Interview with Kelly Grebeck

What is your name, major, class year?
I am Kelly Grebeck. I am an English and Publishing & Editing double major in the class of 2016.

Kelly with Carrie Hope Fletcher, actress and singer

Kelly with Carrie Hope Fletcher

Where did you GO, when, and why?
I went to Brighton, England for the fall semester of 2014. I chose Brighton because I have always wanted to go to England, but not necessarily London. Brighton seemed like a wonderful and beautiful city that I knew I could fall in love with. It is just close enough to London and the fact that it’s a beach town really sold me on wanting to go there.

Did you ever end up celebrating your 21st birthday the traditional American way when you got back? If so, what did you do?
I didn’t really get the chance to celebrate my 21st birthday when coming home to America because, at the time, most of my friends at home were under 21. I guess I celebrated a bit by going to the casino with my family where I ended up winning $20. However, for my friend’s 21st birthday in February, we kind of did a double celebration at one of the bars for me. I did not really have an official 21st birthday celebration that was just for me, though.

Do you still stay in touch with the friends you made in England?
Although it is difficult due to time differences and busy lives, I do try to talk to them every once in a while, even if it’s just a random post on the Facebook group page we made. There are some people with whom I kept better in touch than others. Sadly I don’t get to talk to any of them nearly as much as I want. Nothing can compare to seeing them and talking to them every single day.

Did you get homesick for England when you got home?
It didn’t quite feel like I was home at first. I almost felt like I was on just another weekend trip and I would be back in Brighton within a couple days. When it really hit me that I was home for good, I felt horrible. Going back to work at Weis after being abroad was the absolute worst. All I wanted was to go back to Brighton. I still want to go back. While the homesickness has died down after settling into my routine here, I still feel it occasionally. When I see some of my friends post pictures on Facebook of what they are doing that night or when the Ukulele Society that I joined posts about a gig I feel it the most. I made more of a home for myself there than I ever expected and I just was not prepared to leave it behind. I don’t think anything could have prepared me to leave so much behind.

 

Interview by Courtney Radel and Julia Raffel

Advertisements

Remember, Remember

by Katy Griffith

 

We stretched across the hilly downs of Southern England, the little lights of our flashlights drawing a single file line over the hills as far as my eyes could see. Dozens of pinpricks of light concealed the fact that dozens more of us hadn’t even brought a light. We had decided instead to trust our friends, to trust the light of the moon, to trust our feet below us. Or perhaps it was because they didn’t know what they were getting into. From the front of the line, it seemed the trail of lights could guide me all the way back to campus if I wanted it to.

There had never been this many people on one of our walks before. So many had showed up that even the Walking Society leaders were stunned. Some of them came prepared. Perhaps they were part of the society, used to long walks over the South Downs. Hiking boots and warm clothes showed they had read the description on the society’s Facebook page or had at least checked the weather. While the town of Lewes was only one train stop away from campus, our path took us the scenic route. It would be another hour at least before we got there.

It was chillier than it had been the past few weeks, but the fast pace of our leaders kept me from noticing the cold. Some students used more alcoholic methods to keep warm, and a few of them treated me to a concert of several second bursts from nearly every song I knew. When they started to sing American Pie, the incorrect lyrics and bad singing made me laugh, but combined with the fact that they were British, it was a miracle I didn’t pitch myself into the mud with laughter. I was sure their singing was echoing far across the downs, possibly bothering the sort of English folk who preferred a quiet night in on this, the Fifth of November, but their singing made the next thirty minutes pass quickly.

Though I am accustomed to walking in the dark without a flashlight, it was cold and the ground was incredibly muddy. It was hard to tell how far we had walked in the darkness, but the small bunch of lights that was most likely Brighton and the long train of students lit by flashlight gave a small indication. In the other direction was another cluster of lights, brighter and closer. We were almost to Lewes, and I couldn’t wait to stop stepping ankle deep in mud.

Lewes hosts the largest celebration of Guy Fawkes Night in England. It is a night for parades and bonfires, and for celebrating Guy Fawkes’ failure to blow up parliament. The bonfires used in celebration give the night its other name: Bonfire Night. This night proved to be a great opportunity to observe the British during one of their holidays. It is a uniquely English event. It hasn’t been adapted into U.S. culture like Saint Patrick’s Day, and it is untainted by American commercialization. It remains solely in its home country, and by its very nature, it can really only be a British holiday. I was lucky to be so close to the host of the largest Bonfire Night celebration in the country, but this might be why I felt a little bit like an intruder or outsider as I watched the night’s events. At the same time, I was excited to see something that I couldn’t get back home. Like the candy at the co-op on campus, this was something that was out of reach as an American in America, but now that I was in England, I could sneak a taste of Englishness.

