It’s only fitting I end Euro Stories with the beginning. Telling my tale in reverse in my own way. In other words: ass backwards. I tend to do things the hard way. I can’t just follow the simple path. I don’t do things halfheartedly. No matter how big or small the task – I clean the toilet with as much passion as I write this blog – I think you get the point. I care about every single thing I do. Now, this has been known to backfire, on more than one occasion, but I just don’t know another way through life.
When my big life-changing plan fell through for the second time, I had to really take stock of my dreams, goals, and ultimately, what I really want to achieve with this devastating setback. Only a handful of people knew that with a year of savings, a partial scholarship, and one student loan, I still did not have the funds to secure a student visa in the United Kingdom. Beyond funding, my accommodation in East London were no longer secure, despite the timely submission of the requisite application and wire deposit sent by the due date, I was informed via email that I was on the waiting list. To the Brits, I was a poor and ugly American. A true invalid.
I needed to talk this one out. I needed a soundboard outside of my own mind. I needed someone to say, “It’s going to be O.K.” What I received from my closest intimates and family was an overwhelming offer of love, support, and money. My dad even offered his retirement fund to the deficient. I was touched that I had truly loving people close to me. The offer alone meant more to me than the actual money. To that end, I would not take a dime from any of them. At this point, I had raised a substantial amount of money, but still fell short. I could not, and would not, beg, borrow, or steal any more currency for this dream. The fact that I was $20,000 short with a month prior to the start of fall session was my complete and total fault. I spent 18 months of my life (not counting all the years of university) working towards an academic career that was simply not fiscally possible for someone like me. I got into a great program. I was considered a desirable candidate by a major college. I had the right stuff just not the green stuff.
I had bought a non-refundable one-way ticket to London for super cheap several months before school was due to start and now, stuck with a stupid British Airways airline ticket quietly taunting me. My first thought was to call it a loss, withdraw my resignation notice from my boring insurance job, and just continue on with my life until I could figure out my next move. Could I do that? Just forgo all these months of planning and stay in St. Pete? Maybe I could move and start over elsewhere?
Or should I just go?
I’ve never been to the UK or Europe. I’ve never backpacked or stayed in a hostel. My Spanish is all right but my French is poor. I’ve never used any other currency besides American coins and paper money. Rarely, do I use public transportation. Moreover, could I do this alone? Julia Roberts managed to eat, pray, and love solo, but could Jenn do the same, but you know, minus the pray part?
I went back and forth for a long time. I would never classify myself as a globetrotting adventuress but here I was faced with a fork in my road. Do I go big or just stay home? No one else could make this decision for me. No matter how much I pondered the pros and cons, I was terrified at what was to be my next move. I consulted my therapist. She advised I borrow money from my friends and family and not give up my scholastic career. My rebuttal (which was probably the point) was to counter my sweet grandmotherly therapist with a backup plan. I shrugged my shoulders and blurted out, “I could just travel for a while and customize my own curriculum.”
And that is just what I did. I spent the next few weeks researching, planning, and budgeting for my adventure. Buying things I needed to travel smart and light, small and disposable, and whenever possible, items that serve dual functions. I learned how to travel safely as a lone lady. I found the safer cities. I read everything. My Pinterest board providing inspirational photos to guide my trip. I located hostels in major cities using Booking.com (for the filtering system and no-BS reviews) and priced accordingly. I booked my first ever hostel located in Earls Court right off the Piccadilly Line an hour away from Heathrow airport. It was the only one I could afford in London.
Lastly, I needed a ticket back to the States to avoid Passport Control Hell and the cheapest return ticket was from Madrid to Portland, Oregon. The plan was to spend five weeks abroad and return to the States by way of the Pacific Northwest to see my friends and hike away my jetlag in the magical forests that abound outside of one of my favorite American cities. I vowed to return to St. Pete by my birthday, November 26th. All I had to do to was make it in Europe alone. NBD!
“Uh, there are no stamps in your passport,” the Passport Control agent said peering over his bifocals between the small navy book and me.
“I’ve been waiting 33 years to get here” I reply with a smile as the magical metallic clicking of a stamper fills my ears.
The above scenario would play out quite a few more times during my journey, not the bit about the lack of stampage per se, yet the questioning part would continue. Immigration is tight in the UK. I had all my documents printed out as to avoid ending up in the pen or worse escorted to a private office for further questioning. I witnessed both and let me tell you, nothing scarier than trying to have pertinent documents faxed from your native country. Luckily, I observed from a safe distance.
Travel Tip: Dealing with Immigration/ Passport Control: Smile, be polite, and speak with confidence only when spoken to, and have all necessary paperwork on hand (with copies in your luggage). These agents do not play.
