Reflecting on the Mountbatten Institute – 10 Year Alumni Anniversary

The ticketing agent wasn’t too impressed as I put my two oversized pieces of luggage on the scale. “They’re overweight. You’ll have to leave some things behind or pay a hefty fee.” This was March 2006 and I was saving any extra penny I had for pints and weekend escapes across Europe. Needless to say my mom and sister walked away with mismatched shoes, college sweatshirts and other items forcibly deemed unnecessary overflowing from their arms after saying a tearful goodbye. My teddybear somehow made the cut though.

I arrived at London’s Heathrow and was instructed to sit on the ground in the arrivals hall with the others who had landed before me while we waited for the rest of the intake to arrive. I was exhausted and nervous. I had no idea what to expect from both the Mountbatten Institute (formerly Mountbatten Programme), nor the other 29 participants who joined me from all corners of the US.

Joanna and I bonded over going to uni in Baltimore. Emily (Z) and I made friends quickly as she was the only volunteer who responded to my invite for a smoke outside to break the ice. I learned it was neither academia nor international work experience that brought her here though. It was simply, Europe!

We were brought by bus to a hostel in Paddington for the first few nights. I was in awe at the amount of luggage Erin, also a fellow New Jerseyian, had managed to bring over. We were going to be in London for a year. Each of us at a different work placement, from mostly prominent banking to only two of us in marketing/special events roles. Erin was fashionably prepared for all of it.

I met Angele on the hostel doorstep later that afternoon. I didn’t believe her when she told me her name. After all I had never met anyone from New Orleans before. Angele, Jaime, Heidi and I walked to Portobello Road the next morning. Flashbacks of my time studying abroad only 3 years prior flooded in and I felt overly confident that I had already mastered London during my first time living there at 19. I was so naive about how this next year would change me forever.

Mountbattens on Portobello Road

First day in London, Portobello Road; Courtesy of Heidi Kristin.

See, what made this time so much more different than the first time I lived abroad was simply, it was no longer my first time. Sure we were older and more mature. I mean most of us were at least 22! College was in the past and we all had a minimum of a year of professional work experience under our belts. To leave our happy lives of “adulthood” behind meant that there was an additional element that unified us all – we were all true travelers at heart and for many of us this wasn’t our first rodeo abroad.

That night our friendship bonds began to form deeper as we partied into the wee hours at the Hiccup Bar in the hostel’s basement, flirting with foreign boys and searching out new partners in crime. Late that night Emily (S) greeted us with Indiana-based childhood friend Gerrad, as they both were the last of the group to arrive. I knew then that we were onto something good.

Fast friends at the Hiccup Bar, Paddington

Fast friends our first night at the Hiccup Bar, Paddington; Courtesy of Sarah Lauderbach

I started work shortly after at the international leading market research firm Forrester Research. I was an Event Coordinator managing corporate events for the C-level suite where my bosses provided exclusive and customised research consultancy to Europe’s most prominent organisations. I was lucky that my direct supervisor Daniel was one of the original Mountbattens, an English gent sent to NYC years earlier, so his appreciation of a life split between professionalism and adventure was well understood. As part of my role I galavanted around London sourcing amazing gifts to include in our prestigious event invitations such as mini port bottles to invite them to our VIP event in Portugal or tea from Harrods for our annual London event. Later that year after a private tour of Tower Bridge I hosted dinner inside its historical walkways.

While in the Mountbatten Programme we were also working toward our Cambridge-endorsed certificate in international business practice. Throughout the year we were whisked away to attend educational seminars at prominent places such as the UN in London, and other talks in Paris, Oxford and Cambridge; but also participated in team building exercises in Dorset and Brighton. The days were long but the nights were even longer as we surely took advantage of the mini breaks at hand.

Punting in Cambridge

Punting in Cambridge; Courtesy of Jamie Bettcher

My most prominent reflection of Mountbatten lives amongst the friendships that were created during post work drinks sipping pints and eating chips for dinner to save our pennies for weekend escapes across Europe. A typical weekend included dancing to our favourite cover band The Fabulous Feedback Band (now replaced by much younger lads) at Leicester Square Irish pub O’Neills on Wardour Street, arriving home at 4 am, taking a 30-minute nap before heading to catch the budget National Express bus only just in time for the cheapest flight of them all at 6 am. We’d arrive in a new city, drop our bags at the hostel and by 9 am were exploring and trying to figure the new foreign place out with a thick hangover to make it extra special. It wasn’t uncommon when returning to London late Sunday night and being asked at customs where I just came from that I’d stare back blankly, the trips started to blur into one.

