So, as promised, I am going to take you through my first trip to Europe, aided by a journal I kept at the time. I do have some photos, which I’ll be including where relevant, but not many. I don’t particularly like taking photos even now, though I’ve gotten better at it as phone technology has improved and made taking photos less obtrusive. But back then, with a bulky digital camera that just screamed “tourist!”, I absolutely hated it. I only have 59 photos from my entire six weeks in Europe, so this is going to be quite a wordy re-telling, for which I apologise in advance.
But first, I think I need to provide a little background to explain why this trip was such a big deal for me (and sorry, it’s going to get kind of depressing for a bit). In 2007, my life was not great – in fact, that’s an understatement. I was completely miserable. I’d finished my BA the year before, and was basically just drifting at that point. I’d worked as a manager of an ice cream shop through some of high school and all of university, and I just kept my job after I graduated because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with myself. Also, I had never learned how to drive (it’s a long story), and public transport where I lived was basically non-existent, so I wasn’t really sure what else I could do. However, the ice cream shop ended up going out of business in late 2006, due to the owner going bankrupt. He was a disgusting pervert who sexually harassed all of his employees (mostly teenage girls), so it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person, but I did genuinely love that job. Pervert boss lived over an hour away, so I only had to see him once or twice a month, and the rest of the time was fabulous. I loved making ice cream and decorating cakes (what I lacked in skill, I made up for in enthusiasm), so I was quite upset when I found myself out of a job.
I was still living at home (in the suburbs between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio) and still dating my horrible boyfriend who I’d been with since high school. My relationship with my parents was extremely strained at the time, especially after I lost my job and failed to immediately look for a new one. Instead, I attempted to get my parents off my back by applying to some Master’s programmes for the following year, but my heart wasn’t really in it. I desperately wanted to move out, but I couldn’t afford to do so unless I moved in with horrible boyfriend, and though I wasn’t yet smart enough to break up with him at this point, I was smart enough to know that if I did move in with him, I’d never get out of the relationship. I was also desperate to move away from Ohio, but just didn’t know how to make it happen. I’d go for long walks at night, and just dream about walking forever into the moonlight.
Once I had submitted all my Master’s applications, I needed something else to do with my time (because it was that or work somewhere within a couple of miles from my house, which basically meant fast food establishments or retail), and I hit upon the perfect idea – why not plan a trip to Europe? I’d always wanted to go to Europe, but at that point in my life, my only experiences with foreign travel had been Niagara Falls and Tijuana, which don’t really count. However, when people would ask me why I hadn’t learned to drive, I’d always reply, “I don’t have to, I’m going to move to Europe.” I was fascinated with the continent without really knowing very much about it, other than what I’d gleaned from obsessively watching every episode of Samantha Brown’s Passport to Europe. But I had $30,000 burning a hole in my bank account, saved from five years of working nearly full time (I only had classes three days a week, so I’d work the other four just to get out of the house) with basically no expenses other than school books, clothes, and going to punk shows (even though I didn’t have the best relationship with my parents, at least they did let me live at home for free, otherwise there’s no way I would have been able to save so much. I only made $8 an hour), so I could definitely afford to do it, and being unemployed, I had nothing but time on my hands. The next step was to try to persuade someone to go with me, but since jerk boyfriend didn’t like me having my own friends (presumably because they might tell me what a dick he was), my options were basically him or one of our few mutual friends, and when everyone ended up flaking out, I thought, “screw it, I’ll go alone.” So I did (except for an interlude where my mother and aunt insisted on meeting up with me in Italy, which I’ll get to in a later post).
After months of planning (much harder in those days because whilst we did have internet, it certainly wasn’t to the extent we do now, and I was sharing a computer with my entire family. I still relied heavily on my trusty copy of Let’s Go Europe 2007 to find hostels and things to do. Seeing that cover brings back so many memories!), making frantic calls to the State Department to try to get my passport in time (I’d ordered it with months to spare, but this was around the time when Canada announced Americans would soon need a passport to cross the border, so they were processing way more applications than normal, and had a major backlog), and arguing with my family and boyfriend, none of whom were happy about me going, I finally left in late May, shiny new passport in hand. Unfortunately, at the time I got my passport picture taken, I was in the middle of an ill-advised experiment with blonde dreadlocks, and even though I had given up and picked them all out before leaving for Europe, my passport would bear the evidence of this disastrous look until 2017! (See photo below to get an idea of how much this look did not work for me.) First stop, London, the plan being that I could ease myself in slowly in an English-speaking country. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out that way.
Having never really experienced jet lag (other than a bit after a trip to California, but everyone knows going west to east is the worst part, and then I was just heading back home, so it was fine), I was totally unprepared for what hit me upon arriving in London after a sleepless night on a plane. To quote my journal entry my first day there, “I am miserable! If I could go back home, I would. Got to London surprisingly quickly, but it took me an hour to find the hostel. I thought I would die. I got here at 10 but they wouldn’t let me into a room until 2, so I wandered around looking for food. I went to a Sainsbury’s – the highlight of my day was the candy. Hula Hoops and Toffee Poppets are also rather good [yep, that was my first time eating Hula Hoops. God knows how many thousands of Hoops I’ve eaten since then (only boring red packet though, I don’t like the other flavours), and I wouldn’t even say they’re one of my favourite crisps]. I then came back and slept in the lobby briefly, then spent an increasingly frustrating hour looking for a phone, which ended with me locking myself in the bathroom and sobbing. I took a three hour nap and am now awake, bored, and miserable. Everyone has a friend but me.” Yes kids, I did not have a mobile back then. Honestly, I was fairly behind the times, as most people did by 2007, but this was still primarily a flip phone era, and certainly not one where WiFi was free and plentiful. I was a bit of a Luddite, and was opposed to having a phone for some odd reason, so I was still relying on good old payphones and internet cafes for this trip, and as I was soon to discover, those famous red telephone boxes were basically toilets for rough sleepers and a place for prostitutes to advertise their services, so were best avoided at all costs.
Given that I very much consider London my home now, and it is one of my favourite cities in the world, I think it’s kind of funny how much I hated it when I first saw it. I left this out of my journal entry, but I remember that I also almost got hit by a cab when crossing the road (presumably because I was looking in the wrong direction) and the cabbie stopped and screamed at me and it made me cry. I did a lot of crying that first day. Would things get better? Well, I’ve done an awful lot of rambling on in this post already, so come back next week to find out! And thanks for sticking with me if you made it through this block of text!