On April 1, 2011 at 18:00, I stood in the corner of my room at the Mandeville Hotel, put a hand to my chest, and began to weep. In a matter-of-fact way I wiped my tears and told myself it was time for dinner. That was the first time I ever cried because I was happy. That was the first time I’d ever been that happy.
The London Story. It is the first story to hit the page when I sit in cafes to write. It’s the first story I tell myself when I need to smile, or when I need to be grateful. In an obsessive way I’ve turned it over and over a hundred times in my mind.
The short version: after being financially unable to attend the English university I was accepted into, I forever associated London with tragedy. On Wednesday, March 28, 2011 I saw an impossibly cheap ticket to London for a weekend. After much apprehension, I bought it, packed that Thursday and booked a hotel. By Friday night was flying out to London. I told no one I was making the trip. I woke up the next day in Greenwich Mean Time, shaking my head at the true, impossible fact: I was on the other side of the world for the first time, alone.
When things get rough I close my eyes and remember the small things from that weekend: the elevator wallpaper (sketches of people carrying umbrellas), my conversation with a Harrods salesman in a pastel suit and top hat, how I finished each sentence with “in London” – “I’m having a coffee – in London!” or “I’m walking down the street in London!” “I’m riding the London Eye in London!”
I think about the blue, small stud earring in the concierge’s ear, how he became my compatriot that trip, how I stopped at his desk to ask his opinion on everything. How it snowed that weekend in New York and in London they were having warm weather, how I shed my coat that morning and replaced it with a trench. How I couldn’t stop smiling. How I exchanged a nod with a pure stranger as she crossed in front of the coffee shop window. How this struck me as odd. How I don’t believe in signs but this felt like a sign.
How I wish you were there.
That’s the problem with solo travel, you can try hard to explain something to someone else but no one will ever know those moments. On the evening of my first day in London I climbed into bed, rang the front desk and asked them to give me a wake-up call at 7:30. Earlier that day, I’d bought a music box at Harrods that was filled with sugar cookies and played “London Bridge is Falling Down.” I cranked it up and sat it on my nightstand and fell asleep. I wished my mother was with me – or anyone. It was an amazing moment. (You can hear a recording I took that evening of the music box below.)
That next day was foggy and rainy and I had to leave.
“So you come all the way across the ocean just to see us drive on the other side of the road?” my driver back to Heathrow asked me when the trip was over.
“No,” I laughed to myself. It’s much, much, much more complicated than that. “I’ve always wanted to come to London.”
“And to see us drive on the other side of the road,” he proclaimed, his voice rose at the end of a sentence, like he knew he was right.
So why is this important? What’s the point of rehashing this? There isn’t one, except to say that this story is saving me. Right now I’m living an abnormal half-life – the London story is my only anchor when things get bad. Just those two little days are enough to keep me smiling when I hear “no” or “you aren’t ready” or “it’s just not going to work.” London says: remember that it’s only a matter of time.