Mountbattens in Paris

Mountbattens in Paris; Courtesy of Stephanie Otanez

This was 2006 remember. Likely only a quarter of us were on Facebook. I refused and was still on MySpace. I called my mom weekly from my international calling card and only would SMS (text) my friends in emergency situations. After arriving in a new town, it was an old-school map and an inkling for the closest pub that got us around.

Once we met the South Africans, thanks to an introduction via Angele and her co-worker, weekends were also spent in east London having traditional braiis while sunbathing in their backyard, learning South African longarming dances late in the evening at Zulu’s and sharing our cultures over too many Savannah ciders. We hosted an amazing Halloween party at the Leicester Square Australian pub, Walkabout, to show our South African and English friends what the holiday really is all about. Em (Z) and I kept the tradition for 4 years later in NYC , and they still were they were the most celebrated parties of the year.

Halloween at Leicester Sq Walkabout

Halloween, 2006 at Walkabout Leicester Sq; Courtesy of Jaime Bettcher

Living in communal housing was a challenge as it took college-living to another level. 8 of us shared a 4-bedroom townhouse in between posh Maida Vale and sketchy Kilburn Park. As most of us shared a bedroom with a friend, Emily (Z) and I’s friendship became even closer as we also combined wardrobes and the large bottle of water to quench our frequently hungover thirst was passed between us as a nightly ritual. When it came time to host the other Mountbattens’ for a good old fashioned American bbq, our house, known as the “crack house” (no drugs were involved) was the place to be. It might have been termed that for our residence in proximity to the ghetto, or the pure debauchery that took place regularly. Frankly, our flat ran out of water most mornings, and Em Z and I, the last to wake up, would flip a coin on who would get to shower before work.

Mountbattens celebrating

“Blade” and “Bullet” celebrating at the flat after returning from Paris; Courtesy of Andy Cervantes

From March 2006-March 2007 I was lucky to not only experience more of London and the UK than ever before, but also 13 other countries. We cheered steins at Oktoberfest in Munich, ate baguettes under the Eiffel Tower, hiked under olive groves in Cinque Terra, and bathed in ancient outdoor baths in Budapest. We ate perogee in Kraków, smoked a spliff in Amsterdam and sat for hours trying as many beers as we could at a small ancient beer house in Antwerp. And the above was just touching the surface.

Salzburg pretzel twins

Pretzel twins, Salzburg, Austria; Courtesy of Jaime Bettcher

Being a Mountbatten alumni makes me so proud. I was lucky to move to the NYC area upon returning to the States, along with many of my closest friends. With one of my dearest Mountbatten friends, Jaime, we have mutually made it our mission to keep traveling somewhere new in the world each year together. The bond that you have with a fellow Mountbatten is for life, and still very true today. Once a Mountbatten, always a Mountbatten as the saying goes. It truly is a global lifeline and I’ve met fellow Mountbattens while traveling in Australia, Thailand, Japan, California and South Africa. We are travelers and we are one.

On March 6, 2006 I boarded a flight from Philly to London not knowing what the opportunity would provide. Today is March 6,  2016 and I am writing this on a flight from Philly to London to return to my home now. Ten years later to the day and I am living my dream back in London after a few detours in NYC and Australia getting to know the world beyond Europe. I’m lucky that many of my friends in London today are former Mountbattens, and wherever I go “home” in the world…be it London, Australia or NYC, Mountbatten unifies us all. I feel extremely lucky and grateful for the opportunity.

Mountbatten reunion

Mountbattens reunited exactly 10 years later to the day: Courtesy of Angele Cory

Goodbye Melbourne, Hello Again… London

These Two Eyes are on the move again, just a few weeks shy of leaving behind Australia to relocate back to my favourite city in the world, London!

But now this part feels too short; the waiting part. All of the songs I hear sound like home, like Melbourne. The familiarity of my apartment, my commute on my cherry-apple bike, the banter between me and my roommate, the smells and tastes of my favourite restaurants on Bridge Road – they are all reaching out to me saying, don’t go! The red wine and fun times keep flowing though, we stumble a bit but just go with it. Then I smile and remember that this is just another step on an amazing journey.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Australia is a special place I know I’d like to come back to, even long term again one day. I recognize now the things I’ve taken for granted; the best beaches on the planet, world class food and wine, proximity to remote islands, a refreshing outlook on life, and lifelong friendships.

I’ve learned so much in my close to 4.5 years here and want to always keep these lessons front of mind:

  • Slow down, have fun and stop worrying about getting to the top.
  • The world is both small and accessible, keep traveling, always.
  • Do what you love and don’t settle for anything, or anyone, less. Life is what you make of it and there is no formula to follow.

