We'd just arrived back in Italy from a 10-day stay in Israel. We were in Venice, attempting to make reservations to take the overnight sleeper train later in the evening to Paris, when we suddenly found ourselves and our plans– pun only half-heartedly intended– derailed. We were stranded.
In Venice, which shouldn't be so bad. We could have been stranded in the middle of nowhere, where there were only silos and cows and hand-cranked electricity generators or something, instead of a high-profile city filled with good restaurants, hotels, buses, boats, trains, airplanes, and (though somewhat hard to access) wi-fi. It could have been worse. But even though it wasn't worse, it was still bad. Unexpectedly finding yourself stuck somewhere against your will, even if it's only for one night (which it was, for us), even if it ends up bearing positive consequences (which it didn't, for us), is never good.
Also, Venice is fucking *expensive*.
As we sat in the lobby of a random hotel that kindly allowed us to use its wi-fi, we looked up every possible option that would get us– not necessarily to Paris, but just out of Venice. Out of Italy. And at one point, I looked up flight loads out of Rome to Washington. Washington, District of Columbia, United States of America. And the loads looked *good*. We could have been on a plane back to the States in less than 12 hours.
But it wouldn't do. We'd already gotten tickets to and from Wales for the end of the trip, and I didn't want this international trip to be one more item on my list of Things I Didn't Finish. So, long story short– a king's second son's ransom and 24 hours later, we emerged from underground to find ourselves in direct view of the Eiffel Tower.
And Paris turned out to be marvelous. Less the city itself and more the experiences we had residing within its borders for one whole glorious week. The people, the sights, the language, the culture– I loved it all. But mostly the people. (And the bread.)
And as the end of our stay in Paris drew near, I again had to choose– to continue on to Wales, or to fly out of CDG and go home early? Too stubborn and proud to give in to the homesickness I'd been battling for weeks, I chose to continue, and so on to Brussels we went.
Brussels, too, was impossible to regret. It was a day of indulgence– local beers for Noah, gaufres de Liege for me, and fresh chocolates from Leonidas and frites for both of us. Sure, the weather was cold and a little windy, but over time, I'll have forgotten that unimportant fact. But I'll always remember my first waffle there, the first bite, the soft, thick-but-delicate and chewy texture of the sweet bread interspersed with crunches of grainy pearled sugar. I'll always remember the first piece of chocolate we ate– called "Africa", a dark sphere covered with chocolate sprinkles and filled with a thick, fudgy center that had a subtle but distinct orange flavor.
Finally, then, we were bound for Wales. *Wales*. I'd been dreaming of Wales for 15 years. When I was in 5th grade, we were required to read "Over Sea, Under Stone", by Susan Cooper, and I loved it. Two years later, I was perusing my classroom's bookshelves for new Silent Sustained Reading material and chanced upon "The Grey King"… also by Susan Cooper. Thus I discovered the entire "Dark is Rising" sequence, thus I began harboring a deep-burning desire to one day visit Wales and see in person the landscapes that inspired these books.
Yet– the entirety of the trip, my heart hadn't been invested in going to Wales. There'd been instead only some strange sense of duty, of obligation, to use already-paid-for tickets and to see this thing through to the end. The closer we got to Wales, temporally and spatially, the more I felt a wave of panic swelling within me. As we prepared to switch trains in London, I stood on the platform and wheedled to Noah, half-jokingly: "We could just stay here. Skip Wales. Eat banoffee pie and amazing Indian food and go to Tesco for 5 days. We could stay!"
But stay we did not. We boarded the train and were whisked across the Isle of Britain and deposited, two hours later, in Cardiff, amidst cold grey skies and relentless rain. The panic rose even higher, and I couldn't bear it. Cardiff was no fewer than four hours away from the places I wanted to see and six hours away from the person who would be hosting us; armed with these inconveniences (and backed by the mopey weather), I practically begged Noah for us to change our return tickets and go back to London on the next train.
He acquiesced, and soon we were headed back to Paddington Station. The panic dissipated as soon as we'd been issued our new tickets, but has since been replaced by something that tastes a little like regret but is really just sadness laced with disappointment in myself. To turn tail and flee when I was so close to a dream that has persevered for over half my life– am I really such a coward?
Because I know that part of my hesitation was directly linked to how deep my love of these books runs. I have read each book so many times that I know them by heart– chapter, passage, paragraph, line, and word. Every event in every book has played itself out in my head, like little movies that feel to me as real as memories of things I've actually lived through. Having never seen Wales in the flesh, I created my own Wales based on descriptions from the books and pictures from travel guides. I do this with every book that captures me wholly, and it's a large part of why I'm never satisfied when a film version is made and released. ("The Seeker", however, is its own breed of book desecration, and few things entice me to fly into a murderous rage as this movie does.)
Deep down, however, I don't really believe that Wales would have let me down. I *do* believe it would have been beautiful and breathtaking, that the mythology and history of the ancient land– older than old– would have flooded me with awe and appreciation and amazement. As much as I'd raised Wales up in my mind, I feel confident that it hasn't been on a false or faulty pedestal. What, then, in light of these confidences, kept holding me back?
I suspect it was the homesickness, or the complete and utter disinterest in travel that arises after two months of constantly being on-the-go. Wales, both the dream and the reality, deserved better than my weary, indifferent state of mind. I didn't want to relegate the experience to nothing more than a list of places to see and check off; I didn't want to pass the time simply counting down the days and hours until the trip was over and I was free to return home. And that's exactly what would have happened, had we not gone back to London.
Sometimes, though, I wonder if I'm not like the owner of the crystal shop in "The Alchemist". If I'll never visit Wales beyond my daydreams.
For now, I console myself by simply blaming circumstances and timing. One day, I'll see Wales, but I'll do it the right way, in the right order– starting with visiting Cornwall beforehand– and I'll do it with the right heart.