When the customs agent at Gatwick Airport asked me how long I planned to stay in London, I could hardly believe my answer. “Four months,” I said.
At the time it seemed like an eternity to be away from home, away from my college buddies, and away from the boyfriend who would later become my husband.
I was a year ahead of my closest friends at Syracuse University, so when I decided to study abroad, I was doing it solo.
Though there were 100 other students in the program, my loner status was marked by the choice to travel to London on my own (cheaper flight) and live with a family in a bed-sit (again, to save money).
Getting lost on the Tube one day, I ended up who-knows-where. With friends, it would have been cause for laughter. By myself, I cried.
During those first few days abroad, my loneliness consumed me. In a city of millions, would I need to find my way through London life without the camaraderie of others?
But then, suddenly, I stopped thinking about being alone.
Not because–I assure you–of some great internal pep talk or any pull-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps inner fortitude. It’s because London, itself, became my greatest companion.
I shopped on Portabello Road, weaving through the antique dealers, fruit and veg vendors, and bootleg music hawkers.
I climbed the steep, narrow staircase to the top of St. Paul’s, never seeing another person on my ascent.
I lingered over the Van Goghs and Rodins at the National Gallery, at my own pace without interruption or any hurrying up.
Of course, I eventually met some great friends, and we went on unforgettable adventures through the city and to places like Edinburgh and Brighton.
But when it came time to choose a Spring Break trip, when friends encouraged me to join them in Ireland or Italy, I decided to travel to Spain by myself. A trip that was truly unforgettable, not in spite of it being a solo quest but because I did it on my own.
One of the biggest gifts I took away from my time in London is learning the joys of solitary exploration. My guess is that I’m not alone.