Updated: May 1
There isn’t anything quite like a native Californian who tries to live abroad. It takes courage to leave these sunny shores where the weather is usually perfect and travel to where rain is a more common forecast. In the autumn of 1982 I moved to London, England to study at University. It was a fine institution, and I was fortunate to have been selected. The first week was full of jet lag, school orientations and lectures and I was so very busy that I had hardly any time to think.
However, as the first weekend approached I found myself growing increasingly homesick. My little dorm room was small and undecorated as there were so few things that I had brought from home. I had purchased my schoolbooks and arranged them on a shelf above the bed. The desk held my notebooks and pencils. But
the white sink in the corner and the battered wardrobe next to the door made the room look more like a cell than a home. My window looked out over an empty lot filled with broken concrete and old bits of pipe and wire. The prospect of spending the weekend alone in this foreign place was very unappealing. I felt a stranger in a strange land.
I was fortunate to have old family friends living in the countryside nearby and they invited me down to their house for the weekend. I packed my bag on Friday afternoon and took the train to Dover. Then a short car ride to the small English village where my friends lived. The family was warm and welcoming to me. All weekend was full of family dinners, country walks and teatime. I felt uplifted by their care for me. Saturday they took me for a hike out along the white cliffs to see the English Channel. The days flew by! We went to church on a bright Sunday morning at the little village church. It was a grey stone building with a Norman tower and beautiful stained glass windows with the sunlight streaming in. After church was a sumptuous Sunday noon time meal of lamb, spring peas, potatoes and salad. Then, with a heavy heart, I packed my small suitcase and waited in the hall for my ride to the train station. What I remember most is the ticking of the grandfather clock as it ponderously ticked the minutes away.
We had to go into Dover to catch the train. Already I was leaving the safe little cocoon of my friends’ home to re-enter the larger and much less friendly world. I was left on the platform with 20 minutes to spare and went and found some snacks and magazines for the long journey. The weather was clouding up now and there was a general greyness to the scene. The brick building seemed austere. The stained grey concrete walls separated the various tracks. The loudspeakers announced train after train. Finally, my train for London was announced.
The train was a brown train where every compartment has its own door to the outside such that the entire train is one continuous
wall of doors. I found an empty third class compartment and began my long journey back to London. The closer we crept to London the greyer the weather became until it began first to drizzle and then to rain in earnest. I turned on the overhead light so I could continue to peer
at my magazine. But I could not concentrate on the magazine at all. My thoughts whirled: What if I failed at my studies? What if my anxiety and fear cause me to return to the States early?
We ran into other train traffic as we entered London from the south. What had started out to be a two-hour train trip was creeping towards a three hour train journey. The rain continued to come steadily down and by now the sun was beginning to set. It was a long grey twilight you get in London in the autumn which has a timeless quality. It was as though it had always been this grey and would never be sunny. In some ways I couldn’t wait to get off that train. And in other ways I wanted the trip to last forever since I was afraid of my new life in an alien city. The rain came down and my spirits sank lower with the rain. The click clacking of the train seemed to echo in my heart a drumbeat of “All alone, all alone.”
South London in those days was far from beautiful. The sooty brick buildings and crowded streets huddled by the train tracks as we nosed our way ever closer to the city center. My heart filled with despair. But South London had a surprise for me: as I looked through the gathering darkness, emerging from the rain and the mist, painted on the side of an old brick warehouse I saw white letters perhaps 2 feet high against a faded blue background. As my eyes strained against the darkness, I read: “Take Courage”. And then as soon as I had read the message the train moved past the building and the message was gone. I sat in the train compartment all alone and my heart pounded with excitement. A sign meant for me from God, surely. Take Courage! All would be well. I remembered the Bible verse from Deuteronomy: “Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble ... for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.”
I felt uplifted and encouraged. I squared my shoulders and smiled out at the rain. I took a deep breath. I could do this! God was with me and I would not yield or falter. The train picked up speed and eventually pulled into Victoria Station. I wound my way through the labyrinth that is a large city’s train station past thousands of people until I reached the street level. This one time I would splurge on a taxicab. The cabs were not much in demand on a cold rainy Sunday evening and I found one and gratefully sank into the soft upholstery of the back seat. Swiftly we made our way the three miles across town and soon I was entering the brightly lit lobby of my dormitory. The night porter greeted me warmly and said they had missed me. I took the elevator up to the 6th floor where my own little room was. It seemed much more welcoming now. I had a hot bath and made myself a cup of hot cocoa. That night I slept deeply. From then on I was often homesick and often afraid but never as much as on that first weekend. I had courage.
It was much, much later in my life that I learned that Courage, was a brand of beer. And that “Take Courage” had been an advertisement for that beer. It had been painted on the wall of that building many, many years before I ever saw it. A cynic might say that I was fooled but I don’t think so. The message was for me, exactly where it needed to be to remind me that we are never alone. It was a very dark hour in my life, and I was redeemed.
About the author
My name is Amanda Duisman. I was born in Berkeley, California in 1962. My father was from Petaluma, California and my mother from Wichita, Kansas. I’ve lived and worked all over the world in my life but came home to Berkeley 25 years ago.