With my feet firmly planted back on American soil for what feels like a truly staggering six months now, these little reminders of a life I led in London can be more than a little jarring. Polaroids tucked in mirror frames, receipts crumpled at the bottoms of bags, social media posts that only seem to reel backward into time and space as the days and weeks since I left London fly by with little distinction. They’re precious, if melancholy, confirmations that my adventures weren’t all a dream, and life was different once, if only for a fleeting, flickering moment in time.
This long goodbye is long overdue, months in the making and far later than I had anticipated, but I find that often I need to step back from things to see them more clearly, to leave the forest entirely in order to see the trees. Life abroad was all-consuming, in a way that was frequently, sometimes frustratingly, exhausting. It was a constant dance between grasping so hopelessly at what I had hoped my experience abroad would be, and realizing that my reality was a thousand times more precious than anything I’d ever dreamed, if only because I’d never let myself believe that those dreams would actually come true.
For nearly six months this spring, I managed to traverse eleven countries across Europe, sleeping in hostels and borrowed beds and Airbnbs, boarding and deplaning at least a couple dozen flights and expending countless hours of my life waiting in lines—an hour at immigration, another two in the pouring rain above the Catacombs, an interminable four hours melting in the sweltering heat outside the Vatican. As the clock ran down on my time abroad, I felt the walls closing in around my wanderlust, and so I was hell-bent on catapulting myself across the continent. I was greedy for more stamps in my passport, I was desperate to prove something, driving myself crazy by regretting things that hadn’t even had the chance to happen.
In my fervor and my furor, I was giddy and I was anxious, I was a perpetual sugar-high and its inevitable low. I managed to book myself three separate seats on the same flight to Stockholm, I was conned out of money at a market in Budapest, I left a beloved (faux) leather jacket at the airport in Naples, I found myself near-tears as I was brusquely interrogated by an immigration officer on a London-bound train from Paris. Of course, my challenges were nothing compared to those of people for whom travel is not a luxury, but a necessity. And my status as an American, as a university student, as a young white woman, granted me relatively free access to a continent and places and experiences that certainly not everyone would have the same opportunity to see. This said, travel can fill the soul, but it can deplete it too, especially if embarked upon for the wrong reasons. I found that, the more I lived my experience for other people, posing for Instagram likes, posturing to ensure that my study abroad experience appeared as life-altering as everyone else’s, that I was doing this whole thing exactly as I was “supposed” to, the less bearable and the more soul-crushing the 2 a.m. wake-up calls and questionable hostels and financial strain I’d placed upon myself all became.
I don’t mean to be melodramatic; even with the hiccups, I wouldn’t trade my experience abroad for anything, and I was inexplicably grateful and constantly, keenly aware that even my worst day in Europe outpaced my best days back home by miles. But I found that the most beautiful, most memorable, most soul-settling and truly breathtaking moments were the ones that were the least carefully crafted; they were the experiences that just were. Those moments of being that feel as natural as breathing, and as surreal as dreaming, that you find yourself helpless to do anything other than simply exist in them.
I watched the sun set over the Cliffs of Moher and Dublin drunk on St. Patrick’s Day, experienced one magical English snowfall in Cambridge and another as night fell across the Scottish Highlands. I fell asleep beneath the sun while picnicking among tulips and windmills in Holland, ate macaroons and sipped champagne in Hyde Park, drank sangria and feasted on paella in Barcelona. I biked Amsterdam’s canals and walked the Berlin Wall and watched the sun come up over the Mediterranean. I saw the locks of love above the Seine, cruised along the Thames, sailed out into the Swedish archipelago and watched Scandinavia go by. I drank absinthe in the shadows of Hemingway’s old hideaway in Prague, explored the ruins bars in Budapest, and danced the night away in a German club that didn’t open until 2 a.m. I saw the British Crown Jewels sparkle and the Eiffel Tower glitter at night. I craned my neck to see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, said hello to the bones down in the Catacombs, tried to catch a glimpse of the mythical monster at Loch Ness. I saw Churchill’s War Rooms, Marie Antoinette’s Versaille home, the Beatle’s Abbey Road and Mona Lisa’s smile. I ate gelato on the Bridge of Sighs, climbed 400 steps up Florence’s Il Duomo, stood in the shadow of the Roman Coliseum, saw Venice from a gondola and twilight fall across the Italian countryside from the window of a passing train.
And then there were the people, and the friendships made, and the moments so strange and memorable I couldn’t have ever dreamed them up. There were late, drunken nights and impossibly early mornings. There were missed flights, mix-ups, mishaps. There was getting lost on the Tube and making friends in our hostels, there was pining for WiFi and refusing selfie sticks a thousand times over. There was arguing with budget airlines to accept our overstuffed bags and too many toiletries, there were sleepless nights spent dozing in and out of consciousness on cramped buses and too-small hotel rooms. There was getting sweated out of our apartment because the radiator broke, and taking ice-cold showers because that somehow broke, too. There were Italian glass friendship bracelets and talks of matching souvenir tattoos. There weren’t nearly enough afternoon teas, and a few more cream teas, and then mostly beans on toast when our money ran out. There was a champagne toast at the Shard as we watched the skyline turn gold and felt a certain surrealness, weightlessness, this-isn’t-really-happening-ness, as summer creeped in and we said goodbye to this city, this second home so far away from home.
In so many ways, returning to the states feels like waking from a dream. Not because every moment spent in London was magical, or because my experience was a particularly jarring culture shock, either. But there was a sort of freedom there, an internalized challenge to see how far I could push myself from my comfort zone, whether I would clip all the loose threads and finally shake everything that had been weighing me down for so long. This isn’t to say anything against the existence I’ve cultivated on the West Coast, with friends and family I adore, at a school I owe everything to and a career I wouldn’t have any other way. But at the risk of sounding cliche, I have always been a wanderer, a dreamer, with jittery feet and a restless soul. I have always had a tumultuous relationship with reality; it is simultaneously tenuous and all too real. I have always been grounded, and driven, and yet so too have I always suspected that I might just run from it all if ever given the chance.
And this year, that chance came. Five months of freedom, on a new continent, with new people, far from the same old problems and structures with which I’ve grown familiar, of which I’ve grown so tired. A chance to live my life on a different stage, to be someone else, or at least a better version of myself, a place with few deadlines, loose timelines, with scarce expectations and a whole world unfolding before me.
I didn’t make a gaggle of new international friends-for-life, I didn’t fall in love with an English royal, I didn’t leave all of my problems behind in the States or find the meaning of life somewhere on the British Isles. I still find myself a little lost, a little uncertain of my footing, of who I am and where I’m headed. But when I close my eyes now I see flashes of places I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams, and now my actual dreams are filled with this reality, and I carry with me in my waking moments too these memories precious enough that I will never have to wonder whether it was all worth it.