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Lost in Translation

I am eight years old. After my mother and I arrive at Heathrow Airport, an announcement boom through the loudspeakers over the baggage claim carousels instructing people to move towards the nearest exits as quickly as possible. There has been a bomb threat in the Departures Terminal, and swarms of people spill over into the Arrivals terminal. Maneuvering a cart of our luggage, my mother grips my hand tightly, so tightly, I cry out in a fog of jet lag, jostled and pushed by the controlled panic.

“Anna. Please do not argue, darling. We have to do what the Bobbies say. Just keep hold of my hand and don’t let go,” my mother says firmly, awkwardly steering the cart through a maze of travelers.

From behind the concrete pillars, police officers with enormous German Shepherds materialize and begin to scour the area that is quickly disintegrating into chaos. A woman dressed in a brightly colored sari, her ample belly peaking from beneath the fabric, talks animatedly to her husband, who struggles to steer their own luggage cart stacked high with cases. A frantic Japanese businessman in a crisp pinstriped suit brushes past me. Still, he is quickly intercepted by a police officer and turned in the opposite direction—an elderly couple dressed in dark, wool clothing trudge beside us with their nearly empty cart.

When the woman comes close, the smell of fried onions and sweat lingers a little too long, and I turn my head towards my mother’s suede-covered arm. The two strangers speak in broken English that sounds like my father when he phones his Ukrainian friends in Canada to talk about medicine, land, and beekeeping before his words collapse into a riddle of a language I cannot decipher.

Near the Arrivals hall entrance, dozens of people hold placards with names written in thick black marker. These strangers hover, looking expectantly into the faces of travelers streaming towards the exits. An older man dressed in a tweed suit dabs his eyes intermittently with his handkerchief and waves a piece of cardboard with a girl’s name. “I am waiting for my granddaughter, but she has not come through Arrivals yet,” he tells the police officer in an agitated voice. “She is only eleven years old, her mother has died in a car crash, and I am her only family left. She is coming from America. I have to meet her,” the man whimpers.

I watch the police officer calmly turn the man around by his shoulders and tell him in a firm but a kind voice that he is sure that his granddaughter will be all right. I cannot look away from the consuming sadness on this man’s face and keep him in my sight until he too melts into a sea of people.

The voice echoing through the loudspeakers, more insistent and agitated than the first time, instructs us again to move as quickly as possible towards the exit doors. The automatic doors fly open as our cart hits the plastic mat, and my mother and I are cast into a throng of people and the blinding sunlight. No one is meeting us at the airport.

Though a suspicious package will later be located in the Heathrow complex, an explosive is not found. Seventeen days after our arrival, however, a bomb planted by members of the I.R.A. will cause extensive damage in the Houses of Parliament and injure eleven people. Another bomb blast with the I.R.A. imprint but not an admission of responsibility will kill one person and injure forty-one others at the Tower of London, days after my family’s visit to this historic site.

Once on the Tube into central London, I sink into plush plaid cushioned seats. Before we arrive in Bury St. Edmunds, my mother and I will ride two additional trains intersecting across southeast England. At Liverpool Street, my mother guides us deftly through the hordes of commuters and tourists to one of the trains parked at the end of the track. The white letters declare their destination on the front panel: Cambridge. A red-faced man, dressed head to toe in a navy blue uniform, his gold buttons glistening in the artificial light, heaves our bags onto the waiting train. I follow my mother, my hand still clasped in hers, down the narrow passageway as she glances in each compartment, hoping to find one vacant.

British rail car London to Cambridge

“Here’s an empty one, Anna. We’ll sit here.” With a sigh, I collapse into the hounds-tooth covered seat opposite my mother. I am so tired. “You may have to move if another person comes in this compartment,” my mother says wearily, sliding the glass door shut, turning to stack our bags on the metal rack above us.

“I know,” I whine. “I just want to sit here, o.k.? I like sitting backward. Sitting in the other direction makes me feel sick.” Besides, I want to see where I have come from. I mumble as the train trundles out of the station.

