“Well, I’d better start packing,” I announced as I rose from my chair by the door.
I had been sitting in the common room of the London flat I shared with 11 other American students. Grant, one of my flatmates, sat on the couch to my right and Jake, another resident of Flat 17, was in the chair to my left. We sat, unconsciously, in the exact same spots we occupied four months earlier, on my first uncomfortable night in England. The fact that we were finishing our study abroad experience the same way we started it wasn’t lost on me. Neither, though, was the fact that Grant was shirtless and quaffing from a two litre bottle of Strongbow cider, an added layer of comfort that proved we had come a long way during our stay, even while we hadn’t seemed to move.
It was late on a Friday night, roughly 14 hours before my flight out of the country. No flat had ever been more well lived in over a four-month stretch, but we had less than a day to make sure that no traces of our presence there remained. I don’t think anyone had as difficult a time packing for their departure as I did. While most of my compatriots were on their way home, I had decided to do a little solo traveling over the next couple of weeks. I had a Eurail pass in my back pocket and my flight the next day was ticketed for Dublin, the starting point of a yet unknown journey. (If the rest of my story doesn’t prove to you how dim I was, this should. I planned to trek across Europe by train, but my first stop was on an island.)
On the floor of my bedroom sat a pile of clothes and other knickknacks that I hadn’t decided what to do with yet. I tried to make sure I had just the right amount of clothes for the next two weeks and fit everything else into my other bag. I had two suitcases, one of which doubled as a backpack, and I had found a storage facility that would hold the other one so I didn’t have to carry it while I traveled. I had, of course, already started packing. I didn’t wait until the absolute last minute to begin putting away the entire last semester. Still, I felt overwhelmed by it and took frequent breaks, hanging out in the common room until I inevitably realized I had to get back to work and announced, “Well, I’d better start packing.” I can only assume that the nearer I got to my departure, the louder the laughs that line got after I exited the room.
One thing I knew I wouldn’t be taking with me on my journey was any money. I was all out. Prior to the study abroad experience, I had sat through numerous boring seminars and received countless bits of advice with everyone reminding me to bring at least two sources of money. I always felt like that sounded needlessly over prepared, or more likely, I just wasn’t paying attention, so I got by for my entire trip using only my debit card to procure any necessary funds.
The previous morning, on my way to the last day of my internship, I stopped at an ATM and had my card eaten by the machine. I called the bank immediately and was told that the card was held for suspicious activity, i.e. being used all the way across the ocean. This after more than three months in England. What a vigilant bank I was dealing with. It’s no problem, they told me. They could just mail out a new card and it would be there in less than a week. This would have been fine at any other juncture of my trip, but since they waited until two days before I was set to leave before deciding that my activity was suspicious, there was nowhere to send the new card and I was out of luck. I tried to make it through my last couple of days without worrying and thanks to my kind and loving parents, I was mostly able to do so. They agreed to wire me enough cash to make it through the next two weeks. I only had to pick it up at the airport in Dublin. I had always kept 300 emergency dollars with me but with the exchange rate being what it was (not good), that wasn’t going to get me very far. Still, it would get me to Dublin and now I had a lifeline there.
On Saturday morning, my packing mostly finished, I watched most of my flatmates depart. Grant and Jake and Ben and Ben and Angie and Jesse and Liz were all on the same flight and went to the airport together. It was weird seeing them go. Over the past several months, they had been like family. Now, they were returning to their real lives and I would probably never see them again. I stood on the sidewalk outside our building wishing them each a fond farewell. Katie’s flight wasn’t until later, but she was accompanying the rest to the airport.
“Will you be here when I get back?” she asked me.
“Probably not,” I said.
“Well then, it was nice knowing you.” She stuck out her hand. I shook it. She turned and walked away.
I took off shortly after, though not yet to the airport. I first had to drop my luggage off at the storage facility. I had done remarkably little research on where to leave my bags, but found one place a few tube stops away that seemed like it would work. It didn’t. When the gentleman behind the desk told me it would cost one fifty per day to store each bag, I initially assumed he meant 150 pounds. I was blown away. How could they do business charging such exorbitant prices!? After I calmed down and realized it was just 1.50, I told him I’d take 15 days worth.
“OK, I’ll just need a credit card then.”
“I don’t have a credit card,” I replied.
“We can’t keep your things here if we don’t have a card on file,” he said. “Isn’t there any card you can use?”