After I received my very first stamp in my passport, I took my very first tube ride from Heathrow airport to Earl Court via the dark purple line on the mini Metro map. Arriving right on time, I boarded on the overstuffed carriage and held on tight. Naturally, a big blue box sat boldly outside of the tube greeting me with a gentle nod to Doctor Who. (Over the course of my stay, I would see hordes of fans taking selfies in front of the TARDIS.) I survived the London subway and walked to my hostel without incident. I had lunch in a tiny café. I checked in. Did I mention all the steps and stairs? I packed light and was able to schlep my items without assistance. But damn, there is a shitload of stairs in London!
My roommates in my first dorm-style room became my good friends, instantly. My dream guy lived on the same floor. (My inner perv really began to come through thanks to all the hot Brits.) It was unseasonably warm and dry for September and the windows were constantly open, the low hum of foot traffic, and distant voices flowing in and out with the breeze. For 10 days I was to live among my people. As an anglophile with degrees in British Literature, with several BBC, Sky and ITV shows under my belt, and a soft spot for all things twee, I was sure to make it big.
London is not like Downton Abbey, at least, not the city part. It’s a major city located on a barrier island that is very, very old and very, very grand. The buildings are older than anything in America. The size and scope is only comparable to the Smithsonian which is still an infant compared to the Big Smoke. We don’t have war damage still visible on our buildings serving as a reminder of two major world wars (9/11 notwithstanding, of course). We have Broadway and Shakespeare in the Park, but they have the West End and The Globe Theatre. There really is nothing like physically occupying a live performance in the Globe with 5-pound Groundling tickets after watching plays on PBS and torrenting National Theatre Live performances. (The one brief shower occurred during this open-air performance. The show continued without a hitch, albeit, with a much soggier audience.) At my big West End debut, I found a cheap matinee ticket and sat four rows away from Martin Freeman playing Richard III at Trafalgar Transformed. My mind was blown.
The museums are free and full of some of the most amazing artifacts I’ve ever seen. I would spend the entire day roaming from room to room viewing Egyptian mummies, Bernini sculptures, and the costumes of Elton John, Mick Jagger, and Elizabeth Taylor. Sadly, the dinosaurs were on vacation. But that didn’t stop me from marveling at the bones of a Giant Sloth and a stuffed DoDo. The National Gallery put me in front of portraits that I’ve only seen in textbooks from Anne Boleyn to Lord Byron in a turban. I actually paid to see the Virginia Woolf exhibit and it was worth the 12-pounds, to see her suicide note and walking stick left on the riverbank of her watery grave. I felt her bone-deep melancholy and hovered over her words – the next time I would feel this overwhelmed by sadness would be in the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. It takes one to know one, they say.
I had a full English breakfast. Fish ‘n’ chips in a pub with a football game playing in the background both teams wearing red. All matter of sweets, biscuits, and crisps found their way into my diet. No tea yet I tried a delicious array of Victorian lemonades.
I walked all over. More than I’ve ever walked before. By the end of the day, I was exhausted and found sleeping in a bunk bend during a heatwave to be easy as pie. I awoke every day excited and ready to explore. An embarrassing Big Red Bus tour around London inadvertently featured a rally for Scottish independence from the UK among Big Ben, London Eye, and Buckingham Palace. A month later, a free walking tour in Barcelona would point out the countdown clock for the vote for Barcelona’s independence from Spain. The irony was not lost on me, that I too, would be going through my own solitary experience seeking personal freedom.
When a country has a Queen, there tends to be a sense of tradition with an invisible perimeter of unspoken rules. I found this out the hard way. Since I appear to be a British citizen and not an obvious tourist, my mistakes were viewed as straight up assholery. The learning curve steep, I endeavored to fit in, or at least, quit embarrassing myself. It was in London that I started to follow the crowd. Do what the masses do. Keep pace, cross the streets accordingly, and no matter what, act like you know what you are doing, eventually, you will figure it out. The passive-aggressive attitude of the Brits, though, was not my favorite. In Europe, you know where you stand, for better or for worse. In England, you never know if they are throwing shade or just being polite. You never have to worry about confrontation, I suppose.
Far from the busy city, I spent a long weekend in the English countryside, walking a proper English dog along the Thames, and residing in a proper English cottage next to an 11th century church. Thankfully, I was able to watch telly and enjoy doggy cuddles as a nice break from the hustle and bustle of Londontown. Though I had intentions on visiting Oxford, I found that my days spent in a real life Turner painting more than enough. Big shout out to the Schwiderski family for letting me visit, treating me to my first Sunday Roast, and showing me that you can be both a parent and a cool adult. My heart was full and grateful in the country. I understand the appeal.
London set the tone for my adventure. I stayed strong and persevered when I would’ve otherwise given up. It was expensive and at times, chaotic. Above all, it showed me that I am smarter, braver, and more beautiful than I could have ever imagine or hoped. There is nothing I can’t do when I put my entire heart into it. Well, except for math.