A Royal Mess: Why I Dragged My Feet Leaving for London
Updated: Jan 25, 2021
It’s kind of ironic, really, that the girl who had a 376-day countdown labeled “Days Until I’m out of Indiana” was seen hysterically crying through O’Hare’s airport security line. Yes, that girl was me. No, I would not like to talk about my chronic pattern of crying at 90% of the airports I go to. (Although it will most definitely come up again. And soon.) On September 2nd, 2019, my flight to London-Heathrow was calling. And, like half of the red telephone boxes decorating their streets, I was Out-Of-Service.
Growing up in the safe, clean, suburban city of Carmel, Indiana, there was always a chip on my shoulder when it came to my hometown. I rather often likened it to The Truman Show, in that it’s just a little too perfect - white picket fences, a top-rated high school of over 5,000 students, and cops who will pull you over for going 35 in a 30, just because they have nothing better to do. At the end of the day, I was grateful for the bubble that had nurtured me, but it was just that - a bubble. And I was ready to pop it.
Well, until I spent the summer between my Junior and Senior year of undergrad in Bloomington, Indiana - my college town. I passed the time donning a black apron at Buffalo Wild Wings and asking people if they wanted their order boneless or traditional - and yes, another side of ranch was extra. At night I shot pool with my new service industry friends, drank one too many shots of Rumplemintz, and somehow, between clocking into the summer in May and clocking out in late August, I’d learned what falling in love was like for the first time.
In the beginning, telling people I was leaving for London was exciting. I talked about how I was stashing away a good chunk of my pay every shift for British cocktails and endless pub food, and tickets to shows on the famous West End. By the time I’d put my two weeks in, I found myself dodging any conversation leading to London, like if I could just avoid saying the word out-loud, maybe I could stay in this little chapter of my life forever, frozen, endlessly young and happy and screaming at the Back of the House to remember I wrote “NO TOMATOES” on the last order, for God’s sake.
I remember one specific time it dawned on me how much the tables had turned. Every night at midnight, since the day I’d created the countdown, I got a notification on my phone, letting me know I was one day closer to my departure. It used to be somewhat of a relief, back when I was bitter and spent my nights binging Youtube travel videos, pretending my zip code was 90210 and I didn’t have to get up in the freezing cold for my morning criminal law lecture. But this particular night, as I was bar-hopping and crossing the street, it buzzed, and I felt every shot of tequila I’d taken within the last couple hours swell together in my stomach. 23 days. 23 days, and I was wishing it was 24. Or 25. What kind of sick irony was this?
I felt at such a crossroads. Part of me was upset that I’d had such a great summer. If I’d stayed miserable like I’d been for the past couple years, I would have had my bags zipped and thrown in the car weeks in advance. But because that wasn’t the case, I learned to love my college town in ways I didn’t think I ever could.
So on September 2nd, I bawled my way down that O’Hare terminal and boarded the plane. I was surrounded by other people my age, which made everything ten times worse, because what if, by some stroke of terrible luck (which would be very on-brand for me), they were in my program, and this was my first impression? (Great. Real great.)
That didn’t stop me from sobbing for the first two hours. I eventually fell asleep, perhaps because my eyelids were too swollen to stay open, only to wake up to the flight attendant asking if I, or the girl next to me, wanted an alcoholic beverage. At first I shook my head, but then the girl said she wanted a screwdriver, and that’s when I thought, “Hell, let’s take the edge off.” I asked for some wine, then proceeded to watch a glass of red poured. Not my cup of tea. But it was over before I could change my mind.
Here I was, eyes puffy, mascara streaks decorating my face, with a glass of cheap, disgusting vino on my table tray. I wanted to just toss it, but if we’re all honest here, I wasn’t going to make myself look any more like a baby than I already did. Screw it, I thought, taking a huge gulp from the glass and chasing it with my cup of water. I finished the wine off and laid my head against the window. Mission accomplished. Or so I thought.
