As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’ve decided to really buckle down with regard to my finances, which means I probably won’t be doing much traveling anytime soon. With airfare to Europe at an all-time low, it’s been tempting to break this resolution – but so far I’ve stuck with it. If I can afford a trip up-front, I’ll take it. Until then, though, I’m confined to the greater Chicago metropolitan area.
Since this is partially a travel blog, I’ve decided to look back on trips I took before The Olive Branch came into existence: primarily, my summer in Europe. I was only 21 when I took this trip, but I think that certain parts of the adventure really shaped me into who I am today. I learned that I wanted to become that girl – the travel girl. The adventure-loving girl. The girl who knows about world politics and foreign culture. It was really my summer in Europe that set the course for many of the choices I made in my 20s.
It was a summer of exploration. I got a Eurail pass and took the train throughout France, Switzerland and Germany, with a short jaunt in London to kick the whole thing off. I took this trip solo, but I had people to meet up with along the way: My cousin John, my good friend Nicole (a German girl who’d been a foreign exchange student at my high school), and Sylvie, who’d been my au pair when I was a little girl.
I gathered so much information prior to my trip. I created a scrapbook with all of my plans, including maps, restaurants, language guides and backpacking itineraries. Of course, I ended up using none of it.
This would be my first trip to Europe, a place I’d been dreaming about for years. Looking back now, I almost miss the kind of excitement that’s unique to being a new traveler. Though I’m more seasoned now, the whole thing was such an anomaly back then.
With being new to travel, though, come the inevitable blunders. The night before I was supposed to board a plane for Berlin, I realized that I’d lost my passport. I had to put off my trip for an additional two weeks, expediting a new passport in the meantime. Doing so meant that I had to completely reroute my trip, traveling not from Berlin to London, but London to Berlin, and then back to London again to return home (this was the cheapest airfare available at that point).
When all was said and done, everything worked out. On my flight to London, I was seated next to a handsome young Brit who ordered tea from the stewardess, a contrast to my enthusiastic coffee selection.
My dad had convinced me that it’d be really fun to arrive in London without having an inkling as to where I’d stay. When I arrived at Heathrow, the immigration officer glanced at my passport, asking me about my plans. The conversation went something like this:
“What do you plan to do in the UK?”
“I’m not really sure! I’ll just see where the trip leads me.”
Bit of a side-eye.
“Where do you plan to stay?”
“Oh, I don’t know! I figured I’d just find something.”
Long, cold silence.
“How long will you be here?”
“Only two days, and then I’m going to France.”
“What do you plan to do in France?”
“I’m meeting my cousin there, and probably doing a bit of traveling around.”
“And where does your cousin live?”
“I’m not really sure, actually.”
The poor woman probably thought I wouldn’t survive the trip.
I cringe looking back on this – I must’ve sounded like such a ditzy, idealistic American. Nonetheless, despite her icy stares, she eventually let me through immigration and customs, and I was on my way.
The train from Heathrow into the city was so exciting. There were British accents all around me, and the neighborhoods I glimpsed as the train sped by were historic and picturesque, exactly as I’d always imagined them.
I took the tube (London’s subway) out to Earl’s Court, the neighborhood I’d decided upon from my research. It seemed both traveler-friendly and sort’ve authentically local. I stumbled upon a small and clean-looking hotel, and after asking the front desk clerk about rates and accidentally saying “dollars” instead of “pounds,” I decided to take a small room.
I was tired because of the time difference, but I wanted to stick it out. It was only about 2 p.m. local time, and I’d only be in London for two nights. I took my tube map and whatever book I was reading at the time, and headed out to see the sights on foot.
When I got off the train at Westminster, I knew I was somewhere near Big Ben, but I wasn’t sure how I’d find it. I figured I’d have to walk a few blocks before I stumbled upon it. What happened instead was one of the coolest moments of my life. As I walked up the steps to the street, it was literally right there, towering over me, almost smacking me in the face with its grandiosity. I was completely stunned – it hit me that I was REALLY here. I was in London, the city I’d been dreaming about all my life.
That night, I walked around Westminster, took a ride on the London Eye, and stopped at a pub for dinner before heading back to my inn. At some point, I also stopped into an electronics store to pick up a pre-paid flip phone. Getting international service on my own phone line would’ve been astronomically expensive on my college budget, so I decided to simply buy a pre-paid phone when I got there. So yes, I arrived on a different continent with no hotel reservations and no way to get in touch with anyone. Genius, I know.
The next day, I hit up some more sights. I got around by walking and taking the tube, which to this day remains my favorite transit system ever (which is saying something, because I have a very deep and abiding love for public transit). I watched the changing of the guard at Kensington Palace, went to the street market in SoHo, visited St. Paul’s Cathedral, read my book in St. James Park, checked out the shopping at Harrods (kind of the UK’s version of Nordstrom or Macy’s), and wandered aimlessly around Chelsea, looking at the architecture and the gorgeous neighborhoods.
I spent my mornings at my hotel, blogging while drinking milky English tea in the lobby. (That was a totally different blog, and unfortunately I can’t seem to find it anywhere. I must’ve deleted it.) The lobby, located on the second floor, faced the garden on the rear of the building, and it was open, airy and cozily decorated, always stocked with tea, fresh milk, fruit and cereal. To this day, I can still remember how it smelled. I loved sitting out on the balcony overlooking the garden, writing and taking it all in.
My time in London was admittedly short (and touristy), but it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the city. In fact, I’ve been trying to go back for a longer stay ever since. If you know me personally, you may know that I very seriously considered going to graduate school in London. I was even accepted into a literature program at King’s College. It wasn’t to be, though. Maybe someday I’ll get to go back and explore the city in full. But by this point on my European adventure, my time in London had come to a close. It was time to head to Paris, where I’d be spending nearly a month hanging out with my cousin John and his wonderful, bohemian friends – my first taste of a lifestyle I’d grow to aspire to. But that’s a story for another day.