As I scrambled to finish packing my bags the night before I was scheduled to depart for Exeter, England (procrastination helps to settle my nerves), I had some time to reflect on my impending adventure. I was set to achieve two personal milestones: one immediate, the other more long-term. To begin, I had never traveled alone, and the next day’s journey promised to be the globetrotting equivalent of joining the Polar Bear Club as a means of learning how to swim. Secondly, I had never spent more than a couple of weeks outside of the States, and the prospect of over five months in a foreign land weighed heavily on my already-vulnerable sense of motivation. Deep down inside, however, there flickered within me the oh-so-faint spark of excitement that one feels before a performance, or on a first date, or after plugging in a USB cord the correct way on the first try. I contemplated that spark as I attempted to slip into an inevitably fitful rest before the harrowing voyage that lay ahead of me.
The normally two-hour-long journey from my house to JFK International Airport seemed to take six. The first hour and a half went by smoothly; the last half hour took longer than the final few percent of a particularly stubborn download. As we pulled up to the curb near the terminal, my mother (who had, to her credit, held it together remarkably well up until this point) burst into the obligatory “five-months-is-an-eternity” mom-tears. A couple of hugs and a damp shoulder later, and I was off to conquer the airport solo.
With Murphy’s Law in mind, we had made the sensible decision to schedule plenty of spare time for me to navigate the various security checkpoints and labyrinthine halls of the airport. Naturally, the whole check-in process took an astoundingly brief twenty minutes, and I was left with several hours to kill. Luckily, a television near my gate was broadcasting the AFC Wildcard game, and I had the privilege of watching the Chiefs trounce the Texans 30-0. I sighed a sigh of relief: everything had gone off without a hitch. Or so I had thought.
As I went to board my plane, I was stopped at the gate by a particularly zealous employee who insisted that he check the size of my carry-on bag, which he asserted was too large to carry on. This was the selfsame carry-on bag that had passed all previous checkpoints and measurings un-confiscated. After jamming my luggage into his measuring apparatus, he told me that I would need to check my bag at the gate, and that it would be delivered to Heathrow Airport, my destination, with the rest of my luggage. I begged him for some assurance that I would be reunited with my bag upon landing, but he merely looked at me in a way that said “I don’t get paid enough to make that kind of promise.” And so I boarded sans carry-on.
The seven-or-so-hour-long flight from JFK to Manchester (from which I had a short connecting flight to Heathrow) can only be described as middling. Plagued by cramped seats and neighbors who calmed their nerves with wine and small talk, I got almost no sleep. And while the food was edible enough, the in-flight movie was in Spanish, and my seat refused to recline, resulting in a generally mediocre experience. Traumas aside, we landed in Manchester, I made it to my connecting flight after just a small amount of sprinting, and I soon found myself at Heathrow Airport.
When considering tragedy, one usually believes themselves to be immune. “That sort of thing happens to other people,” they say; “Never in a million years,” they say; “Nothing will go wrong,” they say. But as I waited diligently at Heathrow Airport Terminal Five, the same unfamiliar luggage making its fourth lazy trip around the conveyor belt, I knew that the impossible had occurred – that tragedy had struck: my carry-on was lost, misplaced somewhere between the Big Apple and the Big Smoke.
Tired, hungry, concerned, tired, disgruntled, hungry, tired, and in a hurry – relics of my deep-seated American sensibilities – I made my way to the nearby lost luggage station where I was greeted by a friendly gentleman by the name of Simon (names have been changed to protect the innocent). Having become accustomed to the time-of-day-withholding attitude of the American Northeast, Simon’s cordiality and honest desire to assist me took me aback. The fact that he was merely doing his job aside, the way in which he carried himself was wholly foreign to me. He was lighthearted, he was reassuring, and, above all, he was genuinely helpful.
My luggage claim filed, I wandered my way toward the London Underground, oversized suitcase in hand (luckily my main bag had made the trip unscathed), looking as much like a tourist as is possible. I boarded the train, and was met with several dirty looks for having the audacity to travel with a bag. After a series of miraculously skillful transfers between trains, I found myself at Paddington Station (read: “British Grand Central”). Again paying Murphy his dues, I was a staggering four hours early for my train to Exeter from Paddington.
For those unaware, Paddington Station is an open-air facility, and my decision to wear shorts on the plane was violently backfiring as the sub-freezing temperatures crept their way into my very core. Huddled in a corner for warmth, I spent the next four hours people-watching (an all-time favorite hobby of mine). After my eternity of a wait, it was finally time to embark on the final leg of my journey: the three-hour ride from Paddington to Exeter. Much to my delight, the train was heated and relatively empty. As such, I was able to catch up on some much needed sleep, and before long I had arrived at my ultimate destination.
After fifteen hours of ups and downs, of highs and lows, of peaks and valleys, I had learned a valuable lesson: always wear pants when you travel.