Twenty years ago at this time, I was in England, studying abroad for the summer in Bath. It was my first time outside the U.S. My flight from Columbus to St. Louis (and then to London) was the first time in my life I’d even flown on a plane. (TWA, and that airline hasn’t been around for how long now?)
A lifetime ago, and yet it also seems like only yesterday.
For me, this study abroad experience was an adventure of a lifetime. We visited London, Glastonbury Abbey, Stonehenge, Stratford-upon-Avon; saw Shakespeare plays at the Globe and Royal Shakespeare Theatre; spent a weekend in Dublin, Ireland. I had no idea that four years later, I’d move to Germany to live for four years – an even bigger adventure.
The trip was life-changing, as any study abroad trip should be. Not only because I was living and studying in a different country and experiencing another culture, but because I proved to myself that I could actually make my dreams come true. Until that point in time, I doubted myself constantly. I had poor self-esteem, and this went a long way toward changing that.
I was the one who applied for the program and somehow found the funds to pay for it, once I was accepted. I went through all the steps to get the travel arrangements made, get my international student ID card (which I still have), my passport, and all the other things required for this trip. I needed to prove to myself I was capable of making this happen. There was always that voice of doubt in my mind telling me this wouldn’t work out, that something would go wrong. I ignored it.
Another reason this trip was life-changing: My beloved Grandpa died less than two weeks after my arrival in England (that anniversary is coming in a couple days). I had to quickly shift gears and make arrangements to get home for the funeral and back to England afterwards to finish the program. I had a lot of help from my classmates, professors, and an English friend to get me through that time, and I am tremendously grateful, still, for their support.
(Aside: Tea really is a tremendous comfort in a time of sorrow, so the English definitely are on to something here.)
I came back after a week or so, incredibly sad, exhausted and with food poisoning. I spent nearly the entire flight from Cleveland to London so sick I wanted to die. (No hyperbole here – there are few things worse than having food poisoning on an international flight, I think.) And yet when I arrived at Gatwick in a weakened state (but no longer throwing up), I managed to find my way to the right train. I had enough presence of mind to switch trains at the right station. And I made it back to Bath. I got a cab at the train station and collapsed in a heap when I finally got back to my dorm.
The remainder of that summer helped me overcome my grief, probably more so than if I had stayed in Ohio. Grandpa was never far from my thoughts (I lit a candle for him in every cathedral we visited), but I was distracted enough by everything I was experiencing that it lessened my sadness significantly. He would have wanted me to enjoy it, so I did.
It was both the best and worst summer of my life up to that point. (That sounds a bit Dickensian, but it’s true.)
My takeaway from that experience was that I had way more mental fortitude than I ever gave myself credit for. I think that summer, 20 years ago, was the first time I felt like an actual grown-up.