I’d been feeling nervous and jittery, and beginning to wonder if I’d made an enormous mistake when 4 simple words dispelled my anxiety. Only hours ago I’d arrived in a new city, been introduced to twenty girls with whom I’d spend the next three weeks, and I’d retained the names of exactly zero so far. Almost all of them had accents which made familiar English words sound foreign and pleasantly flowy to my ears. Every time I opened my mouth I was keenly aware how flat and ugly my American accent sounded. And with the state of the world such as it is, I wondered if they even liked Americans. How was I going to turn these young women into friends in just 3 weeks? I felt so out of place and now I was spending the evening sightseeing with a handful of them. Also, I was temporarily transported by my surroundings as far back in history as I’ve ever been, and there’s nothing like Roman ruins to make you feel extremely far from home. We were taking the Torchlit Summer Evening tour of Bath’s Roman Baths.
Torches glowed in their wall sconces as I stood at the edge of the murky pool in the gathering dusk. I pressed the green button on my audio guide and the next words I heard sent a wave of comfort through me.
“Hello, I’m Bill Bryson.”
The voice was so familiar to me. It often accompanies my morning commutes to work through audio book narrations and I’d been lucky enough to hear it live in Boston. And now, here it was again, halfway across the globe, at the Roman Baths in Bath, England. Next to the options for the children’s audio tour and the official Roman Bath’s tour, was a third option. The Bryson Tour. In that unmistakably unique lilt that slides seamlessly back and forth between a British and American accent, he might as well have said,
“You’ll be just fine.”
As Bryson’s narrations, filled with the same cynical wit found in his travelogues, guided me through the rooms, I had a few realizations about travel.
First, It doesn’t matter what you sound like or what nationality you are if people think what you’ve got to say is interesting.
(Or you happen to be a semi-well known author.) The sound of lapping water and the chatter of tourists in the background of Bryson’s narration suggested that he might have shown up here as a tourist too and had been asked to record his thoughts as he walked through the exhibit spaces. This was no studio produced recording or edited script by the sound of it. I was literally following in the footsteps of one of my favorite authors as he had experienced the Baths. And the even funnier part is that Bryson is actually American. While I realize he married a Brit and according to his latest book, finally acquired dual citizenship, and you wouldn’t know it from the accent he’s developed, he’s really just an Iowa boy underneath it all. Here I was fretting about my accent and American passport, and the Roman Baths had ask an American with a bizarre not-quite-British accent to record a tour!
As I mused, I half listened to Bryson’s narration. He began with a general history of this place, once known as Aquae Sulis. Long before fans made pilgrimages to Bath because of Jane Austen, people came here from all over to take the waters. The Celts first built a temple dedicated to the Goddess Sulis and then the Romans built further structures for bathing in the four natural hot springs found in the area. Much later, the British Royals would come for the water’s curative and restorative properties. Unfortunately, you are no longer allowed to bathe in these pools because the Romans had no idea that lead water pipes actually did quite the opposite of providing healthy waters for bathing. Thanks to the waters, Bath became a place for people from different places and social status to meet and mingle. If I had to meet 20 new girls, Bath seemed the best place for it suddenly.
Second, books are a great common ground for small talk with new friends.
I looked at the faces of my small group to see how many had recognized Bryson as well. With those that were familiar with his books I was able to immediately strike up a conversation about our favorites as we walked through the displays. With those unfamiliar with the author, I was able to exchange reading recommendations. Now that I was in conversation with them, our discussion easily flowed to the displays we were visiting. Being a bunch of museum professionals, we spent the rest of the evening comparing, contrasting, and critiquing the display methods used by this museum as opposed to the various types of museums we all came from.
Because most of us were coming from institutions with small budgets, we all marveled at the projector technology the Roman Baths has used in some of the rooms. We hadn’t even noticed the clear screens dividing the room until figures appeared on them, and then it looked as if the people were in the room with us, floating, like ghosts of the past. (See an example of the projections in this video) As we moved from room to room intermittently listening to our audio guides and chatting, I grew more excited about spending the next three weeks chatting with and learning from these ladies, all with diverse and interesting backgrounds.
Third, all follies and awkward encounters just make for good stories later.
Although a little more at ease with my new companions now, I still irrationally worried I’d somehow make a fool of myself. For starters, my map reading skills are marginal at best, and I hoped I’d be able to competently find the way back to our lodgings in the dark after the tour. Despite Bath being a small city, and Google Maps having a “follow the blue dot” feature that makes getting around anywhere almost idiot proof, I was sure that these girls would figure out before the night was over that I’m just not that cool. As I listened to Bryson’s voice, however, I thought about his other books and realized Bryson himself is often the definition of a bumbling tourist. Or possibly he’s made up catastrophes to add humor to his travelogues. Either way, misadventure always makes for the best stories.
“But that’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”
― Bill Bryson, Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe
I looked down at the small notepad in my palm that I’d been taking notes in and realized any and all awkward encounters and general mishaps during my trip would just make great fodder for the blog later. And I’m happy to report, I didn’t blow my cover as a put-together, young professional and traveler, at least in the first night.
Finally, always approach situations with cynicism and a sense of humor.
After we handed back our audio guides, our path took us past the last pool before we entered the gift shop. Knowing tourists love to throw coins in fountains/wells/pools, I wasn’t surprised to see the pool had become a wishing-well. It was filled with the coins of all different denominations. But not only that, there were dollars floating at the surface of the water. Green ones. Stupid, Americans, I thought. First of all, the tradition is to throw a COIN in the wishing well, and second, as the dollars are clearly American, we know it’s you. I wondered what Bill Bryson would have said.