by Kelly Grebeck
Spending my birthday away from my family is not something I am used to doing. Although I’ve been at college, I would still go home the weekend following my birthday so I could spend time with both family and friends. This past birthday, however, I was unable to do so. Going home for the weekend is not the easiest – nor wisest – thing to do. Instead, I spent my birthday in a foreign country 3,500 miles away from home with people I knew for less than a month.
I turned the big 21 while abroad, which is not a major milestone in most countries outside the United States, so my celebrations were more low-key than they would have been at home. It was odd celebrating such an American milestone in a place where my new age came with no new privileges or responsibilities.
In the three or so weeks that I have been at the University of Sussex, I have already become close with the people with whom I am living. There are eleven of us who share one kitchen, which is the social hub or our hallway. My room is right across the hall from the kitchen, so I am often very involved with the goings-on and excitement the kitchen holds. I am so glad I have already become so close with these people early into my study abroad experience because they made it their mission to keep me from feeling homesick on my birthday.
My birthday falls on a Saturday, but Friday is the main celebration of my birthday because some of my hall-mates are going home for the weekend or have other plans for Saturday. Before even leaving the kitchen, we are all having fun. Unfortunately, as we are leaving campus, my group splits up. Only Clive and I actually make it off campus when the bus comes. The rest are stuck at a party only Daniel wants to be at, and they plan to meet up with Clive and me in town.
After some misadventures at a night club – including us both getting hit on by the same 40 year old man at the same time – Clive and I decide to wander around Brighton at night, just talking and walking the streets. We run into the two Daniels and Houston, who had started the night with us, and they were with a group of people I do not know. It is after midnight and now officially my birthday, so these three drunken boys decide right then and there would be the best time to sing me “Happy Birthday.” They are loud and extremely off key, so I run away from them, dragging Clive with me. I want no part in their late-night shenanigans – I don’t do well with public attention.
Soon, Clive and I head back to campus, and I return to my hall, which is quiet. I don’t know where anyone is or what happened. It’s late, so I decide to end the night with some hot chocolate and a call to my parents. It’s not technically my birthday yet for my parents, thanks to time zone differences, but it has been my birthday for me for a few hours. Although it’s late and I’m tired, I have some time and I’m not sure what the next day will bring. I know this won’t be the last birthday I spend away from home and without my parents, but it is the first so it’s odd.
The next day is much more relaxing. My hall-mates all signed a card for me with cute little messages and give me a box of Pop-Tarts because they’re so American. “A little piece of home,” Nathalie calls them. Most of us just hang out that day. I learn what had happened to everyone the night before after we split up. People got too drunk at the party and needed to be taken care of by the more sober people. They barely made it off campus before turning around and coming back to the hall. The three guys I ran into were the only ones who actually made it off campus, though their night was also horrible, and they refuse to talk about it. I am glad I broke away from the group when I did. I didn’t have the night I had planned, but I still had some fun – more fun than the rest, at least.
I spend my birthday in a bit of a funk. All my friends back home are spending the day together for the annual Halloween party. The party is one of my favorite things of the entire year, and I am extremely bummed that I am missing it. The fact that this year the party landed on my birthday just makes me miss it more. This might be the worst part about not being home for my birthday.
The day after my birthday, I receive an email from one of my best friends. We rarely communicate by email, usually opting for texting or instant messaging. When we send each other emails, it means there is an attachment of some sort. The body of the email contains a short message wishing me a happy birthday and a suggested day we could have a Skype conversation. The important part of the email, however, is the attachment. At the Halloween party, my friends had made me a short video to wish me a happy birthday and to tell me they missed having me at the party. I laugh; I cry; I cry because I am laughing so much. I watch it a dozen times over. I am just so happy to see so many familiar faces and hear their voices. I feel like I am at the party.
This moment makes be realize just how much I am missing at home. Life continues back in Pennsylvania. Time doesn’t just stop because I am away, even though it feel like it should. While I was having the experience of a lifetime in England, I know my friends and family are continuing with their lives at home. I never really thought about it until now. This is the most homesick I have been.
Two weeks later, I have yet another chance to celebrate my birthday. Since I wouldn’t be home, my parents bought my present before I left – a front-row ticket to see Les Misérables on the West End in London. I had seen various movie versions but never live. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. Not only is Les Misérables one of my favorite musicals, but also Carrie Hope Fletcher, who I greatly admire, is playing Eponine, my favorite character who sings my favorite song.
I go to London on my own that day. I haven’t been in London since the first days following my arrival. After leaving Victoria Station, I immediately get lost and walk in circles for a while. Thankfully when planning my trip, I gave myself lots of time between my train and the show, just in case. I eventually find my way to the theatre – or, at least I think I am going in the right direction. My journey takes me pass Buckingham Palace, which I do not expect. However, there is a mass of tourists congregated around the Palace that I fight my way through. I make it through, and I figure out that I am, indeed, going the right way.
I get asked for directions a few times and that makes me feel good. I look like I belong. I do not look like someone who is not quite sure where they are going.
I decide to take a bit of a shortcut through St. James Park, which is beautiful. It is a bright, warm day. The park is full of life. People are bustling about, playing games or having picnics. There are flowers everywhere. I wish I could enjoy the park a bit more, but I am on a time limit. Walking in circles near Victoria Station took away the time I allotted for a relaxing walk to the theatre.
Turning a corner, I find hundreds – if not thousands – of people in the street. The roads are closed for a march for free education. I just want to get to the theatre. I don’t have the patience to care about the march. Unfortunately, the march is headed in my direction. I am a bit annoyed, but at least I know where I am, and I am pretty close to the theatre.
When I finally get to the theatre, it’s later that I had planned, but I still have plenty of time before the show starts. I find my seat and settle in for the wonderfulness that is to come. I honestly cannot describe just how amazing the show is. It’s breathtaking. The music, the acting, the set, the famous revolving floor – all of it exceeds my expectations. Everyone in the theatre is captivated. I find myself holding my breath at various times during the show. Surprisingly, I do not cry, but I believe that is because I am in too much shock that I am actually there witnessing the longest-running West End show.
I finally get to see Carrie Hope Fletcher, one of my biggest inspirations, up close in the role of Eponine. I have admired Carrie for years and never imagined actually getting to see her in person. After the show ends, I hurry to the stage door, hoping to catch her on her way out. Stage door is packed. I am worried that I won’t see her or she won’t have time to talk to everyone who wanted to meet her. Then, from a few rows of people away, I see her signature curly blonde hair. I am shaking. I patiently wait for others to talk to her. Then it is my turn. She is one of the loveliest, kindest people I have ever met. She is so sweet and has no problem signing two programs and a sheet of paper for me, as well as getting a picture. This is really a dream come true for me. I do not quite believe this is real life. The day is just too wonderful.
Although I was far from home, family, and friends, my birthday was still filled with love and happiness. Before my birthday, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like being away from home, but I am so happy with how it turned out. These experiences surrounding my birthday made my twenty-first birthday memorable, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Read an interview with Kelly here.