Into absolute silence.
Could these be post-teenagers, I wondered, as mile after silent mile ticked by. Excitement laced with nuances of fear tinged the atmosphere; perhaps the short word for that is anticipation. About 30 minutes into the drive, Amber spoke. (Amber would speak many useful firsts before the trip was over.)
"Well this is a nice quiet little ride!" she boomed. For a petite girl, Amber can fairly make herself heard.
That broke the ice. The group began discussing what they looked forward to: castles, food, European mannerisms, places they'd read about like Stirling and Dunkeld. William Wallace was mentioned reverently.
We stopped for fast food and I discovered a secret about herding post-teens: feed them when you want them lively. When we got back into the convoy, the chatter rivaled migrating birds. Movies, men, mammogram technology...I discovered most of my charges were science majors in the medical or environmental fields, although we did have a lone Education major, and two Undeclareds.
Knoxville Airport is charming, wooden carvings of whimsical bears decorating a central square fountain. The students lined up rocking chairs at the glass windows and watched planes taking off, eyes shining. With one exception--Brie, who would become our group photojournalist--none had been out of North America before.
The joy of travel lasted through Chicago. The girls congregated around the public toilets and watched, delighted, as Brie pushed the "change seat cover" button again and again. "That's adorable!" they cried. I knew then everything would be all right. How can the world go wrong when it has such nice kids in it?
At the food court, we snagged deep dish pizzas that sent them into ecstatic comas, and boarded at 8pm local time the eight-hour flight to London Heathrow. I had a lovely chat with the Belgian Orthopedic Surgeon sitting next to me. About an hour in, I heard shrieks, followed by loud laughter behind me, and a flight attendant raced past. I pulled my pillow over my ears and smiled at the surgeon, who taught adjunct at his own local university.
"Those are voices from my students," I said. "I will not look."
He patted my hand. "Sometimes that is the best way."
Brie, Sarah and Travis succumb to excitement on the plane
At Heathrow the next morning we walked (halfway to Glasgow, or so it felt) until we arrived outside the airport. We stepped into the early morning light and I turned to my line of ducklings, blinking, bleary-eyed, in the smog.
"Okay, you're in London," I said, and their bodies erupted. They hurled themselves in the air, squealing "London, London; we're in London!" (Yes, it isn't strictly true; Heathrow is not in London per se, but give them their moment.)
As I stood to one side, watching, a black-suited traveler clutching a briefcase paused beside me, glaring. "Americans?" he barked. With a look of astonishment, I turned toward him. "How can you tell?" I asked in my best Scottish accent. He gave me a wary look and sped away.
Annoying American tourists 2, indigenous snobs 0.
Back into the bowels of steel, glass and escalators we descended, and flew to Glasgow without incident or sleep. There Colin the faithful bus driver-tour guide-literature professor met us, a Scotsman under his arm. (Yes, the old ones are the best.)
The 17-seater bus quickly became home as students claimed seats and tore into their luggage. Jeremy changed sweaters (there would be a lot of that to come); someone hauled out Gummi Bears. The party had begun.
Normally stopping for groceries is quite a chore, but on the way to Stirling we dropped into Sainsbury's and the students huddled near my cart, pointing and poking at things. Battenburg cakes were pronounced "charming"; the meat counter was frightening to those who had never seen streaky bacon; a shriek from the jam aisle announced the discovery of Nutella. (I used this moment to surreptitiously slip in two single-serving bottles of wine.) At the checkout, students poured over coins and bills, trying to make sense of them until, considerably heavier in the baggage department, we lumbered off to the Willy Wallace hostel.
It is the Law of Travel that anything with a cute name will be a dump. The students had never slept in hostels before, so the discovery that this room of 10 bunk beds would house all nine of us--professor included--gave some pause. It is heartening to watch newly-minted adults run smack up against a wall of new experience, and cope with dignity, grace and humor. Not a word was said as faces and luggage readjusted.
I set out a simple supper of Scotch eggs, the excellent Scottish cheddar, local tomatoes, oatcakes and chocolate. They fell on it all with gusto. I introduced them to teapots and by 7:45 we were fed, watered and Facebooked. (It was to become a running observation throughout the trip that no moment was completely lived until it had been e-translated for friends in the virtual world.)
Since we'd started at 11 a.m. Saturday, I pled age and settled in. The students went out. The first group was back at 8:20.
"Not a lot going on," they said, settling themselves on the couch to watch me use the computer. I can take a hint, and logged off as the next wave arrived back.