Escaping with ‘Running Away to Home’

Running Away to HomeWhen it became apparent that we were all going to be settling in for the long haul during COVID-19, I immediately looked for an escape.

Not a literal escape because, you know: quarantine. But definitely a bookish one.

With my kids increasingly tolerant of Mom’s reading time, I’ve been able to devour quite a few stories recently. Jennifer Wilson’s Running Away to Home: My Family’s Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters is easily my favorite of the lot — the most engaging and delightful book I’ve read in ages.

It certainly helps that I relate deeply to Jennifer: writer, wife, and mom to two young kids — a son and daughter — who, along with her husband Jim, realized that the rat-race life in suburbia was leading to stuff, but little satisfaction. Or happiness.

Armed with the limited knowledge Jennifer has of her great-grandparents, who immigrated from a small village called Mrkopalj, the Wilson-Hoff family leaves Iowa to spend four months in a town of 800 people — where everyone knows everyone, the homemade alcohol is freely flowing, and lessons about abundance, scarcity, and friendship are abundant.

I knew I was in for a treat as soon as I cracked the cover … even if it took me eight years to get to this point. After finishing Running Away to Home yesterday, I immediately clicked over to send a quarantine copy to my mom, who identifies strongly with our Polish roots. Poland isn’t Croatia, but there were so many similarities in the stories (and recipes!) shared by Jennifer, I knew Mom would love this tale of roots and wings.

That’s when I saw the helpful “You’ve purchased this before!”-style note on Amazon. When I ordered it? Dec. 16, 2012, the day Spencer proposed. I purchased Wilson’s memoir along with a copy of The Wedding Book! (In a world before Amazon Prime, gotta get that $25 free ship.) Seven-plus years later, it finally called loudly enough to me from my bookshelf. If it’s any indication of how the past few years have gone, this memoir was perched next to Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction (helpful book, by the way).

So. Right. Running Away to Home found me at a good time.

A4B61D47-ACEC-4E9D-9D58-5E612AAA2AEDIt’s hard to put into words just why I loved it so much. Certainly tons of credit goes to Wilson’s funny, warm, astute and tight writing, which drew me in immediately and never let go. Beyond Jennifer, Jim, and young Sam and Zadie, the cast of characters in Mrkopalj — particularly Robert, their landlord/bartender/friend — were endearing and unforgettable. Everyone had so much personality … because, well, I’m sure, they do have so much personality.

When Jennifer is able to connect with lost relatives who still live nearby, I was taken back to my own long afternoons in the sitting rooms of elderly relatives in Pennsylvania, where my own grandparents grew up. We made these pilgrimages every summer, around the time of my great-grandmother’s birthday, playing nearby as the adults reminisced over meals in family-favorite restaurants.

The world Jennifer draws is at once familiar and foreign. It was impossible not to imagine my own great-great-grandparents making the decisions that led to their voyage to America (from Podkarpackie Voivodeship, Poland, sayeth 23andMe).

Running Away to Home is full of revelations about family — the ones who made us, and the one we create ourselves — without ever becoming preachy, condescending, or eyeroll-inducing. Jennifer and Jim wanted to connect with their children, with the land, with others, with each other … and they did, often in ways they did not expect.

Finishing Wilson’s book definitely had me eager to:

a) Learn to officially make my grandmother’s cabbage rolls,
b) Start a garden and grow my own herbs, and
c) Plan a post-COVID vacation to explore my roots abroad.

Recommend highly to readers who are…

  • Fans of memoirs and family sagas
  • Interested in ancestry/genealogy
  • Looking to travel without leaving the couch
  • Like entertaining stories with heart, and no tragedy

In short, what I mean to say is … I loved itAnd eight years after its initial publication, it totally holds up.

Get it for your Kindle. Grab it on audio. Borrow it from your library. I don’t care how you get here, just … get here if you can.

5/5

British escape, part I: London, England

London is my BFF. On this, my third visit to England in four years, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was pre-Royal Wedding week, after all — and having had the greatest time on my previous visit, nerves pulsed in my stomach. What if London wasn’t the way I remembered it? What if — two years later — I felt older, wiser — and thoroughly less enchanted? What if something bad happened and it was forever tarnished for me?

Oh, the agony.

Well. It wasn’t tarnished — or anywhere close. It was . . . comfortable. Familiar. It was a place I’d already navigated and seen and photographed, which opened up a whole new door for me: feeling less like a tourist and more like a local. Branching out and doing different things.

