So it’s been exactly one year since I left for Europe. When I left, I had no idea what I was doing. I bought my flight (a one-way from Toronto to Gatwick) on what was essentially a whim. I suppose it was an essential whim, though; the resulting experience amounted to what was the best thing I’ve ever done with my life.
That’s a heavy statement, I’m sure. And there are moments – individual moments and memories – from earlier, easier times that I still hold dear, of course. But as far as events that can shape who you are (or, in my case, reshape who I had once been), travelling is far and away the best thing I could have done.
This being my first anniversary of that event, I’ve decided to look back and compare how I felt then to how I feel now. I’m not going to get all fancy-nancy on you and get into feelings feelings. Just, you know, what it was like, those first few days. I covered it a bit previously, but I’ll try to be a bit more…I don’t know, detailed, I guess. Bear with me.
(Note: I loathe reading my old stuff back. If I repeat stuff, sorry.)
I remember being all serious-business when I got to Pearson International Airport. You know, stiff upper lip, stoic, not wanting to be upset that I was about to bail on my family, everyone I know, and Canada. I remember a small exchange I had with the lady at the Air Transat desk.
“And how many bags are you bringing with you, sir?” she asked.
“Oh, just my pack and the one carry-on.”
“Alright, sir. I’ll take your backpack here, and if you could just please put this tag on your man-purse.”
“It’s…it’s not a purse. It’s a shoulder bag.”
“Well, can you please put this tag on it?”
“Sure. But it’s not a purse. See? It’s got…like, a flap. It’s made out of hemp. It’s…it’s not a purse.”
“Okay, sir. Just please put the tag on it.”
I mean, I was wearing it diagonally, even. Left shoulder to right hip. Purses don’t really do that!
It’s not a purse. God damn it.
I was given assistance, for the first of many times on the trip, to my gate. I was shuttled in the little golf cart – every traveller’s dream – and had my first taste of bizarre Toronto airport bureaucracy. Seems that if you ride in the little golf cart they have to fill out some little requisition paper, a carbon copy (that still exists!) torn off and that, in turn, is taken away. Then you can ride. I like to imagine where that little copy of paper goes. Maybe it’s fed to some giant central computer, powered solely by paperwork. Maybe a relative of mighty Scantron, bane of students the world over. I imagine the attendant would, after delivering me to my gate, would enter the great computer’s chamber. Vast and empty, the ceiling unseen in the darkness. There, in the centre, our man would approach a shining dais, atop which one small green-on-black monitor rests. When he approaches, he sees one word on the screen.
He enters a reply, watching the blinking square cursor for a few seconds before hitting Return.
“It is done.”
“Good. Leave me.”
The man backs slowly out of the vast room, leaving the computer to the thoughts only it would dare to think.
So, yeah, that’s what preoccupied me on my flight. I’m not necessarily good at idle thought. It’s kind of a coping strategy. I was trying, desperately, to get some writing done on the plane, but nothing came. So, I thought about robots, their motives, and whether or not they are benevolent.
I also remember being given the little “who the hell are you?” card for British customs. I filled out the information as best I could, but I hesitated on “occupation.” “Traveller” didn’t seem too good an idea to put down. So I scrawled “writer.” I mean, I just wrote that. Try to disprove that, MI5.
I’m afflicted with pride. Some (and some more than others) would say the pride slips into the realm of arrogance. I, for one, am proud of my French heritage.
But one of the biggest things I had to come to terms with is accepting help from others. It’s stupid, I know. People, generally and naturally (I believe) are good-natured and are willing to help. Anyone. Not just me, or people with disabilities, or whatever.
So, arriving in Gatwick (a place I’d been once before) I had no choice but to suck it up and ask for help. The last thing I will do is play up the disability, but sometimes I have no choice. Especially if I’m tight for time. If I look particularly helpless (I have ways I’d rather not go in to) I can relax and have the job done for me, generally. Maybe it’s a dick move, but should I feel that way? I never abuse the…I suppose it’s power…inherent in having a disability, but, honestly, sometimes I really do need help.
I remember having assistance through the Arrivals area at Gatwick. The place was a mess, on account of the upcoming Olympics. I chatted with the lady who was helping me, a chubby, chipper little waddling lady. She turned out to be the airport manager…of some fashion. I don’t think there’s really one person who manages the whole damn place. Either way, she was in charge of a ton of people and because of her help I was ushered quickly through security, customs, and all the way to my seat on the Gatwick Express. Here wis this lady, kind as all-get-out, manager of some massive department at an equally massive airport, and she was helping me. She was the first person I spoke with in the United Kingdom and she set the tone for the service I’d continue to receive there.
The Gatwick Express, a dull half-hour ride from the outskirts, through lovely Surrey and South London, dumps you unceremoniously at Victoria Station in London. Thanks to the British penchant for Orwellian security cameras (and a nice call-ahead from Airport Lady) I was – for lack of a better word – accosted on exiting the train. I was guided to the main hall at Victoria Station and set free.
“Holy shit. I’m here.” That’s when I started to panic. What the Christ was I doing in London, let alone 3000 kilometres from home? I sat on a bench, ate a very overpriced sandwich and Coke, tried (in vain) to get some wifi, and I thought about my situation.
“3000 kilometres from home?” I thought. I didn’t have a home. Not anymore, anyhow. Someone saw to that quite expertly. I had my parents’ place, but it hadn’t been home for ten years. Don’t get me wrong, it’s comfortable to be there and I love visiting, but I no longer attach the sense of “home” to it, you know? No, my home was gone. The closest thing I had now to a home was the forty litre pack propped up against my legs.
I sat for a while mulling this over. I managed to figure out how to get on wifi (pro tip: before you travel, set up a secondary Gmail account to sign up for free wifi and to give out). I got my bearings, finished my sandwich, and got up. I needed to find the Tube and get my hands on the metro pass (an Oyster Card). I decided that I can mope later, I needed to find my hostel and get situated.
While some people claim I’m incapable of such things, I have to use logic to sort out my day-to-day life. Simple things that, if I didn’t have the disability, I’d otherwise take for granted. For example, there in Victoria I needed to find the Tube. First thought: “find the iconic circular red, white, and blue ‘Underground’ sign.” Well, this proved incredibly difficult, because I arrived a few days after the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The entire place was covered in Union flags (fun fact: it’s technically only a “Union Jack” if flown at sea. Thanks, QI!). So, finding the Underground sign in the sea of patriotism wasn’t going to happen. My next decision proved a bit more fruitful. I stood, watching the crowd ebb and flow. After a minute or two I began to see a pattern. Large groups would appear, disappear, and show up once again. Kind of the pattern you’d expect from ingress/egress of subway cars. So, I followed where that mass went. Bingo, though I was hoping I was heading to the Ministry of Magic. Next time.
I recall describing, in an earlier post, the hostel and my first few days’ experience. There is definitely more to come, and it’ll be up very soon.
Thanks, as always, for letting me ramble.