It's not everyday you step off a train and into an unfamiliar city armed with nothing but a backpack, some pocket change and a vague notion of where you could stay the night. It's disconcerting, frightening and the start of my adventure through London.Now, most people have a very concrete idea of what London is: most think pristine cityscape, those guards with the funny hats and convenience of communication. And for the most part, yes, that's all true. But there is a side of London that not everyone gets to see; it's the part of London that demands you redefine what a bed is, and designate a pillow as nothing more than myth.
Let me take a step back: in summer of 2011 I managed to garner enough money to get me to Europe and back, with just enough pocket change that I probably wouldn't die of starvation. I didn't go with a study abroad program, I wasn't able to afford the steep rates for a month-long stay, nor was I a part of a group of people looking to backpack through Europe. It was just me and a backpack filled with essentials in one of the most storied cities in the world.
For the easy price of $1,000 I was able to buy round-trip fare to Europe and still have another thousand for keeping me alive. This meager expense paled in comparison to the terrifyingly expensive $6,000, month-long trip with the school. Not only did I save my bank account, but I was free to travel without homework haunting my every step.
My European experience was far from the typical extravagance perpetuated by American media. In fact my experience wasn't even comparable to a student’s. I got to see London in a way not every American gets to. Where most tourists, and students, stick together in groups throughout the city, keeping warm in their hotels, I became intimately acquainted with the benches in London's Underground. I didn't have much money to pay for rooming, but what I lacked in a physical place to stay I made up for by being there, roaming about a city I had grown up hearing about. That's not to say that my time sleeping on benches was particularly great; in fact between the buzz of city life, drunken Britons and the non-Arizonan cold it left something to be desired.
But there were times when it was just awesome to be out bumming it. Sometimes those moments were just me trying to decipher exactly what a Londoner was trying to tell me in the most obscenely English accent imaginable, and other times it would be sitting alone on the banks of the Thames River with only my thoughts for company. Not having a place forced me to explore, it even made me think of it as a game. Where will I sleep tonight? Earl's Court, Baker Street, or maybe something more Potteressque, like platform 9 ¾?
I might have lacked an actual bed, but I didn't lack an experience. You don't really know a city until you've woken up on a lonely bench with morning dew and dawn for company. Room and boarding are great, but it's important to let yourself wander out of your comfort zone and really take a look at what's around. For me, my time in London was life-changing, and it was worth every cold night and hygienic shortcoming, because at the end of the day I got to see London, not just visit it.
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