Years before England became two worlds, one steeped in history and tradition, and one obsessed with all things contemporary, I walked through this layered history of familiar streets, historical streets that mapped the skeleton of my genetic code, my authentic self. This world was the world I was born into on an early April morning, a world where generations of women moved quietly around me like the earth revolving gently around the sun.

Plane’s arc, a definition since childhood

I sit by the airplane window, staring into a pool of shifting darkness. My mother sleeps but not soundly. The plane passes through a bank of clouds like a ghost walking through walls. A few passengers, unable to sleep, turn page after fitful page under miniature spotlights. The disembodied snoring of one wakes another. A flight attendant rises to shake the weariness from her stiff limbs. I have rarely been able to sleep on airplanes carrying this restless habit over the threshold of my childhood.

I love everything about flying: the not-quite-horizontal folding tray; the astronaut-inspired meals with a taste of salt and cardboard arrayed in molded compartments; the obsolete ashtrays; and the synthetic pillow with the paper-thin blue blanket bundled on each seat. I covet the tinny headphones blaring channels of Euro-pop, smooth jazz, Motown, mediocre blues, and Mozart barely drive out the plane’s engines. I even eagerly anticipate the braided, butter-flavored pretzels; I relish the way the overhead light casts a direct beam on my small, cramped world where everything I want or need is in an eighteen-inch-square space, thoroughly enamored with the contradiction between the size of the aircraft and the compactness of seats.

I impatiently anticipate the taxi down the runway, the gravity-shifting takeoff, and the sight of the curving plane’s silver wings floating miles above a toy city, passing over tiny houses, miniature cars, and trees sprouting from the ground like stalks of broccoli, before the machine’s final climb into the sun behind the clouds. Most of all, I love picking up my life, traveling to all the unlikely parts of my imagination before setting myself down in another place entirely.

More than half of this first night flight I have taken with my mother in seventeen years is over. I have watched the movie and read half a book since boarding. The two glasses of wine I drank at dinner have done little more but spawn a headache and a couple of trips to the bathroom. During one of the first night flights, I remember taking as a child, an attendant led me by the hand to visit the cockpit. I gazed in wonder at the dials and instruments, stepping behind the curtain to discover the truth; the pilot, not a wizard, gave me plastic wings for my sweater. Hours later, when the same chestnut-haired attendant realized I was still awake, she leaned over my sleeping mother to whisper, “Would you like anything, honey? Another pillow? Some juice?” I mouthed the words, no thank you. I was too busy meeting the sea for the first time.

Clasped between the stars and the moonlight and staring into the inky darkness, I suspect that a plane’s arc over the Atlantic Ocean has defined me from birth.

Maybe I come from a sea, not a sea shadowed by distant coastlines, but one that reaches to the other side of the earth, cupping its hands around the globe like moonlight. A sea of emotion, not intellect, one of baptism and absolution. The waters embedded in my blood have shorelines made of chalk, not of prairie grasses or beach sands, the fine crystal texture. Rather, I come from a landscape where the soft limestone sighs above the pounding surf with the taste of salt. At twilight, flocks of seagulls rise in a foggy mist like a handful of confetti thrown into the wind, the cliffs shedding stone morsels into the waves.

I do not blame the sea for history’s separations. In the beginning, my father walked on firm soil, miles away from the Black Sea, a sea without oxygen that still keeps the secrets of shipwrecks and preserves ancient bodies like models in a wax museum beneath the surface. War caused his separations, from his family, from his country, from the faith he nearly forgot in the camps. For years, he lived under an Italian sun on the Adriatic coast before crossing over this ocean I traverse now. My father left the sea behind, preferring the sturdiness of land in each direction. Prairie became his north, his south, his east, and his west. He wanted to be landlocked, far from the water he always feared.

I do not blame the sea for coming between my mother and her home, either. The tiny island of my birth lies suspended in the ocean she has crisscrossed repeatedly for thirty years. She has always been apart but never severed from her family and friends, whom she nurtures like a garden through the seasons. My mother knows the sea as simply a consequence of geography.

