As my head swirled and my stomach roiled, I weakly thought of the beef lasagna I had ordered at the student social hub. In fact, it was probably the two-week-old deli meat I’d idiotically consumed before my flight that had laid me up, but the culprit was immaterial: it was only my second of three days in England, and here I was, after having frantically raced to the bathroom, aggressively puking into my friend’s toilet. This was my first trip abroad.
As I child, I’d been to Tijuana with my family, so technically I had visited a foreign country before, but everyone knows TJ doesn’t count. My first international flight occurred in February of 2016, seven hours from JFK to Manchester Airport in England. Waiting for me was Sophie, the theater director I’d met in New York City.
As discussed previously, in the months following the end of 10 Cities/10 Years, I had sunk into purposeless gloom with the dawning realization that there was no next step for me, nothing I really wanted to do now. Having finally reached New York City, the culmination of decades of yearning, the routine had begun to crush me. Something had to change.
While she studied in England, Sophie and I maintained sporadic communication. In addition to her studies at the University of York, she was a tutor (the equivalent of a hall advisor), as well as directing or otherwise assisting on a variety of theater productions around the city of York. Despite her hectic schedule, she suggested that she could carve out free time during an upcoming weekend. My tickets were bought within the week.
Since Sophie couldn’t completely abandon her responsibilities, we planned to spend Friday together in York, and then I’d get up early on Saturday to take the train to London on my own. I’d have a day to explore by myself before returning to York for one final day in England. A weekend trip hardly allows for an extensive exploration of a major metropolis, let alone a whole country, but I needed to travel. I craved that fresh hit.
I flew the red-eye from New York to Manchester and arrived on only a few hours of sleep. Presuming jetlag, we scheduled a brief nap for my arrival at the University of York dorms. Once rested, Sophie showed me the campus and introduced me to friends and fellow students.
For dinner, we strolled over to the on-campus student hangout, the Glasshouse, where I consumed the suspect beef lasagna. Following the meal, Sophie was responsible for hosting a movie night for the undergrad residents. A smattering of students arrived for the excellent and unnerving horror flick, It Follows, one of many films Sophie and I had watched together when her freshly broken leg had limited our activity options.
I’ll admit, it wasn’t a particularly adventurous day as far as first international trips go. Other than the accents, it might have been almost any college campus in the United States. I could have chosen a more notable excursion, but while I’d booked the trip in part to pop my European cherry, mostly I just needed a reminder of happier times, to feel less isolated. Simply: to feel better.
Saturday morning, I had barely achieved consciousness when I found my face inside a toilet. I felt like death.
I’d never had food poisoning in my life. It’d been years since I’d last thrown up, and even then, it’d been alcohol related, a relatively minor gastronomical event in comparison to what woke me on that English morn. Things exited my body that hadn’t been seen since the Dark Ages. Fifteen hundred miles away, citizens of Pompeii were suddenly struck by PTSD. David Cronenberg called to obtain the rights to make a body horror movie about my morning.
When I finally felt strong enough to drag myself back to bed, it was painfully – excruciatingly – clear that my day in London had also been flushed down the toilet. Merely rolling onto my side took more effort than I had ever exerted in a gym. There would be no Big Ben, no strolling along the Thames, no visits to Abbey Road or bumping into Thom Yorke at the pub (it’s my fantasy!).
It would have served no purpose for Sophie to stay, so while she was at her theater gigs, I slept through the rest of the morning as best I could. By the afternoon, I was starving and bored of half watching TV shows, so even though my stomach still felt like a churning witch’s caldron, I forced myself out of bed to search campus for something bland to eat. I only intended it to be an hour; it turned into a three-hour journey off campus and into York proper.
Even struck with food poisoning, I couldn’t ignore the urging in my head that’s always telling me “Just go another couple blocks, there’ll be something better a little further up.” By the time I settled on a bakery for a sandwich and a Sprite to calm my gut, I had walked more than a mile from Sophie’s dorm and was feeling on the verge of another eruption. Unwilling to risk riding in a moving vehicle, I walked back through the campus and to the dorm to collapse in the bed. The rest of the night was spent watching British Netflix.
By Sunday morning, I’d recovered enough to walk about York (I was also feeling restless). Sophie gave me the tour, with a visit to York Minster and a walk along the fragmented wall that surrounds the city. An attempt to eat lunch was only partially successful, and by the evening when we tried to enjoy once last pub drink together, my body was having nothing more of it. We called it an early night. My flight back to the States departed first thing in the morning.
