As a high school graduation gift, my parents shelled out the money for me to spend a whole month in London with a girlfriend. A few days before our departure, my friend Cinzia came down with pneumonia – without thinking twice, I decided to proceed with my plans, terrified at the prospect of spending the whole of August at the seaside with my parents. To their credit, in an age when communication was limited to long-distance phone calls, my parents agreed, with some trepidation, to let me go.
Everything had been arranged: I would be staying at Mrs. Sanders, a sort of guesthouse a family friend had recommended. What could go wrong? I took my charter flight to Luton, a small airport a million miles from the city, and managed to blow off half my money on a taxi fare to Swiss Cottage, where Mrs. Sanders lived. The house turned out to be large and beautiful: Mrs. Sanders, married to ancient and blind Mr. Sanders, tried to make ends meet by renting her three spare rooms to young ladies like me and providing them with breakfast and dinner. Her 40 year old spinster daughter, Fiona, and two yappy dogs, completed the ambiance. It was there I discovered salted butter and marmalade and vegetables boiled into oblivion. I also discovered the BBC and the pleasure of doing things on my own.
The city, which I had briefly visited three times before, was mine to be had. I set the timetable, the visiting hours, the destinations and when and where I would stop to eat. Guidebook and tube map in hand, I trekked to smaller museums that interested me; I sat in St. Martin’s in the Fields for an impromptu midday concert; I ate sandwiches in St. James’ Park on a sunny day and struck a conversation with a Buckingham Palace cook; I traipsed around the docks that are now gentrified and yuppified but, at the time, still reeked of murky water and were filled with the ghosts of Victorian times gone by. I made some friends along the way but I also went to clubs alone, I had lunch at restaurants alone and fell in love with a city in a way that wouldn’t have been possible had I had to mediate my experiences with a friend. I also had to ask my parents to send me more money, after the taxi debacle, and negotiated with a stuffy bank in the City to withdraw my funds. This was all before credit cards and ATM’s.
Most of all, the experience left me with a lifelong habit of organizing my free time regardless of whether someone could be with me. During college, if no one was interested in the concerts I wanted to go to, sometimes I would go alone. Last night, I didn’t let two tickets to a free screening go unused just because none of my friends could make it. Took the car and drove to Westwood and enjoyed the movie. I routinely go check out exhibitions or unusual parts of town by myself – by choice. I don’t always want to share art or a meal with someone else, like I don’t share in the act of reading a book.
It would be so easy now to succumb to the lure of tv, Netflix, the net and just stay home when friends or husband are unavailable but why rob myself of an experience? A few years ago, passing through London on the way to Italy, I stopped for a few days and enjoyed a 3 hour meal at Gordon Ramsey’s three Michelin restaurant in Chelsea. I was there from nine to midnight and had a great time. Sure, it might have been nice to chat with a friend while eating and drinking, but my solitude heightened the gustatory experience and Jean-Claude, the maitre d’, paid extra attention to me in a way he might not have had it been two of us. For sure, I would not remember his name now.
Pushing myself, at a young age, to do things alone helped me get out of my shell, mitigated my shyness somewhat and, above all, made me a little bit more fierce and gave me trust: in myself, my abilities and my coping skills.
It also taught me that I am enough, that for life to be entertaining I don’t need a posse or a companion. Not even an i-Pad.
Tomorrow I will be heading to the Petersen Automotive Museum for a couple of hours, because I have never been. I couldn’t think of anyone who might be interested in looking at cars so I haven’t asked anyone to come along. But, if you are in the area, and have a passion for engines – well, give me a holler.