The Long Goodbye to London

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.

DSC_5402In 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.

A British Beach Day

Never mind the fact that I’ve unfortunately had to bid a goodbye to dear Britain (more on that later,) alas, the travel posts will keep coming! As I toil away at work in the good old US of A in the blistering heat of summer, a part of my soul is already itching to be roaming around Europe again, and as Los Angeles chokes and coughs with drought and wildfires, I’m yearning particularly for a crisp Atlantic Ocean breeze and proper British beach day, torrential downpours and all.

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Even with its technicolor pier, Brighton Beach is no Santa Monica. And despite what some of its fun-loving inhabitants might have you believe, its isn’t England’s answer to the Jersey Shore, either. At least, not on the day I visited, when sideways rain and hurricane-like gusts of wind and easily the best scones I ate in all of my time in the UK made Brighton a distinctly British experience.

As an Oregonian, I consider myself to be pretty tolerant of wind and rain, but I knew from the moment I stepped off the train on England’s South Coast that the weather would likely try to put a damper on my beach day. Still, having grown up with a Pacific shoreline that was more “coast” than “beach,” I thought I knew what I was in for, and thankfully, despite being a beach city, Brighton is still fairly well-equipped for rainy days, and frequent stops for tea and warmth made the biting sea breezes more bearable.

The day was mildly warm, even sunny, right up until when we made our way to the shore and out onto Brighton’s famous pier, at which point the winds picked up and even walking became a struggle. I managed to get in just a few snaps of the beautiful arcade signs and carousel that make Brighton beach so iconic before the weather drove us further inland.
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Umbrellas were no match for the gusts of wind, so the best option was to run from place to place, seeking shelter from the rain. Also distinctive are the city’s labyrinth of winding, narrow, cobble-stoned streets, slick with rain, glittering with antique jewelry, and sweet with the smell of ice cream, fudge and saltwater taffy.

A few favorite stops along Brighton’s streets included a tasty Thai lunch at the Giggling Squid, an hour or two spent at the the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery (the Brighton wartime and fashion exhibits are especially worth checking out,) and an afternoon tea at Mock Turtle Tea Shop that was memorable for good company and the freshest, fluffiest scones I had in all of my time in England.

Brighton is certainly a far cry from the beaches I’ve come to know living in Southern California, but its charm, even in the most charmless of weather, speaks to the enduring magic and mysticism of long-fabled afternoons spent by the English sea.

How to See (Most of) Scotland in a Weekend

Given that it’s well under a fifth of the size of both the physical landmass and population of California, it isn’t difficult to see why Scotland is a perfect weekend excursion for those living in and traveling from England. It doesn’t even require a passport to travel through our fair neighbor to the North, and despite my initial skepticism, it really is possible to see (most of) Scotland in just a three day weekend.

As budget-conscious students, the overnight bus from London to Edinburgh was our best bet for transportation, and though my almost complete inability to sleep much on buses and planes made the experience less-than-restful, it was at the very least convenient to leave London on a Thursday night and arrive in Edinburgh the next morning, ready to hit the ground running.

After a pit stop at our Airbnb rental on the outskirts of Edinburgh, we bused back into the city center, situated around Edinburgh Castle, Princes Street Gardens, and Princes Street, which is lined with shops and restaurants. Also popular, and easily my favorite area for exploring, is the Royal Mile, which leads straight to the castle and is a windy, cobble-stoned street lined with pubs, cafes and gift shops.

Edinburgh is certainly a compact city, and it’s definitely doable to hit all of the main sights and attractions within a day. Though its admission proved too pricey for our budget, Edinburgh Castle is an impressive fortress, and it’s hill top lookout offered stunning panoramic views of the city. The National Museum of Scotland was a free and fun alternative to the castle, offering up everything from a cast of Mary Queen of Scot’s tomb and a real-life guillotine to dinosaur skeletons and clothing, art and jewelry from around the world.

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Just across the street from the museum is Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, which I recognized as a popular stop on many of Edinburgh’s ghost tours. It’s said that the churchyard’s alleged poltergeist, the “Mackenzie Poltergeist,” is the most well-documented instance of paranormal phenomena in the world, and is known for biting, scratching, and even causing visitors to black out in the churchyard. We decided this experience sounded a bit too extreme for our liking, but Greyfriar’s Kirkyard still makes for an interesting daytime visit. It’s the resting place of many notable Edinburgh residents, and with burials dating back to the 16th century, it’s certainly worth a visit to marvel at mausoleums and headstones that are hundreds of years old. And situated in a quiet valley between Edinburgh Castle and the towering St. Mary’s Cathedral, it definitely has an eerie sort of beauty.

Also worth a look is Victoria Street, a winding incline of colorful (literally and figuratively) shops and restaurants. Here, we stopped for lunch at Howies, and I sampled the traditional Scottish soup called Cullen Skink, which is basically clam chowder with smoked haddock (delicious!) Other Edinburgh eats and drinks of note included coffee and scones at Love Crumbs, cocktails at the Whiski Room, and hearty pub food at the Royal Mile Tavern, where we dined with dozens of jovial locals as Scotland took on Wales during the 6 Nations Championship game being played in Edinburgh. Wales was ultimately victorious, but it was a real treat seeing the city streets come alive with revelers and people of all ages decked out in fan gear, and even in the face of defeat everyone still seemed to be having a good time.

