Yulia. Travel. Jewels.

Adopted from a speech given in 2011 at my home club

What’s so precious about travel that we don’t mind spending lots of money, hauling heavy bags, getting hassled at airports, sleeping in strange beds?  In 2010, I was to travel to the UK for work the week after Thanksgiving.  For the prior two years, David would painfully abandon me for Thanksgiving, so I decided to skip that BS altogether, fly out on Wednesday night, and spend the long weekend in London.

One of my distant acquaintances from St. Petersburg math geek crowd lived in London.  She offered her couch if I was ever in town, and I took her up on that, not so much to save money, as to make a new math geek friend.  Interestingly, I didn’t remember exactly how I knew Yulia.  Since it felt like we spent years in the same circles, I didn’t dare to ask.

I rang the bell of her apartment around 4 o’clock Thursday afternoon.  Her small one-bedroom flat had a wooden floor and a huge bay window in the bedroom that, through the glass wall, lit the whole place.  The furnishings were minimal, so the place felt spacious, despite the size. I admired the wooden floors.  “That was a requirement,” she explained, “I can’t stand vacuum cleaners for the noise. There is no TV here for the same reason.”

Yulia showed me the couch and the fridge, and made tea.  As we drank it, I observed dozens of frameless postcard sized photographs adorning the walls. Some of them were actual postcards, others, Yulia took on her trips.  “You take beautiful pictures, I said.”  “Thanks,” she replied, “It’s all according to Gauss, as you know.”  “Excuse me?”  “Well, I take thousands of pictures.  Most of them will be average, but a small fraction are bound to be very good.”  “Assuming the quality is normally distributed.”  “It would be, wouldn’t it?”

After the tea she took me to a grocery store so I could buy whatever I liked to eat.  I made salad for dinner.  Yulia declined my offer to share it with me, because she wouldn’t eat after 5.  As I ate, she checked something on her computer, and said: “You should go to the British museum tonight. It’s open until 10 on Thursdays, and they have that book of the dead exhibit there now.”  “Will you come along?”  I asked.  “No, I’ve already been, and I want to send a few e-mails tonight, but you should go.  Here is the map.  (She explained what bus to take and where to get off it.)  By the way, take this mobile phone.  Use it to make calls in the country, while you are here.  Call me if you need anything.  Oh, and take the keys, too.”

When I came back from the British Museum, we talked some more about applied mathematics and travels.  It was pretty cold in the apartment, but she gave me a pair of fuzzy socks to sleep in and an extra blanket, so I was very comfortable.

In the morning, Yulia made me coffee and explained how to get to my various errands during the day.  I told her that I was going to a milonga after dinner.  “Do you want to come along and see what it’s like?”  I asked.  “No,” she said, “I have a mime class tonight.  Where is that tango party?” I read the address to her.  “And how late?”  “Until one or two o’clock.”  “Ah, you’ll need to take the same bus you took to the British museum to get there, but to get back, take a night bus from Piccadilly Circus.”

When I got back late afternoon, Yulia wasn’t there.  Lying on a little table were two pages printed off Google maps, marked with instructions how to get to and from the milonga.  I went out and returned late.  When I woke up at 10:15 Saturday morning, Yulia was already up.  “Do you want to go to the Old Westminster walking tour?” she asked.  “Sure,” I said.  What time is it at?  “Eleven. It’ll take you about 25 minutes to get there, so you have 10 minutes to get ready.”  “No, I said, I can’t go without breakfast.”  “I’ll make you some to go. Just get dressed. It’s a really good tour; you don’t want to miss it.”  “Oh, thanks. Are you coming?”  “No, she said, I’ve already done that one in the summer, when my mom was here.”  In 10 minutes I was on my way, equipped with a little bag containing a thermos with coffee, a sandwich with sprouts and vegetables, and some napkins.  Yulia sent me a text message describing the tour meeting place and called me close to 11 to make sure I was OK.  “There is also a Harry Potter tour at 2, meeting at the same spot,” she said. I went to both tours, had dinner, and even more sightseeing after.

Between Thursday evening and Sunday afternoon, I visited the British Museum, the National Gallery, Tate modern, Westminster Abbey, and the Regents Park.  I toured Old Westminster and Harry Potter sights.  I walked along the South bank of the Thames.  I bought a cool dress for tango on Portobello Street for 20 pounds.  I was comfortable: Yulia prepared careful instructions for my excursions, packed breakfast and lunch for me when I was in a hurry and called to check how I was doing. But she wouldn’t do anything with me.

Still, I thought about this trip very fondly months later, and not so much for sightseeing.  I learned that it was possible to host people without the pressure to entertain them.  I thought of Yulia, when I decided to buy a small bright loft with a wooden floor.  I started taking several photographs of every view I fancied, so as to hit a good one.

A few months after the trip, I received an e-mail from Yulia, asking about a common acquaintance.  “Hey, I wrote in my response, I have just been thinking about my outstandingly insightful visit last year – all thanks to you.  I am going to write a speech about it!”  “Thanks for your kind words,” she responded, “I froze you to death here.  After you had left, I weather-proofed my windows and cleaned my coffee maker.  You visit helped me re-evaluate my quality of life.”

It is the little unexpected jewels of new perspective that stay with us for a long time that make travel and new connections so precious.

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