As we had tea, Heidi asked about my flight.
“Did you declare your food?”
“Oh yes. They make a big deal of it inflight. They even showed a video titled ‘Declare It!’ which was as exciting as it sounds. It showed people trying to bring things in like sheep and trees. When I told them I had ‘dried fruit and nuts for personal consumption,’ they waved me through like I was wasting their time.”
“They’ve taken things off me,” replied Heidi. “Once they took mulled wine spices I’d bought in Austria.”
“I hope they enjoyed them,” I smirked. “I noticed there was a box on the landing card asking if you’d ever had a criminal conviction. That’d be scary for someone who’d served time, to come all this way then see that as they were landing.”
“I don’t think they’d turn anyone away,” Heidi remarked. “I think they just want to know.”
“And then what?” I wondered. “There’s probably no way to find out ahead of time, so why would anyone even try to come here if they had to check that box?”
“It’s so ironic!” Heidi declared. “We were founded on convict labor. It’s just stupid.”
Of course my son, Vince, served time in prison for drug offenses but I had just met Auntie Margaret so I wasn’t going to get into that. Vince had read Bill Bryson’s hilarious book, In a Sunburned Country, while inside and it gave him a hankering to go to Australia. Vince is doing great now and even has a passport, so I hope he does go some day.
Heidi had used Auntie Margaret’s car to pick me up at the airport, and we’d gotten into a minor fender bender in the parking ramp. We chatted about that, and traffic, and different ways to get to and from the airport. You know, normal chit chat.
About Heidi and Auntie Margaret and the family: Margaret is Heidi’s dad’s sister. There are eight siblings in that generation; I believe it was their parents who emigrated from Ireland. Heidi is named Heidi because her mother, who is Austrian, came to Australia at age 12 as a refugee after World War II.
Auntie Margaret is what we used to call a “maiden aunt.” She inherited the flat from her aunt, also a never-married lady. Margaret had it rehabbed (or “reno’d,” as Aussies would say), decades ago and it hasn’t changed. There are Lladro figurines, and doilies, and miniature vases with plastic flowers, and photos from a life lived for others. Margaret, at 87, still drives to church and to St. Vinnie’s to volunteer. She would drive to her sister’s house later to make room for Heidi and me, since the flat has only one bedroom and a sofa sleeper.
I think it’s normal that as I sat there I glanced around and thought, “I’d tear out that wall, and move that wardrobe in there, and paint over that pink, and …” Later, Heidi confirmed that everyone who steps inside the wonderful flat with the million dollar views does the same.
People often ask how Heidi and I know each other. Because we explained it so often while I was there, we thought we would make up a laminated card illustrating the connections that brought us together. But until I’ve got that, here goes.
I have a friend named Chuck, who met a guy named Rob at a teachers’ conference in Minnesota. When I moved to the UK 12 years ago, Chuck told me Rob was now in the UK too, so we met up. Five minutes after we met, Rob asked if I wanted to go to Greece with a group of people over Valentine’s Day. It was cheap to go in winter. This is why you live “over there”—so you can travel everywhere. I showed up at Gatwick airport and there was Rob with two Aussies, Melissa and Heidi. Whoo boy, that was a fun trip. Here we are clowning around.
I house sat for Rob last summer in Windsor/Eton. Heidi and I have met up in Berlin, Provence, Ireland, and in London a couple times. She came to Minnesota. Now it was my turn to see her country.