As a 20-year-old who had never been outside of the United States on my own, I decided this summer would be a great time not only to see the world, but also to build my resume so I won’t be jobless when I graduate next year.
As I was filling out the application for the Global Internships program, which places you in a business overseas, I was faced with the question of where I wanted to go.
It was London that immediately leaped out at me. It’s the home of so many of my favorite authors, it’s English-speaking (which would make things easier if I got lost), and if I was lucky, I’d come home with an accent! More than anything, I was hoping to grow my perspective of the world, learn about a different culture, and hopefully learn a thing or two about myself in the process.
I’ll confess, I was a little worried that the whole trip would end in full-blown, bald-faced catastrophe, but I’m proud to say that so far, everything is fine! I’ve even had the chance to explore part of Paris for a weekend and spend a day in Oxford. While I can’t yet say that traveling has completely transformed me, I will say that the past three weeks have been a huge learning experience.
Here are some things I’ve discovered (and am still discovering) in my past few weeks of traveling:
1. It’s okay to go somewhere alone
Prior to my time in London, I rarely went anywhere by myself, let alone explored, mostly out of fear of getting lost, or feeling like it would be weird to go off on my own.
As much fun as it’s been to wander London with friends, some of my favorite experiences so far have taken place while I’ve been alone–browsing book shops (and buying too many books), working my way through art galleries, and sipping Americanos in cute cafes. I enjoy the time I spend with friends, but that doesn’t always mean that they want to come with me to every spot I visit.
Most college students spend more time avoiding Shakespeare, rather than taking time to get to the Globe to see a play. This also means that the Charles Dickens Museum is probably not going to be a popular suggestion amongst my friends.And I’m learning that that’s okay. Visiting places alone gives me opportunities to go at my own pace, see everything I want to see, and soak in all that I can. The past few weeks have made me more willing to be adventurous on my own, without requiring the company of others to feel secure.
2. It’s okay to ask for help
Despite the fact that Google Maps and CityMapper exist, I’m still constantly getting lost. Whether I’m in my own neighborhood or traveling in a foreign country, my sense of direction is awful. It’s actually pretty impressive.
But every time my phone has failed me (or I have failed at using my phone), locals have not. Everyone in London has been incredibly kind and helpful in giving me directions.. Even when I visited Paris, so many of the locals–despite the stereotype that the French are mean–were patient with me and were entirely willing to offer help when I looked desperately lost because I couldn’t (and still can’t) sort out the difference between the Parisian train, metro, and bus.
On my first night in Paris, the train CityMapper routed me on went out of service. The situation was even more stressful because it was 10pm, and I was about 40 minutes from my Airbnb. Not to mention, I didn’t understand any of the signs. Thankfully a compassionate bystander saw my roommate and I about to lose our minds and stepped in to find us a new route. After burning through most of my data plan on using GPS, we finally made it to our Airbnb an hour and a half later.
Knowing that I can talk to a local for help i makes getting lost significantly less distressing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean that I get lost less often, but at least people here are kind enough to have mercy and help me!
3. Spend money… sometimes
Cities like London can get expensive, especially if you’re constantly spending money on eating out and trying to hit all the tourist sights you can. Because I’m staying in London for a while, I’m doing my best to budget and minimize the amount of money that I spend on a daily basis. So I try to eat out only a couple of times per week, and cook at home for the bulk of my meals. And if I’m not satisfied with my own cooking, I watch a little more Chef’s Table to at least visually satiate my cravings.
But in the words of my roommate, YOLO–You Only London Once. So I’m letting myself spend money on things like souvenirs–which for me, means lots of books, bookmarks, and postcards–and cultural experiences, like tickets to Twelfth Night at Shakespeare’s Globe or an afternoon at tea, in order to create and hold onto memories of my time here. Sadly, yes, this means I’m that tourist taking a selfie here and there. But like I said, I’ll only be here once!
4. Touristy areas are sometimes touristy for a reason
I’m usually not a fan of touristy areas, simply because it’s usually both unbearably crowded and obnoxiously expensive. But my trip to London and the weekend trip I took to Paris taught me that sometimes braving the crowd is worth it..
I didn’t think the Palace of Versailles was going to be a particularly interesting stop, so I was hesitant to spend €18 to get in. But I was so wrong–Versailles was one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen. One room seemed to have dazzling chandeliers across the entire length of the room, illuminating the detailed, rich paintings that covered every inch of the room–even the ceiling. I couldn’t believe that somewhere that opulent and extravagant could possibly exist.
And the gardens! Again, I was hesitant to spend another €9 to get in, but once I got a real look at how large and how grand the gardens were, I was more than happy I spent the money. The gardens seemed to go on forever, creating separate mazes of green centered around exquisite fountains. It was so big that I couldn’t even make it through the entire place.
Next time, I’ll do more research and think twice about skipping out on popular tourist destinations.
5. Write down everything, make sure to take photos!
Maybe there’s a little truth to the saying “Pics or it didn’t happen.” During the last few weeks exploring London, I’ve stumbled upon beautiful views and great sights, even outside my touristy agenda. I’ve seen talented street performers, charming, brightly colored buildings, and the most romantic sunsets, and have shamelessly whipped out my iPhone, ignored the fact that I have no iCloud storage left, and taken pictures.
In addition, I’m constantly experiencing new things, whether it’s cramming myself onto the Tube during rush hour, trying not to eat everything for lunch at Borough Market, or meandering through the Tate Modern. But once I head home, I can’t relive those experiences, and there’s the possibility that while I likely won’t forget the locations themselves, over time, I will likely lose the actual sensations that accompanied my experiences–the sight of bright red buses around every corner, the quirky terminology the Brits use (“crisps,” meaning potato chips), and the sound of locals relaxing at pubs that line the street on my way home.
So I’ve been doing my best (which admittedly, isn’t enough) to record as much of my trip as I can in photos and in my journal. At the same time, I’m determined not to let my camera get in the way of my experiences. I take as many photos as I need to remember the gist of each location I visit, and then hold onto the memories, and write everything down as soon as I have a chance.