In 1984, I was five years into an undergrad education at UC Berkeley, and still had no degree in sight. I was lost. I was heartbroken over a girl. I had no direction. My GPA was in the gutter and I didn't know why, or what I was doing. So I did what any red-blooded American would do: I ran away. I bought a Eurail pass and took off for Europe with my backpack, some clothes, a journal, and some music tapes for a few months. It was one of the greatest things I ever did.
I arrived in London in September 1984, soon to be 23 years old, and it was the first time I'd ever been out of the country. When I emerged from the Tube station in Piccadilly Circus, it was the first time I'd ever laid eyes on land or buildings or sky that was not part of the U.S. It was intoxicating. So much so, in fact, that I lost my camera right away, on that first day, in that first half hour. Which put all my romantic notions in check and reminded me again what a freakin' doofus I can be. It was just a minor setback.
I bought a new camera right away, and then set about exploring the city. And fell in love. I loved everything about it that was not the U.S. I loved everything about it that was not my life. I loved the accents, the clothes, the architecture, the atmosphere--even the weather. I loved the music in the record stores. I went to my first English pub and ordered a half-pint, only to be told by the bartender that that's not what men do, as he put a full Guinness in front of me. I met an expatriate American waitress in a cafe who said it was easy to get work and I should never go back. I read George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and felt more "European" for doing so. I bought a black overcoat and took my picture in front of the factory that's on the cover of Pink Floyd's Animals. I met other lost, excited, bewildered young travelers at the youth hostel for food and drink and random exploring. I met a Canadian woman in line at a phone booth, and she said to come with her and her English boyfriend to a pub, so I did. We played darts and got drunk, and then we piled into their VW bug and drove to Salisbury, where they said I could stay overnight with them at his parents' place. Except his parents didn't approve of them bringing home a drunk American kid, so I spent the night in the VW bug, freezing and drunk, and then had to take a bus back up to London the next morning where all my stuff was. I went to plays and museums and vintage shops and Indian restaurants. I bought U2's Unforgettable Fire on cassette tape and listened to it over and over in my hostel bed and on the buses. I read David Copperfield. I took a day trip to Brighton and sat on the beach and pretended I was a mod in Quadrophenia. It was all so romantic and silly and awesome. I wrote a line in my journal one night that was a direct quote from a David Byrne song: "There is nothing that is stronger than the feeling that you get when your eyes are wide open." It was me, alone, learning how to live.
I'm leaving for London tomorrow, 26 years later, a completely different person. I look back on that kid and I feel kinda bad for him, kinda embarrassed for him, but also with great fondness at the memories. That was just one stop on my four-month trip, but it was the beginning, and in many ways was the beginning of my adulthood and the person I became. It changed everything.
Now I'm a middle-aged dork representing a videogame company, and am traveling with my co-workers to do some filming, podcasting, and writing, in London just for a day, and then to Guildford for the rest of the week. It's so odd to me that for all the traveling I've done over the years, I've never once been back to London, except as a stopover. And though I only get one day in the city, I'm looking forward to coming up the Tube station, just like my earnest and naive and much skinnier younger self did 26 years ago, and marvel at the sights and sounds of London.