Here Comes Goodbye – An Emotional Farewell to London

Here I am. Heathrow Airport. Waiting…I just cannot believe this day has come already. It seems like an eternity ago that I was counting down the days until I was flying out of LAX. Somehow it also feels like yesterday.

I am so incredibly lucky to have been able to do this. The adventure of a lifetime. People say that the best thing they ever did in college was study abroad, and others say that their biggest regret was not doing it. I can attest to the former wholeheartedly, and I am happy that I decided to not end up like the latter. So I am telling you this: if you have the chance, DO IT. It is completely worth the time and the money. The memories you make will be priceless—like that MasterCard commercial.

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Of course, not every minute is going to be exciting, but it’s not supposed to be. Yes, I chose to stay in and watch a movie or read some days. I always went for walks in the adorable park across from my building. I did not board public transit at all on occasion. Do I regret those days? Nope. Because there were others where I just hopped on the tube and a few stops later was standing in front of Buckingham Palace or Big Ben. Or I wandered around a museum for hours, taking in tidbits of history that I probably wouldn’t remember in a day or two.

My last few days were filled with laughter and good friends. And the 1975. Hopping from pub to pub, ordering two-for-ones for myself, and trying not to think about the fact that I was leaving in a matter of days. When I could narrow it down to number of hours, I could barely hold it together.

On Thursday, Jaci and I went to the 1975 concert at the O2, and it was one of the best nights—and very different from other concerts I have been to. Jaci had bought the tickets so long ago that when the day finally came, it almost caught me off guard. Surprise, you’re going to see a concert! And it was one of the most fun ones I have gone to. The jams were fabulous (obviously), the company was sweet, and the line for merch was non-existent. It was the perfect last adventure in London, and I got to do it with one of my favorite people.

The next two days were low-key as ever. Becca had left with her sister to meet their family in Amsterdam, so my roomie was gone. A sad goodbye, for sure, but I am glad I will see her back at Cal Poly. I was left with Ben, Ryan, and Jaci, but no complaints about that. We just got dinner on Friday. Then on Saturday, Ben and I wandered through Regents Park and walked up Primrose Hill. It was very foggy, so I couldn’t see more than twenty feet in front of us (therefore missing out on the great view that is usually there), but it was still a nice time. Practice for the hills of Cal Poly and good chats with Ben. We met Ryan and Jaci on Oxford Street for lunch, and I did some last-minute Christmas shopping. Going to the Shard was on our to do list until we realized the fog was not letting up; instead, we just wandered around our city one last time. We got drinks at a little pub, and then parted ways.

Saying goodbye to Jaci was not easy, and all the emotion I had pushed down about leaving seeped out. My goodbyes to Ryan and Ben (and Becca) were less emotional because I know I’ll see them again so soon. Jaci is planning on visiting, but it won’t be for another few months. So I was left failing to hold in tears on the tube. A full on sob fest ensued as soon as I was home. And to be honest, another one might occur momentarily in the middle of the airport.

I have learned so many things in this city, this country, and this continent. I have grown up in ways I didn’t know I could. I am strong and independent and happy. If you had told me ten years ago that I would feel this kind of bliss (yes, bliss) and have done all these crazy things, I would have said, “Honey, I’m not even going to see my eighteenth birthday, so you are certifiably insane.” And yet, here I am…

People are going to ask me so many questions when I get back: what my favorite part was, what I did and didn’t like, what my favorite city was, what the weirdest thing I saw was, did I have fun (a personal favorite), and so on. And I will answer all these questions the best I can, and maybe my answers will change from day to day. But to combat some of these, I have complied a list of a few things I learned in my time here.

Things I Learned Abroad

New places can be scary—but it’s the good kind.

Honestly, being in a whole new city where you know zero people is not easy, and no matter how confident I was in myself and my living-on-my-own capabilities, I was still terrified. What if I didn’t have fun? What if I hated it? What if the people were weird? So many questions and not many answers. But you just have to take that leap of faith and make the best of every situation. The unknown can turn out to be a fantastic place. I mean, you could get stranded in a foreign country and have no place to live, and it could still turn out to be your favorite destination (looking at you, Amsterdam).

You’re going to get lost.

Especially if you don’t have data and cannot map yourself home. In the rain. And you don’t recognize where you are. Even if you do know where you are and you do have data, it is still completely possible to get lost. It’s not always a bad thing, though. You could stumble upon something great.

Go everywhere that you can.

It sounds pretty self-explanatory, but it is true. Go everywhere. I didn’t plan on going to Amsterdam, but I did it, and I loved it. Dublin was on my list from the beginning, and so was Scotland. I wanted to visit Mads in Copenhagen, but I wasn’t sure if it would happen. Lucky for me, it did. Of course, I did not get to go to Iceland with my friends, or Paris or Vienna or Milan, but it is an excise to come back. I used my time wisely, but that didn’t mean I had enough of it (or money). But go on as many adventures as you possibly can, even if they are short train rides to a city nearby. When else can you say you took an absolutely spontaneous trip to Sweden?

It’s worth it to keep all the weird trinkets you acquire: ticket stubs, business cards, punch cards, etc.

So you can put them in your journal or in a scrapbook or on your wall. Even keep them in a box. But when you look at them, you will be reminded of the good times you had. You may never need a punch card to a tiny tea shop in Brighton, but you will always remember the Panda-licious Licorice tea you drank there.

Anxiety is going to try and get to you—and you will let it.

Okay, so maybe this doesn’t happen to everyone, but it sure caught me off-guard sometimes. Some days, all I could do was stay inside and ignore the world around me—I couldn’t unleash the beast in front of the world. Yes, Copenhagen was rough, and I haven’t seen myself like that in a while. That night was not easy, and I hate that I let myself fall that far that fast. It was bound to happen, though, and sometimes you can’t fight it. So if you have anxiety, it is okay to let it get to you, just don’t let it control you. You are better than it.

You will always need a deck of cards.

Just trust me on this.

It’s okay if you make friends from your home university because it will still expand your horizons.