+

When I was in the process of preparing to go to England, I was told multiple times by “experts” that England was different from the United States. So when I got to England and things didn’t feel different from Pennsylvania, I felt a little betrayed. I was really hoping that it would be a different culture that I was entering, but except for the exchange rate and the accents, everything of importance felt the same. The British countryside even looked like Pennsylvania in a lot of places. For the majority of the time I was in England, I acted like I wasn’t in a different culture because it didn’t feel like I was. I would even tell people that it was almost like being at home. I didn’t appreciate the subtle differences in culture because I couldn’t and didn’t notice them without hindsight. Perhaps that’s why I treasure those rare moments of clarity, like Bonfire Night, so much.

+

When we finally tumbled into the town, muddy up to our calves and shivering in the cold, the group split in different directions. We were a little early, and some students who had been there before went in search of their favorite local pub. I, however, decided to follow the crowd of people until I reached a part of town where there was a considerable amount of people lining the sidewalks. They could only be waiting for the parade to start, and I joined them, hopefully not looking too lonely. Standing there, the cold started to creep through my skin and into my bones. I began to wish I had brought a warmer jacket. Or a coat. My fingers were sorely lacking the comfort of gloves, and my ears were already going numb. I had been one of those hikers who did not check the weather before leaving.

And then came the light, and suddenly the words “bonfire night” became clear.

Up the street marched the paraders, nearly all carrying blazing torches. I immediately stepped closer to the road, hovering on the edge of the curb, desperate for the small warmth passing by. The marchers wore every manner of costume imaginable. Old timey English clothes, wizards (Gandalf among them), monks, Native Americans (I was thoroughly confused at this point), Women’s Suffragettes, this parade had it all, even Batman. There was even a float of a huge Putin (yes, that Putin) wearing only a speedo and riding on top of a tank. I’m still not sure what to make of it. When the paraders weren’t holding torches, they were holding banners which proudly proclaimed they were from this bonfire society or that one. Some were pushing strollers along with swaddled babies sleeping inside. The torchbearers were old and young; the youngest were elementary school kids who were not really paying attention to where they waved those fire hazards. Even some of the adults were not as careful as I would have been (and me a pyromaniac). Surely some of these costumes were highly flammable. Sometimes they passed so close that I thought my hair would catch on fire, but I didn’t step back. I was too cold to care about the possibility of catching on fire. At least then I would be warm.

When a torch was at the end of its life the bearer would drop it by the curb and light a new one, so the road was littered with still burning torches and looked to be on fire. Some paraders were what I dubbed burnt-torch-wagon-pullers, in which burnt-torch-picker-uppers would deposit any discarded torches into a creaking wagon. These wagons became mobile mini bonfires. I envied those wagon pullers for their proximity to the flames.

When at last the parade ended and the crowd began to shuffle to the pubs before the lighting of the bonfires, I decided to try to find one of the many bonfires. I wanted to be able to stand right up beside it, my view unhindered by other people. There were some bright yellow papers pointing to the direction of the “Lewes Bonfire Society community bonfire,” and as there were signs pointing me where to go, and the giant crowd had magically vanished, I decided that a community bonfire seemed like a safe, legitimate activity for someone alone in a strange town. But if not for some fellow strangers to the town, I would have missed the bonfire altogether.

The yellow signs were spread out too far, so I didn’t notice right away when they vanished altogether. Rather than turning around, I followed the shadowed people many yards ahead of me, hoping they were going to the same place. This was probably a bad decision. I was heading into a more residential part of town, which meant less lighting and fewer people to follow. I didn’t even notice that whomever I had been following had disappeared. Perhaps they turned onto a side road. I tried not to panic. I failed. I turned around. There were people a few yards behind me; a mother and two kids, and two middle-aged women. The women asked if this was the way to the bonfire. I responded that I hoped so, because that’s where I was going, and I wasn’t sure if this was the right way or not. The women turned and asked the mother, who confirmed that this was indeed the right direction and that we just had to follow the road a little ways longer.

