Our tour manager called it "zombie day." It was the first night we got together as a group, and we'd all been up for at least two full days once time changes have been accounted for. There's no telling what sort of brain-snacking rage machines you'll run into on zombie day. But our group was the happily undead, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with cameras at the ready. Already.
Hotel management finally had my room ready at 3 p.m., hours after I'd actually arrived at the hotel. I stood under the scalding water in my poorly draining, drafty shower for what felt like hours, then I stumbled down the stairs and back out to the lobby just in time to walk out the door with 35 strangers — most of whom are inching toward 35 years my senior.
It occurs to me that I haven't actually explained why I'm here: This is a work trip. (Paid. In. Full.) I'm traveling with a group of Master Gardeners from Orange County, Calif., on this trip called a Garden Getaway Tour. Sounds fancy, right? The connection to the magazine I work for: The company is hoping to entice garden centers, my readers, to get involved and invite their customers on these trips. Which means more sales for the travel company and better customer relationships for the garden centers. Which is important in such a highly competitive retail marketplace. Oh, it's so easy to slip into Publicationese. I'm doing double blog and photo duty, plus covering the event afterward in the magazine.
I chatted with a few of my fellow tour participants by the time we'd wound our way through downtown, across George Street and down Hanover Street until the castle was in full view before us, a wide expanse of meadow stretching out and down to our left as we stopped to pose for a photo.
I made my grand debut at our welcome reception, in an airy restaurant decorated with spare blond wood fixtures. There were bottles of wine and trays of passed canapés; our tour manager read an inspired poem about paying attention to the small miracles around us; I straightened up to introduce myself properly.
My fellow travelers was suitably enamored, given my age and looks and relative cheeriness. The white wine certainly didn't help. I said I looked forward to getting to know all of them, and I actually meant it. A table of four lovely people — two Master Gardeners, two spouses — invited me to sit down and chat, then tried to coerce me into training to become a Mater Gardener myself. Whoa. (I still kill everything I touch, despite two and a half years in this position; they assured me that's not what the program is about. Bah.)
The reception was particularly nice, not because of the fried haggis balls or the mini shepherd's pies but because they kept filling our wine glasses. Suddenly, it was nearly 7 p.m., I was very nearly "pissed," and I very nearly hadn't mingled at all. I rushed over to another table to say hello to another four lovely people. Not two minutes after I sat down, I offered my most proper introduction: knocking a full glass of red wine over with my clumsy, half-drunk ape-armed bear paw.
My lap monopolized the spill, and I stared in horror at my favorite white and khaki cotton skirt, which now sported a massive pink stain. "Better you than me!" the woman next to me shrieked. I hate her.
I ran to the server station and dumped table salt and club soda all over it — I’m still not sure what that's supposed to do — then made a hasty exit.
I changed for dinner and took my skirt to the front desk to be cleaned. They've lost my skirt now, by the way. Maybe this was the United Kingdom's way of telling me I'd packed like an idiot and had no business dressing for a garden party, planning to be traipsing around like some wood nymph, when I'm really supposed to be slogging through the grounds with a bunch of hardcore gardeners.
Maybe. Or maybe I’m just clumsy.