On the final morning of the tour, we got to enjoy another beautiful breakfast at Three Abbey Green, get out for a little walk (took Cindy and Roberta back up the hill to walk by The Circus and The Royal Crescent and down through the park), and then loaded ourselves up with bags and rolling suitcases to go meet our transport to the airport. Our driver was a bit late, so that was a bit stressful. Then we hit a lot of traffic on the way to Birmingham from Bath. I didn’t much notice. I was desperately scrolling through farm listings on the UK WOOF site and on trustedhousesitters.com. I had written to a few places late the night before and had heard back from one already. I felt confident things would get worked out over the weekend ahead. Luckily, I had a place to go for a few days!
But time was creeping forward. As we drove into the airport, everyone had a pained look on their face. One hour until their flight. For international travel, that’s cutting it very, very close. I had barely a chance to hug everyone and say goodbye before they were off (like a herd of stressed out turtles). I later heard they made their flight and everyone got home without incident. Thank you, Facebook!
I had the address of a home somewhere in the city of Birmingham and in the back of my mind swirled all the unknowns that I had to figure out for this trip. It felt overwhelming to try to decipher a bus schedule. This was one of those moments when I weighed out the cost vs. the stress and delay factors. Stress and delay were MUCH higher. I got a cab. Wow, did that feel good. I sat in the back, put my feet up, and let the taxi driver do all the work.
My next gig was a short house sit in Birmingham. I knew very little about the city, only that it is large (England’s second largest), ethnically diverse, and has very enthusiastic sports fans. I’d hooked up with Rich and Cat a few weeks ago through trustedhousesitters.com. I’d been looking for a house sit in Scotland for months, preferably in Edinburgh or Glasgow so I could spend some time exploring either city. Nothing seemed to come up at the right time or in a place I could reach or if it did look good, it got filled or canceled. Terribly disappointing. But there seemed to be tons of house sitters needed in England itself. Most were for two week periods. I think a lot of families were planning their summer getaways. They, like the rest of us with pets, would rather not board their furry family members if they can help it. By creating a post on the website, they can offer their home to travelers for free lodging in exchange for animal care. It’s a super arrangement for both parties.
I recognize that some people would not want to shoulder the responsibility of a stranger’s home and pets while on vacation. However, if you like animals and think of them as an enhancement to your lodging (and who wouldn’t want to come home to an evening of reading with a cat perched on your lap after a hard day of sightseeing or a morning dog walk through your new city’s neighborhoods), it could add an element of comfort and even fun. Plus you save a ton of money on lodging. And in the UK, lodging is not cheap.
So I happened to be scrolling through the postings in England and saw this one in Birmingham for just the end of our tour, in the very city we’d flown into and the rest of the group would be flying home from. It made sense to stop there for a couple of nights, get my bearings, do laundry and then head north on a train to Aberdeen. The owners and I emailed back and forth and also had a Skype conversation one night. I had created a profile for myself on trustedhousesitters.com with a few pictures and a description of me and my plans for the upcoming trip. They had a basic idea of who would be staying in their home. Some of the sitters also post individual recommendations and even a police clearance on their profiles. I can understand that would be appropriate, but I had no time for those things. Plus, I figured if someone couldn’t “get”me from my profile, some email correspondence, and a Skype or FaceTime call, it probably wasn’t meant to work out. You can only work so hard to put things together… and then you just have to go with the flow.
And let me just say now: that very issue of working hard toward what you want balanced against its polar opposite (letting go and trusting that things will work out in some way you cannot yet see) comes into play over and over during this trip. Indeed, I’ve learned that the stressful part of traveling is felt most keenly right as I’m approaching the time it’s best to switch to the other mode. But I didn’t quite understand that yet. More vagaries to come. As well as plenty of opportunities to practice recognizing that I was sitting on the wrong side of the work-at -it/let-it-go-and-trust-things-will-be-okay seesaw.
The taxi dropped me off in front of a modest row house on a suburban street filled up and down with other modest row houses. Tiny cars (according to American size standards) were parked in tiny driveways and street-side. Neat little gardens were laid out in front of most homes or had been removed to provide a place for a second tiny car. Middle class England!
I nervously knocked on the door.
