“Ladies and gentlemen, due to severe thunderstorms coming through Chicago, there’ll be a bit of a delay in our departure. Sorry for the inconvenience…” Tuning out the rest of the bad excuse for a sympathy pitch, I sighed. Already my grand adventure was getting off to a bumpy start. Here I was, heading off into the great unknown (otherwise known as Europe) for three months of self-discovery and, it was to be hoped, a break from the slightly claustrophobic life of a full-time, stay-at-home college student…and we couldn’t even get off the ground. Not wanting to endanger my depleting stack of reading material, I sighed and went back to studying faces around me.
After switching seats with a man who was determined to stay with his wife, a romantic gesture, I thought sentimentally, I settled next to a friendly businessman who was happy enough to exchange civilities and show me pictures of his children in Mexico. Discovering that we also had an extra seat, I couldn’t help but think I had gotten the better end of the deal after all. Half a book and a few rounds of reminiscence-swapping with homesick returnees later -the one about British food was particularly edifying-, we were on our way. I had forgotten I can’t sleep on planes. Too bad the movies were all re-runs. Yet somehow, between constant channel-switching and the restless search for that one comfortable spot, I must have drifted off because I awoke with the sun in my eyes, slightly cramped but all to eager to begin my adventures.
It wasn’t until I had located my bags and was dragging my way through the torturous length of the customs line that I realized I had missed my train. Sh-oot. A rush to the nearest pay phone did little to reassure me and I watched sadly as my small amount of foreign change was devoured by the hungry metal box, giving me only seconds to explain my plight and receive well-meaning but unhelpful advice. “Call another person, change your ticket. I wish I could help, but…” Like it or not, I was on my own. This is what I had wanted right? Did juggling two jobs, 50 hours a week for the entire summer, plus months of frantic preparation mean nothing? I squared my shoulders, determined to make this work…somehow. Two hours later I sat in a crowded train station, a sense of self-pity being to rear its ugly head. Stop that! I told myself sternly and getting up, I dusted myself off and shouldered my bags, wincing as I did so. Why did I have to bring so many books…Ignoring the small, complaining voice in my head, I took stock of my situation.
A heroic attempt to change my ticket -braving the underground London tube to do so- had ended in failure. That and the fact that I conveniently left the emergency numbers Mum had so carefully collected for me at the airport left me with few options and less hope. (Note to self: NEVER allow people to give me important information on small scraps of paper!) But, after a clean change of clothing and the small victory of finding my way to the local grocery store for a bottle of milk and a packet of Cornish pasties, I began to feel much the better for this assertion of efficient independence. Devising a plan of action, I set out for a guest house that my family had been wont to frequent during our brief stays in the foggy city.
Despite my unenviable position, I couldn’t help but relish the affect my “distressed” appearance had on the male British population every time I glanced helplessly between my suitcase and a long flight of stairs. In this interesting fashion, I trudged my way around London, becoming intimately acquainted with every internet café along the way, my computer being my sole contact with the saner world of maps and information. Walking through a picturesque park, I stopped briefly to enjoy the sights around me: dogs and children running about haphazardly, old ladies discussing the weather while strolling arm-in-arm and a learned bicyclist giving his girlfriend her first lesson. Finding my hopes once again crushed -the guest house was full-, I swallowed a bitter protest and meekly took the card and recommendation of another guest house “just down the road”, a term I found both irritatingly misleading and very typical of the culture in which I found myself.
A quick trip to the local MacDonald’s for free Wifi allowed me to obtain more precise directions, though I suffered the unwanted company of a guy who I could feel looking over my shoulder at my computer even while I glared significantly at several empty seats close by. Half an hour later, I stood in front of one of the many modest stone houses squashed together on a tiny street, desperately ringing the door bell of what I fervently hoped would be my last stop of the day. When the door finally opened to reveal a boy with dark eyes and a shy smile, I became all too aware of messy hair, clothes askew and face flushed and panting from my suitcase-lifting exertions.
After depositing me and my luggage on the stairs, he disappeared into the depths of the old English house while I caught my breath and awaited my fate. Returning to say they had just had a cancellation, he gave another shy smile and I had to suppress a strong urge to throw my arms around his neck. I was able to resist, however, and the nice boy with dark eyes led on, unaware of how close he had come to being the recipient of one girl’s enthusiastic gratitude. I immediately fell in love with my room, a tiny closet at the very top of the house, complete with its own TV and tea kettle, cringing inwardly at the price, but resolutely putting it down to necessary expenditure. Hot water -and lots of it- soon set me to rights, and I allowed myself to enjoy the temporary luxury that had come my way.
For a time, all seemed to go well, I had found a telephone number and let my wondering relatives know that I was still alive and in one piece, (four, I joked, if you count the luggage!) Deciding an alarm clock was a wise precaution if I didn’t want to miss another bus the next morning, I set off to find my hosts. When knocking on several doors proved fruitless, I grudgingly found my way to the pay phone. Twenty minutes later, who should knock on my door but the nice-looking boy! Basking in the comfort of a favorite “I Love Nerds” t-shirt and hair that had finally settled into a damp, but not unattractive, curly mass, I beamed a welcome, eliciting another shy smile and the hope that I would “come back soon!” Exhausted by the day’s adventures, and determined to begin afresh on the morrow, I set the clock and spent the next few hours fighting jet lag before finally falling into a restless sleep.