It was January in London. The damp hung in the air, seeping into my lungs and up the legs of my flared jeans, as I walked the streets each day for hours, along with the rest of my contingent, students on a month-long study abroad.
I’d always loved the idea of studying abroad, and I’d always wanted to return to England after living there for a few short months as a four-year-old. My memories were hazy, but they were present. I wanted to return to a place I’d been happy, feeding cows in the afternoons at a nearby dairy, watching them slowly envelop my small handfuls of grass, looking at me with large, soulful eyes.
Our professor was very tall, and I found my five-foot-two self falling further and further behind as he gestured to the objects and sites of interest as we passed. I couldn’t hear a word. Frequently, I would break into a run, so that I didn’t start to panic about losing sight of the last member of the group and truly being as alone as I felt.
At the end of each long day, we would return to our hotel, a few blocks from Queen’s Way. My roommate was often ready to go out to a show on the West End, but I was usually spent, my feet aching from all of the walking, feeling so far away from everyone I loved. I had signed up for the trip without knowing anyone well, and I found it difficult to break into the groups which had formed long before the trip had started.
Although I didn’t venture out on my own at first, soon I grew a bit more brave (or perhaps just desperate). Although I worried about getting lost, I walked the blocks to Queen’s Way, slipping into a Spar I’d visited earlier in the trip with fellow students. I purchased a samosa, some decaf PG Tips (the tea my mother drank at home on special occasions) and a single piece of baklava.
I walked back to the hotel with my simple meal, and waited until the kettle had come to a boil. Slowly, I poured the hot water over the tea bag in my cup, watching the deep brown fingers curl into the water. I added some powdered soy milk, brought from home, and a swizzle of honey, before taking my first sip. To this day, when I drink PG tips in the evening, I am back in that spare hotel room, and I start to crave baklava.
This ritual became my sanity. My feet learned the way to the Spar, and I slowly stopped shaking on the way. Sometimes I even ventured away from my usual samosa, and tried one of the other interesting Indian delicacies in the hot case.
But I always got baklava. It was soggy, and left my fingers sticky, but it comforted me still, a sweet spot in a winter evening, the perfect companion to a cup of tea. It was the last thing I ate, and I waited as long as I could before consuming it, not wanting the experience to end, to be left alone in the hotel.
I’ve always been frugal, and this trip was no exception. I tried to avoid eating out, buying cress sandwiches at Tesco as I passed by, and storing packaged pasta salad on my hotel windowsill to keep it cool, hoping that housekeeping wouldn’t see it and throw it away.
I’m sure that this was a large part of the isolation I felt. Instead of bonding with my traveling companions over hot bowls of soup, I snuck into tiny grocery stores and ate on the run. During one such transaction, I must have betrayed something of my loneliness. “Are you happy?” the cashier asked me. She looked concerned, and genuine. I was surprised by the directness of the question, and by being seen in that anonymous place, so far from home. I can’t remember what I said, but I couldn’t forget it.
I started looking over my finances, gradually loosening my grip on my money. One day I found an Indian buffet with two other girls. I ate hot chicken soup at Stonehenge. I purchased greasy fish and chips in Canterbury and mushroom risotto at the Eagle and Child, while toasting C.S. Lewis and all that his words had meant to me.
The knot in my chest finally started to untangle. My phone calls home became less desperate. I started to reach out, just a little. I stood closer to the group, and chatted with some of them. I joined them for shopping trips to H&M (which seemed so exotic in those days). I’d written off these people in the early days of the trip, but as I made slow steps in their direction, they responded. I didn’t meet a lifelong best friend on that trip, but I did learn that I wasn’t as alone as I felt. I was the instigator of my own isolation. I had the power to connect all along.