After several minutes, it was answered by a youngish (early thirties?) blonde woman. She opened the door wide and ushered me in with welcoming words. Through the front door, I could see a steep stairway heading directly upwards on the left and on the right, a small living room holding a big couch and lots of building supplies. Through the living room was another small room with cupboards and makeshift shelving amidst an in-process stripping and rebuilding of a kitchen. Beyond that was another small room, maybe seven feet wide and the length of the back of the house, constructed as a solarium but being used as an interim kitchen, laundry and work space. Catherine led me upstairs. I dragged my suitcase up with me (by now about fifty pounds – how did that happen!?!) and found the upstairs held two tiny bedrooms and a recently renovated bathroom. Actually, the renovation was still underway, but there was a usable shower, toilet, sink and most importantly, water heater! My bedroom held a double bed, a wooden wardrobe (Closet? What’s a closet?), a small bedside table with a lamp, and a giant cast iron bathtub waiting to be hauled downstairs. There was just room on the floor for me to open my suitcase. My room also had a wide window overlooking the backyard. It also overlooked everyone else’s backyard. Each row house was probably twenty five or thirty feet wide and had a corresponding backyard behind it to a depth of maybe a hundred feet. The yards were separated by a variety of apparatus: wooden fences, shrubbery, planters of different heights, brickwork. However, none of these objects was over four feet tall. Each yard could be seen by all its neighbors. It was the expression of ownership without the visual separation we would likely insist upon here in the States. Every backyard had a line of laundry hanging out to dry. I learned this lesson quickly — do laundry while the sun is out, for it won’t be out for long! Also, at the far end of each yard was some kind of structure. In a few instances there was a tool shed, some folks had greenhouses, some had small structures that looked like workshops (or,as I once had, a “crafting cabana”). One back building even housed a (here’s that word again, but I swear it’s appropriate) tiny boat. I believe that where all theses structures stood was once the site of the family outhouse. I learned later the housing stock on the street was built in the late 1920s/early 1930s. The first residents did not have indoor plumbing. Of course, then I had to wonder, “So back in the day, everyone got to see you traipse out to the outhouse every time you went!?!”
The second bedroom upstairs was no bigger than mine. There was just room for a double bed, a wardrobe and some makeshift shelving. Oh, and room on the floor for the heated bed of my new charge, Carly the cat. She didn’t move when Cat (the person, not the feline charge, try to stay with me here) brought me in to meet her. Old and deaf, she was fast asleep on her comfy spot. When Cat petted her, she woke with a start and promptly nipped at her. Swell!
“Okay”, I thought to myself, “Old, grumpy cat that mostly wants to be left alone. I can handle that.” I was shown the location of food, treats, litter box, once-a-day pill and then daringly tried to pet Carly. I tried not to startle her. I held out my hand for her to sniff. She let me get in one scratch behind the ear and then hissed at me. “Good enough!” I grinned and said aloud to Cat. “We’re off to a great start!” Cat said not to take it personally, that in fact Carly was not a very nice cat at all. But they’d had her for ages and ages and did love her. It’s also worth mentioning that before they left for the weekend, Rich and Cat assured me that were Carly to die while on my watch, I was not to feel guilty or bad. “We expect her to go anytime and are prepared for it. Just want you to know.”
I suppose that was comforting.
Rich came home from work sometime later but I was already up in my room. I’d begged off with notions of a short nap. In actuality, I just wanted some time to sit alone, where no one could see me, and have a bit of a think. It was a great relief to be at their house. It really was. At the same time, everything felt new and strange and a little frightening. I was glad they’d be leaving the next day. It’s one thing to be stressed and disconcerted, but it adds a whole new level of weight when you are stressed and disconcerted and have to cover that up because you are with other people. During the tour, every strange thing that arose could be discussed and chuckled over with others in the group: not understanding people even though they spoke English, the way every faucet, handle and hinge moved in the opposite way you assumed it would, the incomprehensively large keys used over here. (I thought that was the inns and hotels being “quaint”. Turns out every door key is that large!) Suddenly alone, each oddity only served to make me feel increasingly off balance. For the first time, a voice inside me welled up and let loose with “Yikes. What have I gotten myself into?!?”
Before the nap, though, I had to find food. Cat gave me directions to a couple of nearby options. I walked the two short blocks to a nearby cafe. And thank goodness for it. Something familiar-ish! Coffee, tea, breakfast food, light lunch. I ordered and sat down at one of the tables. A couple other tables were full with folks finishing lunch. One gentleman in the corner sat reading a paper and sipping on a cup of tea. Blessed familiarity!
I sat, I had a coffee, I read, I ate. I walked the few blocks back to the house where, despite the coffee I’d just had, I fell quickly and utterly asleep. I’d made it from one piece of my trip to the next. Quite an accomplishment.
Coming up next: tales from a weekend in Birmingham. As Ira Glass likes to say on This American Life: “Stay with us!”