Uplifted by the confirmation that I had not gotten lost, I continued. Onward and onward and onward, I continued. The woman and her kids had turned into a neighborhood a while ago. The two women were still behind me, but walking slower. Then, just as I was about to give up, there was a large sign. I had finally found it, though the distinct lack of a crowd indicated that I was even earlier than I thought. I paid the entrance fee and walked up the slight incline to where the bonfire would be. Then I felt excitement once again begin to bubble up inside of me. Finally, there would be a bonfire.

There were only a few other people standing around the massive pile of neatly stacked wood pallets when I got there. Even though my legs ached, the ground was muddy from the week’s rain, so I couldn’t rest my legs and sit. I wasn’t sure how long I would have to wait, but I hoped it would not be long. After about an hour, more people started to gather, straggling up the road in small groups. From where I stood on the hill I could see a small line forming at the entrance. I attempted to warm myself with some hot chocolate from the recently popped up cart, but it was too hot and tasteless. I just held it in my hand, trying to take in as much of the heat that could escape the Styrofoam cup as I could.

As the crowd grew bigger and my hot chocolate grew colder, I began fidgeting, shifting my weight from foot to foot. My toes were numb, and I was sure the rest of me would soon follow. The warmth I had accumulated by walking up hills and past numerous neighborhoods to get here had long disappeared. And then, at last, the fire was lit. I could see the soft orange glow, and sparks began to drift in the wind, but the fire was on the other side of the pile of wood. Rather than moving from my spot (at this point I wasn’t even sure I could—my feet were frozen), I prayed that the fire spread quickly. The trail of sparks grew larger until it seemed like hundreds of fireflies were blowing away in the wind. Luckily it didn’t take long for the fire to spread, and soon the entire pile of wood – over ten feet tall and triple that in diameter – was ablaze. It warmed my skin, then my bones, and finally I was warm.

+

Back home in the United States, I live in a medium sized town in suburban Pennsylvania. It’s not really the kind of place you would expect to find something akin to a paganistic winter solstice ritual, but in Phoenixville we have something called the Firebird Festival. In the weeks leading up to the festival, a large, beautiful wooden phoenix is built in an open field. Then, near the middle of the month of December, much of the town gathers to watch the wooden phoenix literally become a firebird. It celebrates and symbolizes our town’s rebirth; from the early days of our steel mill to today, where we have a bustling, cultural downtown. There are pagan dancers who dance around the bonfire, there are families, and there are drunken people. This year I missed the Firebird Festival by a few weeks because I was abroad. I missed a vandal burn down the bird a night early. I missed members of my community come together to bring wood and supplies to hastily rebuild a replacement. I missed our phoenix literally rising from its ashes. Instead of watching my town and community bond, I was watching a similar thing happen across the ocean. Though Bonfire Night is in November, and I obviously didn’t know what would happen to my town’s Bonfire Night equivalent, when I watched the fire in England, despite being alone that night, and despite being thousands of miles from home, I didn’t feel as lonely as I thought I would, like something about that fire was tethering me to home.

+

Bonfire night in Lewes

The fire was stunning, and it kept growing until the flames reached impressive heights. I was mesmerized by the dancing fingers of the flames, tried to see shapes in the fire, imagined that a great phoenix was rising from the flames. When the wind blew the fire blazed sideways, a long tail of flame almost reaching the people on that side of the fire. The fire was so intense that even I, a lover of fire and welcome to its heat, had to step back to avoid its heat. As the fire began to die down, the fireworks started. It was an impressive show, making it difficult to watch both the fire and the fireworks. I had never experienced such a simultaneous event before, so it mesmerized me. The fire and the fireworks were both still going strong when I checked my watch. It was time to catch one of the last trains back to campus. As I walked back through the residential area of town and towards the town center, fireworks lit up in every direction, echoing across the empty streets. There was more than one bonfire, and more than one fireworks display, and the light of both blocked any hope of seeing the stars. Luckily I was relying on a train to guide me home, not the stars.

The street where the parade had marched was eerily empty. Charred bits of torch and empty bottles were the only evidence. There was one sign pointing me where to go, but then all signs, like those pointing to the bonfire, disappeared. I anxiously checked my watch and picked a likely direction to walk. After ten minutes it became clear that this was not right. And then, blessedly, I heard a group of university students asking a police officer which way the station was. I did a 180 and surreptitiously followed them, hoping that they wouldn’t think I had begun to follow them.

