I was 21 the first time. I was equal parts excited and scared, but mostly just wanted to get it over with. My friends all offered their own expert advice: “Have a glass of wine beforehand!” “Don’t wear a belt!” “Sleep through it if you can.” That last one was laughable. I was too anxious to rest even the night before, worried that I would make some amateur mistake, like leaving my shoes on or needing to use the bathroom. Luckily, those fears were unfounded. It all came pretty natural. It was easy. Fun, even. I needed a shower afterwards, but that was my only complaint. Actually, I couldn’t wait to do it again. I mean, how often do you start the night in Newark and end up in London?
Yeah, I’m talking about my first time flying, you sickos.
Get your mind out of the gutter, why don’t you? My grandmother reads this blog.
I was traveling to London as part of a study abroad program. My school had just opened a London campus, an investment that, to the best of my recollection, consisted of five three-credit courses, two classrooms and a laser printer.
The program was pretty dismal, as far as learning opportunities go, but that didn’t bother me. It wasn’t the studying piece that appealed to me so much as the part about living abroad. I enrolled so that I could have the chance to travel Europe. To eat paella in Spain. Drink beer in Germany. Get fined on a water taxi in Venice.
I didn’t expect much in the way of a formal education. Neither did anyone else – except for maybe the half-dozen culinary students who enrolled specifically to take a course in British Cuisine. They, apparently, were interested in getting a useless education.
When I arrived in London, I had just finished a six-month internship at an electricity company in Philadelphia. I was paid $10/hour to answer their toll-free media line, take detailed notes of customer complaints and then watch my manager throw them in a trashcan. It was a huge step up from my previous internship at the Valley Forge visitors’ bureau, which paid me $7/hour to answer their toll-free number and suggest various activities to tourists who, for the most part, just wanted to know how to get tickets for the Liberty Bell.
This is a long way of saying that when I showed up London, I had very little money – a misfortune that was compounded by the fact that it was 2003 and the exchange rate was a whopping 1.6 in favor of the pound.
I stuck to a budget with a level of dedication and diligence that I had never before possessed and haven’t been capable of since. I tracked every pound I spent, recording each cup of tea, postage stamp, and Tube trip I purchased in a pocket notebook at the end of the day. I hardly ever ate out, never went shopping and made embarrassingly small donations when I visited museums. When my friends and I split a bill, we calculated it to the pence, which I then logged in my budget, usually at the table, just to prove a point – that being, “don’t ask me to subsidize your appetizers.”
I still have the notebook, which, in and of itself, is sort of amazing – but especially so since the trip, which lasted more than three months, cost roughly £900. That figure included groceries, entertainment, cover charges, gifts, souvenirs, weekend trips to Berlin and Wales, a day in Paris and a week in Italy. Basically, everything except my rent and tuition – which I would have had to pay in Philadelphia anyway.
There’s budget travel and then there’s Nova travel. I’m out of habit nowadays, but I can still show you how to do it. I wrote it all down so that I wouldn’t forget.
My circle of friends in London were a cartoonish figure of diversity, spanning almost every race, religion, sexual orientation and socioeconomic background imaginable. Under any other circumstances, we probably wouldn’t talk to one another, let alone willingly vacation in Italy together.
Like any good team, we accepted that the group was only as strong as our poorest member – which meant that when one of us booked the £1 flight to Milan that left at 4 a.m. from Gatwick airport, we all booked it. If one of us wanted to stay at a $12 co-ed hostel in Berlin, then we all piled. Half of us even turned a blind eye when the rest of the group snuck into the kitchen after midnight to steal snacks for the following day’s train ride.
Drinks, of course, were prohibitively expensive. But we didn’t let that stop us from having lots of them. We’d take turns buying bottles of bottom-shelf liquor from Sainsbury’s and swig it from coffee mugs in our dorm rooms starting at dinner. A few hours later, we’d show up at a local nightclub and then promptly tackle an oscillating fan or tip over a trashcan.
“We’re here,” we seemed to say. “We came to party.”
In time, we expanded our repertoire to include sightseeing and studying. We celebrated birthdays and Thanksgiving. We rode horses on the countryside and got lost in the city. We did most of it together and by the end of the trip, we were more of a family than friends. We knew each other’s drink orders and dietary restrictions. We could mimic each other’s dance moves and catchphrases. We could recount at least one epic night out for each person.
Mine involved taking a single shot of tequila in Italy, performing a series of high kicks on the way back to our hotel, and then lying on a mattress in the middle of the floor, while flicking the light switch on and off. When someone suggested that I stop, I said, “No, you stop. I’m working it.”
It’s a comeback that made very little sense, but still seemed to sum things up. We still say it to this day. Thirteen years later.
If I owe that group of people anything, it’s a “thank you” for being patient with me as I learned how to travel. Most of us didn’t know what we were doing, but only one of us took it so far as to have a panic attack in Rome when she realized, for the first time, that the whole world didn’t speak English – which was a bit of a blessing considering that the first thing I said when I arrived was, “This city smells like pee.”
I spent the night of October 31, 2003 pretending to read a book in a hotel bathtub while everyone else went out and celebrated a holiday that most of Italy didn’t know existed.
The next day, one of my closest friends and I split from the pack to visit the ruins of Pompeii. Seeing people’s final moments, immortalized in plaster and ash probably wasn’t the best activity for someone battling anxiety, but it beat what the rest of the group was planning to do, which was visit the Vatican. If given the choice between listening to vague threats of fire and brimstone and seeing evidence of the real thing, I’ll take the latter.
At least that option involved a boat ride.
I came back to London last Thursday. Thirteen years have passed and I’ve become far more competent at traveling solo. The exchange rate has fallen to a manageable 1.3 and my credit card limit has increased by 4500 percent. I still only speak one language, but I’m competent at faking at least three others. I’ve been on hundreds of flights across four continents and feel confident that I can catch a train with 60 seconds on the clock. I still can’t effectively use a map, but I have an iPhone app and, most days, that’s good enough. I have half as much luggage, but twice as much baggage, because the only drawback to traveling as an adult is that you know a little bit more about how the world works and what you’re supposed to be doing in it.
For this visit to London, I traded the pristine streets and manicured gardens of Kensington for the trendy boutiques and pop-up markets of Shoreditch. It’s not as pretty, but I blend in better. I always preferred graffiti to flowers anyway. On Saturday night, I sat at a window seat in a corner bar called The Verge and watched a 20-something girl kick her foot into the air so that her boyfriend could tie her sneaker. It wasn’t even 8 p.m. and they were both so wildly drunk that I would have been surprised to learn that they both made it 9. But that’s OK – they’re working it, everybody.
They made me miss my youth. But since I can’t have that back, I’d at least like to have my friends. Just for one night. For old time’s sake.
London is nothing like I remembered – likely because I’m nothing like I used to be. I haven’t decided if I still love it, or if it was better off the way I remembered it. I might have more work to do here, but something tells me I’ve already taken all I could from this city.
Either way, I’m glad I came. The places change. You change. But you never realize how much until you go back.