Becca, Ben, Ryan, Luke, Stan, Izzy. All people in my program that also go to Cal Poly. How many of them did I know before? Zero. We all run in different circles, so our paths never crossed, but somehow we ended up here together. And somehow, a few of them are my best friends. I will be forever grateful for squad (Jaci, Kevin, and Mackenzie included, of course). And even though all of these people are from America (and California, for the most part), I don’t feel that I have missed out on any experiences at all.

Call your family.

I did not do this much (call it my extreme lack of homesickness). Becca did much more than I did. And Jaci called and Snapchatted her mom all the time. Ryan’s family came and visited. I should have called my family more often. There is nothing I can do about that now, but I cannot stress enough that if you ever feel homesick, one phone call can make a world of difference.

Smile at every dog you see.

This one doesn’t sound important, but it is.


Honestly, I am still reeling from the last three months. I am listening to carolers in the airport and seeing people waiting to catch their flights to who-knows-where, and I still cannot believe I did all this. I feel like I will wake up from my nap on the plane (which I am praying will actually happen) and it will December of last year, when studying abroad was just a romantic thought planted in my mind.

Just over an hour until my flight home…by the time you see this I will be on a plane—or I will be home in Los Angeles! That is a wild thought…

Nope, I am not crying in the middle of Heathrow. No, no, no. There is just something in my eye. I am extremely sad to be leaving this wonderful city I have called home for three months. All the memories and friends I have made will stay with me forever, and no experience will be quite like this one. I am wildly lucky and blessed to have been able to do this.

To the people I have spent far too much time with:

Becca, thank you for putting up with living with me all this time. You are wonderful and I love you.

Jaci, you are a gem in my life and an incredible human. Love you mucho, my dear.

Ryan, thank you for always keeping me laughing and for being an absolute champ in Amsterdam.

Ben, my favorite conversations were with you and I am so happy you came into my life.

And major shout out to Amy for continuing to be my favorite adventuring buddy. You’re a fav, forever.

And wow, if keep writing and thinking about this I am going to be sobbing and people will start staring. I am going to miss London and all the memories I have made. I am a whole new person because of this city.

Too much love (and tears), Ash ❤

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Hopeless Wanderer – Thoughts About Leaving & a Long-Awaited Recap

So things have been a little quiet lately. I wish I could say it is because I have been focusing on my studies, but let’s be real, that would be a lie. Of course, I have been writing a paper here and there, and I did have a presentation this week, but I cannot say I have been feeling the stress of my friends back at Cal Poly, who have been spending days on end at the library and pulling all-nighters to cram. Google searching “How to get a Sugar Daddy” is done in much less jest than midterm season. Isn’t the American education system just fantastic?

Okay, okay, I am mostly kidding. Yes, we get that stressed, but we kind of do it to ourselves. But do we change our ways the following quarter? Not a chance. But I digress…

I officially have less than two weeks left in this absolutely wonderful city I have fallen madly in love with, and every moment I think about my flight home is a moment I feel like crying. That sounds rather dramatic, but I can’t imagine going back to the States. There is still far too much I want to do here.

“It’s an excuse to come back,” I keep telling myself. And I will come back, it’s just a matter of when.

But I will stop being so sad about leaving for a few minutes and give you a recap of my last two trips: Scotland with Chelsea and Ireland with Amy. And wow, are these two places absolutely magical. I know, I know, I have said that about every place I have been, but there is no way that the Scottish highlands and the Cliffs of Moher are real. No way. I was there and took pictures, and I still don’t believe it. Maybe if I tell you about it I can I convince myself that I didn’t dream any of this up.

Chelsea’s Visit and Scotland

On Thanksgiving, I did not get a nice Turkey Day meal, which was not the business. I missed my dad’s famous bread rolls and my mom’s pecan pie. Thanksgiving has been a touchy holiday for me the last few years, but it is a reminder of how far I have come since my ED days (which sometimes feel a lot closer than they are). I felt extra thankful for the fabulous people in my life and the friends I have made here, and I remembered that even though I was not getting a full holiday meal to give me a food baby named Joe, I was still going to mentally celebrate. So Becca and I did the classic British activity we have been talking about for two months: Afternoon Tea! It was definitely a good substitute for a Thanksgiving meal: savory brioche rolls, sweet brownies and blondies, and to-die-for cupcakes—and, of course, tea. Becca got a sweet vanilla one, and I ordered a holiday-esque apple and cinnamon one, then we shared. It was the perfect amount of food to make up happy—and maybe a little too happy, since when we walked into a Christmas market in front of the Tate Modern, the sweet smell of waffles and donuts and crepes was sickening.

Worth it? Duh.

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When we got home, it was just a matter of waiting for Chelsea to arrive from the airport. She had no real way to get a hold of me, so it was a game of walking into the lobby to see if a girl with luggage was waiting outside the gate. Luckily, when I decided to just wait on a couch in the common room with my Kindle, there she was! Perfect. We got Nando’s for dinner (a real treat, am I right?), and then that was that. The next day, I had class, and Chelsea took the Big Red Bus Tour to see the city. After my class, we shopped a little on Oxford Street and got dinner. The Christmas lights, as always, were gorgeous, and it really put me into the holiday spirit. I got to Skype with Stacey when we got home, and I stayed up way too late talking to her. And by too late I mean that I only got two hours of sleep. And Chelsea only got thirty minutes. We had to be up very early to get to Gatwick for our flight.

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As tired as I was, it was worth it when we got there. The first thing we did was see the Elephant House, which is where JK Rowling came up with Harry Potter. It was crowded so we didn’t go inside or anything, but seeing it in person was kind of enough. I knew it was real. We walked around more, seeing a castle and the Royal Mile. There was a Christmas market (always my favorite thing) in front of the National Gallery, so we checked that out. Now, I get overly excited about Christmas markets, but when I spotted a poster outside the museum saying that The Goldfinch was on display inside, my heart leaped. Saying I loved the book of the same name by Donna Tartt is an understatement. Getting to see the real painting that inspired such a masterpiece? Sign me the heck up! I just stood there in front of the little painting and just admired it. I was so in love, and I’m sure Chelsea was not about taking various pictures of me in front of it. She was exhausted—almost falling asleep standing up! So we got some coffee and a snack at Starbucks and hit up the Jolly Botanist for some gin and tonics. We were in bed by seven o’clock and totally happy about it, since we would have an early morning and a jam-packed day of sightseeing.