I became more and more anxious. What if I missed the train? I would have to walk back to campus by following the main road, but even that would take an hour (and I only knew that secondhand). Luckily, I arrived in time and found the line easy enough. It wasn’t hard to miss since hundreds and hundreds of people were trying to get back to the big station in Brighton or the smaller one near the university campus. The amusement park-like line snaked towards the station. I half expected the station to have a sign stating “60 minutes from this point.” It took at least that long to finally cram my way onto a train car, and then my night of adventure came to an end.

Both my home town of Phoenixville and England celebrate the survival of their culture. Though Phoenixville’s is on a smaller, more local, scale, this similarity reminds me that despite different histories, different cultures, and different people, two places can have a similar way to express their culture. This really shows how nuanced culture can be and how subtle the differences can be. This is what I try to remind myself of every time I think about England and the United States being “basically the same.” On the surface, we may do a lot of the same things, celebrate in similar ways, speak the same language, but the contexts of those experiences, and the way the culture’s history has shaped it, show that we are not so similar after all. I like to think that I have grown between that first take-off and last landing at JFK. It might not have been an emotional growth, or a personal one, but I did learn a lot in my time abroad. Now, when I tell people that England is just like the U.S, I follow that statement up by saying, “but it is also different.” Because it is also different.

I believe that now, I am different because I experienced Bonfire Night first hand. Something about that night is stuck in my brain. Perhaps it was the intensity of what I experienced, or perhaps it is because it was so different from everything else that happened while I was in England, or perhaps because something in that fire made me feel at home again, but the memories I have of that night are among some of the most vivid and clear I have of my semester abroad. Perhaps one day soon I will light a fire for myself and celebrate my own growth and survival. I just need to buy the match.

 

 

Read an interview with Katy here.

On My Own

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.

Planes, Trains, and Coaches

by Alexis Gargin

 

The plan was simple—take the iconic double decker bus from the University of Sussex campus, where my friend Jake and I had stayed with my friend Kelly, to the coach station in Brighton, then take the coach to London and meet my cousin there at the McDonald’s by the station. It shouldn’t have been too difficult, considering the coach station was the same one we had arrived at two days earlier. However, we had forgotten to take into account that it was November 11th—Remembrance Day—the European equivalent to America’s Veterans’ Day. The national holiday celebrating the end of World War I and the servicemen who had fought for their country aroused patriotism, parades, and traffic. The result was that the coach would no longer come to that particular station in Brighton, i.e. the last one, the one closest to the Atlantic Ocean and the beach.

Perhaps this change in location was not a matter of importance to the locals, but to two students visiting Brighton, it was another part of an adventure, the frightening part. Jake and I examined the 8 ½ by 11 poster declaring the change in location and tried to remain calm. Our first instinct was to find the new address, Prescott Circus. But we had no idea how to do so.

We headed to a hotel, thinking they would be able to help lost tourists. However, the hotel concierge informed us that it was a thirty-minute walk away. It wasn’t even on the little map I hook from her desk.

Our coach was supposed to leave in about thirty minutes. We knew it would be close, but we tried. We had already paid for the tickets and didn’t want our money to go to waste, even if the ticket was about six pounds. For ten minutes, we walked in the right direction, at least we hoped, until we decided it would be better to go to the train station, since we had some idea of its location beyond just a sense of which direction it was in.

We found the train station after a few minutes and a quick question at a coffee shop, where our sense of direction proved to be correct. We saw the large building that we had been to the day before. Jake and I try to channel our history professor and notice the old green metal styled in an Art Nouveau fashion with flowers and fancy ornamentation. Upon arrival at the train station we discovered, with some luck, that a train was going to London, Victoria Station, in about twenty minutes. The train would arrive about an hour before the coach would have.  I used my emergency credit card to buy a ticket, paying more than I had for the coach, then anxiously awaited the appropriate time to board and chose a window seat. I noticed about two minutes after I sat down that I was in a seat marked for handicapped individuals. Jake and I considered changing seats, but we had already settled down.  I took out my Cadbury Crunchie bar, something much harder to find in America and so it’s always been a treat from Canada, Ireland, or England, and tried to calm down and let the nerves sooth once again into excitement as the English countryside rushed by. Unfortunately, I kept thinking that a porter was going to come and ask us to move to make room for somebody who actually needed the handicapped seat.