“Then there’s nothing we can do for you,” he told me, and for the first of what would be many times over the next few weeks, I panicked. I couldn’t take my bags with me because two suitcases plus a carry-on would be far too unwieldy for a cross-continent trip. It never would have worked. Furthermore, I’d have to pay extra to get them on a plane (impossible because I didn’t have money) and I don’t think they would have been allowed on the train at all. I couldn’t just leave my luggage sitting in the streets of London, though.
Only Kat and Kelsey remained in the flat when I returned (the last member of our coterie, Laura, had gone home a few days earlier) and they were preoccupied with getting themselves ready for departure. They certainly were in no position to help me. I wouldn’t have asked them anyway. I hate asking anybody for help ever, partly because I like figuring out my own solutions and partly because I feel immensely guilty wasting someone else’s time with my troubles. People are busy enough without having to worry about whatever I’m going through. I do, however, have the extremely annoying habit, when I am in trouble, of being very obviously flustered without explicitly saying what’s bothering me, hoping that someone will ask.
In this case, I groaned audibly as I sunk into the couch. Then I stood up and began pacing, occasionally pulling chunks of hair out of my head. “Something the matter?” Kat asked.
“Who, me?” I feigned surprise. “Well…I guess I have a little problem.” I told her about my bags and lack of a credit card and my total cluelessness about where to go from here. My cluelessness was nothing new to Kat. She listened to all I had to say and then responded:
It did indeed. I wasn’t upset with Kat or Kelsey for not offering solutions. I didn’t have any either and they had other things on their mind. I had just one more chance in my search for help.
Katie returned from the airport before I left after all. I was running out of time, so I put on the condensed version of the ol’ routine. “Ohhhh,” I sighed loudly when I heard her nearing the room.
“Are you OK, Terry?”
It worked. I explained my problem and – miracle of miracles – she offered an incredibly simple solution. You see, like me, Katie was sticking around Europe for a while. It hadn’t even occurred to me that she also would have needed a place to store her luggage. She was going to keep it at the house of a friend that she met through her internship. Unlike me, she had made friends through her internship. I just filed contracts in a dungeon and got yelled at frequently. Katie offered to keep my bags with hers, so we walked together to the house, left our suitcases and I had a huge weight off my mind. I didn’t even have to pay £150 a day (or even £1.50).
“We’ll stay in touch so we can meet up in two weeks when you need to get this stuff back,” Katie said and she hugged me. Even though we were set to see each other again soon, this goodbye strangely seemed much more emotional than the somewhat impersonal handshake we had exchanged a few hours ago when we thought we would never see each other again. I guess we just needed to go through this traumatic experience together.
I took off for Dublin with no money but feeling like my troubles were mostly behind me.
The first order of business after landing was finding a place to stay. I took a bus into the city centre and promptly began wandering around. Within about three blocks, a man yelled to me from across the street, “Are you looking for something?”
“No,” I responded. “I’m just walking”
“You don’t want to do that around here. This is not a great area.” He pointed me towards the nearest hostel. I guess my giant backpack gave me away as a tourist.
I laughed internally at the idea that I hadn’t been walking through a good area. One of the last things Katie had told me before I left London is that I would love Dublin because it’s safe. Now, while I always like being safe, it’s probably not the first reason I would find to love a city. Now it was the top recommendation for this city and I got all of three blocks outside the hub of town before I was stopped for wandering into dangerous territory.
I went to the hostel that the helpful stranger recommended and found that it was typically only visited by Slovaks. “One night?” the man at the front desk asked me grumpily when he realized I only spoke English. I had actually been planning on staying in Dublin longer than that, but I didn’t want to overstay my welcome and who am I to argue with a hostile hostel employee? I took the one night and went inside, to a room with about twelve bunk beds and a Slovakian traveler assigned to nearly all of them. I received enough funny looks to decide just to drop off my bag and go. I didn’t know where I was going, but I spent a good deal of the evening exploring Dublin at night. At one point, I found myself in a tourist shop and discovered a t-shirt with the words “LOST in Dublin” written on it. Considering I didn’t have a clue where I was my entire time in Dublin, it seemed like an extremely appropriate shirt to buy. I still wear it sometimes.
