As the title suggests, this piece is about my first trip abroad. It’s a companion piece to my personal essay, ‘Passport in a Drawer.’ The goal is to share my experience in a light, fun manner. As detailed as it may be, it still lacks detail. When traveling, a great deal of the experience is sensory. Some of that cannot adequately be described. At the same time, some of it should not be described. It’s for me.
I created a name for my trip, “Susan leaves America.” After all, my name is Susan and I was leaving America. Although humorous, there was a serious undertone in this title. After 27 years in America, I was leaving my nation for the very first time by crossing the Atlantic and traveling to London and Paris. In a way, I was a 21st century explorer just going in the opposite direction of all the European explorers.
A trip like this required a title. It marked a change in me and my understanding of the world. For a very long time, I was missing the understanding that travel requires. I did not understand why people traveled. As naive as it sounds, it was true. This trip signified finally understanding and wanting in on the experience.
My feelings about travel began to change around the Royal wedding of William and Catherine. Watching the anticipation leading up to that big day back in 2011, I was introduced to England. This formal introduction awakened a desire to see it. I was fascinated by the country’s pomp and circumstance, its history, and of course, Catherine Middleton. I must thank the Duchess of Cambridge for my newly developed interest in England.
Her story, which I first read about in Newsweek, drew me in. It was a catalyst so to speak. By the time she walked down the aisle of Westminster Abbey, I knew I needed to see London. It would just take almost three more years, but everyone has to have a waity period. This was mine.
London led me to Paris. How could I travel across the Atlantic and only see one country. I wanted Paris for its light. I had long imagined what it might be like. I figured it was something (emphasis on something as I knew it would be 100x that) like the delicate sunlight that hits the Beresford on 81st and Central Park West. Something about that corner reminded me of images and pictures I had seen of Paris.
When I would tell people I had never left the country they were always surprised. “Really?” was a common response. It was usually given with an appropriate accompanying facial expression. I think I baffled a few people with my domesticity (emphasis on domestic and not its usual meaning).
Everyone assumed I had left, which was flattering. It was certainly a testament to how I was raised and the manner I live in New York. I offer an example of how cultured one can be if they have not left the United States, primarily New York, for 27 years.
However, it certainly demonstrated how important those around me view international travel. A few of my acquaintances in New York assume everyone travels or has traveled, and if you have not, some even question whether you are cultured. I could write a dissertation on what makes one cultured, but I will just say there are different kinds of culture. There is the culture I achieved in New York and then there is the culture one can only acquire through travel. I knew I was missing the latter.
The day before my trip, I looked outside from my apartment and thought tomorrow the view will be different. I possessed an idea of what I would see, but I had no idea what the other side of the pond would be like. The one thing I knew was that this was one an important moment for me.
The truth is this trip changed my life. I can pinpoint hundreds of tiny moments of change throughout my week in London and Paris. Two people have inklings on the experience. The first is my travel companion who literally gave me the world by taking me to London and Paris. He watched me experience it, but also participated in the experience. A great deal of it will remain between us. The second person is one of my closest friends, Meghan, who lives in London and spent two evenings with us. She helped make our trip special.
When the Virgin flight attendant said, “darling,” in a British accent as I boarded the plane, I was thrilled. I was one step closer. When the pilot said, “returning” in reference to our destination, Heathrow, while still in the US, I was delighted. If that was how I felt boarding the plane, you have an idea of customs in Heathrow. I was probably the most excited person – on the inside – to ever go through customs.
Traveling from Heathrow, simply sitting in a car that was driving on the other side of the road was a first. As much as this trip was about seeing the sights, I also wanted to experience the culture. Being in a car on the other side of the road definitely met that criteria. It’s comparatively different than in the United States.