We pulled into a huge station, with people walking all around.  We took the extra time we had acquired from the faster mode of transportation to walk around the station and browse a bookstore. We quickly and easily found a McDonald’s, an easy meeting point, the golden arches a global sign of fast food. We grabbed a Big Red Bus tour map. We saw Big Ben, King’s Cross Station, The Eye, our location, and the Victoria Coach Station. Two Victoria Stations within blocks of each other celebrating the Queen’s long reign created confusion. I tried to think back to my Facebook conversations with Mandy, but I could not remember specifying how we were coming into the city.  The panic that been eased away by the smooth lull of the train and the sweetness of the countryside began to take control once more, postponing the excitement of London once again.

+

Jake and I were meeting my cousin Mandy, her husband, Tyler, and ten-month-old son, Owen. It was my first time meeting Owen, although I had seen many photos on Facebook, and I had not seen Mandy and Tyler since their wedding a couple of years before in Canada. Mandy and I are second cousins, but she and her brother are closer in age to my siblings, cousins, and me than to my dad. Before my semester abroad, Canada had been my only international destination, and each time I went it was to visit family, not really to sightsee.  Mandy and her brother Patrick often came down to visit us in New Jersey with their dad for Easter or other big family events. When I was little, Mandy was one of my role models. I used to name my dolls and stuffed animals after her. When we grew up, Mandy moved to London, a city I had always dreamed of visiting, and entered into the publishing industry, my dream job. I was grateful when she had reached out to me and offered me a chance to stay with her when I came to see London. My dream of visiting London became more realistic with me studying abroad in Vienna, a short plane ride away in Austria.

The six hour time difference meant communication with family was limited to emails and occasional Skype calls. I had been looking forward to being with someone who was family, who had known me all my life. My grandma had passed away only weeks before, and I had not been able to talk about it with anyone in person. I looked forward to being with someone who knew her and loved her as Mandy had loved her Aunt Paddy.

I’m usually someone who does not like talking about their emotions, and if I do, the person is someone I’m close with, either family or friend. But when I woke up to an email from my dad, sharing the news I had known was coming soon, I wished I was able to hug my parents or siblings, to cry with someone. I did not know whether or not Mandy and I would talk about my grandma, but at least she was someone I could be honest with, not wear a fake smile for.

+

After a short walk, we discovered that the Victoria Coach Station did not have a McDonald’s near it. The panic that I had kept at bay before was coming back to the forefront of my mind. We tried using a pay phone, but I forgot that the phone number Mandy had given me included the area code.

Finally, I decided to head back to the other Victoria Station, we walked through the crowds, the small areas of construction, the gates, the tunnel that took us to the large room with the trains arriving and the stores around it. We found Mandy waiting for us in the McDonald’s with her small family. We were happy not to be lost in one of the biggest cities in the world. Jake and I sat eating French fries as they ate their lunch. We talked about the two months I had been living in Europe as they talked about their seven years there. They came to London after graduating college and had made a life and home for themselves in the big city.

After our little lunch, we let Mandy and Tyler guide us around the city. We weaved around the streets and buildings as the locals directed us. We passed West End with huge billboards plastered onto buildings with the newest and most popular plays catching our eyes.

As we neared Buckingham Palace, we thought we were going to see a royal. Mandy and Tyler pointed out how the signs were all there, police motorcycles entering a barricaded street, our close proximity to the famous address, but instead of catching a glimpse of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Harry, Prince William, or Duchess Catherine, we watched the tail end of the Remembrance Day parade, bagpipes and all. We did the usual tourist thing and took many photos. The rain London is famous for was missing and instead came a sunshine so bright we knew our photos wouldn’t come out very well. Despite having a nice DSL camera for my photography class in Vienna, I was barely able to do more than zoom in and out and shoot images of one of the oldest and well-known homes in the world. We walked down what Mandy and Tyler liked to call the “Queen’s driveway,” talking about the Olympics a few years before and how London adapted itself for all of its international guests.

+

We walked past areas perfect for tourists as the double-deckers drove by and the telephone booths stood proudly British. Mandy and Tyler pointed this and that out, naming so many places that I could hardly remember them all. We went to Westminster Abbey and saw the family members entering and leaving the church, remembering family members.

