This essay also appeared on GMA News Online
An extended travelogue on Stratford-upon-Avon was also published on Subselfie.com
I used to think that England could no longer surprise me. I lived there for a year in 2003 and have been coming back every two years since. It’s a visa requirement that I fulfill to be able to keep coming back—maybe someday, permanently.
I’ve made the rounds of all the tour spots in London. In 2012, I went to visit the Harry Potter Warner Bros studios in Leavesden, downing one cup of butterbeer after the other. I thought I’d gotten the most out of England.
Unless of course if you need it for more than just visa renewal. To mend a broken heart, for example.
You start by hopping on a train. There is nothing more efficient in this world than the London Underground. Fifteen different lines in the tube that meet somewhere, somehow. Every time I take it I feel that there is no place I cannot go to and every sliding door I either miss or make is another possibility.
If I take the Jubilee line, I might pass upon a street musician singing Elton John, in a way that would stop you no matter how busy the tube is. You simply could not ignore a voice in the tube, preserved in all its glory. And if you miss your train, so what. Hop on to another; you could meet a blonde little girl shouting “Freddie! Freddie! Freddie!” who I thought was her brother but who turned out to be a playmate and obviously her crush: “Freddieeee! You could take the seat next to mine, I don’t mind.”
Except she wasn’t offering an actual seat, she had taken a tiny space by the door where standing passengers could lean into. But she fit just right in, with a space for Freddie. I watched them squeeze their little bodies, their skinny legs entangling and I just knew that in the complex definition of love, the moment unfolding in front of me fit in there somehow.
Switching lines is also easy. You could take the Victoria line to get to Oxford Circus just in time for a guy who looks like he’s Middle Eastern chancing for a free seat at a coffee shop just as you are.
“It’s a good day!”
“It really is.”
“I’m meeting my friend and he’s the worst person to meet, I don’t even know where I am!”
“I dont know where we are, too.”
He turned out to be from Manchester and while we seemed to be lost, London is never a place to be lost in. There are infinite opportunities to find your way.
Guides come in many forms. It can be the London Eye, visible no matter where you look up in the sky at the Blackfriars. Or the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral that peeps in at every turn of the corner, serving as a reminder that you could walk and wander to your heart’s desire but you will never go too far to be lost.
It could also come in the form of the River Thames; just follow the path and stop by the magnificent places along its way.
For example, the Tate Modern Museum that’s free of charge. There is no cost to see the works of Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso face to face.
Some art pieces were distant, but some can speak to the furthest corner of your heart. I had a person in mind while roaming the sprawling galleries. “He would appreciate all this artsy stuff,” I thought, for a little too long. Mercifully, I reached Rachel Harrison’s installation of colorful blocks, climbing shoes, and a protective barrier, all transported from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
I stood there for two minutes looking at it, not really sure if I quite got it—but in a way, in my own sense and experience, I do. It told me: keep moving.
And so I did, until I’d soaked up all the art I can for a day. The sun when we came out was glorious, like London telling me it was on my side. There were street entertainers. One was a man with a typewriter and a sign that said “Poet for hire,” like it came straight out of that scene in “Before Sunrise.”
I wanted to give it a go, but how could I let a stranger compose my poetry? I wanted the privilege for myself.
Further along the street is the Globe Theatre, where William Shakespeare first staged Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear.
And if you walk a little bit more, you’d reach the Borough Market that smells of the world, if you could imagine that. Spices from India, cheese from Scotland, and everything from everywhere.
A convergence of sorts that was similar to Camden Lock, trains away from the City. It is the ukay-ukay of London, an Asian girl’s dreams come true. Artists bring their work there to sell: wooden wall markers that say “Hogwarts” or a reinvention of Banksy’s street art that is fit for the room I had pegged for a personal gallery. The vendors there come from all over the world: France, Morocco, China, India, Mexico, all ending up at Camden Lock like it’s exactly where they were born to be.
