It had been a tough year: my position at work got downgraded after budget cuts, my cat—my best friend for fifteen years—died, and my landlord refused to believe the black stuff on the ceiling in my apartment was mold. I couldn't afford a trip to London (not if I ever wanted to pay off my student loans, anyway), but it was a reward to myself for keeping my sanity and a boost to help me face next year with more optimism.
"Are you sure you want to travel alone?" asked my mother as I stuffed three days' worth of clothes into a backpack.
I didn't know how to answer. Affirming my decision would have opened the door for her to spout urban legend-like stories about women in peril as they roamed the world by themselves. On the other hand, agreeing that I had slight reservations and recognized potential threats would strengthen her argument against it.
So I remained silent and zipped up my bag. Had I felt more confident and taken my time, I may not have forgotten to pack my toothbrush. I ended up buying a ridiculously overpriced one at a Sainsbury's grocery store on Vauxhall Bridge Road the next day. I guess proximity to Buckingham Palace (and its iconic Changing of the Guard) made its wares worth twice as much as those in my local Safeway.
With me flying out on Thursday and returning on Sunday night, there were no reasons for a mushy farewell with Mom. I took an Uber to BWI and with ticket in hand, sidled up to the British Airways check-in counter.
"You traveling alone, love?" asked the ground attendant as she tapped away at her keyboard.
I took a deep breath and tried my hardest not to roll my eyes at the déjà vu, but she continued. "Because if you only need one seat, I might be able to upgrade you to First Class."
Sipping a mimosa never felt more posh than doing it from row four of a 747 ten minutes before take-off. My personal entertainment system and the fully-reclining seat-bed made the seven hour flight go by in a flash, making me almost wish we'd fly a little longer so I could catch up with the latest season of Making a Murderer.
At passport control, I was directed to a line of solo travelers—the fussy babies and impatient toddlers thankfully in a separate queue. A quick scan of my documents later, I was officially on British soil. After escaping the hassle of luggage claim (traveling light for the win!) and taking the green channel through customs, I headed to the Heathrow Express. My e-ticket made boarding a snap, but it seemed everyone was taking this train into Paddington Station. After trudging through three fully occupied carriages, I finally found one empty seat.
Couldn't have done that if I'd been with a traveling buddy, now could I, I thought of Mom with a smile, plopping into the plush chair moments before the train pulled away from the platform.
Fifty minutes later, I was in—more or less—the center of London and it was barely even past breakfast time. With several hours to kill before check-in at my hotel, I started toward the first destination on my "must see" list. My walk took me through Hyde Park, where—given that it was still a workday morning—mostly just tourists and retirees roamed the labyrinthine paths, dodging the occasional squirrel begging for a treat.
I set my own pace, often backtracking so I could see more. The Italian Gardens on the north end were impeccably manicured and quite vibrant for early December. Sadly, the statue of Peter Pan was a bit crowded, but at least I had no trouble finding someone to take a picture of me under the bronze depiction of the boy who never grew up. I posted the photo to Instagram, knowing Mom would be eagerly checking my adventures as soon as it turned morning stateside.
The thirty minutes the mile-and-a-half that Google maps told me my walk would take ended up being more than twice as long because of all my dawdling. By the time I got within sight of the Victoria and Albert Museum, I was already pooped, but there are no excuses when you're on a mission! Waiting at a red light to cross the street to the V&A, I watched skaters fall amid laughter at the seasonal ice rink in front of the Natural History Museum and promised myself to return the later to try it out.
That's how the rest of my long weekend in London played out, too. While I had my list of things I wanted to see or do, it wasn't set in stone. Sometimes an opportunity popped up unexpectedly, like on Sunday morning while I was window shopping in Covent Garden.
"We have a spare ticket to today's matinee of Kinky Boots at the West End," said a girl, who'd been walking by with a group of friends. "It's all paid for if you'd like to go."
Of course I took the ticket. Sure, it could have been a scam, but it wasn't. And I couldn't wait to tell Mom that had I been traveling with others, this would have been one less moment for me to seize. I also vowed to start collecting my loose change as soon as I got home and to begin planning for my next solo adventure. I've always wanted to see Paris in the Spring . . .