Friday, March 21, 2008

Where Were You When...

In September of 1988, I spent my twenty first birthday on a flight to England.

I was on my way to study abroad for a year, leaving my family and a serious boyfriend behind.

Despite being scared, I bravely set off... for the glamor, the dream...Europe!

I was
immediately made acutely aware of my obviousness as a foreigner.

[And I mean foreigner in the "does not fit in at all" sense, not the "Wow! Isn't she exotic and exciting?!" sense.]

First, my clothes were all wrong.

[The good people of The Tea Sipping Land were blinded by the sheer brightness of my fashunz.]

Second, my accent was a liability.

When a Brit comes to the U.S. their accent makes them an instant celebrity.

“Like, OMG! Say something!” we swoon. “We just LOVE your accent!!”

It was the opposite for me.

“Oh, you’re American,” they’d say glancing around for a more promising conversation.

Third, I was way. too. loud. (and dorky).

Walking home one day, I saw my flatmate in our kitchen window.

When I arrived at our door, I kicked it open, closed my eyes, jumped in the room and, both trying to amuse her and fit in with the Yorkshire crowd, yelled, "A-UP, LUV!" at top volume.

Then I did a silly dance with booty-shakin' goodness.

I opened my eyes to see that she had her entire study group (including her professor) visiting for tea and scones.

My flatmate was mortified.

She turned to her classmates and, in a voice filled with disdain, said,

"Don't mind her, she's American."

In all honesty, I was incredibly lonely my first few months in England.

As the Christmas holiday approached, I grew increasingly homesick but I was embarrassed to ask my parents for an airline ticket home.

I worried that my parents would interpret my homesickness as a weakness.

I would never have been able to maintain my resolve to tough it out were it not for my friend Matthew and his family.

A few summers earlier I worked as a camp counselor in Maine where I met Matthew who worked at the camp on a Bunac visa.

Later that year,
on his jaunt around the U.S., Matthew took a long break in my college town and during that period we lived together as roommates and became close friends.

Matthew’s home town in England was a short train ride from my study abroad campus and, thankfully, his parents (his wonderful, gracious parents) adopted me.

They asked me to spend that lonely, English Christmas at their house.

Their invitation was the single thread that held me steady and kept me from begging my parents for a ticket home.

In the end, their hospitality was worth far more than my reputation as a strong and independent daughter.

Had I traveled home that Christmas, I would most likely have held a ticket on Pan Am flight 103, the plane that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21, 1988.


This post was written as part of Catherine and Tracey’s “Where were you when…” writing prompt.
Our parents' generation can recall exactly what they were doing when JFK was shot - a cultural moment that defined a generation. What big cultural or historic event occurred during your childhood/youth that you recall clearly? What was its impact on you?"

Feel free to join in and write a post on this theme. All you are asked to do is copy the list of participants and add it to the bottom of your post -- and don't forget to add yourself!

For more posts on the
Where were you when…” theme...
Her Bad Mother
Mrs. Flinger
Oh, The Joys
Somewhere In The Suburbs
The Bean Blog
The Super Bongo


LadyBugCrossing said...

I know how you feel. There was an Iberia plane crash in Boston in December of 1973. My family and I were supposed to be on that flight, but we came in a day early because my dad had a meeting.

I think God had other plans for me and for you.

kristen said...

This was really moving - I feel this way about 9/11, I can describe everything we did that morning to a T.

blue milk said...

Loved this post, so tightly written, so unpredictable. And deeply unsettling.

Karen said...

We lived in England at the time. My friend, whose father re-booked them on the flight so that they could home for the holidays one day earlier, was on board.

Jenifer said...

Chills J, I have chills. Fate stepped in his name was Matthew.

Kyla said...

Wow. I'm glad you didn't end up on that plane.

(I was in Kindergarten then.)

The Sour Kraut said...

When The Swede and I traveled to London in 1991, I walked around in my blue mirrored sunglasses and shocking yellow coat. A car pulled over to the side of the road and yelled out, "What part of America are you from?" I didn't even realize we were being mocked.

So glad your friend's parents took you in for the holiday. That's eerie.

sweetney said...

oh man, talk about dodgin a bullet.

so glad you're here, lady!

WILLIAM said...

Very cool Idea for a post and a very interesting story.

So if in 1988 you were 21 that means now are what 38...Again.

bzybead said...

jess- I don't remember the story of you barging in on the flatmate. Which one was it? Hopefully Granny. . . that year was the beginning of finding out what we are really made of. Like you thank the Bells, I thank the Perkins for making me feel like such a part of their family. I miss Emma.

Imagine if we had just remained sober. . . going back to that 40 year old mind, 20 year old body . . . we would have been more confident, I would have attended a wedding in India and just tried so much less to fit into a mold. I think more importantly, I would have been less loud.

love ya sister.

Anonymous said...

oh my goodness, I never realized that. I'm sure I wanted you home very much. Thank goodness we did not insist you come home! Love, Mom

mimikatemom said...


furiousBall said...

I've never traveled across any oceans, but I do have a similar story. My father was in the air when the Russians shot down a JAL flight. But it was a different flight.

Ok, Where Was I? said...


But that first part--so funny. All those ways Americans aren't just loved and swooned over.

Deb said...

Ooohhh... that gave me chills.

whoorl said...

Thank God for Matthew!

Sarah, Goon Squad Sarah said...


