At some point during the Autumn season, my memory makes an annual visit to the U.K. It’s usually when the temperatures finally start to drop, and I find myself staring unexpectedly at random yellow-tinted burnt umber treetops, dried and crisping while they contemplate the obligatory leap to the waiting ground below. A flurry of scenes from a single day are once again revived in my mind.
This happened to me last Saturday while I was sitting in a parking lot five thousand miles away from Leeds, the third largest city in England which sits on the fringe of the rolling green and cloud-shadowed Yorkshire moors and dales. Decades ago, I lived there during an academic year, an opportunity I can still hardly believe came true.
It always starts with the same remembrance of my arrival in Leeds in the Fall of 1999, or was it 1998? It must have been 1998 because the following Spring would have been ’99. That was when we took a quick trip over to Paris, and I remember my disappointment that the Eiffel Tower had been marred by a huge electronic marquee counting down to Y2K—scaffolding, green construction mesh, and all.
But back to Leeds.
I arrived on a gray and blustery day in early Fall. It was the kind of weather that perfectly brought to life all of my daydreams of the England I’d not met yet. The little connecting flight that brought me from Heathrow dropped me off, and I battled the wind while walking across the tarmac carrying my backpack and my instrument.
Some kind British passengers on the plane had warned me that the location of the Leeds Airport on the top of hill would make the wind even worse than down in the city, but I smiled like a champion and trudged on. I was both deliriously tired from the long flight and tickled to finally be there.
Once inside the small airport, I tried to hide my grin from the jolly man who took an extra long time inspecting my bassoon at the security check. He hadn’t seen one before, he told me, as he picked it up and looked down the red maple bell joint like a kaleidoscope. He was suddenly a twinkly blue-eyed kid in a toy store.
The best part about my first day in England was that I was alone. The other student who would also be part of the exchange between our California university and the University of Leeds was not due to arrive until much later that evening. I was excited to meet England all by myself, and I just knew I would relish it.
So I gathered my things and found my way outside to a taxi stand where I was whisked away by a driver who said he had no idea where I was going. Just the sort of thing you want to hear when you arrive in a foreign country you’ve never been to, right?
We drove around for about forty-five minutes, me never truly believing he didn’t know where he was going. The cynic in me was sure he was just trying to get as much fare as he could. At the time, I did not realize how big the city really was. He did seem earnest in his occasional stops along the way to ask for directions, and I just prayed confidently along the way. This was before cell phones were expected to be on us at all times like underwear.
Eventually, we made our way up Cumberland Road and drove through a massive arched pale stone entrance with black wrought iron gates boasting the residence hall’s name, Devonshire Hall, in white painted block letters. I immediately forgot all of my irritation on the matter of being ripped off and held my breath as we tentatively passed under the solid arch. This was it.
The taxi gurgled its way around the circular drive and made a final stop in front of wide stone steps stretching below a wall of aged glass doors. It took me awhile to find someone, anyone. Come to find out I was the first student to arrive because international students got settled in before the others.
I was given a key, mumbled goodbye to the taxi driver who charged too much, and hefted my suitcases one at a time up a few flights of stairs until I entered a door with my number on it. Finding myself boxed into a teeny space of about three feet by three feet, I encountered two more doors to choose from situated in adjacent corners. Pink doors.
Once in the right room, I looked all around me. The space was about as big as my bedroom had been at home. There was a sink along the wall which shared the door, a small wardrobe, a twin size bed, and a desk beneath the window. Someone had thoughtfully included a large single bookshelf over the bed and a reading chair in the corner.
Walking over to the window, I was delighted to find it was my favorite kind—the kind you have to crank to open. I peeked down from three stories to a vibrant green lawn and, in the corner, was a short ivy covered fence with a mysterious gate that left me wondering where it led to.
I smiled and took a breath. Then I immediately fell onto the bed and slept.
When I woke up, the shadows were long on the walls and the silence was deafening. The staff member who had given me my key said no other students would be here until the next day, at the earliest. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, sleeping in this massive hall all by myself. Yikes! I examined the deadbolt I had locked earlier. It was a pretty big lock, and quite modern despite the antiquity of the building, so I decided not to worry. Yet.
Realizing I was hungry and that the afternoon was waning, I began walking down Cumberland Road toward a small row of shops—the only shops that were in sight. It was a Sunday. Everything was closed. I was so enchanted by my surroundings that I didn’t even mind much. It was so very different from America…the textures and stone, the scents in the air…the compact cars and their skinny license plates with too many letters. I shivered inside of my black peacoat.
Resigned to the idea that I likely would not be eating that evening, I made my way back up the hill to Devonshire Hall. Along the way, the dry fallen leaves whirled around me and I found comfort in their percussive taps and scrapes on the roads and pavements. I let my fingertips dance lightly along the stones in the walls I passed as I walked. Such a sight took hold of the daydreaming part of my heart and all of a sudden I didn’t mind that I would be missing a meal. I was in England!
Halfway up the road, something furry suddenly wrapped around my leg. A sweet little gray striped kitten. She left my side and bounced up ahead, her little collared bell ringing daintily above the soft whistle of the wind. I don’t even really like cats much, but they always seem to be appearing. Like special friends meant just for me. The little cat sat and watched me make leisurely progress up the incline (no one had told me Leeds was hilly, and I was not in shape!) until the point where I was just within reach. Then she leaped up to the top of the dark, jaggedy stone wall over my shoulder and disappeared with a wave of her tail.
I stood still for a moment, waiting to see if she would return. When it became clear that she wouldn’t be coming back, I pivoted around taking in the sights around me. Cumberland Road seemed to be a residential street of sorts, save for the large church on the corner at the bottom of the road. Twilight was near, so I decided to get back to the hall.
I sighed and let in the reality of just how far away from home I was. I realized I hadn’t called my mom to let her know that I was safe and sound, so I made my way back to the giant stone arch of the hall and found a single iconic red telephone booth. The faraway sound of her voice chased away any whispers of loneliness trying to tempt me as the day’s end can sometimes do.
I don’t know that I ate after all. My memory is too foggy. But I will never forget the blustery weather, the sound of the leaves twirling about along the ground, the never ending taxi ride, the kitten…the view from my room. The way the trees arched over the road leading up to Devonshire Hall and reaching across, touching, creating a shelter from the rain.
I like to remember that day.