Making a move is never easy but the outcome is also never regretted. I think it’s because there is so much you can’t anticipate.  When I’m content I associate it with the place I love at the moment, the fun factor. But then the next minute I have a conversation about a 15-year old dying of cancer, and it hits me that life is so short. Do what you want and be happy, yet that is also difficult when family and friends are so far away and traveling to you for a visit isn’t an option. So is happiness Europe on a whim or a swim in Bondi over the weekend? They both win for different reasons.

I’ve always been one to follow through when I say I’m going to accomplish something and this is no different. Australia has given me the opportunity to pursue my dreams time-and-time again and now is just another chance to stay true to what I’ve always said; I want to live in London again one day.

In fact, when I first moved over to Australia I created a bucket list of sorts – check it out, and stay tuned because I will also do the same for this move too. I’m proud to say I’ve ticked off each one and so much more. I’ve snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef 3 times. I’ve visited nearly every major wine region across Australia and New Zealand. I’ve seen and tasted wallaby, kangaroo, crocodile, and a few other interesting creatures. I’ve visited every state in Australia and lived in 2. I’ve watched and learned to play AFL, NRL, croquet and lawn bowls. Visited the outback and red center, various coasts and hinterlands and conquered crazy fears like skydiving and shark diving. And I’m lucky to be a permanent resident and not just a backpacker restricted by timeframes; I got to do it all!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Australia has also turned me into a food snob. I have a lot of very expensive average dinners. Or maybe that’s just how pretentious my palette has become. I’ve had to learn to fight the urge to eat before I fly, whilst in the lounge, on the plane and after to maintain a tinge of self-control (and moderate weight). And that’s partly because I fly so regularly my obsession and loyalty to the national airline Qantas is not sane.  I’m like that movie Up in the Air – always reaching out for that higher frequent flyer status.

And sometimes I sit on the tram and look at Flinders Station and think how beautiful it is. Melbourne is beautiful, especially at night. I watch the meter tick by as it gets more and more expensive, but it’s not London. It’s not supposed to be. There are trams instead of tubes, different arts, music and entertainment, secret bars and graffiti-clad laneways and then there’s the food and wine, of course. There’s nothing like it.

Flinders station

Flinders Station and passing tram

After seeing old friends in Brisbane this past weekend, I questioned to myself – why am I leaving all the people and things I love? My response was to also be with those I’ve loved first.

I popped back in London in July just to double check. At times it seemed a bit primal. A true melting pot changing neighbourhood by neighbourhood offering something to meet everyone’s wants. I went to sleep that last night thankful for Tommy and Paul and Jake and Dave and the people already in my life. I’m also thankful to show up in a city and call it my own. I have too many of these situations in too many cities: Brisbane, Philadelphia, Melbourne, New York, London. I love getting off the plane in each of these cities knowing I’ve already mastered the place. I know where to go for a beer, a bite and to kill time shopping or exploring.

Last year after returning from London I was nervous of the influence Australia was having on me. It’s almost as if life is too good. It’s a bit of a utopia of sorts. I realized as I tried to explain my dilemma how disillusioned it sounds. In comparison to the US my income is high, it’s safe, there’s minimal crime, you get free stuff on planes and people accept regular travel as a normal part of life. Oh, and they shorten everything they say which fits in perfect with the vocabulary I acquired as a teenager. So, what’s the prob? Right, I actually feel like I’m losing my street smarts. I’ll become unnecessarily cautious in some situations and too aloof or trustworthy in others that require alertness. I assume affluence is standard and have overlooked aspects of my fortune. This has caused me to recognize how removed from the society I grew up with I actually am.

So do I really just love London because it was my first? It was my first time abroad, my first time living overseas, and my first time traveling alone to new countries. But that’s what happens when you fall in love with a city at 13 years-old.  It will always be ‘my’ city. People respond in shock when I tell them it’s my favourite city in the world. I’ve lived there at 19 and 22. What will it be like 10 years later? American accents are everywhere – I won’t be unique anymore. I won’t have people asking every day where I’m from or how long I’m staying. That is my life on repeat, always asking ‘what’s next’ and despite a bitter sweet goodbye to Australia, I’m more excited than ever to begin life again in London.

I can’t wait to visit old haunts and make new ones. To sit in a dodgy pub with friends I’ve yet to meet and those I know will help me transition. To travel like a big kid all of Europe on weekends and evolve my palette even further on French and Italian wines. To fall in love with boys with funny accents, achieve success in my new international job and to live somewhere where friends and family can and will come visit. There is still so much unknown to get excited about.

Recently, standing in an old warehouse converted into a music venue in a trendy Melbourne neighbourhood watching the Brisbane band The Jungle Giants, I drunkenly smiled a bit and said, “I want the whole time to be awesome, not just the last 20 years.” And so here I go, it continues…

Lisa Vecchio, Tower Bridge, London

Lisa Vecchio, Tower Bridge, London