Minutes later, my stomach felt ill. I hadn’t eaten anything since before we’d taken off (Such! A! Savvy! Traveler!), and my little chugging stunt was finally taking its toll. I wrapped my jacket up in a ball, buried my head in it, and tried to send calming vibes to my insides. (Which sounded more like, “Get yourself together, Woman!” followed by a lot of expletives. But we’ll roll with it.)
After about 7.5 hours, the voice overhead came on. “We will be landing in approximately thirty minutes,” she said, along with the other usual tidbits, but it was all white noise at that point. Sad Girl Hour (or 8 Hours, to be exact) was over. I had to pull myself together. This plane was landing in the UK whether I wanted it to or not.
Me, being the procrastinator that I am (hello packing at 2 am the night before my flight), pulled out the sheet I’d printed off on transportation to my new place and took a look for the first time. I figured there would probably be a big bus waiting for me, along with all the other students in my program, at the airport.
Yeah. That was a negative.
No royal treatment this time. The paper instead gave me a couple options on how I could get to my new home.
Option 1: Take the Tube straight from Heathrow to Kings Cross Station (the smart, cheap, although tightly-packed route).
Option 2: Take the train from Heathrow to Paddington station, then get on the Tube to Kings Cross (another cheap plan, but with the extra work).
Option 3: Get a Black Cab (the famous, iconic, and not-in-my-budget option) and have them drive me straight there.
(Or Option 4, which was not outlined on the paper, and something I really should have just considered on my own: Get an Uber.)
The plane landed, and I decided on Option 2 because it was the cheapest. Also, to be completely honest, I had no clue what I was doing. As I stood up and gathered my things, the girl sitting behind me tapped my shoulder. I turned, and she held a passport.
“Is this yours?” the girl asked. “I found it under your seat.” (It was, indeed, mine.) I thanked her and de-boarded the plane, face as red as my eyes had been hours before. This was going to be a long fifteen weeks if I lost my passport the very day I left US soil.
First thing’s first: immigration. I had one job: get through the correct Customs line and get my “Six-Month Student” stamp. This was vital. This was my key to not getting deported. This was the Golden Ticket to my Charlie and the Chocolate Factory experience of a lifetime.
So what did I not do? Get the freaking stamp.
After spending a decent five minutes scanning my passport, having a monitor analyze my face, and seeing the E-gate reject me, I got through the little doors. Without any ink smacking the paper. After flagging down an immigration officer and relaying my sob story, (who gave me one of those “oh wow, another college idiot” looks) I was directed over to two women who inspected my paperwork and got the job done.
I grabbed my three obese suitcases and exchanged all my American cash for pounds right away. Being the novice that I was, I just figured I now had no point in the good old American Jacksons anymore. Not like the exchange rate at the airport is a huge ripoff or anything. Not like you should wait and exchange it at the post office to avoid losing a chunk of future grocery money. I digress.
I embarrassingly asked a bus driver if there was a ride to Kings Cross (“Oh honey, are you kidding me? You have to take the train!”), I bought my train tickets, I hauled all three suitcases up the stairs with the help of some sympathizing Brits, and I boarded.
How I didn’t somehow pass out from the trauma of my arrival was beyond me. All this, and without a Redbull or a cup of coffee. I emerged from the depths of Kings Cross Station looking more like a soot-covered Marry Poppins than I’d like to admit. It was a quarter-mile walk from the station to my place, and uphill, so I basically kicked my bags along the street and wiped drops of sweat from my forehead before they dripped in my eyes and blinded me.
When I arrived at Chapter, my new home, one of my advisors literally ran outside and helped me carry a suitcase in. A great first impression - not only had I obviously ignored the strong recommendation to only bring two bags (a girl needs her leggings), I’d also showed up huffing and puffing with my hair greased back in perspiration.
But we made it. In one piece. And it was not even 9 am. What time did the pubs open again? Asking for a friend.