Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Driving on the M4!

OK, so once we got there, our vacation was the bomb. First of all, our son looked fantastic. From the very first morning--well, late morning--when we set out through Venice's narrow maze of streets, I could see how he's grown in his semester abroad. He moves confidently. He tells me, "Mom, I hear five different languages every morning when I'm walking to class," and he also suggests that I should stop harassing the Italians by attempting to speak their language when I really don't. "They all speak English, Mom" he says. He cooks for himself in the narrow galley kitchen of the World's Smallest Seven-Person Flat, in which he lives, and he knows all the buskers in Trafalgar Square, including the odd proliferation of Yodas, whom he dislikes, with excellent reason as they're creepy.

His classroom building, in London, really is half a block off Trafalgar Square. I'd been told that, but I hadn't really realized how much it put him right into the heart of the city. His dormitory building was a former hospital, and the outside of it looked so much like the hospital I write about in Ada's sequel (now officially titled The War I Finally Won) that I felt I'd been there before. (His university, Notre Dame, owns both buildings. They send 140 students a semester to London, and are expanding the program to take more.)  I took a great photo of him next to the "Notre Dame in London" sign outside the classroom building, but he forbade me to put it on the internet. Nearly all the photos I took in London I've been forbidden to put on the internet, not because they are scandalous, but because my children disliked my taking them.

Anyhow. Way back, when we were first planning the trip, I'd gone online on a fluke and discovered that they had just opened the ticket sales for our week for Highclere Castle. Highclere is two things: it's Downton Abbey, and it's the seat of the Earls of Carnarvon, the fifth of whom plays a major role in my next book. So going there was both fandom and research, a lovely co-ordinance. My husband, learning that our son had a break on Wednesday long enough to have lunch with him, bailed on the trip to Highclere (Downton Abbey doesn't impress him, and he knows that hanging out with me on research trips, in which I tend to fall into a book trance, isn't all that fun), which meant it would just be my daughter and me. Now, it is possible to get to Highclere from London by train and taxi. I checked. It is, however, quite an enormous time-consuming pain in the arse, particularly given that we had a rental car (we didn't drive it around London--we're not nuts--but we needed it for the last days of our trip, which we spent on our favorite part of the English coast). However. I have said here before that I don't love highway driving. In fact, I used to hate it, with decent reason. To get to Highclere from London (about 50 miles) I would have to drive on the opposite side of the road from America AND I would have to handle London traffic AND I would have to drive on the M4.

M roads in London are interstate highways.

Now, I've done a fair bit of driving on the left. We've traveled several times to Ireland, Scotland, and England. The very first time I drove, when the children were tiny, I moved the car about 200 yards straight along a dirt road and called it quits, but later I grew substantially more brave. In 2012, when I was researching TWTSML, I drove our rental car all over the back roads of Kent, getting perfectly lost and finding Ada's spy hill by glorious accident. I refused, however, to drive on an M road. I wasn't going to do it.

Lately, though, I've been doing all the things. I drove my rig back and forth to Florida this year, coming home alone late at night through Sam's Gap. How much harder could the M4 to Downton be?
I was moderately terrified but ready to give it a whirl. Fortunately, I had my daughter as sidekick. She murmured soothing noises and helpful hints--"Stay to the left, Mom,"--"Let this guy pass you--he can honk if he wants to--careful, we need to turn--left side, left side--good! Look at you!" Before I knew it--well, not really, it took about an hour--we'd escaped the busy streets of London and I was DRIVING ON THE M4.

I was so happy with my accomplishment that I made up a song:
We are driving on the M4!
Driving on the M4!
Driving on the M4!

I sang several refrains of this. I felt glorious. I felt like I could do anything. Then we got to Downton  Highclere and I learned a few things that helped iron out the issues I was having with the start of my book, and my daughter and I ate tea and scones, and then I drove back to London where my husband was trying hard not to show how relieved he was that I'd survived and my son was eager for dinner, and we went out and had a fabulous family meal, and it was a great day, a perfectly wonderful day for the smallest of reasons, which was fine.