Always Coming Home

Chapter Two
Jeanne Gomoll • JG TAFF Trip 1987

Published 1992 in Whimsey 7 ed Jeanne Gomoll

Everything took more time and ended up weighing far more than we expected. In my mind, I compared my stuffed, leaden suitcase to the loosely packed dufflebag with which my brother Rick had traveled around the world, and sighed. On the other hand, I told myself and relished the memory: various women friends at work had reacted with stunned gasps of disbelief when I mentioned that I was planning to pack three weeks-worth of clothing into one large, carry-on, suitcase (plus a suitcase for TAFF auction material). In fact, at a Chicago workshop from which I'd just returned, several women each carried three or four pieces of luggage for that short, three- day session. Yeah, right, I said. This isn't so bad. And I felt a little better. I switched the focus of worry to the question of what I had forgotten. That occupied me for a while more, but then it was time to climb into the cab and catch the bus down to Chicago for our plane to England. Scott and I picked up our suitcases, glanced around the apartment one more time, and locked the door.

I had been in charge of logistics the last time Scott and I had flown to a con -- to Austin for Armadillocon in Austin, Texas -- and that time, we missed our flight because we took the wrong bus. This time, Scott took charge of the initial timetable and we arrived in Chicago early enough to dawdle over dinner and the Sunday papers before catching our flight. Avoiding the usual last-moment rush and gut-wrenching fears of arriving late was a nice change for me. I usually run just a bit late because I tend to try to finish whatever I'm doing first. We met Dick Russell and Diane Martin at the gate and their story provided a flash of déjà vu.

Apparently Dick had failed to take Diane seriously when she told him that they would have to leave soon and hadn't actually finished packing when the time came to depart. As a result, he forgot several essential items, including any American cash. A friend, Hank Luttrell, was dispatched back to the tree in a park where Dick had left his watch, meeting them between Madison and Chicago, where he handed the watch to Dick through the bus window. Dick entertained us by continuing to remember thing she had forgotten to pack as we sat with him in the airport.

The plane ride was fairly uncomfortable due to the location of Scott's and my seat next to the kitchen, but I can only blame a growing case of nerves for my inability to sleep, since I'm usually able to sleep anywhere. Neither of us slept for more than an hour or was able to concentrate on a film, so we skipped the offered movie, The Tin Men. We passed on the airplane dinner too. The ice machine chunked away next to us, sounding like someone was thumping an iceberg with a blunt object at odd intervals. I read the latest issue of the Madison apa, Turbo-Charged Party Animal and by the time we landed in Heathrow, I'd finished it. How symbolic, I thought. I should put this in my TAFF report, how I finished with Madison fannish things just as we start on our UK adventure.

Apparently none of our group of Midwesterners matched the terrorist template, because the custom officials allowed us to breeze on past them, which relieved me, since I don't think I could easily have repacked my bulging suitcase. There was a bit of confusion when we asked a clerk to change a pound note for the telephone, and suspected at first that we had been charged for the procedure. Greg Pickersgill later explained that 2-shilling coins equaled a 10 pence coin and cleared that up for us. We stood puzzling over the 'play money" in our palms, and almost missed noticing Hope Kiefer's approach. At the time, Hope was living temporarily in London; she would return to her home in Madison later in the year.

Well, we didn't need to figure out this coin stuff right then; obviously there was no need to call anyone. I bent down, unzipped a suitcase pocket and handed Hope a copy of the Turboapa. "I came to England just to deliver your apazine, Hope," I said.

We waved at Greg and Linda Pickersgill and Pam Wells, and then Greg congratulated us for having recognized the "meeting place" sign. I looked up and around, feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland and nodded, pretending competence. Hugs all around, laughter about the late arrival of our flight, and then we trudged off on a long walk to the underground, and eventually to Greg and Linda's house, where Scott and I would stay until we departed for Brighton and Seacon.