Indeed, my own journey of return began months ago. The first year of graduate school came and went, and I had uncovered layers of myself in a way that was both familiar and novel. With each passing discovery, though, I sensed that I was slowly drifting away from those around me, an uneasiness that came to a head during dinner with a friend a few weeks before my flight.

“It’s just different, that’s all,” I had sighed, moving the thin ice cubes around the bottom of my scotch glass. The penetrating gaze of my friend seared my bent head. “I guess I have come to the point in my life when I want something else that I can’t seem to find in Minneapolis. I want to walk down the street and see the faces of people who look like me have a similar history to mine, where maybe I fit in a little more than I do here.” Where would that be exactly? England? Ukraine? Another state in this country? I had already lived in four besides Minnesota as well as Washington, D.C.

Greenwich Mean Time -- Foot in Two Hemispheres

I felt wedged between the Unstoppable Force called America that collided with the Immovable Object called England.

Conversations like the one I had found myself immersed in always began innocently enough. Still, after a while, when the friendship appeared to be developing, the boldness of the questions grew, and the tone of genuine curiosity shifted to one closer to that of interrogation. How could your father have been a prisoner of both the Soviets and the Nazis? That doesn’t make any sense. What do you mean when you say that your father’s war is a part of your life? It was his war. You didn’t experience it. You don’t speak with an English accent, so you must not have ever really lived there, did you? You can’t consider yourself an immigrant. You are an American. How would I get out of the conversation that frankly I had not started, but one that had repeated itself so many times over the years? The warmth of my cheeks deepened, and my throat tightened.

“I think you spend too much time thinking about your history, Anna. All of this history is just that – history. It doesn’t have anything to do with your life now. And now you want to go to England. Ever since your English godmother and your mother came to visit, you think you need to go there. What do you think you will find? Your life is here, Anna, not England,” my friend had summarily declared before taking a long sip of scotch.

At least my friend had been correct on one score: the visit from my godmother, Jean, had etched my first inkling of return in my brain. Three weeks after this difficult conversation had upended my emotional axis, I packed my suitcase for my first trip to England in seventeen years. Now, as the sun peeks through the clouds, I wonder if maybe my perturbed friend had been right. Perhaps I was chasing a history that did not belong to me. Maybe I was searching for my own fantastical Albion. Still, I felt like I was going to England to seal some of the holes in a story I was starting to uncover. This story may have started with my frantic desire to grasp more than the circumference of my family’s history, but what if my trip was the next chapter of the story and informed my future?

The breakfast trolleys shiver when the plane dips through a cloudbank. Passengers stir, shuddering from the bright sun behind their plastic shades, and stand to stretch. My mother mumbles good morning and unbuckles her seatbelt; I move past her to the bathroom before the food trays arrive. I want coffee more than sleep, more than movement. I stand in the aisle, peering out the bulkhead window. We will land at Gatwick soon. I am with my mother crossing the ocean and time zones, childhood, and history.

All I want is coffee. I am tired and a little nervous. When the plane lands, my mother turns to me and says, “Now you are back in England.”

At my mother’s heels, I follow her through the narrow hallway and down the escalator to Gatwick Airport’s immigration stations. She hasn’t flown into Heathrow for many years, not since a local carrier added a direct flight from Minneapolis to Gatwick. I walk through the airport like a tourist, eyes up and not directly ahead, weaving past other passengers and airport personnel, trolleys, and small children. Though I am over thirty, my mother carries our passports and our landing cards. My mother knows the routine intimately. I am a neophyte.

I maneuver our luggage cart around the corners of the steep, flat passageway down to the coach station with clumsy movements. At the ticket desk, my mother fishes her ‘English’ wallet out of her purse to buy two one-way tickets to Newmarket, where my second godmother, Patricia, will fetch us when we arrive at about 2:00 p.m. After finding a bench, I search for coffee but am forced to be content with a vending- machine version in the station lounge. Sipping the tepid, weak mixture, I wait with my mother in a pleasant silence until the coach arrives.