The next day, after a terribly uncomfortable night, I found a hotel to check into. It was way more expensive than I could afford but it became important to me to find at least one place I could be comfortable for an evening. I’m a terrible traveler and after all the hassles I went through in getting out of London, I had never wanted to go home more than I did then. There was a time that I was excited about voyaging through Europe alone, but this wasn’t that time. For the first 24 hours of my trip, I was lost, hungry, tired and confused. I was desperate for something that reminded me of home, which by this point had expanded to include London as well as Chicago. I had no intention of staying in a relatively expensive hotel, but the idea that I could spend a night in comfort, lying in bed and watching British game shows and American sitcoms was incredibly appealing.
By day three, I had grown used to Dublin. The terror that had accompanied my first few days had dissipated and in some ways, that was a bad thing. I had planned on spending two straight weeks on a train, waking up in a new city every morning. Instead, I was settling into my new life as an Irishman. I forced myself to figure out where the train station was and eventually made my way out of the city.
I developed a routine for the next week. I would head to the train station each day and get on the next train that was leaving, regardless of where it was going, as long as it was a new city for me. When I got there, I found a place to stay, set up shop and explored the town. The next day, I would do it all over again in a new city. I kept away from hotels after Dublin, preferring to find cheap, out of the way bed and breakfasts. This allowed me to meet some interesting people, like the woman who bellowed, “CHICAGO!” when she saw me check in. “I was almost from Chicago!” Or the guy I sat and watched The Chamber with one night as he told me how much everyone loves hockey in Ireland, even though they only have two ice rinks in the entire country. Both claims seemed dubious to me. More importantly, breakfasts were included in the morning, which was important because I had only budgeted myself for one meal a day.
I knew that I was probably spending too much time in Ireland but, God help me, I was actually having fun. Anyway, my mom probably would have disowned me if I hadn’t properly visited the old country.
On Sunday morning, eight days after I started my trip, I made my way to Rosslare to sail back to the European mainland. As soon as I arrived, it was announced that the ferry would be delayed for 12 hours. That was fine. I would have been suspicious if any of my travel plans worked the way they were supposed to. That left me with a day to explore Rosslare, the most boring town in the world. There was nothing to see there except some rocks and maybe a windmill or two. I couldn’t understand why there also seemed to be a bed and breakfast every 15 feet or so until it dawned on me that this was a port town. There wasn’t supposed to be anything there except a dock and a place for weary travelers to spend the night.
I was a weary traveler but, because my trip was delayed until a midnight departure, I spent the night curled up on the floor of a boat. The upside to the delay is that they made the ship’s movie theatre free for the whole voyage, which was nice because I certainly didn’t sleep well and every time I went up to the main deck, I felt sick. That sort of thing grows old on a 19-hour journey, so I saw three whole movies and still found time to eat lunch with a bunch of 12-year-old French girls who kept laughing at me for being alone before they had come over to my table.
When I arrived in Cherbourg, France late on Monday afternoon, I didn’t really have any plans for what to do next. “Are you going to Paris?” the woman behind me in line asked. Actually, I hadn’t thought about it but I ultimately wanted to make my way to Spain and Paris seemed like a good place to catch a train there.
“Yes,” I replied. “I guess so.”
“I just called for a cab to the train station,” she told me. “You can share it with me if you want.”
For the life of me, I can’t understand why she even approached me – there were dozens of people disembarking the ferry with us – but it turned out to be one of the most serendipitous occurrences of my whole trip, if not my life. In the cab, the woman, whose name was Jane, exchanged a few words with the driver in French before turning to me and saying, “It’s a good thing I’m with you. This driver only speaks French and he just told me that the last train to Paris is leaving in 20 minutes.”
When we arrived at the station, Jane went straight to the vending machine to get a bottle of water. “Do you want to get yourself a water?” she asked me. When I told her that I didn’t have any change, she used her only remaining coins to buy a bottle for me, neglecting herself. I must have looked as lost as I was. When I took a single sip and offered the rest back to her, she demurred. “You really seem like you could use that.”
We sat separately on the train but at the end of the three and a half hour trip, Jane found me again to see if there was any more assistance she could offer. She was on her way to sleep on the couch of someone she had met on the ferry ride to Ireland. “I wish I could offer you a place to stay,” she told me. When I objected that she had already done more than enough, she gave me her phone number and told me to call if I was having trouble finding lodgings. “I could look up a list of hostels if you need it.” I thanked her and we went our separate ways. It was one of the oddest encounters I’ve ever had. Jane was the most helpful person I ever met, almost like a guardian angel sent to seek out lost, pathetic travelers and help them find their way. If I hadn’t run into her, I would probably still be floating aimlessly through Cherbourg right now.