I missed my grandma’s funeral. I stayed in Europe because it would have been so difficult to go home and come back. Part of me wanted to be sad and felt that I should, but I knew that’s not what my grandma would have wanted. She had spent a few days staying at our house during the summer and during that time she gave me some money for my European adventure. She wanted me to have a good time, but sometimes I had to remind myself that I should not feel guilty for it.

+

We walked past old and new buildings. I wondered which were the oldest, which had been here during that queen or king’s reign, which had survived the wars. As a history nerd, I enjoyed being in a city rich with time and stories. History was ever changing as only weeks before the Scottish were voting to become independent or stay with Great Britain. We walked past long line, stretching along a city block, they too wanted independence, but as a smaller country their story is left untold, their name forgotten. Mandy and Tyler pointed out one of the oldest buildings, standing behind the line.

We walked until we found a traditional pub to rest at. Although I was not yet twenty-one, I was legal in the U.K. I hadn’t had much to drink in my two months in Europe, so I decided to have something, but of course I had no idea what to order. Tyler had bought us four different beers to try and a cider. A few hours later, I realized I left my scarf sitting on the bench. It had been one of the souvenirs I had purchased for myself in Vienna.

London was a city I had dreamed about for years and one that allowed me to understand the language better than the German I was surrounded with in Austria. The city was beginning to decorate for Christmas as lights and decorations hung above us in the streets. It was beautiful, even if it was a few weeks before December. We found a magical little ice skating rink with a Christmas tree and people in penguin costumes.

+

 Mandy showed us a side of London a tour book may have skipped as we found charm in the little French restaurant with its quaint furniture and curtains on the windows and ceiling, creating a floating atmosphere, and live performance on the floor below. The room was beautiful and graceful, although we had some difficulty telling our waitress that Jake and I did not want spiked hot chocolate.

We sat and talked about travel and life. It felt like a moment of culture and dreams. We talked about cities big and small, places we’ve been and want to go. I was hungry for more travel, but as the weather grew colder and the Christmas decorations multiplied, the date of my flight back home approached. I both wanted to see my family again and travel to France, Italy, Switzerland, and so many more places. Being in Europe only made me want to see more of it.

+

 Mandy showed us where she worked at the museum. As we walked, she extended an invitation for my brothers to visit her. We said, it’s what family does. Although she is technically my second cousin, we’ve always been just cousins. She reminds me of my grandma and other members of my family who say family and mean it, generously giving themselves.

+

 Crowds gathered around the Tower of London to see the display of poppies. Thousands of red flowers were created and placed in the moat beside the old prison, remembering our fallen heroes. I kept thinking about the bad things that happened in the tower, beheadings and disappearances, but yet I still had to respect a building with so much history.

We walked along the river, past the London Bridge, the Tower Bridge, and the Millennium Bridge, the one we were familiar with from a Harry Potter film. I stopped every few feet trying to capture the new image or angle of a landmark on my phone. I had given up on my digital camera.

+

 Fish ‘n Chips, Platform 9 3/4, the Globe Theatre, my first visit to a men’s restroom (receiving a few weird looks, but there wasn’t a line for it), as well as my first curry served to me at a local find under a bridge, the Empress. Everything about my trip to London was memorable. I saw more with my “tour guides” than I would have with just Jake and me. As we walked past markets and bike parties, London became a living city. Unfortunately, I will also always remember the transportation issues that began the trip and were most complimented by problems of ending transportation. I had thought it would be a good idea to get an early flight so that we did not miss our afternoon history class. And by early, I mean six in the morning. To avoid leaving Mandy’s for the drive back to the airport at two in the morning and given the fact that London does not actually have much public transportation after midnight, we left around eleven. We took two subways and reached Heathrow airport about two hours later and waited for the security gates to open at four am. The number of passengers on the subway dwindled until we were the last two people heading towards the airport. As we printed our tickets, the silence of the normally crowded airport surprised us. We saw the small huddled masses controlling the power outlets with their cellphone chargers. As my battery edged from five percent to four, I knew I needed to find an outlet and crossed the great room to the seating area by the bar. I attempted to complete my philosophy reading as I waited for my plane. Finally, the gates opened and we were allowed to go through security to find our next waiting spot by our plane’s loading area. A quick hour and a half in the air brought us across the English Channel and the hundreds of miles of continental Europe to Vienna. Two subways, a train, and a tram later, we were back in our rooms.

 

 

Read an interview with Alexis here.