It was pretty dark still when we set off for our tour of castles, lochs, and highlands. I was still exhausted and a little bit cranky, but I was ready to be wowed by the scenery of Scotland. Our tour was led by a guy named Aaron, and I was surprised to walk into a large van rather than a big bus. It was a happy surprise, and I liked the idea of traveling with a smaller group. When Aaron introduced himself, he went on to talk to each person onboard individually, which made the experience much more personal.

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He took us to two more castles than were on the list, which was very cool. I love castles! The first was one featured in a show called Outlander, which Chelsea is a fan of. It was right on the river and was absolutely gorgeous. I could already tell my serious lack of sleep would be worth it. The second stop was in Stirling, which was where Tori, Kristin, and I were planning on studying abroad—that talk seems like a million years ago—and where Stephanie spent her summer. Coincidentally, she texted me saying she missed me. I happily sent her a picture of the castle, saying I missed her a lot, as well.

Our next stop was Doune Castle, which was used in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Outlander. We walked around the inside of the castle, learning about what the rooms had been used for when it was inhabited, as well as facts about the filming of Monty Python. Boy, was the medieval bathroom situation a drag.

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After the castle and a short food stop, we were off the highlands! I wish I could describe how beautiful it was. Rolling hills, smooth as glass lochs, tall and luscious trees. Utterly and completely gorgeous. It felt like I was looking at something out of a fairy tale—something Walt Disney had dreamed up and made into a princess movie.

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My favorite stop was probably Kilchurn Castle and Loch Awe. It was more or less a stop on the side of the road, and I had to walk over some slippery grass to get even close to it. I jokingly asked who was going to fall first. As soon as I said it, I knew I would be that unfortunate soul—and what do you know, I was! I slipped right in front of the loch. My left butt cheek was grassy and wet, but it got a laugh. That’s what really matters, right? And honestly, I was just far too excited to see the castle. It was in the middle of the loch, so we couldn’t get too close, but the water was so smooth and beautiful—they don’t call it Loch Awe for nothing! I swear, my pictures are real, even if I don’t quite believe it myself.

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The whole trip was wonderful, and it made me so incredibly happy. Just add it to the list of things I am completely grateful for in this world. And then add Ireland because that place is just as, if nor more, magical than Scotland.

Ireland

My favorite adventuring buddy in SLO is Amy, so there was no one I would rather have gone on this trip to Dublin with. Dublin was the number one location on my list of places to travel while abroad—and I am glad it was my last.

Our plane left early. As in our flight left at 6:30 am so I had to be up at 3:00 in the morning early. The plane ride was more or less fine. I hate flying and I tried to sleep through it to little success. We were checking into our Airbnb (which existed, thankfully!) at 9:30, so we had some time to kill before taking the half hour bus ride into the city. Naturally, we got coffee and sat down to watch cute family reunions. An adorable pair of twins was waiting with their mom, and I nearly cried when their dad walked through the doors. They rushed up to hug him, and he said he didn’t know they were coming. Then they took turns climbing on his luggage cart until it was time to go, which is when the dad made it so they could both ride simultaneously and pushed them away. It was precious.

Finally, it was time to find our home for the next two days. We met our host, a cute and kind woman who was very welcoming. We dropped our things and took a breather before setting out for coffee. Amy and I found a fun bakery nearby and got drinks and a snack, then it was off to the Guinness Storehouse for our tour at noon.

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The storehouse was beautifully done, and it felt sort of elite. There was a fancy waterfall and a big sculpture of barrels (which doesn’t sound cool, but it was). And the building was shaped like a pint glass, which was fun. Then we got to the taste test, and I felt super classy sipping from the tiny pint glass.

Now, I hate beer. I drank the Heineken in Amsterdam because I was determined. It was very hard to drink the whole thing, but dammit I was going to do it! Guinness is a dark beer, like the one I drank at Harry Potter World on my birthday, so I just assumed I was going to hate it just as much. So when I took the first sip during the taste test, I was shocked. I…I…liked it. Appalling, I know. Nobody is more surprised at that than I am. So when we got to pour our own pints (to which I got a certificate—very official), I was eager to drink it: the real test of whether or not I actually liked this beer. I don’t know how I expected this “test” to go, but I definitely enjoyed drinking the full-sized glass. Not only did I enjoy it, but I also got to drink it in the storehouse’s Gravity Bar. The top floor of the building with a three-hundred-sixty degree view of Dublin. Absolutely gorgeous. Of course, it was crowded so it was kind of hard to find a perfect view, but we managed to squeeze through some tall people right to the window. Worth it!

More worth it, I got five postcards and a pair of boxers for myself. It felt weird to buy the boxers because they were definitely for men, but I can’t wait to sleep in them. They are soft and say Guinness all over them. Extra classy, am I right?

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We exhausted our time at the storehouse and ended up walking towards Temple Bar, which is the bustling part of the city center and where Trinity College is. Yes, the Trinity College, home of the flawless library I have saved to my Pinterest about a thousand times. The library I have been dreaming about forever. I know, I am such a book nerd. So I had zero regrets paying nine euros to see breeze over the Book of Kells exhibit and go straight to the beautiful room. High, arched ceilings, dusty bookshelves, marble busts of famous writers and philosophers, rolling ladders…remember what I said about the highlands being out of a Disney fairy tale? That is what this library was like. I could have stayed in their forever.

Unfortunately, it was getting late, and we were hungry. Nando’s was calling our names, and we were ready to answer. So we wandered and then ate and then wandered some more. We stopped at Ladurée for macaroons (salted caramel, rose petal, and chocolate hazelnut), and I felt even classier than at the Guinness Storehouse. The city was popping: pubs were crowded, streets were filled, people were happy. It all had such good energy—kind of like how I feel in London, just on a bit smaller of a scale.

Back at our Airbnb, we decided to watch Shrek and eat our macaroons. We only got about twenty minutes into the movie before getting tired and deciding to sleep. We had a big day ahead tomorrow, and with the major lack of sleep we had gotten the night before, turning in by 9 pm was the best thing to for us. I mean, when we woke up early the next morning and it was still dark out, it felt like we had barely slept at all, but that was not going to stop our day of sightseeing.