I appreciated her offer to help me find a place to sleep, but all along, my intention was to sleep at the train station and catch the first ride to Spain in the morning. I walked through the late night streets of Paris to the station, only to find that it was closed for the night, probably to keep bums like me from sleeping there. I went to the hotel next door. It was already after two in the morning and, even though I was planning to spend less than five hours there, I couldn’t talk my way into a discount. I probably needed to brush up on my French. This wasn’t doing wonders for the stack of cash my parents had wired me.
In the morning, I found passage to Madrid and spent the majority of the day taking in the French countryside out the window of the train. Over the previous two and a half days, I got the chance to see a lot of Europe but interacted with very little of it as I was in transit for 31 hours. When I first left London, I wanted to see as much of the continent as I could in two weeks but I learned pretty quickly that that wasn’t going to be realistic. I could have sat on a train for 15 straight days and gotten a good look at a lot of scenery but I found it was much more gratifying to really sink my teeth into the two countries I ended up spending most of my time in.
Spain was a delight because I didn’t have to figure anything out for myself anymore. After a few days in Madrid, I headed for Alicante, where Amanda, a classmate and my brother’s girlfriend, was spending the semester. It was wonderful to see a familiar face and I was more than happy to stop thinking and follow Amanda around to whatever she wanted to do for a couple days. That worked, not only there, but also after I went further south to Fuengirola, where my cousin Patrick was living. As luck would have it, my aunt and uncle were visiting at the same time and for the first time in almost two weeks, I didn’t feel lost. That is, except for the two hours in Fuengirola when my cell phone died, I didn’t know how to contact Patrick and I was stuck in the middle of town with no clue where to go. He eventually found me wandering through the fortunately very small city and I didn’t have to find a place to stay the night. Being around friends and family made me downright comfortable again.
On Sunday morning, I boarded my plane to fly back to London. The plan was to meet Katie that evening to pick up my luggage but in the meantime, I got to while away an afternoon in London as a tourist. After living there for nearly four months, I had fallen in love with the city but I took to seeing it more as a resident than a visitor. On this day, I decided to take the whole day to visit attractions as if I were on vacation. I actually kind of was. For the first time, I walked to Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guard. As a resident, I knew it was a dull ritual, but as a tourist, it became a must-see destination. It was the first week of May and many of my old standard hangouts were crawling with out-of-towners. The weather was beginning to turn nice and holiday season was upon us. That allowed me to also see Kensington Gardens, the beautiful park that had been just a short walk from my flat. This, though, was the first time I got to see it with leaves on the trees and actual live plants.
After a thoroughly enjoyable day, I met with Katie and she took me to her coworker’s flat. After a few weeks away, it was great to see one of my old flatmates again. Even as I was getting ready to go back to the U.S., the comforts of my London home started to sink in again.
I hadn’t actually met Katie’s friend when I dropped my suitcases off but now, she and her flatmate were both home and they turned out to be incredibly friendly. I really wish they weren’t. Isn’t that the old stereotype? I met too many nice people when I was traveling. My plan was to sleep that night at the airport because I had an early flight the next morning but they wouldn’t let me. They insisted that I take their couch for the night.
The next day was the Early May Bank Holiday and I was worried that the train schedule would be different for holiday hours, so before I agreed to stay for the night, I made several calls to every branch of the London transport authority that I could find just to confirm and was told that, yes, the transit schedule would be unchanged. I walked to the bus terminal to make sure I would be comfortable with the route in the morning. That bus would lead me to the Jubilee line which would take me to the Victoria line which led to Victoria Station, where I could take a train to the airport. The trip would only take an hour, but there was little room for error with the first bus of the day leaving at 6:00 and my flight scheduled to depart at 8:45.
I awoke in the morning, and bade Katie goodbye, thanking her exceedingly for the jam she had gotten me out of. It was a gorgeous day outside and, as I waited for the bus, I took my jacket off and stuffed it in my backpack. It felt great to be out without a coat, the first time the weather had been nice enough since I arrived in early January.
