Category Archives: Travel

Upgraded to a liminal zone

Schiphol

For the last 30-plus years I have been a fairly frequent air traveller, mainly between the UK and Japan, but also within Europe. Over the years I have developed my flight kit, and my personal expectations of plane etiquette. For long-haul flights I always take a neck pillow and my own small blanket (I don’t think airlines clean the blankets after every flight, how could they?). I have a foldable water bottle, and a small plastic bag with toothbrush, moisturiser, eyedrops etc. I always carry my Kindle. For short-haul flights I can do without the neck pillow and blanket.

Plane etiquette: Of course I greet the person I’m going to be sitting next to, but after that I like to be in my own little bubble until just before the plane lands. After the travel to the airport and getting through luggage drop-off, hand luggage check, waiting at the gate, it’s nice to just unwind a bit. Unless you need me to pass you something or stand up so you can get past me I’d rather not have long conversations.

Several years ago, KLM announced some link-up with Facebook where you could search your flight for people who knew and then get seated next to them. No thank you. In all my years of travel there has been one occasion, only one, when my fellow passenger started talking to me before take off and I didn’t mind. We’ve stayed in touch, she’s a Facebook friend now, but that is the only time. (It was a December flight on Swiss Air, hello H if you’re reading this.)

In these 30-odd years I have also been a reasonably loyal customer, and have amassed air miles in a couple of frequent flier programmes. On a few occasions I have been upgraded, but it hadn’t happened for a while.

Last month I went on my annual visit to the Netherlands (more on that in another post). From Manchester to Schiphol is a very short flight, only about 50 minutes, barely time for the cabin crew to serve everyone a drink and clear up before we land. You take off, climb for a while, cruise briefly and then start to descend.

I checked in online, went to the airport, dropped off my bag and went to the gate (OK, I did make a brief detour through duty free and Costa Coffee). Just before boarding, they announced that the flight would be full and asked several passengers to come to the desk at the gate; one of the names they read was mine. They gave me a new boarding pass; I had been moved up to 1C from a few rows back. Oh what joy! It may be a very short flight, but a bit more space, being right at the front of the plane so I could get off ahead of everyone else, I was briefly happy with my lot.

The fun started when I got on the plane.

Sitting in seat 1A, the seat next to the window, was a British man in his late sixties or early seventies. Realising that I was going to be in 1C, he asked, would you like the window seat? I agreed to the seat swap, and as he settled into seat 1C he remarked, ‘I always sit in 1C.’ OK then. From there he didn’t stop talking until we landed at Schiphol.

Within a couple of minutes, he was telling me about his wife’s cancer and chemotherapy, his former life in South Africa, first as an engineer and then as a diamond dealer, (he was on his way to Antwerp that day), his reluctant return to the UK and disillusion with post-Apartheid South Africa, his own health concerns, including a recent colonoscopy (done by a doctor friend in Germany at no charge), how to book train tickets with the best app (the one I was relying on was not good, apparently); on and on he went.

I tried to avoid his conversation, first by pretending to doze. That didn’t work; I was poked awake for the snack (which is much nicer in business class). Later I pulled out a newspaper but he read over my shoulder and commented with some relish about the article on North Korea. I mentioned then that yes, it was concerning, particularly as I live in Tokyo. I thought he might find that interesting, but no, he ignored it completely. I was just the person he was talking at for the duration of the flight. Later I turned and looked out of the window, noting with some relief that I could see wind turbines in the sea, so we must be approaching the Dutch coast.

Just as I was thinking, oh thank goodness, a bit of peace, a hand snaked forward from the passenger in 2A. He poked me on the arm and said, ‘It’s a nice view, isn’t it?’ I gave up and asked a member of the cabin crew for a cup of tea, which was brought in a white china mug instead of the usual plastic cup. ‘Aha!’ said the man next to me, ‘I knew it! You’re from Yorkshire! My wife is from Yorkshire and is always drinking tea.’ Through gritted teeth I answered, ‘North East Derbyshire’. Of course, he didn’t hear me.

Finally, we landed at Schiphol, taxied, then got off the plane onto a bus to go to the terminal. Mr. Chatty picked up his briefcase, deplaned (as they say), hopped on the bus and started talking at someone else. It wasn’t me, it was him.

 

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My heart is not here

stile-and-signpost

Jet lag is a funny thing. I got back to Tokyo last night after an almost 24-hour journey back from the UK. After a pot of tea and some toast I thought I’d be ready for bed, but nope, at 4am I was still wide awake. I finally managed a couple of hours sleep and then my eyes popped open again and by  7:30 I was out in the windy sunshine, off for a walk round the lake at my local park.

This year I have been walking every day, and as well as making me fitter it has also opened my eyes to the beauty and wonders around me. Tokyo is a great city to walk in, but in the summer, walking around the village I grew up in I realised what a country girl I am. I recognised the crops, I was thankful for the good harvest, I fretted whether the harvest would be in before the rain came. Walking in my own childhood footsteps I had a new appreciation for the village and the surrounding countryside.

Just as I did in the summer I spent the last fortnight taking the same walks. My favourite takes me all the way up the village, past the primary school I attended, along the top road and then a long walk down a farm track, through a hamlet and back out onto the main (actually only) road. I walked through the wood where bluebells bloom in the spring, past the field of Jacob sheep (and the alpaca that lives with them), past the church where I was confirmed. On Sunday I walked 4 miles to the parish church, something that feels like a mini pilgrimage every time I do it.

