Going it Alone – Finding A Sense of Place, Wherever I Am
When I win a coveted spot on a spring break study abroad trip to London, I promise myself, this time it will be different. I’ll leave my schedule open, be available for opportunities. I won’t immediately run off by myself and do my own thing. The first few days, I doggedly stick with the plan. Every morning at breakfast, I let my fellow classmates know that I’m up for anything: museums, galleries, musicals. Let’s do this. I walk up to groups of people and offer to join in on making plans for the day. When I make plans to visit Paris and some of London’s outlying towns, I reach out to others who have mentioned going, and ask them to come with me, but I get no takers. After enough blank looks and hesitant “Um…sure”s, I retreat. Perhaps it’s the age difference–after all, most of these people are barely twenty–but I’m not clicking with anyone on this trip. Even my roommate seems slightly terrified of having to share a bathroom with me. On the bright side, that means I can feel free to do what I want, when I want. Hanging out with only my inner monologue and a journal for company may not be the healthiest option, socially speaking, but it’s the devil I know.
Start – ride to KCI with Cameron, his wife, and A—–. Cameron’s wife has never driven K-10 before. Or much of anywhere, really. She’s on a student visa from China. I grip the armrest as casually as I possibly can, and try to appear nonchalant as she weaves from lane to lane, discovering new blind spots, encouraging vehicles to pass her on the right, and simultaneously arguing with her husband about how she’ll find her way back home. The sky threatens snow. Once she pulls up in the drop-off lane, A—– and I scurry out of the car so they can say goodbye.
Once inside the airport, we wait just outside the security checkpoint until the last minute, as food prices will soar and available bathrooms disappear once we hand our ticket and ID to the first TSA screener. One of the London Review guys starts teaching a few of the girls how to play poker while we wait for the stragglers. It’s rainy in Chicago when we land, and we have nowhere to be thanks to an unexpected four-hour layover. While a few of the students resume their game of high-stakes poker and trade Snapchat handles, four of us scout for a decent restaurant and wi-fi and report back within a few minutes. Guacamole and chips duly inhaled. Mango-lime juice “corrected” with tequila behind a row of potted palms. What. Every door handle smells like someone smeared poop on it. I wash my hands every few minutes, and consider investing in a package of aloe-infused toddler bum-wipes. My hands are practically cracking apart, they’re so dry. After hunting through every available kiosk, I pay too much for a small bottle of lotion. Sated, inebriated, and moisturized, I sit down to read Oscar Wilde on my fancy new space-phone. However, the low-battery icon flashes immediately. I scour the lounge baseboards, hunting desperately for an electrical outlet at the airport, but every one of them seems to have been ripped out for scrap copper – I finally ask at the information desk and the attendant points right behind me to a bank of chairs with a power station at the end of each armrest. Trying to stay in the moment, reflect on the trip so far. For once, I didn’t get pulled aside for an extra pat down during my screening. I have finally learned how to take off my belt and put my laptop in its own bin, and it only took me a decade. I count my blessings.
Just in time for my phone to be fully charged and powered down, we finally board. I have an aisle seat, and the man sitting beside me doesn’t want to talk. More unexpected blessings. I’m used to Southwest Airline’s idea of plane food, so I’ve smuggled a half-pound bag of roasted almonds in my purse. United Airlines has a different idea of what constitutes lunch. I nearly weep over the freshly-warmed butterscotch brownie. I’m ruined. I read a horror story about a woman my age dying on an overnight trip because she mixed alcohol and Valium, so I wait an extra two hours to let the tequila burn off before I slam a Klonopin and pray for sleep. No dice. My nervous metabolism treats the pill like so much hairspray before the lighter, burning through it so quickly that my eyes barely go swimmy before they pop back open, riveted to the seatback video screen as a small plane millimeters its way across a wide blue swath. I didn’t turn on the screen. Who turned on the screen? I turn to my seatmate, but he’s lightly snoring, having fully wrapped his complimentary blanket around his head.For a brief moment, I wonder what the screen shows when the plane’s in free-fall.