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Amy and I successfully navigated our way to the tour’s meeting place—without getting a cab. Go us! This time, our bus was a big, green one, rather than the smaller van in Scotland, but we got on first and therefore picked the front seats. We were going to have a perfect view when the sun came up! Per small world cliche, two girls in my program were on our tour. What are the odds? Even weirder, three people from Amy’s program got on the bus as well. Seriously, who would have thought?

The mini road trip through Ireland made for the perfect Sunday. We made stops for coffee and to see a castle. We drove through the beautiful fantasy that was the Irish countryside. And since we were sitting right behind Val, our driver and tour guide (who was hilarious), he heard all of my sassy side-comments and announced them with laughter to the rest of the bus. Maybe I could be one of these tour guides…new career path? Possibly.

Our first major stop was the Baby Cliffs of Moher. Oh. My. God. Breathtaking! It was a fairly clear day so we could see a good distance over the ocean. And we could just see the real Cliff of Moher up the coast. It was so beautiful, and my heart was happy. The next stop was lunch, where I got a vegetable soup that warmed my black heart cold body.

On the road again, we saw more gorgeous rolling hills—can’t hold a candle to the view from Prefumo Canyon in SLO. So many sheep. So much green. All the beauty! And that was before we even got to the Cliffs.

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In regard to which direction to walk in first, Val advised us to follow the Beyonce song: to the left, to the left. So that’s what we did. I thought the Baby Cliffs were breathtaking, but these were a whole new level of spectacular! It truly felt like magic to be standing on the edge of the world. There’s nothing quite like looking at the Arctic Ocean over limestone that drops hundreds of feet straight down—don’t worry, clumsy me stood behind the low wall they had up, safe and sound. I still can’t quite believe it was all real, and that is how I have felt about a lot of things these last months. Standing on the Cliffs of Moher was like falling in love.

I really did love Dublin. I do love Dublin. I am so happy that I got to see the city and drive around the country. It was magnificent and lovely and wonderful. The city itself was cute and I felt pretty at home there, almost as much as London. It was best that I got to visit this place last because it was the perfect end to a race around Europe. Of course, there are plenty more cities I want to visit, but Dublin was on the bucket list. I would be more than happy to check it off again and again. And I am so lucky I got to go on my last adventure with Amy. We always have a great time!

I have nothing planned for my last two weeks abroad other than a little schoolwork and doing cliche London things with the squad. A few more visits to Winter Wonderland, a night at the Aqua Bar at the top of the Shard, wandering South Bank for Christmas Markets, more lunches at Camden Market…all fun things. And gift shopping for family and friends! Because who the heck knows what I am going to get people for Christmas this year.

With the stress of gift shopping and all the packing I don’t even want to think about, I keep reminding myself how thankful I am to have been able to have this experience. To have gone on this wild and crazy adventure, seeing the world (by world, I mean Europe) and making new friends (granted, most are from Cal Poly…). I will cherish these last ten days in my new favorite city because soon I will have to do this terrible thing called “returning to reality.” It sounds like a horror movie, if you ask me. But hey, at least I get to sleep in my own bed and eat In-n-Out again! Always pros to counteract the cons.

Love always, Ash

Lostmyhead – Having Anxiety Abroad

Since arriving in London, I have been living quite the dream: traveling from country to country, dropping into museums like it’s my job, and going out with my friends for cheap drinks and a good time. Oh yeah, and going to school. It has all been a lot of fun and games since September—until one Saturday night in Copenhagen.

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I was so excited to go on this adventure to Denmark. Copenhagen is beautiful, and I could not wait to see Mads. Ben, Ryan, Luke, and I flew out on Friday morning, and when we arrived in the city (though we could not check in to our hostel yet), we were not homeless! After checking in and waiting for Jaci and Becca to find the hostel (since they had taken a different flight), we met Maddie by City Hall. I haven’t been that excited to see someone in such a long time. I definitely let my friends fall behind so Mads and I could catch up—texting every other day could not live up to an in-person chat. She showed us a Christmas Market nearby, where we got some warm holiday drinks that put Starbucks to shame. A Gingerbread Latte is delicious, but Glogg tastes like Christmas. There is really no other way to describe it. After that, it was time for some street food, which meant going to an indoor farmer’s market-type place. I am not kidding when I say that fries deep-fried in duck fat are a thing. A good thing. Back at our hostel, we played cards games and got drunk—per the usual.

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The next day we did a little sightseeing: the view from the spire of the Parliament building was spectacular. You could see Sweden! Three-hundred-sixty degree view of the city, with Maddie pointing out all the important buildings and sights. Then came some coffee and a cool library, followed by a walk to the Little Mermaid statue in the harbor, which was nice to see but not too exciting. The lighting was perfect, though, so we got some good snaps.

Now, here is where things take a turn for the not-so-great. I did not want to get too drunk, since a whole bottle of wine Friday night may not have been the best choice, so I stuck with a bottle of Smirnoff Ice. Just one. We played Thumper, a fast-paced drinking game that involves a lot of clapping. I was out of my drink by that point, so the game gave me some anxiety—but not necessarily the bad kind. I kept losing, but it was okay. I was okay.

I don’t know when exactly the switch flipped, but the next thing I remember is laying my bed. My feet were freezing, and my back was hurting a lot. I was just watching my squad having fun, teasing each other, climbing from bed to bed (the bunk bed situation made for quite the jungle gym), and having a great time. It was almost hard to watch since I was so miserable. Nausea hit me, as well, and tears prickled my eyes. I had already decided that I didn’t really want to go out, but Becca and Jaci wanted me to rally.

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“If this song doesn’t get you to rally, then I know it’s over.” These are the words Becca said to me before she played a song by The Maine, my weakness. Well, it got me out of bed and ready to get the rest of my night going. I still was not at one hundred percent, but I was not about to let a little anxiety and some pain ruin my trip. No, sir. So I rallied and went out with my friends.