I wasn’t a local, of course; I was an enthusiast. And I met locals — including Lyndsey — and was still the sweaty, disoriented and Tube map-clutching American wandering around the city with her family . . . but that was okay. I had my bearings. And seeing Big Ben peeking through the treetops still gave me a happy, familiar jolt of excitement.

Twice before I’d taken red-eye flights to England and arrived in London just as the city was waking up. This usually left me bleary-eyed and exhausted for the full day ahead of me, so we made a different plan this time: leaving Washington, D.C., in the morning and arriving in London at night. So that’s what we did — getting to Heathrow around 10 p.m. local time.

It was a very strange sensation, watching the clouds turned golden as our plane dipped closer to the United Kingdom. “It’s sunset!” I cried at one point, peering at my small watch. Night closed in and encompassed the plane, tampering with my body clock. It was 3 p.m. at home.

After a good night’s sleep, it was off to explore the city on Thursday and hunt for royal souvenirs — and that meant leaving our hotel near Heathrow for central London, where we were staying in Islington. With four heavy, 50-lb. suitcases apiece, getting to the next location was a little scary. We packed up our stuff and found a bus that would take us to the closest Tube station, where I was in charge of navigating us to our next hotel.

I’ll toot my own horn right here: over the course of our four combined days getting around London at both the beginning and end of the trip, I didn’t get us lost on the Underground one time. This is all thanks to my friend Stacy, who taught me not to be afraid of the train system with its complicated, crazy maze of lines and colors and names. After stowing our stuff, we left to explore the city.

We hopped on the Tube en route to Knightsbridge, where we had lunch at Spaghetti House near the world-famous department store Harrods. Exhaustion was setting in at that point, rendering me a hungry, disoriented beast; I woofed down some pasta after laughing with my family about a guy who looked like Edward Cullen on a “date” that didn’t seem to be going well; neither he or the hairbow-wearing lady he was sitting with were saying a word to each other.

The man had show-stoppingly good hair.

After walking through Knightsbridge, it was over to Hyde Park to try and find “traditional English gardens.” Like me, my mother is never without her camera — and we were eager to find flowers to photograph. It was a gray day, but warm and without rain, so we embarked on foot for the park and a chance to see the Diana Memorial Fountain.

And that’s where I screwed up.

We’d gotten off the Tube at Hyde Park Corner, which was close to lunch but . . . not the fountain. Without a phone on which to check a map or the location of the fountain, I had no idea how far away it would be — but hey, I debated, how bad of a walk could it be? We’re on one side of the park; the fountain’s on the other. We need some exercise. We can make it.

Right?

Well.

We made it. An hour or so of walking, detours throughout the grass expanse of Hyde Park, stops to photograph a few stray tulips and a Ferris wheel that had taken up residence there and . . . we made it. But by the time we arrived at the fountain, we weren’t much in the mood for photographing little kids splashing in the burbling water.

We were exhausted.

I felt bad. No, really — I did. I was okay, but I knew we were all suffering badly from jetlag (it was barely morning at home!) and the last thing we needed was a miles-long walk around an entire British park. Still, my family was a trio of troopers! We even walked over to Buckingham Palace next, where we purchased royal souvenirs and loitered in the shops there. Television crews lined the streets surrounding the palace, some interviewing passersby and others doing stand-ups with wedding news. My sister, a video journalist, was drawn to the cameramen and anchors like flies to honey; we couldn’t resist pausing by a woman with a BBC lanyard to see if she needed any, um, interviewees. (She didn’t, I guess.)

And then? Then we walked from Buckingham to Trafalgar Square, one of my favorite spots in the city, where was I tremendously disappointed to see the fountains weren’t turned on (but I did get to make a wish in the Victoria Memorial fountain by Buckingham)! Crowds still loitered on the steps of the National Gallery and gazed at the large clock counting down the hours until the 2012 Olympics, which will soon take the city by siege.

We sat for a few minutes to collect our thoughts (and calm our racing hearts), then headed to The Sherlock Holmes nearby — a restaurant I’ve been dying to visit since first spotting it in a calendar years ago. It looked so pretty! So fresh! So British! And it didn’t disappoint. Dinner was delicious — a perfect collection of hearty and savory foods, and it was fun to sit in a place with so much atmosphere. Downstairs the pub was jumpin’, with the after-work crowd loitering in the streets for happy hour. In the streets. With beers. That was a funny sight, honestly: people drinking right out in the open. At most spots in the U.S., do that and you’ll have a nice chat with a police officer for your “open container.”