Once a green fingertip of land appears on the right side of the video screen, I start to doze. By my body-clock, it’s nearing midnight, but the lights flick back on as a pleasant British voice informs me that the local time is 4:55 a.m. Rise and shine, biscuit. My eyes burn from sleep deprivation as I plod my way through a fruit cup and jam croissant, while the flight attendants run one last trolley service before landing. Bleary-eyed, we shuffle off the plane and navigate Heathrow’s maze until we reach a coffee shop, where we wait for the hotel’s shuttle. I’m dying of thirst. I borrow some money from one of my classmates and buy a bottle of water, counting out the foreign coins as carefully as any proud kindergartner. I keep refilling my bottle from the bathroom tap, hoping nobody pays attention. Several of my classmates decide to power through and pretend we didn’t just lose twelve hours, somehow. One of the girls pops her morning meds.
“What are you taking?”
She doesn’t hesitate. “Ecstasy. No, I didn’t bring enough to share. Actually, yes I did. But I took it all on the plane. Nine-day rave.”
“That’s a lot of glow-sticks.”
The shuttle pulls up and we pile on, groggily staring out the window as the driver ushers us through London traffic. Rain streaks the windows, bringing the outside world into soft focus. I want to take pictures of everything, because it all looks different. We barrel down the wrong side of the road and every right turn into oncoming traffic leaves my heart in my throat. I can’t handle this. I make up my mind, then and there, to only walk or take the subway. We wind our way through ever-narrowing streets, until we pull up alongside a stately-looking block of incredibly old buildings. We’re in Kensington, and this building belongs to the Queen of England’s grandfather. One of these royal rooms will be mine for the next nine days. I walk up a short flight of stairs and into the foyer, where I’m greeted by a large picture of the Earl of Strathmore, resplendent in his frills and nipples and six-pack-what-the-hell. How old is this picture? This changes everything.
Mary, our professor/mentor/handler, herds us into the hotel lobby. Some of the students promptly fall asleep on the scattered sofas. I snag a seat by the window, but I can’t help staring in amazement at the grillwork pattern of the radiator cover. I know it’s only fascinating because I’m exhausted and slightly dehydrated. Mary convinces the concierge to let us eat breakfast for free, though technically we won’t be checked in until this afternoon. Last order of business is to assign ourselves rooms. It dawns on me that I haven’t met one person in this class so far who seems like a ready-made partner in crime. Several of the girls already know each other from sororities and squeal out their preferred groupings ahead of anyone else, leaving the rest of us oddballs and the guys. A—– and I end up sharing a room, more from a lack of options than any particular desire. We store our luggage in the adjoining library, stacking duffels and suitcases anywhere they’ll fit, trying not to bump into the furniture that looks ancient and expensive to replace. Before we troop down the hall toward the dining room, I make a mental note to come back later and ransack Mr. Nipples Akimbo’s shelves for reading material. God only knows what I might find, judging from his avant-garde attire.
We’re on our own until check-in, so everyone scatters. I decide to get my bearings and walk around the neighborhood while everyone else decides to go find pubs or go shopping. I decide the only proper way to go about this is to pretend I’ve gone into hiding, so I stop by the post office for a street map and withdraw cash from the ATM. One of my favorite things to do in Lawrence is walk down alleys, and London has its own version, called Mews. I worry about trespassing but keep seeing signs for public right-of-ways through housing blocks. Emboldened, I wander through gates and squares until I’ve worn out my camera batteries and developed a pressing need for the bathroom. I walk to the last gate to let myself out–and it’s locked. I check around, maybe there’s a different latch to get out. Nope. I check every other gate in the housing block to no avail. Great, now I have to panic-pee. I consider scaling the six-foot-high fence, but it’s expressly built for keeping Out and In things permanently separated. While deliberating on how quickly I can yank my pants up before I’m arrested for public indecency in the Queen’s cousin’s back garden, and what kind of a lecture I’ll get from Mary, I see a trim-looking gent walking his dog. I swallow my pride and paste an appropriately sheepish look on my face. I got turned around trying to find Gloucester Road, I explain, and I’m certainly not about to wet my pants or do something terrible to his azaleas. Looking slightly put out, he opens the gate for the big-eyed, bumbling, American girl and lets me out. I thank him profusely and scoot back to the hotel, where I get turned around in the downstairs maze of corridors and can’t find the public ladies’ room, only the mens’. To hell with what’s left of my pride–I’ll play so dumb it’ll make their head spin. I bolt the stall door and pray nobody walks in to use the urinal. No male would mistake the green-painted toes encased in dainty ballet flats for a guy’s, not even in this part of town.
