Mar 28, 2006

ALLES GUT
WILTSHIRE, England – "So I have this old German car," my colleague announces, as we lug my suitcase towards the sedan. We've only just met after a long correspondence. Nonetheless, I plan to spend a night on Sascha's farm near Bath.

"I'm not so excited about things Teutonic since the Inappropriate Beau ran off with that backpacker," I kid.

Her broad smile doesn't shrink, but she replies, "you know I'm German."

No. Erm. Uh. Doh. I seemingly brought Northwest salmon to England – hostess gifts – and left my manners home.

But Sascha's more than gracious. "I apologize on behalf of all German women," she jokes. "But you're better off, I think. We'll find you a nice European man now."

Everyone has dating suggestions. In fact, they know the perfect bloke: witty, warm and well-traveled. He just happens to be inconveniently in another country ... or continent.

Occupational hazard.

No need to rush anyway. Piano, piano. Siga, siga. Lentement. Slowly, in a word.

***

Sascha's arranged a private tour of Berkeley Castle (yes, that Berkeley, as in the Californian university and various bits of Virginia). The family rents out the grand old pile now, hosting fairs, conferences, weddings and the like.

We climb onto the roof; the wind presses my hips against the battlements, rain washes my face. In 1643, Cromwell battered down a wall here with a cannon mounted on the church steeple. After the battle, the Berkeleys moved home again, on the condition that they never rebuild the breached fortifications. "It would take an act of Parliament to restore that," muses Castle Director David Price.

"Over there are some hills, which you can't see because of the clouds. And there's the Cotswolds, which you can't see either," he chuckles.

Then, being British, he apologizes for the weather.

I don't care. I love that we're sliding atop a castle. Coiffures and couture can recover, at least, in my price bracket they can.

Weather: that's what I miss most about England. I was forever exposed to the elements – primarily rain – in unsuitable clothing. Because most Oxford cyclists stubbornly wear street-garb, rather than miracle-fiber, sweat-wicking, water-resistant goon suits. No helmets, no lights, dark towpath ... good times.

Once my narrowboat neighbor Steve was biking home after several pints and a World Cup broadcast. He whanged into a mooring pin and landed – upright, still in the saddle – chest-deep in the canal. The local curmudgeon threw open his shutters. The pinched 12-watt interior bulb illuminated Steve in the water: gobsmacked, but considerably more sober.

"Oh, it's you. I thought someone was trying to break into my boat," J. observed, then simply shut the window.

***

I'm still car-free, but precipitation is much easier to avoid in Seattle (yes, even in Seattle. Despite the damp reputation, the city ranks 44th in the US for rainfall, behind New Orleans, Miami, New York and Boston). The grocery store's open 24-hours, so I can wait out most squalls. I have a "carpet commute" to the old home office. And assignments are more likely to take me overseas than across town.

Why do I feel so much loss?

***

Sascha and I drip-dry in a sleepy cafe, sharing soup and scones. We chatter like old friends the entire evening: as we slog across muddy fields in wellies to feed the ponies, as we pick daffodils crushed by the afternoon rain, as we make salad and jacket potatoes in the farmhouse kitchen.

"It's a simple life, a bit quiet, but good," she says. I nod. At the moment, I'd trade a lot for Sascha's idyll; there's nothing like a six-week trip to sharpen nostalgia – for homes past and present and imaginary.

***

Nonetheless I leave the next day. After all, that's what travel writers do best.

But first I breathe deep, scuff my shoes in the thick soil. There'll always be England. And with a little help from my friends – German friends even – I can return and remoisturize.

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