Storming the Castle: A Romantic Tale

Ah, Valentine’s Day… love it or hate it, one can hardly escape reminders of romance—from paper hearts strung in store windows to bed-time stories about Fluffy the guinea pig’s Valentine’s day adventure with Kiss (a favorite of my niece and nephew).

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I am currently inhabiting a U.S. mountain city rumored to be so well stocked with eligible bachelors that its nickname is “Men-ver.” And yet, am I out meeting beaus? No. It is on my to-do list, but today I am preoccupied sorting travel photos and planning my next big adventure. Thematically, though, I am also thinking back to the first time cupid struck on the road.

I was a sophomore in college, and my wanderlust, which had first been ignited on annual family vacations, had grown so much I was itching to see new parts of the world. I signed up for a study-abroad semester at a small college in Canterbury, England with a dorm-mate and close friend, Chic.

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England seemed a safe and easy choice for my first international foray. I was relieved that I wouldn’t need to learn a foreign language, although a few Brits would later suggest that I wasn’t speaking proper English. (Whatevs.) I also already had an affinity for some aspects of British culture, like its rich literary history. I was eager to immerse myself in the land that gave us dramatic masterpieces where women in flowing gowns ran across sweeping moors in tragic lovesick states.

I was also excited about meeting my contemporaries across the sea. I envisioned studying epic romantic tales in a classroom full of handsome British men with sexy accents.

Of course, reality often knocks expectation on its presumptuous rear, and so it was on my first U.K. adventure. The program was poorly organized, and rather than integrating U.S. students into the existing curriculum, the school created separate classes for us. Socially, we felt just as isolated because the British students seemed generally disinterested in engaging with their American peers.

So, we formed our own cliques, and Chic and I quickly connected with six other students from Illinois. As a group, we had a blast. Like many American college students would be inclined to do, we took advantage of being in a country where “of drinking age” meant you could see above the bar. We studied hard, but we also spent many a night laughing over pints of cider in one pub or another and then stuffing ourselves on late-night kebabs, our main source of sustenance since the food in the campus refectory was mostly inedible.

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1891 Illustration from the Tess of D’Ubervilles Serial

While I was not studying elbow-to-elbow with sexy Brits, my book-nerd aspirations were well satisfied by the required British lit course. The first assignment was to read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of d’Urbervilles, a task that was followed by a class trip to Stonehenge, where my imagination conjured the crushed and desperate Tess clinging to the altar stone in the dim rainy pre-dawn of a chilly British morning. Later, the professor introduced DH Lawrence via The Rainbow, and I fell into a torrid affair with the author that would last for several years. My adolescent heart coveted the deep, painfully passionate and consuming emotional labyrinths that DH so deftly created within and between his characters.

I also fell in love in the real world… not with a swarthy Brit but with an American boy from St. Louis, who had a slight touch of Midwest south in every word he spoke. Alas, he had a girlfriend back home, and as a result, our amour was as internally tortuous and as chaste as a Jane Austen plot. And yet, I loved him.

One night after a few pints, we separated from the group, stormed the Canterbury castle and then lay in the grass stargazing and imagining life as nobles in medieval England. (Sigh.)

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A week later, we had our first and only kiss. The next morning we went as a group to Whitstable to be tattooed by a man named Nev in a small basement parlor near the mudflats. I chose an Egyptian ankh for life and balance. Chic chose the three Chinese keys for health, wealth and love. The American boy opted for a symbol of rebirth and renewal.

Not long after, the semester ended. The American boy and I never spoke about our illicit kiss or our feelings. I felt guilty about the kiss and crushed at his silence. I thought about running across the moors or throwing myself on the altar stone at Stonehenge, but despite the sting, I couldn’t be bothered. There was too much to explore. Chic and I bought BritRail passes and spent two weeks traveling around northern England, Scotland, and Ireland.

When the time came, I didn’t want to go home. Looking back, I can see I returned home with something other than an obsession with dead British authors, an appreciation for hard cider and a bruised heart. I found my penchant for photography. Every new site or location inspired a shutter-click on my film-loaded Pentax point-and-shoot. The blue-grey skies and deep emerald grasses of the English countryside remained vivid in years to come because I had those snapshots. And eventually, photography became a way for me to explore and remember the world around me whether I was at home or abroad.

Of course, I have never forgotten the American Boy. Sure, I’ve had other, less chaste romances in other places over these years of traveling (and my appreciation for foreign accents has only expanded). But he was the first. And its innocence somehow made it sweeter.valentine-ship

On this Valentine’s Day, I hope love finds you, sweetly and in some unexpected way. And, if you’re preparing for a trip in the near future, remember: always pack at least one pair of fancy panties because you just never know whom you’ll meet along the way!

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