As I looked around at the faces of the other people in the tube car with us, I was very much aware that we Americans were playing out our typecast roles as boisterous, loud stereotypes. It was the first time on the trip that I felt myself to be an alien. But it certainly wasn't the last time. Later that day, as we walked to a restaurant, my attention was drawn over and over to the people we passed. There was something eccentric or bizarre about every single one of them. Any one of them, alone, walking down a Madison street would draw attention, although I couldn't have pointed out any specific style of clothing or mannerism that communicated that sense of difference to me. There was something disconcerting about everyone who passed me on the street I kept trying to put two words together that were opposites: standardized eccentric. I had to keep reminding myself that I was the eccentric one, that all these people were at home, and looked and acted entirely normal for the place. The feeling would never wear off entirely during the three weeks of our visit, though its intrusiveness ebbed.

Greg said that Scott and I stood out as obviously American. Was it my backpack? Scott's jean jacket? Something about the way we moved? There didn't seem to be a huge difference in the way we dressed, not when you considered each garment, one at a time. Of course, people heard our American accents and would know, but even when we were silent, we were recognized. Toward the end of our trip, Scott and I were riding a train south to Reading on our way to visit the Langfords, and Scott made his way to the rest room down an aisle through a group of young, male partiers. One guy yelled at the top of his lungs and pointed directly at Scott, "American!" Scott returned stunned and confused, wondering how he had betrayed his nationality. We asked a few times what it was that marked us out as Americans, but no one could tell us. I connect it to that intangible alienness that I was so aware of that first day watching people I passed on the street a mixture of lots of minute differences that cumulatively signal someone from another place.

"Whatever you do," warned Linda Pickersgill," don't go on about the cute, little packages in the stores." Linda shared some of the lessons she'd learned the hard way during her own introduction to British society after moving there from the US. A Brit within earshot of an American exclaiming over the "cute" packages would probably categorize the speaker as a typical American, obsessed with bigness, wealth and over-indulgence. I figured it had more to do with the difference between American and Brit refrigerators. Every London home I visited had a very small fridge that fit below the counter space. Londoners tended to shop for the night's groceries on their way home, and are notable, as suburban Americans are able, to economize by shopping less often for larger quantities. They simply haven't got the space to store supplies for several weeks. But we made a mental note to avoid reinforcing this particular impression of "the ugly American."

We sat down for the first of many, many teas. Whenever we arrived at someone's home in the afternoon or evening, we were always offered tea. And always we were offered milk for our tea, which delighted me, because in the US, I am frequently ignored by restaurant servers when I ask for milk. (Usually I'm not even asked. They ask Scott if he wants cream with his coffee. He says no thank you; I kick him under the table, and he says, "I mean, yes. Yes, I do, thank you.") In Britain, that's the normal way to drink tea. In fact, tea and milk is considered one of life's basic necessities by most people. Even in Wisconsin, the "Dairy State," it snot unusual for a household made up entirely of adults to fail to stock milk. That situation seems far more unusual in Britain, where milk is purchased daily in small, (cute), rectangular 2/3 pint containers. They are squared off at the top, without the pouring spout designed into wax box containers sold in the US, another effect of small UK refrigerators.

Our trip had begun.

Back in the US, five years later, I heat some water for a pot of tea. Tommy wakes up first and I greet him in the kitchen and we laugh about meeting someone for the first time when they wake up in your own house. Tommy says that he'd like to walk to the grocery store in order to get some milk for the tea, since we are almost out and I give him directions. Lillian has come down, and we're all sitting down for breakfast when Tommy returns.

"Is this for tea?" he asks, puzzled. He holds out a pint container of half-and-half.

"Sure that's fine," I say, but Lillian is not convinced.

"What is this half-and-half?" she asks.

I explain to her that it is half whole milk and half whipping cream, and she wrinkles her nose and says that she would have preferred milk.

"I couldn't find plain milk," Tommy explains.

I think about telling him that it was the stuff in the humungous, plastic, arrogant American containers, but I just smile and say we'll get more later.

We are home. It's too bad that we have to be the sort of hosts that blow in, tired and exhausted, wake up and say to our guests, "Gee, it's too bad we don't have more time."