We spent last weekend in England with our friends, the Wallaces. Patrick Wallace and Mark met in 1982 when both guys were studying at Harvard Law School. Thirty-seven years later, Patrick and Frances have hosted us innumerable times at their home in Kent, and we’ve had the pleasure of hosting them in Texas and in Spain. Our daughters, Jane and Mary, know and like their kids, Lindsay, Callum, and Henry. Our families have shared memorable stays in Florida and in France; in the latter location, Jane and Callum, unbeknownst to the parents happily chatting at the other end of the table in the little restaurant on the Left Bank, engaged in a long and truly expensive contest to see who could down the most snails. So we go back a ways together.
On this trip, we spent a rainy Saturday at the Victoria and Albert Museum and then at a hilarious play called “A Comedy about a Bank Robbery.” It’s by the same theater group that created “The Play that Went Wrong,” which apparently everyone else in the world except for Mark and me has seen. Sunday dawned glorious and sunny, though, so Patrick, Mark, and I visited Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s home. The house is delightful, with well-loved, slightly shabby armchairs in the library and more medals than you can count on display upstairs. (Included in this display is Winston’s fencing medal from public school, which I thought was a nice touch.) But the thing that struck me at Chartwell was how gorgeously green the grounds were. The hedges, trees, and gently rolling hills seemed to me to be the quintessential England.
England has always seemed green to me, despite the silver and glass towers of London and Winifred Letts’s gray spires of Oxford. The parks interspersed among the bustling streets and the verdant countryside are what I notice when we visit Albion. In fact, for me each country has a color. This may be a product of being entranced by a globe that my parents had when I was a kid. I used to spin the globe and stop it randomly with what was undoubtedly a grubby fingertip; then I’d say the names of whatever colored globule of geography I’d landed on. I would say the more straightforward ones out loud: Ireland, Brazil, China, Mexico. But there were some names to be rolled around in your mouth and savored like a candy: Uruguay, Belgium, Afghanistan, Cambodia. And some don’t exist any more; gone forever are Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Rhodesia. They may not have been much to write home about as countries, but their names were fun to say.
I don’t remember all of the colors on that globe, but countries do have colors for me now. In my geographical palette, for example, Mexico is yellow, probably because I associate it with hot sun beating down on light-colored, baked earth. France is the deep, mysterious blue of the rose windows in Notre Dame. (My mother loved all things azul, so the first time I walked into this glorious building and saw the windows, I thought, “Mom would really like this church! It’s blue!”) China is firecracker red, which I promise is a visual impression of the ornate silk robes we saw on display and not a political commentary. And while I’ve never been to Greece, I picture it as white. That’s from seeing pictures of whitewashed houses clinging to cliffs over the sea and shuffling past a zillion marble statues in various museums. You get the idea.
So what colors are the countries where I spend most of my time? Spain’s easy, and perhaps surprising; to me, it’s Mediterranean blue. Admittedly, most of the country doesn’t front this lovely sea and looks a fair bit like West Texas, which has blue skies and not much else of that hue. Mostly, it’s brown with silver/green scrub. But my Spain is the blue of Mare Nostrum, intense and playful all at once. As noted previously, I spent a fair bit of time zoning out and watching the blue roll by.
Interestingly, the USA is more complicated. Maybe you just never have a perspective on your home nation, because you’re in it and of it in ways that you can’t even begin to fathom. I’m also somewhat at a loss because the last few years seem to have shown us some heartbreaking truths about our country’s racism, misogyny, and greed. At the same time, there’s so much I love about the USA: its physical beauty, its heritage of freedom, its historical optimism and friendliness. Five years ago, I might have told you that my country was a spectacular pointillist painting, with dots of a million hues decorating our canvas. Now I’m not so sure, and we seem more like a black and white kind of place. We seem both less diversely colored and more deeply and contrastingly divided. Let’s hope, let’s pray, that I’ve just gone colorblind.