I felt defeated. I was pissed off – angry at my body for failing me, angry at myself for having been my own poisoner – but even more so, achingly disappointed to have missed out on seeing London. It was bad enough that my lunch meat frugalness had ruined the visit with Sophie, but my first trip abroad had been an utter disaster. Some traveler I turned out to be. The embarrassment was overwhelming.
I returned home and didn’t bother to post any pictures from the trip or even mention it. I pretended it hadn’t happened.
Then came the salt for my wound: Just as I was settling back into my New York life, my body attacked itself again, this time with agonizing pain shooting through my shoulder and neck like a rod being shoved between the bones. Sitting in an office chair was constant torture.
I bore the pain for a few days until one morning at two, I woke up unable to move. Staring up at my dark ceiling, I considered my options: Either lie still in bed until morning and hope the pain subsided or force myself out of bed to visit the emergency room. I hate hospitals, but with piercing pain rippling through me with every breath, I relented.
The pain was so intense that I couldn’t bend over to put on pants or my shoes. Frozen upright, I used my legs to shimmy a pair of gym pants on and then slid on sandals to walk out in the late winter night. Every movement brought tears to my eyes. Like a jointless doll, I dropped down four flights of stairs and tossed myself into the backseat of a taxi.
At the nearest emergency room, I waited for maybe half an hour with a collection of almost certainly homeless care seekers. Once I was called back to the impersonal, open examination room, I spent another two hours waiting for a doctor to see me while a chatty patient yammered cheerfully next to me.
When the doctor finally did arrive, I received a cursory examination and a muscle relaxant. After more than three hours at the ER, I walked back out into the night with a prescription and slightly reduced pain.
In the weeks leading up to my trip to England, my depression had completely abated for the first time in half a year, so invigorating was the prospect of exploring a new country (and, of course, seeing Sophie again). Now in the wake of my truncated trip, though, and as intense physical pain continued to limit my mobility, I crashed back into misery.
Making matters worse, it was clear that my back pain resulted from the transatlantic flight on which, due to my lingering food poisoning, I never quite found a comfortable seating position. Here I was fashioning myself as a traveler and I couldn’t even manage a seven-hour flight. Would flying no longer be an option for me?
It took a couple weeks, but my body healed. I bounced back, physically, but more importantly, mentally. As so often happens with my depression, I hit rock bottom and realized I had to do something, anything. I decided I had to return to Europe and, this time, do it right. In researching cheap travel options, I stumbled upon Pueblo Ingles in Spain which wound up playing a critical role in my decision to try my hand at being an international English teacher.
My second trip to Europe was far more successful.
So much of traveling, so much of my life in general, is debilitating disappointment followed by a stubborn resolve to try something new so as to no longer feel like such a piece of shit. I wish I had a non-depression-based instigator for my life choices, but we work with what we get.
More than a year on from that abortive first visit to England, I’ve come to appreciate that though I failed to achieve my first London experience, I’m still fortunate to have seen a history-rich portion of England that many casual travelers will never visit.
York’s history dates back to the first century AD and in addition to the impressively ornate York Minster and the border wall, it’s home to the Shambles, a medieval roadway and former butcher market that’s one of the narrowest streets on the continent (the phrase “in shambles” derives from “shambles” being open-air meat markets with little concern for hygiene). York’s a city of substantial charm and cultural significance, a worthy detour.
And yet, missing out on the opportunity to see London has been a lingering regret ever since. Which is why, when booking tickets to Madrid, I was pleasantly surprised to find an excellent deal for a flight with a 24-hour layover in London. Adding icing to the cake, it just so happens Sophie now lives in London, so she’ll be there to give me the local’s tour. We’ll call this, Take Two.
Traveling is a constant process of wrong turns and disappointments, but those are hopefully balanced out with the happy accidents, chance discoveries, and profound relationships that turn frustration into success.
I have no illusions about what comes next; there will be struggles. Whatever travails lay ahead in the next few months – financial troubles, language barriers, illnesses – at least I’ll be traveling again. That’s all the certainty I’ve ever needed. My best living comes when I’m free to seek out new roads. And also, when I don’t eat expired deli meat.