After dinner, my energy level was hitting a low point — and our collective legs were screaming from the miles we’d walked that day. We popped in a Waterstone’s bookstore en route to the nearest Tube stop, where I had fun looking at the differences between British and American book covers (like this one, for Emma Donoghue’s Room). Funny signs littered the store, too, and I really enjoyed the ambiance of wandering around a city bookstore in the evening. Though I left empty handed (trying to preserve much-coveted space in my suitcase!), it was a fun visit.

Friday dawned bright and sunny and, thankfully, I was feeling way better after a good night’s sleep. We hopped over to Covent Garden, another place that had long been on my “to be visited in London” list, and enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere of the busy commercial area. Street performers were swamped by crowds of tourists and locals with cameras and phones, laughing at the antics of a man performing magic with audience participation. I loved walking through the open-air markets and dodging in the little stores.

Hunger was taking over by the time lunch rolled around — and how fortunate, because I was meeting up with the lovely Lyndsey of Teadevotee! We’d made plans to see one another when I announced my travel plans months before and found each other at Bill’s, a lovely cafe between Covent Garden and Leicester Square. I’ve met up with fellow book bloggers several times before and am never, ever disappointed; Lyndsey was exactly the funny, sweet person I felt I knew. She recognized me just as I recognized her and, after a moment of accidentally appearing in the background of a fashion commercial (?? Oh, London!), we made it the cafe.

Poor Lyndsey probably didn’t expect to dine with a table of journalists. It’s in our nature to pepper innocent people with questions, so the inquisition began: what do you do? What does your husband do? What’s life in England like? Are you excited about the wedding? (I’m sure everyone in London is really, really sick of being asked that.) Lyndsey was gracious enough to answer our countless inquiries and even brought me a gift: a copy of a Jane Austen biography that I’ve never seen and can’t wait to read. Sweetness! We said our goodbyes and snapped a few photos. I tried not to look like the frizzy-haired, jetlagged monster I was.

With hours to go before meeting up with our tour group later that evening to embark on an eight-day jaunt through the rest of the UK, Mom, Dad, Kate and I went over to see the London Eye, the famous Ferris wheel constructed in 1999. We queued up with hundreds of people to get a birds-eye view of London, which was awesome — and very different from the air! London is huge. Massive. Sprawling in every direction, giant and encompassing . . . and how strange to see Big Ben from the air, where it’s not nearly as majestic as when you’re on foot.

We took a riverboat cruise on the Thames River next, which took us up and down the river en route to Tower Bridge and back. I love being on the water — especially on vacation. You see so much more that way. Though I couldn’t snap many photos without someone’s head or camera in them, it was fun to see the city that way . . . and so nice to just sit down.

After the boat ride, I convinced my family to walk across Westminster Bridge, which spans the Thames, to get a closer look at Parliament and Big Ben (again). On my last trip, walking across that bridge at sunset was one of my fondest memories . . . magical and surreal. It felt good to be there again, but hard to believe — especially since I wasn’t sure when I’d ever make it across the pond again!

We wrapped up our third night in the city by having dinner at the hotel and getting a good night’s rest — and we’d need it. On Saturday morning, our alarms chimed at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m. local time to begin the leg of our tour with Trafalgar Tours, which I’ll tell you all about . . . next time.

Hint: it involves the English countryside, cathedrals, countless medieval streets and clotted cream fudge.

If nothing else, you have to come back for the fudge.

London on the brain

pretty iconic

Pretty iconic

I realized with a start last night that since going to England in May 2007, there probably hasn’t been a day that I haven’t thought about my two and a half days in the city — the culmination of which required my parents, sister and me to walk down a dark street at three in the morning, local time, to catch a train back to Gatwick Airport.

After graduating from college, my family wanted to take our “great European vacation” before I officially entered the workforce (which I did — three short weeks later). We travelled to England en route to Italy, where we toured around Rome, Florence, Tuscany, Venice and Lake Garda. It was, without a doubt, the trip of my lifetime. I can’t imagine anything more thrilling than waking up in a foreign country with the whole day ahead of you, the people you love more than anything at your side, a camera dangling from your neck.

Riding backward in a kamikazi cab

Riding backward in a kamikaze cab

While Italy was absolutely gorgeous, amazing and totally worthy of an entire blog in and of itself, it’s London that has somehow managed to stick with me — to the point that I’ve become a completely obsessed, reading up on everything I can find regarding the British monarchy, dedicating myself to shows like “The Tudors,” drafting a novel set almost entirely in the English countryside and prompting my sister to buy me presents with Big Ben splashed all over them. As I type this, I’m sitting at my desk with a wire-crafted Big Ben just to the left of my monitor, a postcard of the Globe Theatre below my screen and a tiny red double-decker bus to the right of that.

I am, to put it lightly, an Anglophile.

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