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

London Calling

“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.

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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!