She set off on a solo trip to visit her daughter in England. But the anxious traveler soon realized she was never really alone.
Posted in , Feb 25, 2022
The hour drive from our home to the Newark, New Jersey, airport was only the first leg of a long journey ahead. My husband, Michael, was behind the wheel, but I couldn’t relax. Once he dropped me off, I would be traveling to England to visit our daughter on my own. I peppered Michael with questions about the trip.
“It’s not the nine-hour flight that worries me,” I said. “It’s finding my way once I land.” Getting to my daughters in Bath involved every form of ground transportation—a bus, a train, even a short walk.
“There will be people around to help,” Michael said patiently. “I know you’ll be fine.”
Easy for him to say. I could get turned around just driving about our small city in eastern Pennsylvania. Directions were not my strong suit. But our daughter Whitney was spending a semester of college in Bath, England. When she’d called a couple weeks ago complaining about a sore throat, she was crying. “I can hardly swallow,” she said. “Mom, I’m miserable.”
“I’m going to come take care of you,” I said, surprising myself. We didn’t have the resources to buy two plane tickets to England, especially last minute. But one ticket, for me, was doable, and my daughter needed me. We had an acquaintance, Graham, who lived in London and gave solid advice. He’d explained that I should fly into Gatwick and take a bus to the train station, where I’d find a connection to Bath. Best of all, Graham offered to meet me at Gatwick and escort me through the airport himself.
At Newark, Michael hugged me tightly as we said goodbye. “Don’t let your travel anxiety ruin your trip,” he said.
I was looking forward to seeing Bath, where my favorite author, Jane Austen, had lived for a time. I pictured a quaint village right out of Persuasion. Whitney had told me that the yellow house she was staying in was only a short walk from the train station. On the same street, in fact. But nothing seemed easy when it came to finding my way. Michael sent me off with his assurances. “And give my best to Graham,” he said.
I boarded the plane for my direct flight, a big wide-bodied airliner. The seat was comfortable, but I was still uneasy. What if Graham is delayed and can’t meet me at the airport after all? I wondered. How will I ever find my bus then? I didn’t sleep a wink on the flight.
When the plane landed at Gatwick I’d been awake 24 hours. Fortunately, I spotted Graham right away at the baggage claim. At six foot four he towered over the crowd. He gave me a bear hug and traded me a bottle of water for my rolling suitcase. His warmth refreshed me as much as the water he’d thought to bring. “I can’t thank you enough for going to all this trouble,” I said.
“Happy to help, but we should hurry to catch that bus.” Graham strode confidently through the terminal. It was all I could do to keep up with him. He easily located my bus and loaded my luggage. I hopped on with a wave to my escort.
A few stops later I was at the train station. I hurried to the ticket window. “Your train leaves in five minutes,” the agent said. “Perfect timing.”
I hustled and was out of breath when I boarded. I sank into my seat and noticed the older woman sitting beside me. She smiled, her face kindly, like a grandmother. Something about her made me pour out my story. She listened intently, and it helped to unburden myself of my worries until the conductor came by. In my hurry I’d dropped my ticket into my purse, and now I couldn’t put my hands on it. “It’s all right, dear,” my seatmate said. “You’ll find it.”
The conductor waited patiently while I fished out the ticket. The woman beside me patted my hand. “Everything will work out, you’ll see,” she said. “Just have faith.”
The train pulled into Bath, and I squeezed the woman’s hand in thanks as I got up. I made my way out of the station. Whitney had assured me there was no chance of getting lost at this point. “Just look for a yellow house on the same road as the station,” she’d said. “You can’t miss it.” I had the street number just in case. But Bath wasn’t exactly the quaint village I’d pictured. Cars roared past me. I was numb with fatigue. Step by step I urged my legs forward, rolling my suitcase behind me. Lord, I know I’m so close. Don’t let me mess up now. I looked to my left. A cheery yellow house greeted me. Could I have found it this easily?
A college-aged woman opened the door as if on cue. “Are you Whitney’s mother?” she called as she skipped down the steps. Before I could reply Whitney came striding toward us on the sidewalk, her arms outstretched. She’d just come from the doctor, who’d put her on a course of antibiotics.
“I feel better already,” Whitney said, “just having you here.” The girls took me to their room on the third floor. They shared the house with a half dozen other American students, who all poked their heads in to say hello. I tried to keep up with all the chatter, but my eyelids felt like lead weights. In minutes I lay on the bed asleep.
I’d made reservations for five days in a boarding house just up the hill from Whitney’s. Every morning I got up and headed to the yellow house. I made pancakes for breakfast and a big pot of chicken soup, enough for all the girls. We spent evenings sitting around the common area while they talked about their families in the States. I sensed some homesickness, and felt happy to be a temporary substitute mom. Mostly, of course, I doted on Whitney and busied myself while she kept up with her schoolwork. While Bath was no longer the quaint village of Jane Austen’s novels, I was won over by its charms and enjoyed my neighborhood walks without once getting lost. One afternoon I even ventured out to the Jane Austen museum, where I was transported to a world that felt pleasantly familiar. What a blessing my trip turned out to be. And by the time I had to pack up to leave, Whitney was almost completely recovered.
I didn’t sleep well the night before my departure. Although I’d savored every minute of my stay, I was once again distracted by the travails of getting home. Graham wouldn’t be waiting at Gatwick Airport this time. And I had a new hurdle: I had to change planes in Frankfurt, Germany. “You made it here, Mom, and you’ll make it home,” Whitney said when she saw me off at the train station. “Trust God. That’s what you always tell me.”
The train ride was easy enough, but disembarking I had no idea where to find the bus to Gatwick Airport. I was swept up in a sea of people. Panicking, I asked directions from a man beside me. “I’m going that way,” he said. “Follow me.” He never broke stride but kept an eye on me while we traversed the depot. “There it is,” he said, pointing as we reached the bus. With a nod he vanished into the crowd.
I arrived at Gatwick with plenty of time to spare, and boarded my plane without a hitch. But when we landed in Frankfurt the German signs were a complication. I asked a man for directions, but he spoke no English. I showed him my ticket, hoping he’d understand. It worked! He gestured for me to follow him and helped me reach the right terminal. “Danke!”
I was never so happy to board a plane. I sat down in my seat with a sigh of relief—and a lot to tell Michael on our drive home. I’d been worried about traveling alone, but the string of kindnesses I’d received coming and going seemed to say I never really was. God had thought of everything when he put some of his angels right here on earth.
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