Twenty years ago today, I flew out of Chicago and towards London for truly transformative semester. I had no idea what lay in store for me or how the trip would change me in unexpected ways. Here are my reflections 20 years later.
Dear 20-year-old me,
You are about to embark on the journey of a lifetime. After months of convincing Mom and Dad that this is a good idea, planning out everything you want to see and do, and working every shift possible during the summer, you are ready. You think you know the impact this will have on your life, but take comfort in knowing that you don’t know anything, and that will make the next three months so much better. This journey will change you and set you on a path that is even better than the life you are imagining for yourself right now, the memories and the lessons sticking with you long after you return to the States.
What will the next three and a half months look like?
You’ll walk around Paris and write on a bench outside of Notre Dame, dreaming of a return trip in the next three months that never happens. Nineteen years later you’ll regret that decision as you watch the centuries-old cathedral burn on international news. You’ll mourn the potential loss of history and place of worship for all who travel through the city, but be inspired by the resilience of the French people as they make plans to rebuild.
You’ll tour ancient Roman ruins while walking miles through the rain and discover the Spanish Steps three times in a single night when you and your traveling companions walk in circles trying to find the hostel where you left your luggage. And while you will be irritable and exhausted, you’ll crash into bed satisfied that you have walked in the footsteps of historical giants.
You will inadvertently show up at the Vatican on the same day that Pope John Paul II is giving a sermon on the steps of St. Peters, at first confused by the large number of people but then zooming in your camera as much as possible for a glimpse of the man who drew a large crowd of the faithful. While you will hear words over the loud speaker, you will not understand the Italian being spoken, but your Lutheran heart will revel in the fact that you were in the same general space as the Holy Father.
You will walk for what seems like miles through every hall of the Vatican Museum, taking in artifacts that go back centuries while eagerly looking for the signs that repeatedly say “Sistine Chapel this way.” Even though it has been your dream throughout adolescence, you will be underwhelmed by the size of the small room showcasing Michelangelo’s masterpiece (because for some reason you never considered that the word “chapel” might actually refer to a chapel). And 20 years later you will still feel guilty that it wasn’t a highlight of your trip.
You’ll feel the very real presence of God while standing in the middle of a magnificent structure paid for with indulgences, and months later grieve the commonplace emptiness of grand European cathedrals on Sunday mornings.
You’ll be shocked by the size of Michelangelo’s David and moved by the beauty of Florence’s streets and cathedrals.
You’ll be forever changed by the grounds of Dachau and dedicate your future career to teaching your students about oppression and injustice.
You’ll be rescued from being thrown off of a train by an Italian in a gay pride t-shirt, pointed to the correct Munich train by two fellow college-aged Texans on their two-year mission, and wake up one morning with a stranger sleeping in the fourth bed in a semi-sketchy hostel in Paris.
You’ll discover just how difficult it was for “groundlings” to stand through an entire Shakespeare performance and then sob through the second act of Miss Saigon, PMS amplifying the fact that you desperately miss a boyfriend that only a month before you had considered breaking up with.
You’ll listen as your visiting professor preaches endlessly about Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, and be the only one of your classmates who refuses to believe that Will Shakespeare wasn’t the real author of his plays. And then you’ll regret your decision to not go to Straford-Upon-Avon by yourself and be reminded of that decision every single time you teach a Shakepeare play to your future students.
You’ll fall in love with Edinburgh and spend the rest of your life correcting people who mispronounce the name of one of the most beautiful cities you have ever visited.
While you’ve always said you love nature, you will develop a lifelong love for the outdoors as you hike in the rain through Killarney National Park. After being in Killarney for only a couple days, another tourist will stop you to ask for directions, boosting your confidence that you actually look like you know what you’re doing after two months of traveling abroad. The green hills, salty coastline, and friendly locals will embed the Emerald Isle into your heart and you’ll long for the day you will someday return, which still hasn’t happened yet.
You’ll grow in independence as you tour the Globe Theater, Bath, and Hampton Court Palace on your own. It will be the start of embracing your introverted nature and the first step in realizing that as much as you love people, quiet moments alone are essential to your sanity. It is a lesson you will learn over and over again the more complicated your life gets.
Your love for theatre will multiply and most of the money you saved over months of serving tables will be spent on travel and theatre tickets. And when your great-aunt has a layover and treats you out to dinner and a show, you will thoroughly impress her with just how easily you navigate the London, the reemergence of your city girl roots preparing you for eventual moves to three major US cities.
You and your American classmates will teach your English classmates about the essential nature of s’mores during a bonfire and while they teach you about Guy Fawke’s Day and the festivities unfolding around you. When you finally sit down to watch V for Vendetta, it will actually make sense to you. But that won’t be the only thing that you finally understand: “Pissing the night away” in “Tubthumping,” the versatility of the term “cheers,” the tension between the English and everyone else of British descent, and the beauty of a well-organized public transportation system. All of those things are just snapshots of the lessons that will change the way you talk about and react to the world around you, reminding you that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know anything.
You’ll eat the British attempt at Thanksgiving dinner (and later long for a chip shop run), celebrate Thanksgiving at a pub, and eventually decide that you can’t take anymore lamb and do the super touristy thing by visiting Hard Rock Cafe so you can have an American hamburger.
You’ll learn that vodka can be mixed with nearly any juice and be pretty tasty, you’ll drink straight whiskey in Ireland, and no matter how hard you try, you will never learn to appreciate the taste of beer, preferring instead the newly launched Smirnoff Ice (which you will spend years looking for in the US before it finally arrives long after you can legally drink).
You’ll do all of this and more.
When you come home at Christmas, you will be changed. Some of those changes will be subtle and some you won’t notice for years, but you will be stronger, more independent, more open to listening to the stories and experiences of others, and more confident about where you are headed. When you ring in the new millennium with your smuggled Smirnoff Ice, you will be eager to see what the future holds, convinced that it includes a return trip to Europe sooner than later.
And that boy you almost broke up with right before leaving? You’ll marry him. You learn how to communicate in those fifteen weeks apart and both of you will grow through the experience. You’ll discover that as much as you are loving your experience, someone is missing: your best friend. And while you haven’t boarded a plane to cross the ocean since you returned, together you have taken on the United States, your two children convinced that the only good vacation is a vacation that takes them to new places and experiences. You’ve replicated that hike in Ireland in Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee, Colorado, Utah, Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas, and every place you’ve visited in-between.
So congratulations on an adventure you will never forget. It’s the beginning of a great story.