"Mind the gap."
The woman's pleasant voice invited me aboard the London subway with a reminder to watch my step. I climbed on and took a seat next to one of my classmates. We were on our way to Hard Rock Café. Getting a t-shirt from this universal-but foreign-location was an absolute must.
I grew up in a traveling family, but we had always vacationed stateside. It wasn't until my sophomore year in high school that I had the opportunity to jump the pond with the school band. I sold oversized candy bars and participated in march-a-thons during the humid Midwestern months to raise money.
Now in the final days of December, here I was, aboard the subway system in one of the most famous cities in the world, listening to the lilt of a foreign accent in a different country. We were in London for one week, namely to play in the city's New Year's Day parade, but our directors scheduled in time to sightsee as well. It was the coldest winter England had experienced since World War II, but the damp, cold breeze that snuck under my sweater couldn't dim the warm feeling of excitement this trip triggered in me.
Earlier in the week we had visited Westminster Abbey. I can barely remember the experience itself, but I do remember being impressed that this majestic building was real. I had never seen anything like it in the United States, and the fact that my entire country was so new in comparison to Westminster and Big Ben floored me.
From there we visited the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace. I saw the crown jewels. I wandered through both Tower Records and Empire Records. I drank tea and ate biscuits.
One day we were shuttled out of the city to Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare. Again, the memory of the excursion itself is fuzzy, but the very concept of being able to visit such a place left an impression. I remember walking the cobblestone streets and stopping at a shop where I bought a blue and grey sweater made of wool from the local sheep. It was that sweater I wore on the London subway on my way to Hard Rock Café.
I had, of course, always known that history existed beyond my backyard, but it only ever made an appearance in books and movies. Now that I was in London it was hard to believe it was so real. It fascinated me that somewhere so accessible-only seven hours by air-had money that was heavier, cans of soda that were smaller and stoplights that worked differently than what I encountered every day.
At the time, my trip to London was just a vacation of sorts punctuated with school-mandated appearances. We had a strict itinerary with pre-assigned mealtimes and chaperones that roamed the hallways at night. We hit most of London's main sites and never strayed from the tourist trail. Except for the occasional foray by subway in the evening, we got around by tour bus.
When I got home from my trip, I printed my photos, taped them in an album and stuffed it in a closet. I went back to drinking hot chocolate and eating cookies. I rarely wore the t-shirt from Hard Rock Café.
In fact, I didn't spend time dwelling on my experience in London.
But in the following years, new opportunities popped up, taunting me to try other overseas destinations. I've weighed my options, considering the costs and logistics, and, every time, the woman's voice from the London subway has come to mind.
In those moments, I remember how tangible a foreign land can be, how different damp air can feel and places can smell. I want to feel the money and taste the candy. I want to marvel at old structures and be immersed in history and culture instead of just read about it. I want to experience those moments of intrigue and elation.
And so I do, over and over again.
I have London to thank for that.