We had heard that Edinburgh was somewhat known for its nightlife, but, and perhaps this is a matter of being spoiled by London’s offerings, we were a bit underwhelmed. I would recommend researching some pubs and whiskey rooms for the best taste of Edinburgh after dark, but if you do decide to check out the nightclub scene, at the very least you won’t be out too much money for the experience as covers and drinks tended to be relatively inexpensive.

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DSC_4204_retouchedThe second day of our three-day weekend (Valentine’s Day, in fact!) was reserved for a much-anticipated coach tour to Loch Ness and the Highlands. This is a popular tour route for visitors to Scotland, and though it’s offered in some variation or another by most coach operators, we decided that the Timberbush Loch Ness, Glencoe and the Highlands tour was the best fit for what we wanted to see. It’s certainly an ambitious undertaking; we arrived at our pickup location at 7:30 am and returned to Edinburgh at just after 8 pm, but it’s definitely the most economic and efficient to see the most of Scotland in a short time. Our tour guide, Dave, was informative while still being entertaining, offering us tidbits of information and staggering our stops in such a way that the tour didn’t feel nearly as long as it was.

We wound up the west coast first, stopping for photos in Kilmahog and Glencoe, where the dormant volcanoes covered in patchy snow and deep blue lochs and rivers were simply breathtaking. Other highlights included Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain, Sterling Castle, and a necessary pit stop to feed (or attempt to, anyway) some adorably shaggy Highland Cattle. After a lunch break at Fort Smith, we reached our destination; Loch Ness. I have to admit, despite the hordes of visitors pouring from the coaches, the “Official Loch Ness Gift Shop,” and even the silly looking dinosaur-green Nessie statue, it wasn’t quite as touristy or commercialized as I was expecting. Loch Ness is also far larger than I had anticipated, stretching 24 miles from end to end, and it’s easy to see how this vast body of water could have spurred so many mysterious sightings and tales for so long.

The optional 1-hour Loch Ness boat tour wasn’t included in the price of the bus tour, but it was well worth the extra expense, as it provided an up-close look at the ruins of Urquhart castle, and standing on the bow of the ship as we cruised between mountains and rolling green pastures, with rays of sun shining down through the clouds, the water rippling and sparkling as it caught the late afternoon light, I felt so at peace, so captivated by the beauty that I didn’t even mind the late-winter cold.

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After two hours at Loch Ness, we passed through Inverness, the capital of the Highlands, and began our journey south again. We made it about halfway home before it began to get dark, as unfortunately tends to happen quite early in winter, especially so far North, but falling asleep to light fading over the snow-covered Scottish Highlands was truly an experience to remember. Though I certainly could have spent longer in the Highlands, and if I were ever to return to Scotland, would head straight up north again, a day tour was definitely the best way the most of Scotland in the shortest amount of time. A third and final day in Scotland, so as to see even more of the country, could easily be spent taking a short bus or train ride from Edinburgh to Glasgow, about an hour each way, to see the country’s largest city and more modern counterpart to the capitol.

We opted for a slower-paced Sunday and exploring a few more sights in the city that we hadn’t yet seen, including Calton Hill, which offers some of the most scenic views of Edinburgh and is home to numerous monuments including Governors House, the Nelson Monument and the National Monument. Facing Princes Street, Calton Hill provides a panorama of the city, from towering cathedral spires dotting the skyline, to the majestic, jutting  Arthur’s Seat, to the beautiful Palace of Hollyrood House. And in the opposite direction, a swath of houses and churches tumble into the bright blue of the North Sea, glistening in the golden afternoon sun.

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Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetProcessed with VSCOcam with f2 preset Having clocked 24-plus hours on a bus over the course of a three day weekend to and from Scotland, I can say with confidence that I was able to cover a fair amount of the country, and though, if I were to return, I would be more eager to further explore the Highlands and more rugged regions up North, I would wholeheartedly recommend the trio of Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Highlands if you ever find yourself with a weekend to spend in beautiful Scotland.

An English Snow Day

As if the tiny English university town of Cambridge, about an hour outside of London by train, isn’t quaint enough, my travel companions and I managed to have the serendipity of visiting the historic village on a beautiful (albeit brief) snow day.

Cambridge, home to more far more universities than just its namesake, isn’t the liveliest of college towns, but what it lacks in youthful energy it makes up for in timeless charm. From Technicolor bakeries and candy shops to centuries old churches with candy-apple red doors and rainbows of flags and flyers advertising student events lining the grounds, Cambridge was awash with color even on a dreary winter’s day.

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We were treated to a preview of the snow on our train ride from London to Cambridge, and were actually somewhat disappointed to arrive to a beautiful sunny day, but no snow, after the hour-long journey. But after making our way through the many college campuses and winding riverside trails, we arrived at a market in the main square just as giant, fluffy snowflakes began to appear.