Just. Wow.

Hol&J said...

Wow. So glad you were "adopted" in England. What a Christmas blessing.

Ann M. said...

It is amazing how the decisions we make seem small, and then we can see the ripples and what could have been had we chosen another path.

Thanks for sharing this post.

Aimee said...

it made me cry that you didn't fit in and that you were adopted. :] what a sweet family.

Ruth Dynamite said...

Gave me chills.

JaniceNW said...

Wow. The greater being had other plans for you. I was giving birth to my oldest round then. :)

Amanda said...

I've been the Where's Waldo american, too. In '91 probably still today) women over there did NOT wear tennis shoes for anything but exercise, which also seemed to be something they didn't really do as it involved sweating. I wore my tennies non-stop and when I ran I unaplogetically hocked loogies. Classy with K, dat's me.

Loralee Choate said...

I heart the UK and never encountered anyone who was rude to me because I was an American, but who knows, maybe there was all sorts of rudeness going on in their heads.

That would make me profoundly sad.

I am glad that you had that life line in Matthew's family. Sometimes one person can make ALL the difference, as you have clearly illustrated.

the mama bird diaries said...

A chill just went through my whole body..

when i was in spain in 1991, i immediately noticed that only americans wore big sneakers with big white socks.

QT said...

Wow, J - amazing story. And I am glad you found a home for Christmas. Those are some good peeps.

Her Bad Mother said...



Dana said...

That gave me chills. Incredible.

Magpie said...

Oh. Shiver.

So glad Matthew's family took you in.

Laura said...

FATE...and personal choice - together make us - what a story! Thanks for sharing!

urban-urchin said...

I was going the other direction from the US to England to go home for Christmas at that time. I sat next to a young guy who was very cool and unfortunately was on the Pan Am flight that crashed over Lockerbie. What a horrible time.

Thank God for Matthew's parents- they may have saved your life.

Rima said...

I arrived in Paris during the fall of '93 for my junior year abroad wearing pegged jeans. It was a long junior year abroad.

Anonymous said...

Holy moly.

That just shows you how your life can totally change from the simplest decisions.

Thank goodness for you friend and his family.

Kelley said...

Holy shit.

(yeah, I know everyone else refrained from swearing, but honestly it was a toned down version of what I did say)

Sorry to say that the same thing happens here with Americans. Unless they are big strong black basketballers without their shirt on... *swoon* (son's teachers husband)

Law Student Hot Mama said...

Wild post! It's like my friend who got laid off at his World Trade Center job the week of September 4 instead of the week of September 11.

JCK said...

Fate stepped in the form of Matthew. It sounds like you had a lovely Christmas, despite the loneliness.

I arrived in Dover, NJ in 1975, after having lived overseas for 4 1/2 years wearing knee length pleated skirts and knee socks. I kind of stood out...amongst the pucca shells, jeans and polyester shirts.

Grim Reality Girl said...

I'm so glad you didn't go home. How nice that your mom can still comment on your blog. Life has strange blessings... the bullets we dodge often change our lives....

mamatulip said...

Wow. Incredible post.

Mrs. Flinger said...

Amazing. I got chills. I'm so glad you stayed.

Janet said...

Incredible post. I loved the way you told that story. And, phew, right?

Beck said...

Yikes. I caught my breath at the very end - luck is sometimes this precarious, startling thing.

Jan said...

That is quite a story. I love hearing this stuff. I'm of your parent's generation, and yes, I can tell you where I was when JFK was shot, and when I heard about 9/11.

Lisa said...

OH my gosh, that just gave me goosebumps. Am so thankful you didn't get on that flight. What would be do without you?!?

BOSSY said...

Ohhhhhhhh, Joyyyyyyyyyyys. Thank goodness for your British pal. Bossy (and thousands & thousands just like her) need you in this life. Like, tremendously.

thordora said...

Man. Everytime i travel to the states, when a coworker introduces me around it's

"She's a ca-na-di-an." like everyone is slow and hard of hearing.

Funny. That flight exploding is the same time I first came into the world in terms of being concious of a world. I hated that moment.

carrie said...

Oh my goodness. The near misses, the almosts . . . thinking about the what if's takes the breath right out of me.

Like the other night, my son and I were on our way home from his check-up and we stopped to buy a pie for dessert (knowing that my husband was waiting for us and getting ansy, we did it anyway). On the way home, there was a horrible accident - street blocked, ALL emergency vechicles there, HORRIBLE.

Had we not stopped for pie, I fear that we would have been in the middle of the entire thing.

cce said...

Dang, there by the grace of some greater being go all of us.
I'm definitely going to have to think about this post for awhile. Not sure I have anything as profoundly earth shattering that I've avoided. But maybe I'm just not thinking hard enough.

Cathy said...

My family and I had just arrived in London when that plane went down. I remember reading & watching all of the coverage. Awful.

Elaine A. said...

Whoa! I totally got chills and had to read that last part again! You obviously weren't meant to be on that flight for many reasons...

Mimi aka pz5wjj said...

Oh how chilling! Thankfully, you were safe with Matthew's family!

I totally understand the feeling of trying to fit in in England. One day one of my work colleagues got off the phone with a counterpart in the U.S. and was complaining about the "Bloody Americans" to the rest of us (I was the only American). I said, "Hey!" And she said, "Oh, you don't count, you fit in!" I knew I was accepted at that point.