The year was 1985: an account of the first time I traveled solo in Europe.
At twenty, I traveled abroad alone.
I had two weeks in Britain by myself before going to Paris for a semester of study. It was my junior year at university. My plans included a couple of days in London, a four or five day stretch in the Lake District, a return to London to meet my father for two nights, two nights in Bath visiting elderly family friends, then London again before the boat-train to Paris.
For the English award my senior year in high school, my teacher gave me Discovering Britain. I loved the Romantic poets — Worsdworth, Keats, Shelley. These pictures were my inspiration. I would hike in the Lake District. I would stay at the Swan Hotel. I worked my sophomore year in college and paid all of my living expenses so that my father would pay for this trip and the additional expenses of the semester abroad in France.
Handling luggage, reading and sleeping on the plane, navigating Gatwick, and finding a cab to my hotel in the Bayswater district of London — as long as travel logistics kept me busy, I was fine.
I checked into the hotel and sat on my bed looking around. Then the enormity of being alone in a foreign country hit me. I am by myself in London. I feel alone and suddenly overwhelmed. Why in the world did I push to make this trip on my own? Why did I think doing solo travel as a female was going to be okay? What was I thinking?
I said to myself, “Ann.” And then,”You can sit here in your room feeling timid. Or you can get off your ass and go explore the city.” Honestly, the twenty year old version of myself didn’t curse much. I probably used the word “butt.”
That has been my attitude ever since. You can sit — where ever it is, by yourself. Or you can get up, get out, and find the world. That afternoon, I mastered the Tube system, found Westminster and wandered the streets around Parliament. In the early evening, I went to a pub. By myself.
I bellied up to the bar and admitted I knew almost nothing about British ale. In minutes I had a half pint of bitter, shepherd’s pie on the way, and a bar man looking out for me. And you know, everything was just fine. Better than fine. It was exhilarating.
What is it that makes us afraid of being by ourselves in public? I don’t know, but if you haven’t done it, it makes you feel very self-conscious. And that’s uncomfortable. People avoid the uncomfortable.
I was, by nature, somewhat shy. At this point both my sister and my daughter Catherine would be laughing at me and telling you, “Ann? She’s not shy. She meets people all over the place.”
But I have not always been that way. I had learn it.
There is a song from the King and I, Whistle a Happy Tune, that expresses this well:
“While shivering in my shoes
I strike a careless pose
And whistle happy tune
And no one ever knows I’m afraid.
The result of this deception
Is very strange to tell,
For when I fool the people I fear,
I fool myself as well.”
Like any experience, the more times one does it, the easier and more comfortable it becomes.
My father and his girlfriend, Gladys, were friends of the painter Gerry de Rose (Gerard de Rose). I’d met Gerry several times when he was visiting in New Orleans, so I had an invitation to the Chelsea Arts Club one evening. What an experience that was! I met Gerry’s son Theo and his friend Fiona. We had a great time together, and she invited me to stay with her when I returned to London post Lake District.
The most nerve-wracking night was in London a couple of days later. It was time for supper, and I’d picked a fine looking pub. At the entrance, there was a table of working class guys who gave me a sort of cat-call whistled welcome. I wanted to bolt. Run. But show them I was scared? Damn it, I wasn’t about to do that. So I drew myself up to my full 5 foot 4 inches, raised my chin and stared at them for a couple of seconds. I finished with my best look of absolute disgust, and went to the bar. I’m sure I was impressive. I impressed myself, anyway.
A moment later, one of the fellows was at my elbow at the bar. Could he buy me a pint? I said, “you’ve GOT to be kidding.” I proceeded to tell him that I thought that he, his entire table of buddies, and possibly every man in pub, were beneath bed bugs. Finn, a very contrite Cockney Brit, protested that he had not participated, but apologized profusely. Three times. The fellows bought my dinner, and then taught me how to drink single malt whiskey. Properly. Without ice or water. Finn wound up being a brotherly sort, and made sure I got on the correct Tube line back to my hotel at the end of the evening.
The most alone I felt on that trip was at the Old England Hotel in Windermere. It had a very formal dining room with people at tables that all faced out on the lake. That’s when bringing a book, or today an iPad, comes in handy.
The next stop was The Swan Hotel in Grasmere. Wordsworth mentions the Swan in his poem The Waggoner, and I spent two nights there and had a light rainy hike up above the lake. It was an extraordinary time.
Two days later, I met Chris and Doug in Keswick up in the Lake District. These two Canadians had just finished their bachelor’s degrees and were taking a trip around Britain together, and they had a CAR. We hit it off brilliantly so I spent the next day and evening in their company. I know, I know. One of you out there is saying, “But they might have been axe murderers.” Maybe. But I will say that I have very good intuition and people sense. I listen to it. Besides, look at the two goofballs. What cuties!
I was due back in London — my presence commanded by my father. I left the boys and arrived back in the city to spend the day waiting around on Dad. He’d gone to Windsor Castle with his girlfriend. It was then that I met James. We’ll call him James. He is 14 years older, but someone who recurs in my life, in a Before Sunrise kind of way. It is another story.
The lesson I learned is that I love to travel by myself. Sometimes, I am alone. I read. I write. I take photographs. I think.
Sometimes, I see and experience things in ways that I never would if I had a traveling companion.
I have adventures.
And sometimes, I meet extraordinary people.
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