The third week of April, 1975 was a week of firsts for me. I was 16 and I was flying from Boston on a school trip to London with twenty five other kids and various chaperones. It was the first time I’d ever left home, my first time on an airplane, first time staying in a hotel, first time out of the good ol’ USA, my first time traveling anywhere, for that matter.
Scared? You bet. And not just of being in an airplane or getting lost or making a total doofus of myself. It was the first time I would be with kids from different cliques outside of school. I wasn’t popular. I know, we all can say that—no matter what group you're in there's always a clique cooler and more attractive than yours, or at least it seems that way through hyper-critical, self-deprecating adolescent eyes.
But I had the mother lode of unpopular-making faults: I was overweight, possessed of a minefield of pimples, bookish, nerdish, and I lived in “The Project,” a public housing development most of my middle class peers looked down on. I was uncool and felt perpetually judged. Humor was my shield and I wielded it with the panache of Wonder Woman in era-appropriate bell bottoms and a polyester blouse.
I set out on the trip prepared to be teased and shunned, but when the 747’s wheels touched down at Heathrow something interesting happened. Boys who snickered at me in the school corridors helped me with my suitcase. Popular girls who looked through me in the classroom didn’t seem to mind sitting next to me on the tour bus. That’s when I realized—they were as nervous as me. We were all strangers in a strange land, and that made us equal.
Visiting Anne Hathaway's house (the Bard's
wife, not the actress). Note the preponderance
of plaid. If the 70s are remembered for anything,
it'll be for crimes against fashion.
I relaxed and enjoyed myself, chattering and joking with Patty Popular and Joe Jock as our tour bus wound its way through London’s busy, narrow streets and out to the countryside to visit historic places like Hampton Court (the castle Henry the VIII built for wife #2, Anne Boleyn) and Stratford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare's birthplace).
Back in London, we did all the touristy things. Saw the changing of the guard at Buckingham palace, had a blast touring Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square at night and visiting museums during the day.
At the Dickens museum, bookish me revealed to my peers my undying passion for the man’s purple prose (I’d read most of his novels). My classmates ooh-ed and ahh-ed over that, maybe genuinely impressed, maybe realizing I was a human Cliff Notes, able to summarize the reading they hadn’t done and help them pass that pop quiz their English teacher would surely spring on them when they got back on Monday.
We also visited the British Museum amid heightened security. In fact, security was tight everywhere in London. It was a time of IRA bombings and sometimes violent protests. Guards on the door at the British Museum searched every bag as we went in. One of our group, a pretty and popular girl whose name I forget (probably Cindy, since there were roughly 66 Cindy’s in my class of 495), was taken out of line because the guard felt something odd in her bag. He pulled out a box of tampons—and there was much embarrassment.
The thing I remember most from the trip was our free night, when we went to the movies. The theater close to our hotel was showing this thing called Monty Python and the Holy Grail, made by a group of British comedians I’d never heard of before, but would soon hear a whole lot about.
On the way into the movie, I picked up this poster for 50 p. (@1.50), and I still have it. It’s travelled from dorm room to dorm room, apartment to apartment, and house to house. I love that poster, a memory of an awesome time and an awesome movie. Framed now, the poster's second in line for me to save in a fire; the first thing I’d save would be the cat—that creature holds a grudge and I’d never hear the end of it if I didn’t risk life and limb to rescue his furry butt.
After Holy Grail, our group was tighter than ever. The rest of our London trip, we laughed over funny scenes and shouted out favorite lines: “It’s only a flesh wound!” “We are the knights who say Ni!” “Bring out your dead!” "What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?" and the ultimate kiss-off, “Go away, or I shall taunt you a second time.”
Then we came home. The strangers who’d bonded in a strange land were on terra firma. We went back to school and back to our usual cliques. The girls ignored and the boys snickered and I cracked a joke as a way to deal with it because that was the way it was in high school. But London hadn’t completely been forgotten. When I’d pass one of my London crew in the hallway, we’d wave and sometimes give one of those smiles that said, Yeah, that was fun.
Months later, when Monty Python and the Holy Grail finally made it to the US and my local theater, I went to see it. Bought my ticket and stood in line outside on a frigid December day, waiting to be let in. Up ahead of me, I spotted a couple of the boys who’d gone on the trip, shuffling, stamping their feet in the cold. I caught their eye and said just one word, “Ni!”