In January I mentioned that I had found my old Plaza sister again on Facebook. Having found her, I saw that she would come to England for the Fall semester. Which is, relatively speaking, close. So I booked Eurolines tickets: my third coach adventure to meet up with Americans in Europe.
On Saturday I was in The Hague with my father to have a car assessed. That done, I drove to a free parking space somewhere between The Hague and seminary, then went back and waited a while for my coach, finishing King John on my e-reader. My Plaza sister, Becca, is an actress with a fondness for Shakespearean drama, and had inspired me to start reading the historical plays.
At 20.15 the coach arrived. I had expected the ride to be like the other ones: quiet, filled with reading and sleeping. But this was not the case. For when I entered, I heard a voice saying, ‘Wow, I haven’t seen you in a long time.’
The statement was true. The speaker had not seen me since we both graduated from Roosevelt Academy in 2010. So Wouter and I took a few hours to catch up on each others’ lives and remaining RA contacts, as the bus moved down to Rotterdam, Breda, stopping at Hazeldonk for 45 minutes, then going down through Belgium and eventually to Calais in France. There we had to leave the coach for Customs, a double check, France and the UK. At the French post, two people were forced to discontinue their journey.
Before that, at Rotterdam, my youngest sister called. She had been told by my father about my outing and wanted a postcard from London. She knows how to get things done.
Wouter and I moved on. He lived and worked in London now, he told me; rather eventful work it was too. He was very kind, asking me about my studies and about what the priestly life would be like, and offering me coffee and/or food during breaks.
We took the Chunnel. The coach drove onto the train, and after a while, the train started moving. It was the most uneventful mode of transport imaginable: sitting in a container within a container while outside only lights flashed by. I fell asleep and did not wake up until we were driving in London. Wouter did not seem to need any sleep yet; he would sleep at home, he said.
But he was not hurry. We arrived at Victoria Coach Station around 4.30am local time, two hours earlier than my watch indicated, because of the time difference plus the ending of Daylight Savings Time (I’d missed my annual extra hour of sleep). Hearing that I had nothing specific to do until 8am, Wouter decided to keep me company. We walked into the train station and had coffee, sitting opposite the entrance to the toilets. A visit to the toilet cost 30p, but most people just climbed over the turnstiles, including a man with a crutch.
At some point Wouter asked a young man in a grey sweater if he was doing alright: his hand looked rather bloody. He said that he was OK, that the bloodstains on his sweater belonged to someone else. Apparently he had been fighting in a bar somewhere, but he was very civil to us.
Wouter suggested we look for a more pleasant place than the station. As Pret à Manger was not open yet, we ended up at McDonald’s, which opened at 5am. There was a big guard there who made sure people didn’t sleep on the tables.
After that we ended up on the second floor of the train station, where a tea and breakfast place was open (we stuck with tea). Wouter said that if I wanted to pray morning prayer, I could; this was surprisingly attentive. He talked about the series Breaking Bad and some things that had not gone well at RA. I was glad and surprised that he would keep me company so long.
At last we parted ways, and I walked to Westminster Cathedral to pray morning prayer and attend the earliest Mass at 8am. The priest read a letter from Archbishop Nichols about the synod in place of the homily. There was no singing and we finished in some 45 minutes, in time for the 9am Mass.
But I could not hear two or three Masses, as people did in the past, because I had an appointment with Becca at 9am. Finally I got to see the Plaza sister with whom I had been out of touch for so many years!
On the hour of our meeting we decided to walk through London, rather than take public transport. Becca turned out to be an avid walker who could cover at least 20 miles in one day without ill aftereffects. She was also a weightlifter who was now advanced enough to have as a serious long-term goal the ability to lift twice her body weight.
We went to a pancake place which, as we discovered, opened later on Sundays. Becca’s second choice was attended by a sizable queue of people patiently waiting to be seated. We ended up somewhere else, where she ordered something with lots of oats, and I had a scone.
She talked about Alaska, her state of origin, about European history, and how difficult it was to get a visa in the present. Apparently there is a place in Alaska where you can see Russia (an uninhabited island far off the coast), the state contains lots of Norwegians, it’s more than twice as big as Texas, and there are Americans who think it’s a rather small island off the coast of California, thanks to topographical conventions.
This was not her first European experience; she had been in Ireland for a year, at a Catholic school, and she had recently studied Celtic and Welsh at Oxford for a few months. But apparently, the only way for her to enter Britain more permanently is either to marry an Englishman or to become world-famous in America. I had no idea it was so difficult simply to move to another country (with the same language, even).
Around noon, we went to Market Borough, where ‘apple day’ was being celebrated. One of the products on offer was apple cheese with black pepper; I bought some out of sheer astonishment. (It was rather soft and had a rough journey home.) We looked at a church, which had stained-glass windows of Shakespearean characters, and went off to a nearby square to eat sausage baps (apparently ‘bap’ is a word for bun).
We walked down Bankside, where the rebuilt Globe Theater stood, with the only thatched roof in London. Becca explained that this used to be the less respectable part of town; a gentleman would not want to be seen ‘beyond the river’. Down on a small beach next to the river, musicians were playing, a practice not allowed on the walkway.
We then walked to the British Museum, which had an exposition on Anglo-Saxon materials. We crossed a big book stall with lots of classic works, and Becca said some harsh words about Christopher from Into the wild, who was not a romantic hero but an idiot who had made all the wrong choices. The Anglo-Saxon exposition (including the helmet of Sutton Hoo) was impressive, but I found myself growing very tired whenever I tried to focus.
I must be brief, since time is pressing. We went for coffee and took a picture of the two of us, to show our Plaza mother of days long gone, Teleria. Then Becca helped me to find Victoria Coach Station, which was no easy thing. We said goodbye rather rushedly, surrounded by many people in the coach terminal. It had been a good visit.
The bus back to The Hague was delayed by over an hour. It was also rather full when I came in, so I walked back and forth and a girl offered me the seat next to her. We had some pleasant conversations on the ride home (which included the ferry this time). She pretended to be outraged that I had only been once to the amusement park in her hometown.
I arrived in The Hague, bought a coffee (the man said, ‘Need something to wake up?’) and took the train to where I parked my car. I arrived back at seminary at 7.11, so in time for Monday morning prayer, which starts at 7.15. And there my life adventure resumed its customary course.