Originally published on TheMiamiStudent.net
I noticed him because of the small Union Jack flag poking out of his easel and waving in the bursts of cold air. He was sitting by a statue of George Canning in Parliament Square, painting. Next to him, a handwritten sign read, “Directions and photos free, donations welcome for London Children’s Hospitals.”
Nudging Nana -— my grandmother and travel companion for two weeks in the United Kingdom — I walked around to glance at what he was painting. Clipped to the easel was an elaborate watercolor of Big Ben, with the London Eye visible in the background and a red double-decker bus on the street out front. No one else, Londoners and tourists alike, seemed to pay attention to him. When I went to snap a picture of him, he turned and saw us.
There are so many things I could write about in this first column. About the places I’ve been, the things I’ve seen. About the afternoons spent wandering museums and castles, days driving the winding coast of Ireland, nights trying to find something other than haggis to eat for dinner in Scotland. And I should definitely spend more time introducing myself.
But I’ll save all that. This is just about Ian.
Ian wore a hat like one my grandfather used to wear, until I stole it from him in junior high. He was all bundled up against the cold, but he had to dab his running nose and watery eyes every few minutes because of the wind. His fingers were raw and pink because gloves would’ve made painting more difficult. He was no more than an inch or two taller than I am, but at least fifty years older.
Painting was just a hobby, something he did while his wife played bridge on Thursday nights. Something, he’d said, to keep him from going to the pubs too early in the evening. Before he retired, he’d been an architect. Within three weeks, he’d realized that retirement consisted of botched trips to the grocery upon his wife’s request. So he’d gone back to work in a London hospital, helping with special projects.
We talked to Ian for over thirty minutes. He told us not to tell his wife we’d seen him smoking, because everyone was worried about his health, even though his lungs turned up completely clean on each scan. We heard his thoughts on modern communication, a few comments about American politics, an anecdote about the time he woke up under the impression he was fighting demons because of new herbal pills his doctor had suggested. He told us he suspected his wife was plotting to kill him since she hadn’t gone to bridge that night, something he found highly suspicious.
During our last few days in London, I kept hoping we’d run into Ian again, but we never did. We’d found him after a light lunch at Westminster Abbey, on our way to meet a friend at the BBC. We’d simply stumbled upon his easel and generous smile and stayed a while.
That’s what travel is, a constant stumbling upon perfection in the unexpected. It is those unannounced moments, the ones you’re not actively seeking, that end up forming the most vivid memories of a place.
I have an entire semester of travel ahead of me. And I hope I stumble every now and then. I hope somewhere along the way I fall into something that leaves me speechless, that changes me in ways I never would have thought possible. Because nothing would make me happier than to return home with a journal containing pages and pages of stories about unexpected moments and unplanned experiences.
When I told Ian I was spending the semester in Luxembourg, he thought it was just great. He told me to come back to London and visit, see if he’s still alive. So the next time I’m in London, I’ll keep an eye out for him. I hope I’ll stumble upon him again. And I hope you stumble sometimes too.