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Long Quiet Highway

2015 July 20
by Jill

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I rode first-class for the first time in my life on the train from London to Edinburgh. My friend recommended that I pay the extra cash because, in exchange, you get free unlimited food and drinks, as well as free Wi-Fi. Since the trip was a little over four hours, I thought it would be worth it. I didn’t really account for the fact that my train left at 9:30 am, meaning I wouldn’t really be capitalizing on the free unlimited alcohol, but whatever. It was nice to feel a little pampered.

I nearly missed my train. It was the hottest day in London in years, and for a modern city, they don’t really do a lot of air conditioning. The train from my friends’ flat where I was staying was crowded with commuters because it was peak rush-hour time (another miscalculation on my part), but I managed to squeeze on and stood in a corner with my rolling suitcase and large shoulder bag. The trip to downtown London, which normally takes about 15 minutes, ended up taking nearly 45 due to “signal problems.” New York and London: not really all that different. As I stood trying to corral my luggage from rolling or tipping over, I could feel the sweat rolling down the backs of my legs. I kept checking my watch, willing the train to move forward.

By the time I arrived at the train platform at King’s Cross, I had about five minutes to spare. I’d gotten on the Underground and then navigated to the ticket counter, printed out my tickets, and climbed aboard the first class carriage, sweaty and shaky and frazzled. Not the most glamorous start to my first-class voyage. The man sitting in the seat beside mine was one of those impeccable businessmen who spent the trip writing emails and barking into his cellphone. He helped me with my bag, begrudgingly, and then didn’t look my way for the rest of the trip. When the conductor came to check tickets and I handed her the wrong one by mistake (there were 5 different ones for one trip! How was I to know?), he shot her a look and said, “She’s got a lot going on.” I wanted to kick him.

Thankfully, he got off at Newcastle, and I enjoyed the last hour or so of the trip in solitude. I got a glass of rose and watched the Scottish countryside roll by. I felt myself calm down. This, this was what I came for, I thought.

I’ve never been the best traveler. Admittedly, I didn’t have much experience with the practice growing up. I took my first plane trip when I was 15, traveling to Disney World with my brother and aunt and grandmother. Before that, the only family vacation I’d been on was a road trip to New Hampshire when I was 10 or 11. I’d taken a few bus trips to New York City in high school, and visited Boston a few times with my friends. Mostly, what I knew of the world was confined to the northeastern tip of the country known as New England. And then, when I was 20, I got on a plane for the second time–this time bound for Florence, Italy, where I was to spend the next 9 months of my life. By that time, I was no more worldly, but I was eager to experience something different, something totally beyond my limited universe. But I was in no way prepared for the kind of isolating solitude and anxiety that gripped me in my year abroad.

For most college students, their junior year abroad, if they’re lucky enough to have one, is the year when they grow and change and learn and have romantic experiences like dancing drunk in piazzas and falling in love with foreigners. They backpack around the continent, drinking wine and sleeping in hostels and putting miles on a Eurorail pass. But my experience was markedly different. Though I spoke the language decently enough, I wasn’t good enough to fully express myself, and that was frustrating. My classes were difficult. I felt isolated from my friends and family. It was the furthest I’d ever been from home and I was completely out of my depths. This resulted in a nightmarish months-long battle with anxiety, which further isolated me from the few friends I had (there were only 5 of us from my college studying in Florence, and since we took classes at the University of Florence, I didn’t make many other friends). I didn’t have enough money to go traveling every weekend or out to bars every night like the other Americans scattered around the city. I ended up spending a lot of time in my bedroom, writing and listening to music on my Discman, my feet propped up on the radiator with the windows open. If nothing else, that year was formative for my writing.

My trip to the UK a couple of weeks ago was the first time I’ve been back in over a decade. Not because I haven’t wanted to go back, but because life is life, and money is money, and though I’ve gotten better, I’m still not the person who drops everything and plans a trip to another country. But my dear friend Karrin was getting married in England, and my other dear friends Mallory & Andrew had moved to London over a year ago, and I’d always wanted to go to Scotland, so the stars aligned and I made it happen.

So I set off, alone, from Boston. I stayed with Mal & Andrew in London and got to see them in the evenings when they got off of work. I also spent a day in London with two friends who were also attending Karrin’s wedding. I traveled to Edinburgh alone, though I was fortunate enough to be staying with Andrew’s mom when I got there. I met up with friends again back in England for the wedding, which was full of people and color and music and dancing and joy–tons of fun, and I’m so glad I went.

When people ask me how my trip was and what I did, I’ve had to respond that I mostly wandered around. I’d done minimal planning and without constant access to my phone, I often found myself at a loss for what to do or where to go when I was on my own in the city. I managed to keep myself busy and I always had a book with me (of course), so between the wandering, there was a lot of cups of tea and pints and poking around in shops and sitting in parks. One of my favorite moments in Scotland was sitting outside of the Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s residence, with my notebook, watching dogs playing fetch in the water and talking to a little boy who would periodically approach me with something new to show me, like his scooter or a bug or the handful of grass he pulled from the ground and sprinkled on my feet (it was cuter than it sounds). There were a lot of people napping or reading or playing catch and it was nice to just sit and observe for a while.

I do like traveling, but sometimes I catch myself wondering if it’s all worth it–lugging bags through crowded airports and confusing train stations, hot and crowded trains, delays and cancellations, hours-long journeys folding your body into a tiny seat next to strangers, hotels that run out of running water for two days (yes, that happened). There were many moments on this trip where I was happy to be there–mostly, when I was with my friends or looking around the Victoria & Albert Museum’s beautiful fashion exhibits or having tea & scones at a Scottish coffeeshop  or the tiny thrill of figuring out how to navigate a completely foreign place. But there were also moments of feeling out of place, that alien feeling that comes when you’re alone and you’re not sure where to go or what to do. But now, even after only two weeks of being back home, I know it’s not those scattered moments of loneliness or panic I’ll remember. Instead, I’ll remember Holyrood Park and laughing with my friends over a ridiculous picture from the New York Times until my stomach hurt and playing musical chairs and dancing for hours at a wedding, and laughing at the absurdity of no running water while having a pint at England’s oldest inn, and the wedding after party in the bride & groom’s posh suite, and eating dinner with a kind stranger who was willing to welcome me into her home, and those moments of peace riding first class on the train to Edinburgh, not sure what I would find at my destination, but looking forward to it nonetheless.

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4 Responses Post a comment
  1. Melissa permalink
    July 23, 2015

    I love this post, it makes me feel like I traveled with you. I am proud of you for taking this adventure, and so glad that you had more fun than frustration in the end. And your time in Florence was obviously well spent, because every time I read one of your posts I marvel at what a fantastic and gifted writer you are.

  2. July 29, 2015

    I love this post so much; you captured so much of what travel is all about…especially when you’re going it alone.

    I love to travel – would do it more if I could find the time and the money…and one thing I have learned over my years is that yes, it’s important to see the sights and visit the landmarks and all of that while you’re in a new space. But I find too that it’s almost always those random unplanned events, like your description of your time in the park, that you remember the most. Those are the memories I always love, that I always come back to.
    I am so glad you had a nice trip — lack of running water in the hotel and all!

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