The bus was right on time and the driver, noticing my luggage, asked me where I was headed. When I told him that I was on my way to Victoria Station to catch a train to the airport, he shook his head. “Not on the tube,” he said. “Trains aren’t running on the same schedule today because of the holiday. They won’t start up until 8:00.” I was stunned. I had been so diligent in my preparation but somebody had given me a bum steer. “If you take this bus all the way to the end of the route, you can catch another bus to the train station,” the driver continued. “You’ll be cutting it close, but you should make it in time.”
I thanked him and sat down nervously. It was a jittery bus ride and, though I didn’t have a watch, I checked every clock we passed along the way and we seemed to be moving along on schedule. The bus had started to fill up and I was on edge when I heard the driver yell at one of the stops, “Who was it that was going to the airport?”
“That was me,” I croaked from the back.
“It turns out the underground is running. Get off here and catch your train. Hurry up now!”
He didn’t have to tell me twice. I jumped up and raced into the train station, purchased my ticket and waited on the platform. This gave me a moment to catch my breath. For the first time, I realized how badly I stunk and I remembered that I hadn’t showered in two days. It didn’t bother me too much; soon I would be on my way home. But I knew I had some deodorant in my backpack and figured it wouldn’t hurt to apply it. I reached for my bag.
It wasn’t there. Oh no, it was beginning to dawn on me that I didn’t have it with me. I was so surprised when I was told to get off the bus and did so in such a hurry that I left my backpack sitting on the floor next to my seat. It was gone. That meant no deodorant, but it was much worse than that. That bag was loaded with remnants of my journey. The headband that I had bought at Wimbledon. The cell phone I had borrowed from school and was supposed to return in the mail. One by one I recalled items that I would never again see. The journal that I had been keeping since my trip began four months ago. My camera with the hundreds of pictures I had taken in Europe.
Suddenly, I was frozen. It was a warm day outside, the first one I had experienced in London. I had taken off my jacket and put it in my bag. The realization struck me like a punch to the gut. Ever since before I even came out here I had been instructed over and over to keep my passport safe, to have it on my person, secured at all times during my travels. This advice I followed. There was a zipper on my front jacket pocket and my passport was always with me when I wore it, which was always. Until today. My passport remained in the pocket of my coat, which was driving away on a bus. I wasn’t going to be able to leave England.
Immediately, I gathered myself and sprinted back up the stairs, staring down the street I had just been riding down. I knew it was hopeless, that the bus would be well out of view. It had let me off almost two full minutes ago. I approached the man working the counter at the train station. I explained my situation and asked if I could use the phone to call the bus depot. Then, I explained myself over the phone, asking if it was possible to get in contact with the bus. No, I was told. They wouldn’t be able to communicate with the driver until the bus returned. I gave him my phone number and asked him to call when that happened. Fortunately, I had a mobile phone. Ben, one of my flatmates, had left his with me when he went home, in case of emergencies.
While I was waiting for that call, I took a walk to the police station, dragging my suitcases behind me. I filed a report for my missing backpack and the police officer recommended that I call the American embassy to see what could be done about getting me out of the country.
I dialed the number but no one answered. It turned out, the embassy was closed (can they do that?) because it was that most holy of all days, the Early May Bank Holiday. It already seemed impossible that I would catch my scheduled flight. Now, it was starting to become clear that I wouldn’t leave the country at all that day. I didn’t know what else to do, so I sat resignedly on the curb outside the police station and called home. It was not yet 2:00 in the morning in Chicago, so I knew I’d be waking someone up, but I was helpless. I needed someone to talk to and I wasn’t sure who else I could call. My mother answered the phone perturbed.
“Mom?” I asked with a quiver.
“Terry? What is it?” Now she was starting to sound more concerned.
“I’m not coming home today.”
That woke her up. It was the first thing I could think of to say. I had already emptied my bag of solutions: I had called the bus depot, gone to the police station and been turned away by the embassy and I had no ideas left. I was hoping that there would be a simple solution to all my problems and that my mother would be able to shine some light on the stupidity of the whole thing. She had just been woken up in the middle of the night, though, and there’s no way she could have grasped the situation so quickly. She told me she would call back after discussing it with my father.
I instantly felt guilty for calling. There’s no international flying without a passport and my parents couldn’t magically conjure one for me, so there was nothing they could have done. My problem could have waited another six hours; there was no reason they had to lose a night of sleep over it.