Only on the walk to the club, all my energy was gone, and I just wanted to go home. I felt like I was going to throw up—not just nausea, I could taste the bile and stomach acid. No part of me wanted to socialize with my too-drunk friends, so I walked alone in the cold, near tears. I wanted to snap at every little thing they said, regardless of what it was. I wanted to scream for it all to stop. So when we got to the club, I immediately was ready to turn around and go home. I thought I would go alone—it would have been ideal for the mood I was in—but Jaci, Ben, Becca, and Ryan all walked back home, too. No one had really wanted to go out in the first place.

So I walked alone again while my friends paired up behind me. I don’t know if I liked it or if I didn’t. I don’t know if I wanted my friends to talk to me or not. I was silent, but the screams were far too loud in my head. Ryan and Becca tried to link arms and skip with me. No part of me wanted to be there. My face and my hands and my feet were numb from the cold, and my mind was numb from the world. I could barely breathe, and I couldn’t stop the tears from falling.

This was bound to happen. You knew it. I knew it. We all knew it.

I haven’t had an anxiety attack in a while. I have had moments where I thought I might, but I have fought it off. I am so happy living here. Quite a few people have told me they have never seen me like this. They’re not wrong: I don’t know when I have ever felt this happy and this free. London has had such a strange and wonderful effect on me, and I am not saying this place is too good to be true, but my subconscious has been waiting for this ball to drop. Maybe my conscious was, too.

Saturday night was not a good one, but I don’t think that it happening was a bad thing. I would not call it a good thing, of course, but definitely not a bad thing. I haven’t had to deal with her in such a long time that I forgot what to do when she forced her way out. I was lost that night, and I did not like it. But it reminded me of everything I have fought to become the woman I am now.

I have been living such a fabulous life abroad that this anxiety brought me back to earth. It was a reality check, for sure. When I return to the States, things are going to be different—that is stating the obvious. I have been afraid of going back because my Good Day streak here outnumbers any streak I had going before. I am afraid of not having the freedom I have in this city. I am afraid that this is all a dream, and I am going to wake up and be ten years old, about to embark on a long and dark journey I don’t think I can live through again. And the days following my anxiety attack…well, I keep thinking I might have one again. No, I am not sitting here waiting for it, but the fear is there.

“I will be.”

That was my answer to the question, “Are you okay?” that night.

At that moment, I felt powerless and broken, unable to feel anything but the wind stinging my face. But I knew that I just had to wait it out, keep breathing and everything would be fine. I would be fine.

And the next day when we took a spontaneous trip to Sweden? I was a great.

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With about a month left, do I expect another anxiety attack? No, I don’t expect one, but it could happen. I am certainly not going to stop living my life and wait for it. I am done doing that. My life is in my hands, and I intend on doing great things.

So take that anxiety.

Amsterdam

First of all, shout out to Imagine Dragons for this song. Second of all, let me just tell you more about how magic is real.

This trip did not turn out how I expected it to at all, let me say that. I thought we would get there and have a place to live–and that was my first mistake. I thought I was really good at using public transit–that was my second mistake. My third mistake? My third mistake was thinking this would not be a life-changing weekend. Boy, was I in for surprise after surprise.

So picture Jaci, Ryan, and I going through security and customs in St. Pancras International, bantering about what the weekend would bring. Our place had a hot tub, according to Luke, but I unknowingly left my swimsuit back in the States. I could swing by an H&M (or any other clothing store, I guess) and buy one, easy, but how much would we really be back at our room? Amsterdam needed to be explored! But Luke could not get into contact with our host, but we would figure it out. There were four and a half hours before we would actually get to the Netherlands anyway. Luke could deal with it from class, and we would make do in the next time zone.

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And then we were in Amsterdam…still homeless. But we could make our way to the general area where our Airbnb was and get food. We could just camp out and wait. After buying a four-day public transit pass and getting help from a fabulous train station employee, we were off on the tram. Ryan had told us the name of our stop in very poor Dutch, but he pointed it out and was ready to get off at the right time. Jaci and I were ready, as well, only we didn’t follow Ryan out the entrance door and therefore were still on the tram when it took off for the next stop. Oops. There were exchanged glances of “Lost Boy,” “well, shit,” and “wait, what?” before Jaci and I calmed down and realized we could just get off at the next stop. Thankfully, that was right down the street. We just hoped Ryan knew to stay put until we found him, since he was the only one who had international data. Lucky us, he was right where he should be, and Jaci and I were laughing our butts off at our mix up. We didn’t quite have a place to live yet, but at least we were already having fun! Anything lighthearted to prepare us for the hell we were about to go through.

Together and in the general vicinity, we found a great little restaurant called Calf & Bloom–good club sandwiches and decent wifi–while Luke still tried to get ahold of our host and Airbnb’s customer service. A meal for each of us, a coffee for me, a tea for Jaci, and a second beer for Ryan later, we were still sitting in our circular booth. The restaurant’s atmosphere was calm, and I loved the flower centerpieces on every table, but I was ready to have a place to live. The three of us moved our camp to the Starbucks across the canal, and we did some more waiting.

Soon it was clear that our Airbnb was not going to happen tonight–probably ever. The only thing we could do was find a cheap hotel to crash in for the night, where we could drop our bags, have a bed, and continue trying to contact Airbnb. And shower. I always feel so grungy after a day of traveling , especially like the one this was turning out to be.

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After we did our waiting–twelve years of it! In Azkaban!!–we checked into our saving grace hotel: the Albus. How fitting, right? Since the room was not quite ready when we arrived (since we had booked it all of ten minutes beforehand), so we were treated to a voucher for free drinks. A beer for Ryan–shocker!–and rosé for Jaci and me. The best thing that had happened that day, hands down. The room was nice and the bed was comfy–even better once we “attached” the futon to create Super Bed. Four people (because Luke had arrived, eventually) could comfortably and easily fit, snuggling optional.

At two in the morning, we were finally on the phone with Airbnb, explaining our situation and asking for someone we had already spoken to–no point in teling our sob story to another person. We needed someone who could actually do something about it–not easy when the person on the other line was all the way in America.

“We will get you a place by tomorrow.”

