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Making it on My Own in London

17 Aug

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).

Portabello Road, a block from my bed-sit

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.

View from the top of St. Paul's Cathedral, London

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.


A Peek Under Edinburgh’s Kilt

24 Jul

Years before the world ever heard of Harry Potter and Platform 9 3/4, I stood in King’s Cross Station waiting for a train to take me to a castle. Though I was on my way to Edinburgh and not Hogwarts, the trip promised to be just as magical.

A Chilly Weekend in Scotland

Margaret's Chapel at Edinburgh Castle

It was 1995, and I was studying abroad in London when two friends and I decided on a weekend trip to Scotland’s capital.

When we arrived in Edinburg after our five-hour train ride, I was in need of a bathroom. What I found was a Superloo. Before the U.S. was supersizing, well . . . everything, Scotland was giving its train-weary patrons a giant W.C.

I loved the place immediately.

Admittedly it might have been the McEwan’s Scotch Ale that endeared me to the city more than the Superloos. Either way, by the time we were headed back to England two days later, I was smitten.

It was characteristically blustery during our March visit, and I think it suited the city perfectly.

Shaking off the cold every time we entered a pub. Pulling scratchy wool blankets around ourselves each night at the hostel. Shopping for beautifully woven Scottish sweaters. Exploring the stark, stone enclaves of Edinburgh castle. The experience wouldn’t have been quite the same if we had more temperate weather.

Mary King's Close, 1995.

The Most Haunted Place in Britain

The nip in the air was matched by the chilling stories of Edinburgh’s gruesome, often bloody history.

There may not have been any wizards in Edinburgh, but there were plenty of stories of witches and ghosts.

One night my friends and I stumbled upon a ghost tour. We joined in and learned about the public witch hangings at the Mercat Cross. As we passed by ancient cemeteries, our guide told us of the city’s history of frequent grave robbings and body snatching, a profitable practice since the University’s medical school paid well for cadavers in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Perhaps the most disturbing story is that of Mary King’s Close. The narrow street, or “close,” is rumored to have been hit particularly hard by the plague. To limit the spread of disease, as the story goes, officials walled up the close allowing doomed occupants to starve and die. (Mary King’s Close was opened to the public and is now a tourist attraction.)

Hooray for Scotland, or Ireland?

After seeing people around town wearing team colors, we discovered that our trip coincided with a big Scotland v. Ireland rugby match being held in Edinburgh.

I don’t remember who won, but the night after the final game provided the quintessential U.K. pub experience. Remember the scene in Titanic when Rose visits the peasants’ quarters? Well, that’s what it was like: arms linked to strangers, singing Molly Malone (Cockles and Mussels), and dancing as broken pint glasses crunched under foot.

The age-old kilt question

Well, now we know.

Before leaving the city, we stopped at one of the dozens of stores that were draped in Scotch paid and filled with every imaginable type of country-themed souvenir. It was like stepping into the old Mike Myers’ “If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!” skit.

We made a few purchases and the store clerk asked if we wanted a photo with him. Why not? As we posed, he said to us, “You know, Scotsmen don’t wear anything under our kilts.” The camera flashed, and so did he.

I’m sure many things have changed in the 15-plus years since I traveled to Edinburgh. But hopefully, not too much.

The next time I go, there’s still one thing that I know won’t change. I’m still not trying the haggis.