head in the clouds, seat on the Stour

River Stour by the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

River Stour by the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

The Stour by the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

The boatman seated me in the middle, and four Americans on my left before him, and five French aft on my right. Thereafter the two were each a world unto itself, so even if I was merely one I was the Atlantic. He handed the French folks two books of translations and started the forty-minute ride on the Stour. He was young, and funny right from the start: my first tour guide in Canterbury. I remembered random tour guides from my past, in New York and Chicago and San Antonio, all who were funny, as much as the young African-American ex-army lady in Mark Twain's home in Connecticut who went ho! each time she revealed something she deemed significant regarding Sam Clemens.

In Frankfurt in Germany the half-day tour guide was serious. In Berlin the young lady packed much humour but she was sure to tell us before we started that she was Welsh. She wore turned down boots with thick fur trims and her (dirty-blonde) hair tumbled way down, as low as most Indian women used to wear theirs until recently. There was not one in our group on our trip from Lisbon to the westernmost point (Cape Roca) of Europe who could make our guide smile just once the whole round trip. She was grim. At home in India the tour-guides I've hired have all been grave, and most of all the one in Jodhpur who held a history book in hand like Jesuits hold so nicely the Bible, and he was upset regarding what he argued was a much-printed wrong detail regarding the manner in which Maharani Padmini was shown to Khilji.

This guide on the Stour was out of breath though he was a broad strapping lad. He was bigger than all the boatmen who passed us by, and some had more tourists with them than he, a full-load of fourteen against the eleven that we were. Perhaps he'd spent the night out, and also he said he'd skipped lunch. He was a nice fellow. I struggled to read what he said, as much as the French did for a time. Soon they dipped into the French in hand; I began to deduce history on my own.

I've been here four weeks, and I'm still not tuned-in to the English of the English people. The Americans were in conversation with the boatman, the women were saying they wished we were all rowing instead of only him, and I understood everything they said, and when the tallest man from the French group asked where a vicarage was I picked up every syllable he spoke, but, of the things the boat-guide said, I picked up a snippet now and a snippet much later. I gathered that one of the earliest torpedoes was built in Canterbury, on the site of the Foundry Pub; his rating of the ale at The Parrot, the oldest pub in town, since 1370; the pretty black Weavers' Cottages that lean over the Stour lost their affluence to the success of the East India Company in the East. "After a time the cottages came to house women whose morals were negotiable," he said, and clarified for the pleasure of his audience, "I don't understand what that means at all, of course."

He was a nice boy. I liked him, specially when he showed the meaning of "legging it." We approached the lowest of the so-low bridges over the river, he rested the oars, lay on his back, and took the boat forward walking his feet on the bottom face of the bridge. That was a surprise that pleased everyone. The women worried constantly that a bridge-deck would knock his head cold. Soon, though, I lost myself in the world overhead, looking up at a gleaming plane (seaplane! the Americans exclaimed) that lingered overhead, which was whiter than the bellies of the seabirds that flew beneath it, whiter even than the clean bright clouds that came over Canterbury Saturday afternoon.

I have always thought it is the city I desire, but here I am, falling in love with a small old town.