You don’t go on a two-week summer bus tour to find romance. It’s for renewal, change of scene, new accents, in this instance to breathe fresh air in the Lake Country, peer out in awe over Bronte’s moor, stand in respect of Wordsworth, Scott, Stevenson, Shakespeare–ogle Edinburgh Castle, photograph Yorkminster, sample twenty-one-year-old Glenlivet scotch.
Romance is in novels. Romance would be a bonus.
Here’s a bit about myself: I’m past my prime in a chronological sense, pushing sixty, yet vigorous, athletic, and only mildly arthritic in my lower back, divorced fifteen years and reconciled to living alone. As reconciled as one can be when it is second choice.
At home, I’ve muzzled my way into three promising relationships, all, alas, falling under the weight of geography or gaps in life achievement. Well, one, the last, was also a compatibility issue and the first time I was the leaver.
So, I take this journey with a constant purpose: that it is a replenishment tour and not a relationship quest. I must mind my focus, must shelve my unremitting pursuit of a feminine connection.
Of the thirty-three on our Cosmos Tourama Coach, eight are Aussies, four Kiwis, four Israelis, and the rest American, though one, Valya, is a transplanted Russian living in San Francisco.
Charles, our tour guide, greets us with jokes attributed to the wit of Sir Winston Churchill (doing the accent perfectly), tales of the ruthless torching of Anglican priests by Henry the Eighth’s daughter, Mary (of bloody Mary renown), and a smattering of little-known English folklore.
We were to cross antiquated bridges, wander through fifteenth century cobblestone streets, and absorb collisions of culture against culture.
Twenty on our coach are paired off, traveling together, thirteen traveling alone but sharing rooms, except for two single women, both widows, and me. It’s worth the extra cost for me to have my privacy, though I wonder how they would have paired me off with someone anyway, since I’m the only single man.
Inger, from Queensland, is a walker and anorexic. At least I assess her that way. One morning, before boarding our coach, Charles says to her, “Inger, you have as much meat on you as a butcher’s pencil.”
I agree with him. She eats no red meat, doesn’t like eggs, and drinks diet coke in the morning and at night before she sleeps. At six, she is up and walking, whether in a Lake District village like Wordsworth’s Grasmere, or in a seedy center-city such as Liverpool or Leeds. At night, after we check in and eat in a hotel dining room, she takes off hiking. She is fearless. I decide to join her in Plymouth and Glasgow. I like Inger.
She is sometimes hard to understand, even for the English or Scotts, her rural Australian dialect twangy, flat and r-less. She teaches third grade at home. I wonder if her pupils talk the same way. I say “what?” a lot when she speaks to me, and she patiently re-states more slowly, and enunciates more carefully. She is fresh and wispy. She is thirty-four. Never married.
Pam comes on to me. I know I’m not imagining it. It’s her ‘in your face’ manner. She is a widow, is verbally blunt, though assiduously avoids eye contact. She looks trim and healthy, not pretty, not warm. I spend several minutes gauging her style and, at the Burrell Museum in Glasgow, in front of Renoir’s Woman With Auburn Hair, she tells me a detailed dream and asks me for an interpretation. I tell her I’m not that kind of psychologist: I don’t analyze dreams.
That’s it with Pam. She doesn’t “see” me anymore, and now that I’m a disappointment I don’t exist. No big loss for me.
At a rest stop by Loch Ness next to a pond where some entrepreneur has constructed a green plastic monster, Gwen, from Philadelphia strikes up a conversation. I have a sister in Pennsylvania.
Gwen is single, forty-five, bright, overweight. We gab for a few minutes and make a small connection.
We have dinner in the venerable, rosy-warm, mahogany-paneled dining room of the Hotel Boat in the Scottish Highlands. Gwen sits across from me; she asks many questions but does not wait for answers. It’s her way of saying “Let me tell you what I know.” She knows a lot. She is friendly but has little interest in hearing me.
I decide not to hang out with Gwen. Like the frothy water in the River Dee at Balmoral in the Highlands, it all goes one way.
At Edinburgh Castle I find myself next to Judie from New Zealand, both of us ducking under low-slung archways (Were people much smaller then?), hearing the pitch about Mary, Queen of Scots, her husband, and her supposed lover who was murdered in her chambers. Judie is recently widowed and has taken this journey to help herself move on and, as the Bard once wrote, “,,so beguile thy sorrow.” But, alas, Judie is a monument to melancholy.
I kind of like her but she pulls me down. And Judie smokes.
I enjoy Sarah. Why not? She has a twenty-two-year-old body, a pretty face, and curiosity. Irrationally, she is afraid of the tube in London. She shops at every stop, mainly for her three brothers, the youngest only twelve.