London is history mixed with modernity. That’s why I fell in love with the city. Big Ben and Parliament came to life. In Westminster, everywhere I turned was someone who had impacted the world. I stood in a building where coronations take place and the wedding that inspired this trip. A short trip down the Thames, a river with so much history. Tower of London and oh those jewels. St. Paul’s, honoring all who had fought, and climbing those hundreds of steps for that view. Walking amongst kings and queens and across a bridge that had stood in various manifestations across a river for hundreds of years. Signs all over London for establishments from the 18th century. Visiting a recreation of the Globe and imaging the theatre in its prime.
I had seen Buckingham on television, but standing outside it is different. There is a mundane quality to the palace as cars travel in and out of it. Work must be done and this is a working palace. At the same time, I could see how easily it transformed into the ultimate symbol with balcony at the epicenter of the roaring crowds. The famed National Gallery held Impressionist paintings I had yet to view. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York certainly has a few of my favorites, but it cannot possess them all. Even the tube was exciting with that tap in/tap out system. In New York, you swipe. Tapping was just so British.
On our second night, Meghan took us to see St. Paul’s at night and across Millenium Bridge. As she said on the bridge facing the church, “this is the money shot.” It certainly was. This was London at night in all its glory.
After those first few days, we were off to Paris for the weekend. The Eurostar was the most exciting train ride I have ever taken. I was traveling within Europe as the Europeans do. Not to sound colloquial, but it was awesome. Arriving at the Paris Nord, was my first introduction to a non-English speaking country. With Paris, it was love at first sight.
Soon we were popping into Hermes, Gucci, Dior, which I certainly have done before in New York, but this was different. This was experiencing these brands in a whole new context, Paris. Everything is different in Paris. Never had I seen a Hermes bag be matched with a scarf. The intricacy and attention to detail as they tried one scarf then the next. Sure, I could have seen this in New York, but in Paris, this just made sense. (Side note: I have no interest in owning one.)
As art appreciators, we lacked the appropriate amount of time to give to the Louvre. Instead, we opted for lots of walking and Notre Dame on Sunday, a day when many establishments are closed in the city.
I remember viewing slides of 19th century paintings of the boulevards in Art History courses in college and on walls of museums. I imagined what the light might be like and there it was; shinning brightly with a hint of spring in the air as we strolled along the Seine on a Sunday. The light in Paris was everything I expected and more.
The dining was life changing. It’s certainly an experience. Potato and leak soup garnished with chives that I wished was endless followed by lamb that melted in my mouth and a moist, delicate lemon tart for dessert at Noglu, an 100% gluten-free restaurant. Perfectly cut non-greasy fries with an appropriately seasoned jar of ketchup to accompany at my hotel. Ladurée macarons that were delicate and delicious. I feasted on exquisite eclairs, chocolate tarts, and other pastries from Helmut Newcake, an 100% gluten-free café and patisserie.
London felt different after Paris. I now understood how the two cities existed in relation to each other. This is a very important perspective to possess. Our last two days included stops on Piccadilly Road including to Fortnum & Mason. I had heard about this famous department store, but here it was in its glory. Floors of delicacies, sweets, and teas. I wanted to buy every tea cup and saucer.
On our final full day, we headed to the famed British Museum. We started off with the Rosetta Stone and then, at last, we saw the Elgin Marbles. In a freshman art history course, I first learned about them. Finally, I had a visual to see what Lord Elgin brought back. Fulfilling that freshman Art History student’s education at last.
Controversial as they may be, his decision allowed us to see history that might not exist without him and this museum. We viewed other rooms and then scanned the centuries with an afternoon at the Tate Modern moving from Picasso’s to Dali’s to Miro’s and a Turner. What a Turner it is.
On that last night, dining overlooking the Thames with St. Paul’s in front of us with Meghan, I did not want to leave. Soon there was one last tube ride, a walk along Oxford Street, all the while letting London know I would be back. London, I say it again, I will be back.
I was meant to take this trip at this exact moment. Everything up until this point had been preparation. I just had no idea that I was preparing. Now, this 21st century explorer wants to keep exploring.
As Meghan texted when I arrived in London, “Welcome World Traveler.” I certainly earned that title.