“Dad, take me to London,” I demanded as an assertive 13 year-old. He turned right back around and said, “Lisa, save $500 for your airfare and I’ll take you.” Little did he know I’d been saving all along. In fact, I picked up pennies on the street, saved birthday money and hid away change after a trip to the mall. Far sooner than expected I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Dad, I have $500, when are we going to London?”
My love for all things English was irrevocable. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind about the ‘why’ behind my gravitational pull to the city nicknamed “The Smoke.”
Yes, I might have had an above average obsession with the British band Oasis. I watched documentaries, bought B-side and unreleased tapes from independent record stores and had my walls plastered with concert posters while other girls my age wrote teenage heartthrob JTT (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) love letters each week.
It started even earlier than that though. With an English grandmother, I have a particular fond memory of her brother, Great Uncle George, reciting this poem and the comical rhymes of “absoid” and “boid” in his posh London accent:
Spring is sprung, the grass is ris
I wonders where the birdies is
They say the birds is on the wing
Ain’t that absurd?
I always thought the wing was on the bird
Finally, on a cold, autumn night in November 1996 I was on my first British Airways flight from Philadelphia with touch down at Heathrow.
I was wowed at the cultural elegance over high-tea at Harrods, fascinated by eating greasy fish and chips out of a newspaper in the Cotswolds and drank too much tea it kept me up at night afraid of the ghosts that must lurk in the old bed and breakfasts. And I wanted more of it all!
When I applied to university my minimal requirement was that there was an exchange program abroad to London. Even when the study abroad advisor aggressively nudged me to try something ‘different,’ I let her know her efforts of persuasion were wasted on me. I was going to London. In fact, I was going to go earlier than suggested (second year instead of third), so I could go back again my fourth year.
I arrived in 2003 with a big grin, a chest full of anxiety and feigned confidence by shaking hands with every person residing in my Nottinghill flat. I was 19, and had the whole of London at my fingertips.
I knew to pretend to be asleep on the night bus so I didn’t have to pay the fare, drank Fosters with Aussie and Kiwi boys who swore it’s not a beer that’s drunk in Australia (it’s true, it’s not), and tried to re-assure my lecturers that although I was leaving class early, it was crucial that I couldn’t miss my flight over to Barcelona for the weekend yet I would have my assignment handed in on time.
In a span of 4 months I had visited 8 countries, fallen deeper in love with London than I could have anticipated and had a very hard time acclimating into routine university life once back in America. There was only one solution, I had to go back.
In 2005 I participated in a mini-mester (short semester) in Edinburgh studying global communications at Napier University. I lived in a hostel, stayed up way too late, drank too many pints, and traversed nearly the entire country. Today I’ve been to the Edinburgh Castle at least 5 times in my life, which frankly, is too many. At the end of the course my class boarded a plane to Baltimore while I boarded a different plane to London. Just a quick trip to just double check…yup, it’s still there.
When everyone asked about post-graduation plans I had my mind made up, I was going to move to London. My sister produced luggage tags as my graduation announcement and then the questions started flooding in. When are you going? Do you have a job lined up? A visa? The thing is I didn’t have a plan. I couldn’t get a visa without sponsorship, and I couldn’t get sponsorship without a visa. I just didn’t have enough experience behind me to get a job abroad.
Defeated, I took a backseat for a while. I got a job in marketing, related to my career goal, check. But, I lived at home. There were fewer and fewer friends in town and life was truthfully, boring. I sat in a Starbucks one afternoon and tried to get my head around what I could do to change things. I re-read my old diary from my time studying abroad in London. There were stories of a 48 hour bender in Dublin to catch an Oasis gig, meeting the president of Sony entertainment at a bar in Leicester Square, and passing time napping on the grass in Hyde Park. Simply reading about the excitement and buzz I felt when traveling abroad was all I needed to motivate me to find a way to get there again.
After months of eating the Great Wall of Chocolate dessert from PF Changs to drown my misery, I partnered with my old friend Google and came across the Mountbatten Institute. A very different program than what it is today, Mountbatten offered me every opportunity I was looking for: sponsorship, a job, friends, higher learning and a visa. Cha-ching.
That next year changed my life forever. I met life-long friends who are still my trusted travel companions today, all while making our mark from the northeast corner in Maida Vale and Kilburn Park far across to East London to hang with our new South African friends (read about it here). I had it all, a marketing and event job that had me planning events in Tower Bridge, Paris, Amsterdam and Portugal, educational courses on international business across England and in Paris, and weekend adventures on budget airlines all over Europe with a crazy new group of friends. From 2006-2007 we visited 14 countries.
I had thought I knew all there was about London from my quick study stint in 2003, but it wasn’t until I had a whole year that I discovered there was so much more to enjoy – curries on Brick Lane, live music and too many more pints to count. Sitting on the crowded Tube each morning, a commuter with the rest of them, London was my home. Sadly, another visa expired and it was back to life in America.
You can read about the vow I made to myself during the 4 years I lived across the river from New York City in Hoboken, New Jersey to visit the rest of the world – anywhere but Europe. In the meantime, I gathered documents and paperwork up to wazoo and was granted a European Union passport in 2012. You know what that means, right? I can legally live and work in London, or anywhere in Europe for that matter.
So why am I telling you all this? London is calling and in just a few hours I’ll be boarding a plane that’s landing at Heathrow. Albeit a short visit to my favorite city in the world, I’ve never been more excited!