I place two coffee cups gently on the counter, as if each is fragile antique china I had picked up at Portobello market. The mugs feature a map of the London Underground and the ubiquitous subway warning, “Mind the Gap.” “I’ve been looking for these all over London,” I announce to the clerk in the duty free shop at Heathrow Airport. It is an hour before our plane will return to the United States, after 10 days in London and Wales.
The clerk does not seem to understand the fascination tourists have with this particular souvenir. He probably shares the view of The Urban Dictionary, which describes ‘Mind the Gap’ as “repeated by stupid, annoying, American tourists who find the phrase fascinating and funny.” Whatever the clerk might think, he seems intrigued by my enthusiasm. He looks squarely at my smiling face, and asks,“Why?”
I begin to explain, unaware of the queue of international customers behind me. “Well, you see ‘Mind the Gap’ is an expression we don’t have in the United States.” I say. “And it really means more than it says. You see . . . “ The clerk nods, and hands me my credit card in tandem with the hastily wrapped package. He politely dismisses me, using the expression that Brits seem to use at the close of social and economic transactions. “Cheers.”
Language differences are an entertainment. Earlier in the trip, I had flummoxed the ladies in an optician shop when I told them I wanted to buy a pair of cheaters. We speak the same language but not the same slang. As George Bernard Shaw observed, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” Quite right. In the United Kingdom, one may enjoy faggots for breakfast, bangers and mash at the pub, and bubble and squeak for several days after the Sunday roast. Mums and dads cover skinned knees with pasties. Drivers operate their hooters and winkers to get the attention of lorries and motorcars. On a rainy day, one is wise to wear a mackintosh and a pair of wellies. Of all these expressions, the mindful warning on the subway is my favorite.
On the London Underground, a recorded voice politely warns riders to “Mind the Gap,” between train and platform. The announcement features a female voice speaking like a posh schoolmistress. Her tone is softly lyrical. She sounds like someone who would help a wobbly elderly lady across the road. “Come along darling. Mind the step, now!”
“Mind the Gap!” I say to my daughter. “What a cool expression. And so British.” She grimaces. Liz hates my running audible commentary when I travel. So does her sister, Susanna, who is not with us for this trip. She would recall how, years ago, she blushed at my acknowledgement of an odd hairdo. “Don’t be embarrassed,” I had explained to my pre-teen daughter.“That girl wouldn’t have a purple Mohawk if she didn’t want people to notice her.”
I make no apologies for being a people-watcher, a chronic eavesdropper and a lover of the expansiveness of language: the way it is fluid and figurative. Consider the differences between American and English warnings. When Americans want people to use caution, we tell them to “Watch out!” Our warnings limit the audience to a single sense: sight. Conversely, “Mind the gap,” asks the passenger to use several senses: to see, hear, and feel the pavement underfoot.
I especially appreciate “Mind the Gap,” because it suggests a deeper meaning, reminding me of a couple of other phrases that, coincidentally, relate to transportation. Printed on my car side mirror is the sentence,“Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” Flight attendants announce,“The best exit might be behind you,” Both suggest the possibility of danger and the value of mindfulness.
After the London Underground, our UK trip continued in an automobile through rural Wales. My husband navigated our rental car along the left-side of narrow winding roads, some single track, hemmed by six-foot hedges, no shoulders. In urgent staccato voices, we warned: Mind the sheep. Mind the hedge. Mind the oncoming car.
I cannot imagine a better vehicle for “Mind the Gap,” than a coffee cup. Morning is a hybrid of before and after—before the workday begins, and after the sleep. Each morning, I reach for my London Underground mug. It re-minds me to consider the gaps and transitions in my day and my life: between coffee and shower, between home and office, between the empty nest and retirement, between the here-and-now and forever-after.
Notes on process: I began with pages of spontaneity: journal entries and incomplete thoughts that referred to twice-daily pub visits, beers named Courage and Brains, but no Heart, the surfers in wetsuits at the Gower, Dylan Thomas’ house, his hair, his favorite pubs (and there were many) and the pub in Fishguard where citizens gather to play the folk music “banned in 1870.” The music created one of those “moments” that we all wish for in life, where everything seems to makes sense (for a few minutes, at least). Also, I wrote about my brother’s tendency to make friends with strangers and how I felt I was looking at our Dad while he stood there at the bar, making the bartenders in pubs guess where he is from (Welsh mistook his southern accent for Australian). All these disconnected events and observances would be meaningful only to myself and my fellow travelers. The task in an essay is to find connections and create a meaningful journey for the reader. Beginning an essay is always the most difficult part of the process, in my experience. When I found the Mind the Gap cup at Heathrow, I knew what my beginning would be. Anyone who has written with me knows I love to write from objects. As Flannery O’Connor once said, “The longer you look at an object, the more of the world you see in it.”