On the bus amplifier, Charles loves to roast her publicly about her compulsion, suggesting we’ll need extratime at major shopping breaks such as Chester, or York, or Windsor.
Sarah recently broke off a three-year relationship and is still in a blue funk over the loss. At dinner, in the Crown and Mitre Hotel in Carlisle, after Inger had left for her walk, Sarah tells me about Phillip, his unsavory behavior, and her unfortunate addiction to him. I am, for the moment, Sarah’s therapist. I could be her father.
I do get some pleasure in the roles, but then I am on holiday, and she is a child, and is from Australia.
The Israelis stick together. The mother and daughter are forty and twenty, the other couple are boyfriend and girlfriend and just past twenty. Actually, the two pairs met on the tour. The mother, Mya, has strong political beliefs, and at breakfast in Cardiff tells me that she knew they could make peace with Jordan because there was no territory involved. Syria, she worries, is different. Mya is dark, small, and attractive, and married.
Her husband is a financier in Tel Aviv. Curiously, she and her daughter, and the other couple eat mostly pizza when we are on our own.
Valya, the Russian now living in San Francisco, complains to me–while we are photographing the watery steps in Plymouth from where the Pilgrims departed–about California’s terrible immigrant problem. All those illegals coming across the Mexican border, she insists, are at the core of the state’s financial woes. I catch a strong authoritarian bent; individuals are at fault, regardless of their life circumstances. I feel far away from such controversy, far away from home. I feel far away from her. After all, she is also an immigrant. She looks into her little compact mirror a lot, and paints under her eyes and brows until they are black. She rooms with Gwen who doesn’t listen. The perfect pair. Valya and I have little to say to each other after that one encounter.
York is a charming old city, where according to Charles some of the buildings date back to the sixteenth century, and are built out over cobblestone streets, closer together at the second story than the first. This because there were no sewers or trash depositories and people tossed their garbage out of upstairs windows onto the center of the stone roads below. Only fools walked in the middle of the road.
It is in York where I have a pleasant talk with Janis from Colorado. She is a retired librarian, retired early I’m sure since she doesn’t look more than fifty. Her face shows lines of wear but, like the city we are in, a venerable beauty remains. Her eyes have an almond shape and are lake blue, hair is a gray cap cut short in back and banged over her forehead. She is the most striking-looking woman on the tour. Her traveling companion is a woman friend from Denver, younger, still working, and on vacation. They were co-workers for several years until Janis’ recent retirement.
In our conversation, Janis describes the grueling, boring motor trip she will take at Christmas time to visit her daughter and grandchild in Boise. “Alone?” I ask.
“Oh no,” she replies. “On that one my husband will go along. It’s this trip he balked at, telling me to have a good time, telling me to go with Andrea.”
Alas and forsooth, Janis is married. Nice lady, I think, and she seems to like me too.
Our tour coach motors into Stratford Upon Avon, and we spend two hours there on our own. I see Shakespeare’s birth cottage, the Holy Trinity Church where his bones lie, and the impressive new theaters at the river’s edge, where his genius is regularly displayed.
By chance, I have lunch with Estelle, another Australian woman with a large body and brash manner, who sees me in a pub and asks if she can join me. Of course, I say, though it means closing my mind to my thoughts and opening it to her domestic chatter, where I learn about her four children and their misadventures.
I don’t know about Estelle’s husband. She doesn’t mention him and I don’t ask.
Estelle has regularly raised Charles’ ire by being the last person to board our bus, often late at our tea and lunch stops. She does not seem to be aware of her trespasses.
Our final day is highlighted by a visit to Windsor Castle in Berkshire. I like the town, but by now am a bit overdone with castles and cathedrals. Perhaps it is something in my personality that I lose interest too quickly.
Estelle is late returning to the bus.
Valya stares at Estelle and mutters softly, “Pig.” I’m sitting close enough to hear.
Janis catches my eyes with her almond blue ones, and we smile.
Mya points and says something to her daughter in Hebrew.
Sarah is holding up a hand-decorated Christmas stocking she bought for a brother.
Judie frowns and holds back tears.
Gwen has her head halfway out the window, staring at Windsor Castle.
Pam is staring at the floor.
And Inger is standing near the rear of the bus, tapping her foot, impatient.
At the end of our travels, we disembark at our headquarters hotel, and people fan out like the roadways leaving English roundabouts.
I say to myself softy, “This tour was not to find romance but to experience a change of scene, new tastes, a breath of fresh air. From The Lake Country to Scotland to Shakespeare’s village to Windsor Castle, I am enriched, I am renewed. Ah, yes, life is delicious.
Inger has been my best friend for the two weeks. She heads for a bed and breakfast spot in Paddington. She does not say goodbye. Neither does anyone else.