Still, you have to keep moving. Hop on another train to Notting Hill, to the hustle and bustle of Portobello Market, now famous thanks to Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant’s blockbuster. The Notting Hill shop shown in the movie was still there, too, albeit missing the “g.”
My sister was able to score cheap finds such as a hat and a wind-up film camera she haggled for £13 from an old Armenian man.
I was just a girl, standing in the middle of Portobello, not asking a boy for anything. I was experiencing this amazing bite of the world; you do not ask for love here, you find it, take it, or better yet, create it.
It would be a shame not to try. Because the English did. Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Barrett Browning and the Brontes created love here.
The Chinese poet Xu Zhimo came to Cambridge to create love, and immortalized it forever and for always—his words forever etched for the generations who come to see the captivating river Cam and its enchanting bridges, surrounded by the architectural masterpieces of its world-famous University.
Just so a girl like me from the Southeast can also see it for herself, with the bonus of listening to a strikingly handsome half-British, half-Italian man recite one of his poems, better grasped with a cup of British beer, sold by another handsome man from another moving punt.
Where better to understand love than the birthplace of the greatest writer of all time, William Shakespeare? Stratford-upon-Avon is made up of poetry. It is a dainty little town in Warwickshire by the River Avon. I had to convince my sister to drive 130 miles from Hertfordshire where we live, just to see where the great playwright lived, loved and died.The estate is preserved by the Shakespeare Trust. You are greeted by the garden’s burst of color, then ushered through a tiny, wooden door to a room where a lady in Victorian clothing will welcome you. She told us that 60 percent of the house is original; the wall panels have remained intact and the floors just needed refurnishing. She said: “Think of it as standing where Shakespeare stood.”
You could see the busy streets from the windows, not concealing anything, not even the tiniest detail of the streak of the sun, or the glint of a passerby’s eyes, and certainly not the joy you will feel just standing there.
Now I’m not the most deserving person to be there. I was just a girl who schemed through the abridgment of his works during Freshman Literature. But I still wound up standing where he stood; I still wound up at the foot of his grave to honor his memory. That moment may not be the most touching of stories, but it is still my story. It’s a story of love, and loss, and in such moments you realize the Universe can be kind to you, sometimes in the most poetic way.
The Universe gave me England, the opportunity to live vicariously through the world’s best wordsmith, to do my thinking in such a wondrous place, with a rich backstory, guided by words that have proven eternal.
Not to undermine our local county of Hertfordshire. Granted, there’s not much to see there but vast fields of green, but that’s not to say it’s not as equally captivating. It wouldn’t be the setting of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice if it’s not. It’s also the setting of the first pages of a Nick Hornby novel that I’ve now gotten rid of.
To find the countryside peaceful and healing tells me I’ve grown so much in the last 11 years, when I lived there as an angsty pre-teen who thought she carried the world on her shoulders.
Every corner I turn to, there was my 11 year old self with whatever pain she’s bearing — the roundabout near my house I ran away to one forsaken night at home, the bus stop near the local hospital where I froze waiting for a bus one day during the winter because I didn’t want to be fetched — all of them disappear as we drive by. I am so much better now and I like how I turned out.
I just needed some time to detach.
England is detached, too, geographically. It is separated by a body of water from the rest of Europe. I’d like to think of it as the world letting England be, to decide and discern all by itself.
In the past, I had thought of England as a somber place. Houses made up of bricks and stones provide a darker hue to a place already covered by a sullen sky, a sky that always looks ready to let rain fall out.
Except during God-given sunny days, England is still that. Its colors are always saturated three levels too high and unlike almost all countries in Asia especially the Philippines, there is a demand for silence.
Almost like being a fortress of solitude, it’s something I used to despise but now love. I find it comfortable even.
And finally it hit me, the formula to mending a broken heart is the same formula to loving England: you forgive its misgivings, appreciate the rest of the good things — keep moving, and know that it always, always gets better.