After my daring escape from the mens’ room, I study the street map and discover a couple of museums within walking distance. After wandering through the Victoria & Albert art museum and the British Science museum (worse than Union Station on a rainy Saturday afternoon), I try my luck at the Tube. I have an unlimited Oyster pass and enough experience with Chicago’s El to feel like I have the general gist of things, and I want to see part of the Roman wall from when London was called Londinium. According to my Tube map, Tower Hill is a straight shot east from Gloucester Road. I listen carefully to the announcements, watching the display for arrival times. I get on the train–and hop off at the next stop. Somehow I got turned around. I race up the stairs and over to the eastbound platform. I breathe a sigh of relief as a crisp British voice announces, “Tower Hill.”
After seeing the ancient Londinium wall, the gilded Tower Bridge, and giving directions to and taking pictures for German and Japanese tourists, I take the Tube back to Gloucester Road, feeling much more intelligent than earlier in the day. As the train rollicks along, angling through corners, I reflect on how far removed I am from the last time I traveled extensively. At age seventeen, I ran away from home and hitchhiked all over America. Telling my story usually makes people see me as some sort of intrepid daredevil. They don’t know, and I don’t tell them, that my experience was more frightening than adventurous, that I cowered under the fists of a drunken asshat until fear for my newborn’s life gave me the courage to put an end to the miserable nonsense. Ever since, I’ve wanted to travel somewhere at least once and do things my way. No one else’s schedule to follow, just doing what I want, when I want.
Some of my most treasured times from the Great North American Tour were moments spent alone–wandering, people-watching, scribbling in my journal for companionship or a second opinion, reading cross-legged on the floors of second-hand bookstores. At first, I was a little miffed that nobody jumped out as a likely comrade on this class trip. Now that I’ve had to time to consider, I see the advantage to this situation. I sketch out the rest of my week. Nobody else managed to sign up in time for the rail trip to Paris or to Bath, so I’ll be doing those on my own, as well. Fine, I think. Exiting the station, I run into a group of girls getting ready to meet up at a pub they passed on the way. When asked about my day, I reply that I got a “little turned around but that everything worked itself out.” We get drinks at the Bunch of Grapes pub: a Fuller’s ESB for me, a Guinness for each of them. On this side of the ocean, they’re legal-age and pretty jazzed about it. A small part of me envies their chance to have this experience while young and in college, without bills and family needs pressing on them. Then I let it go. Goddamn it, I think, I’ve earned this trip. I’ll probably get more out of this than they will.
When we collapse in bed later that evening, I have a chance to chat with my roomie, a twenty-year-old Chinese student from Malaysia. She had to have Mary run interference because her parents wouldn’t stop calling and texting her on this trip. We compare lives and find a few similarities: intelligence, parents who like to hit, but the similarities end there. We start playing the game of Who Had It Worse, trading stories of injustice, missed opportunities, aborted dreams. She’s treated like a second-class citizen in Malaysia because she’s ethnically Chinese, and couldn’t get a scholarship for school there, though KU saw her test scores and gave her a full ride. In a few weeks, she’ll be twenty-one. A few weeks after that, she’ll graduate and start on a Master’s. She doesn’t know anyone else on this trip, but that’s okay. She has places she wants to see, places her parents wouldn’t let her go if they knew. She’s afraid to go by herself. She doesn’t like London. It’s too noisy and seems dangerous. I tell her that’s exactly what I’m doing, going everywhere by myself. She’ll be fine. She excuses herself to the bathroom and throws up quietly, with only a little splash, a practiced bulimic.
