I held an instructional packet of information in one hand, and grabbed the strip of photos as they scrolled out of the booth’s slot with my other. Panic was rising in the back of my throat and I stole a look at the photos while trying to act casual. Wow, and here I’d thought my student ID was the worst picture of me I’d ever seen. These were even less flattering. I looked glazed, exhausted, and confused. All of which I was, come to think of it. I’d never had jetlag before and wanted nothing more than to stretch out on a nearby bench and go to sleep. Instead, I took a deep breath and walked back over to the ticket window.
“Hi, ummmm,” I looked down at my information sheet again, “I’d like… uhhh… a student pass…” I trailed off and pushed my photo strip and some money into the tray under the window while consulting my guide. “Zones 1-4, please.” The man behind the glass looked at me over the top of his glasses. My accent had tipped him off, of course, and now a quick visual once-over confirmed what he’d heard; I was an American student. I worked up a tired smile and he glanced away as if affronted. He passed back my identification card and transit pass without even looking at me. Welcome to London; please have correct change ready and keep to yourself.
A semester abroad sounded amazing. Despite having been raised in a small town and then going to college just an hour from home, I really did want to see more of the world. And the London program in my chosen area of study was superb. The fact that I didn’t need to know a second language was certainly a draw, too. At 19, I wanted something different and exciting, but I was also lazy. England! Perfect. Different and exciting, yet easy.
Except it wasn’t. I had previously lived a life of walking and driving, and had never once partaken of public transportation. A sturdy intellect in most other areas notwithstanding, I was somewhat legendary amongst my friends and family for my ability to misread maps, forget oft-travelled routes, and generally get lost in ways that most people wouldn’t consider possible. London, it turns out, is a gigantic city. One of the first suggested tasks–after getting out of the airport and checking in at the hotel–was procuring a transportation pass to ride the subway and the buses. I followed all of the given directions and mentally checked off each item as it was completed. But it was slowly dawning on me that for the duration of my stay I was going to have to navigate on my own, and live at the mercy of the train schedules and locations. The map of the London Underground my disgruntled ticket-seller had handed me may as well have been written in hieroglyphics.
To add to my uneasiness, I was in one of the first groups from my university to travel after Pan Am Flight 103 blew up over Lockerbie with 35 of my fellow students on board. The travel abroad division at my school was now standard-issuing “safety measures” guides in our packets, and there had been several bomb scares in London train stations before we arrived. I’m not so great in swarms of people. I’m worse in swarms of people, underground, where there might be explosives. And despite strict adherence to the suggested guidelines (“Don’t wear college sweatshirts or other paraphenalia,” “Don’t walk around with a map in your hand”), people always seemed to know I was American even if I never opened my mouth. I felt lost; exposed; constantly on edge.
In reality, the Tube is easy to navigate. For anyone smarter than me, that is. I agonized over every trip, in the beginning. I watched people feed their passes through the readers on the turnstiles as if it was second nature, yet I seemed to always put mine in upside down or otherwise get it stuck as I slammed into the unyielding turnstile bar. The larger, multi-lined stations activated my fear of crowds, and I would challenge myself to count each measured breath in and out as I scoured the walls for clues of which staircase led to which train or tried to peek a look at the map stuffed in my bag. Once in my haste I ran down multiple staircases only to discover that I was on the platform for the correct line, but the wrong direction. Running back up, across the station, and down again (just in time to watch my train pull away without me) was lesson enough to keep me from repeating that mistake.
Buskers and panhandlers made me uncomfortable until I realized that even they more or less kept to themselves. The musicians left an instrument case open for donations and made music in the corner, at moderate volume. Beggars sat against the wall, holding a cup and staring into space. They sort of blended in and became part of the decor; larger stations had them, smaller ones, usually not. It didn’t take long to sense that I was much safer at night in this network of stations, underground, than I would’ve been walking around campus after dark at home. All trash receptacles had been removed from Tube stations after the last bomb scare (so as not to have places bombs could be easily hidden). It was something of a running joke that you always wanted to be sure to spit out your gum before you went through the turnstiles. But danger was a hard concept to grasp amidst that brightly-lit and tidy labyrinth. It all seemed too polite in there to pose any sort of threat to anyone.
Assimilation happened much like osmosis, and brought with it a confidence I’d never expected. I became just another regular at my favorite bakery, market, pub; I didn’t think twice about trekking into unknown territory to see a show or visit some attraction. As I steeped myself in the city’s culture I shed many of the things that made me stand out. I drifted into commonality. I stopped wearing my sneakers in favor of my sturdy brown shoes (I never saw a Brit wearing sneakers outside of a gym). I constrained my mane of hair in sleeker styles than I used to favor (although long curly hair was very common back home, most women around me either had short hair or wore long hair up). I swapped my backpack for a messenger-style bag I found at a flea market.
One day I realized that–more often than not–I was travelling with ease. When I wanted to be, I was invisible. The regular back and forth to classes was routine, and the nightly jaunts to this or that destination required only a quick map consultation before I set out. Where I’d first been overwhelmed, I now felt unlimited possibility. Claustrophobia had given way to welcome breaks in my day to sit and think of nothing at all as my seat swayed ever-so-slightly and the tunnels rushed past the windows.
I learned and experienced all sorts of wonderful things during my time abroad. At the end of the term I boarded my flight home, ambivalent about leaving it all behind. We took off and the flight attendants served tea and scones. I savored every bit–keenly aware that this was to be my last authentic tea–then tried to read for a while. My gaze wandered from my book and stared out the window at the blanket of clouds below. Eventually, I dozed off, and dreamt I was riding the train.