I didn’t now what else to do, so I walked back to the tube station and hopped on a train to the airport. I knew they wouldn’t let me on a plane without my passport but I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask. Anyway, I had left my last suitcase there the day before and needed to pick it up.
When I got to the airport, I put on my most pathetic face (just my regular face, really) and said pretty please, but they wouldn’t let me leave the country. Jerks. When I went to pick up my bag, I remembered that my baggage claim receipt was in the backpack that drove away with my passport. The man behind the counter told me he wasn’t supposed to give anything away without a ticket, but when I explained what had happened, he asked me what my bag looked like.
“It’s about this big,” I said, holding my hands out and moving them back and forth a few times. “And it’s kind of grayish or maybe blue or something.” I had worn this thing on my back for the last two weeks but had no idea what it looked like. I told him, though, that I could pick it out if I saw it.
In a shocking show of common decency and also gross irresponsibility, he let me come into the back and pick out the bag that was mine. I could have gambled and grabbed any piece of luggage, hoping to get lucky. But I had already lost enough of my stuff, so I figured it best to just take my own bag and be on my way.
Around this time, I got a call from the bus depot. My backpack was not still on the bus when it returned. I cursed whoever had snatched it. Why would they take this backpack that didn’t belong to them? For all they knew, there could have been a bomb in there. I had already missed my flight, but if my passport had been recovered, I could have found another one later that afternoon. Instead, I was marooned for at least a day.
I called the only person I still knew in London, Katie, but there was no answer and I was glad there wasn’t. She was getting set to leave the country again later that day and I didn’t want to burden her with my problem. There really wasn’t anything she could do about it. About an hour later she texted me to make sure everything was alright and I told her that I had lost my passport but that everything was going to work out. At the time, I was pretty well convinced that everything was not going to work out but I didn’t want her to worry. In retrospect, I should have told her what was going on. She probably couldn’t have helped, but who knows? Maybe her delightful coworker would even have offered me her couch for another night.
Instead, I had run out of ideas completely. I took the train back to Victoria Station and sat there for a while. My brain was fried and I didn’t know what to do. I would have gladly sprung into action if I knew what the next action should be, but I didn’t so I stayed exactly where I was for hours, well into the afternoon. Eventually, I decided that I should find a place to stay.
I was low on funds, so I found the cheapest hostel I could and checked myself in for two nights. That meant I would have to check out on Wednesday. I was already convinced that I wasn’t going to get out of the country the next day, but I knew I couldn’t stay more than two nights because I had reached the end of my cash roll. I’d be sleeping on the streets if this problem extended any further.
After I had checked in, I decided to take a walk to Trafalgar Square. That was the terminus of the bus I had been on that morning. I started looking through garbage cans for my backpack. Maybe whoever had taken it had emptied it of everything valuable and tossed the rest. It seemed like a major long shot, but I really didn’t know what else to do. My phone rang and it was my mom, telling me what she had learned since our morning conversation. I’m not sure who she had talked to, but it sounded like someone in the know. She ascertained that I could obtain an emergency temporary passport and fly out of the country with that. She had begun to look into flights that would get me back to the States, figuring it would be easier to get me home once I was in the right country.
Before she hung up, she scolded me, saying that I was too laid back about this whole thing. For the first time all day, I nearly broke down. From the moment I realized that my passport was gone, I had been frozen, like a deer in the headlights. I’ve never been great at adapting to tough situations and I’m not quick on my feet and there’s nothing that scares me more than the uncertainty of not knowing what to do next. This whole day, I didn’t have a clue. Now, I was diving through garbage cans in a public square and I was being admonished for being too laid back. It was more than I could take. I was tremendously grateful for all that my mom was doing to help me through this tough spot, but it was my turn to scold her. She seemed to recognize how serious I was and, knowing that there wasn’t much else I could do tonight, recommended that I take my mind off of things and go see a play.
After hanging up, I sat down next to Admiral Nelson’s column and buried my head in my hands. I still didn’t know what to do next, but my mom’s idea seemed sensible. I looked through my pockets and realized a play was not in the cards; I couldn’t afford it, so I went to a movie instead. I saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall at the cinema in Piccadilly Circus and sure enough, I was able to forget about things for a few hours. To this day, I have no idea if Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a good movie or not but it will always hold a special place in my heart because, for two hours, I was able to stop thinking about one of the worst days of my life.