And then, on Wednesday, I left again and flew back to Tokyo, and I have the same feeling I did when I came back at the end of August: my heart is not here. My body is here (even though it refuses to sleep), my mind knows I’m here, but my heart hasn’t caught up yet. My feet are walking on the pavements in Tokyo, but they are missing the farm tracks, the mud and the soft fallen leaves I was walking on a few days ago. I see herons at the park and miss pheasants, I smell car exhausts and miss woodsmoke, I see smart pedigree dogs dressed up in little outfits out for a walk and I miss the farm dogs who come out to bark and see me off as I walk past their home.

My heart aches for the landscape that shaped me, for the memories, for my roots. I feel like I’ve been wrenched away from the soil that I belong in. Having spent most of my adult life in large Asian cities I thought I was a confirmed city dweller and it has come as a surprise to understand that I am very much a country girl; a north of England, tiny village, muddy-booted, crop-watching, blackberry-picking country girl.

view-from-steps

Good soil

St. Michael's kitchen garden

Last year I came to St. Michael’s on retreat for what I thought would be the last time. The Sisters were planning to move and the convent would be closed at the end of the summer. With a heavy heart I said goodbye to the house, the chapel and the garden. But in the spring an e-mail arrived; the move was taking longer than expected, and the convent would be open until the end of July. I had one more chance to visit.

It’s a funny feeling, coming back to a place you thought you had said goodbye to. I hadn’t realised it would feel as liberating as it did. I made my farewells last summer, I picked up pebbles and took a zillion photos, sat on my favorite bench and told myself over and over, this is the last time I’ll ever . . .

But I am back, and I have felt liberated from my usual rhythm. Instead of staying within the convent grounds for my whole stay, I have walked down to the Thames and along its banks. Instead of staying in silence I have had conversations. Instead of Spending most of the time alone I have spent time with others. What a gift it has all been.

I arrived yesterday in time for the midday Eucharist. The Gospel reading was the Parable of the Sower. During the intercessions, the Sister prayed that we would all have good soil. The idea, the image settled in my mind and has kept surfacing.

St. Michael's Passion flower

One of the most wonderful things about this place is its garden. There are two orchards, a vast lawn, a kitchen garden and other woody areas. Over the decades they have been here, the Sisters have cared for the fruit trees, planted borders and established a kitchen garden. Clearly, this is good soil. It produces fruit and vegetables for the convent table. There are borders of lavender, huge bushes of rosemary, towering fig trees; it is all nurtured with love, patience and green fingers and consumed with gratitude.

St. Michael cornflowers

Of course, this is not just a place to stay for a quiet break; it is a convent, and to stay here is to enter into the life and rhythm of the community. Joining the  Sisters in the Daily Office, sitting with them in silence, is to experience something simple and yet precious and profound. When you step away from the ordinary busy-ness of everyday life it is amazing what grows in the good soil of silence.

St. Michael's cat

This afternoon I spent a couple of hours with a friend, H. Over the years we have happened to be at the convent at the same time, and gradually shared snippets of information over the meals that were not in silence. Last year we became Facebook friends. When I found my place in the chapel yesterday I noticed the name on the chair next to mine, and wondered, could she be here as well? She was, and we decided to go for a walk this afternoon.

So we met at the mulberry tree in the garden at 4pm, went for a walk through Richmond Park and shared a pot of tea at a nursery. We walked back along the Thames and joined the Sisters for the evening Eucharist. After supper we ended up in the garden with one of the Sisters; first, we went to the kitchen garden so H could pick up some cuttings she had left there. Then it was down into the old orchard in search of a small stone cat I had seen every year. Neither the Sister nor H had ever seen it before, which produced in me an irrational fear that it would no longer be there and I would seem a bit loopy. But it was, much to the Sister’s amazement. It was duly rescued from the undergrowth and transported to the top of the garden, from where it will be moved eventually to their new home. Finally we arrived at the old mulberry tree and finding some berries ripe we helped ourselves to a few. It was only later that I realised we had gone ’round and round the mulberry bush’ in search of ripe berries. The faithful old tree has been propped up for years, still producing fruit from the good soil.

While we were walking this afternoon, H asked me how I was feeling about the convent moving, and how I coped with loss. The time I have spent here this year has felt like a bonus. I already said my goodbyes last year, and made my peace with not being able to come here again. That reprieve gave me a chance to come here and spend the time a little differently. I shall miss this place; the chapel and the garden especially. But this visit has shown me also that so much that has made this place special is portable.

The Sisters will make a new home in another place, and in a year or two they will be ready to welcome visitors again. There will be another garden, another chapel, but the same Sisters, the same community, the same rhythms of worship. Just as the atmosphere here has opened our hearts to worship and to one another, just as the community has found good soil here for decades, so they will find more good soil in their new home.

I arrived and will leave here with great gratitude. The good soil I have found here has grown silence and prayer inside me. It has fed me with mulberries and beetroot, damsons, tomatoes and apples. I have had conversations that have grown my faith. I have been blessed with friendships and a feeling of connectedness that I will carry with me when I leave. Good soil, indeed.

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