Once aboard, I doze uncomfortably against the window. The sun streaming through the glass is fierce. Weeks have passed since I have felt the heat as pure as this, and I turn my face to the light like a sunflower. The coach rattles without mercy, rudely jogging me awake when my head bumps against the glass.

The last time I traveled across any country on a bus was the middle of winter. I read most of a 500-page book to take my mind off the cold. The heater on the Greyhound bus broke down twenty miles outside of Minneapolis, and I had six hours to go before reaching Sioux Falls for Christmas.

Now, I am cranky like a tired child without sleep. I snap at my mother when she asks me to shift my bag and am immediately contrite. Her face has reddened from the heat; she pushes stray wisps of hair away with the back of her hand. I apologize quietly. We are together in England again, and it has been such a long time. She has already settled into the journey’s routine and the uncharacteristic heat. I am still finding my sea legs. Again.

Each time I open my eyes, we move in circles, passing a sign I am sure I saw minutes ago. It cannot be possible. Haven’t we left the airport complex yet? Twisting in and out of roundabouts, I pray for a straight motorway to unwind outside the window. To Let signs mounted on building walls and in windows multiply and for a moment, in my jet lag haze, I think the painted advertisements say Toilet. I am close to crying from the heat. Is this frustration? I am so tired I cannot seem to complete one thought. Confusion? The last time we left England to return to the States, we went home to my father’s funeral. Perhaps I am weepy because all I see is the English countryside. Golden fields of blossoming hay, bursts of red poppies along the road, acres of a wooden fence, rising and falling with the contours of the landscape, and emerald hills with river paths I follow until the coach turns another corner. It has been ages since I have seen a landscape lovely enough to bring me to tears.

After an hour, the coach grinds to a halt in a country village I do not remember; its arrival in the middle of town does not cause much of a stir. Women in floral printed dresses tow metal shopping baskets and little terriers behind them, stopping to chat with friends on the corner. Store windows boast tender meat and fresh vegetables along with sensible shoes. People walk in the middle of cobblestone streets, moving reflexively to the side when a car turns the corner. The coach pauses long enough for passengers to step into the brilliant sunlight before it pulls away from the curb.

I see the local church’s spire before I see the green sign announcing the town limits of Newmarket. In the distance, little cottages dot the landscape. I imagine stone flowerpots and metal watering cans and cobalt blue doors hidden like a secret behind halos of roses. Inside my country cottages, wooden trays lay across antique bathtubs set out for guests with a new bar of lavender soap, a water jug for washing one’s hair, and towels, fresh from the clothesline.

The kitchens must look like the best a flea market has to offer, with baskets of wood by porcelain stoves, dried flowers hanging from the rafters, cushions on polished window seats hand-thrown mortar and pestles next to lion-colored onions. The books, the pictures, the way garden flowers collar the afternoon sunlight, all these things I am seeing with my heart and not my mind as if my senses have been startled to attention for the first time.

Finally, the coach trundles onto the high street in Newmarket with a sigh. The two of us wait in our seats as others spring to their feet, only to have to stand completely still while expectantly watching for the doors to open. After a time, I pull the hand luggage from the rack, strapping two pieces over one shoulder, inching my way to the door. My mother is behind me. I cannot wait to get off this coach.

The luggage swings violently to the right, and I lurch forward, my hand reaching for the handle. I am looking at my sandaled feet, trying to regain my balance before stepping onto the pavement. I look up into a sea of people before me, searching for Patricia’s face. She stands not two feet in front of me, and I step forward to greet her, my voice low, caught in a passage of my throat.

“Hello, Patricia,” but she does not seem to hear me. Perhaps I am only forming the words with my lips, the sound of my voice inside my own head. I start to speak again, but she has noticed me standing before her, head bent in the heat. I feel her cool, slender hands cup my cheeks. Am I really home?