I got up bright and early the next morning. I wanted to be first in line when the U.S. Embassy opened. For the first time in three days, I showered and changed my clothes. As I approached embassy row, I thought of Jesse, one of my flatmates who I had lived with just two weeks ago though it felt like much longer. He had often talked about going to the American Embassy like it would be a fun field trip. We devised different excuses we could use for getting inside. Now I was really going and I would have given anything not to have to.
There are dozens of embassies on one street in London and, though I knew the American building was among them, I wasn’t sure of its exact location. Walking up and down the street, I examined every flag, trying to find the ol’ stars and stripes. Most of the embassies were small, rather like a row of townhouses and none of them had an American flag outside. I began to panic again. Had I gone to the wrong place? Is the real U.S. Embassy on the other side of town? I approached a man that I passed on the street and asked if he knew where the American building was. He pointed to my right and, as I turned my head, I saw, about a half block down the street, an enormous mansion, surrounded by armed guards and a fence with American flags protruding from the roof about every five feet. Of course, anyone could have missed it.
I was surprised to see there was already a long line, even though it hadn’t even opened yet. I took my place and waited as the line slowly lurched forward, eagerly awaiting my turn. There were two girls at the front who looked not much older than I was, tasked with hearing everyone’s story and determining if they were worthy to enter the mighty embassy. When it was my turn I explained that I needed an emergency passport.
“When is your flight?” one of the girls asked me.
“It was yesterday,” I told her. “I already missed it.”
“You can’t get a passport if you don’t have a flight,” she told me.
“But I can’t get a flight if I don’t have a passport!”
“You don’t need a passport to actually book the flight, do you?”
“No,” I admitted, “but I need the passport to get on the flight and I’m not going to book one if I can’t be assured that I’m going to be allowed on it.”
She explained to me that emergency passports were only given to people who needed to get out of the country in the next 48 hours and had the plane ticket to prove it. In other words, my situation was not an emergency. It seemed like the most backward logic I had ever heard. I had to book a flight for the next day and then come back, but if they determined, for any reason, that I still couldn’t have my emergency passport, I would now be out the cost of two flights and would still be no closer to leaving the country. I had no choice, though, but to play their game. I wasn’t allowed inside the embassy, so I had to find a new flight out of London, which meant that my parents had to find a new flight out of London because I still had no money. And I still needed to be gone by tomorrow lest I start sleeping under the Marble Arch. That thought made me smirk as I thought of Tanya, my courier back in Chicago.
You see, the morning before I was to leave for the start of the semester, I discovered that I had obtained the incorrect paperwork for my trip and still needed to get a visa. This proved to be a major hassle but, luckily for me, my mother found a courier who could expedite the process that usually took two weeks and handle it in three hours. Her name was Tanya and she was extremely helpful but she wasn’t originally from the U.S. and her English wasn’t perfect. I had to provide her with a bank statement to prove that I could afford the trip and wouldn’t be a drain on British society. Tanya didn’t seem to know exactly how to explain this so she got the point across by telling me that I couldn’t be “a bum on the street.” She repeated that same phrase several times: a bum on the street.
As miserable as I was now, it made me laugh to realize that I nearly wasn’t let in to the country over the worry that I would be a bum on the street. Now, I wasn’t allowed out of the country because I was about to become one.
I had to wait several hours because I wasn’t about to wake up my mom and dad in the middle of the night for the second straight day. I did send them an email, though, with some information on flights I had found and while I waited for it to be late enough to call home, I searched through every souvenir shop in town for a Union Jack wristband. Hey, I had to do something with my time. I had bought such a wristband months earlier and wore it all the time but I had lost it somewhere on my travels and maybe the only good thing to come out of this whole ordeal was that now I had a chance to replace it. That story does have a happy ending as I found one in about the tenth store I visited and am wearing it even now as I type.
Although I was still antsy waiting for my parents’ reply, I was much calmer than I had been the day before. It felt good to know what my task was, whether buying a plane ticket or finding a wristband. Where Monday I had been totally aimless and terrified as a result, on Tuesday, I was still lost but felt I had a map to get back on track.
When my parents got up that morning, they bought me a ticket for Chicago, set to depart at 8:45 the next day. Now I was all set. I went to an Internet café to print out the confirmation and carried it back to the embassy. This time they let me right in and when I went to the front desk, I filled out my paperwork, turned it in and was told by the pleasantly smiling American woman behind the desk that I was good to go. I almost fainted I was so relieved.
