After living in New York and finishing college with a thoroughly lucrative degree in literature and fiction writing, I had absolutely no expectation of getting a job in the city. If I had to come home to California, I wanted to have something to look forward to while I searched for minimum-wage work and figured out my next step.
A month or so before graduation I found an incredible deal to London, including hotel, for travel that spring. Perfect. English-speaking, familiar culture, another big city — easy-peasy.
It would be my first international trip; my friends were still in school and truthfully, it didn’t occur to me to ask anyone to go with me. I would start in London, then travel to Oxford to make it a week.
Although I was looking forward to my journey, I’m not a planner, and I certainly wasn’t one at 20, so when I arrived in London, new passport in hand, I had no expectations and very little preparation.
“What’s the purpose of your stay?” asked the customs agent, unenthusiastic but intense.
“I’m just traveling” I answered.
“Are you in school?’
“I just graduated.”
“What are you planning to do here?” he asked.
“Look around?” I said, as sharp as ever.
“And what are you planning to look at?”
I tried to access my mental flip book of superficial London knowledge, but under pressure and after the long flight, my mind was blank.
“Ah? The Tower of London?” I finally said. “And um, that big wheel.”
Clearly exasperated and probably assuming I was too dense to be much trouble, the customs agent eventually let me into his country.
My hotel, not surprisingly, turned out to be smaller than my dorm room in New York, had one harsh blue bulb hanging from the ceiling and an equally depressing tiny, grubby window.
Although I had managed to feed myself adequately enough for the last several years, I suddenly felt shy and unsure, which led to my subsisting mainly on sandwiches from vending machines.
Typically confident, I felt small and bone-crushingly alone, and the low blood sugar from my self-imposed rations probably wasn’t helping my morale.
This trip was back in the day when adding an international plan to your cellphone cost almost as much as the trip itself, so I brought a prepaid calling card. I remember standing in one of the ubiquitous red phone booths, surrounded by sex ads, crying as I called home.
I can recall little of what I did on that first trip abroad, although true to my word I made it to the Tower of London and laughed inappropriately when the tour guide told us that the bear that once lived there and swam in the moat had died of cholera.
I also eventually ate a proper meal and interacted with some humans who weren’t grilling me for official purposes. I sent postcards that I hoped sounded normal but was told later they reeked of loneliness.
As abysmal as that first trip was, it didn’t deter me from the next one. Who was it who said that when you’re traveling you swear never to again, but that as soon as you’re home you can’t wait for the next adventure?
All that loneliness taught me how to be lonely and also how not to be lonely, and how to do everything better next time.
I’m still not much of a planner but now I’m better at making that spontaneity fun and only sometimes do I end up in the backwoods of Wales, turning what should have been an easy 30-minute excursion into a four-hour ordeal.
For years since that first trip, when I’ve missed a connection or am flagging and hungry, I’ve thought about that time and said to myself, “At least this isn’t that first time in London!” And that puts everything into perspective.
Those early lessons about how to be comfortable in the world will always be useful, whether I’m close to home or far afield. Of course, traveling with friends can be great too, but I appreciate them so much more for not always having them by my side.