I stand at the crosswalk as lights flash and cars whiz by the wrong way and wonder when, or if, I will be able to cross the street. It is early afternoon on my first day in London, on my first trip outside the United States. Jet-lagged after an overnight flight I struggle to make sense of my surroundings, overwhelmed by new sights and sounds.
Looking down, I notice “Look Right” stenciled on the street with an arrow pointing that way. I am grateful for the reminder, thinking it is there to remind confused tourists that cars travel the opposite way in Britain. Later, seeing “Look Left” on another street, I understand that because of London’s many one-way streets, it is for locals as well.
I try to blend in with the locals, but my body and brain seem to move in slow motion. I hope I don’t appear the overwhelmed tourist that I am. Months spent studying street maps and tourist guides did not prepare me for the reality. While I recognize landmarks and street names, the images I created in my mind do not match the masses of people, cars, and buses hustling through the city.
I finally cross the street when a crowd of other people does, hoping there is safety in numbers. The best way to adjust to time change when traveling east, I’ve read, is to stay up all day, then go to bed early that night. So to stay awake I amble through London, seeing a few sights and trying to learn my way around. By mid-afternoon, I can no longer manage it and trudge back to my hotel. Climbing the narrow flight of stairs to my small, clean room, I lay down and surrender to exhaustion.
A couple of hours later I wake up. Though still tired, the jet-lag fog is beginning to clear from my brain so I set out to walk the neighborhood around my hotel and find something to eat. Passing an Indian restaurant, I stop and read the menu posted in the window, happy to discover many familiar selections. Opening the door, the spicy aromas fill my nose and send a rumble through my stomach. After filling up on delicious curry and naan, I return to my hotel room for a good night’s sleep.
The next morning I awaken feeling more like myself. While the view out my window isn’t what I am used to, it is no longer strange and overwhelming. Just as I am getting accustomed to London, it is time to leave. I head to the train station for two weeks on the continent.
Each country I visit presents another first day, with a new city to navigate, a new language to muddle through, and, since this is before the Euro, a new currency to sort out. Already, I have changed, understanding that each place will be different, both from where I’ve been and from the expectations I bring with me. I adapt quicker and find I blend in as long as I don’t attempt to speak the language. Evenings I take a stroll or sit in the park watching people go by, enjoying a slower end to my days.
Returning to London, I am surprised how familiar it feels. Not only do I speak the language, I also know the currency, can navigate the Tube to get from the train station to my hotel and find that traffic coming from the opposite direction no longer fazes me. For the first time since I left the United States, I am in a place I have been before.
A week later I board a train for the north, to begin a year living in East Yorkshire. The year will have many firsts: the first time seeing the house that would be my home, the first time driving a car with the steering wheel on the right-hand side, the first time finding bottles of milk by my front door, and lighting my first coal fire. Nothing, though, will come close to the first day.