the endless podcasts that I’d thankfully downloaded prior to the flight. Specifically, the first few episodes of the Myths and Legends series. As I listened to tales of Sir Yvain, dragons, lions and the raging misogyny of the middle ages, I counted down the hours until I would be back in Scotland.
I closely monitored the night sky outside, the way preteens monitor the clock on their last day of school before summer. I knew that we were arriving in the morning so I watched the sky for any sign of pink, yellow or orange light.
For a long time, there was just darkness. I think I saw the Big Dipper, but I was so freaked out and tired I couldn’t really see anything properly. I noticed the light on the tip of the wing and imagined it was one of those weird little creatures that you find at the bottom of the sea. The kind with sharp teeth and dozens of eyes. At one point, I saw the distant lights below of some country (Canada? Greenland?). I wondered silently that if I had some kind of panic attack, would they take me to Canada? I’ve never been to Canada.
About an hour or two before landing, I started to smell coffee. Which meant they were making our breakfasts. Which meant we were close.
Slowly, the light began to grow and I could see the clouds again. It was still as bumpy as ever, but I loved being able to see the plump clouds in the dawn light and I tried – I tried very hard – to be grateful for what I was seeing. Yes, I was anxious. I was anxious, nauseous and I was counting down the minutes until we were on the ground. But I reminded myself how lucky I was that I could travel. Period. And how beautiful the earth looks from up here and how I knew so embarrassingly little about the basic physics of air travel (If someone wants to enlighten me, please do. How do planes even fly? What is this wizardry?!).
I took a few photos, partly to give myself something to do but partly because it did look amazing. It was incredible to see the sunrise in the sky.
The words of my dad kept floating back to me: Look at everything, Take this in because we’re lucky to be here. You might never see any of this again.
As we landed in Glasgow, there was scattered applause throughout the plane but I was too deliriously happy to even register how happy I was. I didn’t clap, I just whispered over and over again, dramatically, ‘We’ve made it. We’ve made it.’ It was only when I collected my bags and walked out into the Scottish autumn air that I realized I was shaking with delight. Literally shaking. I was so happy to have arrived safely, and to be back in Scotland, that my body was like a soda can about to fizz over with joy.
Later, lying on my own bed in my own flat, I flipped through the photos I’d taken from the plane. There was one in particular that stood out to me. In it, you see the wing of the plane against the bright blue and pale gold of the sky. The clouds below are full, fluffy and pink. It looks like what I pictured heaven to look like when I was a kid, minus a few angels with togas and harpsichords. But it was pretty close.
My dad is not with us anymore. He died when I was fifteen years old, a few years after getting back from our trip to London. And while I do think I’ve gotten a lot of things from him (stubbornness, a love of history, a weird and fervent hatred of beets), one of the things I appreciate most is how he insisted that I look around and appreciate the world. Especially when traveling.
It’s sometimes difficult, particularly when we’re used to air travel, to remember how fortunate we are that these technologies exist. How fortunate we are if we can afford to use them. I’m not going to lie – my plane ride wasn’t enjoyable. It ranged from frustrating to downright anxiety inducing, but I made it through by reminding myself to look outside. To appreciate what I was seeing. How lucky I was to be there. How things can absolutely change in an instant and we should make sure to pay attention to stuff. We might not get the chance to see any of this again. And it’s really beautiful.
For my recent blog posts about my fellowship in Virginia, please see Notes from Monticello (I): Some thoughts on Homesickness and Notes from Monticello (II): Trying on Stays. You can follow my writing, adventures and random musings on Twitter and Facebook.