“I just need your 50 dollar processing fee.”
My jaw hit the floor. “I don’t have 50 dollars,” I said.
“Then you can’t have a passport.”
“You don’t understand,” I stammered. “This is an emergency passport. The reason it’s an emergency is because I don’t have 50 dollars!”
She asked if there was any other way I could get the money and the only thing I could think of was having my parents wire it to me. I didn’t even know how wiring money worked but they had done it once before so I hoped that they could do it again. My only other option was to go outside, play the guitar and hope for some generous passersby. I didn’t have a permit for that, though, and I didn’t know how to play the guitar and also, I didn’t have a guitar. So, I had the woman call my house.
I’m not totally clear about what happened next. Over the ensuing half hour the embassy woman talked to my mom then I talked to her then she hung up and called my dad at work then the embassy woman called her again and so on and so on. The end result was that after everything, they had agreed to send the money but it would take a little time to get it situated. The woman suggested that while I waited, I take a walk down the block to a pharmacy to get my picture taken for the passport. Although I was certain I would get lost walking there by myself, I went out and found the place with no problem. The result is still my favorite picture ever taken of me. My hair is wild, my face is a mess, there are bags under my eyes, but I’m smiling, resolute in my desire to get home.
When I returned to the embassy, it was 4:30 in the afternoon and the money hadn’t arrived yet. The embassy shut down for the day at 5:00, but I was told not to worry; it should be any minute now. I sat down to read the American in Britain magazine that had been sitting on the table. At first I was calm but by 4:45 I had started to sweat. By 4:50 that sweat had drenched me. I went back to the counter to see if anything was wrong. No, I was assured. It was just taking a little while for the money to come through. I’m not sure if the holdup came from my parents or the bank or the embassy but I was promised that if the 50 dollars didn’t show up by 5:00, they would simply take care of it tomorrow, no big deal. Call me crazy, but that sounded suspiciously like a big deal to me.
I sat back down, my fingernails clawing into the arm rests of my chair until, at precisely 4:56, I was informed that the money had come through and my passport had been processed. I let out a sigh that I had been holding in for two days, accepted my new temporary passport from the woman behind the counter and stepped outside into the suddenly sunny London afternoon.
Now, it dawned on me again that it was my last night in London and I tried to make the most of it. I wanted to get one last fish and chips dinner but I couldn’t afford one so I set my sights on something I could do for free. My first thought was to take a trip to Primrose Hill before it got dark. I had only ever been there at night and I wanted to get a look at the London skyline during the day. I opted instead for my second thought. I was somewhat embarrassed that I had never taken a trip to Abbey Road, so I figured I would give it a gander now, on my last night. The hill probably would’ve been more fun.
That night, I checked the calendar and confirmed that the next day was not, in fact, a holiday. I vowed to be ultra prepared to make sure I was not late in the morning but really, I knew I couldn’t control anything further than I did on Monday. I was still subject to the train schedule and the first one didn’t leave until 6:00. Still, I was out there by 5:45 waiting for the gate of the tube station to open. I made it to the airport in plenty of time, my temporary passport worked without incident and I went to check in my suitcases.
The flight featured a stop in Dublin and the last time I flew with a layover, I had to get my bags and recheck them because I was switching airlines. This time I wasn’t switching airlines but I checked with the flight attendant just to make sure. “Don’t worry,” she said. “These will go straight to Orlando.”
“Orlando?” I said hysterically. “No, I’m not going to Orlando.”
“Then they’re going wherever your going,” she responded unperturbed.
I assumed she knew what she was doing but, after a delightfully uneventful pair of flights, while I waited at the baggage claim in Chicago, I began to worry again when suitcase after suitcase popped out and none of them were mine. One by one, each passenger left and eventually I stood by the baggage carousel by myself praying that my suitcase would show itself. I just couldn’t deal with this anymore. I considered leaving and complaining to the airport about sending my bags to Orlando, but finally, after what seemed like forever, I saw them. I was home, my luggage was home, I had a passport in my pocket. I was ready to go.
I walked through the doors and almost immediately spotted my mother and sister, Moira, waiting there for me. They didn’t seem to recognize me right away but that was OK. I had never been happier to see them. I finally was truly home and now that I was, I could forget all about the travails of the previous few days. In fact, I vowed never to talk about them again. Oh wait, forget you read this.