Okay, that would sound great if it was not already tomorrow for us. We had all of a few waking hours to be out of the Albus and into a new (hopefully solid) place to live. They gave us two options to chose from that were around our price range, and we could be in them the next day. Our first choice turned out to be bogus–yipee!–and we could not get the second listing. Are you serious? Unfortunately so. And it only got better when the hotel tried to charge us fifty extra pounds for an “upgrade” we did not know about or consent to. What was this trip turning into?

Luckily, the hotel let us keep our luggage there while we went out for the day. So we were off with a burden on our shoulders but no luggage on our arms. Ryan had reserved tickets for us to see the Anne Frank House that afternoon, so to waste some time before that we took the tram to the Van Gough Museum, per Jaci’s request. Having taken the freeness of the museums in London for granted, paying twenty euro to get into this one was not the business. Instead, we opted for the toursit-packed “I am Amsterdam” sign and the biggest park in the city, Vondelpark. People, bikes, dogs, and more photo ops than my little heart could handle.

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The parks in London are gorgeous, and I adore them more than words can say, but this one was absolutely wonderful. The trees turning all shades of red, orange, and yellow. Off the beaten paths tunneled by trees. Huge walkways that are not for walking, just for bikes. Fun fact: there are more bikes than people in Amsterdam, with a ratio of about 1.08:1 (thanks for that one, Jaci!). It was a beautiful, sunny day in Amsterdam–it almost made me forget that we didn’t exactly have a place to live yet. Which is why we decided to take up shop in a Starbucks and figure out just where we were going to live for the next few days, since Airbnb was of no more help to us. Thankful for the boys for finding and booking a hotel and getting control of the situation while Jaci and I were at the pharmacy and drinking coffee.

So we had a place to live for the remainder of the weekend, at last. And it was off to the Anne Frank House, which let me tell you, made all of our problems seem utterly trivial. As we walked through the empty rooms, small and bare, imagining how cramped they must have been with furniture and eight people living in them, I was reminded of just how lucky I am to be living this life. How crazy it was that “being different” was such a scary thing back then–and how scary it can be today. Reading the diary entries of a young girl, fearing for her life and the lives of those like her, longing to do something as simple as see the sunlight or go outside, was a sobering experience. I wanted to take back all my complaints about Airbnb and our dilemma. It meant nothing next to the horror of the “witch hunt” that occurred so recently in history. It reminded me to take nothing for granted and to treat each day as a special one.

It had rained while we were inside–fitting for the somber experience–but the sun was shining again once we had finished the tour and were ready to leave, so we grabbed our bags from the Albus and headed for our new hotel, which we were to stay in for the rest of the weekend. The Prins Henrik was not as nice or modern as the Albus, but it was clean and big enough for us and in a great location, close to the train station and restaurants and bars. And the Red Light District. We were all curious as to what exactly the famous Red Light District was like, so after dinner and few drinks (and a game of Pizza Box), the four of us walked to the canal where all the action took place. Literally and figuratively.

The sidewalks were packed with people–some for the action and some just being tourists–and there were red lights in almost every window. That wasn’t the only thing in the windows, though. There were women dressed in all sorts of lingerie, some in costumes, posing in the glass, tapping on the windows, showing off their stuff. All a guy had to do was go up to one of the doors, have a quick chat, and either walk in or walk away (by their own accord or from rejection from the prostitute). There were peep shows and bars along the way, and the lights spread onto side streets. The District is a lot bigger than you think, and not all of it lives up to the name. There are businesses (not sex-related) and restuarants and the Stock Exchange.

But it was all so interesting. Definitely a culture shock from America–and even London. Jaci and I had so many questions. How did they get into this profession? Do they charge differently depending on the type of guy? The flat rate is 50 euro, but what does that entail? They rent the space each day or night, so how easy it is to make a profit? Are they friends? Or at least, do they banter while they are just waiting for their next client? Not that either of us had any ideas about dropping out of school and taking up shop in one of the windows, we were just curious. We joked the next afternoon that we should buy their time and eat pizza and gossip about it.

Post lap around the block, we hit a bar for a drink and then returned to the hotel to sleep. No need for Super Bed, since we all got our own.

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The next morning, we ate our complimentary breakfast and Mackenzie joined our adventure. Now that the full squad was together, we could head off to our first destination of the day: the Heineken Factory. We got to take a tour through the old factory, with a few tidbits of history, then saw the official Heineken horses. They were so cute! After that we got to do a “taste test” where we went through all the stages of drinking the perfect beer. The foam keeps in all the “great taste,” but Jaci and I wouldn’t describe it that way. Neither of us like beer at all much, but I drank my whole glass. It was only about 4 inches tall, but it was a big step for Ashley-kind. After that, we got to go on a “ride” and be a part of the beer-making process, which was pretty cool.

Our tickets came with two “free” beers at the end of the tour, so we got those and game-planned the rest of our day, which was supposed to include a canal cruise. While Luke was in the bathroom, he stumbled upon an poster for a Heineken Experience add-on: a canal cruise and then a trip to the top of the A’DAM building for about 5 euro cheaper than just a regular canal cruise. And there were five open spots at six, perfect timing for the sunset!

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To burn some time, we got dinner and discovered a street market. It reminded me so much of Farmer’s Market in SLO. But since it was closing time and a lot of the booths were getting packed up, we headed back to the canal to catch our boat. The canal was beautiful, and I fell even more in love with the city. All the house boats were so cool to look at. And then we saw the A’DAM building, with the lookout on top. Very different from the Skydeck in Chicago, this one was outdoors. I was afraid it would be windy, which is one of the reasons I was so nervous to go up there–the other is that I am absolutely terrified of heights. You know, the usual.

