Published in The Simple Things magazine, August 2020.
Drinking coffee elsewhere
I make sure to pick up a couple of postcards whenever I leave London – just a couple of old-fashioned ones with pictures of local sights. I love sending holiday cards even more than I like receiving them, which is fortunate as it’s a disappearing holiday ritual. My habit started during my first big trip abroad in 1987, when my parents took me to the Canary Islands and I was amazed how far away it was, how bright the sunshine was, and how blue the water was. How incredible it was that we could just do this – explore a place so far away from home.
I’ve loved to travel ever since, even though the thrill of buckling up as the plane’s about to take off into the clouds has long since worn off. Or at least, that’s how I felt until the coronavirus pandemic grounded us. Those of us fortunate enough to remain healthy were locked down in our houses, dreaming of the day we could go somewhere again – to the pub, let alone on a holiday.
More now than ever, those postcards are a reminder of how lucky it is to be able to explore the world. I’d always get a postcard for my grandfather Per, who never had the chance to go very far. I never once heard him express a wish for things to be different, but he must have wondered: what would life have been like if …? My grandfather spent most of his life on the family farm – he was born there, grew up there, worked there, and lived there into old age. My memories of my grandfather are those of a man who’s kind, funny and interested, although I’m told he wasn’t always like that before he retired, often too tired from long days doing hard labour. He often spoke of our relatives in America, descendants of emigrants who were born on the very same farm where he still lived. They were farmers too, over there – such big country! But a heritage farm like my granddad’s isn’t like a granny quilt or a box of silverware that you can choose to put away – it’s a destiny. My grandfather never ventured far, usually needing to be home in time for the milking.
When I’d visit, my granddad would sit in his chair in the living room, trying to work out what to ask me about my life, so different from anything he’d ever experienced. “So”, he’d say, “so, so” – repeating it a few times to get my attention. “So the trains where you live, in London, they run … under the ground?” Yes, I said. He’d close his eyes to concentrate. “To the airport?” No, not quite. “Tell me how you get from the airport to your place.” I recognised the effort in grandpa’s line of inquiry – he was taking an interest, and trying to make sense of my life. I love London and the life I’ve made for myself, but try as I might, I could never quite explain why to my granddad who had never seen a city this big, full of culture, opportunity, and all kinds of people. There’s an inherent rejection in leaving the place where you come from, but if he ever thought it, he never expressed it.
Grandpa passed away about four years ago, but I still forget sometimes because a world without him seems impossible. You only get so many faces who you’ve been looking at forever, that link you to your past. I send my postcards still, now addressed only to my grandmother, Oddlaug. Her questions when I visit are different: less about logistics and more about the people around me, but it’s really the same thing, I think.
My postcards are just a quick hello: it’s deliciously sunny, I had a quirky local dessert, the architecture is wild, grandma this is so great! It’s a bit of connection as I’m out there, living this life that was impossible for my family until not very long ago, and a reminder to myself of how fortunate I am to be able to do all these things. I have missed a lot of things since the coronavirus arrived, but most of all I’ve missed the ability to plan my life, and the feeling of the world being a big place.
The postcard I sent to grandma from Tokyo made its way all the way from Japan to the postbox at the end of her road – isn’t that something! I picture her kitchen wall of postcards – from San Francisco, Brussels, Vienna, Iceland – all written by me so far away from there, sitting in an open square and watching the people, drinking coffee elsewhere. Here in locked-down London those cards feel like a promise: we will go on trips again soon and write more postcards, because the world is just as big as ever.