I celebrated my 19th birthday in London. It was May 1966, the end of my freshman year at the University of Michigan. The end of the first year I had lived on my own, away from my family, friends and the lifestyle I had grown up with.
But I needed to go even further away.
I bought a ticket on a flight chartered by the university, which left on May 15th, the day before my birthday. I didn’t have much money and had almost nothing planned, just a general idea of a route to follow, from London to Amsterdam, north to Denmark and Sweden. Then a flight south to Italy, hitchhike through southern France to Spain, and then back to France for a return flight from Paris. Almost four months of traveling with no travel partner, not even a room reserved to stay in while in London.
The world was different back then. Despite the assassination of President Kennedy almost three years earlier, the war in Vietnam and the burgeoning opposition to it, the civil rights and other movements, the culture and U. S. government seemed a little more stable then than it does now. The sense that something was off, or wrong, that big changes were needed both nationally and personally, was growing in so many of us, but we hadn’t yet realized what the growing pains meant.
All I knew was that my life felt set, predetermined by family and culture. It was a clear and linear progression from public school, to university, career and family, then old age and death. Death and vulnerability were walled away in time.
Maybe today, in 2018, many students would be happy to feel their lives secure in such a progression, but all I wanted to do was break it. I wanted to feel free and to see the world outside the little space I already knew. Or maybe I wanted to know that I had some power over my own life. And the best way to discover that power was to break the progression and fly into the unknown.
So after seven hours in a plane, we landed at Heathrow, and I was faced with the reality that I had no idea where to go. Frankly, I was terrified. I emerged from the exit tunnel with other passengers, looked around me at the fast moving crowds, huge walls and glass, and felt totally alone.
On the flight, all the passengers had chatted freely. There was a sense of freedom. Unlike other flights, where you were expected to stay in your seats, people walked around to find friends or classmates to speak to. We were all gearing up for an adventure.
The conversation for most was about the exotic. What they would see and who they would meet, and from what countries. So once off the plane, they scattered. No one wanted to be burdened by the past. It was a race into the unknown.
My race was to find a place to stay. I had a list of recommended hotels, pensions and boarding houses and went from place to place, searching for one with a vacancy. Other students from the flight were trying the same places but no one wanted to even acknowledge they had known or spoken with me just an hour or two earlier. They had adopted a new identity, the identity of the exotic traveler, and many even seemed to walk and talk differently than they had on the flight.
At the third place on my list, a boarding house, I found a tiny, 5 x 9 room vacant for a few days. A woman from my flight was also staying there. She was more friendly than most of our flight mates but still not interested in getting to know me better. She had her heart set on a man with an English accent and an earldom.
After a little unpacking, I was too hyped up to sleep or relax so went out to find a pub. It was half full yet loud, and dark except around the bar area. I went to the bar, ordered a beer, and sat on one of the stools. A man sat next to me and we talked for a few minutes. But I didn’t know what to say. Mostly, I sat.
I had flown to London because I wanted something new, unplanned, and here it was—but I couldn’t reach it. I was still a long journey away from what was sitting in my heart. Each beer was a toast to loneliness, a ceremony of my own lack of communion. And like what often happens when we are alone in a new situation—we talk to ourselves. Self-judgments crowded my mind making it difficult to talk with anyone else.
What did I expect? What an idiot I was to fly to a new country with so little planning. Was this the only way to learn how to be spontaneous and free?
I returned to my new home, or back to the 5 x 9 white-walled room in the boarding house. But my inner talk came with me. I couldn’t take it, so almost ran to the room of the woman I had met on the flight. She let me in and we talked. My thoughts and feelings flowed out of me. And despite the fact that I wasn’t her fantasy of an Englishman, she listened and talked about herself and her plans. She was an angel.
We were both very tired. I went back to my room and tried to sleep. But the sheer weight of the fact that I was thousands of miles from anyone who truly cared for me, that I no longer knew anything about the future, not even what I would do in the morning—all that coalesced in the night into a darkness that was frighteningly alive and deadly. I had no defenses against it.
It seems funny now, but what I wanted to do was call my Mom and hear her voice. It was after midnight, the morning of the 16th of May, my birthday, and my gift to myself was a promise that I would call home in the morning. Then I fell asleep.
The next morning, bright sunlight flooded through the small window of the room to wake me up. In the light of day, for one moment at least, last night’s terror seemed almost unreal. But a touch of anxiety lingered in my heart and the promise I had made to myself quietly repeated itself in my mind. I got up to shower, put on new clothes, and went out to find food and a phone.
There were no public phones in the boarding house, and back then there were no cellphones. To make an overseas call, you had to find a public phone set up for that purpose. It was not easy. I found one in a small restaurant, with a bar on the right, some tables in the back, and to the left, a line of phones. I decided to eat and then phone.
A tall Englishwoman, with short brown hair, maybe two or three years older than me, was sitting alone, eating. She seemed like she would be receptive to sharing a moment with a stranger. Should I approach her?
I had done it last night, started a conversation with a woman I barely knew. She was attractive and sexual interest can, of course, make us awkward and distort our perceptions. And I had just been ripped open by doubts and darkness.
But, if I was so freaked out by my situation in London that I could only go to sleep by promising I would call home, couldn’t I at least try to talk with this woman? All I was doing was asking if she would share her table and talk with me.
So I did it. I don’t remember exactly what was said. I probably just asked if the seat was free and if she minded if I joined her. And she said yes and I joined her and we talked for hours. We went sightseeing. We went to a park. We went to see the Queen, or at least her castle. We even wound up having a late lunch at the woman’s apartment. But immediately after lunch, it was clear I had to leave. She wanted me gone before her boyfriend got home. She walked me to my train and then crossed the platform to greet her boyfriend as he stepped off his train.
And that was it. For the rest of the summer anyway, I was fine. I never called home, but did send several postcards.
And no longer was my own darkness such a threat or my fears so powerful they stopped me from doing what needed to be done. I hitchhiked through eight countries that summer. I met many wonderful and a few awful people, improved my French and Spanish, and learned Italian so well a man from Genoa asked what part of Italy I was from. I told him Brooklyn, and he replied his son lived in Brooklyn. We both laughed. Later, we shared a drink before I left for another city.
Photo Credit: Go TravelZing