Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Flying Solo: Traveling to London Alone (Life Changing Moments Series)

Jane Friedman kicked us off with the Life Changing Moments series of posts last week by talking about how community made an impact on her life. How interesting that my friend and fellow poet Collin Kelley decided to write about his experience traveling solo for the first time abroad, and--as you'll see in his story--it's amazing how the world communicates with us even when we're trying to be alone and anonymous. Collin is the author of the novels Remain In Light and Conquering Venus, as well as the poetry collections Better to Travel, After the Poison and Slow to Burn. A new collection, Render, is forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press in 2013. For more information on Collin, check out

Friend, poet and novelist Collin Kelley.

Many people don’t like to travel alone, especially to foreign countries, but in 2000 I decided that I was going to take a giant leap of faith and fly solo for the first time. And since I really wanted to challenge myself, I decided London would be my destination.

I had been to London a half-dozen times before 2000, but had always managed to drag along a friend or three to experience my favorite place in the world. In 2000, I had run out of friends to take, so I decided to go on my own. I had just turned 30 and decided that taking a trip with myself was another signifier that I was indeed "grown up."

My mother – fed on a steady diet of Americans lost in foreign lands stories – was nervous about my journey. I didn't have a cell phone at the time, so my contact back to America would be through the landline in my hotel room or the various payphones (remember those?) around the city. My mother asked: What if you get mugged? What if you get sick? What if you run out of money?

Luckily, none of those things happened, but traveling to London alone was a life changing moment for me. Since I'd been there before, I had already seen all the tourist hotspots, so I was free to explore smaller museums, go to movies, see shows and wander the old bookstores on Charing Cross Road. There was no companion watching the clock or urging me to move on to the next destination. I felt untethered and more than a little euphoric.

I had a weird sense that I dropped off the map a little bit, too. London is a big, loud city and it's easy to be anonymous there. I tried to dress like the locals – casual, but stylish – and I purposely did not bring a camera on the trip. There are no photos of me in London that year, so the trip remains a private memory that I cherish.

I should also add that I was in the process of getting over someone I had fallen madly in love with who did not return the sentiment. Going to London solo was a way for me to heal, collect my thoughts and move on with my life. I was in the process of writing my first novel, Conquering Venus, and it had taken a backseat while I worked out my love life.

On my last day in the capital, I was coming out of a cinema in Leicester Square after seeing the adaptation of Proust's Time Regained starring Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich. An old woman wearing a long coat, her face a relief map of crevices and veins with frizzy hair tied under scarf, rushed up to me and pressed a small bundle of flowers – weeds, really – into my hand. "You did the right thing, my darling," she said. "You got away from him."

I was so taken aback by these words that I could only nod at the old woman and press a pound coin into her hand. Only later, as I sat on the steps of the famed Eros statute in Piccadilly Circus looking up at the dazzling lights of all the billboards and signs, did the tears come. Not of sadness, but of gratitude for this beautiful city. While I was feeling anonymous, London was fully aware of my presence and sending me messages through a strange old woman carrying a bundle of weeds.

Since then, I've traveled across America and Europe on my own more times than I can count, and I never feel afraid or nervous. I have great friends in London now, and while I might be flying solo, there are always welcoming arms on the other side of the pond. And London itself, ready to embrace me once again.


If you think you have a great life changing moment to share, click here to learn how to get the conversation started. I'm sure if you think it's important, I may too.


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See how the Not Bob blog is getting a little more personal in 2012:


Dave said...

Wow. Great story! True clairvoyance is a rare and beautiful thing.

London has had a life-changing effect on me, too, but I'm not ready to tell that story quite yet.

Pam said...

Amazing. And yet totally believable. England has worked its magic on me as well. I really like this series, Robert.

Ivy said...

Love this, Collin, especially the old woman telling you that you did the right thing. It gave me a little thrill-shiver to read that. :-)

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Between Collin's openness and your secrecy, Dave, my interest in London has only increased.

Pam, I'm loving this series too. I've already received the next 4 or so guest posts, and they are all wonderful.

I wasn't sure what I felt when I read the part about the old woman telling Collin he did the right thing, Ivy, until you said it: "Little thrill-shiver."

Rosemary Nissen-Wade said...

What a great experience! I think the best bit of all was that she addressed you as 'my darling'.

I was in my sixties when I first flew solo (the trip on whichI met you, Collin). Of course I had people waiting for me when I arrived, but it was a long journey there, and involved changing planes a few times. It was wonderful - the sense of freedom and aventure. :)

Ivy said...

Recognise! :-D