The view from the top was nearly enough to make me forget about being scared of how high up we were. You could see the entire city, a perfect 360 degrees of Amsterdam. At sunset. The sky was a hundred different colors above the never-ending skyline. It was getting colder as the sun disappeared, but we didn’t want to leave the view. Photos couldn’t do it justice, so we had to soak up every moment. Unfortunately, we had to make it back to the river to catch the final boat back to the Heineken Factory, so no more gorgeous view for us. Fortunately, the canal all lit up was even more beautiful than before.img_9659

Back at the hotel, we played a new drinking game called “Asshole” (a new squad favorite) before hitting drunk Chinese food. Chicken Terryaki and fried rice was quite possibly the greatest decision of the entire trip to this point. Made right in front of us and served in a classic take-out box. So good, I am still dreaming about it. And after our drunk cravings were satisfied, we showed Mackenzie the Red Light District, and this time, we stopped in front of a few of the buildings to watch the intereactions go down. Acceptions, rejections, queries, and so on. The second trip didn’t answer any of our questions–it probably gave us more of them, actually. Luke and Ryan left us for a club (to participate in the ADE festivities), while Jaci, Mackenzie, and I finished our lap, observing and gossiping more freely now that the boys were gone. Then for us, it was back to the hotel for showers and sleep. My two favorite end-of-day activities.

Our last full day in Amsterdam was probably my favorite. We were going to pretend to be locals and ride bikes around the city. And try not to die. I hadn’t riden a bike in a while (other than the stationary ones at the gym), so it could get interesting. Our loop began on the outskirts of the city, riding along the canal through the falling leaves and the shining sun. “Beautiful” is the biggest understatement of the century. It was exciting to GoPro it all, too–until we lost Luke. We waited for a while until we worried a little, then Ryan volunteered to find him. They returned together soon enough, and the squad was off again!

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It was very freeing to just ride bikes around the city, alone with my thoughts, instead of walking together and making conversation. Don’t get me wrong, I love talking to my friends and making all our fabulous jokes, but this was peaceful. We wandered along various canals and down different streets until we ended up back at Vondelpark. It was even better from my bike seat than it was from my feet. Though we didn’t stay for too long in this location before moving on, I loved every second. A stop for coffee and snack at the Starbucks (also the same one from Friday) was due, and then it was off to the “I am Amsterdam” sign for Mackenzie to see. It was pretty much a backwards agenda of our first full day, now that I think about it…

But this time when we showed up at the sign, there was a massive street market. Aisles of trinkets and accessories and artwork, just waiting for me to spend all my money on things I fall in love with at first sight. I am a sucker for jewelry, so when I spotted a silver double-heart ring, I practically threw my credit card at the owner. The same thing happened when we walked by a booth full of notebooks and planners. I will drop money so fast on a new journal that once again, I practically threw my credit card. There was more browsing, but no more buying from me. It was getting down to the wire for when we had to return the bikes (already almost 6 pm? Where did the time go?), so one quick stop at the Hard Rock Cafe, so Ryan could get a shot glass, and then back to the shop to give the bikes back to the fabulous couple (and their adorable dog!) who rented them to us. Plus, I only almost got run over twice–a success in my book.

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With our slightly sore butts, we went to dinner at an Italian place by our hotel, then we were off to the ADE carnival for waffles. I love dessert! Plus, it was right across the street from where we were supposed to meet our guide for the Red Light District Tour. Yup, going the last two nights was not enough–we had to get the official tour. Right a nine o’clock, we met our tour guide: the incredibly cute and Dutch Matt. He was as adorable as the dog from the bike rental place. Maybe more. This was where we found out that the Red Light District encompassed a lot more than what we had originally thought, and where Matt told us about how it used to be the “ghetto” and the go-to place to buy heroin from the Chinese mafia. But now with all the regulations and everything, it was now the safest place in Amsterdam. We made stops on various streets, seeing the Old Church, the Magic Mushroom shop, and the peep shows. We actually got to go inside one of the “theaters”–but we didn’t see anything, thankfully. Our (meaning Jaci, Mackenzie, and my) interest in the Red Light District didn’t leave the street, we didn’t need to know what was inside. By the end of the tour? Curiosity satisfied (and we got more than we bargained for).

Before our group completely dispersed, we grabbed Matt for some coffeeshop-specific questions. In case you didn’t know, weed (along with quite a few other hard drugs) is legal in Amsterdam, and you can buy it at any “coffee shop” (not cafe, there is a difference). We asked Matt where we should go and if a pre-rolled joint was better than rolling it ourselves. I don’t smoke, and I don’t have any desire to, so I was just along for the ride (as was Ryan), but when in Amsterdam, do as the Dutch do, right? Another fun fact: less than 60% of the residents of Amsterdam smoke weed–a statistic that surprised us. There was coughing and laughing, and I held the joint while Jaci looked for the lid to her chapstick. Exciting for a straight-edge kid like me. But a perfect ending to what started as such a stressful trip!

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Despite the unfortante start to our vacation, this turned out to be one of the best weekends of my life. Every day I find more things about life that I love and that I am thankful for. Going to Cal Poly was a game-changer, and I finally got to see what it was like to be happy–to learn what happiness really was. But studying abroad was a life-changer. It opened my eyes to so many more opportunities that the world has to offer. So many adventures. So many places to explore. So many memories to make. I love San Luis Obispo. I adore London. I am doing backflips for Amsterdam. I can’t wait to go back (at some point in the future, but it will happen), but I also can’t wait to go on more adventures with my friends, both in London and in the rest of Europe.

December is coming too quickly! ((Maybe I shouldn’t be binge-watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine right now…))

xoxo, Ash

Magic

Magic is real. I know that sounds crazy, but it is true. Magic is real.

I wish I could say that yes, casting spells and charms and turning into animals is what I am referring to. Though the jury may still be out on that one, I mean that the feeling you get when you see someone or something–you know the one I mean: pure joy and happiness, like nothing else matters or could beat this moment–is magic. And in this case, the magic is doubly exciting.

Because I am talking about the world of one Mr. Harry Potter.

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This what I came to London for. What I came to this country for. Is that lame? Who cares! I have never been happier getting on a train at Euston Station towards Watford Junction and taking a quick bus ride to Warner Brothers Studios to spend a whole evening exploring the Wizarding World. I took way too many photos. People told me they didn’t even need to go, that they saw it all through my Snapchat. Oh boy, are they wrong.

We started with a quick intro: a video where producers and whatnot talked about how they wanted to make Harry Potter and the Philosoper’s Stone into a film. How they thought it could be successful, but they never believed it would turn into the phenomenon it is today. Yes, I shed a tear or two. Or seven. Then we moved into a little theater, where Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint (onscreen, not in person, unfortunately) gave another glimpse into the world they called home for ten years. I cried a little again, if we are being honest.