I’m worried about my roommate’s tendency to throw up dessert, and I discuss my fears with Mary. I don’t want to acknowledge the bulimia because my roomie will just stress out and it’ll become the weird thing we don’t talk about. She’ll stop eating around me. I know this from dealing with my sister. But I’ll be damned if I get stuck with a room bill for a clogged toilet or a roomie who passes out from straining and hits her head on the tub. Mary assures me she’s dealt with this before. Most overachieving college girls use it to deal with life. Just let her be, she says, and say something if you see any really dangerous behavior. Am I a horrible person for being more annoyed than genuinely concerned? No, there’s no need for me to babysit. At least she’s not a cutter. I walk back upstairs and decide to read in bed. The roomie’s a little horrified by my undressing without locking myself in the closet of a bathroom. If she’s going to barf after every meal, I decide, then she can handle me sitting around in my underwear like I don’t give a fuck. Maybe my stretch marks will help her chuck up that last bit of cake.
Without even meaning to, I develop a reputation as one of Mary’s “independent women.” Me, A—–, and another girl consistently go off on our own adventures, but not together. Not so much by choice, I think. I’ve picked up on the fact that we’re all loners by necessity. I’m pretty sure the third girl is gay, but she’s not talking about it. Despite all of us being in the same class, we three are worlds apart. Me being a good fifteen years older and all of us having disparate interests isn’t helping things. I travel to Paris by myself, visiting museums, buying candy and eating it all on the train home, getting lost on the way back to Gare du Nord and being saved by an adorable French guy whose name I never catch. I take pictures, but all of my Paris memories are mine alone.
For a little while, I pretend my friend Leota can see what’s going on. Part of the reason I wanted to come to Europe was to live a little for the both of us. She ran away with me, but I sent her back home after a few weeks, when things got scary. I never saw her face again, and now she’s in a grave in our hometown. So Leota travels on my shoulder as I walk the streets of Paris and London and Bath. We eavesdrop and people-watch, and I carry on an inner dialogue with her ghost. See all the shit you’re missing, sweetheart, I murmur as I lean against the Pont Saint-Michel and watch a tour boat motor past. I pick out the specter of the Eiffel Tower through the river fog. I’m starting to miss people again. I wish my husband was here, seeing all the crazy stacked buildings, the model-pretty counter girls in the butcher shops, the Latin Quarter booksellers. A ghost isn’t enough.
By Saturday morning, I’m in a real snit. We’re all supposed to go shopping on Portobello Road, but I’m all out of give-a-fuck. Ann saves the day. She’s roughly my age or a few years younger. I took her Brit Lit class last semester and she encouraged me to apply for the London Review. Earlier in the week, we’d visited the Museum of London and afterwards, she and I had afternoon tea in the crypt of St. Paul’s cathedral. We’d spent some time in Oxford, but both of us were worried we’d hold the other back, so we didn’t hang out for long. It’s been cold and drizzly all week, and after a while we scramble for a dry seat in a tea shop. We chat for an hour or so, and I start to feel normal again. We join up again later in the day, while Ann practices giving a Shakespeare tour, and I finally feel human enough to joke around with the other students and smile for pictures.
By the end of the trip, I’m an old hand at navigating London. I patiently give directions to other visitors and feel a quiet sense of belonging as I jostle along on the Tube. Saturday night, after the last group meal, I ride the District line back to the hotel by myself. The car I choose happens to have nobody else on it. All week, the cars have been jam-packed with people, and this of all nights. I take a picture of the empty car. It captures something I can’t explain in words. I’m alone, but I’m neither scared nor lonely. This can be home, too.
All week, A—– and I have made stern promises that we’ll go to bed early, but we stay up late every night, just talking. Everyone else is eager to enjoy London nightlife, but the novelty wore off long ago for me, and A—– doesn’t feel comfortable around people getting drunk. She tells me things I don’t think she’s ever shared with anyone. By the last night, after packing everything but what we’re wearing in the morning, she looks around the room and declares an intent to move to London someday. She’s not so scared of the city, of being by herself, of her disapproving parents. Maybe London could be her home. She’ll clam up again once we touch down in the States, but for now she’s unguardedly optimistic. Myself, I’m starting to realize that going it alone is fun, but only in measured doses. I’m already planning to bring Nick over here. It’s a start.