Watching the snow fall upon the churchyards and cobblestone squares, the market stalls and red telephone booths, was truly an experience to remember. Though the flakes didn’t stick, they were thick and fluffy and blindingly white against the otherwise gray day, getting caught in our hair and eyelashes and scarves and making our world a winter wonderland for the better part of an hour.flurry2


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Once the snow subsided, it was a bit more difficult to ignore our frozen fingers and faces, but this was nothing an afternoon pit stop for cider and board games at a local pub wouldn’t fix. The rest of the day was spent shopping, eating and sight-seeing; the Botanical Gardens, Cambridge’s archaeology and anthropology museums, the picturesque canals and colorful streets and warming afternoon tea and scones.

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I suppose it’s a bit funny how contented I find myself with London already, and yet also with the small English towns and villages that encompass the capital, the kinds of places that I could almost never see myself wanting to visit or being excited about back in America. But then I suppose there’s something about the history and the mystery, the magic and that indelible English charm, that seems to thankfully guarantee that I’ll never get around to taking any of this for granted.

A First Look at London

I suppose three weeks is a reasonable enough amount of time for a person to settle into a new city and organize one’s thoughts enough to sit down and write about it. Except, it somehow feels as though I’ve been here in London for something like two months now, so this all seems to be far more after-the-fact than it actually is.

Touching down in Heathrow already feels like a lifetime ago, and I suppose between slogging through jet lag and being forced to become acclimated to a new country and university at break-neck speed, it only makes sense that my sense of time would be a bit jumbled. Aside from the slightest bit of jet lag, I have to pride myself on basically hitting the ground running here in the UK, and though I keep hearing that homesickness and culture shock will catch up with me eventually, I remain skeptical. Having previously lived overseas, and having lived out of state for college the past two and a half years, I wasn’t expecting too many curve balls in moving too London, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised that the transition has gone even smoother than expected.

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Sure, looking the opposite direction when crossing the street, and having to convert pounds to dollars in my head without audibly gasping at the pitiful conversion rate and sky-high price of everything in London may take some getting used to, but for a city I’d never previously visited, London sure feels a lot like an old friend. For a capitol city, a metropolitan hub, a home to millions of people who are (seemingly only) thin, fashionable and successful, London has a comfort, an easiness to it, making me feel simultaneously like I’m on a glamorous vacation and visiting home for a holiday.

It’s hard to generalize a city of 8 million people and counting, but I can count on one hand the number of rude people I’ve met or unpleasant experiences I’ve had since I arrived. Everyone here has an air of good humor and easy-going sensibility, and aside from testing locals’ patience by taking a bit too long to fumble through coins in sizes and shapes that confound my brain, most people have been more than willing and helpful to play along with the dumb American.

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It’s crazy to realize how quickly I’ve felt myself pass through the tourist phase to something else entirely. I suppose studying abroad is inherently sort of a limbo between tourist and transplant, not quite a local but eager to shed the stigma of being a visitor. I’ve asked and been asked for directions, seen the touristy sights and ventured off the beaten path.

London isn’t exactly what I expected it to be, but in the best way possible. It’s astoundingly historic and mind-blowingly modern, with centuries-old churches dwarfed by spiraling glass sky-scrapers and iconic red telephone boxes outfitted with WiFi. It’s impressively clean (for a city with hardly any garbage cans and no recycling bins,) surprisingly non-rainy, and serviced by one heck of a public transportation system that I can already see giving me withdrawals when I return to the states. I haven’t missed the freedom of having a car at all, and in fact the thought of driving here both terrifies and confuses me, as the roads seem to be constantly clogged with cars and yet parking lots and garages are as rare as Pret-a-Mangers are common.

It’s a hip city, but not in an intimidating way, and its population leans younger, but not in an obnoxious way, either. I’ve been able to get my fill of hipster coffee shops (though usually without iced coffees, an American establishment that hasn’t quite caught on here yet,) low-key pubs, independent book stores and cheap clubs that pander to tourists while still being fun, though I’m still looking forward to exploring more of London’s music, theater and art scene in general.

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These past few months, whenever I told people back home that I was leaving for London, I usually drew questions as to why I didn’t seem more excited. In part, I’m a worrier, and I told myself I’d be excited when I got here. And I am, but I suppose it all still somehow feels a bit unreal, like it hasn’t quite sunk in that I get to call this city my home for a while, that I’ll be spending the next 6 months of my life in Europe, that so many things I’d hoped and planned for these past few years have actually come to fruition.

Just the other night, after seeing a theater show in London’s West End, walking home over the Waterloo Bridge, crossing the Thames River illuminated by a full moon with St. Paul’s Cathedral to my left, Big Ben and the London Eye to my right, I couldn’t decide if this all made things more real, or more surreal. Part of me still feels a bit like one of these mornings I’m going to wake up from this dream, but as long as I keep dreaming on London time, I think everything will turn out just fine.

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All photos taken and edited with Samsung Galaxy S5. For more of my travel photos, check out my Flickr.