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Then the screen went up, and we were looking at the doors to the Great Hall. The real doors! We not only got to walk through then into the Great Hall itself, but we were allowed to touch them on the way in. I know that doesn’t sound cool to a lot of people, but it made me believe it was real. That it exists, and that it is not all in my head.

The Great Hall itself was, well, great. The floor tiles and the tables and the props. It was all so perfect. And there were displays of the costumes used in various films, like the real robes Daniel wore in the first film and Alan Rickman’s famous black get up. No words. I was just in awe at everything. How weird is it to be in this place I have been dreaming about? Weird. Wild. Wonderful.

And then we moved into a maze of props and sets and all-around greatness. There were bios and videos of the producers, directors, and screenwriters, followed by models of the Great Hall’s ceiling (the only one they ever made) and the ice sculpture and costumes from the Yule Ball in Goblet of Fire.

You round the corner and the warehouse opens up to the world of Hogwarts. There was the Gryffindor Common Room, complete with all the decorations and mannequins of the costumes from Philosopher’s Stone and Prisoner of Azkaban. Next to it was the Boys’ Dormitory, beds, decor, luggage, and all. Harry and Ron could have just walked in and gone to bed, no problem.

There was Dumbledore’s office, with the Sorting Hat up on a shelf, the Sword of Gryffindor, and all the sleeping portraits of past Hogwarts headmasters. More portraits from other parts of the castle were put up on the walls outside the office, along with a display of everyone’s wands and the Mirror of Erised. What did I see? A very happy me, surrounded by my fabulous friends. The Potions classroom was set up, with models of Snape, Slughorn, and every potion you could imagine. Hagrid’s hut was next to photos of all the Crookshanks and Fang and Hedwig animal actors. The Burrow’s kitchen and the Malfoy Manor sets were there, as well.

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What made it such a maze were all the props sprinkled around the room. The Goblet of Fire, the Firebolt, the contents of the Room of Requirement, the Vanishing Cabinet, trophies, armor, the door to Bank Vault 217, all the Horcruxes, and so on. Anything and everything you could think of, it was there. Maybe having all of that in front of me should have ruined the magic for me, but it didn’t. Quite the opposite. It made me believe in everything. That this world happened, even if it was only onscreen. It brought me the same happiness and excitement to see it all in person. It was real.

After rounding another corner, there was the Hogwarts Express! Various train cars set up as if they were about to start filming each movie. The candy from the trolley in the first movie. Lupin’s bags from the third. Lavender’s “R + L” drawn in a heart on the window pane from the sixth…it was all there. And then, if you wanted to, you could sit in a train car with a green screen and pretend that you were seeing the English countryside or getting scared by Dementors. None of us could get our shit together for long enough or at the same time to take a decent picture, but it was the experience that matters, right? Right.

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And then we made it to the cafe–only halfway through the tour. We all sat down with our Butterbeer in souvenir tankards and took a GoPro video and snapchats to commemorate the moment. I must say, even not as a slushie, it was still better than the ones from both Universal Parks in America.

Outside of the cafe stood the Knight Bus–Jaci’s favorite! She always takes the night bus here, so she felt especially linked to that big purple bus. “Take it away, Ernie!!” There was also 4 Privet Drive, with Hogwarts letters flying around the living room, and the Ford Anglia and Hagrid’s motorcycle. We wanted to spend a bit more time out here enjoying it all, but it was pretty cold by that time–and it was dark, so the lighting was pretty bad–so we moved back inside to where all the special effects and monster costumes were displayed. Gracie and Dan would have loved this part.

Hagrid’s head (for his giant double), Grawp, the mermaids, “dead” characters, and any sort of costuming prop for the magical creatures you could imagine. Aragog was hanging from the ceiling over Buckbeak, and while I love Buckbeak, I raced out of there. I definitely side with Ron when it comes to spiders. Eeek! But once you got past all the large creatures, we came upon a makshift Diagon Alley: Gringotts, Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, Olivander’s Wand Shop, and so on.

It was outside of the Gringotts facade where my heart just about burst. One of the workers stopped us for a little demonstration. He showed us the different kinds of wands they used for filming. Neville’s for the action shots, Harry’s for using lumos, which, fun fact, there is no special effects for, really. It’s literally a ball of light attached to the wand. But then he showed us what they call a “hero wand,” which is what they use for close up shots.

“Now, who can tell me whose wand this–”

“Draco Malfoy.”

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Yup, I spit that out so fast. Love me some Draco. It helped that I was wearing my Slytherin sweatshirt (and standing right in front of him). He knew I was serious about this. So when he asked for a volunteer and my hand shot up? He was quick to call on me. He carefully handed me Draco’s actual wand–yup, the real one that Tom Felton used in the movies, that he touched–and let me cast a spell with it. Oh wow, I have never been happier. Near tears. I was too excited to cry. But alas, that was the end of the demostration and we had to move on. I will always cherish that moment (even if thousands of other people got to do it, too).

We wandered through one more room full of little models of the sets before entering a room with one full model of Hogwarts. In the movies, you don’t always get a full picture of it and you are left imagining what some parts of it look like. Well, here we got a 360 degree view of every little bit of it. The towers to the Great Hall to the greenhouses to the boat house where (cue the tears) Snape died. I got all the chills while we slowly made our way around the room, seeing the castle at different levels. So much emotion for such a wonderful series. A set of books and movies that changed my life.

I finished off the trip with a copy of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a postcard of the Golden Trio from the first movie, and a Slytherin water bottle. I wanted to buy the whole store, really. Anything to hold onto this day forever.

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I would just like to thank JK Rowling for creating this world I love so much and for inspiring me to keep writing. I will always cherish the Wizarding World and everything she created. My children and my children’s children (and so on) will know the stories. I will hold onto these memories and these characters and everything I have learned from them for the rest of my life. And I know this is mushy, but it’s all true.

So 1500 words summed up to four: I love Harry Potter.

Your Shrewd Slytherin Writer Friend, Ashley