How to Leave Study Abroad in Fewer Than 24 Hours

I had fewer than 24 hours to leave England.

At 3:00 PM I got a call from the director of my program at the University of Vermont.  I was studying abroad at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England.  We had previously booked a plane ticket for early April.  I wasn’t expecting this call:

“Hi Shanti.  I spoke with the travel agent, and you either leave tomorrow morning from Heathrow at 8:00 AM or you stay for an indefinite period of time.  I know this is a bit of a shock, but do you think you’ll take the flight?”

Unwilling tears threatened to fall, but I wasn’t sad; only frightened.

“Um, may I have twenty minutes to call my mom and tell her?  I think I’ll be taking the flight.”

I called my mom and breathlessly told her that I would be leaving in a few minutes.  She tried to offer some words of comfort, but I was too stunned to appreciate them.  In an attempt to calm myself down with humor, I remember thinking, All your years of anxiety have prepared you for this moment.

Total packing time took less than an hour.  Six months-worth of pictures, tapestries and jammy dodgers were thrown into suitcases.  Toiletries were disposed of to save room, and I didn’t even mourn the loss of a full bottle of Not Your Mother’s dry shampoo.  In less than an hour, I was sitting on the stripped bed, the horrible bedsprings cutting into my back, arranging a coach to Victoria Station.  A couple hours after that, following the most unceremonious of goodbyes to some of the closest friends I will likely ever make,  I rode a final coach into London to catch my flight to the United States. 

The coach took me to London Victoria and from there I minded my last gap on a tube ride to Farringdon Station.  Unfortunately, I had met a very lovely boy, and he was kind enough to let me pass the several hours before my flight with him.  I lugged two fifty-pound bags, a duffel, and my backpack up to his apartment.  He was a 23 year-old from Delhi, India.  He worked at Bloomberg as a software engineer and he was every girl’s dream: classy, hot, independent and just so kind.  He liked gin and tonics and FIFA.  On our second date, we had made plans to tour the National Gallery, but we had accidentally stayed inside too long, sipping cocktails and talking. 

We spent those fleeting, culminating hours on his balcony, sharing a gin and tonic and my only cigarette ever as if to say an utterly British “Screw you!” to the coronavirus.  I inhaled the menthol, trying to internalise the scent of London and this impossible boy.  It’s a strange memory--remembering myself forcibly trying to remember the smell of the streets. 

I left him at 4:00 AM with a kiss and a promise, my heart heavier than the combined weight of my checked bags.  The cab driver spoke to me of Trump and his homeland of Ukraine, how he met his wife in London even though they lived less than two miles away from each other back in Ukraine.  He spoke of how proud he was of his sons, and how the schools were going to switch to online classes.  I engaged with him halfheartedly as I drank in the sights of a Buckingham Palace with no tourists and a Tiger Tiger nightclub with no dancers.  For that naked moment, I felt like the only person in London--it was mine. 

The descent into New York City was the first time I allowed myself to cry, because that’s when I knew I was really gone.  I was supposed to have six months, but poor containment strategies and government-withheld information kept that opportunity from me.  I had worked hard to obtain my scholarship, and although it’s tempting to see that work as futile, I refuse; I miss my new friends every day, and every day I’m grateful for the luxury of that loss. 

On colder nights from the fire escape in Sutton Place, I think I can smell menthol cigarettes and something undeniably old; an indelible final gift from England. 

 

Shanti Boyle

 

 

Edited by Emma McGeorge