As a child, I tripped around the United States and into Canada for a few brief days on a family vacation. And then high school happened. As a freshman, our band teacher planted the idea of an overseas trip in our heads. By summer, we were on a march-a-thon, raising money for plane tickets to London, England, to play in the city’s New Year’s Day parade. By fall, I was the proud owner of my very first passport.
That trip to London hit the highlights of the city—the Tower of London, Big Ben—as well as those things that particularly appealed to teenagers such as the Doc Marten store and Hard Rock Cafe. We marched in the parade, and it was excruciatingly cold. I played my French horn in a brass choir in Westminster Abbey, and I didn’t know how to appreciate it at the time. I remember thinking that I should have practiced more, but I have no idea what we even played.
That trip to London was fringed with high school antics, crushes, goofy snapshots with friends (on film!) and the desire to collect tacky souvenirs. In many ways, it can hardly be considered a life-changing, cultural experience.
And yet, London was my first. It was where I lost my travel virginity, where I shed a worldview that encompassed only those places reached by car. It was the place where people drove on the other side of the road and water was served with bubbles and people said things like “lift” when they really meant “elevator.”
It. Was. Amazing.
I never intended to be dropped in the professional place I am today, where I would be invited to visit awesome places around the world, but I knew even when I was in London for the very first time that I would be back. The travel bug had bitten. I was infected with a sense of infatuation and discovery.
When I revisited London last week for the first time in more than 15 years, I was shocked by the things I remembered about it … and surprised by those things that I didn’t. As I took the subway from Heathrow to the center of London, I remembered the ‘mind the gap’ signage around the stations, but it didn’t seem as pervasive this time as it did years ago. I remembered having very specific places to go several years ago, but this time I spent more time looking at the tube map, and I don’t remember the transportation system being as extensive back then. I don’t recall the green spaces. Palaces looked smaller this time around. Was the city really this big before?
During the two days I recently spent in London, I didn’t do anything that I’d done when I was in the city as a student. This time I took afternoon tea. I toured the Tate Modern and learned about the street art in East London. I checked out the city from the top of the Shard and caught a glimpse of the famous London Eye. I felt like I was visiting the city for the very first time, and I felt that pull to the new, the unknown, all over again.
Even though this visit felt like my first to the city, I know it wasn’t. As I walked along Piccadilly, I felt that tug in my heart. As I kept my eye on the gray sky, which threatened to open up and pour down on me, I felt that gut-level pull. As I navigated the busy sidewalks while listening to passersby with their unfamiliar accents, I felt myself smile.
I had come full circle, and I was falling in love with London—and the allure of traveling—once again.